History and Method
Alvin Plantinga (Oxford University Press: Dec 9, 2011), 376 pages.
This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates — the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord. Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist — evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion — as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological "fine-tuning" in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way — as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise. ~ Book Description
On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), cited in Western Civilization: A Brief History, Jackson S. Spielvogel (Cengage Learning: 2010; original 1543), p. 344.
For a long time, then, I reflected on this confusion in the astronomical traditions concerning the derivation of the motions of the universe's spheres. I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world. For this reason I undertook the task of rereading the works of all the philosophers which I could obtain to learn whether anyone had ever proposed other motions of the universe's spheres than those expounded by the teachers of astronomy in the schools. And in fact first I found in Cicero that Hicetas supposed the earth to move. Later I also discovered in Plutarch that certain others were of this opinion. I have decided to set his words down here, so that they may be available to everyone: "Some think that the eart remains at rest. But Philolaus the Pythagorean believes that, like the sun and moon, it revolves around the fire in an oblique circle. Heraclides of Pontus and Exphantus the Pythagorean make the earth move, not in a progressive motion, but like a wheel in a rotation from the west to east about its own center."
The Realm of the Nebulae (Yale University Press: 1936), pp. 6, 202.
Research men attempt to satisfy their curiosity, and are accustomed to use any reasonable means that may assist them toward the receding goal. One of the few universal characteristics is a healthy skepticism toward unverified speculations. These are regarded as topics for conversation until tests can be devised. Only then do they attain the dignity of subjects for investigation. ... With increasing distance our knowledge fades and fades rapidly. Eventually we reach the dim boundary, the utmost limits of our telescope. There we measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurements for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue. Not until the empirical resources are exhausted need we pass on to the dreamy realms of speculation.
Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, eds. (Intercollegiate Studies Institute: February 15, 2011), 900 pages.
The intellectual and cultural battles now raging over theism and atheism, conservatism and secular progressivism, dualism and monism, realism and antirealism, and transcendent reality versus material reality extend even into the scientific disciplines. This stunning new volume captures this titanic clash of worldviews among those who have thought most deeply about the nature of science and of the universe itself. Unmatched in its breadth and scope, The Nature of Nature brings together some of the most influential scientists, scholars, and public intellectuals — including three Nobel laureates — across a wide spectrum of disciplines and schools of thought. Here they grapple with a perennial question that has been made all the more pressing by recent advances in the natural sciences:Is the fundamental explanatory principle of the universe, life, and self-conscious awareness to be found in inanimate matter or immaterial mind? The answers found in this book have profound implications for what it means to do science, what it means to be human, and what the future holds for all of us. ~ Book Description
Clipped by Nathan Jacobson
With all the hand-wringing about whether Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design changes anything — whether "philosophy is dead" and whether M-theory promises to explain the appearance of our universe in strictly physical terms — Sir Roger Penrose, because of his stature and relationship to Hawking, is one of the most interesting commentators, and he is none too impressed. On the September 25th broadcast of Unbelievable?, Alister McGrath is carrying on in his exceedingly unctuous way, describing M-theory as "slightly tentative", merely "a staging post along the long road of science..." With wonderful British politeness, Penrose interrupts: "I think it's actually stronger than that. What is referred to as M-theory isn't even a theory. It's a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations. ... I think the book is a bit misleading in that respect. It gives you the impression that here is this new theory which is going to explain everything. It's nothing of the sort. ... I think the book suffers rather more strongly than many. It's not an uncommon thing in popular descriptions of science to latch on to some idea, particularly things to do with string theory, which have absolutely no support from observation. They're just nice ideas that people have tried to explore." On the whole, Penrose is less sanguine about the prospects for a theory of everything in the forseeable future. And so far, a number of Hawking's colleagues seem to agree that The Grand Design is much ado about nothing, even apart from its philosophical infelicities. In his review at The Financial Times, Penrose shares a further concern about the subjectivist turn in Hawking's thinking, illustrated by a, shall we say, atypical conversation in which Hawking proposed that black holes and "white holes" are synonomous. The story underscores the extent to which a layperson like myself is at the mercy of their expertise. I am far from competent to evaluate the merits of such esoteric theoretical physics, to do the math and check the sums. And so, it is incumbent upon the specialists to be forthright about the speculative degree of a given theory. In this case, it looks likely that even with the endorsement of the esteemed Hawking, M-theory, in its current state, is unlikely to put to rest either the teleological argument (in terms of fine-tuning) or the cosmological argument (in its Kalām formulation).
Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, trans. Albert C. Outler (circa 420 C.E.), chap. 3, sec. 9.
When it is asked what we ought to believe in matters of religion, the answer is not to be sought in the exploration of the nature of things, after the manner of those whom the Greeks called "physicists". Nor should we be dismayed if Christians are ignorant about the properties and the numbers of the basic elements of nature, or about the motion, order, and deviations of the stars, the map of the heavens, the kinds and nature of animals, plants, stones, springs, rivers, and mountains; about the divisions of space and time, about the signs of impending storms, and the myriad other things which these "physicists" have come to understand, or think they have. For even these men, gifted with such superior insight, with their ardor in study and their abundant leisure, exploring some of these matters by human conjecture and others through historical inquiry, have not yet learned everything there is to know. For the Christian it is enough to believe that the cause of all created things, whether in heaven or on earth, whether visible or invisible, is nothing other than the goodness of the Creator, who is the one and the true God.
The Literal Meaning of Genesis 1.19.39, trans. John Hammond Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, ed. Johannes Quasten et al., vols. 41-42 (Newman Press: 1982), 41:42-43.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds as certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
Natural Theology, "Lecture One", Gifford Lectures 1891-1893.
In a similar way we may conceive that progress may be made in natural theology in either of two ways: by deducing consequences from what we know or observe, or by assuming for trial the truth of a statement made on whatever authority it may be, and then examining whether the supposition of its truth so falls in with such knowledge as we possess, or such phenomena as we observe, as to lead us to a conviction that the statement does indeed express the truth. It may be that the statement comes from a source which professes to be a revelation made from God to man. But such an employment of it as I have just described is strictly analogous to our procedure in the study of physical science, and does not therefore seem to be precluded by the terms of the foundation of this lectureship.
"Naturalism; Or, Living within One's Means" in Confessions of a Confirmed Extensionalist (Harvard University Press: 2008), p. 462.
In science itself I certainly want to include the farthest flights of physics and cosmology, as well as experimental psychology, history, and the social sciences. Also, mathematics, insofar at least as it is applied, for it is indispensable to natural science. What then am I excluding as "some prior philosophy," and why? Descartes' dualism between mind and body is called metaphysics, but it could as well be reckoned as science, however false. He even had a causal theory of the interaction of mind and body through the pineal gland. If I saw indirect explanatory benefit in positing sensibilia, possibilia, spirits, a Creator, I would joyfully accord them scientific status too, on a par with such avowedly scientific positions as quarks and black holes. What then have I banned under the name of prior philosophy? ¶ Demarcation is not my purpose. My point in the characterization of naturalism ... is just that the most we can reasonably seek in support of an inventory and description of reality is testability of it observable consequences in the time-honored hypothetico-deductive way — whereof more anon. Naturalism need not cast aspersion on irresponsible metaphysics, however deserved, much less on soft sciences or on the speculative reaches of the hard ones, except insofar as a firmer basis is claimed for them than the experimental method itself.
Theism and Explanation (Routledge : June 2009), p. 146.
So yes, my arguments might give us reason to prefer natural explanations when these are available, and to seek natural explanations when they are not. It follows that a proposed theistic explanation should be, at best, an explanation of last resort. One might argue that this view — that we should abandon the search for natural explanations only in extremis — represents a kind of "presumption of naturalism." And so it does. ¶ My own view is that the naturalistic research tradition of the sciences has been stunningly successful and must rank as one of the greatest of human achievements. But I think it is poorly served by attempts to define science in such a way as to exclude the supernatural. The debate over intelligent design is instructive in this regard. One might win a legal victory by insisting that this proposed theistic explanation is not what we customarily call "science." And this is true, for contingent historical reasons. But it would be much more effective to show that this particular proposed theistic explanation, with its deliberately vague appeal to an unspecified "designer," is practically vacuous. it lacks the first and most important virtue of any proposed explanation, namely that of testability. It follows that this particular proposed theistic explanation should be rejected. ¶ Could the theist produce a better one? I doubt it, but then it would be most regrettable if we were to forbid him to try. Nothing could be more antithetical to the spirit of free enquiry than this kind of censorship. If proposed theistic explanations are to be defeated, as they have been so often in the past, it will be by way of the free contest of ideas.
