“Intelligent Dishonesty (by design)” by Mike Murray – Essay Excerpts

The following are some excerpts from an insightful and fair-minded essay I read recently by Mike Murray that addresses the “theology bashing” being condoned by various scientists today. He makes one explicit statement that I do not entirely agree with, that “religion is subjective (faith-based),” but I heartily applaud everything else he writes.

Intelligent Dishonesty (by design)

by Mike Murray

I have a vague, conceptual belief in some kind of "supreme being." I see that conviction as being not at all at odds with science. I have stated it before and I will repeat it here: There is no belief system -- scientific, religious, or any combination thereof -- that escapes the requirement of faith.

For, to those scientists who say that a god cannot exist since one cannot be proved (and because no one can say from where such a god would have come), the retort is obvious. If the physical matter that presumably exploded in a "Big Bang" wasn't created by a god, from where did that come? If a god did not create the stuff from which the universe supposedly evolved, who -- or what -- did?

If it cannot be proved that "God always was," neither can it be proved that "matter always existed." A degree of faith (or of sticking one's head in the sand) is involved, whichever way you slice it…

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The presumption of too many people working in scientific positions is thus: science is objective (legitimate), religion is subjective (faith-based). In the matter of the latter, there is no argument; in the case of the former, I disagree.

Scientific methodology calls for observation, experimentation, or contemplation (or some combination of the three) to move a hypothesis to a theory. If other scientists independently replicate a presenter's results -- and if no one succeeds at attempts to disprove the core contention(s) within some period of time -- the proposed theory becomes "accepted" theory. It often remains unproven. Many times, a new theory eventually supplants it.

Hence, even when scientists do make honest efforts at objectivity, actual proof (the hurdle they demand that theologians clear in order to establish legitimacy) is routinely absent in their own work.

The scientists who argue against a Supreme Being's hand in the creation of the universe cite the giants of physics past. They speak of Nicholas Copernicus, who (like Aristarchus in ancient times before him) departed from Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus), arguing for a solar system in which the Earth circles the Sun -- instead of the other way around. They breathe the name of Galileo Galilei, who suffered house arrest at the hands of the Catholic Church in his later years for defending that very notion.

Those same scientists invoke the memory of Johannes Kepler, who worked out the ellipses that the planets scribe in their journeys around Old Sol. And they recall Isaac Newton's theory of gravity, and then Albert Einstein's revision -- through his work on general relativity -- to bolster their views.

Pretty heady stuff, that. And a most impressive list of experts.

But those making the argument for "matter evolving to consciousness" -- without any help at all from any kind of Creator -- commit a grievous intellectual sin: the sin of omission. For, while they faithfully report some facts relating to the evolution of physics theory, they studiously edit out that which fails to serve their postulates (or, worse, that has the potential of undermining them altogether).

Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein -- they were all seeking to reveal the hand of God, not to disprove it. They were all believers in a Supreme Being, one who they (devoutly) reckoned created the universe. They were all attempting to "read the mind of God," as Einstein (and perhaps Kepler before him) put it. (Stephen Hawking often repeats that phrase -- usually without attribution -- in discussing the Holy Grail of present-day physics: the so-called Unified Theory, the "theory of everything.")…

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… But I do know one thing. Too many scientists hold theologians to standards to which they, themselves, do not adhere.

For far too many physicists, astronomers, and biologists it's presently a case of "wrong in part, wrong in toto" when it comes to theology. According to them, if there was no actual Garden of Eden (and if there is any chance at all that life exists elsewhere in the universe), then the religious types are all wet.

What if scientists were held to that same standard? They've been wrong many, many times over the centuries. Copernicus (and Aristarchus) proved Ptolemy wrong about his earth-centric system. Kepler corrected the errant notion of circular orbits for planets. Newton likewise altered some earlier-held beliefs while refining his theories about gravitation. Einstein revised Newton and Maxwell. Today, many physicists are hard at work in their efforts to go beyond Einstein, to add to or modify the ideas of Field, Relativity, and Quanta.

In the past, scientists often thought they "knew" things, only to be proved -- at least partially -- wrong by those who followed in their footsteps. If members of society now said to scientists (as many of them are saying to theologians): "Sorry, if you're wrong even a little, you're wrong completely ...and you have nothing to say to us," would they deem it reasonable?

It would be wrong to attack scientists' laudable efforts at observation, experimentation, and contemplation in formulating hypotheses and theories that seek to move our understanding of the physical world forward. It is just as wrong, in my judgment, for scientists to engage in religion-bashing. Regardless of one's personal beliefs on the subject of theology, such activity is uncalled for. Counterproductive, even.

