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Why Theology is Self Correcting

February 8, 2010

All right, as promised, here are further thoughts on my statement that Theology is self correcting.

I think of all the reactions to the PZ interview, this one  probably suprised me the most. To me, it’s self evident, but from how everyone reacted, I realized this was not the case. Here is a further explanation.

Sadly, the night of the video interview, we were really pressed for time. PZ had a long day and we had other guests to interview. I’m sure that PZ (and the rest of you) would have liked more clarification to the statement. It certainly needed more clarification.

When I said that theology is self correcting, I meant that it has in built system for correcting errors. Science, as we all know has a simliar system. However, it might be rightly argued that each system is different, because each discipline is different. I think this is true, to some extent. My interest is not in those differences, but in how the systems might be simliar. I think those systems are similar in two ways: An appeal to an established tradition and vehicles for self correction.

Let’s deal with the established tradition part first.

First, let’s look at science. For those who argue that science comes at a scientific problem completely “objective” and without any regards to work that has happend before, is completely ignorant of the scientific process. In fact, I know of no self respecting scientist who makes this argument. As Sir Isacc Newton put it, “If I see further, it is because I have stood on the shoulder of giants”. His point is that scienctific inquiry does have a history and does have authories that must be considered in the scientific pursuit. True, those authorties are often stuck down, but they are still consulted.

We obviously have gone beyond some of those authorties and have expanded on others. Even more, the scientific method is a hard and fast authority that all scientists must obey if they are to do good science.  They respect the scientific tradition that has come before and seek to build on it through the scientific method.

Christians have that established tradition as well, but it’s always being corrected.  To illustrate, alllow me to use the first two chapters in Genesis. Believe it or not, the church has wrestled how to really deal with Genesis one and two. It’s only in the 20th century that six day, twenty four, ten thousand years for the age of the earth, has become a test for Christian orthodoxy. The historical picture is much more complicated. Early church fathers, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas have long argued that Genesis 1 and two should not be taken as a literal six twenty four hour periods. Both had different arguments as to why this was the case and both of them scientifically wrong. Their arguments were widely considered in their day as being scientifically possible. At least, in the scientific understanding of the day.

Flash forward to the present day. As many of you know, the hard core YEC’s have only been around since the Scopes trial and really didn’t start gathering steam until the 1960’s. Many conservative theologians are begining to push back against the YEC’s intepretation mostly due to how the text functions. They have argued that the YEC position is not even a very biblical one, much less a scientifically valid position to take.

Notice how this worked. Look at the established YEC tradition in this country. Comparing it to older tradition in the church. Comparing it to a hard core standard (the Bible and Science). End result= YEC position being corrected by theological discussion.

Side Note: Some will argue it’s science that prompted this discussion in the first place. This is true to some extent, but it also doesn’t tell the whole truth. As noted, the debate on whether Genesis 1 and 2 is a literal time frame has been happening WAY before the current evolution/creation debates. So, this is only partially true.

All that to say, this particular question is far from being settled in the Christian world and it’s in the process of self correcting through understanding the text, scientific investigation and good old fashioned theological debate. We argue through academic theological journey’s (yes, there are a ton), sermons, blogs, and every place you could possibly imagine.  It’s true Christians have a tradition. I would argue that this is not unique to any academic discipline and certainly is true of science. Despite the PZ comments, theology DOES have a peer review process. You write a paper. Submit it to an academic journal and then other theologians get to tear into your work. It it exactly like the scientific process? No, and it shouldn’t be. However, that’s not the same thing as saying it doesn’t have one at all.

These are short thoughts, but I’m hoping to say more as all of you push back. Please note, I’m not saying that self correcting in science is the same as in theology. However, that doesn’t change the fact it happens in both disciplines.

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59 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2010 1:17 pm

    Jon,

    Maybe a concern with the peer review would be that it only occurs within a specific sect. It seems that Catholics have a strong way in which something similar to a peer review may be done, but how does that hold over protestants? And then things seem to get even messier when we try to understand how this works amongst protestant groups (especially non-traditional sects).

    So a question from here may be how does one settle disputes amongst these sects? One may think that this is something that science does have but theology does not and this is why people may not wish to take theology as seriously (if even seriously in any sense) as science.

    Maybe an option is to have a lot of what is said in theology should piggy back on other disciplines like science. But this still seems like it would insufficient to settle a lot of theological disputes.

    What do you think?

  2. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 8, 2010 1:28 pm

    I think settiling a dispute across sects is less of a problem now. Most of the theologically peer review journals tend to have people from various sects publishing in the same journal. I think the majority of the Christian world would take the Nicene Creed and the Bible as their authority. In some cases, church tradition as well.

  3. February 8, 2010 2:06 pm

    Do you think that is sufficient though to really settle specific issues that are had between differing groups? Or do you think that all that does is just open up theology to be less determinate about the way that those specific issues of dispute are to be understood, making it the case that really instead of any forward (or seemingly forward motion) being had we now are just taking less stances about the truth of a number of propositions that have been traditionally battled over?

  4. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 8, 2010 2:36 pm

    I think it can be when people are really being honest in the debate.

  5. libraryatheist permalink
    February 8, 2010 4:05 pm

    Jon,

    I’m afraid I see a problem. What you describe here is not self correction.
    To put this in chronological order:

    “…Early church fathers… have long argued that Genesis 1 and two should not be taken as a literal six twenty four hour periods…
    …It’s only in the 20th century that six day, twenty four, ten thousand years for the age of the earth, has become a test for Christian orthodoxy…
    …the hard core YEC’s have only been around since the Scopes trial and really didn’t start gathering steam until the 1960’s. Many conservative theologians are begining to push back…”

    In science a theory only gets replaced by a theory that fits all of the evidence better. That is self correction. A newer even better theory might come along, but the theory previous to the current one doesn’t fit the evidence as well, so in absence of new evidence, it will not get a second go.

