Sean Carroll on the nature of science

July 16, 2009 • 7:22 am

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll (the physics one) has a nice essay on the nature of a scientific question.  He begins with a discussion of the empirical content of religious beliefs, which some (including journalist Jeremy Manier, who comments on this blog) seem to find unimportant or irrelevant in discussing the compatibility of science and faith:

Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless, where usefulness is judged by the clarity of one’s attempts at communication. Personally, I think using “religion” in that way is not very clear. Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, or that God did not create the universe. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose job it is to judge whether a candidate for canonization has really performed the required number of miracles and so forth, would probably not agree that miracles don’t occur. Francis Collins, recently nominated to direct the NIH, argues that some sort of God hypothesis helps explain the values of the fundamental constants of nature, just like a good Grand Unified Theory would. These views are by no means outliers, even without delving into the more extreme varieties of Biblical literalism.

Carroll then clarifies what he sees as the main endeavor of scientists; the construction of theories:

The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.

And that’s the crucial point. Science doesn’t do a bunch of experiments concerning colliding objects, and say “momentum was conserved in that collision, and in that one, and in that one,” and stop there. It does those experiments, and then it also proposes frameworks for understanding how the world works, and then it compares those theoretical frameworks to that experimental data, and — if the data and theories seem good enough — passes judgment. The judgments are necessarily tentative — one should always be open to the possibility of better theories or surprising new data — but are no less useful for that.

He says this about multiverse (multiple-universe) “theories”, which theistic evolutionists like Kenneth Miller dismiss as “Hail Marys,” desperation passes thrown out by scientists to explain why physical constants appear to be “fine tuned” for the existence of life. Here is what Miller says about multiverses in his book Only a Theory:

Believers . . . are right to remind skeptics and agnostics that one of their favored explanations for the nature of our existence involves an element of the imagination as wild as any tale in a sacred book: namely, the existence of countless parallel simultaneous universes with which we can never communicate and whose existence we cannot even test. Such belief also requires an extraordinary level of “faith” and the nonreligious would do well to admit as much.

In fact, multiverses are not something concocted by scientists to save their cookies; they grow naturally out of some theories of physics.  As Carroll argues:

The same logic applies, for example, to the highly contentious case of the multiverse. The multiverse isn’t, by itself, a theory; it’s a prediction of a certain class of theories. If the idea were simply “Hey, we don’t know what happens outside our observable universe, so maybe all sorts of crazy things happen,” it would be laughably uninteresting. By scientific standards, it would fall woefully short. But the point is that various theoretical attempts to explain phenomena that we directly observe right in front of us — like gravity, and quantum field theory — lead us to predict that our universe should be one of many, and subsequently suggest that we take that situation seriously when we talk about the “naturalness” of various features of our local environment. The point, at the moment, is not whether there really is or is not a multiverse; it’s that the way we think about it and reach conclusions about its plausibility is through exactly the same kind of scientific reasoning we’ve been using for a long time now. Science doesn’t pass judgment on phenomena; it passes judgment on theories.

Carroll then explains why certain religious claims are indeed empirical claims about the real world, and in that sense are scientific:

Now let’s turn to a closely analogous question. There is some historical evidence that, about two thousand years ago in Galilee, a person named Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, and later grew up to be a messianic leader and was eventually crucified by the Romans. (Unruly bloke, by the way — tended to be pretty doctrinaire about the number of paths to salvation, and prone to throwing moneychangers out of temples. Not very “accommodating,” if you will.) The question is: how did Mary get pregnant?

One approach would be to say: we just don’t know. We weren’t there, don’t have any reliable data, etc. Should just be quiet.

The scientific approach is very different. We have two theories. One theory is that Mary was a virgin; she had never had sex before becoming pregnant, or encountered sperm in any way. Her pregnancy was a miraculous event, carried out through the intervention of the Holy Ghost, a spiritual manifestation of a triune God. The other theory is that Mary got pregnant through relatively conventional channels, with the help of (one presumes) her husband. According to this theory, claims to the contrary in early (although not contemporary) literature are, simply, erroneous.

