Secular Sunday: Case for a Creator, Chapter 4
I finally could no longer continue putting this off, so here we are.
Getting through a chapter per post is pretty much out the window at this point. Creationist arguments are kind of like oil slicks. They take only seconds to occur but can take exponentially more time to clean up.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, I can save you the time of reading this post with the following:
But unfortunately, I can’t just leave it there, lest I open myself up to accusations of attempting to dodge the issue because I have no genuine response. And worse, someone may assume that just because I don’t know the answer, science doesn’t have an answer.
Two of those people, clearly, are Lee Strobel and the subject of this chapter’s interview, Stephen C. Meyer, Ph.D. (Emphasis technically mine, but you know Strobel wants you to notice.) If FACEPALM wasn’t enough, most of this chapter I have already addressed, and can address with the restatement of the simple phrase Science Doesn’t Work That Way. But again, I wouldn’t want to be accused of dodging the issue, even when the issue is blatant, professional-grade ignorance/stupidity.
Strobel opens the chapter with his now-standard appeal to authority, introducing the story of physicist Allan Rex Sandage who, having been a “virtual atheist even as a child” (note: “virtual” means “not actual”), “set the room abuzz” at a conference debating cosmology when he took a seat with the theists as opposed to the “doubters.” I find this semantical tactic interesting, considering that it is in fact the theists who express “doubt” that life/the universe/everything could have arisen on its own.
First paraphrasing, then quoting Sandage:
The Big Bang, he told the rapt audience, was a supernatural event that cannot be explained within the realm of physics as we know it…
“It was my science that drove me to the conclusion that the world is much more complicated than can be explained by science,” he would later tell a reporter. “It was only through the supernatural that I can understand the mystery of existence.” [page 70]
The first sentence includes the very important phrase “as we know it.” Sandage indicates that physics “as we know it” is insufficient to explain the cosmos. But according to Strobel, this stunning conference took place in 1985, over 20 years ago. Since then, physics “as we know it” has changed radically, and there is no reason to believe that it will not continue to do so as we continue to extend our knowledge of the natural processes of the universe (cf. string theory).
Additionally, it’s important to note that physics as we know it is a means that has arisen to describe the universe as we know it. The universe does not conform to the laws of physics; rather the laws of physics are refined to conform to and describe the observable forces of the universe. As the pre-Big Bang universe would not have been “the universe as we know it,” it stands completely to reason that it would not behave according to “physics as we know it.”
As we cannot go to a time earlier than what is called the Planck Time, the smallest theoretical increment of time and thus the very instant after the Big Bang, we may never know what that universe was like and hence will never be able to build a model of the laws of physics that would have been in play. But that does not mean that in the absence of an answer, any comforting answer can be substituted. Not knowing how the Big Bang happened does not indicate “God,” any more than it indicates universe-creating pixies, any more than it indicates a cosmic turtle that pooped it all out. Only positive evidence for a god is evidence for a god.
Sentence two, “It was my science that drove me.” What does he mean “my science?” That statement doesn’t make much sense. “Science” isn’t an item, it’s a process. It would have been more appropriate for him to say “my discoveries” or “my knowledge” or even “my understanding.”
Sentence three, “It was only through the supernatural that I can understand,” emphasis mine. Here we come to the crux of the issue. It’s not that science is incapable of ever explaining or understanding these problems — though it may be. The real issue here is that Sandage isn’t comfortable with that. He might as well have walked up on the stage and started sucking his thumb or clutching his blankie, because the only reason he decided that the answer must be God is because it was more comfortable than the ego-blow of “I don’t know.”
It’s a tragic tale of an otherwise intelligent man’s susceptibility to crippling insecurity and fear of the unknown — but I don’t think that’s the message Strobel intended for me to take away from this. I think he wanted me to be impressed.
Anyway, Sandage is not the man of the chapter. Rather, the Sandage fallacy anecdote is used to introduce the real subject, Stephen Meyer, by way of saying that he was present when this pathetic denouement to an illustrious career took place. He leaves the conference “brimming with excitement” about the “powerful scientific findings that were supporting belief in God” [page 71].
Except, of course, that if any such findings exist, they have certainly not been presented thus far in the pages of this book. What we have seen, at best, are scientific findings that do not explicitly contradict the belief in a god, but that is not the same thing.
If you say “the sky is blue” and I say “the grass is green,” my statement has not contradicted yours, but neither has it supported it. So we find ourselves with the best of what’s in the tome so far; and that’s when Strobel or his interviewee aren’t just flat-out lying about the science.
Another page is spent on detailing Stephen Meyer’s lengthy CV with the usual goal of making me assume that this makes the things he says automatically more true.
Interestingly, Strobel notes that his interview with Meyer took place during the man’s transition from associate professorship of philosophy at Whitworth College to director and senior fellow at the Dishonesty Discovery Institute. So of the two people interviewed thus far, 100% of them were affiliated with a single institution with a stated goal of promoting creationist rhetoric.
I’m not saying this inherently makes them wrong, but if someone interviewed the faculty of any single school’s biology department, Strobel and others would be well within reason to protest that the views of a single institution could not be justifiably asserted as the views of the range of the scientific community. The only way to represent the range is to represent the range, i.e. interview a range of viewpoints.
