The Science of the Gaps

 

book-sand-smallThe tension between religion and science, at a sociological level, does not exist. There are plenty of religious scientists and scientific believers, and they do not walk around all day clutching their foreheads trying to relieve the pressure of intense cognitive dissonance. On the contrary, the obvious point that there cannot be two contradictory truths denotes an agreeable and elegant unity between the two approaches, whether one views them as a tightly intersected Venn diagram or as non-overlapping magisteria that deal with separate but equally-valid truths.

All is not as peaceful as it first appears, however. With the decline of popular religious feeling and the ascendance of popular science, many religious people have come to view the claims of religion – and indeed, everything else – in a scientific light. It is not so much that there is science and there is religion and they are both avenues to the truth(s), but rather that science is all knowledge but religion can exist comfortably as its subset, as the rational belief in the irrational or whatever.

This may sound like a crazy claim to most religious people, but I beg you to consider: In the subconscious of many a religious believer today floats the notion that one day scientific knowledge will advance to the extent that we will no longer “need” G-d to explain anything. Now, this idea can be defended theologically, and often is. Someone is always quick to declare that G-d created brains and science that we may use them. Other will chime in with the more mystical claim that G-d loves us so much he wants to set us free and never see us again, like any good modern parent, and that human history and the enlightenment is humanity’s opportunity to “move out of the house.” Even more open-minded (and my favorite) is the idea that “using” G-d as an explanation for anything in our world is to make of the deity an instrument, a terrible degradation that should embarrass any mature believer! G-d, like true art, can have no purpose!

These arguments may be correct[i]; it doesn’t matter. We are motivated to make them by this slight niggling feeling in the back of our minds that in a few more years “science” (the disembodied god of wisdom from the headlines) will have it all figured out and religious understanding will be relegated to the museums and university classrooms like all good but useless things.

Really, the opposite is true. Nearly unnoticed, science is headed for a nice solid wall while stodgy old religion is taking new and compelling form in the intellectual crucible.

Instead of religion being in danger from the advance of scientific knowledge, science is in imminent danger of losing its grip on the truth with the advance of religious thought.

 

This deity we think of in scientific terms is the much-maligned “G-d of the Gaps,” the power that presides over things science has not figured out yet. This G-d finds expression in the religious parallel of Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from religion.” Just as ancient man believed in magic and spirits controlling the weather because he didn’t have meteorology, so he believed in G-d because he didn’t know about astrophysics or biology or evolutionary psychology. Indeed, it follows logically that as he learns more about any of these things, he will believe in G-d less. And if he still believes in G-d, it will not be that same vigorous one from the old texts who created heaven and earth and performed miracles and wonders, but rather some kind of impotent abstraction.

It is worth pointing out that this God of the Gaps derives from the assumption that G-d is a scientific proposition. That is, we postulate in the first place that G-d is the best explanation for all the things science hasn’t figured out. When science figures them out (as it certainly must and will), G-d’s domain shrinks to the yet further things science hasn’t figured out. And if science eventually closes out on all the important questions, well, G-d is no longer a good explanation for anything important.

It is equally worth pointing out that the assumption is false. As I’ve written before, G-d is simply not, in the first place, a “scientific” principle subject to any kind of falsification through empirical discovery. G-d is not Zeus, a god of thunder made irrelevant once the gap in meteorological knowledge was filled in. On the contrary, the best arguments for G-d’s existence presuppose only the most basic claims that science would agree to as well. They start with premises such as, “This hydrogen atom exists” and the like, and their logic proceeds deductively. Unless science somehow puts forth the claim that no contingent creations exist (or any other of a few equally preposterous and unlikely claims), the logical necessity of a creator is unaffected. Indeed, the logical necessity of a maintainer is equally unaffected; not only did G-d create the universe once upon a time, but due to the nature of instrumental causes he must create it at every moment from nothing. If there is an atom, there is G-d, according to the classical understanding, and learning more about Darwinism or big bang cosmology (despite recent prevarications about the meaning of the word “nothing”) will not change it one bit.

So much for the sad and misleading “God of the Gaps.” But, wait, you may wonder, what if I’m unfamiliar with classical theology and don’t recognize the arguments you’re referencing and basically find these references to scholasticism a bit medieval?

I’m glad you asked. Because we don’t really need to resort to all that at all. In fact, science’s claims to truth are weaker right now all on their own than they have been in perhaps three hundred years.