    What you have described is merely an oscillation with mood and culture, not self correction. The hypothesis is struck down by worse, better or equal hypotheses and then rises again to strike down whatever is in place when it comes back into fashion.

    If we were to leave it up to such a system, the “end result= YEC position being corrected by theological discussion,” wouldn’t be an end result at all, it would merely be an idea that gained and lost popularity coexistent with other theologically debatable ideas.

    It is only because the science is pointing the way for liberal theologians that we will likely see a permanent end to YEC having a stranglehold on politics.

  6. Knockgoats permalink
    February 8, 2010 4:17 pm

    There are obvious differences between theological and scientific authorities: the latter are only “authorities” at all so long and so far as the evidence supports their theories. Once these are supplanted, they may be respected as exemplars, but their words carry no authority whatever: the only real “authority” is the evidence. This is, of course, something that creationists and other pseudo-scientists never grasp: the former invariably seem to believe that evolutionary biologists regard The Origin of Species as Christians regard the Bible: as a sacred text.

    I’m not seeing where the alleged “self-correction” of theology comes in. Take your example of the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. As you say, whether to interpret these chapters literally was disputed from early in Christian history. Yet no resolution was arrived at theologically. In fact, it still hasn’t been. Of course, all but the loony fringe now accept that they cannot be literally true as history, but that’s because the scientific evidence is so overwhelming. Of course you’ll huff and puff and say the literal interpretation is not good theology, but, without considering the scientific evidence, how would you know? In the end, the answer in Christian theology seems to come back either to the authority of the Bible (Protestantism), or to the authority of the Church (Catholic). Yet even if there were rational grounds to accept either (there are none), there simply is no way of determining the “right” way to interpret the Bible (which is in any case rife with self-contradiction); and the Catholic Church has repeatedly changed its teaching (famously, limbo was simply invented to answer awkward questions about what happened to unbaptised infants and virtuous pagans, and has now been dropped again – and that’s simply one among hundreds of examples).

    You refer above to the Nicene creed as if it were something of value. Yet this piece of absurd nonsense – what could it possibly mean for a being to beget itself, for example, and what does “very God of very God” mean – it’s drivel – is not accepted by all who call themselves Christians – and by what standard can you say you are right and they are wrong? Well, by the Nicene creed, I suppose. Actually, not, because the original Nicene creed omitted the word “Filoque” and the eastern Orthodox still do – how do you decide whether the western or eastern Churches are right about this? A wrestling match between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople perhaps – two falls, two submissions or a knock-out to decide the issue? That would be a great improvement over the way most theological disputes have been pursued.

  7. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 8, 2010 5:33 pm

    Knockgoats,
    As for your point about the only real authority being the evidence, in a sense, you are right. However, established scientific fact must be deal with before one explores new scientific explanations. Thus, no one here is stating that evolutionary biologists view the Origin of the Species as the Bible of evolution. However, it HAD to be understood before the theory could be developed further and some of Darwin’s theories disregarded for better explanations (IE, genetics, etc)

    The Self correction might take longer in theology than in science, but it does take place. The resolution on the Genesis issue is coming very close in the past twenty five years. Just because it hasn’t doesn’t mean it won’t. As to your statement that science forced the issue, I’ll point you to my comments about the issues of the literal twenty four days reading of Genesis was in question long before geology and biology as now know it came into play. Science just helped us sharpen those points of view.

    Once again, I’m pointing out the Nicene Creed as something that has value in the Christian community. You might think it’s nonsensical, but Christians don’t. So, therefore, it’s right to use it in the argument. There are a number of different ways the theological points you talk about can be resolved. I’m quite confident they will be.

  8. Knockgoats permalink
    February 8, 2010 6:06 pm

    Jonathan,

    “Established scientific fact” can turn out not to be fact after all. I remember when it was “established scientific fact” that Mercury rotated exactly once as it revolved around the sun. Only, as it turns out, it doesn’t. Literally nothing that is not logically necessary could not be overturned by new evidence in science.

    The resolution on the Genesis issue is coming very close in the past twenty five years.

    Really? On what evidence do you base that claim? And if it’s true, why would it be happening now, if not for the scientific evidence?

    You might think it’s nonsensical, but Christians don’t. So, therefore, it’s right to use it in the argument.

    No, and many African animists don’t think it nonsensical to believe that all sickness is caused by witchcraft. Are they right to use that belief in argument, which often leads them to murder alleged witches?

    There are a number of different ways the theological points you talk about can be resolved. I’m quite confident they will be.

    Your confidence is not an argument. Why is it Christians find this point so hard to grasp? If you have an argument, present it.

  9. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 8, 2010 7:32 pm

    Knockgoats,
    As for the established scientific fact, you have missed my point entirely. Of course you are right, but how is it overturned? Through the scientific method, established scientific fact.

    I base my evidence on the claim of a number of discussions going on in theological circles, and in popular evangelical discussion. Or, to make it simple, the fact that Francis Collins is widely embraced by the evangelical community speaks volumes the majority of Christians are willing to hear if not accept the right understanding of Genesis. Plus, it’s not just happening now, as I keep pointing out. It’s a discussion that’s been going on for years completely outside of the scientific discussion. However, science has been ONE of the factors that has caused theologians to reexamine the text to see if are understanding the message of Genesis. We have always asked the quesiton, ‘How would the original hearers hear the words being written?” Every biblical intpretation begins with that unavoidable discussion point.

    If you are going to talk individual systems of thought, then yes, the animisim makes perfect sense. If you want to talk about what’s true, that’s another matter entirely. But, as you are making the assertion it’s nonsensical, it’s up to you to make the argument in this particular case.

    As for the theological points, perhaps it would be helpful if you give me a specific one and we can address it that way. These broad base statements (from me and you) aren’t particuarly helpful.

