Friday, June 20, 2008

Science is happy to be wrong

Last month I read a well-written, intriguing article by Michael Hanlon called "Science is Golden." He writes that if we're going to preserve knowledge of the natural world, preserve our achievements, we must continue to endeavor in honest scientific practice.

He decrys so much of scientific inquiry has turned to the practical when he writes:
There is the growing belief in some countries, including Britain, that the purpose of science should be primarily utilitarian. This is a dangerous argument because it is so superficially seductive. Forget all that ivory-tower, blue-sky nonsense: go away to your labs and make us a new iPod or better toaster or more drugs. Poll after poll shows that the public demands that science be more “relevant”.
Consumerism affects more than an assault on the soul with noise and gimmickry. Money is often a deterrant to truth, both in religion as well as in science.

Hanlon's article is worth reading, though he is anti-religious. He thinks the purpose of humans "is probably closer to 'eat, reproduce and die' than anything glorious concerning God’s purpose or some grand design."

And he assumes religion gets in the way:
Science says, “we don’t know, but maybe we can find out”. It is the ultimate deterrent against ignorance, and the antidote to intellectual fatalism: “it’s a mystery”, “it’s God’s will”, “it’s magic”.
Yet I have found we sensible Westerners who have learned the integration of the disciplines finds no problem with scientific inquiry as long as it isn't fueled by dogma, including naturalistic philosophy. Religion and science have never been at odds in my mind. They serve as a check and balance of motivation and conclusion. That the world isn't an illusion, Christianity and science are bedfellows, much more than say Buddhism, which says it is. Even astute readers of the Bible will not be dogmatic about a certain interpretation unless it also lines up with reason and experience. I've seen plenty of people abusing the Bible by takign out of context, Christians and atheists alike. And this has less to do with the Bible and more to do with the people reading it.

The same can be true of science. Reading it with certain interpretations not checked by reason and experience and other sources of knowledge can lead to a vacuum. This is a common complaint about the university these days: each department becomes so specialized they no longer talk to people in other fields of study. Thus psychologists and neuroscientists do not talk about the soul. Neuroscience pulls the 'science' card and claims it has figured out the human mind based on electric corrolations in the brain (usually exploited as fact in popular magazines and newspapers). Meanwhile psychologists discovered complications with the human psyche that is not explained by neuroscience. If the two would talk, check and balance one another, then the world would be better off. And while they are at it, invite different views of philosophy of mind to the table who add even more issues about the mystery of consciousness. The historian would help as would the priest.

All that to say, science is a wonderful tool to be celebrated as an achievement. Science should not be held in suspicion by religion and vice versa. However, science is never done with pure objectivity. Once people enter the fray, just like in every discipline, it is prone to error, poor motivation, and philosophical agenda. Thus, Hanlon is overstating the case when he says Science "is the only belief system we have found that says it is happy to be proved wrong: science’s greatest strength." I would give that designation to any field of inquiry, religion included, explored with humility. We want truth, not our pre-consceived ideas of truth.

Science may like to be proved wrong, but not as much an be said for scientists.
Bloomberg published an article yesterday showing that very problem. Science can easily be abused and much "research" is actually fabricated for money and recognition.

Elizabeth Lopatto, "Scientific Fraud May Be More Widespread Than Thought, Poll Says".

These issues are good to be aware of, they serve as an apologetic when someone gets on a high-horse tirade about the evils of religion and the purity of science. It helps level the discussion when we can all acknowledge that humans are prone to corruption and error, if not held in check, and that even our most promising intellectual adventures may be lured, not by knowledge, but by a pot of gold.

We may work in science for a better world. Let us also pray for it too. And above all, let us examine like Socrates our own lives and careers to see if, indeed, we seek to be appropriately human.


Anonymous said...

I've seen plenty of people abusing the Bible by takign out of context, Christians and atheists alike. And this has less to do with the Bible and more to do with the people reading it.

Not to take this blog off subject, but...who has the authority to make this call? Who sets the "context"? The Word of God is living and speaks life over those who read, study, and meditate on it. Through the Holy Spirit is the "context" revealed. And because of that it may speak to you and everyone else differently at different times in life. Now, with that said, there are those who pick and choose topics to abuse out of the Bible and abuse them to their satisfaction and personal gain, but those folks usually make a choice not to accept that the Word of God is the infallible truth and the only way.

So I guess, my point being is that from the quote above, what is defined as "Christian"? And who can make the judgment of what the true "context" is?

