Addressing “A Grievous Intellectual Sin”

Again I have run into the character limit that Blogger has in place for comments while responding to someone’s comments. Here is an exchange that I have been having with someone who commented on the excerpts I posted from Mike Murray’s essay, “Intelligent Dishonesty (by design).” This exchange may provide you with a deeper insight into what Murray was saying in his essay. Some of the earlier comments may also be from the same person, but since he or she has chosen to remain anonymous I cannot tell, so I have only included the last two comments which hold a common thread.

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.

My response:

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.

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.

My response:

It seems that you may be conflating two separate points that the author is making. This is the section from Murray's essay that you are taking issue with:
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).
But in calling out this "grievous intellectual sin," the author is not applying some standard specific to theological scholarship. Rather, he is pointing out a general fallacy that applies in all areas of scholarship: the fallacy of using someone's statements to support a position contrary to that which they actually hold. The point the author is making is that it is fallacious to cite Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton as part of the argument "against a Supreme Being's hand in the creation of the universe" while omitting the fact that, in Murray's words, "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." This is the "intellectual dishonesty" that Murray describes in his concluding paragraph.
The author seems to have a misguided belief that the same approach should be applied to science.
I believe you are misreading Murray here. Nowhere does he imply that the standards used in theological scholarship should be applied to science. What he actually says is, "Too many scientists hold theologians to standards to which they, themselves, do not adhere." His point is that many scientists seem to have a double standard: theological claims must be proven wholly correct in every regard, else they can be dismissed entirely, whereas scientific claims can be subject to correction and revision without prejudice. Murray asks what I consider to be a very valid question to make this point:
"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?"
Of course this would be unreasonable, and Murray's point is that it is therefore invalid for these scientists to hold theologians to this absurd standard. So Murray is not applying the standards of theological scholarship to science; if anything he is saying that the standards for scientific scholarship should be extended to theology.
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.
While I would agree with you that Einstein was not an appropriate example for the author to use, I believe that you are mistaken in claiming that the scientific work of Kepler, Newton, Galileo, Bacon, and many of the other "fathers" of the scientific revolution did not involve their theological beliefs. This post addresses in a simplified manner how the faith of these scientists was integrally tied with the theories and physical laws that they discovered. There are links at the bottom to references that provide more information.
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.

This depends on what you mean by "logically independent" and "part of the logical structure of physics." If you are only saying that a person does not need to acknowledge the existence of God to apply Newton's law of universal gravitation or Kepler's laws of orbital mechanics, then I acknowledge your point. But if you are claiming that on a deeper level the theories of physics themselves can exist apart from a creator, then I would strongly disagree. For the theories of physics do not explain their own existence. Newton's law of gravitation does not provide an explanation for why masses behave in this manner. Science can observe and define mechanisms, but it cannot provide ultimate causation. These founding fathers of science openly acknowledged God's essential role in the foundational workings of the universe.

Some statements to that effect:

“The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” (Johannes Kepler, Defundamentis Astrologiae Certioribus, Thesis XX, 1601)

“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.... This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God…. In him are all things contained and moved.” Isaac Newton, Principia

C.S. Lewis commented in his book, Miracles: “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.”

Writes Morris Kline in Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty: “The search for the mathematical laws of nature was an act of devotion which would reveal the glory and grandeur of His handiwork.... Each discovery of a law of nature was hailed as evidence of God's brilliance rather than the investigator's.”

To these scientists of the Revolution, these laws would not exist nor would they be ascertainable were it not for God having created the universe to be this way.

Since physics textbooks are concerned about the mechanics and applications of these laws rather than the fundamental cause for their existence, this is why you will not find a creator being invoked in these textbooks. But that does not mean that God's handiwork is not entwined within the fabric of physics itself.

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