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The Limits of Science

I was talking with some new friends who are ardent atheists and believers in Darwinian evolutionary theory.  They continuously call my position (I’m a Christian) a faith-based proposition.  Yet, when I pressed them and noted that their very belief in science as a legitimate means to finding truth (can’t be proved in a lab), their assumption that the universe is rational, their assumption that the universe is governed by laws, and the fact that we assume that our minds correspond to reality…are all necessary to even begin to do science—they overwhelmingly accused me of playing tricks and word games. No.  Word games is when I say, “If you like your plan you can keep your plan.”  We all know the truth there.

When I talked with them about evolution and the problems with it, they seemd like I was speaking from some manual of holy dogma.  For example, I asked them:

“Suppose a group of French Cistercian monks began to copy Don Quixote from Spanish to French…keep in mind that they don’t speak Spanish, but only French.  Would it be plausible than in their accidents while copying the manuscript, and through a process of a certain amount of time, that the manuscript would randomly change and become War and Peace?”

I followed that up with this question:

“We know that to turn a Buick into a submarine would be an extraordinarily complex engineering problem.  At my most basic estimates, I would say that such a project would require at least 50,000 changes.  How many intermediate forms of the car/sub would we expect to see?  If i told you that we had in the record, 49,999, that would lead you to one conclusion.  What If I told you we had seven?  What would that do to the theory?  What if instead of a car, we had a cow, and instead of a submarine, we had a whale?  What would have to change?  Well, you would have to add a diving apparatus, a breathing mechanism, change the skin to make it watertight, change the intestinal tract to make it conducive to the sea–and these are just estimates on the surface.  How many changes would you expect?  How many intermediate forms?  49,999?  Maybe so.  Do you know how many intermediate forms we have between the primitive cow-like creature and the whale?  Seven.”

Further, when I asked them how on an evolutionary paradigm, they could believe that truth was worthwhile—they looked confused.  I told them that on an evolutionary view, survival is more important than truth; therefore, one must reject truth outright if it means it will give them a better chance at survival (keep in mind these Darwinists don’t typically believe in absolute truths–well except that one).  Perhaps the most articulate atheist of our time, John Gray (professor emeritus at the London School of Economics) says in his book Straw Dogs, that all that matters is survival.  He goes on to say that morality is only something to be used in times of comfort, and when it comes down to it, morality is a means to being exterminated.

Now—What about the truth of what would happen if I jumped out of a building?  If I were in a 20 story hotel room, and I looked out the window, the truth is—jumping out the window will hurt or kill me.  On the other hand, if a nerve agent were released in my room, or if a man with a gun came in and started shooting—or if by some chance occurrence, the entire building became engulfed in flame; I would have no choice but to go against what I know to be true and jump out of my window in the name of survival.  Survival is more important than truth to the Darwinist—and this is true even if our actions will only ensure a few more moments of survival.  On a Darwinian view, this must happen.  Survival is the predominant ethic.  It just is, and as Dawkins says: “we dance to its music.”

The final straw was when I asked them if they came to believe their views on Darwinian evolutionary theory because they weighed the pros and cons and listened to arguments—or if they were determined to hold these views.  I asked them, “Based on the evidence and the pros and cons, would you say that you hold to smooth evolutionary process or punctuated equilibrium theory?”  One of them replied, “I haven’t looked into Punctuated Eq yet…I have no opinion.”  Wow!  This is stunning.  They are actually asserting that there might be a choice!  When I pressed that point,  they again said that I was engaging in asking trick questions and resorting to metaphysics.

Are their objections true?  Notice that in their replies, they never took my arguments on.  Instead, my arguments are rendered as faith based or illegitimate.  They aren’t interested in debate, they want to remove the possibility of debate.   And I’m the narrow minded one they tell me.

Let’s talk about the belief that science is a legitimate endeavor at finding truth.  If we only take things to be true based on evidence and proof, what proof is there that the statement, “Science is a legitimate endeavor at finding truth” true?  How can this be demonstrated in a laboratory?  It can’t.  It is presumed before science can begin.  What about the assumption that the universe is rational?  Why is it that our universe is governed by an extremely accurate and fine-tuned set of numerical constants?  Why is it that if we changed the expansion rate of the universe by one part in a hundred thousand million million, we would have no universe and no life?  Why?  We assume these things to be true, but can’t even begin to answer the question why.  The truth is, there is no reason for these things to be.  They just are.  We have to assume them to engage in science.

