Conservative Theology

Shermer and the Church on Science and Theology


Michael Shermer has an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen criticizing Intelligent Design, or any theological understanding of science.  He says that you can believe in both science and God as long as you keep them in "logic-tight compartments".  How nice for the atheist to throw us a bone.

His main point, which has been repeated by him and others like him, is that science is about mechanism, and saying "God did it" isn't a mechanism.  But what Shermer misses is that understanding something in terms of its logical causes actually minimizes the importance of the physical causes.  For instance, if I write a computer program, there will be an interaction of both my purposes for the computer program, and the biochemistry in my body that allows me to write it.

In fact, the most important cause for the computer program is not the biochemistry.

If, for instance, I got a spinal chord injury and was unable to type, and started using voice-based typing, you would still wind up with the same program in the end!  Thus, there are multiple possible physical causation sequences, each hideously complex, having little to do with each other, which all lead to the same result.  Why?  Because the physical cause is relatively unimportant compared with the purposeful for which I am writing it.  In fact, after it is written, discovery of the process of engineering it becomes impossible from the code itself, especially since, as I just pointed out,  there are multiple, radically different, sequences of biochemical activity which took place.

So, if life is designed, then the quest to search for the mechanisms the designer used may be missing the point entirely!  That's not to say we should prevent them from trying, only to say that the idea that physical causation is the only avenue which is legitimate to search is stupid.

Unfortunately, Shermer also sees ID as a science stopper - as if the questions stop if "God did it" was determined for the cause.  In fact, the whole scientific enterprise arose from people who said "God did it" and then wanted to know more!  Christians tend to be fascinated with the things God has done, and that encourages the study of it, it doesn't discourage it.  Let's look, shall we?

  • Geology as we know it started when Nicholaus Steno decided to investigate the Biblical flood.  He believed "God did it", and wanted to know what happened after.  And so geology was born.
  • All of the astronomers believed that "God did it", and so studied the night sky intensely in order to understand the movements of these beautiful objects God gave us.   "God did it", and so astronomy was born.
  • Linnaeus was fascinated with all of the types of creatures that God had made.  He wanted to know everything that God had made, and how it relates to the other things God made.  "God did it", and so the modern persuit of biology was born.
  • Gregor Mendel wasn't satisfied with the idea of continuous evolution, and sought to show the differences between things that were made compared to the variations that occurred in nature.  "God did it", and so genetics was born.

That's just a sampling.  In the history of science, "God did it" has been the number one cause for innovative breakthroughs in science.  To say that "God did it" is a science stopper is laughably stupid.

He then goes on to make the following argument:

The problem with all of these attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-Nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism.

In order to drive his point home, Shermer makes what he thinks is a deep theological point:

If there is a God, the avenue to Him is not through science and reason, but through faith and revelation. If there is a God, He will be so wholly Other that no science can reach Him, especially not the science that calls itself intelligent design.

This is quite interesting theologizing from an atheist!  If Shermer is certain there is no God, how does he think he knows how to reach God?  I think it is simply a case of imposing his wishes on reality - Shermer does not want God to have anything to do with science, and therefore proposes that if there is a God, he cannot possibly have anything to do with reality.  How convenient for Shermer.

Those of us who actually do believe in God believe that God is active within reality.  Even those with a more "spiritual" notion of God's actions (i.e. that God doesn't do physical miracles but only heart miracles), still have a God who is actively at work within reality. What's interesting is I think most Christians who embrace evolution in order to be "pro-science" don't really understand what it is that many of the evolutionists like Shermer are really asking of us.  By simply saying, "we agree with science" (especially those who follow Gould's NOMA philosophy) and then actively trying to maintain the same science/faith distinction Shermer does, they undermine themselves unknowingly, because such air-tight compartmentalization means that God has nothing to do with the world as we see it.

Unfortunately, many denominations take to the mythology that science is a unified voice, and that it is free of theological influences.  They speak of religion and science not being mutually exclusive.  Well, earth to out-of-touch theologians, no one - that is, not anyone that I've ever met - thinks that religion and science are mutually exclusive, except for anti-IDists like Michael Shermer. There are certain scientific theories that are objected to, but why should that be cause for concern or considered out of place?  It is well within theology's realm to both criticize and contribute to science, and on theological grounds.  Many of the great scientists of history have used theology to shape their scientific inquiry.  The only reason why this mode of reasoning is considered invalid is because of a group of people who are trying to irradicate religion.  

Therefore, while I am not a fan of molecules-to-man evolution, it doesn't bother me nearly as much that there are churches that believe in that, as it is that these churches are playing the appeaser not to science, but to atheists and skeptics who are trying to destroy religion.  And these churches are playing the science card not by the logic of scientific inquiry, but instead on the logic of atheistic materialism, while at the same time denying that materialism.

And they don't even know that it is happening.  Because of their own lack of understanding of science, they simply take the skeptic's word for it that "this is what science says," and they go with it.

See the thing is, the theologians don't understand that a substantial part of evolutionary theory comes not from evidence, but instead from a different kind of "faith".  See what Shermer said in a debate recently:

You see at some point you have to have some bottom up natural forces to answer the question where did life come from, where did all this complexity come from in the first place. Positing something from the top down simply begs the question, yeah interesting, but where did that come from? And where did that come from? At some point to do science you have to have some bottom up forces at work here.

 By "top down" he means design, and by "bottom up" he means naturalistic forms of evoltuion such as natural selection.What he's saying is that "top down" isn't valid as a cause at all.  This is the understanding that is problematic.  If you want the church to legitimately participate in the intellectual discussion of the day, it must must must speak to these sorts of theological assumptions in scienc, or else the church will simply fall victim to the theologies of atheists by promoting those theologies themselves. And then, in order to be intellectually responsible, it must go back and examine current mainstream theories in science on that basis, and be discerning on what it keeps and what it doesn't keep, and have good reasons for doing so - not just because "science" says so.

UPDATE - for more problems with Shermer's faulty reasonings, see this discussion at Uncommon Descent.