Science’s Overlooked Problem

June 25, 2007 at 4:27 pm 16 comments

Big BangChristian Commentary

The other contributors on this website do a great job offering ideas and concepts they find regarding religion, God, atheism, and the like. In lieu of this, I would like to share some wisdom from theologian Huston Smith. Smith is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, of Syracuse University (to learn more, visit his website).

For fifteen years he was Professor of Philosophy at M.I.T. and for a decade before that he taught at Washington University in St. Louis. Most recently he has served as Visiting Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Berkeley. In addition, Smith holds 12 honorary degrees and has written 14 books (some titles include: Why Religion Matters, The World’s Religions, and The Soul of Christianity). That being said, it is from some of Smith’s writings that I base this post.

It is no secret that science and religion have been butting heads since the 20th century (particularly against the fundamentalist sects of faiths). Yet I have been a firm believer that science cannot, and does not, provide ample explanation for things such as life’s purpose or God (despite rather poor attempts).

I think it would be beneficial to reflect on the insight from the writings of Huston Smith. Essentially, scientists are being forced to reconsider their “bottom-up” reasoning theory of causation (the one that challenges, say, the Christian position).

Since science is empirical, everything in it spins off from our physical senses. The fact that those sense connect only with physical objects and that the entire house of science is founded on our physical senses has led scientists to assume that matter is the fundamental ‘stuff’ of the universe.

Their familiar scenario begins with the Big Bang, from which issued the smallest conceivable entities – quarks, strings, what have you – that grouped themselves into progressively more complex entities until the latest nanosecond of cosmic time life and consciousness emerged. It’s upward (bottom-up) causation all the way.

Smith has outlined the basic (dominant) theory and beliefs from the scientific perspective. However, as he will point out, this type of causation is being question for very important, yet surprisingly obvious reasons. Smith continues…

What is causing scientists to reconsider that scenario [the one outlined above] is their dawning realization that it contains no explanation for WHY [emphasis mine] complexity increases. To say that it rides the Big Bang’s momentum is no good, for no one completely knows what powered the Big Bang in the first place.

And to say that the complex forms emerged fares no better, for emergence is a descriptive, not an explanatory, concept.

I hope you think on these words and let this overlooked point sink in. For those of you who are not familiar with my writing on this website, please note that my intention is not religious conversion, but rather intellectual stimulation. Have a great day and enjoy the rest of the week. Hello to everyone that I haven’t conversed with in a while (i.e. Simen and HIS).

God Bless,

- Justin
Politics & Religion

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Heather  |  June 25, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    The difficulty I have with mixing science and theism is that … well, let’s say there is concrete, 100% proof as to Intelligent Deisgn. Some higher being out there brought the universe into existence, through the means identified today (Big Bang, Evolution, and what not). That doesn’t necessarily translate into proof for one religion or another, it just means that there’s proof as to a higher being. But that doens’t mean the being is the Christian God or the Muslim God. For all we know, it’s a Deistic higher being. It set things in motion, and wandered off to do something else.

  • 2. Edward Baker  |  June 25, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    If ID was proved to be 100% correct we’d be asking the same question as the intelligent designer surely would have been for a while now: why is he/she/it there?

  • 3. HeIsSailing  |  June 25, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    Huston Smith sez:
    “What is causing scientists to reconsider that scenario [the one outlined above] is their dawning realization that it contains no explanation for WHY [emphasis mine] complexity increases. ”

    Maybe I am reading this quote out of context, but I don’t understand the point here. Complexity increases because there are 4 fundamental forces which align matter in such a way that over time causes them to become complex. Given the right conditions, random water vapor condenses into complex ice crystals because of water’s electro-magnetic properties. If gravity was a repulsive rather than attractive force, I imagine there would be no order nor complexity in this universe at all. The answer as to why there is complexity is answered by studying the Fundamental Forces of nature.

    If you are asking an ultimate why – as in WHY is there gravity or electricity, or any Force in the first place, then you are right, physics does not answer that ultimate question. But Edward Baker is also correct that Christian theology does not answer that question either. The only answers Christiany (or any creationist argument as far as I can tell) can come up with is “God did it”, or “it was done so God could express his glory” which are no answers at all.

    Justin sez:
    “Essentially, scientists are being forced to reconsider their “bottom-up” reasoning theory of causation”

    Not sure I understand this either. The very foundation of phyiscs is the assumption that this universe works by cause and effect stimuli. The idea of causation due to interaction of forces is what physics IS. I don’t know of anyone proposing we reconsider this kind of reasoning.

