Saturday, June 27, 2009

God and Science according to Laurence M. Krauss

Genuine scientist Laurence M. Krauss had a little op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day. Krauss offered up his expert opinion that God and science ultimately do not mix.

I have nothing against expert opinions. Unless they don't make sense. And Krauss' take on the relationship between science and religion is off base.

Allow me to grant at the outset that Krauss is doubtless more lettered than little ol' me. But I will make the better case.

He and I agree on at least one thing. Belief in evolution, at least defined as "variation in frequency of alleles over time" or even in terms of "common descent" is compatible with belief in God, though our reasoning differs as to why.

Let's have a look at Krauss' reasoning:
J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science.
Interpreted charitably, Krauss is almost right in one sense. If a "supernatural" entity reliably interfered with experiments, then science as we ordinarily understand it would be pretty much impossible. But theists--not even Young Earth Creationists, so far as I'm aware--would see it as any sort of obligation for those entities to alter the outcomes of scientific experiments.

But Krauss is broadly wrong in the entire way he tries to frame the issue.

1) Science is by no means a necessarily atheistic endeavor. For example, one can follow the scientific method in evaluating theological claims. Suppose Krauss encounters LDS founder Joseph Smith at the foot of his bed one morning. Smith loans Krauss some golden plates inscribed in Egyptian script and a runic union suit for protection. Krauss could, in principle, examine the various evidences presented to him via traditional scientific means and develop testable and falsifiable theories regarding that evidence. On the basis of science, he could in principle reasonably conclude that Mormonism is the true religion. Mormonism is not an atheistic system, therefore Krauss is wrong to claim that science is necessarily atheistic.

2) As noted above, the notion of God "interfering" with experiments resembles a straw man. Scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton did science based on an expectation of an orderly divinely created universe. Does Newton get his scientific credentials revoked on Krauss' say-so? Newton's world view led him to expect a coherent order established by God. And he expected that humans were equipped to appreciate and evaluate that order.

It is at the second point that Krauss goes particularly awry. He almost treats science as though it is a world view. Science is not a world view. It is a way of looking at the world, right enough, but the difference is significant.

Philosopher Norman Swartz has made the argument that the natural laws described by science are descriptive laws. If that appears self-evident to the point of being a tautology, then let me explain.

Natural law could manifest itself either one of two ways. Laws could be prescriptive, where natural objects behave as they do because it is the law. Or, laws could be descriptive. Objects simply do what they do, and the observed patterns make up the descriptive law.

This is an important difference.

If a molecule fails to obey a prescriptive law, such as "molecule X will always bond to molecule Y under conditions F," then a miracle or a scientific impossibility has occurred.

If, on the other hand, the molecule fails to obey a descriptive law, then the descriptive law simply gets a rewrite to bring it into accord with observations.

Scientific laws have been getting continuously rewritten for decades on end.

So what's the point?

If scientists assume that prescriptive laws exist, then they are trading the method of science for a world view. And a world view is, at its root, a type of religion. We call this type of religion "metaphysics."

Short of metaphysical commitment, the methods of science may be used by a person of any religion. The classic subject for science is the way things normally work. Throw a rock at a window and the window breaks. Break 99 out of 100 windows that way and you have a useful "law" despite the uncommon exceptions. You're doing science, even if also produce a theory that the archangel Michael protected the window occasionally.

So we see that Krauss is wrong to take science as an exclusively atheistic enterprise. His op-ed manifests another big problem:

Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.

While such a leap may not be unimpeachable it is certainly rational, as Mr. McGinn pointed out at the World Science Festival.
Krauss is saying that science provides evidential support for an atheistic world view or world views. I would agree that science may provide evidential support for a world view, but Krauss has blithely skipped right past some tough philosophical problems as though he remains unaware of their existence.

Note how Krauss calls the conclusion of atheism based on the evidence of science "rational."

If Krauss' atheism is materialistic, then what does he mean by "rational"?

Suppose we have two children, one a genius and one an idiot. Under materialistic assumptions, the combination of heredity and enviroment will, in principle, explain all phenomena with respect to either child. If the genius memorizes pi to 50 digits, he simply followed the laws of physics. His action is "rational" in that sense. But that same sense applies to the idiot who adds two and two to equal five. What else could he have done in that situation but total "five"? It was "rational" for him to follow nature's laws and give the answer he gave.

That, of course, is not ordinarily what we mean by "rational." We tend to have an idea about the correspondence between thought and reality, expectation and actuality or inference and logic. Thinkers from C. S. Lewis to Victor Reppert have pointed to the problems for the atheistic conception of thought.

People like Krauss end up undercutting the foundation of their own epistemology. Krauss seems unconscious of the possibility that he stands on anything but the firmest ground.


Krauss mentioned via anecdote that he attended an event at which two Roman Catholic scientists failed to try to defend the virgin birth in terms of science.
When I confronted my two Catholic colleagues on the panel with the apparent miracle of the virgin birth and asked how they could reconcile this with basic biology, I was ultimately told that perhaps this biblical claim merely meant to emphasize what an important event the birth was. Neither came to the explicit defense of what is undeniably one of the central tenets of Catholic theology.
Krauss' challenge is literally nonsense.

The narrative of the virgin birth was likely intended to show the uniqueness of Christ as well as to address a theological problem. Why should it be reconciled with basic biology? Was Jesus supposed to follow the prescriptive natural law for fetuses? If Krauss wants to have it assumed that prescriptive natural law makes the virgin birth an impossibility, he can certainly do that. But he is engaged in promoting his religion (metaphysics) rather than his science if he does so. If, on the other hand, we are dealing with descriptive law, then what exactly is it we are supposed to reconcile?

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