  10. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 8, 2010 7:43 pm

    David,
    I’ll take your middle point first, the one about “in science a theory only gets replaced by a theory that fits all the evidence better” is a great description of how theology works. Again, using the Genesis point as an illustration. Many early church fathers and medievals looked at it through the lens of science they had at the time. Was it bad science? well, for their time, it wasn’t. They didn’t have the testing ability we have. However, they still did science and often looked at scripture in that light. Now that we know more theologically and scientifically, we can make more confident assertions about Genesis one and two. I will certainly grant you that this process if often messier than how it occurs in science. But, it does happen. Another example, Arius being overwhelmingly rejected by the Nicene counsel after they actually heard what he had to say. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t a close vote.

    So, I would obviously disagree with you that it’s a mere oscillation between mood and culture. The actual picture is much more complicated.

    As for your statement, “it is only that science is pointing the way for liberal theologians that we will likely see a permanent end to YEC on politics”, that is a huge statement, so I’ll try to unpack it a bit. As for liberal theologians, I don’t consider myself liberal. It’s true, I might be painted as such in some circles. But, my ultimate concern is what the text actually says, not what a political agenda tells me it should say. That, and that alone will kill YEC politically. You should know the type of discussion you are talking about would only be considered persecution by the YEC’s and therefore increase their strength. The only way to put a firm end to YEC is for Christian theologians to tell the YEC’s and more importantly their supporters that in no way does the Bible support the YEC position and certainly the science doesn’t.

    As GK Chesterson once wrote, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It’s that it’s never really been tried.”

  11. libraryatheist permalink
    February 8, 2010 8:22 pm

    You comment that the church fathers looked at Genesis through the lens of science, and I would encourage those at the Creation “Museum” we visited to do the same. However, in order to determine whether theology is self correcting, we have to put to the side the way that science accumulates knowledge and corrects itself, as well as the way that science informs theological debate.

    “Now that we know more theologically”

    This is the point I am curious about. How do we know more theologically?
    My understanding was that we have merely done more interpretation, not that we are gaining information. And even that we are possibly losing understanding as languages shift subtly and we no longer understand the message as a local of the time would.

    And, yes, I see there was a necessity for unpacking my comment about liberal theologians. However, allow me as I see you went somewhere I was not. My definition of liberal in terms of theology is “not fundamentalist.” Just as long as you are willing to agree that some things are meant metaphorically, I would consider you a liberal theologian. I’m sorry if there is another term which conveys that meaning better.

  12. February 8, 2010 9:19 pm

    Jon,

    Above you said:

    ‘“in science a theory only gets replaced by a theory that fits all the evidence better” is a great description of how theology works. Again, using the Genesis point as an illustration.’

    Maybe pointing out the movement away from ransom theories to satisfaction theories would be a good example of the kind of forward progress you are looking for.

  13. February 8, 2010 9:48 pm

    lybraryatheist,

    I think that most Christians period would be quite liberal theologically by that definition. Even ones that claim to be fundies. Maybe a better word for people who take each word of the bible literally is ‘unlearned’. Definitely there would be a spectrum there between how much is taken literally and how much isn’t.

    Maybe the best thing is to not use words like conservative and liberal since the meaning of those terms seems to change across social groups. So, when I hear liberal theologically I think of someone who denies omniscience or the virgin birth or something along those lines. Maybe the words to use are orthodox and heterodox. Where those could also be understood as standing on a spectrum where ones position would be either orthodox or heterodox based on how close they stood to the ecumenical councils and tradition.

    Then from there we can try to figure out how to categorize the YEC’s. It seems that their beliefs tend to be contrary to a decent number of the doctors of the church, so that would push them down the spectrum to heterodoxy.

    Sorry for the random rant. I have just been thinking about how to use that terminology a lot myself.

  14. Johann permalink
    February 8, 2010 11:00 pm

    …the one about “in science a theory only gets replaced by a theory that fits all the evidence better” is a great description of how theology works. Again, using the Genesis point as an illustration. Many early church fathers and medievals looked at it through the lens of science they had at the time. Was it bad science? well, for their time, it wasn’t. They didn’t have the testing ability we have. However, they still did science and often looked at scripture in that light. Now that we know more theologically and scientifically, we can make more confident assertions about Genesis one and two.

    …correct me if I’m wrong, but to me it looks like you just said that theology does in fact rely on science to give it direction, at least on questions where evidence is concerned, and the “self-correction” you refer to is merely its variously successful attempts to catch up.

    How does one identify a correct theological position among the multitudes, Jon? Theologians have abandoned arguments about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin because there’s no evidence to be had, and so no resolution – just a bunch of angry old men arguing about whose fantasy makes the most sense.

    You might claim that the question is pointless, but that doesn’t explain why, after all the years spent on it and ink spilled over it, we are no closer to an answer than we were before it ever arose. We can answer it to some degree of precision if it were asked about flies, elephants, or a particular microbial strain – but not about angels, despite the many things that have been attributed to them by theologians.

    And we’re pretty much in the same position when we ask theologians whether angels even exist. So how well does theology do when it can’t use science to find the way?

  15. February 9, 2010 12:13 am

    Johann,

    Not to reply for Jon, but it seems like there is a complex story to be told about how ones understandings of science and philosophy interweave. I doubt many (if any) serious theologians debated about how many angels could ‘could fit on the head of a pin’. Angels are taken to be entities without extension, so that would be taken to not be a sensible question. There was a debate though about how many angels there could be in the middle ages but this was a very complex debate that had to deal with ones understanding on individuation.

    As for other issues in theology there are other ways that the theologian has to address these issues besides piggybacking on science. One of which is to undergo a critical analysis of what is being conveyed in sacred texts, another is to do the same with ecumenical documents, then there are always philosophical (dealing with ones epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and such) considerations that lend a hand to solving the problems. They are all held in balance of each other so it is important to understand how each approach effects the other. The issue does get a lot more complex than this but I just wanted to point at some options for the theologian.

  16. February 9, 2010 12:20 am

    Knockgoats,

    You said:

    ‘Literally nothing that is not logically necessary could not be overturned by new evidence in science.’