 

To understand the curious weakness of science at the moment, we must distinguish between the experimental data acquired through the scientific method and the theoretical underpinnings of those facts. But first, a quick disclaimer on what we mean by science’s “weakness.” I do not mean to put down or diminish the significance of the scientific pursuit, nor to deny any specific scientific findings. Instead, what I mean by the weakness of science is the way in which scientific ideas, unverified and unquestioned, punch far above their objective paygrade in the public imagination. In other words, that scientific “truth” should change one iota beliefs accepted as revelation because they both allegedly have equal claims to the truth is simply mistaken. Science does not have a claim to the truth such that any proclamation in its name should be taken seriously. In fact, the most logical approach to many disciplines within science nowadays is brutal skepticism.

First, the facts of science, the actual experimental work behind the “new study finds” we read about in the news or in pop-sci books. These are the rock-solid realities that, through the sieve of the scientific method we all learned about in middle school, banish forever false hypotheses and allow the scientist to build theoretical understanding. Except that the public is becoming more and more aware of what worries over 50% of polled scientists – the replication crisis, the stunningly pervasive inability of scientists to reproduce the effects of published experiments, rendering the broader applications of said experiments largely void. Perhaps part of the problem is that, as any honest statistics professor will tell you, you really can prove almost anything with statistics, and researchers do just that all the time. Or perhaps it’s other sources of error, such as biases, that create conditions for most published research findings to be false. The situation is not aided by the incredible pressure to “publish or perish,” or the general drift of science away from practical (and thus verifiable) concerns, or the massive problems with the peer review system which is supposed to be the scientific guarantee of honesty. In short, when confronted with the “scientific facts” on any particular issue, one must either be prepared to do all the dirty wet work of assessing the research methodology etc. oneself, or one must have a trust for published papers that published papers, at least at the moment, do not deserve.[ii] Why any of these “facts” should pose, without a lot more research, any sort of challenge to the truths of the religious believer, remains a mystery.

Things get even murkier when we make the leap to theoretical science, which provides much of the more ephemeral fodder for the quantum think pieces and string theory rumination. Unlike the social sciences or medicine, the theories of physics largely have solid foundations in demonstrated, reproducible facts. The problem is that once one departs from the strict facts, the theoretical possibilities begin to multiply, and there is no particular reason for any one of them to be true. In fact, Newton’s laws of physics, which were at one point considered the most experimentally-confirmed scientific theories of all time, turned out to be incorrect, invalidated hundreds of years after their publishing by astronomical observations and replaced by Einstein’s theory. There is no reason to think this could not happen again with today’s physics.

It is almost as if science is good at making quantifiable predictions but bad at finding general underlying truths about the universe.

 

The truth is that science’s problems go even deeper, to the extent that in private I have whimsically begun calling it the “science of the gaps.” Nothing written so far justifies this moniker. After all, despite the muddled state of scientific research and its weakness as an assertive force, we can still rely on science to at least in theory pick itself up, dust itself off, and to march forward to a unified theory of everything and knowledge of all of reality, thereby banishing the god of the gaps to the realm of pretty daydreams. In other words, if science has some problems and has not yet figured out all there is to know about life, it is only due to technical problems. In principle, however, science can do all of these things.

Except it can’t.

You see, science is fundamentally flawed, not so much in its chosen areas of interest, but in its failure to acknowledge it has a chosen area of interest. Because at some point in early modernity, the forerunners of what today we’d call science decided that it would be beneficial, in understanding the natural world, to ignore everything that cannot be quantified or mathematically measured. Over time, somehow people excited about all the technological progress etc. came to think that what cannot be quantified or mathematically measured does not exist, which is about as correct as a chef deciding there is no moon because it had never been mentioned in a single great cookbook.

This is not, in and of itself, a terrible flaw – after all, a chef may ignore the moon indefinitely and continue to receive Michelin stars. One might say the same of science – that everything is going swimmingly so far ignoring the unquantifiable, and it will continue so indefinitely.

Unfortunately, this is not true. Because it turns out (as the briefest perusal of science headlines today will demonstrate) that the unquantifiable has much more to do with the natural world than the moon does with cooking. In fact, if human beings are part of the natural world, then theoretically psychology, political science, history, sociology, anthropology, law, economics, literature, art, theology, morality, ethics, and philosophy should all be ultimately explicable by natural science, whether by reduction (e.g. economics is real, but is emergent from brain chemistry) or by elimination (e.g. economics isn’t real; only the laws of physics are real).

