Religion and Mythical Bugbear of Repeatability

In a on-going exchange prompted by this post by Jason Kuznicki at Postive Liberty, to which I had responded here, Mr Kuznicki has insisted on the claim that “reason” or science by its dependence on insistence on falsifiability and repeatablilty is valid where religion, which in his mind does not have the same features is not. For example, in a comment to my first essay he writes (concerning how an LED works):

“Where is the light?” I ask.

“You have to see it through faith,” he [ed: the scientist] replies.

“Oh, and how did you learn such things?”

“Someone a very long time ago had a vision about them.”

Now that would be faith in science.

There are just a few things wrong with this analogy.

First, theology (and religion) are not in opposition (necessarily) with science. Philosophy for example, is quite simliar to the practice of theology but I’d be surprised if Mr Kuznicki insisted that statements and arguments made by philosphers must be experimentally verifiable. However statements made by philosophers are in fact subjected to some sort of scrutiny. Philosphers must make careful arguments and back up their arguments with good logic and they carefully examine their assumptions. So too must theologians subject their work to similar rigor. What sort of statements made by philosphers (or theologians) are “falsifiable”, well those which commit logical fallacies.

There is of course two more types of claims made by religion (and theologians). Historical claims are also made. What proof do we have the the man known as Cato really existed? We have accounts, writings, and other historical evidence but perhaps no direct archeological evidence. Is his existence myth or history? Mr Kuznicki would of course (I assume) not insist that Cato didn’t exist because, well, we can’t produce him for examination (or even exhumation expecially as I believe cremation was the practice then). So in the absence of physical corroberation, what are we to do? Historical events, are by there very nature not repeatable, unlike lighting a LED or dropping two unequal weights from a Leaning Tower. Of the key events concerning the origins of Christianity there is a lot of data to look through. There are the four canonical gospels and other writings being uncovered (like the Dead Sea scrolls earlier in the last century) all the time from that (alas now somewhat war torn) region. There are near contemporary (unsympathetic) historians like Josephus. N.T. Wright has written a series (now three with a fourth and more promised) of large but quite readable texts in which he approaches the ministry of Jesus and his Ressurection from both the perspective of a modern trained theologian and first century historian (the series goes under the title Christian Origins and the Question of God and The New Testament and the People of God is the first volume. If anyone is tempted to purchase these volumes form Amazon for perusal plese use get the first two from this page, and thereby toss me some nickels :) ). From my amateur perspective his historical perspective seemed (like Darwin’s evolution) understandable, explainable (and thankfully free of post-modernist gobbldegook, which also probably explains why it isn’t also full of technical jargon and opaque). Anyhow the point being is that there is solid historical work that has been done supports the thesis that something unique happened that first Easter. But the “what happened” leads us to …

The third aspect of theology involves Mystery. There are indeed aspects of religion demarcated usually farily clearly by the work of those same theologians as being part of the mystery and that logic won’t carry you into or thorugh those waters, as it were. For the Christian mythos that lfundamental mystery ies in the Trniity (not as Mr Kuznicki’s first essay seemed to assume in the Creation story). Now science in quantum mechanics may also have uncovered its own mystery, although QM is only a century old and perhaps in a few dozen centuries more men will know if this mystery (like the Trinity) is assailable or at the core is ultimately impenetrable. Part of the proof is in the pudding. Riding a bike (or if you’re past that stage … counter-steering a bike) takes a leap of faith … but afte the leap well there you are. Likewise it was those benefits as seen by Ms Edith Stein (as described by Alasadair MacIntyre) that persuaded her to make that leap. For physics the results made available by QM are almost uncountable and have made so very much of modern technology possible that the leap of faith is quickly made. But the kernel of mystery remains. But the existence of mystery does not invalidate QM nor religion a priori.

So to recap. Whiel science is defined by repeatablity religion and theology do not depend on the same criteria. Theology (and therefore religion) is something more akin to philosophy and history with a salting of Mystery. It makes truth claims about the Nature of Nature which are pointedly of a different sort than those made by science. That is the questiosn answered by religion and those answered by science have Science answers questiosn like what happens to X if I do Y or the like, very postiivest questisn. Theolgy answers questiosn like what is God and what does that mean to me.