    This is not true. There are some contingent truths which cannot be known a posteriori and thus are not under the scope of science. Actually it seems as if the study of science presupposes some of these truths, for example; that our senses are reliable (however you wish to cash this out) is contingent. Yet science as an empirically grounded study must presuppose this if we are to take it to be helping us get at the truth.

    I just wanted to point this out because there are plenty of other things which are contingent (though not presupposed by science [whether true or not]) that are also not under the scope of scientific inquiry. Certain metaphysical truths may be this way, like whether or not we are in a materialist world or not.

    I know it’s a small point but I think it’s one that we should keep in mind as we continue to discuss these topics.

  17. Johann permalink
    February 9, 2010 1:58 am

    I doubt many (if any) serious theologians debated about how many angels could ‘could fit on the head of a pin’.

    There’s (limited) evidence for it, but mostly it’s used as a shorthand reference to fruitless theological debates – that’s how I meant it, anyhow, though I do see I didn’t make that clear. ^_^

    From where I’m standing, that debate is precisely as well-founded as the one you mention on “how many angels there could be” – or the question of whether angels exist at all. “Angels are taken to be entities without extension” – by whom, and on what basis? How was this conclusion arrived at? What is the evidence of its correctness?

    Where, in other words, is this “self-correcting process” Jon wants us to see in theology? Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place, but what I’m seeing so far is a popularity contest within a set of widely held opinions with little to no actual evidence behind them. This isn’t unique to theology, of course, but it doesn’t mesh well with the idea that theology, left to its own devices, gets us closer to truth.

  18. February 9, 2010 2:26 am

    Johann,

    The conclusion that angels are entities without extension can be justified just by simple a priori argumentation. Consider what is means for something to be a spiritual and non-physical entity, this is what angels are taken to be, chew on the concepts for a second and the conclusion can be reached. The debate about how many angels there are was one arguments started from two places, the first being a list of the different kinds of angels that can be found in scripture or in church tradition and then philosophical discussion on how individuation works. The two sides were that there could be one angel per kind or that there could be infinitely per kind. This really just came down to how immaterial beings are to be individuated.

    I’m not entirely sure if ‘self-correcting’ is the right term for the mechanism. But we can see that there are certain standards which theologians have to test their work against like best interpretations of the text, an understanding of what science tells us about reality, certain philosophical principles, ecumenical documents and church tradition. Each of these seems to be pretty important to the work a theologian has. Granted this may leave issues open for discussion this does not really seem to be problematic unless if these left huge issues up for debate.

    (Going on a small tangent) An advantage that one may say theology has over science (this is a bit out on a limb, I am personally not committed to this view) is that theology seems to come with an interpretation of what the world would be like if the position is true. Whereas scientific theories do not have the interpretation built into them like theological positions do (how do we interpret the causal relations we are positing [are they merely constant conjunction, or what?]). There are competing interpretations for a lot of scientific theories. So, it may be good to explore how the interpretations relate to what is being done in the science.

  19. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 9, 2010 10:45 am

    David,
    I agree with you on the first part, in theory. However, I would like to make a correction. I think science is ONE of the lenses we look through, not the only one. See my reply to Knockgoats.

    Actually, we know more about the worlds that created the bible than the medievals did through archeological discoveries. So, I would disagree with you completely on this one. We actually know way more than the medieval church and so in that way, we are gaining more information.

    I can see what you are saying about the liberal theologians. It’s probably more of how the terms are applied in a different context. To people like Ken Ham, I’m a raging liberal. To someone like Bishop Spong, I’m a neandrathal conservative. Shrug. So be it. As long as you know I believe the Nicene Creed and in Scripture, we are all good.

  20. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 9, 2010 10:45 am

    Cruz,
    Are you talking about the atonement discussion?

  21. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 9, 2010 10:56 am

    Well, I would correct you as you are partially right. But only partially. Theology does and should consult science as it considers what the bible and church tradition says. As for catching up, that is a bit dodgy, wouldn’t you say? I mean, science HAS been wrong on some pretty important questions for a long time. So, why should theology revolve around everything that science says? Science, as good as it is at telling us how things work in the natural world has proven horribly bad on the ought questions, which is what theology seeks to address.

    I would go with Cruz on the whole angels dancing on a pin. If you look at the basics of the Nicene Creed, you will find a HUGE amount of agreement on those basics. In fact, I have had a number of different conversations the past few weeks with Catholics and Orthodox ministers. We figured out we agree on things way more than we disagree. As for the masses, it comes down to the churches doing a better job education. Pure and simple. However, even in the supposed masses, you will find a large amount of agreement.

    I’m sorry, what question did I say was pointless? Help me with that one.

    As for your last statement, once again, I don’t think most theologians ask science to prove that angels exist, as that’s outside of the realm of what science is supposed to do, namely, tell us how the natural world works. I think the crux of our issues come down to what science can and can’t do. I’m not asking science to prove God’s existence to me, as I don’t expect it shall ever be able to do so. I ask my theology and philosophy to do that.

    Even science has barriers, whether you like it or not. Case in point is Quantum Physics. The better our science gets in this area, the more we realize we aren’t going to be able to understand ow things work on the Quantum level. This is not God of the gaps, because science itself is showing us the complicated nature of reality. Does that prove God or the supernatural exists? Of course not. However, it does show us the boundaries of what we may able to find out through science. Another case in point, what was before the Big Bang. I know Hawking says it’s a meaningless question, but let’s face it, we all wonder about it. How can you not? Can we answer it? Most likely not.

  22. February 9, 2010 11:38 am

    Jon,

    I was talking about the medieval atonement discussion. It seems that the way Anselm and others handled certain views on atonement and replaced them would be an example of how new theories can arise in theology that ‘better fit the evidence’.

