Sunday, December 30, 2007

Truth and Science Philosophy

The New Testament speaks of God's desire for man "to come to a knowledge of the truth." (I Tim. 2:4) This would include truth of the natural world revealed by science. In past posts I have spoken about the science/faith intersection and the support each lends to the other. Science philosophy drives the approach taken by scientists -- their methods, interpretations, and how they perceive the implications of their discoveries. Scientists are affected by the same influences which drive politicians, the clergy, historians, or social scientists. Should we say, then, that findings reported by scientists are subjective? Could we say that the term "exact science" is a misnomer? These questions trouble many, especially those suspicious of science to begin with.

One may ask about the well known "scientific method" used by scientists to discover truth. Isn't this a sure thing? The procedural steps of the scientific method vary somewhat depending on which descriptive sourcebook one reads. However, careful observing, proposing hypotheses, predicting, testing, verifying, and revising are some of the steps generally recognized by both experimental and historical scientists. Today there are some science philosophers who even deny there is such a thing as formal scientific method. We should recognize that working scientists do not perform their work as if they were following a cookbook recipe in the kitchen. In the early days of modern science, say, 200 years ago, science was more often seen as objective and consistent in its approach to the acquisition of knowledge.

Today, however, scientists more often bring their particular assumptions, inspiration, and observational biases to the table. Science philosopher William Whewell spoke of "invention, sagacity, and genius" required at every step of the scientific method. Scientists may be very selective in how they see data and what data they study and report. Personal, cultural, philosophical, even religious commitments significantly impact their work. There are positives and negatives with this scenario. Loss of objectivity may be one of the negatives. Once a group of scientists embraces a body of beliefs they may not willingly accept revisions because they are intensely loyal to their tradition and emotionally invested in their work. Notwithstanding, science is a powerful tool for the discovery of truth.

My conclusions about the origin of the universe, the cause of its fine-tuning, and the origin and development of life on this earth differ from the conclusions of many scientists. That does not mean I disrespect their personal passions, their honesty, or even the biases which may be driving their work. I may learn much from their practice and philosophy of science. Likewise, I hope they could learn from people who believe as I believe. The object of our science studies should be to search for "a knowledge of the truth." We must remember that truth is an absolute which overwhelms any personal bias, commitment, or worldview.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Natural Philosophy vs.Science

Several hundred years ago what is today known as "science" was called "natural philosophy." The methods of natural philosophers differed from those of later scientists such as Robert Boyle, Francis Bacon, and Galileo. Natural philosophers did not test their ideas in a practical way. They preferred a speculative, philosophical approach and relied heavily on tradition and authority while making their statements about the natural world.

In contrast, Boyle and others, beginning in the 17th century, advocated more systematic validations of their conclusions through experimentation and replication. Even though their new methodology was still included under the umbrella term of natural philosophy, the term science later came into formal use. These pioneers and others were really the earliest true scientists as we understand that term today. They used most of the techniques of what we understand today as the "scientific method," but that term did not come into common use until the 19th century. Theoretical Aristotelian philosophical speculations about ultimate purposes and principles in nature were dismissed. Natural philosophy yielded to modern science.

Today many people think of science as a precise method for proving things beyond any doubt. They feel a certain reverence for facts touted to be "scientifically proven." This view of science is deficient in many ways. It is true that the basic process of scientific method is mostly held in high regard by both scientists and the public as a superior vehicle for discovering knowledge of the natural world and how it works for man's advantage. But a study of even a small portion of the huge body of literature on the modern philosophy of science, especially in the last century, will show that the picture is not so simple. In future posts we will explore some of the surprising ways modern philosophy has impacted science both positively and negatively. Science philosophy influences the methods of gaining knowledge, the scope of the resulting knowledge, and the implications of the knowledge gained. The same could be said of the influence of philosophy on any other discipline, ranging from politics to religion.

It is reassuring that the scientific approach to knowledge and truth has deep roots in holy scripture. We are exhorted to "test everything" and to define our faith as confidence in established truth.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Changing for Better

In every field of human endeavor we strive, or should strive, to increase our knowledge and improve our performance. So it is with science. Scientists attempt to increase their knowledge of how the world functions. In turn, they try to apply that knowledge for man's benefit. Abuse of science knowledge could also work to man's detriment. But most accomplishments of scientists have improved our quality of life. Technology (applied science) has been used for the benefit of man for thousands of years, but the advances of the past two hundred years would seem like science fiction to our 18th century forebears.

If people of Old Testament times could see evidence of God in the natural world of their day and give glory to Him in their holy writings, how much more in the present day? In Psalm 8 David considered the beauty of the heavens, the moon, and the stars as evidence of God's glory and of His care and love for man. Psalm 121 expresses the inspiration to be gained from "the hills" and proclaims the Lord as "the Maker." Job 28 speaks of refining iron and copper, exploration of "roots of mountains" and "sources of the rivers," and a "path for the thunderstorm." Our 21st century knowledge of astronomy, geology, and meteorology, however, has increased a thousandfold.

We now comprehend the structure of our universe, galaxy, and solar system in intricate detail, as well as the chemical and physical activity in many different types of celestial bodies. We've gained a wealth of knowledge about geological processes such as the mineral recycling afforded by plate tectonics, the possibility of predicting earthquakes, and finding additional fossil fuel resources. We've studied and now understand weather phenomena and climatological statistics, much to the advantage of agriculturalists.