Many "experts" like to discount what or how the Word of God may speak over someone's life, but a lot of times that becomes a fear of the Lord....the afraid kind. Some are just afraid their own book might just get read right back to them.

If we open our hearts in a childlike faith, and just reach out for our Father's hand, he will meet us and define our lives through His word.

Moving on...

humans are prone to corruption and error

And how many are humble enough to admit that?

Now, on subject of Science. What of those who are Christian Scientists? (Not who practice Christian Science, ha) Thinking of the Parable of the Talents...if Science is the talent given to a Scientist, then they should do through their talent a work for God. Thats a fun one to ponder.

Keep up the good work Dale.

Dale Fincher said...

Anonymous, I wonder if you're confusing interpretation with application....

Interpretation is using the best of our ability to get at what the Bible is saying. Context is an important part. We cannot simply extrapolate verses to mean whatever (in fact, verses have hurt Bible interpretation more than anything else, in my opinion... verses are not in the original text). If a promise is given to David, we should not suppose the same promise has been given to us. If God told Paul to get up and go to a city, we should not assume, God is telling us the same. Context is what gives meaning to words.

Not only context, but genre helps too. We should not read the Proverbs the way we read the Epistles. One is wisdom literature, the other a letter. And the Psalms, which is poetry, have other rules yet.

Jonalyn and I do a lot of teaching on how to read the Bible. And these ingredients above are often overlooked or not known at all. Yet, we read the newspaper with these in mind as well as every other work of literature. The Bible is literature and should be given the same respect.

Now as for application, the Holy Spirit does convict us of how to apply certain things in our lives, where we need humility, where we need to love, where our anxiety is overcoming peace. But application is very different from interpretation. Application is more private, but interpretation is public. A good interpretation should be accessible to anybody.

By the way, check out our soulation library ( and find my article on 'childlike faith.' I think you'll find it interesting.

As for Christian scientists, that's an interesting question. There are many in the field. And it would be a shame if their science lacked the humility and honesty that is sometimes present in the industry.

Thanks for posting up and for your provocative comments!

Anonymous said...

Dale...I would argue that you can't have application without interpretation. If you blindly apply you are no better than throwing it at a wall and seeing what sticks. And to your example, if we suppose a promise can not be for us than it will never be given to us. There are times that our lives fit exactly what David went through and there are times when we should be such the man or (person - for you Jonalyn) that David was and be ready to step out in faith as David did knowing that God is with us. If we take the story of David as just "literature" then its just another story. If we take the story of David as life, then we may just hear more from God on our own lives.

In your teaching on Reading the Bible, I encourage you to take that even further into teaching how to Meditate on the Bible.
Psalm 1:1-3 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
If we apply that and meditate on God's word that reward sounds pretty good and the reward that others will recieve through us is even better.

God's word is so amazing and through the power of the Holy Spirit and only through allowing him to reveal the correct interpretation can we make the correct application.

Jeff said...

Wow. Really interesting observations.
One of my concerns about the idea that we're becoming increasingly application-oriented in science is that this is really such a short-sighted view.
So much of what we know are at the point that we can engineer stuff around was once pie-in-the-sky theoretics.
It's easy for people to mistakanely think that the theoretical sciences aren't doing anything, but this is an illusion. Bertran Russel is the first person I'm aware of to make this point, and he was speaking speficially of philosophy, but this is what he noted:
When a field of reasoning reaches a specific point of verifiabality, it becomes it's own science. When linguistics for example, was in its infancy, it was a subfield of philosophy. Once linguistics reached a "critical mass" it become it's own science... He observed that we're left with the illusion that philosophy never makes any progress. But it's almost like a church that doesn't appear to be growing because it keeps planting new churches with its extra members.
I'd say ditto for theoretical sciences, such as theoretical physics. It can appear they aren't making progress but the reality is that the progress they make moves thier knowledge out of the theoretical and into the practical domain.

Last question/point:
I totally agree that over specialty is a problem and there is a desperate need for an interdisciplinary/holistic view.
I've heard it said that this is something of a contemporary problem.
The argument goes that the very idea of a Renaissance man was popular because it was theoretically possible that one person could know nearly everything humanity has discovered.
The last couple centuries have been the first time that each individual field has become so robust that a person could hardly even master everything that their is to know with in their own discipline, let alone go on to master others.
Is this assessment true? If so how do we counteract it?

Dale Fincher said...

Anonymous, while there are many things we can agree on, from your post there are some things we disagree. Even if I wanted to agree, I couldn't do it in good conscience.

