Monday, January 20, 2014

Science is Not My Problem, Dr. Tyson, but You Might Be*

When a scientist in the United States posits that religion is just wrong – always has been, always will be – they’re usually referring to Christians of the fundamental persuasion in our time and place.  They’re usually referring to literal interpretations of texts such as the creation narratives of Genesis that insist on overlaying these texts of faith upon current scientific understandings.

Physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson is no exception.**

And fair enough: the conservative voice insisting upon literalism is the most prominent voice one not in church on Sundays is likely to hear.

The problem is that this voice is not representative of the full panoply of Christian voices in this point in time, let alone the history of Christianity, or of the religions of the world.

Moreover, and I say this with a great deal of humility, having never succeeded in high school science classes: in holding that science and religion are irreconcilable, Tyson’s definition of science may be too narrow.

If memory serves, some in science refer to fields of study outside the material world as ‘soft sciences’ (as opposed to the ‘hard sciences’ of physics, chemistry and biology, for example).

But in seeking intersections between faith or religion and science, what of the social sciences?  What of their conclusions that we humans are better in quantifiable ways when we give to, think about, take into account, the other?

What of the science of philosophy?  And its sub-set, logic?

To hold that there is or can be nothing outside the universe smacks to me of pride, but more, of a broken logic: if there is an inside, is there not logically, an outside?  Or what of the logic proposition that we cannot know what we cannot know?

On a practical level, the laws of the hard sciences aren’t (necessarily) logical, that is, they’re not ‘discovered’ through inductive and deductive reasoning.  They’re often discovered not from reasoning at all, but from trial and error (experimentation).  In fact, the greatest discoveries seem to have come from what are called leaps of logic (which aren’t logic at all – that’s why they’re leaps).

And that’s probably my biggest argument with the practitioners of the hard sciences in our time when they seek to use their discipline (science) to invalidate mine (religion): they don’t actually use their own discipline to do it.  They don’t use astro-physics to disprove God.  What they use is what they call ‘reason’ by which they mean logic.

Hypothesis: scientists are poor logicians.

The problem in any debate is that the debate must begin with some givens, some things that are taken as true, or given, between the parties to the debate.  That’s much harder than you might think.  And it’s the problem here: this is not a debate between religion (of the conservative persuasion) and science, because neither side has agreed to any set of givens, each rejecting all the givens of the other.  That process is not the discourse of debate: it’s the process of competing monologues.  There is no engagement, no clash of ideas, no meeting of minds even on the givens.

That’s a problem in any discussion; it’s a fatal flaw in the discourse that is debate.

My own observation is this: when it comes to anything in the body human, and here, when it comes to science and religion (as propounded by the scientists in question), the whole Genesis discussion is a straw man.***

Why do I say that?  Do not ‘creationists’ (whatever that may mean) argue from Genesis?

Yes they do.  But they are beside the point.  Here’s why: your opponent does not frame the debate any more than you do.  The debate (that is the argument/discussion/reasoning our way through an issue) is framed before you come to the table by some consensus of the issue to be debated.

No consensus of the issue?  No debate.  Argument, perhaps.  Diatribes, often.  But no debate.

Here’s an example of the straw man non-debate exercise by Dr. Tyson – a man with a wonderful, incredible mind and body of knowledge who apparently spent no time on a college debate team:

TYSON “Figurative interpretations” came “after” science.

Here, Tyson seems to mean that Christians like me who understand the Genesis narratives of creation to be figurative or better, explanatory of the human experience of God (as opposed to explanatory of the hard-science processes of how we came into being), are some sort of post facto apologists for what was originally intended by the author(s) of Genesis.

If that was his intention – to dismiss even ‘liberal’ Christian understandings of Genesis as some sort of wishful thinking with this after-the-fact reinterpretation, there’s a problem: it’s not true.  Not even a little bit.

In debate, as in the hard sciences, facts matter.  And Dr. Tyson’s suppositions are just that.  And they’re wrong; a quick trip to that (not-so) obscure source Wikipedia proves it:
Some Jews and Christians have long considered the creation account of Genesis as an allegory instead of as historical description, much earlier than the development of modern science. Two notable examples are Augustine of Hippo (4th century) who, on theological grounds, argued that everything in the universe was created by God in the same instant, and not in six days as a plain account of Genesis would require; and the 1st century Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, who wrote that it would be a mistake to think that creation happened in six days or in any determinate amount of time. [emphasis mine]   Wikipedia
The allegorical treatment of ancient biblical texts is not a modern phenomena: it even happens in the New Testament, as in Galatians 4.21-31, wherein Paul expressly treats the children of Hagar and Sarah allegorically.

3rd century Origen of Alexandria treated texts allegorically, noting three levels or layers of meaning, not all of which are present in every text, because, quite simply, “ sometimes the lessons could only be taught through stories that, taken literally, would "seem incapable of containing truth.” De Principiis IV.15

Origen specifically speaks of the creation account as allegorical rather than literal:
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.  De Principiis IV.16

Medieval Jewish scholars, such as Maimonides, Zohar, Nahmanides, and Gersonides argued for an allegorical or symbolic understanding of the Genesis creation narratives and some for the insistence that biblical understandings must conform to scientific knowledge (that is, interpreters must not interpret the sacred writings in a way that contradicts current knowledge of the way things work).

The problem isn’t that Tyson doesn’t know his science – it’s that he doesn’t know religion.

I am not a Christian apologist (defender of the faith).  I believe a faith worth having requires no defense.  It simply is – kind of like gravity.

But I am right weary of scientists (who should know better – they’re pretty bright folk, after all) of the atheist persuasion telling me what the holy texts of my faith do and do not say or do and do not mean.  I am weary of it because they speak from the very thing they eschew in people of faith: ignorance.

So I’ll make a pact: I won’t argue science if you stop arguing religion.  Neither of us are really up to the job, now are we?

But because our disciplines do differ in substantial and meaningful ways, I can accord you a freedom you can not and should not cede to me: I’ll grant you the freedom to have your own understanding of God/no-God and live it accordingly.

Just stop telling me why I’m wrong for the decision I made.

Really, trust me – you don’t know anything about it.

*The title is provocative.  I wrestled with a title and am not very satisfied with this one.  How to convey in ten words or less the issue I take with Dr. Tyson’s dismissal of religion based on false predicates?  The recurring problem of bright (thus far men) of science who eschew religious belief based at least in part (if we take what they say as representative) on their ignorance of religious teachings?  To challenge the best and brightest of the other side of the question to give me the same courtesy they demand for themselves: intellectual integrity?  Believe or do not believe.  But being a proselytizer brings with it a concomitant duty to fairly represent both sides about which one speaks.  I find that largely absent in the discourse of well-known scientists and others of the atheist persuasion when it comes to the teachings of my faith and the exercise of logic (which is not a discipline of their specialities as a general rule.  Christopher Hitchens may have been an exception).

**Dr. Tyson recently appeared on an interview with Bill Moyers, during which he opined that religion and science essentially are irreconcilable.

*** ‘straw man’ – an argument put forth for its lack of merit, in order to strike it down to (seemingly) prove one’s point.

Moyers-Tyson interview

Moyers-Tyson clip on religion and science

No comments:

Post a Comment