It goes without saying that, despite continuous process and the best efforts of scientists, psychology has not even nearly been reduced to neurobiology, and the social sciences have generally been unable to produce solid, easily understood, replicatable theories such as Newton’s or Maxwell’s laws. In fact, even economists (for example) admit in candid moments that at least half the time they are wrong, despite the application of all the latest methods and theories. Let us not begin to start down the road of the scientific experiments in social engineering, which have played their role in the deaths of countless human test-subjects and have left their mark in even non-scientifically organized societies through the enduring theories of eugenics, IQ quotas, and the rest. Questions of morality notwithstanding, the “scientific” approach to human behavior and human societies has yet to produce any sort of success comparable to older societies, outside of some great dystopian novels.

So, because not-easily-quantifiable things such as human nature, the experience of subjectivity, and pure reason are important to the sciences broadly defined, we must enter into the great shell game, the fantastic, audacious lie that perpetuates the science of the gaps. We say that one day, when the methods are better and the computers are fast enough and we better understand the chemistry and the genomes and the evolutionary process, we will understand all of these more difficult things. Indeed, just as once upon a time humanity didn’t understand electricity but today it is safely harnessed the world over, so, too, one day we will scientifically understand the human experience. The difference between an electric circuit and the human mind is one of degree, and the scientists simply need more time.

But this is an intellectual Ponzi scheme, which takes deposits from one place to cover its ever-expanding debts and never pays them back. It works like this: (1) Believers in scientism declare that everything can be explained scientifically. (2) It is pointed out that there are plenty of things that cannot be explained scientifically, including the very commitment to the idea that everything can be explained scientifically. (3) Believers in scientism attribute all scientifically inexplicable phenomena, from near-death experiences to the subjective knowledge of the self, as epiphenomena of the human mind. (4) It is pointed out that science does not understand the human mind. (5) Believers in scientism say that science will understand the mind one day, and that nothing exists outside of the realm of what science will understand!

You cannot hide the dirty laundry that is the unquantifiable under the heading of (mere) mental phenomena and then claim that one day science will understand the mind. In fact, science will never fully understand the human experience, because it consists of things that are not quantifiable and not reducible to material explanations. And the only reason this isn’t blatantly obvious to everyone yet is due to the shell game in which we say that all the things science, by its very nature of being a study of the quantifiable, cannot explain are things that one day it will explain, things in the brain.

I think it’s time to face it: the human mind, society, and spirit has not remained impenetrable to scientific analysis because the techniques are not yet advanced enough or the computers fast enough. They are impenetrable to science by their nature, and science has gained its prestige and perception of omnipotence by mostly ignoring them and focusing its attentions elsewhere, like a good cookbook does.

We do not go searching in even our best cookbooks for the truth, because we realize that cookbooks are excellent for the purposes they’re designed for, but those purposes are relatively practical and limited. Indeed, cookbooks preside over certain gaps in our broader knowledge of universal truths that make them unbelievably useful. Science, too, presides over the gaps left by broader, more fundamental ways of understanding.

 

Even if everything I’m saying is correct, it would still at this point be unfair to compare science to the lowly God of the Gaps. After all, the true power of that pejorative title stems from the development of science. The God of the Gaps is like a shy model with ever fewer scraps of clothing left to work with; the domain of what we need a deity to explain allegedly grows ever smaller with the march of scientific progress. Can the same be said about science? Is its (self-defined) limited purview being encroached upon by the development of other forms of knowledge? Isn’t religion and all that stagnant and confined to old texts that have said the same thing for centuries?

Surprisingly, it’s not. And science itself is partially to blame for it. The enlightenment and the scientific revolution continue to force religion to refine itself. In effect, science has, to the general public and even among many believers, at least partially stolen the crown of religious authority. If a priest and a scientist each make exclusive claims and say, “Believe this because I say so,” the scientist wins today ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But rather than leading to the death of theology, this loss of authority has led to a quiet but steady religious flourishing.

If one must explain how every human has a divine soul, or why suicide is a moral evil, mere declarations of authority will no longer suffice. Instead a serious Rabbi or Pastor now has to actually crack open those dusty books, try his hand at the good old schoolmasters, struggle to understand and apply concepts from a different time and place to the matter at hand. And what these Rabbis, Pastors, and even non-religious philosophers have found to their surprise is that the old books hold up surprisingly well – much better than the assumed materialist metaphysics with which so many scientists are acquainted.

Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine that when the day comes and the scientists finally admit that they have no damn idea how to design a successful society, there might not be a theologian or two waiting in the wings with a book of Proverbs and Nicomachean Ethics, ready to supply advice that was not acquired by scientific method but that has stood some old civilizations and religions in very good stead.

One day, we will not “need” science to explain anything of true significance to the human experience. Its days as the official Best Explanation for the world around us are numbered, as it draws ever-closer and with ever-more embarrassing errors to the limits of its understanding.