  23. Johann permalink
    February 9, 2010 2:54 pm

    The conclusion that angels are entities without extension can be justified just by simple a priori argumentation. Consider what is means for something to be a spiritual and non-physical entity, this is what angels are taken to be, chew on the concepts for a second and the conclusion can be reached.

    That’s a pretty large pile of presuppositions you’re taking for granted there, Cruz, and your argument is far from simple without it. For example, theology has done bugger all to demonstrate that there are such things as “spiritual entities” or that they are even possible – I know the rough shape of the idea you’re referring to because (once again) it’s fairly popular, but it’s hardly a valid premise to use to reach conclusions about the world.

    Let’s say I take angels to be ten feet tall and about three feet wide and able to become invisible and intangible at will, and tell you that it was these ten-foot winged humanoids that are mentioned throughout the Bible. How would you “correct”/improve/etc. this theological position of mine?

    But we can see that there are certain standards which theologians have to test their work against like best interpretations of the text, an understanding of what science tells us about reality, certain philosophical principles, ecumenical documents and church tradition.

    And we all know how church tradition “improved” Galileo’s views and Giordano Bruno’s quality of life. =P The adherence to tradition and holy texts as a means of finding truth is an argument against theology improving itself. Picture what biology would be like today if biologists could not contradict, and had to tiptoe around testing the principles set out in Darwin’s “Origin”.

    An advantage that one may say theology has over science (this is a bit out on a limb, I am personally not committed to this view) is that theology seems to come with an interpretation of what the world would be like if the position is true. Whereas scientific theories do not have the interpretation built into them like theological positions do…

    Hm? Scientific theories are interpretation – they abstract away from the bare data and make conclusions about how the world works based on that data. The difference between interpretation in science and in religion is that in science, interpretations can be tested. And you can certainly make claims about what the world would be like if one or another interpretation were true – even outside the nuts and bolts of the science itself, I think Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke and a host of others demonstrate that pretty clearly. 😉

    Theology doesn’t so muchhave interpretation as it is interpretation, often of things utterly imaginary, like souls or angels. In that respect, it’s not science – it’s not even science fiction, because science fiction does have something of an obligation to science and reality. The genre closest to theology, I think, is fantasy – where magic can work because the audience wants it to.

  24. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 9, 2010 3:31 pm

    “And we all know how church tradition “improved” Galileo’s views and Giordano Bruno’s quality of life. =P The adherence to tradition and holy texts as a means of finding truth is an argument against theology improving itself. Picture what biology would be like today if biologists could not contradict, and had to tiptoe around testing the principles set out in Darwin’s “Origin”.

    I don’t think is being fair to the church in regards to Galileo. First, as we have said on this blog, the Galielo story is much more complicated. Second, what everyone forgets is that the science on Galielo’s assertions hadn’t been finalized at the time. it’s easy to toss rocks from the 21st century.

  25. Johann permalink
    February 9, 2010 4:41 pm

    Science, as good as it is at telling us how things work in the natural world has proven horribly bad on the ought questions, which is what theology seeks to address.

    You seem to be moving the goalposts you’ve outlined in your post, Jon – I specifically said earlier that “theology does in fact rely on science to give it direction, at least on questions where evidence is concerned“, and as far as I can tell the discussion has been entirely about “is” questions so far.

    Besides, “ought” questions are hardly all theology seeks to address; this is just the niche it’s been beaten back into after being wrong time and time again on empirically testable claims.

    If you look at the basics of the Nicene Creed, you will find a HUGE amount of agreement on those basics. In fact, I have had a number of different conversations the past few weeks with Catholics and Orthodox ministers. We figured out we agree on things way more than we disagree. As for the masses, it comes down to the churches doing a better job education. Pure and simple. However, even in the supposed masses, you will find a large amount of agreement.

    Popularity contest, Jon. You’re really not showing me anything else here so far.

    That’s not to say that popular ideas aren’t often better than the alternative – for example, Catholics and Protestants tolerating each other is better than St. Bartholomew’s. What I’m saying is that they’re officially adopted because they are popular, not because they are better, much like killing them all and letting God sort them out used to have extensive popular support.

    I’m sorry, what question did I say was pointless? Help me with that one.

    Sorry, that was me posting when I should’ve been sleeping. ^_^ That was meant as a hypothetical – read it as “you could claim that the question is pointless”, referring to angels on the head of a pin.

    Even science has barriers, whether you like it or not.

    We can recognize the current limitations of science, true. Given how far we’ve come, making guesses about where we’ll be forced to stop seems like a losing bet to me. 😉 And yes, I say this with quantum physics firmly in mind.

  26. Johann permalink
    February 9, 2010 5:40 pm

    I don’t think is being fair to the church in regards to Galileo. First, as we have said on this blog, the Galielo story is much more complicated. Second, what everyone forgets is that the science on Galielo’s assertions hadn’t been finalized at the time. it’s easy to toss rocks from the 21st century.

    Galileo wasn’t tried for unverified science, Jon. He was tried for heresy. I didn’t set his trial up as a showdown between his theory and the theology of the Church, the Church did, and your earlier post does not contest that. I understand your concern for the details, but they do not help the Church here:

    – The original, “tolerant” position of the Church was to let Galileo keep talking about heliocentrism on the condition that he do so solely as a thought exercise, without ever claiming that the Earth actually revolves around the Sun – which was essentially the Church saying “Shut the fuck up”, since it meant he could not discuss his data. Cardinal Bellarmine, as close to a sympathizer as Galileo had in the Church hierarchy, wrote that for Galileo to do otherwise would “harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture false.” The primary concern of the Church throughout was the preservation of people’s faith – the source of its power and authority – rather than establishing the truth.

    – The gag order was strengthened and made official later with a unanimous decision from a commission of the Inquisition, prohibiting Galileo from advocating the Copernican view in speech or writing and threatening further punishment if he disobeyed. And this is an excellent example of the Church being right by mistake, by the way – they denounced the Copernican notion of a stationary Sun as “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”. However, they weren’t talking about the Sun moving through space as we now know it does – they were talking about the Sun orbiting the Earth. The catch, of course, is that they condemned this view not because they had better evidence but because it contradicted the contemporary understanding of the Bible – and, for precisely the same reason, they condemned the idea of a moving Earth.