There’s no question that these two theories can be judged scientifically. One is conceptually very simple; all it requires is that some ancient texts be mistaken, which we know happens all the time, even with texts that are considerably less ancient and considerably better corroborated. The other is conceptually horrible; it posits an isolated and unpredictable deviation from otherwise universal rules, and invokes a set of vaguely-defined spiritual categories along the way. By all of the standards that scientists have used for hundreds of years, the answer is clear: the sex-and-lies theory is enormously more compelling than the virgin-birth theory.

Finally, he goes into the methodological naturalism/philosophical naturalism distinction that some people, including Mooney and Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America, use as a stick to beat those mean atheists. As Russell Blackford has shown, this distinction is really a red herring in the discussion about whether science and faith are compatible.

Could science, through its strategy of judging hypotheses on the basis of comparison with empirical data, ever move beyond naturalism to conclude that some sort of supernatural influence was a necessary feature of explaining what happens in the world? Sure; why not? If supernatural phenomena really did exist, and really did influence things that happened in the world, science would do its best to figure that out.

It’s a nice piece, and I doubt that anyone could construe it as “militant” or “shrill”. Go read the whole thing.

Accommodationism and the nature of our world

April 30, 2009 • 3:57 pm

Earlier I posted about dancing birds and centenarian Nobelists, but accommodationism still dogs my heels.  It comes at me today in two forms: Francis’s Collins’s  execrable Biologos website, funded by our old friends the Templeton Foundation, and an article in the Guardian by Kenneth Miller about transitional fossils.   Both of these items offer a faith/science accommodationist viewpoint, either explicitly (Collins) or implicitly (Miller).  And both suffer from the big problem inherent in that viewpoint: when one makes pronouncements about faith that involve assertions about science, the science always suffers.  (As a working scientist and a naturalist, I’m not all that concerned with what it does to faith.)

The more I peruse Collins’s site, the more embarrassed I am for him and his cronies.  On the first page, with the “Mission Statement,” appears the following proclamation (see comments below):

Faith and science both lead us to truth about God and creation.

Oh, really?  In what ways does science lead us to truth about God and creation?  This sounds not like the statement of a scientist, but of a religious person with an a priori and unfalsifiable belief that learning about the universe will affirm the existence of God and tell us how He/She/It worked.  I’ve never heard a scientist assert this so blatantly.  It is, of course, a completely unscientific statement.

And, P. Z. Myers pointed out yesterday, BioLogos repeatedly and erroneously suggests that a sense of morality that can resolve ethical dilemmas can come only from religion:

Furthermore, religion has not only served to advance scientific discovery, but it also exerts a positive and significant influence on the practical application of scientific discoveries. With the constant advance of technology and medicine, new questions are continually raised as to what applications should be deemed ethically acceptable.6 (See Collins’s Appendix in The Language of God.) The scientific method alone does not provide a way of answering these ethical questions but can only help in mapping out the possible alternatives. Such ethical concerns are only resolved by standards of morality that find grounding and authority through faith in a higher being.

As anybody with two neurons to rub together knows, this statement is simply wrong.  Even the ancient Greeks realized that our morality is innate and not derivable from God.  I won’t belabor this elementary error, for all of us know about it.  Except, apparently, Collins and his collaborators.   But on to the naturalism.  I can mention only a few ways in which science is debased on this website.  First, it asserts that although God can and does affect the world in tangible ways (a scientific claim), this intervention is scientifically undetectable:

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles. Given the impossibility of absolute prediction or explanation, the laws of nature no longer preclude God’s action in the world. Our perception of the world opens once again to the possibility of divine interaction. . . . Regardless of the irregularity of tiny,quantum mechanical, or complex, chaos theoretical, systems, the sun stills rises and sets, the tides ebb and flow, and objects fall to the ground. Nature is reliable enough to reflect God’s faithfulness yet flexible enough to permit God’s involvement.

We’re not told what this “flexibility” is, except that it’s not detectable (perhaps through revelation?).  And then we come to teleology.  Evolution is not, we learn, a naturalistic process, but has been planned by God to cough up Homo sapiens with all its godly characteristics:

Question 18: At what point in the evolutionary process did humans attain the “Image of God?”

