Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Science, schmience

Speaking of partisans, I stopped by a place where they have a very different view of science than I do. I was looking up criticisms of Francis Collins as a way of looking at the enemies of the idea that science and faith can be compatible. Those aren’t just atheists who believe that science has squeezed out any place for God. On the other side are those who see science as being arbitrary and therefore untrustworthy. paulhartigan at open source theology states that science is just another language through which human activities are conducted. It changes. At one time Newton’s model of gravity was scientific truth. Now it’s Einstein’s general relativity. Who knows what comes next? He criticized Collins as “inept” because Collins accepts the idea that the scientific revolution has indicated that the universe doesn’t need God. He wants to put these uppity scientists in their place. Collins doesn’t do that.

Newton and Einstein, I’ve heard this before. Whether it’s someone conservative or someone New Age, somehow this contrast is supposed to show that science is arbitrary. Yet the models they pick are two of those most impressive in science. Before Newton it was observation that it was simpler to think the Earth went around the sun, but Newton made it all make sense. Newton’s representation of gravity is still what NASA uses to put a spacecraft on Mars with astounding precision. General relativity is a little better, as has been shown experimentally, but it’s not as if Einstein’s model makes Newton’s model invalid any more than one portrait of a celebrity negates another. Einstein’s is better than Newton’s when it comes to stars bending light, but they both describe something real called gravity very well.

Now philosophically one can imagine that some greater reality might take gravity away tomorrow. Maybe it would be good for scientists to remember that. Yet who makes any decisions based on the universe being so unstable? Many of us believe that there is a fixed reality beyond our individual perceptions of the world. Science is a way of exploring that reality. It is more than a language. It is a method to explore reality that has paid off much better than using mere words to do that.

But it’s true that science proves nothing. The reasons behind my faith in God prove nothing. If one wants a fantasy world that can be absolutely anything, science is not helpful for that, no matter how much people butcher quantum physics to mean that there is no objective reality.

Men like Sam Harris fear religion, fearing that it will indoctrinate people to make bad choices, fearing that religion promotes violence. It’s not just religion. Nationalism is at least as violent. Any group can use words to mean whatever they want them to mean. I don’t fear this that much. People in general look at tangible consequences, not philosophy. Of course if disagreeing with some philosophy would single me out to some state police, I would be quiet about that. We’re a long way from that in the US in 2007.

But subcultures do have their own way of looking at things that lets partisans be so dismissive of any other way. It’s not news, but I think it’s a helpful reminder from time to time that our language and concepts do vary a lot, just not so much that I distrust the reality of science.

In keeping with that, I notice that almost all of the comments at this theology site favor that science can say nothing about God, while almost all the comments at a site saying science has disproved God agree with that. If every clique is wrong about something, who’s going to tell them? It seems beyond me.

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