    It’s important to note that this wasn’t just a prohibition imposed on Galileo – several related works were banned in addition to his book being pulled from circulation, and the commission formally declared that heliocentrism was heretical. Essentially, astronomers throughout Europe were put on notice that This Won’t Fly Around Here. There’s also a sad irony in this – Galileo wasn’t trying to get the Church to adopt his views, he wanted it to stay out of the debate and let the astronomers fight it out. Of course, the Church could lose face if he prevailed against their favored position, so leaving it to the people who actually knew what they were doing was not an option.

    – After he obtained the Inquisition’s permission to write the Dialogue as a balanced treatment of the two views but actually slanted it towards the Copernican, he was put on trial. He was explicitly accused of heresy, the main charge against him. He was made to deny under oath not only that the Earth moves but that he ever taught otherwise. He was also accused of saying that something could be true even if the Church has declared it otherwise (!), and forced to formally denounce this as well. He was sentenced to imprisonment, commuted to house arrest in view of his extreme old age, and the Church banned his current works as well as any he might write in the future.

    To sum up, the Church threatened and then imprisoned Galileo for advocating a view different from its own because this was a threat to its authority – and its position has not changed substantially since that time. According to Papa Ratzi in 1990 (still a cardinal at the time), the “verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune”. Not official enough? In 1992, John Paul II wrote regarding Galileo that “the error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.”

    Note what he says was wrong. It wasn’t the evidence – the Church did not consult Galileo’s evidence for his conviction. It was not the means used to silence Galileo and defend the authority of the Bible and the Church. It was the connection made between geocentrism and scripture, which tied the Church to a geocentric view – and it only took the Church three and a half centuries to renounce it. Had the connection been stronger, we’d still be waiting for that apology and listening to mealy-mouthed theologians mumble about how Galileo was spiritually wrong or something along those lines.

    Tell how I’m being unfair here, Jon. Because if this is the way “self-correcting” theology works – by silencing different views, gagging its critics and covering its opulent ass to preserve its influence – then I say we need to burn it and salt the earth.

    I also notice that you haven’t commented on Giordano Bruno, whose treatment seems to me an excellent example of how theology has traditionally gone about finding “truth” and dealt with competing claims – before it got defanged. Would you care to do so?

  27. Johann permalink
    February 9, 2010 5:45 pm

    Bleh, missed this paragraph when pasting from Notepad. This was meant to be at the top of this post:

    Theology does and should consult science as it considers what the bible and church tradition says. As for catching up, that is a bit dodgy, wouldn’t you say? I mean, science HAS been wrong on some pretty important questions for a long time. So, why should theology revolve around everything that science says?

    Show me where theology has done better than science on questions that fall within the purview of science, Jon – not through blind luck or the ephemeral popularity of an opinion that was confirmed to be correct later on, but through its own directed, “self-correcting” process distinct from science. How are we doing on God’s plagues vs. germ theory? God putting the Earth in the center of Creation vs. the planets orbiting the Sun? Flood geology vs. geology? Baraminology vs. phylogeny? (And if you need to look up the first term, as I did when I first saw it…I’d say that illustrates my point.)

  28. Ash permalink
    February 9, 2010 7:57 pm

    John, I’d say you got your terms mixed up; science is self correcting, whereas theology is only self affirming. Theology generally confines itself to regressing only as far as its holy texts. Yes there are discussions on the right interpretation of Genesis, but these discussions only begin with an acceptance that there is a god, he is the creator, and the bible therefore must be the starting point from which to interpret any and all evidence. It’s pseudo-circular logic at best. Let’s face it, the only possible way for Mary to have had a completely genuine virgin birth would have to be miraculous. This is all theology has to retreat to, and it has to ignore the scientific impossibility to do so. And, once you have to retreat to a position where you have to ignore evidence of reality to keep believing your faith, the notion of ‘self correcting’ applied to theology is utterly absurd.

    I also presume when you talk of theology, you are talking of specifically Christian theology. If you are willing to label this as ‘self correcting’, would you also apply that term to Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist etc. theology? why/why not?

  29. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 10, 2010 9:51 am

    Ash,
    It is true, to some extent that theology does have boundaries of its sacred texts. However, I think it’s you who are confusing the terms. It is possible for system of knowledge to be self correcting within it’s own spheres of disucssion. There is no reason to call it self affirming because of this. Science, in it’s sphere, tells us how the natural world works. That’s it. It can’t tell us about ethics. It can’t tell us beauty. Period. So, by your definition, science is self affirming. And guess what? That’s perfectly fine.

    You keep talking about evidence or reality, but you not defining those terms. If you mean reality as naturalist materialist defines it, then yes, I do deny that reality because I don’t think it’s reality at all. So, I would like to see you define what you mean by those terms first before I argue with shadows.

    I wonder if you read my post and responses at all. I’m not trying to be harsh, but all of what you wrote is assertion, rather than dealing with my actual arguments.

  30. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 10, 2010 10:11 am

    Johan,

    Hmm, trying to figure out how to best deal with your posts here.

    Let’s go with this statement first:
    “Show me where theology has done better than science on questions that fall within the purview of science, Jon”

    I think this is a confusion of what I’m trying to say with my original post. That is, within its sphere of discussion, theology can be self correcting. It seems as if you and the rest want to elevate this discussion into what problems of truth can science can or can’t solve. Theology, really, is not concerned with many of the same questions as science. Once again, back to Genesis. All Genesis has every been concerened with is telling us that God created the world. It’s really not that interested in telling us how He did it. You are making the same mistake, if you pardon me, as the YEC’s. For a long time, I accepted the idea that Genesis had to teach a six twenty four hour period for creation. I thought it was the only theological position that was faithful to the Bible. In seminary, a professor of mine in seminary taught me different BEFORE I started thinking about biological evolution and the evidence for it. Once I started thinking about it (in the past two years), I realize there really was no incompatiblity with my already accepted position that Genesis didn’t say God created the world in six days, and ten thousand years ago.