Massimo Pigliucci (University of Chicago Press: May 2010), 332 pages.
Creationists who dismiss Darwin's theory of evolution. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Climate change deniers who dismiss the warming planet as a hoax. These are just some of the groups that, despite robust scientific evidence, embrace pseudoscientific beliefs and practices. Why do they believe bunk? And how does their ignorance threaten us all? Noted skeptic Massimo Pigliucci sets out to separate the fact from the fantasy in this entertaining exploration of the nature of science, the borderlands of fringe science, and– borrowing a famous phrase from philosopher Jeremy Bentham–the nonsense on stilts. Covering a range of controversial topics, Pigliucci cuts through the ambiguity surrounding science to look more closely at how science is conducted, how it is disseminated, how it is interpreted, and what it means to our society. The result is in many ways a "taxonomy of bunk" that explores the intersection of science and culture at large. ~ Product Description
James Hannam (Icon Books Ltd: May 2010), 448 pages.
The adjective 'medieval' is now a synonym for superstition and ignorance. Yet without the work of medieval scholars there could have been no Galileo, no Newton and no Scientific Revolution. In "God's Philosophers", James Hannam traces the neglected roots of modern science in the medieval world. He debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth was flat, nor did Columbus 'prove' that it is a sphere. Contrary to common belief, the Inquisition burnt nobody for their science, nor was Copernicus afraid of persecution. No Pope tried to ban human dissection or the number zero. On the contrary, as Hannam reveals, the Middle Ages gave rise to staggering achievements in both science and technology: for instance, spectacles and the mechanical clock were both invented in thirteenth-century Europe. Ideas from the Far East, like printing, gunpowder and the compass, were taken further by Europeans than the Chinese had imagined possible. The compass helped Columbus to discover the New World in 1492 while printing allowed an incredible 20 million books to be produced in the first 50 years after Gutenberg published his Bible in 1455. And Hannam argues that scientific progress was often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity. Charting an epic journey through six centuries of history, God's Philosophers brings back to light the discoveries of neglected geniuses like John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Thomas Bradwardine, as well as putting into context the contributions of more familiar figures like Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and St Thomas Aquinas. Besides being a thrilling history of a period of surprising invention and innovation, God's Philosophers reveals the debt modern science and technology owe to the supposedly 'dark' ages of medieval Europe. ~ Product Description
A Clarification in Response to Luke Muehlhauser's "Who Designed the Designer?"
Luke, the wunderkind over at Common Sense Atheism, continues to be a tremendously salutary voice in the online conversation about God. Recently, Luke set out to kill a sacred cow, "one of atheism's most popular and resilient retorts", namely: "Who designed the designer?". This, he argues, simply is not a defeater to theistic arguments. I should add, what he offers with one hand, he takes with the other. "The problem with offering 'God did it' as an explanation is that such an explanation has low plausibility, is not testable, has poor consistency with background knowledge, comes from a tradition (supernaturalism) with extreme explanatory failure, lacks simplicity, offers no predictive novelty, and has poor explanatory scope." But returning to the more common objection, Luke points out 1) that we accept unexplained explanations in science, and 2) that if every explanation must be explained to count as an explanation, we end in an infinite regress and nothing is ever explained. It is the nature of the case that some explanations must be ultimate explanations. Both of Luke's points are well taken, and echo the responses offered by William Lane Craig and other theists to this common rejoinder. However, throughout, Luke characterizes the supposed conclusions to the natural theologian's premises as simply: "God did it". Luke undoubtedly knows that this is an oversimplification of such arguments when they are carefully articulated, that much like postulates in physics, their conclusions are of the form: some entity x exists with property p. We'll give it the name y. I do not mean to nitpick, and I understand the use of shorthand, but this distinction is critical in evaluating the appropriateness of a given explanation, the very subject matter of the post. My attempt at a constructive response follows.
