Sunday, 10 August 2014

Can we really claim that there are religious explanations to things that are not attainable to science?

I’m a physics researcher at the University of XX and have been following the science religion discussion for fifteen years. So great thanks to John for his work on the subject! Your site also seems armed with quite a good understanding the Q&A section covers a lot in a concise and thoughtful manner.

I have a question that has been on the back of my mind for some time now: Can we really claim that there are religious explanations to things that are not attainable to science? I mean, science in itself basically tries to explain everything. I have read several works on the subject, but have not found any reasons why science in principle could not touch on meaning and purpose etc. As science is not too well defined (what is science and what is not, problem of demarcation) and religion as well is not too well defined either, its hard to see any principled reasons as to why they could not overlap, even completely.

So, at some point, if and when science will try to touch on something Christianity also clearly explains (like meaning, purpose and morals), I think we should not surrender that area to science but in fact claim that we have a better explanation than the scientific one.
To put it more clearly, at which point do we make a stand against attempted materialist explanations as they will try to progress and cover all of life and experience? If we make a stand, and because current science accepts only materialist explanations, should we change science to accept non-materialist explanations, or should we claim that this, admittedly religious explanation, is a better explanation than the scientific one, and the scientific explanation should be abandoned?

Science doesn’t try to explain everything. It focuses on questions that are tractable using the scientific method, with experiment and mathematical formulation.

Of course Science can “touch on” almost everything because almost any question of interest has some adjacent questions which could legitimately be considered scientific. So you could do a scientific study of the prevalence and diffusion of beliefs about values (say) or about genetic or neurological factors that were associated with such beliefs, or the mechanisms by which such beliefs were held. But these could not tell you whether the beliefs were morally or philosophically valid unless you had some additional premises which were by definition extra-scientific.

In particular science by definition cannot explain why the scientific method should work so well in our universe. Almost everyone agrees that the (region of the) universe in which we live is exquisitely fine-tuned for life. This leads to fascinating scientific questions (such as my MaxHELP hypothesis) but whether this is God’s creation or some cosmic fluke is not a scientific question.

An off switch for consciousness

I saw online that scientists have found an 'off switch' for consciousness in the brain and some of my materialistic-minded friends claim this is proof that there is no soul (that all that makes mind/consciousness is entirely in the brain and permanently gone after death). Does the discovery support that or are they making a logical leap?

Haven’t seen this report but we all know there is an “off switch” if you hit someone on the head hard enough so I don’t see what difference it would make if there were other such “switches”.

Yeah it's fairly new. Basically they were trying to cure a woman of epilepsy by placing electrode in her brain. One of them inadvertently gave them the ability to turn her consciousness on and off. I kinda felt the same way you said in your reply--but I am always second guessing myself (wondering if I am pre-biased as a Christian and such, I want to be fair to all sides not just my own). In the end I kinda felt that this doesn't prove consciousness is trapped in the brain (a potential alternate explanation to me seems that this off switch was just temporarily breaking the soul's/consciousness' connection to the body - granted this view can't be laboratory tested). I just wanted to run it by someone else to make sure I wasn't hastily jumping to a conclusion based on pre-bias :-).

On an unrelated note, who do you and John consider solid sources for information on the historical study of Jesus? I started looking up some stuff and it seems like there is a lot of mine fields out there with different people with axes to grind. From what I've seen some stuff is generally agreed on (Jesus was crucified, his followers claimed his resurrection pretty quickly, roughly half of Paul's letters are guaranteed to be by him) but the rest seems hard to discern since everyone claims to be only following the facts despite their position...

My son-in-law is a global expert in this general area (electrodes in brains etc..) and a strong Christian. Of course the relationship between the soul and the body is quite elusive and hard to pin down.

Christians are not committed to the idea of an “immaterial soul” which is a position of Greek philosophy and very un-Jewish. We believe that we will be resurrected into new bodies and that Jesus is “the first fruits of those who sleep”. I’m fond of the analogy of a piano and the music it plays. If you smash the piano the music stops but it can always be played on another piano. A great piano piece (say the Waldstein Sonata) clearly exists, even though it requires a piano to play it. And studying the physics and chemistry of a Steinway, whilst very interesting, will only give very limited insights into the music of Beethoven.

Tom Wright is the best person on pretty much all the NT stuff. He says that the Pauline letters are probably all genuine.

Inflation and fine-tuning

With the recent discovery involving the Big Bang/Inflation I read that at least some scientists say it's almost impossible for there to not be multiple universes now. What's your guys' take on the recent discoveries and does it impact the anthropic principle at all?

On the BioLogos forum Physicist Gerald Cleaver wrote an article explaining the 10+1 expanded view of string theory (especially in Part 5 of that series). In Part 5, he seems to make the case that String Theory is all but proven which means multiple universes are all but proven. Is this a widely shared view? What is your guys' take on it? Does this have any potential implications for the anthropic principle?

The observations certainly strengthen the case for some kind of inflation but although almost all cosmologists accept the idea of inflation now there are still enough loose ends that I suspect the Nobel Committee will want more actual evidence. There could be many other ways in which these observations could have come about. And there are plenty of un-answered questions about how and why inflation was turned on and off.

