March 31, 2020

Miracles and Science, Part 2 by Ard Louis

Miracles and Science, Part 2 by Ard Louis

We are continuing our reflections on Miracles and Science based on a series of blog posts by Ard Louis of BioLogos.  The blog posts can be found on the BioLogos web site archives here.  The blog posts are based on a scholarly essay Louis did for BioLogos in 2007 which can be found here.

Rather than attempt to come up with a careful and precise definition of science or scientific practice, Louis will instead use one of his favorite metaphors. It originates with one of his former teachers at Cornell, the physicist David Mermin, who describes science as a “tapestry” woven together from many threads (experimental results, interpretations, explanations, etc.).  The question then becomes; does the pattern of the tapestry as a whole make a pattern with the strength to move the listener forward in their thinking?  Louis says:

I am fond of this metaphor because it describes what I think I experience from the inside as a scientist. Moreover, it also emphasizes the importance of coherence and consistency when I weave together arguments and data to make an “inference to a best explanation.”

And that “inference to a best explanation” is the best one can hope for in the discussion of the relation of miracles and science.  Science can disprove the claim of a miracle by providing contradictory evidence, but the best that science can do in validating a miracle is fail to falsify the null hypothesis.  Which is a fancy of saying that science didn’t prove the miracle didn’t happen.  Of course, inference to the best explanation is not inference to the only explanation.  If someone is committed presuppositionally to only a material explanation for the cosmos, then any other explanation will be preferred.  However, let’s be clear, that isn’t science it’s metaphysics.

Louis then points out the communal aspect of weaving a scientific tapestry.  Every scientist is relying on the judgment of others as to whether their particular tapestry will stand the test of time.  He notes that weaving reliable scientific tapestries relies on subtle judgements.  So a young scientist may work for years as an apprentice of older and more experienced practitioners before branching out on his own.  This he compares favorably to the guilds of old.  Modern critics of science often seize on this communal aspect to argue that science is a “social construct” and no more guarantee of reliable knowledge than any other human undertaking.  Many scientists, and I’m one of them, react quite negatively to this assertion.  Although in times past too many white, male, Euro-centric scientists refused to acknowledge that all kinds of economic, historical and social factors do play a role in the formation of scientific theories, most would argue that, in the long run, the scientific process does lead to reliable knowledge about the world.  Just like in any human endeavor, hubris and arrogance leads to bad consequences.  Humility keeps one from being self-deceived. Louis says:

The view of nature embraced by most scientists whom I know could be described as critical realism. They are realists because they believe that there is a world out there that is independent of our making. The adjective “critical” is added because they recognize that extracting knowledge about that world is not always straightforward. Thus, the primary role of the collective nature of the scientific process is to provide a network of error-correcting mechanisms that prevent us from fooling ourselves. The continual testing against nature refines and filters out competing scientific theories, leading to advances in the strength and reliability of our scientific knowledge tapestries.

Louis then talks about the subtle differences that arise between different branches of science as they assemble their tapestry arguments.  As a theoretical physicist, Louis has been enculturated in a tradition of what the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics:” Based on the extraordinary success of modern physics in employing mathematical solutions to their problems, most physicists believe that mathematical consistency among threads is a key indicator of strong tapestries.  Louis says that lately he has been working with biologists who view his reliance on mathematical models to model the world accurately with great suspicion.  Physicists, on the other hand, are often instinctively skeptical of the huge error bars that can afflict biological data.

I am somewhat in the middle ground, as a geologist, between the theoretical physicists and the biologists.  Great progress has been made in recent years in the mathematical modeling of groundwater and contaminant transport flow.  And the degree of success in “ground-truthing” the models has been remarkable.  Funny, true story, though, about my experience with geophysicists, mathematical models, and ground truth.  A geophysics company had developed what they believed to be an ingenious method of locating underground stream passages based on inducing an electrical current in the ground and then modeling that current flow to accord with the groundwater flow based on magnetic induction measurements on the surface of the terrain.  I don’t want to over-tech everybody here, but current flowing in groundwater produces a magnetic field that, theoretically, can be detected by very sensitive magnetometer measurements at the surface.  Well, I and my crew had been able to access the cave stream through a sinkhole and had surveyed about 175 feet of passage before they encountered a ceiling collapse that blocked them from any further exploration.  So I had the passage plotted on the site map and I told the company to perform their survey and gave them the general area to survey, which included the underground passage.  Of course they wanted the map before they did the survey.  I said, no way, do the survey and then tell me where the passage was, I knew what confirmation bias was and I wasn’t having any of it.  Well, to make a long story short, they took their measurements, ran their model, and produced a beautiful set of 3-D graphics showing where the passage lay.  Problem was, they weren’t even close.  I was disappointed, I had high hopes for their method, because in theory, it was very sound, and had worked elsewhere.