I’d also like to also draw attention, in that Mr Kuznicki’s original article was written about a survey of beliefs in Evolution in America as compared to other countries, that John Mark Reynolds has an interesting rebuttal/fisking of that original article at Eidos which is well worth reading.

9 responses to “Religion and Mythical Bugbear of Repeatability

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  2. What proof do we have the the man known as Cato really existed? We have accounts, writings, and other historical evidence but perhaps no direct archeological evidence. Is his existence myth or history?

    An excellent question. I replied to this some time ago, and elsewhere. I’ll repeat myself here:

    I accept as initially plausible all non-supernatural accounts in the Bible. I do the same with Thucydides and Herodotus [and by extension, the evidence for Cato’s existence, too]. Archaeology, scientific knowledge, other more plausible writings, and our own powers of reason may still overrule these texts at any time.

    For instance, when Herodotus starts talking about ants the size of dogs at the court of the Persian kings, or about how the Oracle of Delphi predicted many specific future events, at that point I demand more evidence. Lacking evidence, I dismiss the claims.

    Likewise, when I consider the account of a moral teacher from Nazareth, I see nothing implausible about a guy who went around asking everyone to be altruistic (even back then, it wasn’t exactly an original message). But when his followers say that he raised people from the dead–and did the same to himself–well, the evidence is lacking, just like with the ants of Herodotus.

    One common Christian argument is that the message of Jesus is so supremely moral, so good, that its authors could not possibly have lied about his miracles. I disagree, though, that altruism is good, and thus I would not give these writers extra credibility on account of their virtue.

    Further, even if the ethics of Jesus represented some great advance over those of everyone else, this in no way means that all those who claimed to follow him would be immune from dishonesty. Ethics aren’t automatic like that.

  3. I just had a look at that so-called “fisking,” too. From the very first, it seems to deliberately misunderstand evolutionary theory.

    It’s quite wrong, for instance, when it characterizes our present understanding of evolution as “Victorian.” A great deal has been learned in the meantime about the relationship between evolution and genetics, which was unknown at the time. And much evidence has clarified the fine details of the combined evolutionary-genetic theory that scientific consensus now considers correct.

    Moreover, it is logically fallacious to dismiss something simply because it originated in another era. Could you imagine how you’d feel if an atheist said — “Oh, Christianity. It’s ancient, so it must be wrong.” This would be an awful argument against the Christian religion — It would be purely, utterly fallacious. The same is true about dismissing evolution as “Victorian.”

    Really. What a silly and unconvincing article.

  4. I’ve been thinking more about QM/evolution/religion today, and here’s some more that I’ve come up with in reply to the discussions of this post and of the previous one.

    In the comments below, you write, “You on the other hand, don’t understand QM but are perfectly happy to use transisters, LED’s, lasers and all the other wonderful things which depend on QM effects for operations.”

    Yet it is fallacious to assume that because I use these things, I therefore “believe” in QM. Let’s consider another example: As I understand it, a physicist today would tell you that light itself is inexplicable without invoking QM. There is still perhaps a good deal we don’t understand about the nature of light, but QM is absolutely necessary.

    Now… What about Newton using light? Obviously he did. This in no sense implies that he “believes” in a theory he did not know about. Likewise, someone might consciously reject QM — and yet be quite thankful for the existence of light in the world. None of these people — neither Newton, nor I, nor the QM dissenter — are taking anything on faith. We’re taking it on “gosh, I don’t know, but it does seem to work.” Faith would be if we claimed that we had a specific answer, that it had no need of testing, and, indeed, that it would be impious to test it.

    As to evolution, I do understand it a lot better than QM, in part because of anthro and history/philosophy of science classes. I’m not a real evolution expert, but I can answer at least some of your objections. You write, “The genetic error changing the number of chromosomes is an individual mutation. How does that get transferred to a population so a new species appears with a different number of chromosomes?”

    This is a good question, but it is not an insoluble problem. Sometimes these mutations do not in fact result in sterility. A population may then emerge with discordant numbers of chromosomes and yet interbreed. This happens quite rarely, but it does seem to be possible. The “extra” chromosomes may then eventually go their separate ways, genetically speaking.

  5. Jsaon,
    A lot there, I’ll “endeavor to persevere” as the quote goes (Outlaw Josie Wales) and answer carefully.

    On the first, you realize of course you are being quite unscientific, in rejecting out of hand any claims which might support anything but your conclusion. Mr Wright in his book makes this point explicitly. In an inquiry of what happened, for example on that Easter, it would be prejudicing the answer if we assume out of hand that nothing unusual might of happened. Mr Wright is under those circimstances as careful about that in his exposition. In fact in no small part it is precisely his cultural analysis affirmation of the somewhat more modern sophistication of the witnesses that leads him to believe that the unsual events of that Easter are more probable. He thinks the witnesses would not have been fooled by parlor tcicks, were not “in on it”, or would have been convinced by anything else but in fact were surprised (and amazed and shocked) ty the events of that Easter. Josephus also in his writings was a (historical) hostile witness. I don’t think that the oracle of Delphi or Herodotus have similar hostile witnesses corroborating their more outlandish claims. [aside: Note Bishop/Dr or whatever might be the more correct honorific for N.T. Wright but I’m going to stick to my custom of going by Mr/Ms for everyone.]

    I’ll have to look at Mr Reynolds article again, I don’t recall it as being so simplistic in its argument.

    Finally, as to QM and evolution. I’m unsure what is your distinction between you (or say some modern day Newtonian who sees light as a wave (like Newton)) and the person believing in a literal exegesis to explain the species instead of evolution. “You” haven’t chosen to look into the experiments and calculations which call the wave theory of light into question, the young earth exegete has not chosen to examine those findings which call his understanding into question. I’m not convinced that you’re taking it on “gosh it does seem to work” (it being your classical/non-QM understanding of physics) but instead your are taking it on the, “gosh thsoe details just don’t matter to me” approach or “gosh my ignorance of this matter doesn’t seem to make a hill of beans in the execution of my modern life”, which I claim is just as true for evolution as QM.

    No perhaps you, when confronted with the photo-electric effect or the ultra-violet catastrophe might then see a need for quantization. But you certainly don’t need to. But if you don’t need to worry about little (or big) inconsistancies with Newton’s light theory I’m not sure you have much leg to stand on in thumbing your nose at evolution deniers.

    I’m not sure I’ve found any matter in the Christian faith mysteries which can be labeld as “just believe this, all thought must stop here”. What sort of dogma/doctrine do you think goes in this kind of category. Regarding specifically what I think is pretty uncontronvertially the main Christian Mystery of Trinity and Incarnation that there certainly has no lack of discussion and thought (as evidenced in part by a whole taxonomy of error (heresy)) surrounding this which does not to me sound like it is “impious” to test, restate, study, and contemplate. Actually I think you have it exactly wrong. For the converse is true, it isn’t impious to test the Mystery but instead the opposite is true, we are required to test and study it all the time.

  6. you are being quite unscientific, in rejecting out of hand any claims which might support anything but your conclusion

    What, you ask, would it take for me to actually believe in a bodily resurrection that took place two thousand years ago? Well, I can’t really think of any evidence that would make me believe it. The whole thing is simply so extraordinary that the evidence would have to be overwhelming. And it is not. There are people, who appear to be decent, who avowed it. But that is hardly enough to prove a murder, let alone a resurrection.

    Moreover, if I accepted that “a group of basically decent people avowed it” was a sufficient reason to believe, I would have to believe in a lot more than just Christianity. I’d have to accept Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, various Native American religions… and adopt them all at once. Accepting just one religion requires special pleading — that is, embracing a standard of evidence in one place and rejecting it in others.

    I don’t think that the oracle of Delphi or Herodotus have similar hostile witnesses corroborating their more outlandish claims.

    The Oracle of Delphi was notorious for making predictions that turned out both to be true and upsetting to the asker. These people would presumably be hostile witnesses to it. Nero is a good example here.

    I’m not sure I’ve found any matter in the Christian faith mysteries which can be labeld as “just believe this, all thought must stop here”. What sort of dogma/doctrine do you think goes in this kind of category[?]

    Well, no doubt theologians do discuss the mysteries — all of them. But I think they do accept 1) that these things are, on some level, impossible for humans to understand and 2) we should believe them, in some capacity, anyway.

    Now, (1) is never said by a scientist. “I don’t know” is a valid answer in science; “no one can ever know” is not. And (2) is not appropriate either in the sciences.

  7. Jason,
    But the evidence of reasonable and good people saying a thing happened (be it ressurection or murder) is not the only evidence pointed to corroborating those events. If the murder was acompanied by documentation/discussion supplying motive, means, and so on you might have a case. The ressurection also fits into a larger story and dialog. The Chrisitan cult would not have arisen in the absence of either (that is the ressurection or the way that fit into the larger story of the Hebrew people).

    Calvin’s teaching (election) and some other similar Christian soteriology insist that in accepting Christianity as true means rejecting other religions as false. Other (older?) Christian teaching as demonstrated in the Orthodox church (and I believe the last Pope made similar statements as well so it also be claimed by the Catholic magesterium) today holds that while Christianity is the best way to God, it’s not the only path, which seems to me not necessarily rejecting that their might also not be truth to be found in other traditions.

    No science does not say “no one can ever know” it takes a different tack. It will say, that is not a question which science chooses to answer, i.e., invalidating the question. Whether that question be cosmological or about the nature of reality underlying our quantum universe science (physics anyhow) has taken a very postivist approach. So the scientific approach to mysteries is 1) we don’t discuss those questions and 2) so it doesn’t matter. Logical positivism had a short shelf life in the philosophical community but it lives on strong in the sciences. What I don’t know the answer to is what were the shortcomings which caused the philosophers to pass by on Positivism and why don’t those shortcomings matter to science?

    The positivist approach (that science is soley in the business of predicting the outcome of experiments) does seem to me to have some aspects of the “we can never know” in that approach implictly takes many questions off the table (which is equivalent to saying we can never know, right?).

    Finally, Christianity with regards to the Trinity doesn’t leave you with “so just believe it”, but provides pathways to trod to deeper understanding of the mystery for all, see this for one example I’m sure there are others. Just like the quantum mystery in which Physics will give you a program of study to delve deeper in it’s mysteries religion does the same. The techniques are different, mathematics and experiment on the one hand, asceticism and prayer on the other but both provide a pathway to plumb their mysteries further.

  8. Mark Woodworth

    What a narrow view of faith Mr. Kuznicki has! And what a strange view of science.

    He seems to define faith as the “falsehoods we prefer to keep unexamined”. With this definition, faith is clearly foolish.

    But this is a misunderstanding that simply begs the question. A better definition of faith is “the reliance on things unseen”.

    For example, in the Standard Model, we build the menagerie of particles we observe from six quarks and a handful of leptons. We have never observed a bare quark. There is reason to believe (asymptotic freedom) that we never will. We rely on these unseen particles to craft a simple and beautiful model that explains what we have seen and predicts correctly things we have yet to see. Are quarks real? I have faith they are.

    I think that the Standard Model of particle physics is an example of good science. But it seems that in Mr. Kuznicki’s view, with it’s reliance on faith in the existence of quarks, maybe it isn’t.

    The view that science is experimental and religion is given by fiat is a false dichotomy. The council of Nicea wasn’t handed the concept of the Trinity from on high, but found that no one concept of God could match their experience: not just a creator, not just a spirit moving in the world, not just a loving redeemer, but all three.

    Revelation isn’t just in scripture but is implicit in the creation itself. Mr. Kuznicki might benefit from reflecting on what is the source of his certainty that the universe _can_ be understood: he may be surprised to find that he too is a man of faith, with a faith not so different from what he now dismisses.

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