The Evolution of the Soul (Clarendon Press: 1986), p. 191.
There is a crucial difference between these two cases. All other integrations into a super-science, of sciences dealing with entities and properties apparently qualitatively very distinct, was achieved by saying that really some of the entities and properties were not as they appeared to be; by making a distinction between the underlying (not immediately observable) entities and properties and the phenomenal properties to which they give rise. Thermodynamics was conceived with the laws of temperature exchange; and temperature was supposed to be a property inherent in an object. The felt hotness of a hot body is indeed qualitatively distinct from particle velocities and collisions. The reduction was achieved by distinguishing between the underlying cause of the hotness (the motion of the molecules) and the sensations which the motion of molecules cause in observers. The former falls naturally within the scope of statistical mechanics — for molecules are particles; the entities and properties are not now of distinct kinds. But this reduction has been achieved at the price of separating off the phenomenal from its causes, and only explaining the latter.
Essays on the Powers of the Human Mind (1788), Chapter III.
There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.
The Existence of God, 2nd Edition (Clarendon Press: 2004), p. 134.
From time to time various writers have told us that we cannot reach any conclusions about the origin or development of the universe, since it is (whether by logic or just in fact) a unique object, the only one of its kind, and rational inquiry can only reach the conclusions about objects which belong to kinds, e.g. it can reach a conclusion about what will happen to this bit of iron, because there are other bits of iron, the behaviour of which can be studied. This objection of course has the surprising, and to most of these writers unwelcome, consequence, that physical cosmology cannot reach justified conclusions about such matters as the size, age, rate of expansion, and density of the universe as a whole (because it is a unique object); and also that physical anthropology cannot reach conclusions about the origin and development of the human race (because, as far as our knowledge goes, it is the only one of its kind). The implausibility of these consequences leads us to doubt the original objection, which is indeed misguided.
The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (Fortress Press: 2005), pp. xv-xvi.
What kind of theory is a theory about the structure of the world? If by "the world" one wants to mean "everything", there is no such theory. Certainly, science has no such theory, nor could it have. "Everything" is not the name of one big thing or topic, and therefore, there can be no theory concerning a thing or topic of this kind. To speak of a thing is to acknowledge the existence of many things, since one can always be asked which thing one is referring to. Science is concerned with specific states of affairs, no matter how wide the scope of its questions may be. Whatever explanations it offers, further questions can be asked about them. It makes no sense to speak of a last answer in science, one that does not admit of any further questions. Science is not concerned with "the structure of the world", and there are no scientific investigations which have this as their subject.
"The Project of Natural Theology" in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell: 2009), p. 12.
In contemporary particle physics, objects without mass are posited with primitive charges or spins, which are presumed to be the basic foundations for explaining more complex events. Positing a basic power, terrestrial or divine, is not, ipso facto, explanatorily empty. ... In the sciences, we may well claim that with respect to any explanation, further questions can be asked of it, but this is not the same thing as claiming that science does not or cannot posit basic powers and accounts that are not themselves explained by further powers or scientific accounts. If the sciences can allow that subatomic particles have basic powers, it is hard to see how we can rule out that intentional agents have basic powers.
"The Use and Abuse of Philosophy of Science" in Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith: The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 46, no. 1.
Philosophers of science have generally lost patience with attempts to discredit theories as "unscientific" by using philosophical or methodological litmus tests. Such so-called "demarcation criteria" — criteria that purport to distinguish true science from pseudo-science, metaphysics and religion — have inevitably fallen prey to death by a thousand counter examples. Well-established scientific theories often lack some of the allegedly necessary features of true science (e.g., falsifiability, observability, repeatability, use of law-like explanation, etc.), while many disreputable or "crank" ideas have often manifested some of these same features. ... As the philosopher of science Larry Laudan has shown, such contradictions have plagued the demarcation enterprise from its inception. As a result, most contemporary philosophers of science regard the question 'what distinguishes science from non-science' as both intractable and uninteresting. Instead, philosophers of science have increasingly realized that the real issue is not whether a theory is scientific, but whether a theory is true, or warranted by the evidence.