But, despite these cultural differences, most scientist agree on a number of ground rules for defining what makes a tapestry strong. For example, what scientists either predict or measure should be repeatable. If someone claims to see an effect in an experiment, someone else in a different lab should be able to reliably measure the same effect. That lack of reproducibility in medical research has been noted as a problem lately

Louis then notes that there are many questions that simply are not amenable to purely scientific analysis.  He quotes from the book The Limits of Science by Nobel Prize winner (and atheist) Sir Peter Medawar, who wrote:

“That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer… It is not to science, therefore but to metaphysics, imaginative literature or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.” And:

“Science is a great and glorious enterprise – the most successful, I argue, that human beings have ever engaged in. To reproach it for its inability to answer all the questions we should like to put to it is no more sensible than to reproach a railway locomotive for not flying or, in general, not performing any other operation for which it was not designed.”

In a sense, science’s great power come from its self-imposed limits.  It’s a great mistake to ask questions of science it is ill-equipped to answer.  Most people understand the greatest questions in life are not answerable by science, nor do they live as if it were.  I am reminded of the quintessence of this type of person; the character of the Great Kirk in C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.  Although Lewis said he owed a great debt to Kirk for teaching him how to think critically, it was obvious that the man could not grasp the concept of joy, or had any clue how to live a life of joy.  Louis then quotes John Polkinghorne:

“We are entitled to require a consistency between what people write in their studies and the way in which they live their lives. I submit that no-one lives as if science were enough. Our account of the world must be rich enough – have a thick enough texture and a sufficiently generous rationality – to contain the total spectrum of human meeting with reality.”

 

Comments

  1. Two hundred years ago and more, the inquiring minds of the time didn’t conceive of ‘nature’ on one side and ‘God’ on the other: they were investigating everything at the same time, and mentions of God in their ‘scientific’ treatises was natural and commonplace.

    The modern scientific method was born out of deciding to focus solely on the quantifiable. This turned out to be exceedingly powerful, and has brought us to where we are today. The problem is that what started out as ‘self-imposed limits’ has developed (at least in popular culture) into a kind of blindness. Neo-atheism is largely driven by the ‘scientific’ notion that if you can’t count (or calculate) it, it doesn’t exist. As your Polkinghorne quote suggests, nobody actually lives as if they were ‘just’ a quantifiable natural phenomenon.

  2. Humanity does not live by science alone — that should be an unexceptionable assertion.

    • Christiane says

      I’ve seen my brother, a medical doctor, weep only twice.
      Once, we were in our ancestral graveyard in Plymouth NC with many tombstones where young children and babies had also been buried . . . just for a moment, I saw my brother, as he read the info on the children’s tombstones, shed a few tears . . . . he told me he was thinking that those children who died so long ago, he might have been able to save from diseases and illnesses with our modern medicine . . .

      And then I also saw my brother weep as he stood by the hospital bed of our mother who was dying. There was nothing more could be earthly done for her and he was medically powerless to help her.

      That there are limits to science, we know this very well. Our faith does not deny ‘reason’ but our faith does go beyond reason. The God who gives us reason and a desire to ‘know’ and to use that gained knowledge to help one another . . . . we call Him ‘the God of the natural world’, but He is also the God of the supernatural world . . .

      we know this to be true when, in deep grief, we call to Him, and He gives us His peace and the strength to bear our grief . . . . this also is ‘real’ but beyond our ability to understand.

      Lately, some have denigrated ‘feelings’ and ’emotions’ as being inferior to our intellectual abilities. . . . . but they don’t realize that we are ‘integral’ . . . . we cannot ‘isolate’ our knowledge from our reaction to it emotionally. But WHY is there this renewed and latest attack on human feeling and emotions? Where is it coming from and why now? Has anyone else noticed this?

      ?