Someday soon, science will hit a wall in its understanding, and the public will become aware of its inability to solve the most intractable problems of our nature. At that instant, our minds will be able to spring free from the materialist confines of scientism. In that moment, when all will seem lost to chaos, the new, leaner, modern theologies will be waiting, with answers, without the gaps.


[i] They aren’t, at least not entirely, but that is not my concern here. Suffice it to say that these errors all involve driving G-d from the world in significant ways (after all, as Aristotle would say, what is not an explanation is not a cause) and this isn’t really what most religious people want to do, I’d think.

[ii] That these are the only two choices makes the layman’s attempt to decide political issues purely scientifically laughable at best.

There are 52 comments.

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  1. harrisventures Inactive

    This is a great, thought provoking essay. Thank you for this. Every now and then, it’s good to rise above the fog that is the ephemeral political circus, and consider weightier matters.

    Tzvi Kilov: science is fundamentally flawed, not so much in its chosen areas of interest, but in its failure to acknowledge it has a chosen area of interest. Because at some point in early modernity, the forerunners of what today we’d call science decided that it would be beneficial, in understanding the natural world, to ignore everything that cannot be quantified or mathematically measured.

    In spite of all the technological progress and the great abundance it has wrought, alas, the human heart has not progressed. And the human heart, the spiritual nature of man, which does not lend itself to measurement, is what the Torah and the Bible address.

    22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools… Romans 1:22 (KJV)

    Also:

    1208-gal006007engkjv04000240-000

    • #1
    • October 27, 2016, at 8:35 PM PDT
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  2. Crazy Horse Member

    I’m sorry. How did Einstein replace Newton?

    • #2
    • October 27, 2016, at 9:11 PM PDT
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  3. Addiction Is A Choice Member

    …..Wow!…..This sure makes my recent CGI post seem kind of thin…..(Ain’t no “seem” about it ;) )

    • #3
    • October 27, 2016, at 10:49 PM PDT
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  4. Mike Rapkoch Member

    This is just marvelous both in content and in style.

    • #4
    • October 28, 2016, at 12:03 AM PDT
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  5. Mike Rapkoch Member

    Hope the Eds see this and move it to the main feed. First, because it is well done. Second, because it’s not politics.

    • #5
    • October 28, 2016, at 12:08 AM PDT
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  6. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member

    Mike Rapkoch:Hope the Eds see this and move it to the main feed. First, because it is well done. Second, because it’s not politics.

    I hope more that the Members will see it and read it and hear it speak to them and feel a sense of renewal and upvote it so that others may see it too…

    • #6
    • October 28, 2016, at 2:28 AM PDT
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  7. Scott Wilmot Member

    Tzvi Kilov:Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine that when the day comes and the scientists finally admit that they have no damn idea how to design a successful society, there might not be a theologian or two waiting in the wings with a book of Proverbs and Nicomachean Ethics, ready to supply advice that was not acquired by scientific method but that has stood some old civilizations and religions in very good stead.

    One day, we will not “need” science to explain anything of true significance to the human experience. Its days as the official Best Explanation for the world around us are numbered, as it draws ever-closer and with ever-more embarrassing errors to the limits of its understanding.

    Good stuff Tzvi. If our progressive betters read what you wrote, their heads would explode.

    • #7
    • October 28, 2016, at 4:29 AM PDT
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  8. KC Mulville Inactive

    Well, it’s good to pause and remember that religion, like philosophy, was once the aggregate, sum total of all knowledge … before each sub-group broke out into its own discipline. Physics was once a sub-topic of philosophy (Aristotle certainly wrote it that way). Using God to fill in scientific gaps is (perhaps) how we look at it now, but that’s not how it developed. We’d be looking back at that development from the wrong perspective if we proposed God as the catch-all explanation of science that we don’t understand. For one thing, our modern understanding of science as a purely materialist endeavor – with religion as a purely spiritual endeavor – was an intellectual paradigm that Aristotle never had.

    Secondly, as I’m wont to point out, religion isn’t merely explanation. Religion is a way of life. Your prayer life, sacramental life, ethical life, etc., aren’t merely after-effects of a set of intellectual beliefs. Instead, each facet of life interacts with the other – your intellectual beliefs, for instance, are often “seasoned” by your experience.

    That’s why I heartily agree that “science” (an intellectual shorthand for materialist explanations about the physical world) is on the verge of a firewall, in which further development will depend on transcending its own trove of assumptions. That’s why scientists get excited about quantum mechanics, because they suspect it will not only change the conclusions, but also the way the conclusions are pursued.