What about proof itself?  Why is it that people who call themselves ‘scientific’ often ask for proof of God?  My dear friends, proof is only found in pure mathematics.  In science we can give explanations.  The problem is, science is not the only means of explanation, and in many ways it falls short.  If I were to ask you to explain the boiling kettle on the stove, science would say:  A heat source warms the container with water to a point where the molecules become agitated and turn to steam.  Another answer would be, “I wanted a cup of tea.”  Both are correct.  Neither is a better explanation.  What explains a Ford car?  Internal combustion, chemistry, and engineering…or Henry Ford?  You tell me.

What about the presumption that the universe is governed by laws?  Joel Primack asked an interesting question. He asked what compels the electron to follows the laws of nature.  What compels it to stay in its orbit? Good question. I don’t know. But Heinrich Himmler, who had presided over the destruction of churches and synagogues throughout Europe and was the mastermind behind the extermination of the Jewish people, asked a very similar question in 1944. When confronted with the onerous treaty obligations the German state had adopted with respect to its own satraps, he asked insouciantly but pregnantly, “After all, what compels us to keep our promises?” Moral relativism is very often derided as an unhappy consequence of atheism. I don’t think moral relativism is a particularly deep issue, but I do think the issue of what compels us to keep our promises is very relevant.  But, in the universe what compels anything to follow laws?  This cannot be demonstrated in the laboratory.  We don’t even know what gravity is.  We don’t know what energy is.  Try this experiment—ask a quantum physicist what energy is.  Then correct them:  “Sir, I didn’t ask you to describe the effect of energy, I asked you to tell me what it is.”  Just because we don’t know what something is doesn’t mean it ceases to exist.  We should be more humble.  The universe abides by laws, and we assume them to be there.

What about the existence of the mind and its ability to adjudicate the world as reality?  How can this be proven?  Many will tell you that our minds are merely grey matter that includes the random firing of neurons and so forth.  Really?  They will tell you that the brain is a product of time plus matter plus chance—and that what we think is hardwired in.  Ok—if I told you that the airplane you were flying on—that the onboard computers were the products of time matter and chance—would you trust the plane enough to fly on it?  Obviously not—survival remember?  Then why would you trust the pilots who have a brain that comes from the same process?  Further, if our brains are really randomly evolved things, why should we trust anything we think is true?  I mean, if I am predetermined to think the things I do (as is the view among Dawkins, Dennett, and their ilk), it follows that I don’t come to know things based on evidence or pros and cons.  I believe it because I am determined to believe it.  But the question is deeper yet.  This view of determinism, and that the brain is hardwired—have I come to know that based on evidence and pros and cons?  Or have I come to believe it because it is hardwired in?  How can one trust this?

Finally, what about the fact that words and semiotics carry meaning?  If matter is all there is, how can ink on a typed page carry information?  Why is it when we go into a cave and see a 30,000 year old marking on the wall, we instantly assume it is an ancient Chinese character rather that the product of time plus matter plus chance?  Further, why is it when we see the letters, “ILOVEYOU” written on the beach, we assume an intelligence?  Why don’t we assume intelligence when we look at the longest word in the world, namely, the human genome?

I love science, but one must have just as much faith to believe in a purely naturalistic view of the universe as the theist does to believe in an all-powerful God.  The conflict isn’t between religion and science; on the contrary.  It is between theism and naturalism.

I am reminded what the Nobel Laureate Peter Medwar said in his book, The Limits of Science:

 “The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions having to do with first and last things—questions such as: ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

Science leaves too many things unanswered.  If matter and science were all that existed, we might as well tear down the literature, music, art, and history departments.  They can tell us nothing.  As John Gray says, “A purely naturalistic view of the universe leaves no room for secular hope.”  I fully agree.  We can make the moral case for science, but we cannot make the scientific case for morality.

Consider a story:

I have in front of me a rather remarkable button. If you should press it, yours would be untold riches, everlasting life, all the wishes you want, and whatever else you desire. The only consequence to pressing it beyond your happiness is the death of an anonymous Chinese peasant. Who among us would you trust with this button?

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