In order to answer this question, “image of God” must be defined.1 In the account of man’s creation, found in Genesis 1, God declares, “Let Us make man in Our image” (Genesis 1:26). The multifaceted debate over the meaning of the image of God has gone on for centuries in the Christian community. Most theologians argue that the image of God is not reflected upon humans as a physical image, related to the way we look. Rather, the fundamental qualities of the image of God are characteristics of the mind and soul, however we understand those: the ability to love selflessly; engage in meaningful relationships; exercise rationality; maintain dominion over the Earth; and embrace moral responsibility.

From the BioLogos perspective, God planned for humans to evolve to the point of attaining these characteristics. (See Question 30 about the Evolution of Religion.) For example, in order to reflect God’s Image by engaging in meaningful relationships, the human brain had to evolve to the point where an understanding of love and relationship could be grasped and lived out. God’s intention for humans to have relationships is illustrated in the opening chapters of Genesis, where many fundamental truths about God and humankind are communicated through the imagery of a creation story.

And, predictably, the “fine-tuning of physical constants” argument appears, with the more-than-strong suggestion that this is a “pointer to God”:

Fine-tuning refers to the surprising precision of nature’s physical constants and the beginning state of the universe. Both of these features come together as potential pointers to God. To explain the present state of the universe, even the best scientific theories require that the physical constants of nature — like the strength of gravity — and the beginning state of the Universe — like its density — have extremely precise values. The slightest variation from their actual values results in a lifeless universe. For this reason, the universe seems finely-tuned for life. This observation is referred to as the anthropic principle, a term whose definition has taken many variations over the years.3 Dr. Francis Collins has addressed both aspects of fine-tuning in the third chapter of his book, The Language of God.

This is creationism, pure and simple:  it is a “God of the gaps” argument.  Because physicists haven’t yet told us why these laws are as they are, they must reflect God’s miraculous handiwork.  Here Collins, as did Kenneth Miller in his book Only a Theory, approaches creationism, or what A. C. Grayling prefers to call “supernaturalism.”

I  wrote yesterday about Collins’s unscientific assertion that humans were an inevitable outcome of evolution.  I’ve taken this argument apart in an article in The New Republic, and won’t repeat it here.  The reason why people like Collins (and Miller) see the appearance of humans as inevitable is, of course, that their theology requires it.  Any honest scientist, faced with the question, “Was the appearance of humans or humanlike creatures inevitable?”, would have to answer “I don’t know.” (And I would add: “Considering how evolution works, it does seem somewhat unlikely”.)

I won’t go on: the BioLogos website provides hours of fun (and frustration!) for the bored naturalist.  But Collins should consider the effect of giving his scientific imprimatur to this kind of nonsense.  It confuses people about what science really knows, using creationist God-of-the-Gaps arguments (“I guess God must have made the laws of the universe, since physicists don’t have an explanation for them”). And it employs a nonscientific teleology by stating that physical and biological evolution are not contingent processes, but were designed by God to achieve a completely predictable end: that one species of mammal would arise on one of the gazillion existing planets 14 billion years after He set His plan in motion.


On the “comment is free” section of The Guardian, biologist Kenneth Miller has a piece on the implications of the “missing link to seals,” Puijila darwini, that I discussed in an earlier post.  It’s all pretty good, but then the accommodationism begins to emerge when he talks about why evolution is anathema to many people in the US and UK:

What bugs them is that evolution carries with it a message they just don’t want to hear. That message is that we not only live in a natural world, but we are part of it, we emerged from it. Or more accurately, we emerged with it.

To them, that means we are just animals. Our lives are an accident, and our existence is without purpose, meaning or value.

My concern for those who hold that view isn’t just that they are wrong on science, wrong about the nature of the evidence, and mistaken on a fundamental point of biology. It’s that they are missing something grand and beautiful and personally enriching.

Evolution isn’t just a take-it-or-leave-it story about where we came from. It’s an epic at the centre of life itself. It tells us we are part of nature in every respect. Far from robbing our lives of meaning, it instils an appreciation for the beautiful, enduring, and ultimately triumphant phenomenon of life.