    Correct me if I am misundrestanding the point here.

  • 4. Steelman  |  June 25, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    Justin quoted Huston Smith: “What is causing scientists to reconsider that scenario [the one outlined above] is their dawning realization that it contains no explanation for WHY [emphasis mine] complexity increases.”

    I think that needs a bit of unpacking. Which scientists are reconsidering what concepts exactly? What does Smith mean by “complexity increases”, I wonder? Complexity, in the sense of stars and planets forming, and of life evolving? If so, these are relatively tiny, temporary areas of increased complexity in a vast universe that is headed along the path to entropy, even in those islands of complexity. Like a small whirlpool amongst the rocks that runs back against the course of a mighty river, there’s a huge amount of water running by that is creating that relatively tiny back-current. Also, diamonds take a lot of force to make. If they were commonplace, rather than rare, that might have me reconsidering the idea of “unexplained increasing complexity.”

    Justin said: “It is no secret that science and religion have been butting heads since the 20th century (particularly against the fundamentalist sects of faiths). Yet I have been a firm believer that science cannot, and does not, provide ample explanation for things such as life’s purpose or God (despite rather poor attempts).”

    I agree, in that it isn’t the purpose of science to provide philosophical answers to life’s questions (certainly not metaphysical ones!); that’s the job of…well…philosophy. Science is the right tool for providing us with explanations of how the natural world works. Philosophy (religious or otherwise) is for figuring out what constitutes facts, and what we might want to do with them once we’ve found them out.

    Science can’t tell you the best kind of life to live. You have to decide what constitutes that kind of life, and then science can provide explanations and facts about the world that might help you live the way you’ve decided is best. I’m not sure exactly what Smith is advocating in his promotion of religion. I find religion to often be a culturally constricted framework of thought, a dogmatic shadow of philosophical inquiry, with the “facts” about the world, and the meaning of those “facts”, provided a priori. Of course there are many non-religious aspects of culture that can be dogmatically accepted. In either case I think, if we are to be as honest as possible with ourselves, we need to step outside of our own cultural concerns; at least long enough to get the best answers about what questions as important as “the meaning of life.”

  • [...] Virginia University Link to Article syracuse university Science’s Overlooked Problem » Posted at Agnostic [...]

  • 6. Stephen P  |  June 26, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Yet I have been a firm believer that science cannot, and does not, provide ample explanation for things such as life’s purpose or God …

    Before science can be required to provide an explanation, it up to the theists to demonstrate that there is such a thing as a God or a purpose to life (other than the purpose that each person gives to his or her own life) which needs explaining.

    The quoted text from Huston Smith seems to fall in the familiar pattern of theists saying (or at least implying) that science is limited to the physical world, and that religion provides contact with something else beyond the reach of science. However the words we utter, the books we write, and the electrical impulses that travel telecommunications networks are all indubitably part of the physical world. So everything that we can discuss with someone else must necessarily at some point impinge on the physical world. Now does that theist “something else” contact the physical world at all? If it does, then that contact is amenable to scientific study. If not, then religious people cannot tell us anything about this “something else”, and any claim to be able to is based on fantasy (or worse).

    May I strongly recommend the Ebonmusings essay A Ghost in the Machine. It is long and meaty, but very well worth the effort.

  • 7. Justin  |  June 26, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    Hi HIS,
    I think you are right on your assessment of Smith’s argument about ‘why’ complexity increases. I read it as science does not, nor cannot, explain why things such as water’s electro-magnetic properties exist in the first place – and why they happen to go in the direction of complexity.

    I believe that Smith isn’t trying to say that this is a fault with science, but rather that it is a domain for theology (as Steelman indirectly concedes).

    On a side note – Smith has been often asked about his views regarding the findings of science. He addresses the issue head on and has really expressed the need for both science and religion in a manner that eliminates conflict. I admit that you lose some of his earnest appreciation for the sciences when reading my post (as context is lost in general when relaying quotes).

    Stephen P says, “the words we utter, the books we write, and the electrical impulses that travel telecommunications networks are all indubitably part of the physical world.”

    in the most basic sense – yes that is true. But in the effort to move beyond surface considerations we should look deeper than that. It is like saying, “we are all animals on this planet” (a true statement) but everyone knows that animals differ so greatly that a broad characterization doesn’t do the animal kingdom justice.