    Notice, then, my thought process. I figured out the Bible didn’t really address how God created the world. Started reading more Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller. Realized evolution didn’t conflict with Genesis. Problem solved.

    Theology, really, is not concerned with answering any of the questions you just posed. The Bible itself uses the natural world as a testament to God’s work, but not in the way the YEC’s use it. This is why I thought the article in First things was so good.

    As for Galileo, I will deal with the whole point of his trial for heresy, as it illustrates my point once again. The church was flat wrong about the Bible teaching the earth revolved around the sun. It never says anything like this. What happend was that Ptolemy’s theory became fused with theology (hmmm, science and theology?). It did neither one a favor in this case. Church theologians used passages about man being the apple of God’s eye as arugments for the universe revolving around the sun. Or metaphorical passages such as the earth not being moved as direct biblical proof for Ptolmey’s theory. Not only is this bad science, but it was bad understanding of the passage.

    So, all that to say, the church didn’t see the scientific reasons to reconsider church dogma at the time. Where they wrong? Of course, but there is no reason to trumpet science’s superiority in this case.

    In other words, your seperation of science and theology would NOT have been recognized by the church or Galielo himself. So, it’s a little hard to make those distinctions.

    I certainly don’t mean to move the goalposts. If i did so, it was unintentional. All I was trying to do is talk about theology being self correcting in it’s own sphere. I did so by comparing it to science NOT as an exact example, but as a helpful discussion point. I shouldn’t have made the comment about science’s limitations, as that was off topic.

    I see what you mean about theology being a popularity contest, but I think this is doing a disservice to the process. The Nicene fathers weighed the evidence of church tradition and the Bible. THey found Arius wanting in both areas. Thus, he lost due to his inability to prove himself in those two areas. If that’s what you mean by popularity context, then any discipline could boil down to that.

  31. Knockgoats permalink
    February 10, 2010 11:32 am

    Jonathan,

    As for the established scientific fact, you have missed my point entirely. Of course you are right, but how is it overturned? Through the scientific method, established scientific fact.

    You are reifying “the scientific method”: this is not a fixed thing, it is just as liable to correction and extension as any of the findings of science.

    I base my evidence on the claim of a number of discussions going on in theological circles, and in popular evangelical discussion.

    Discussion is not the same as self-correction. You haven’t yet given a specific example of theological self-correction.

    as you are making the assertion it’s nonsensical, it’s up to you to make the argument in this particular case.

    As for the theological points, perhaps it would be helpful if you give me a specific one and we can address it that way.

    Well let’s take a couple that I have already mentioned from the Nicene Creed. I’m drawing on a “1988 ecumenical version” here, but if you don’t like that one, suggest another (and how you know it’s better):

    1) “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,”

    Being a Son, and begetting/being begotten, are both relations between physical beings, specifically, animals (including humans). It is, literally, nonsense to posit them of supposed spiritual beings. Added to that, we have the nonsense of “eternally begotten”. Begetting happens at a specific time.

    2) The “Filoque” controversy. The word was not in the original version, was added by the Catholic Church, but not by the Orthodox. This disagreement has lasted well over 1,000 years. How could it ever be determined who is right?

    Or, we can go back to the reading of Genesis 1 and 2. By your own account, controversy over this has continued even longer, and there has been no resolution. You have claimed that it is nearly resolved, but the evidence does not support you – and if it did, this would be because theologians admitted that the scientific evidence was overwhelming. Moreover, even those who do not hold to the view that these chapters are literal history have a wide range of views as to how to interpret them – was there at least a real Adam and Eve, who “sinned” at some specific time? If so, when and where? If not, what becomes of the doctrine of “original sin”?

  32. Knockgoats permalink
    February 10, 2010 11:51 am

    Cruz,

    ‘Literally nothing that is not logically necessary could not be overturned by new evidence in science.’ [Me]

    This is not true. There are some contingent truths which cannot be known a posteriori and thus are not under the scope of science. Actually it seems as if the study of science presupposes some of these truths, for example; that our senses are reliable (however you wish to cash this out) is contingent. Yet science as an empirically grounded study must presuppose this if we are to take it to be helping us get at the truth.

    Many thing that are “under the scope of science” cannot be known: this applies to all universal generalisations, since one can never examine all possible counterexamples; but they can be tested and in some cases, disproved. Our senses, of course, are not reliable – visual illusions suffice to show this. That they are sufficiently reliable for us to discover and correct for the ways in which they are unreliable is a defeasible assumption, not a “presupposition” in the sense of something that could not be overturned: scientific methods could stop working tomorrow, in which case it would be rational to stop relying on them.

    I just wanted to point this out because there are plenty of other things which are contingent (though not presupposed by science [whether true or not]) that are also not under the scope of scientific inquiry. Certain metaphysical truths may be this way, like whether or not we are in a materialist world or not.

    My use of “overturned” was rather vague. Probably, as Popper noted, we can always “save” a specific hypothesis (like materialism) from contrary evidence by making enough additional assumptions – but this is itself unscientific. There are very many possible findings which would lead me, and any rational materialist, to abandon materialism. Suppose magic spells started working, or the stars suddenly started singing and dancing a number from West Side Story, or the digits of pi from the starting from the quintillionth digit turned out to spell out The Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita in total when a simple numerical substitution was made, or the Rapture occurred… I would abandon it. Tell me, what specific findings or events would lead you to abandon Christianity?

  33. Knockgoats permalink
    February 10, 2010 12:07 pm

    Jonathan,

    I’m not asking science to prove God’s existence to me, as I don’t expect it shall ever be able to do so. I ask my theology and philosophy to do that.