Seen in this light, the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe. What evolution tells us is that we are part of a grand, dynamic, and ever-changing fabric of life that covers our planet. Even to a person of faith, in fact especially to a person of faith, an understanding of the evolutionary process should only deepen their appreciation of the scope and wisdom of the creator’s work.

Let me get this straight: a biologist, speaking ex cathedra on an issue of biology, says that the idea we are “just animals” and “our lives are an accident” is “wrong on science, wrong about the nature of the evidence, and mistaken on a fundamental point of biology.”  Yes, anti-evolutionists are missing the beauty and wonder of evolution, but the last time I looked we were still primates, descended from apelike ancestors.  And to say that our lives are anything other than an accident (including, of course, the accidents of meiosis and of which sperm makes it to the egg), buys into the idea — one that Miller has promulgated –that the appearance of humans or something like us was inevitable.   Indeed, he explicitly stresses this inevitability when he says our lives are “a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe.”  Well, yes, and so are the lives of squirrels and redwoods.  But what Miller really means here –and we can have no doubt about this given the content of his talks and writings –is that the laws of the universe are fine-tuned for the appearance of humans, and that, given the nature of evolution and Earth, the appearance of higher intellectual capabilities (ones that could apprehend and worship their Creator) is inevitable.

What bothers me is that Miller can’t resist slipping in, under the guise of his expertise as a biologist, the idea that it is scientific to assert that the laws of physics are fine-tuned for our appearance, as is the nature of the evolutionary process itself.  But those are NOT scientific statements; they are philosophy born of religion.  That’s why I don’t think people who represent the public face of evolution should mix their magisteria.   It gives the authority of science to statements for which we have either no evidence, or counterevidence.

Of these two items, Collins’s website is by far the most injurious to science.  After all, most of Miller’s post is on the mark, interesting, and scientific.  But somehow he simply can’t keep himself from sliding into theology, either in this article or in the talk I heard him give on Darwin Day in Philadelphia.  This may reflect his view, which is also that of the NCSE, AAAS, and NAS, that you can’t effectively sell evolution without bringing in God.

* * * * * * * * * *

Miller and Collins have raised a question in my mind.  Both of them assert that the world — indeed, the Universe –clearly reflects God’s handiwork.  And both affirm that accepting the truth of evolution only deepens our understanding and appreciation of the divine.  Isn’t it curious that every scientific finding that at first appears injurious to faith (a heliocentric solar system, evolution, the 14-billion-year age of the universe) always manages, after the theologians put it through their sausage grinder, ending up as supportive of faith?  But what else can they do?  Indeed, one could define the task of theology as making virtues of necessities. It is a superfluous field, if, indeed, it’s a field at all.  The same goes for the problem of evil, such as the Holocaust, and of natural catastrophes, such as the tsunamis that killed thousands in southeast Asia.  No problem for theology — they have many answers. (BioLogos has a whole page of possible explanations.)  But any rational person looking at the world would conclude, as did Darwin, that it was not designed by a beneficent God.

It will repay us to consider the words of Epicurus written 2300 years ago:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

I have never seen a satisfactory theological answer to this question, despite centuries of theodicy.  Any proposed answer always smacks of rationalization.  (I know somebody’s going to tell me that I’m neglecting some “sophisticated” theological lucubrations here.)

As Richard Dawkins has noted, the world and universe look precisely as if they reflect not a caring designer, but “blind, pitiless, indifference.”  So I pose these questions to those who find signs of a celestial designer in our universe:

If our universe simply reflected the action of pure naturalistic laws rather than the intentions of God, how would it differ from the universe we have today?

In other words, what conceivable observation about the universe could convince you that God does not exist?

I can think of plenty of observations that would convince me that God does exist. (I mention several of them in my New Republic piece. For example, only bad people might get cancer.  Or prayers might be answered in a scientifically verifiable way.)  But I’ve never heard a religious person –at least not one on the verge of defecting to apostasy — tell me what evidence would make him/her give up their belief.  This asymmetry tells us something about the difference between scientific truth and religious “truth.”