    • #8
    • October 28, 2016, at 6:09 AM PDT
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  9. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tzvi Kilov:Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine that when the day comes and the scientists finally admit that they have no damn idea how to design a successful society, there might not be a theologian or two waiting in the wings with a book of Proverbs and Nicomachean Ethics, ready to supply advice that was not acquired by scientific method but that has stood some old civilizations and religions in very good stead.

    One day, we will not “need” science to explain anything of true significance to the human experience.

    But is “how to design a successful society” and “advice that was not acquired by scientific method but that has stood some old civilizations and religions in very good stead” really all there is “to explain anything [thus everything] of true significance to the human experience”?

    I agree there’s no need to replace other forms of wisdom with scientific knowledge, when those other forms of wisdom have proven they can stand humans in very good stead for a very long time (not to mention they have their own ways and their own beauty). Nonetheless, we are physical beings as well, whose memories are stored (and compressed) in a physical way. If, for example, understanding the physical way in which our memory works can help us understand our cognitive biases, including narrative bias, and understanding those biases give us a new appreciation for the error of Job’s friends, and an increased appreciation for the pathways the human mind uses to manufacture idols (in this case the idol of human perception of God and God’s justice), does that not enrich our understanding of human experience at all?

    I say it does.

    Of course, I’m also the founder of Ricochet’s Meat Robots Group and an amateur theology nerd.

    I imagine you could say, “Well, you don’t have to introduce the brain’s meat roboticity into the mix in order to understand the error of Job’s friends – there are other ways of elucidating that error that don’t require scientific literacy,” and that would be true (the error of Jobs’ friends may also be understood through wordless prayer, for example) – I’m not knocking those other ways. Merely wondering why an explanation that does rely on scientific knowledge is considered absolutely “unnecessary” to explaining the real human significance of Job’s friends’ error, when we know that it’s good pedagogy to have multiple true ways to frame the same insight, and that scientific literacy can be one of those ways.

    • #9
    • October 28, 2016, at 6:24 AM PDT
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  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    KC Mulville: Secondly, as I’m wont to point out, religion isn’t merely explanation. Religion is a way of life. Your prayer life, sacramental life, ethical life, etc., aren’t merely after-effects of a set of intellectual beliefs. Instead, each facet of life interacts with the other – your intellectual beliefs, for instance, are often “seasoned” by your experience.

    Indeed. As DB Hart put it, we should not be “satisfied with unjustified faith when its only role is to restore harmony among our beliefs and perceptions”, and “the path that leads through nature and history to his Kingdom does not simply follow the contours of either nature or history, or obey the logic immanent to them, but is opened to us by way of the natural and historical absurdity – or outrage – of the empty tomb.” I added that “Hart may as well have added that this path need not follow the contours of human memory storage, with its storytelling bias,” either. In a sense, stories (scientific or nonscientific) are all we have, and we cannot help but use them to make sense of What Is, surely something God knows when He communicates Himself to us. But they need not be What Is.

    • #10
    • October 28, 2016, at 6:36 AM PDT
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  11. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:I agree there’s no need to replace other forms of wisdom with scientific knowledge, when those other forms of wisdom have proven they can stand humans in very good stead for a very long time (not to mention they have their own ways and their own beauty). Nonetheless, we are physical beings as well, whose memories are stored (and compressed) in a physical way. If, for example, understanding the physical way in which our memory works can help us understand our cognitive biases, including narrative bias, and understanding those biases give us a new appreciation for the error of Job’s friends, and an increased appreciation for the pathways the human mind uses to manufacture idols (in this case the idol of human perception of God and God’s justice), does that not enrich our understanding of human experience at all?

    I say it does.

    This is a good point. I have more to write on the subject. Suffice it to say, I was here concerned with the assumed primacy of science as a truth, over religion, based on its claims to eventually explain everything. Science as a means to further understand the world (which to me is a religious world, if you catch my drift) is a whole other story, and is probably the reason G-d invented science.

    But one more thing — I do believe that when science loses its absolute authority, it will no longer need to be used as much in pedagogy.

    • #11
    • October 28, 2016, at 6:56 AM PDT
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  12. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    KC Mulville: Secondly, as I’m wont to point out, religion isn’t merely explanation. Religion is a way of life. Your prayer life, sacramental life, ethical life, etc., aren’t merely after-effects of a set of intellectual beliefs. Instead, each facet of life interacts with the other – your intellectual beliefs, for instance, are often “seasoned” by your experience.

    Indeed! And the elegance of this holism is itself a scientifically appreciable notion. It reminds me of something I read once (source escapes me atm) about how even if multiverse theory is true (I’m skeptical), the One G-d merely gains in elegance as an explanatory hypothesis, since He is the G-d of all possible worlds, and all actual worlds. Something like that. It’s Occam’s Razor for G-d.