Moreover, a great many of history's giants, working in a variety of scientific fields, have sought to prove God's handiwork -- not to dispel it. To use them today, deceptively (directly or indirectly), in the service of religious detraction is more than heresy. It is intellectual dishonesty.

Copyright ©2006 Michael F. Murray

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  1. Anonymous said...

    The authoritative point of view, curiously..

  2. Kendalf said...

    Hi Anon,
    I'm trying to figure out what you are saying here. Could you elaborate?

  3. Anonymous said...

    Really strange

  4. Anonymous said...

    Just so none of your readers incorrectly presume that Einstein was a born-again Christian creationist, here are some quotes from him:

    1929 to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein: "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."

    But later he calls himself an agnostic, e.g. a 1950 letter to M. Berkowitz: "My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment."

    1954 letter to Eric Gutkind: "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These ... interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."

  5. Kendalf said...

    Thank you for adding these quotes. It is indeed invalid to presume that Einstein was a Christian or that he believed in a personal God. But neither was he an atheist, as others may presume.

    Einstein's own response to those who stated such:
    “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

    When asked whether he believes in the God of Spinoza, Einstein responded:

    "I can't answer with a simple yes or no. I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza's pantheism, but admire even more his contributions to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things.

    Some additional relevant quotes and commentary can be found here and here.

  6. Anonymous said...

    The author seems very confused about how science works. It is not like theological scholarship. No scientist (not even the "Greats") is treated like some infallible prophet whose every view is correct purely by virtue of their authority. Their writings are not treated as scripture, to be believed in toto. Each idea is accepted or rejected individually, on the basis of its utility in providing a coherent framework for the interpretation of observations and its success in prediction. For example, science rejects alchemical theory, even though Newton was a great believer of it who wrote extensively on the topic (and many other rather kooky things, for that matter). Also, Einstein's attempted refutation of nonlocal interpretations of quantum mechanics (the EPR "paradox") has itself been refuted by the theoretical work of Bell and experimental results of Aspect. The views of the "Greats" on creator-spirits will similarly be accepted or rejected as part of science on the basis of their concordance with observation, not on the authority of their advocates.

  7. Kendalf said...

    You seem to be implying by your contrast that theological scholarship entails theologians being treated like infallible prophets or their writings being treated as scripture. Could you explain why you think that is the case? Or perhaps I have misunderstood your comparison.

    I'm also not sure why you think the author is confused about how science works. He never says that science is like theological scholarship. Rather, he is asking the reader to imagine what it would be like if scientists were required to uphold the same standard that some seem to expect that theologians must adhere to, the point being that if it is absurd to expect scientists to be infallible, it is equally wrong for people to expect the same of theologians.

  8. Anonymous said...

    You misunderstood. I did not mean to liken theologians to prophets. I took issue with the "sins of omission" part of the article and meant to point out that you can't apply the practices of theological scholarship to scientific questions.

    The scriptures - Biblical writings of / about prophets, apostles, etc - are treated by theologians as divinely inspired, i.e. as having an enormous level of authority, in some cases as the literal word of God. So the message is treated as important in large part because of the esteem in which the messenger is held, e.g. anything that Jesus is recorded as having said or done is regarded as significant purely because it was Jesus doing/saying it. Therefore in theological scholarship it is indeed a "grievous intellectual sin" to selectively quote from such sources. This is because theology recognizes no independent criterion for judging truth - for example it is not possible to say "Jesus was right about this, but wrong about that". One must take an approach akin to historical biography in which the whole person must be represented in a balanced way.

    The author seems to have a misguided belief that the same approach should be applied to science. But this theological approach to scholarship is not relevant to science, because science is not a personality cult. (Relative) "truth" is judged not on the authority of the messenger but on the usefulness of the message. It doesn't matter who said it, but whether it makes sense. It is not a "sin of omission" to ignore the parts of a scientist's world view which do not stand up to scientific scrutiny or for which there is no evidence (e.g. the examples in my last post). In particular, the author is simply wrong to suggest that belief in a creator was somehow a part of the "evolution of physics theory". It may have been part of the belief system of some of the key players, but does not appear in any way as part of the theory that was developed - for example, Einstein's comments on religion are not part of his scientific writing, and none of his scientific work depends on this belief or involves it in any way. The theories of physics are logically independent of the existence or otherwise of a creator. I challenge you to find one university-level physics textbook that invokes a creator as part of the logical structure of physics.

  9. Kendalf said...

    My response hit the character limit for comments, so I hope that we can continue this dialogue in this new post that I've created.

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