I am surprised you are so resistant to context. It seems on your view that if two people claim to have the spirit's interpretation and that those interpretations are opposed to each other, that all is well and good. And how would one know which is right and which isn't? And how are false views falsifiable? And how do we keep one another accountable to the word with it becomes so privatized?

I agree that application requires sound interpretation. But my point is that interpretation is public and application is personal. Interpretation will help us get at what a passage means. Application helps us know how to conform ourselves to truth and love.

As for the promises of David, many of those promises will never fit exactly because 1) not all of us are Jews 2) not all of us are ancient 3) not all of us are living in Israel being chased by Saul. If God tells David to go somewhere to flee from Saul, how can we say God is telling us to go the same place to flee from Saul. Saul is dead. There is no more fleeing him.

We may allegorize the text, but that's out of bounds. When we allegorize, we make the Bible of private interpretation and can make it say just about anything we want. And that's dangerous stuff which has plagued the church for hundreds of years. It also goes against what Jesus said when he told us to search the Scriptures and even quoted the scriptures because its interpretation was clear and plain (and wasn't privatized).

Taking the Bible as literature is not to be equated with taking the Bible as fiction. Paul Johnson's "History of the American People" is literature and is not fiction. Same with the Bible, especially the historical narrative sections. The Prayers of John Baille is literature and is not fiction. Same with the Bible, especially the Psalms.

The different between the two is that we believe the Bible is inspired, meaning God is the author. So that makes it a piece of literature that is more important and has more authority, But it is still literature. Anytime you're stringing words together it's a form of literature. Even blog comments are literature (though usually poor quality literature :)).

I'm not sure where the idea that literature is "just another story" comes from. It isn't historical and it isn't taught by scripture. And I don't see how just because something is literature that it can't be real life.

Good point on meditating... and it is an important part of growing in God through is Word. It is imagining, groaning, dwelling, mulling over the text... and it probably connotes both interpretation and application all in one. I always found comfort in Ps 1 that God doesn't command we have our 'devotions' every day, as much as this has become an insistent practice in protestantism. Rather he says to meditate on the word, let the truth sink in, let it be light to the path, a way to know God better. And you don't have to 'devotions' to do that! (That used to be a guilt-ridden burden I carried in my younger years.)

The large problem with taking verses out of context is that we put words in the mouth of God and keep ourselves from what he really said. I do think his Holy Spirit can help us interpret, but if he does, then it will be reasonable with the context.

We teach more than context and genre, but we'll leave it at that or now.

I do hope this doesn't detract from the original post on religion and science. But if you're interested in reading up on how to read the Bible and a good case for context, etc., check out Gordon and Fee's "How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth." It's accessible and a real jewel.

Dale Fincher said...


Great points. Thanks for posting up.

I'm glad to hear you think progress is being made in the theoretics as they move to the practical. That's positive and optimistic.

I'm concerned that so much of science today is driven by money. The research that get grant money is research that is sexy according to the popular consensus (which is often driven without firm knowledge). And the article on fake science is disturbing as well. I think it show the pressures to be original often get in the way of being true. And the pressures to make money get in the way of knowledge.

I do think that specialization is an issue, both with positives and negatives. My fear is that we are becoming robotic in our disciplines and fail to flourish with variety. We use one part of our minds, say the science side, and negate the artistic side.

We devalue creativity and exalt technology (which often encourages passivity). Check out my blog post a few weeks ago on schools killing creativity. We think humans either more machine or more animal. But few see the body as an amphibian both physical and spiritual.

We need to stop thinking of nature as something to manipulate for our passions (as Francis Bacon encouraged) and more as a thing to conform to as creatures in creation.

I think a way to remedy this is by being more involved in the imaginative life (literature and art would be a good start) as it relates to flourishing. I'd rather be a master of no trades, with a healthy soul, than to master one trade, be accoladed as a career-success, and lose my soul.

Few can be truly good at several disciplines. I at least want to be good at valuing most of them... cherishing a variety of voices in community rather than merely the ones who massage my view.

Today there is less charity and more pitting one discipline against another. Integration now means, "you can study what you want, but my area is the most important." Stephen Jay Gould said religion and science should operate as "non-overlapping magisterium." Of course, he thought science was the high priest all the while.

Got more thought?

Anonymous said... long as we both agree that the Inspired Word Of God is the Infallible Truth, then I think we can agree. As if that is our basis to start on, then we should be led to the same end.

Don't want to take away from the original blog subject, but thanks for the insight.

Dale Fincher said...

No worries... and we do start at the same place. :)