Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Knowledge of God, A Refutation of Scientific Realism

The Knowledge of God

A Refutation of Scientific Realism


In modern times, the great hope for many unbelievers to gain knowledge of the universe and the meaning of life has been and still is, for many, the epistemology of a philosophy of science called “Scientific Realism”. Scientific Realism basically states that the results of scientific theories should be regarded as accurate descriptions of the ‘true’ world. It is usually said that scientists are objective and neutral when looking at the facts while theologians are dogmatic and cannot accept the truth. There are a number of problems with this1:


Psychological Factors

  1. Group-Think: The history of science has shown that scientists almost always believe in whatever the current scientific fad is. This is what Thomas Kuhn called a scientific ‘paradigm’. Anyone who does not conform to the current paradigm is usually dismissed and ignored.

  1. Political Motives: Sometimes scientists with certain political persuasions will skew the data of a study to influence society and especially politicians toward implementing their political philosophies into law. For example, it is becoming more and more transparent that the science behind the anthropogenic global warming movement is fueled by a desire for global socialism and the destruction of Western-Capitalistic dominance. See this documentary here, here, here, here, and here,2 and also this lecture here, here, here, and here.3

  1. Metaphysical Motives: Often times, atheists will go into the sciences simply because the study of the material universe is the epistemology of their metaphysical belief. Thus, it is no wonder that the scientific community, especially biologists, is so inimical to creationism. They have metaphysical motives for rejecting it prior to seeing the facts. Take these quotes, for instance:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to the understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science – in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a concept and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door…To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”4

“I am talking about…the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that…My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.”5

For an example of this in the formation of Darwin’s Theory, see here.6 Also, a book that discusses this topic is Cornelius Hunter’s Darwin’s God.

  1. Sub-Conscious: Much of the time, when scientists are examining the data, the formation of a theory will be at least partially influenced by their particular background. This could relate to b. or c., but in this instance, the guidance of the theory-formation is in the sub-conscious.

Educational Factors

  1. Lack of Logical Training: Scientists often lack a good training in the basics of logic. Theoretical physicists and biologists are among the worst in engaging in circular reasoning, false dichotomies, and over-extended conclusions. This comes out especially when they are critiquing other theories or arguing that theirs must be right.

  1. Straw-Men of Alternative Ideas: Scientists, especially when attempting a critique of Creationism, usually misrepresent opposing views, sometimes due to ignorance but sometimes with the desire to propagandize.

Procedural Factors

  1. Theory Laden: Starting with an a priori assumption of the reigning theory, scientists will often interpret data through the lens of the current theory and then claim that the same data is proof of that theory! The thought of circular reasoning never comes to their mind.

  1. Forcing Data to Fit the Theory: From time to time, scientists will force the data to fit the current scientific theory. A great example of this can be seen in the compromise on the date of the human/ape slit between paleontologists who used geologic dating methods and molecular biologists who used the “molecular clock” method. It never occurred to these scientists that if the methods they used to date this event in time differed so greatly, then either one or both of the methods that they used or even the entire assumption of evolutionary theory might be wrong. Another glaring example can be found here.7

  1. Ignoring Certain Facts: When a certain scientific paradigm holds sway, the reigning theory will be assumed a priori, and all data that is contrary to it will be ignored as ‘extreme data points’ or something of the like.

  1. Contrary Evidence as ‘Problems’ to Be Solved: Sometimes when ‘extreme data points’ are recognized as being contrary to the stated theory, scientists will often view the contrary data as ‘problems to be solved’ but still within that same theory/paradigm, or they will tweak the theory enough to accommodate the data. This is sometimes done by creating hypothetical entities that cannot be proven to exist. It will never occur to them (until a paradigm-shift in the entire community occurs) that the existing theory is, in fact, wrong. See here for example.8

  1. Suppression of Alternative Ideas: Scientific theories that don’t conform to the current scientific paradigm or are contrary to many scientists’ worldview are usually either ignored or suppressed. It will usually be argued that a scientific theory should be ignored because it hasn’t been published in any reputable scientific journals, and at the same time, it will be argued that the scientific theory shouldn’t be published in a reputable scientific journal because the majority of the scientific community doesn’t believe in it! The vicious circularity is obvious.

The Barriers of Scientific Theorizing

  1. The History of Scientific Theories and the Root of the Problem: The idea that science is an objective accumulation of truth is simply false. Instead, science goes through cycles just like philosophical speculation. A theory that becomes popular does so usually because it can answer recent problems and new data that the previous theory could not. That theory holds sway and is (naively) regarded as “fact” until new data is discovered which presents problems for the reigning theory. That new data is sometimes discarded as “outliers” or “anomalies”, it is forced to fit the theory, or the theory is tweaked just enough to accommodate the data. Eventually, when the amount of data builds up to such a degree that the current theory has too hard of a time explaining it or a new theory explains it better, a ‘paradigm-shift’ occurs in the scientific community in which the old theory (which was considered “fact”) is discarded for a new and sometimes extremely different theory. Once the majority of the scientific community believes in it, this new theory is also considered to be the new “fact”. Then, the cycle begins again. There are numerous examples of this:

  • Geosynclinal Theory: As William Dembski explains:

“In the nineteenth century the geosynclinal theory was proposed to account for the origination of mountain ranges. The theory hypothesized that large trough-like depressions, known as geosynclines, filled with sediment, gradually became unstable, and then, when crushed and heated by the earth, elevated to form mountain ranges. To the question “How did mountain ranges originate?” geologists as late as 1960 confidently asserted that the geosynclinal theory provided the answer. In the 1960 edition of Clark and Stearn’s Geological Evolution of North America, the status of the geosynclinal theory was favorably compared with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Whatever became of the geosynclinal theory? An alternative theory, that of plate tectonics, was developed. It explained mountain formation through continental drift and sea-floor spreading. Within a few years, it had decisively replaced the geosynclinal theory. The history of science is filled with such turnabouts in which confident claims to knowledge suddenly vanish from the scientific literature.”9

  • Newtonian Mechanics: Again, Dembski exlains:

“Physicists thought that Newton’s laws provided a total account of the constitution and dynamics of the universe. Maxwell, Einstein, and Heisenberg each showed that the proper domain of Newtonian mechanics was far more constricted than scientists first believed. Newtonian mechanics works well for medium sized objects at medium speeds, but for very fast and very small objects it breaks down. In the latter case, we need to invoke, respectively, relativity and quantum mechanics.”10

  • Aether: Aether was hypothesized to be an invisible substance, a medium through which light and planetary bodies traveled. It was believed in by scientists for much of the nineteenth century, but by the early twentieth century, it was thought not to exist after a few complicated experiments failed to detect it. Even after the theory had many problems pointed out to physicists, it continued to be held as dogma. As the author of this Wikipedia article put it:

Contemporary scientists were aware of the problems, but aether theory was so entrenched in physical law by this point that it was simply assumed to exist.”11

  • The Ptolemaic Universe: This highly ridiculed belief was actually held by many cultures throughout history. It could predict the position of stars, planets, the moon, and the sun with a great degree of accuracy and was simply taken for granted as a “fact” of the universe. It was replaced by the heliocentric universe during the days of Copernicus and Galileo.

  • Phlogistic Chemistry: Thomas Kuhn explains:

“The much-maligned phlogiston theory…gave order to a large number of physical and chemical phenomena. It explained why bodies burned – they were rich in phlogiston – and why metals had so many more properties in common than did their ores. The metals were all compounded from different elementary earths combined with phlogiston, and the latter, common to all metals, produced common properties. In addition, the phlogiston theory accounted for a number of reactions in which acids were formed by the combustion of substances like carbon and sulphur. Also, it explained the decrease of volume when combustion occurs in a confined volume of air – the phlogiston released by combustion “spoils” the elasticity of the air that absorbed it, just as fire “spoils” the elasticity of a steel spring.”12

  • Others include: Caloric Thermodynamics, the Corpuscular Theory of Light, the increasing amount of appeal to catastrophic explanations in geology, the shift from Darwinism to Neo-Darwinism, etc.

A scientific theory once thought to be “fact” can at any moment with the discovery of new data or problems be relegated to the trash-bin of scientific history and regarded as “myth”. The only scientific theories which I can think of that can be assigned a probability13 of accuracy at all are those historical sciences which have the benefit of eye-witness testimony to the event(s) in question.

A Possible Objection

A possible objection to this and an argument put forth in favor of scientific realism has been to point out the success of scientific progress through history. However, the success, in large part, has to do with the practical application or “instrumentality” of those theories and not the “truthfulness” of the theories themselves. In other words, if one looks at the history of science, one will find that it is the engineering aspects of the sciences that have had such great success and an accumulation of technology, but the factuality of the theories of those sciences have changed, sometimes drastically. For example, the Ptolemaic universe helped man to predict the positions of the sun, the moon, the planets, and stars, but it was, as a matter of fact, false. So, all this objection proves is that science is good for engineering purposes, not epistemological ones. This particular philosophy of science is called Instrumentalism.


Due to its subjective and ever-changing nature, science can never serve as a reliable epistemic base.14 See here15 for a great example of why a Christian (or anyone for that matter) should never believe that scientific theories have the level of epistemic certainty.

The only way for someone to accurately pontificate on the nature of the cosmos is if a.) that person possesses complete knowledge of the universe 16 or b.) that person has a basic conception of reality imparted to him by one with complete knowledge of the universe. We will come back to the implications of this later.

UPDATE (12/14/08): did a post refuting scientific realism that adds several more points to my list above.


1 I will note again, before I begin, that I have had no formal philosophical training, and so my description of Scientific Realism and the arguments against it may not use the proper philosophical language. I will also gladly accept correction if I have misrepresented it.

4 Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, p.31. I should note, here, that Lewontin’s conclusion that science is pointless if miracles can happen simply does not follow. In fact, it was under Christianity that science flourished. Because of the Christian worldview, man can assume the constancy of ‘natural’ laws because they are upheld by the immutable God of Scripture. In fact, Scripture reveals that God works mostly through ordinary providence (i.e. ‘natural’ laws in His creation) rather than special providence (i.e. miracles). Secondly, God commands man to take dominion over the natural world as His vice-regent (Genesis 1:26). All these things not only allowed for but caused science to thrive under Christianity.

5 Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp.130-131.

9 William A. Dembski, ed., Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2005),

10 ibid.

12 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Chicago University Press: 1996), pp.99-100.

13 The degree of probability depends on the situation, the amount of testimony, etc.

14 I am not casting doubt upon the *general* reliability of empirical data gathering such as the five senses. However, I have shown that those scientific theories which lack the benefit of eye-witness testimony cannot serve as an epistemic base or be regarded as “absolutely” or even “likely true”. Instead, I take the Instrumentalist position that scientific theories are simply useful (but not “true”) formulations to help us engineer things and make life better.

16 i.e. Omniscience

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