Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Comment on Scientific Realism at Green Baggins

This was a comment made by one supporting Peter Enns' re-interpretation of the Bible so that it fits current scientific theories. This comment in quotes is followed by my comment responding to it:

"I am an engineer. I cannot seal my worlds apart from one another like you suggest. I know no technical person (engineering, science, medicine, etc) who can. I beg you to reconsider your dismissal of the fruitfulness of critical/scientific method for ascertaining things about the physical world, including its history. Everything surrounding you right now — your computer, your clothing, the materials constituting your furniture and the building you occupy, the food in your stomach, and the antibiotics in your blood the last time you were sick — they are all proof of this fruitfulness. Of course it is not perfect, but that is not necessary (utterly relativizing science was not Kuhn’s point). Please reconsider, if only because pastorally you stand to lose so many technical people by insisting on that tack."

No one is compartmentalizing worlds. In fact, I would consider myself an Instrumentalist, one who recognizes that scientific theories can be useful for engineering things but realizes that with the discovery of a single piece of data an old theory can be placed in the dustbin, rethought, and a new (and sometimes drastically different) theory can emerge.

It was this case with geosynclinal theory. All geologists back in 1960 believed that mountains were formed through trough-like depressions that were filled with sediment, heated, became unstable, and rose to become mountain ranges. In fact, this theory was so widely held that it was said to be as sure as Darwin's theory of natural selection. It could account for the vast majority of the data at the time. What happened to it? Some guy proposed plate tectonics. Within a small period of time, the geosynclinal theory that was believed in by everyone was washed away and replaced by a very different one.

Another example would be the various geocentrist theories of our solar system. It allowed them to predict the position of planets and stars to a great degree of accuracy and was held world-wide by almost all cultures. Did its success mean that it was true? Of course not!

Yet another example would be Newton's Laws. Were they true? If anyone has heard of Heisenberg and Einstein, then obviously not. But did they allow us to engineer all sorts of useful things? Absolutely!

But that's the point. While scientific theories can be useful for engineering such as the things you mention above, antibiotics and computers, they should not be given the status of descriptors of the actual world.

More examples could be given that bear upon the very issue of dating methods. One example is Yellowstone National Park's fossil forrests (i.e. trees buried vertically on top of one another). Just about every geologist at one time thought that the fossil forrests must have been created gradually over long periods of time (i.e. one forest buried and another forrest planted above it and the cycle repeated over again). In fact, this "overwhelming consensus" is what caused Ron Numbers to leave the Christian faith!

Well, after Mt. St. Helens blew, one geologist that witnessed the event who was also an expert on Yellowstone, noticed that the trees that were washed away in mudflows were buried upright, in the same manner as those at Yellowstone. Now, the catastrophic mudflow explanation is the leading theory for how the buried forrests were deposited. Ron Numbers stopped believing in the inerrancy of the Bible all because he didn't wait long enough for the current theory to be overturned. That is the whole point! Christians shouldn't have to re-interpret their Bible because of scientific theories. Scientific Realism is false! Instrumentalism should instead be the philosophy of science for every Christian.

And by the way: I'M AN ENGINEER TOO!

[BTW: The story about Ron Numbers and the Yellowstone forrests can be found here.]


Rhology said...

Hey S&S,

Do you have sources for the atheist quotes you put out here?

If so, could you post 'em or email 'em to me?

Grace and peace,

Saint and Sinner said...

They're found in the footnotes here: