March 01, 2016

Dear Christians: Answers to Questions for Atheists, Part VIII

We're continuing our Answer to Questions for Atheists today, in our eighth installment, wherein I'm answering questions about SCIENCE.


So, a little background first.

I was raised and educated in a state that consistently ranks among the worst in America for science education. I was raised as a Young Earth Creationist, and that is a viewpoint that I've only shed in the last three or four years of my adult life.

I never considered myself any good at science, so I never pursued any difficult courses. In high school, I stuck to the requirements for physical science, biology, and chemistry, and attended a filler class in "Forensic Science" my senior year to fulfill my final science requirement. For reference, physics was offered, as was a higher level Biology class. I avoided these classes because of my perceived ineptitude in science, and this view was supported by my academic advisor. In college, I continued on this track, choosing to fulfill my science requirements with Rocks for Jocks (the nickname for Geology 103) and Chemistry for Dummies (the nickname for Chemistry 105, a class specifically created for business and liberal arts majors who would not be going into scientific fields). I was in awe of a very dear friend in the pre-med track who was, in my opinion, a science whiz. When she would sit down at our table during breaks and whip out her books, I was literally taken aback by how much she knew and understood.

All of this to say that I have a fairly spotty understanding of scientific knowledge. Some of you have noted this before, with lovely corrective emails following some posts. I've never thanked you for it, but believe me, it's appreciated.

I'm dedicated to continuing to improve my own understanding of science, but in the meantime, please indulge me slightly in the following answers. I'm trying my best, and I'm giving my very real impressions to these queries.

As always, I look forward to hearing your answers in the comments!


1.    Is science the only means of gaining reliable knowledge? Why?


There's a Carl Sagan quote that I absolutely adore that says:

The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.

You'll find that quote in Demon-Haunted World, a book that is beyond one of my all-time favorites. I reference it so frequently that I now just keep it on top of my desk to make it easier.

One kudo that I'd like to give this question: it acknowledges something that we often forget--science isn't a subject or a body of knowledge; it's a way of thinking. It's a method. Because it's a method and a way of thinking, it's the most reliable way that we have of obtaining reliable knowledge.

Science looks at observations and seeks an explanation for them. This is different from most other ways of gathering knowledge. For instance, I love using writing to foster my own critical thinking and arguing skills. I can take a proposition, develop an opinion, and support that with evidence. However, this form of debate isn't a particularly objective way of gathering knowledge. Until recently, I didn't make a habit of seeking out information that contradicted my viewpoint just for the sake of that information (I would seek it out for the purpose of neutering counter-arguments to my own view).

Science is uniquely able to avoid this when we fully commit ourselves to its skeptical strengths. Instead of saying "This is what I think, how can I prove it?", science runs more along the lines of, "So this thing happened. Why did it happen? What would happen if?"

None of this is to say that science doesn't have its flaws. It does. Our own human biases creep in, errors happen, people manipulate data (sometimes even purposefully). It can be a lovely mess, because we humans are a lovely mess. But overall, it's still our best bet to understand the world we move through every single day.

2.    Is belief in God a byproduct of ignoring science? Why?

This seems kind of related to a question I answered a few weeks back, "Is God a product of wishful thinking?", and my answer here is similar: No, I don't think God is a byproduct of ignoring science.

Here, just to review, is a brief explanation that I delved into deeper in the post I linked above:

When our ancestors faced an environment that was capricious and unruly, unpredictable, unknowable, unfathomable. When they were plunged to the depths of uncertainty and loss, I imagine they too asked: Why? Why is this happening? 
We're reasonable creatures, and we come from a long lineage of reasoning creatures. We applied our reason to the tasks. We created explanations.

This is, of course, heavily influenced by Victor Stenger who once said, "God has always been an explanation."

Science may provide better explanations for much of the phenomena we experience today, but we're creatures of habit, and so belief in God endures as a way of explaining the world around us. It allows us to believe that there is a rhyme to the universe, that it is not the byproduct of some madness scribbled bit by bit on a restroom stall but is instead a sonnet produced by an all-knowing poet.

3.    Does faith in God mean one has to relinquish science and reason?


People are able to amazing mental gymnastics to reconcile different aspects of their thought-life. It's entirely possible for a believing human being to compartmentalize that belief in a section separate from their understanding of the scientific world.

There's also the question of what "faith in God" means in this situation. If it just means belief in some kind of deity, Deists have comfortably balanced the idea of a god of some type with the principles of science and other philosophies since the Enlightenment.

People create explanations for their explanation. It all seems very circular, but I suppose it has its own weird logic.

Now, I know there are many atheists--and especially antitheists--who disagree with me on this point, and I accept that this is not always a popular position. But I have known too many theists who are entirely reasonable, rational people to believe that it's entirely impossible to segregate the two views in such a way that a human being is functional and scientifically literate, but still believes in a god or gods.

4.    Can scientific claims be faith-based?


There's idea that there are faith-based scientific claims, and it's simply untrue. If someone's following the scientific method appropriately, they aren't relying on faith.

First, let's start by looking at the method. I'm going to show it linearly, but in truth, it's a continuous cycle, not a straight line:

  1. Make observations.
  2. Question observations.
  3. Formulate hypotheses.
  4. Make testable predictions based on hypotheses.
  5. Gather data by testing predictions.
  6. Analyze and revise hypotheses using data.
  7. Develop general theories.

This is a regimented process. It leaves little room for injecting your own beliefs into the process. The idea of making predictions and testing them alone means that your beliefs should be tested and either proven or disproven.

I see this idea most often applied to evolutionary theory, to the point that people will actually say evolution is itself a form of religious belief. However, it's patently untrue. Evolutionary theory follows the scientific method. It began with observations that Charles Darwin made and questioned. 

And predictions? Consider this: We're still finding evidence in the finches, just as Darwin did:

Suitably, one of the most striking examples of natural selection in action concerns the very Galapagos finches that Darwin made famous. Since 1973, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant, working on the tiny island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos, have studied a species of finch called Geospiza fortis (upper right in illustration, which appeared in Darwin's 1839 book about his five-year journey aboard the Beagle). After a drought in 1977 devastated plants bearing small seeds, more than 1,000 of the 1,200 G. fortis finches on the island died. The Grants discovered that larger G. fortis, which could break open larger seeds than smaller G. fortis could, survived better. The survivors mated in 1978, and, on average, their offspring had beaks 4 percent larger than those of the previous generation.
Following another drought in 2003, G. fortis with smaller beaks survived better, in part because of stiff competition for bigger seeds after a larger finch species, G. magnirostris, settled the island. Between 2003 and 2005, the Grants found, G. fortis
beaks shrank by 5 percent.

This is natural selection in progress. It's not faith; it's evidence. Darwin predicted that inheritable traits and seemingly random mutations respond to environmental pressures, leaving some specimens more adaptable to changes  in their environment and thus better able to pass on their genetic legacy. This predication is validated time and again, but these finches are an absolutely startling example of science in action.

The last prediction of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity was just recently observed when gravitational waves were detected by LIGO. This observation was 100 years after Einstein made the prediction. We had indirect evidence of gravitational waves over the intervening decades; however, we'd never directly observed them. The prediction was never accepted on faith despite copious amounts of indirect evidence and mathematical models; it was not considered proven until the waves themselves were directly observed. This is how science works.

This doesn't mean that we don't mess it up sometimes. The easiest way for us to fudge up the whole system is by underestimating our own biases. I'm a woman; I've seen countless scientific ideas from the past that state that I have a smaller brain, that I'm not as capable of understanding complex things, etc, as a man. These studies informed public perceptions of women for nearly 150 years, vying with religious sexism in an attempt to arguably do the most damage to my sex. Much of this was informed by the biases of male researchers, who didn't take into account that bias when constructing experiments. Guarding against false premises informed by biased thinking is an important step in designing experiments.


I sincerely hope that I've done this segment some justice. I always feel ill at ease discussing more scientific topics, because of the lack of background knowledge that I've explained already, but it's also one of my favorite topics to explore.

I find it incredibly telling that so many of these pieces try to undermine science as a way of gathering knowledge. For me, beginning to grasp science better was a significant part of the reason I became an atheist. As I figured it out, it became a better explanation for the world than what I'd had before. When I see theists going after it tenaciously, I have to wonder if they are personally insecure about their faith--because that, to me, is the only explanation for wanting to attack science.

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