    I’ll have to look up that source and throw it in the sequel :)

    • #12
    • October 28, 2016, at 7:00 AM PDT
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  13. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    JLocked:I’m sorry. How did Einstein replace Newton?

    I’m no physicist, but from my understanding it was proved demonstratively that Newton’s mechanics are not actually, well, true, but good enough at approximating the truth that no one figured it out for many years. I was thinking of this. Perhaps I misunderstood the findings, but I was under the impression that if Mercury doesn’t behave according to Newton but according to Einstein, that means Einstein’s theory replaces Newton’s because Newton’s isn’t true.

    • #13
    • October 28, 2016, at 7:06 AM PDT
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  14. Doctor Robert Member

    Far too many words to state the most fundamental of truths.

    Science and Religion look at different things. There is no conflict between them.

    My Baptist faith tells me why I exist, that God wants me to obey His laws, that God created the universe and all else within it, culminating in Man in His image.

    My doctoral degree and my belief in Science tells me how I have come to exist, what are the physical laws that I cannot avoid obedience (f= ma, for example) and hints at how God created the universe, all that is within it, and Man.

    Science and Religion look at different things. There is no conflict between them.

    • #14
    • October 28, 2016, at 8:07 AM PDT
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  15. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Also not a physicist, but I second others in finding the comment about Newton being “incorrect” to be, itself, in error.

    Newtonian mechanics, so far as I understand the matter, correctly describes the force gravity exerts on celestial bodies if you ignore or are ignorant of relativistic forces; once those forces are accounted for, the predictions are accurate (so far as we know).

    Saying Newton is “incorrect” is like concluding that the physics of sailing are incorrrect because you didn’t arrive at port, when in fact, you just didn’t account for the ocean’s current.

    • #15
    • October 28, 2016, at 8:16 AM PDT
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  16. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:Also not a physicist, but I second others in finding the comment about Newton being “incorrect” to be, itself, in error.

    Newtonian mechanics, so far as I understand the matter, correctly describes the force gravity exerts on celestial bodies if you ignore or are ignorant of relativistic forces; once those forces are accounted for, the predictions are accurate (so far as we know).

    Saying Newton is “incorrect” is like concluding that the physics of sailing are incorrrect because you didn’t arrive at port, when in fact, you just didn’t account for the ocean’s current.

    The word incorrect may be too strong then, but the point still remains that the purview of the given scientific theory as some sort of underlying truth of the universe is greatly diminished by the new theory. If there are other factors that were not discovered for hundreds of years, factors that reflect massive differences in the way the universe actually works, then the theoretical power of each theory is, if not controverted, at least significantly weakened. The fact remains that the Newtonian understanding of forces etc. was incorrect, even if the math is usually right. The mechanistic determinism underlying the Newtonian understanding is challenged by Quantum Mechanics as well, if I understand correctly.

    • #16
    • October 28, 2016, at 8:28 AM PDT
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  17. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    Doctor Robert:Far too many words to state the most fundamental of truths.

    Science and Religion look at different things. There is no conflict between them.

    My Baptist faith tells me why I exist, that God wants me to obey His laws, that God created the universe and all else within it, culminating in Man in His image.

    My doctoral degree and my belief in Science tells me how I have come to exist, what are the physical laws that I cannot avoid obedience (f= ma, for example) and hints at how God created the universe, all that is within it, and Man.

    Science and Religion look at different things. There is no conflict between them.

    My religion’s view of what religion looks at is a lot more extensive than your religion’s.

    • #17
    • October 28, 2016, at 8:30 AM PDT
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  18. Western Chauvinist Member

    This is just excellent work. Highly readable. Thank you, @tzvikilov.

    Mr. C, who is a working scientist (nuclear effects testing engineer) and an agnostic, is a good scientist because he has a solid grasp on its limitations, and sees much of today’s materialist Best Explanation for what it is — a misuse of science. While science has been very helpful in the development of technology, it answers none of the big questions of life.

    As an aside, my daughter’s Hillsdale philosophy professor’s area of research is “Intellectual Humility.” I just love the whole (paradoxical) idea of it and, with little knowledge of the details, believe Science will be one of its primary beneficiaries. ;-)

    • #18
    • October 28, 2016, at 9:09 AM PDT
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  19. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Tzvi Kilov: The word incorrect may be too strong then, but the point still remains that the purview of the given scientific theory as some sort of underlying truth of the universe is greatly diminished by the new theory.