      • To denigrate feeling and emotion is to speak, literally, with half a brain. I could go on at length here but if we look at it from a purely spiritual and religious point of view, even completely disregarding the essential psychology, all we need do is look at our leader. “Jesus wept.“ “He cried out with a loud voice.” Tell me he was not a man of emotion. Now of course to be possessed, ruled and run rough shod by our emotions is just as out of wack as being dispossessed of them completely and consumed by rationality. Both are vital. Anything less is a half built bridge.

        • Christiane says

          I wonder if the way some of our returning soldiers have ‘flash backs’ and depression resulting from activities on the battlefields, if that is not some ‘reaction’ to having sublimated ‘feelings’ during battle?

          I wonder if ‘delayed’ emotions in any situations where emotions are suppressed and later come back around to hit a person on the back of the head . . . . how harmful is this for some? If there is a forced delay of processing feelings and emotions . . . . and later these emotions emerge but in a less threatening context, is there a ‘reaction’ that is overwhelmingly confusing for the soldier who suffers from PTSD?

          Does this also work for others who ‘process’ and try to deal with the weight of pain suppressed when they were very young, and in later life they struggle to cope, not understanding what is happening to them?

          There must be some ‘balance’ that is thrown off majorly when suppressed emotions emerge in some people.
          I wish more could be done to protect our military from the effects of PTSD.

          Even my niece, a Navy nurse, who was on duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, came back home ‘wounded’ by what she had seen . . . . of the sadness, she had written home ‘there are no words’ . . . she has chosen to deal with her pain by studying at her old university to become a nurse-practitioner . . . I think she has done this partially out of a decision to move forward in a good direction, to increase her skills to help more people.

          just some thoughts . . . we are certainly ‘human’ and ‘made in the image of God’ and part of our humanity seems to be lost when we are placed in situations where negative emotions are suppressed for extended periods of time, only to emerge later as ‘anger’ or ‘depression’ UNLESS we can find constructive ways to come to terms with these emotions (?)

          It seems a very complex and modern problem . . . too many of our fine young soldiers return ‘safely’ to their homes only to commit suicide, and we need to understand what is going on there and HELP THEM . . . as they would have given their lives on the battlefields, we owe them a debt of support when they come home to us with internal, possible fatal, psychological wounds. . . .

          But I digress. 🙂
          My original thoughts were that some in politics and religion are now denigrating ‘feelings’ and ’emotions’ and I think that calls for some examination as to their motives and possible hidden agendas. (???) 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Lately, some have denigrated ‘feelings’ and ’emotions’ as being inferior to our intellectual abilities. . . . .

        During my involvement with SF litfandom in its heyday, I ran across a lot of Pure Intellects like that. They tended to be extreme STEM types and intellectual snobs; some of the more extreme were True Believer Communists and “Doctor Strangeloves” who approached global thermonuclear war as an intellectual salon exercise (“Only a three-point-seven gigadeath situation — insignificant”).

        For that matter, a lot of them approached EVERYTHING as an Intellectual Exercise; they seemed to be trying their best to shed their humanity like Lestat the Vampire or Hannibal Lecter.

        And don’t forget the One-Upmanship factor — “More Intellectual Than Thou”. Perhaps the most extreme example of this I encountered was one litfan long ago who treated me as hopelessly retarded because his IQ was a couple points higher than mine. (What a jerk. Intelligence 18, Wisdom 3.)

        For the record, I’m an overripe Cold War Kid Genius and can attest you often take refuge in your I.Q. to get away from the pain and suffering and bullying. (A practice called “Mister Spock” at that time.) And you will tend to lead with your strength, whether that is athletic or intellectual prowess. There also seems to be a “Conservation of Neurological Energy” where as your IQ/Intellect runs ahead of your age, your personality/emotional development lags behind; I know because I got that side effect BAD. I’m currently 62 with an emotional development of around 30.

        Other watchblogs such as Wartburg Watch have described the “Pure Intellect” without humanity as being common in today’s X-Treme Calvinism, probably because Perfectly Parsed Theology and Great Intellect is their way to prove to themselves that they are Truly Elect. And there’s always the stories of Silicon Valley geeks hungering for the Singularity so they can upload themselves into The Cloud and live forever as ones and zeros with no need for any Meat body in Meatspace — “Rapture of the Nerds” with a big side of Gnosticism.

