Saturday, 9 July 2011

The five-fold threat to science

Peer reviewed academic science started and evolved in a Judeo-Christian culture in which there was faith in the infinitely multilayered underlying order of God’s creation. In addition there was a belief that truth was sacred and divine. To lie was to sin.

It has not been a smooth ride. There have been plenty of departures from the ideal paradigm– lies have been told, data fudged, honours fiercely fought. But the scholarly peer review procedure has been recognised by all as the ideal and it has taken us a long way, yielding many blessings, including clean drinking water, plentiful food, miraculous medicine, the Internet and a progressively evolving insight into the workings of nature. These gifts can be considered as the end result of 250,000 years of evolution or as blessings from God or both.

Today, it seems, this process is under threat in five ways:

/1/ A lack of faith in the underlying order of nature
Without this all motivation to discover new laws could cease. If Newton (a devout Christian and mystic)  had not believed in an underlying order there would be no laws of motion, no law of gravity, no optics and possibly no calculus. The lack of belief in cosmic order by some scientists probably is the result of the randomness of  quantum events, leading to a dismissal of material reality as essentially meaningless. But as argued in another posting there is often, perhaps always, a meaning behind a random sequence (e.g. the digits of π).

/2/ Post modernism
All ‘truths’ are imposed by our mind and culture and one reality is as good as another.  This very statement sets itself up as true so it contradicts itself. 

/3/ Model dependent realism
Scientific models are constructed for practical purposes only. The one which works best is adopted but is not any closer to the truth than any other. This might allow applied science to keep going but without the almost theological pursuit of truth for its own sake we will be stuck with our present highly incoherent model of reality.  Stephen Hawking, for example, claims that the literal description of creation given in Genesis is equally true to the Big Bang theory. Take your pick: whatever works for you. (This could be regarded as a subset of /2/)

/4/ Young earth creationism
There is no need to explain anything new. Just say God did it. No need to explore or invent new, more powerful explanations of the world. That’s just how it is. Only use science to invent new technology. This overlaps with /3/ above. (Note to young earthers:  although your interpretation of Genesis chapter 1 is  different from mine I share your faith in the Resurrected Christ, which is immeasurably more fundamental than our conclusions about the material world.)

/5/ Declining belief in the sacred nature of truth
There is an increasing tendency to pander to the media, to the bodies which issue grants and to the latest idea of what is cool. The gentleman scientists of the 18th and 19th century were not subject to these pressures which  can cause some scientists (still, thankfully, a minority) to exaggerate or falsify data to prove or disprove some model or hypothesis. These pressures have always been present but without holding truth sacred there is little to counteract them other than the risk of being found out. 

Let me put my cards on the table. I am a Christian and one who values science as a gift from God. These dangers are mainly associated with atheism, humanism, neo-paganism and, of course, young earth creationism; but I have recently discovered Christians who appear to be adopting the view that the material world is of no relevance to their belief in God or Christ and that anything goes in pure science.

Without a thriving search for scientific truth  there will be no jumps forward in our understanding of the created order, no quantum leaps in our technology (since these depend on the former), no rescuing of people from poverty, no solution to the looming environmental problem, no expansion into the rest of the universe and no global convergence towards a common understanding of the world.

See also

Hold on to the truth

Why the future is unpredictable

Bridging gaps

The doctrine of chance

Our precious planet

Is there meaning behind random events?

Author, 2077 AD