    This is still an overstatement. Newtonian mechanics was assumed to be the only force acting on the planets, and this assumption was mistaken. It is, however, still an accurate description of the forces Newton was aware of.

    Switching analogies, imagine I was balancing my checkbook and found that I was up a few pennies, despite having scrupulously accounted for my expenses and paycheck. The problem is not that accounting is “incorrect,” but (for example) that I failed to account for interest.

    Tzvi Kilov: The fact remains that the Newtonian understanding of forces etc. was incorrect, even if the math is usually right.

    Not incorrect; incomplete.

    • #19
    • October 28, 2016, at 9:20 AM PDT
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  20. Profile Photo Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Not incorrect; incomplete.

    Incomplete is incorrect when the missing piece is important to your application.

    It works for the point of the OP.

    It’s an interesting post. I get the impression that you expect those who think science can explain everything without God will realize there are limits to their potential knowledge. I suspect they will always think the answer is just around the corner.

    • #20
    • October 28, 2016, at 9:33 AM PDT
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  21. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Tzvi Kilov: The fact remains that the Newtonian understanding of forces etc. was incorrect, even if the math is usually right.

    Not incorrect; incomplete.

    I also would gravitate (ha!) more toward incomplete than incorrect. And not because “the math is usually right”, but because Newton’s laws still appear in relativistic and quantum mechanics, with the modification that F = ma is replaced by the time derivative of momentum

    In quantum mechanics, concepts such as force, momentum, and position are defined by linear operators that operate on the quantum state; at speeds that are much lower than the speed of light, Newton’s laws are just as exact for these operators as they are for classical objects. At speeds comparable to the speed of light, the second law holds in the original form F = dp/dt, where F and p are four-vectors.

    Newton himself thought of force as the time derivative of momentum ( F = p’ ):

    Newton’s original Latin reads:

    Lex II: Mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressae, et fieri secundum lineam rectam qua vis illa imprimitur.

    …This may be expressed by the formula F = p’, where p’ is the time derivative of the momentum p. This equation can be seen clearly in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, in a glass case in which Newton’s manuscript is open to the relevant page.

    Even in intro classical mechanics, freshman physics majors get used to thinking of F = p’. The equation F = ma is not the whole story, but the useful intuition is there.

    But getting out of the Phys 101 weeds, I think there may be another issue at work here. Newton’s scientific discoveries and Newtonian mechanics are different from the popular perception of what Newtonian mechanics means. Newton was very religious (if slightly heretical), and an alchemist – not usually traits of those who see a boring clockwork universe where everything is neatly predetermined and “God has nothing left to do”. And there’s nothing about proficiency in thinking through Newtonian mechanics that requires God to retreat to the gaps, either. Nonetheless, it is true that popular perception tends to hear of scientific laws and ascribe meaning to them that they do not in fact possess. So a physically determined system becomes metaphysically deterministic, physical relativity becomes metaphysical relativity, stochastic modeling is interpreted as ascribing meaninglessness, and so forth. Not because science requires these mutations in meaning, but perhaps because the popular imagination does.

    Heck, even when it comes to economics, it’s common for the popular imagination to interpret prices not as informative signals, but as numbers that should confer moral value, and then to disparage economists for morally undervaluing things with prices!

    • #21
    • October 28, 2016, at 9:54 AM PDT
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  22. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    Excellent points, @midge! It is beneficial to separate the understanding of the giants from the popular forms of their ideas, and the midgets responsible for those popularizations.

    • #22
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:06 AM PDT
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  23. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tzvi Kilov:Excellent points, @midge! It is beneficial to separate the understanding of the giants from the popular forms of their ideas, and the midgets responsible for those popularizations.

    Midgets? I resemble that remark!

    • #23
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:07 AM PDT
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  24. Kwhopper Inactive

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:
    Tom Meyer, Ed.

    Tzvi Kilov: The word incorrect may be too strong then, but the point still remains that the purview of the given scientific theory as some sort of underlying truth of the universe is greatly diminished by the new theory.

    This is still an overstatement. Newtonian mechanics was assumed to be the only force acting on the planets, and this assumption was mistaken. It is, however, still an accurate description of the forces Newton was aware of.

    Switching analogies, imagine I was balancing my checkbook and found that I was up a few pennies, despite having scrupulously accounted for my expenses and paycheck. The problem is not that accounting is “incorrect,” but (for example) that I failed to account for interest.

    Tzvi Kilov: The fact remains that the Newtonian understanding of forces etc. was incorrect, even if the math is usually right.

    Not incorrect; incomplete.