Of course, the difference is that Strobel pretty much has to interview folks at the Dishonesty Institute, because no actual scientific institution supports this nonsense. They are actually scientists doing science things, and their discoveries have proven valid and useful repeatedly –whereas the ID from DI has consistently fallen on its face.
By the way, see if you can spot the quiet irony in Strobel’s final preamble to the actual interview, in describing Meyer’s manner:
His students sometimes faulted him for an absentminded professor’s lack of classroom organization, but he made up for it with his infectious passion and disarming sincerity. When he answered my questions, it was in a thorough, systematic, and structured way, almost as if he were reading off invisible note cards. [page 73]
Did you catch that? Meyer’s habit of answering questions with what seemed to be clearly practiced, pre-prepared answers struck Strobel as disarmingly sincere. Interesting what passes for sincerity among this crowd. (And of course, even if he is sincerely wrong doesn’t make him less wrong.)
Finally getting to the interview, Strobel quotes apologist J.P. Moreland’s quoting of an anonymous engineer (there’s that standard of journalism rearing its head again) who purportedly said that “only science achieves truth. Everything else is mere belief and opinion” [ibid]. Does Meyer agree with this?
“No, I don’t,” came Meyer’s reply. “Ironically, to say that science is the only begetter of truth is self-contradicting, because that statement in itself cannot be tested by the scientific method” [ibid].
First of all, self-contradiction isn’t irony. But that’s not the only place Meyer sticks his foot in it. You see, the scientific method works like this:
- Make an observation.
- Come up with a tentative explanation for the observation.
- Test the explanation repeatedly to discover if it is supportable. This includes devising ways that may disprove the explanation (i.e. perform experiments that should not work if the explanation is correct).
- If it is not contradicted by the evidence, consider the explanation tentatively correct, subject to revision or dismissal if new evidence or observations arise.
So we see that the scientific method itself can be proven to work exactly by these principles:
- Observe that these set of steps tend to result in successful gains of knowledge, generally quantified by a greater ability to manipulate or engage the natural world (engineering, medicine, geophysics, electronics, you name it).
- Assert that these steps are the best way for making such gains in knowledge.
- Compare the success rate (once again, as quantified by a greater ability to manipulate or engage the natural world) of this method of inquiry, with the success rate of others, such as theology.
- Consider the scientific method the most successful field of inquiry currently known to mankind.
Oh, but he continues:
“[W]hile I certainly respect science, I don’t believe scientific knowledge necessarily takes precedence over other things that we know…I know I have free will on the basis of my introspection, and no studies in the social sciences will convince me otherwise…I know I can turn that light switch on, and I refute those who say I was determined thus” [ibid]
Oil slick! Save the baby seals!
Meyer’s problem — though it is by no means unique to him — is equating belief with knowledge. He believes he has free will, and so to him it must be so; of course if he did not he wouldn’t know the difference. Oddly, he claims that no evidence is required to demonstrate that he has free will, and then promptly provides evidence in demonstration of his assertion, by flipping the light switch in question. He clearly understands — at this point — that if you make a positive assertion you have to provide clear and repeatable evidence. And because he provided evidence, he expects that we will accept his assertion.
He then immediately shows his willful confirmation bias, proclaiming that no evidence to the contrary of his assertion can or will ever be considered. (Review the video on open-mindedness if you don’t see the problem here.)
And yet, on the very next page Meyer states, “I personally take [the] approach…that scientific evidence actually supports theistic belief” [page 74]. I can understand how he might come to believe that, as the only scientific evidence he bothers to accept is that which he feels validates his preconceived worldview, and anything that challenges it is rejected without consideration. As before, it’s not that anything necessarily supports his belief, merely that he ignores that which contradicts it.
Also, Meyer fails to “refute” claims that he is predetermined to turn on the light switch. “Refuting” would imply that he provides evidence showing that the claim is specious and/or that another, better explanation exists. What he’s doing is simply “disagreeing with.”
“[I]f it’s true there’s a beginning to the universe, as modern cosmologists now agree, then this implies a cause that transcends the universe. If the laws of physics are fine-tuned to permit life, as contemporary physicists are discovering, then perhaps there’s a designer who fine-tuned them. If there’s information in the cell, as molecular biology shows, then this suggests intelligent design. To get life going in the first place would have required biological information; the implications point beong the material realm to a prior intelligent cause.” [page 74]
Oh God! THE SEALS!
Every sentence of this is fail. And every one of them likely to require an entire post of its own to fully address. Fortunately for me, the arguments would seem to be raised again in more depth in chapters 5, 6, 8, and 9, based on the chapter headings (The Argument From Cosmology, Physics, Biochemistry, and Biological Information, respectively). So I’ll save my keystrokes until then.
“Those are just three examples,” [Meyer] concluded. “And that’s just the beginning.” [ibid]
Oh, I just bet it is.
- I’m not sure I can fault Strobel completely for this — even the word “atheist” is predicated on the notion that theism is the default. An insidious cultural standard, but an undeniable one. This has caused many self-proclaimed atheists to come to reject that moniker, believing that they should be defined by what they do believe, not what they don’t. At some point, I will probably join them, but for now the term “atheist” has its uses.↩