  • 8. Stephen  |  June 27, 2007 at 4:24 am

    Justin: perhaps you could re-read my comment, as you don’t appear to have understood it.

    That the entities I mentioned (books, utterances, electrical impulses) differ greatly is obvious and trivial. But this “deeper” something that you want us to look at: does it impinge on the physical world or not? If so: have you considered the consequences? (i.e. it is not beyond the reach of science). If not: have you considered the consequences? (i.e. you cannot tell us anything about it, and cannot reasonably ask us to look at it).

  • 9. Justin  |  June 27, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Hi Stephen,
    I went ahead and re-read your post. I understand your view about analyzing something “deeper” than the physical.

    Does it impinge on the physical world? Perhaps. However, if it doesn’t, then it doesnt make theological/philosophical considerations irrelevant as I would contend the scientific method isn’t the end all of man’s methodology to understanding.

  • 10. Noogatiger  |  June 27, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Why does God exist?
    Why did God create?
    Why did God make arbitrary moral laws based upon the whims of his likes and dislikes and decide to punish forever those who don’t see it his way?

    Even faith in a God doesn’t answer those questions either.

  • 11. Stephen  |  June 27, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Justin: I’m afraid you are still missing the point entirely. I will have one last try.

    Since our utterances and writings are part of the physical world, anything we can talk or write about must necessarily impinge on the physical world at some point. There is no “perhaps”.

    If it still isn’t clear, then try reading the essay I recommended in a previous comment.

  • 12. Justin  |  June 27, 2007 at 8:39 pm

    Hi Stephen,
    yes, our writings are part of the physical world – the point is trivial really. I’ve read and heard utterances that don’t impinge on the physical world from great minds. I have heard philisophical and theological considerations…and okay, I’ll concede that they physically cause my eardrums to move. The stretch you are attempting to make is ambitious to say the least.

    I will end by syaing that we will not see eye-to-eye on this. I still hold by my claim that “science cannot, and does not, provide ample explanation for things such as life’s purpose or God”…because well, it just really doesn’t.

    God Bless,
    -Justin

  • 13. Dan Barnett  |  July 2, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    I personally think that some day we will understand science enough(since we are discovering more and more), that creation and science explain each other. That sentence isn’t an agument just an opinion. My question is the Bang. For the Big Bang believers here, I’m curious if you’d ever thought about this fact. I haven’t stdied it in detail but found it intersting. Dr. Kent Hovend is who I leaned this from(yeah he’s in jail, don’t start :-) ).
    Thee is a theory in physics, not sure of the name, conservation of (maybe) momentum that, as an illustration, if you and I were on a merry-go-round(the old hand pushed platform), with no friction or outside forces acting against us, and we are spinning, then a force instantaneously forces us all of at the same time, we will continue spinning the direction we were as we fly from the platform. How does this support that the planets do not spin or revolve around the sun the same direction? Like I said, just curious on this one. If someone else knows the name and actual definition of this theory please add it.

  • 14. Dan Barnett  |  July 2, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    I just found this article that made me think about the agument of creation vs. evolution. I don’t know how to link in comments, so copy and paste it.
    http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v22/i1/creation.asp
    It’s by Ken Ham.

  • 15. Dan Barnett  |  July 2, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Hey it did it for me!!!

  • 16. curtis  |  July 25, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    Noogatiger said:
    —————————
    Why did God make arbitrary moral laws based upon the whims of his likes and dislikes and decide to punish forever those who don’t see it his way?
    —————————–

    I’m seriously SO SORRY that your experiences with Christians have shaped this opinion of yours… there is clearly a lot of history, and pain, in that statement. I wish that I could undo that somehow, but unfortunately I can’t.

    All I can say is this:
    The way I read my Bible, that’s not what God’s about at all. He doesn’t have arbitrary rules that are unknown to people, and then eternally punishes them for not following them. He created this amazing perfect world, and all of us, but it unfortunately got botched up along the way when we decided that we could figure stuff out better on our own, and that we didn’t need God. But He’s been continually seeking after us all, to join Him in making the world a beautiful place again; to put things back to the way they were always supposed to be…

    It’s not so much “Do this and that, or else you’re going to a bad place when you die” as it is “This place is pretty messed up right now, don’t you want to be a part of the solution here and now, and work alongside a God that cares deeply for you and for everyone and for the whole universe?”

    I hope that in some way, this helps you see that not everyone believes the same narrow, fatalistic explanations of Christianity that you have unfortunately been told…

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