As for String Theory being “all but proven” that’s only true in the sense that it isn’t proven at all. There is plenty of deep mathematics in string theory but the question is whether it corresponds to physical reality or whether it’s some kind of shadow-play as it were.
Inflation doesn’t abolish the fine-tuning problem at all - chaotic inflation might but that’s a different story.

God of the Gaps

I'm 25 years old and not much of a scientist but recently I've been coming across more and more people connecting God and conciousness together. The points they make are usually along the lines of "if scientists find out how conciousness works, then it proves God doesn't exist" - because, they say, conciousness is the last God of the Gaps.

I was wondering if either of you, being scientists, agree that conciousness is the last God of the Gaps. I don't think so, simply because if God created all things natural, I think it would be wasteful to not use the natural things he'd created and I don't think it disrupts the idea of a brain connecting with spirit. Do you believe there is a strong link between the human brain and God?

Another thing I've come across is a split view where one side say lots of scientists believe in a personal, loving God and then others sayings practically no scientists believe in God. Being closer to the field of science, how do you feel the idea of any deity sits with the majority of scientists today?

The idea that “if scientists find out how X works it proves God doesn’t exist” is so obviously false that you only have to state it to see that it is ridiculous. Just as ridiculous as saying “if scientists don’t know how X works it proves God does exist”.

To find out how X works, scientifically, means to show that it is the consequence of certain scientific laws which we have good reason to believe are true, or at least good approximations, in our (region of the) universe. Theists say God, as the Creator of the Universe, made whatever fundamental laws these laws derive from. Materialists say the fundamental laws just happen to be the case. Science obviously, can never settle this question, which is philosophical.

Most scientists at present tend to be materialists, though by no means all. Surveys suggest that academics in Western universities are less religious than the general population, with scientists being rather more religious than “arts” academics. This probably has something to do with temperament and maybe that academics tend to be more male and more left-brain dominant. It says nothing about the truth of a belief whether or not it is fashionable.

Religion as a logical structure

What do you think about regarding science and religion as follows? Thus, religion is an a priori logical structure with the following three features: 1) It is applicable in any possible world that runs by law-bound causal power, and 2) It is centrally concerned with what objects in such worlds should do to survive, and 3) It has empty place-holders that can be filled in with empirical information about our world, or whichever particular world we choose to be concerned with. And science is an effort to fill in the said empty place-holders with empirical information.
I appreciate that, at first sight, these pictures of what science and religion are might seem contra-intuitive. But I have worked it all out in fairly considerable detail. Would you perhaps think that my idea is worth looking into?

Religion is about relationships with God and others.
The logical bits are theology.

Conservation of Energy and Creation

I am sincerely interested in trying to reconcile the anti-creation mindset that is embedded in the beliefs held by physicists in the form of The Conservation of Energy Law that rules out an Almighty creator. With in depth exposure to both the physics and theological beliefs regarding creation your response to my concern should be revealing. I am trying to understand how people who believe in the Nicene and or Apostles Creed can also believe in the Conservation of Energy Law that rules out an Almighty creator?

Obviously if there is an Ultimate Creator then He created the laws of physics, and is not subject to them.
There is an interesting line of thought which suggests that the net energy of the universe is zero, with the matter energy being balanced out by the expansion – and this is used to suggest that the universe could have emerged without a Creator. But both of these miss the point: the Creator is (as Creator) more like the author of a novel than a character in it.
And of course atheists* have no explanation as to why the particular laws of physics should apply to the real universe which is a big problem since whilst an Ultimate Creator is by definition self-existent (if one exists at all) the law of physics are self-evidently contingent and could have been created.
* Unless they follow Max Tegmark and believe that all logically possible universes (with all logically possible physical laws) exist.

Prayer, Transfiguration and can all human knowledge be Yes/No?

I am an evangelical Christian in the middle of reading your book “Belief of God in an age of science”. To put in mild terms - I am thoroughly enjoying it. Thank you so much for writing it. Beautiful.

I was also thinking of the possibility of a connection between quantum physics and our daily prayer. Also can the transfiguration account being classified as a atemporal event? Thoughts to ponder.

Additionally can all human knowledge be broken down to Truth vs Falsehood meaning a Yes or No classification ...this would tie into a neat dichotomy between good vs evil...

Thank you. You might also want to look at Questions of Truth.

Everything is connected at a metaphorical and metaphysical level. And dynamical systems theory – rather than quantum physics per se – helps us understand that significant effects can follow when many actors in a system align their actions and intentions, since this is a major purpose of prayer in trying to align our will to God’s. I think it is John Lucas who says that one great thing about petitionary prayer is that it forces us to think about what we really want and whether we ought to be wanting it.

The Transfiguration is not so much "atemporal" as an event when time touches eternity in an even deeper sense.

In respect of your final question: Certainly not! Almost everything important has to be expressed in some form of paradox. This is one reason why there are two creation accounts in Genesis, which differ in detail, and why the 2 genealogies of Jesus are different.