Content Muster #1

I will occasionally share here clusters of 3-10 pieces of content I find interesting, helpful to building up believers, or helpful to believers and secularists to help both understand secularism. Sharing content here does not mean I affirm everything being said in each article, but do believe they are helpful for provoking thought. I do take full responsibility for my commentary.

The New York Times: “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance”

Commentary: A progressive reflects on how progressives discriminate against conservatives.

The Gospel Coalition: “Five Principles of the New Sexual Morality

Commentary: many Christians claim that secularism’s approval of homosexual practice will result also in an approval of pedophilia. According to this article, that is a straw man argument. In a contractual view of sexual ethics, which seems to be the view secularism is adopting, homosexual practice between consenting adults is OK whereas pedophilia is wrong.

The Washington Post: “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.”

Commentary: It is possible to be a rational professional inhabiting secularism and believe in demons and the supernatural.

First Things: “A Subjective Definition of ‘Death’ Would Unleash Great Evil

Commentary: Radical self-autonomy denies the objective biological realities of male and female. Will radical self-autonomy go so far as to deny the objective realities of life and death? Could a man self-identify as “dead” so he could collect his own life-insurance policy?

The Federalist:“Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s ‘Rationalia’ Would Be A Terrible Country

Commentary: scientism is a philosophy masquerading as “science.” All science rests on philosophical presuppositions. We are either self-aware, or unaware, of how philosophy and science interact with one another.

C.S. Lewis on Reforming Science Education

“No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power… [Now that love of power has exceeded love of truth,] reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.” ~The Abolition of Man (The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Collection, p. 489).

The Physicists Have Known Sin

Oppenheimer had this to say about the atomic bomb:

“Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting and, in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose” (Quoted in John Grant’s Corrupted Science).

STEM and the Humanities are Both Important

STEM_wide_clear
STEM and the humanities are both good. We must not elevate STEM to the neglect of the humanities.

Many of my educator friends lament the decline of humanities. Today I want to explain why.

The problems in education today are multi-faceted with multiple causes, and I don’t pretend to understand them all, but I will offer one cause, a philosophical one, for the decline of the humanities: Baconian philosophy. First, I want to draw your attention to this web comic by xkcd. In this comic, xkcd offers a hidden argument for what is called a Baconian view of science. Charles Taylor explains:

“Bacon insists that the goal of science is not to discover a noble over-all pattern in things (as he somewhat tendentiously describes the sciences of Aristotle), which we can take pride in making evident, but the making of experiments which permit us to ‘improve the condition of mankind’” (A Secular Age, p. 543).

Richard Weaver sees this shift from an Aristotle to Bacon, from truth to utility, as a great degradation in culture: “The final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite” (Ideas Have Consequences).

What the xkcd comic is doing is arguing for the Baconian view of science at the hidden presuppositional level. It’s implicitly arguing that utility is more important than truth without explicitly saying so. People drink in the Baconian view as if it’s the only one that’s true and don’t realize there are other options like the Aristotelian view.

Why is this practically significant? Our culture is flux, devaluing truth and forms in exchange for what is useful.  Western education used to value both the humanities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Now Western education values STEM and devalues the humanities, I would argue, because we have believed bad parts of Baconian philosophy. The simplest way for parents, students, and educators to oppose the bad parts of Baconian philosophy is to insist that truth is more important than utility.

As an engineer, I am against the current obsession with STEM if the obsession comes at the cost of devaluing truth, devaluing the humanities, and believing bad parts of Baconian philosophy. STEM and the humanities are both important. Pursuing truth often turns out to be useful. Pursuing what is useful destroys truth.

A warning to Christians: Paul warns Christians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Christians working for reform in education while believing the Baconian idea that utility is more important than truth have been taken captive by false philosophy.

The Enlightenment Idol of Science

Before I share this quote, I need to set the proper perspective. I am nuclear engineer. I love science and benefit from science every day. Science has an important place in Western thought and culture, but it does not stand supreme.  I refuse to idolize science. People who build the houses of their lives on a foundation of scientific studies and scientific consensus are building on shaky ground.

“The Enlightenment idol is science…Science sells. Neil Postman likes to tell stories about how he can get people to warm up to absurd ideas just by suggesting that some large university has produced research on the topic. Attaching ‘produced at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT’ to a ridiculous argument immediately makes it cogent to many. That’s part of life, but let’s not pretend that it’s rationality.

The odd thing is that science has a rather ridiculous track record to serve as such a powerful veto-house of truth. If we think in terms of centuries and millennia, few other disciplines turn inside-out so flippantly and quickly as the natural sciences. Nothing can take the puff out of the scientific chest more than a study of its history. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rare to find science departments requiring courses in the history of science. The history of science provides great strength to the inductive inference that, at any point in its history, that day’s science will almost certainly be deemed false, if not laughable, within a century (often in much less time)…If the history of science were a single person, we certainly wouldn’t let that person drive heavy machinery or carry sharp objects…he could serve some useful functions…But to set him up as the premier standard and priest of rationality is a bit too much to ask.”