Some feel the proliferation of such knowledge glorifies the ability of man, leaving him with less need for God. A spiritually enlightened view, however, enables us to see more of God's glory in the physical realm through modern discoveries of science.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Changing Science?

Some people do not trust the conclusions of science, particularly when its findings do not agree with what they would like to hear. For example, who wants to hear that her favorite food is an artery clogger laden with calories? Or how about the couch potato who is told he must exercise to improve his health? On a more serious note, it is difficult for many folks to accept the wide ranging scientific evidence for a very old earth and universe when their theological tradition has taught them the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Many have defended the young earth paradigm by claiming science has changed many times in its conclusions about the earth's age, so why should we trust science now?

What is the appropriate response to suspicions about "changing science?" First, we must understand that the possibility of changing and revising conclusions is a strength of science, not a weakness. The best scientists welcome the opportunity to test a new hypothesis in the light of new and better evidence. If "changing science" is used as an excuse for rejecting findings with which we don't agree, we might ask our doubters to..."Please, be consistent!" Would they reject the many improvements in automotive technology in the past thirty years just because the science which produced the improvements has changed? Would they spurn improved fuel efficiency, amazing new entertainment and communications systems, enhanced aerodynamic design, or new safety features just because they are products of "changing science?"

There are many examples of science "getting it right" after many years of "getting it wrong." Centuries ago Copernican cosmology introduced the radical idea that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. Galileo, many years after Copernicus, empirically strengthened the concept with pioneering telescopic observations of Jupiter's moons and phases of the planet Venus. Church leaders, in particular, offered stiff opposition, proclaiming that such a belief was contrary to literal interpretations of scripture. Even today, some of the strongest objections to the findings of science come from religious people. This blog will continue to affirm that correct interpretations of science always harmonize with correctly interpreted scripture.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Who is the Author?

How did the laws of nature come to be? Who authored them? These questions are related to discussions about the "fine-tuning" of the universe, the constancy of physical laws governing the behavior of matter and energy, and the apparent design in nature. These are topics discussed widely by believers and skeptics alike. The laws which govern our cosmos appear to be changeless. They have operated from the first moments of creation until the present moment.

The speed of light, for instance, is finite (299.793 km/s) and changeless as it travels through the medium of space. Stars which formed at many different distances from us, and in many different time frames, could not have come into existence had the laws of physics, such as the constant speed of light, been variable. Because we know both the speed of light and the distances to far away stars, we can calculate their age with a simple formula. This helps us determine the age of the universe.

There are four fundamental forces in nature which not only have precise values, but are also changeless. These are the (1) electromagnetic, (2) gravitational, (3) strong nuclear, and (4) weak nuclear forces. Even slight variations in any of these forces, or a variation in light speed, would make life impossible. There are many other examples of physical constants which must have precise, changeless value, both in the past and present. Even skeptics and adherents of naturalism who deny the existence of the supernatural sometimes express awe at nature's orderliness and coherence. They enjoy the world of nature. However, they do not express any particular surprise at the precision and constancy of nature's physical laws. Worse, they cry "Unreasonable! Irrational! Illogical!" at those who believe effects have causes, that design points to a designer, or that order and beauty do not evolve from chaos. Who, then, has a better grip on reason, rationality, and logic?

The four fundamental forces permit elements and atoms to exist and hold together, and allow the formation of thousands of chemically bonded compounds. Every bit of matter we encounter every day of our lives holds together because of the existence and precise value of the four fundamental forces. Without these forces there would be nothing but a chaotic sea of particles. Perhaps the Apostle Paul was not a sophisticated scientist, but there was powerful insight in Colossians 1:16-17: For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (NIV)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Conversation Starter

Are you looking for a good conversation starter? Try leading off with a discussion of the "second law of thermodynamics! " The "second law" is a fundamental characteristic of our created universe. It has been operating from the beginning, and still operates. Steven Hawking called it a manifestation of the "Arrow of Time," a way of telling the past from the future.

So what is this second law? It states that from the moment of the initial creation event (The Big Bang) the universe has been "running down" like a hand-wound grandfather clock. Some manifestations are the cooling off and the expansion of the universe from an initial condition of near infinite heat and density. Example: If we open an oven door the heat dissipates and becomes less useful as it spreads into the room. On a more practical level, over the passing of time the general condition of physical objects, such as our shiny new car, a cabin in the woods, or even living creatures, tends toward disorder and decay.

This sounds like a scenario which works to our ultimate disadvantage. On the contrary, it may be considered part of the exquisite fine-tuning of the cosmos by the Creator. For instance, the light and heavy elements comprising all living matter could not have formed unless the universe had cooled. The abundant early microbial life which suddenly appeared billions of years ago under harsh early earth conditions only to die massively in uncounted trillions, later formed the many mineral resources currently available. Modern man is the beficiary of this plentiful mineral wealth.

God set natural laws in place at the beginning. All conceivable processes and events operate according to these changeless, ordered natural laws. But God, who established the laws, is free to intervene at any point in the timeline of history. Belivers in naturalism (the idea that "nature is all there is") do not perceive the hand of a creator in any of these events -- not in the Big Bang, not in the fine tuning needed to form our cosmos as it now exists, not in the abrupt initial appearance of life from non-life, and not in the sudden, recent appearance of modern man with his advanced cognitive ability, imagination, craftsmanship, musical and artistic ability, and spiritual qualities. Who but an infinitely powerful Creator could enable these events in a second law of thermodynamics cosmos?