    You’re splitting grammatical hairs a bit, and the accounting analogy illustrates the point. A Balancing-Your-Checkbook theory that can’t predict the ‘interest’ is flawed. Newton was incorrect because what he proposed not only didn’t describe empirical observation, it couldn’t make accurate predictions about other things – finite speed of light, for example. I’m not belittling here, but people who thought the world was flat were ‘correct’ based on what they could observe at the time. We would still call that thinking wrong, not incomplete.

    Newton made a good approximation of reality but it wasn’t quite there. Einstein’s real contribution was taking the data observed and new ideas from all the time after Newton and ‘fixing’ Newton’s theory, which was based on less data. Einstein’s theory is better – but even his will probably be bested by a better approximation. I think that is what the post author kind of leads to; science might never be able to describe all of reality.

    • #24
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:08 AM PDT
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  25. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Tzvi Kilov:Excellent points, @midge! It is beneficial to separate the understanding of the giants from the popular forms of their ideas, and the midgets responsible for those popularizations.

    Midgets? I resemble that remark!

    Awkward.

    • #25
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:09 AM PDT
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  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tzvi Kilov:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Tzvi Kilov:Excellent points, @midge! It is beneficial to separate the understanding of the giants from the popular forms of their ideas, and the midgets responsible for those popularizations.

    Midgets? I resemble that remark!

    Awkward.

    Oh, I thought it was incredibly funny!

    • #26
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:11 AM PDT
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  27. Caryn Member

    I highly recommend a book on this topic: “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning,” by Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth and also an Oxford/King’s College/Cambridge Philosophy PhD. It’s a book I keep putting down because I don’t want to finish it. It’s that enjoyable a read.

    One personal contribution. I grew up interested in science, in an secular Jewish home. In college as a, predictably, science (chemistry, primary; biology, secondary) major, I had a class in physical anthropology in, IIRC, my freshman year. There I began to lose my “faith” in science when we were presented with whole “civilizations” of pre-historic societies based on a skull fragment or broken rock described as a tool. In my text book, there often appeared extrapolated skulls with a small section shaded in that represented what was actually found. And I had thought science was based on knowledge! Sure looked like myth to me.

    I stayed in science, as it is still a practical discipline, but later added Philosophy as a second major and went on to the St. John’s College great books program for a MA and the pure pleasure of immersion in the Western canon, where I became religious. The intellectual, moral, and ethical rigor and coherence in what’s called “Orthodox” Judaism was undeniable.

    So, I work in science in an area where much of what I do is reported descriptively. We make no faith claims and, likewise, have never had to retract a conclusion. At the same time, I know how easily “scientific” work can be falsified, how statistics can be used to “prove” nearly anything, and how peer review can be good but is impossible without trusting the integrity of the original writer since review only depends on whether the results are plausible to the experienced scientist with knowledge in the field in question. That’s all it can do, as peer review is done gratis, with no time or funding to do reproducibility studies. That is left to further studies and where the errors or even malfeasance are uncovered. One hopes…

    Like Rabbi Sacks, Tzvi, Maimonides, and others more and less illustrious than myself, I see no contradiction between (most) religion and science. On the contrary, as do those I mention (is that safe to say, Tzvi?), they are complementary. Science describes the what of God’s creations and even sometimes the how. Religion, provides the why, which science can never provide.

    May I ask a favor, Tzvi? In future, would you start discussions like this any day but erev Shabbat??? I’d like very much to participate, but have a meal to prepare. One of my frustrations with Ricochet: too many good, high quality discussions started on Fridays! (said with tongue firmly in cheek, though it is true!)

    • #27
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:12 AM PDT
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  28. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Caryn: May I ask a favor, Tzvi? In future, would you start discussions like this any day but erev Shabbat???

    He started it yesterday, but it got upvoted today.

    • #28
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:15 AM PDT
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  29. Caryn Member

    NB: the Newton back and forth and grammatical hair-splitting are a distraction and do not contribute to the topic of the OP.

    Also, quotes taken from…wherever (Wikipedia?) should be attributed.

    Now, back to the kitchen with me.

    • #29
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:22 AM PDT
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  30. Tzvi Kilov Inactive
    Tzvi Kilov Post author

    Caryn:I highly recommend a book on this topic: “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning,” by Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth and also an Oxford/King’s College/Cambridge Philosophy PhD. It’s a book I keep putting down because I don’t want to finish it. It’s that enjoyable a read.

    I keep meaning to read Rabbi Sacks’ books (I love his various essays I’ve encountered online) but they are always just too expensive. I hope to find a good sale or a used book version sometime soon!

    • #30
    • October 28, 2016, at 10:23 AM PDT
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