~Doug Wilson, Angels in the Architecture

 

Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Review

If you are struggling to understand the relationship between science, Christianity, and secularism like I am, I wholeheartedly recommend J.P. Moreland’s bookChristianity and the Nature of Science: a Philosophical Investigation. Here are a few important takeaways:

  1. Scientists and philosophers of science disagree about the definition of science. Is science scientific realism, scientific antirealism, inductivism, phenomenalism, operationalism, pragmatism, instrumentalism, or nonrational nonrealism? J.P. Moreland, for example, holds to a combination of scientific realism for problems like cosmology and antirealism for problems like quantum physics. Are there such things as natural laws pointing to unseen realities, or are scientific equations really untrue but useful approximations of natural phenomena? When people justify a claim with the statement “because science” what does that even mean considering there are so many different positions? Christians and secular humanists naively assume scientific realism in their arguments, but scientific realism is not the only option available.
  2. Science is intimately connected to philosophy. I wrote another piece about that here. “What is science?” is a philosophical question. One of the biggest weaknesses with American public school education today is that science is naively viewed as a discipline severed from philosophy. Or, more dishonestly, materialist philosophers combine their philosophy with science and then say science has no relationship to philosophy. If American schools are serious about reform, they must start teaching history of science and philosophy of science courses.
  3. Scientism or scientific imperialism is a philosophy that is self-refuting and undermines science. See J.P. Moreland’s argument here. Basically, the statement “scientific knowledge is the only knowledge that is rational” is a philosophical statement; therefore this statement presupposes that philosophical knowledge is rational in addition to scientific knowledge; therefore the statement “scientific knowledge is the only knowledge that is rational” is false and self-refuting. Philosophy is inescapable.

After reading this book, if you are still a scientific realist, you will have a healthy appreciation for the antirealist arguments. (You will be a scientific realist “chastened” by antirealism).

 

 

The Presuppositions of Science

A few days ago I went into the crawl space for the first time.

Our kitchen sink seemed to be pouring water at a lower pressure than normal, so I needed to go down into the crawl space to make sure there wasn’t a leak in the water piping. Donning boots, pants, a hoodie, and a particulate mask, I lowered myself into the crawl space. My two-year-old daughter, Anastasia, stood by nervously, unsure why I had to go into such a small, scary, dark, and unsavory space all by myself. “Dada? Dada?” she inquired with uncertainty.

Crouching, army-crawling, ducking underneath and over piping, fighting the feeling of claustrophobia, past support pillars to the rear of the house, I made it to the back of the foundation and the kitchen water piping. No leaks. I made my way back to the crawl space entrance, glad I didn’t run into any spiders the whole time. I popped my head out of the crawl space looking like a bespectacled prairie dog, and Anastasia shouted a relieved, “Dada!”

As it turns out, a piece of debris had clogged the diverter valve in the kitchen faucet. Removing the debris fixed the sink. Though I didn’t find the problem in the crawl space, going into it was a valuable experience. Before entering the crawl space, I would walk around on top of the floor taking for granted it was not going to cave in underneath my feet. I didn’t know there was so much going on underneath the surface of the house to keep the floor stable. If I go into the crawl space and discover one of the support beams is rotting or broken, or the foundation is broken, I shouldn’t trust the floor or the house until I fix the problem.

Science is like a house. Many people naively use science or trust science without knowing that there are philosophical support pillars, presuppositions, in the crawl space under the house. This list is not exhaustive, but here a few of the presuppositions of science:

  1. The external world exists.
  2. The universe is orderly.
  3. The universe is knowable.
  4. Nature is uniform.
  5. Induction is possible.
  6. Logic, epistemology, and truth exist.
  7. The senses are reliable.
  8. The mind is reliable.
  9. Mathematics and numbers exist.
  10. Ontology exists and classification is possible.
  11. Certain moral values are necessary to science (honest reporting of data).
  12. Singularities, ultimate boundary conditions, and brute givens exist.

You can run thought experiments on each of these to see how, if the philosophical presupposition fails, science fails. I will give a few examples: 6) Truth exists. Postmodernism denies the existence of truth. If postmodernism is true, science fails. 8) The mind is reliable. Charles Darwin and C.S. Lewis were both haunted by a thought: if my mind is just a deterministic chain of chemical reactions, how can I trust my thoughts? (I have not read it yet, but I have heard Nagel’s book deals with the problem of mind when approached from a materialist perspective.) If the human mind doesn’t work, science fails. 11) Certain moral values are necessary to science, including honest reporting. Not every scientist is committed to accurately presenting data. John Grant wrote a whole book about this. The film “Interstellar” (spoiler alert) reveals the disaster that occurs when scientists lie. If scientists do not honestly report data, science fails.

When the wolf huffs, and he puffs, will he blow the house down?
When the wolf huffs, and he puffs, will he blow the house down?

Charles Taylor, in his masterful book on secularism, explains that every belief in Western Culture has become open to doubt, questioning, attack, and criticism; every belief has become fragilized. The philosophical presuppositions of science are no exception. When you delve into the crawlspace of Western Civilization, you will see that the philosophical pillars holding up the house of science can no longer be taken for granted. They are under attack from postmodernism, nihilism, reductive materialism, the Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, and some counter-Enlightenment thinkers who deny the presuppositions necessary for science.

In this confused world, Christians need to walk a narrow path:  a path where we avoid the futility of scientific idolatry, but also unashamedly show that Christianity provides a firm philosophical/metaphysical foundation for science.