        • “the “Pure Intellect” without humanity as being common in today’s X-Treme Calvinism, probably because Perfectly Parsed Theology and Great Intellect is their way to prove to themselves that they are Truly Elect”

          Perhaps that’s something to do with it. It also helps that Calvinism/Reformed theology is also the most logical and abstract form of contemporary theology out there, and is a good fit with us nerdy obsessive types. It is also the tradition that is most distrustful of emotions and non-rational manifestations of spirituality, to get back to Christiane’s question above.

          • So Geneva is what happens when the nerds win and have power?

          • Christiane says

            “Perhaps that’s something to do with it. It also helps that Calvinism/Reformed theology is also the most logical and abstract form of contemporary theology out there, and is a good fit with us nerdy obsessive types.”

            I WONDERED if certain ‘types’ were drawn to certain denominations, particularly ‘Calvinism’ (fatalism, determinism) . . . . the Calvinism seems to leave people unaccountable for their ultimate fate, and that troubles me greatly, as the implications of how they are to live their lives just doesn’t line up with ‘moral conscience’ OR ‘choose life, that you may live’ . . . . I likely misunderstand the finer points of Calvinism but on the surface, that is what stands out to me . . . the utter lack of responsibility in how people relate to one another (?)
            Am I off base here?

            • I can only speak for myself here – but if you are completely convinced of your own wickedness and depravity (as, to a certain degree, I still am), then the idea of a sovereign God who has loved you, chosen you, and will carry out His work in your life until your ultimate salvation, despite your ****-ups and unworthiness… has no small amount of attraction and power.

        • Christiane says

          “I’m currently 62 with an emotional development of around 30.”

          that actually sounds quite healthy 🙂

          • Burro (Mule) says

            1986 was a great year. If I had to be arrested, I’d love to be arrested there.

            I can think of lots worse than dying and going back to 1986

  3. Modern critics of science often seize on this communal aspect to argue that science is a “social construct” and no more guarantee of reliable knowledge than any other human undertaking. Many scientists, and I’m one of them, react quite negatively to this assertion.

    I made it 12 hours before seeing this assertion brought up by someone, in the same breath as saying Stephen Hawking was burning in hell for not believing.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      If science is a ‘social construct’, and I agree with Michael Polanyi that it is, it has to be assumed that criticisms of science are also social constructs. This is similar to the quarrels about gender I have with my anthropologist niece all the time:

      “Uncle Mule, in plenty of cultures there are more than two genders.”

      “Name one.”

      “Well, the Indian culture, for one. They make room for the heijra, which is kind of a middle ground”.

      “Well, I’m not Indian.”

      “So, I’m just trying to show you that gender is a social construct”

      “I’ll concede that to you. What I’m trying to get you to see is that there is no such thing as a culturally-neutral position of observation. Culture may be relative, but it’s always relative to another cultural position. As to which one is ‘better’ I can assure you that there are people who chafe under the restrictions placed on them by Indian culture just like there are people who chafe under the restrictions placed on them by Western culture. As always, the conflicts will be resolved by the one who can persuade more young men of military age.”

      What I’m trying to say is that I am getting tired of people pretending that there is an immobile, immutable position they can occupy where they can stand in raw TRVTH without the mediation of a social Tradition governed by a Magisterium, whether it’s “muh Bible” or “muh science” or “muh logic” or even “muh Church”

      That is why I so appreciated what Dr. Louis had to say about the “strength” and resilience of social tapestries of knowing. One thing I wish was brought under greater scrutiny was how information makes its circuitous way from the scientific (or religious) tpestries into public policy.

      And there is no excuse for the comment about Dr Hawking. That’s just schadenfreude at its most despicable. He has earned my prayers, and he has them. I have no doubt he’s surprised, as I suspect all of us will be. My deepest desire is that he is delighted as well.

      • What I’m trying to say is that I am getting tired of people pretending that there is an immobile, immutable position they can occupy where they can stand in raw TRVTH without the mediation of a social Tradition governed by a Magisterium, whether it’s “muh Bible” or “muh science” or “muh logic” or even “muh Church”

        So your observation cannot be a distillation of raw TRVTH either; or do you exclude your assertion from the conditions you’ve laid down in it? and if so, why?

        • Burro (Mule) says

          Somebody was paying attention in PHIL 1011.

