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Bad arguments about religion: part 3: Science cannot prove your wife loves you, Francis Collins, etc 
11th Feb 2010, 10:50 pm
science limecat
This round of bad arguments is about science. Before I start, I'll acknowledge my debt to Jeffrey L. Kasser's lectures, though, of course, any mistakes in applying them to the question of science and religion are my own.

Most people recognise science's effectiveness at modelling the world, and theists are no exception. Some theists disagree with well established conclusions of science (for example, evolution). Some theists go along with the folk in liberal arts faculties who, in Kasser's phrase, think science is a particularly dull literary genre. I'm not going to talk about either of these sorts of people. This post is about theists who claim their religion is compatible with, but has gone "beyond", science. Their claims usually rely on making true, but uninteresting, arguments, in the hope that the hearer slides to a stronger conclusion than the arguments warrant.

Science has not explained X, therefore God did it

This is the God of the gaps argument. Right now, popular choices for X are abiogenesis, consciousness, and altruism. To take that last example, Francis Collins argues that the theory of evolution has no explanation for pure altruism, and, following C.S. Lewis's Argument from Morality in Mere Christianity, claims that the Christian God must be responsible. As the former director of the Human Genome Project, Collins's opinions carry weight, but, poking around with Google Scholar, I found no evidence that he has contributed his criticisms to the peer reviewed literature on the evolution of altruism. Even if he had written a good paper on that subject, more is needed before we accept that the best alternative explanation is a particular god. As Gert Korthof's review of Collins's book puts it "Collins fails to demonstrate a. the failure of Darwinism to explain the Moral Law (true altruism) b. the divine origin of the Moral Law c. b follows from a."

Science cannot investigate/explain/prove everything

There's a bad argument from atheists which leads to confusion here. Some atheists seem to use "science" to mean "anything for which there's good evidence", but the theists, quite sensibly, use it to mean "that stuff scientists do". If the theist faces an atheist who says "your religion is invalid because it cannot be established by science", it's legitimate for the theist to dispute that statement by talking about other, non-scientific, forms of evidence which most people accept.

There are some things we do not use science to investigate, because they seem a poor fit for scientific investigation. To use one of Kasser's examples, we wouldn't get into a scientific investigation of the "universal law" that "all the beer in my fridge is American", even if that is a statement which has the form of a scientific law ("all copper conducts electricity"). I prefer to distinguish scientific evidence from other rational evidence (though I think these forms of evidence have something in common which is not shared by religious "ways of knowing"): Eliezer Yudkowsky's article on the subject describes what I mean.

So, the theists are at least partially right, but notice that none of this says much to convince us that there's a God. When they try to do that, theists typically say that science or other rational evidence will get you some way towards theism (though, I'd say, not all that far), but then add that some "other way of knowing" or "faith" is required in addition. But if the theist claims they have another "way of knowing", they must demonstrate its reliability, rather than merely knocking existing ways of knowing.

Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don't you?

A specific case of the "science cannot explain everything" argument, this particular example gets its own section because it's regularly trotted out by people who ought to know better (for example, John Lennox in his debate with Richard Dawkins). Again, this is one is true, but uninteresting. It's not the job of science to prove my wife loves me, just as it's not the job of science to explore my fridge looking for American beer. Nevertheless, assuming I'm not actually a stalker, I have sufficient rational evidence that my wife loves me, and I don't have to invoke any special ways of knowing to get it.

Next time

Next time, we'll look at claims that science arose from theism, and talk about reductionism and butter.

Comments 
12th Feb 2010, 10:25 am (UTC)
The wife thing is a bit of a gap argument, too. Surely it should be, "science cannot prove your wife loves you ... yet".
13th Feb 2010, 12:42 am (UTC)
Hah, they'll have to prove I have qualia first!
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