          No, you’re right. It can’t. Ya gotta pays yer money and takes yer chance.

          n.b. what Dr. Louis says about the strength and reliability of our knowledge tapestries. I like that idea a lot. Some tapestries are more robust than others.

          Heuristics. At our level, it’s all heuristics. I wish I hadn’t run Klaisie off now.

          • Heuristics, probabilities. But then one’s performance depends on how good one is at calculating the odds, and having keen perception. I’ll stick with a somewhat Reformed dependence on grace, thank you, since I’ve never been good at games of chance, and my perceptions can go from keen to crazy in 10 seconds flat.

            • Burro (Mule) says

              Ive always had a private interpretation of the workers in the vineyard where the ones hired in the morning were the sensible, perceptive ones and the ones hired at 4:30 were the distracted and buzz-headed, who weren’t capable of much besides being aware that they blew it.

              We aren’t headed for a final quiz on epistemology.

    • Christiane says

      Stuart, why would anyone say such a thing about Stephen Hawking? Is it an extension of the kind of thing where the person is ‘saved’ and ‘has assurance of their own salvation’ at the cost of feeling elevated above ‘that other sinner’ and looking down on them and passing judgment??? What a strange religion to have no hope or trust in the mercy of God, or to assume that one can ‘know’ where another will be for eternity simply because one ‘knows’ about his/her own security?

      What else is lost in such a religion where the way of the pharisee is honored and practiced;
      and the way of the sorrowful publican in the temple is not recognized as meaningful to God?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Stuart, why would anyone say such a thing about Stephen Hawking?

        They said the same thing about Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan; lots of gloating Schadenfreude with Bible Verses. (Also about Gary Gygax, though he was hardly in the same league.)

        Is it an extension of the kind of thing where the person is ‘saved’ and ‘has assurance of their own salvation’ at the cost of feeling elevated above ‘that other sinner’ and looking down on them and passing judgment???

        Zero-Sum Game applied to Salvation?
        Where the only way for Me to Win is to Make Sure You Lose?

        What a strange religion to have no hope or trust in the mercy of God, or to assume that one can ‘know’ where another will be for eternity simply because one ‘knows’ about his/her own security?

        It’s called “Over-Saved”.

        Occasionally you run into one of the Over-Saved who claims this as a Gift of the Holy Spirit, a form of “Discernment” or Special Revelation; I remember reading comments by one long ago on either this or another blog.

        My comment on that is from Sagan:
        “Extraordinary claims require an extraordinary level of evidence.”

        • Christiane says

          this is IT!!! I think you may have nailed it:

          “Zero-Sum Game applied to Salvation?
          Where the only way for Me to Win is to Make Sure You Lose?”

  4. Burro and Christiane, it’s interesting to me how both of your comments are two sides of the same coin.

  5. The real philosophical problem is not “what is science? but “what is a miracle?”

  6. john barry says

    Re the Stephen Hawking issue, the few negative comments I have read on major news outlets on the internet are from obscure, mean and petty people who are a minority by far. Like the coward police officer in Parkland Fl because most police officers would have gone into the building we are shocked at his actions, he is in the minority of law enforcement. Most people of faith have enough decency and respect to do what we teach first graders, if you have nothing nice to say , say nothing. I think most people , even the dreaded evangelicals like Hawking as he was a trooper , loved him on the Big Bang, he went on comedy shows and was himself. I will miss him and feel like the majority here does about his live. Of course, I have no ideas how valid his ideas and theories were as it was all Greek to me, if only he had made it so I could understand it. it does not matter what I think, it matters what God does.
    Again South Park did it great when Eric went into future to get the Wi before it came out and got involved in a war between the future beavers who disagreed on how to open clams and both sides appealed to their science to help them when things got tough. It was better than my mangled version but when they got hurt they said oh science , help me.
    What a terrible world it would be with no science and no faith. I am glad my world had Hawking and Billy Graham and I am sure they were thrilled I was here. As the British philosophers Peter and Gordon wrote in a lyrical way ” I Don’t Want To Live in A World Without Love” or science, even if I do not understand a lot of it , I take it on faith or should I say confidence. I also am glad I live in a world with Snickers and Cheetos.

    • if you have nothing nice to say , say nothing.

      But they still think it. They still believe it. That’s foundational to their worldview. It’s built on faulty theology and lies.

      That’s hard to accept. That something like 6 to 7 out of every 10 people you see believe that.

      I need to reduce that number in my life.