    But they don’t prove it.

    Even science has barriers, whether you like it or not. Case in point is Quantum Physics. The better our science gets in this area, the more we realize we aren’t going to be able to understand ow things work on the Quantum level.

    Hooey. Quantum Mechanics is counter-intuitive, but that’s because our intuition needs to work on the “middle-sized world” of everyday experience. Mathematically, and practically, it is understood: if it wasn’t your computer wouldn’t work. How desperately wooists of all shades cling to their misinterpretation of QM and its the implications!

  34. Knockgoats permalink
    February 10, 2010 12:22 pm

    Jonathan

    As GK Chesterson once wrote, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It’s that it’s never really been tried.”

    One of the many stupid things that loathsome antisemite said. If it’s “never really been tried” after 2,000 years, that is excellent evidence that it is completely impractical and therefore useless.

    Another example, Arius being overwhelmingly rejected by the Nicene counsel after they actually heard what he had to say. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t a close vote.

    Truth is not decided by the casting of votes, but by evidence and/or logical argument. What is the evidence that shows that Arius was wrong and Athanasius right?

    Another case in point, what was before the Big Bang. I know Hawking says it’s a meaningless question, but let’s face it, we all wonder about it.

    Those of us who understand why Hawking says that don’t – at least, if we assume that future discoveries will not indicate that there was in fact no singularity involved – in which case, they will also indicate what happened before the Big Bang.

  35. Knockgoats permalink
    February 10, 2010 12:27 pm

    The Nicene fathers weighed the evidence of church tradition and the Bible.

    “Church tradition” just means “what we were taught”. Where in the Bible is the nature of the Trinity defined?

  36. February 10, 2010 1:31 pm

    Knockgoats,

    I think you missed my point.

    How can science test to find out whether we are in Descartes evil demon world or in a regular world (like the one we suppose that we are in). Both of these are contingent, there are some worlds that are demon worlds and some worlds that are demon worlds. That we are in one world or the other is not a logical truth, but this is not under the scope of scientific inquiry. This is a philosophical question. Assuming that science tells us how the world really is we has to also assume (or presuppose [you are cutting your distinctions too thin above. Here’s the def.

    “presuppose [ˌpriːsəˈpəʊz]
    vb (tr)
    1. to take for granted; assume
    2. to require or imply as a necessary prior condition
    3. (Philosophy) Philosophy logic linguistics to require (a condition) to be satisfied as a precondition for a statement to be either true or false or for a speech act to be felicitous.” (notice how ‘assume’ is taken in one of the def.’s)]) that we are not in an evil demon world, or a brain in a vat world, etc.

    Another point is that the claim you made (‘Literally nothing that is not logically necessary could not be overturned by new evidence in science.’) is that this claim would either have to be something that is true by logical necessity or is found to be true via science. Please show me a way in which it is is the former because no one I have ever read has been close to able to do this. But if it is the former, then it seems all you have done is made a circular argument. My guess is the circular reasoning.

    There are other truths that one may very easily think are not determined by ones logic, that are necessarily true, there are also a priori contingent truths (see Kripke). Here’s something else that seems possible but not necessary: God creates an angelic realm completely separate from and cannot interact with the physical realm. How is that supposed to be under the range of science? Surely if true it seems that it would not be necessary but contingent, but this is not within the realm of scientific inquiry.

    So maybe some metaphysical truths could be examined empirically like your view about materialism could be falsified by the other things that occur (though I am still not sure that all the scenarios you describe actually would falsify materialism). But surely there are plenty of other things that are contingent that could not be overturned by new scientific evidence. (Another example would be the question of whether or not we are in an Berkelean idealist world or not [these examples go on]).

    What would force me to give up on Christianity? For starters finding a good proof against theism would do the trick. Showing something incoherent that is inherent in the most essential pieces of the Christian doctrine. There are plenty of other philosophical argumentation you can try to provide against it. I haven’t found any one of those arguments compelling but if there was one that would probably do the trick.

  37. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 10, 2010 2:25 pm

    From the GK Chesterton Society on GK’s alleged antisemitism:

    The question of G.K. Chesterton’s ‘anti-semitism’ has been thoroughly discussed in many biographies and journals. Chesterton certainly made anti-Jewish remarks, which today’s G.K. Chesterton Institute has no wish to condone or defend. These remarks, however, need to be undertood in their social and historical context, not in order to whitewash Chesterton, but to see how they do not invalidate his entire intellectual or spiritual legacy.

    Above all they need to be read in the light of important statements he made repudiating anti-semitism towards the end of his life (he died in 1936, i.e. before the Second World War). As Kevin L. Morris writes in his C.T.S. booklet G.K. Chesterton (1994), Chesterton’s prejudice was largely political in nature, bound up with his opposition to plutocracy and the ’sleaze’ of his day, in which several prominent Jewish figures were implicated at the time:

    ‘far from being a racist, he ridiculed racism, had Jewish friends, admired individual Jews, valued the Jewish faith, wanted the Jews to have the dignity of a Jewish nation-state, and, with the rise of Nazi Germany, denounced the persecution of the Jews.’ ‘I am quite ready to believe now,’ he said, ‘that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe’.

    In the biography Gilbert (Jonathan Cape, 1989, pp. 209-11), Michael Coren noted Chesterton’s profound literary and personal friendship with the Jewish writer Israel Zangwill (not, by the way, his only such friendship), his cordial meetings with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and the important statement by the Wiener Library (London’s archive on anti-semitism and Holocaust history) that Chesterton was never seriously anti-semitic: ‘he was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.’
    For its part, the G.K. Chesterton Institute wishes to build on the positive legacy of Chesterton and the writers associated with him, purifying that legacy of the mistakes of judgment that afflict imperfect and inconsistent men and women embroiled in the controversies and ethos of their day. Anti-semitism is incompatible with the Christian religion, a religion that G.K. Chesterton did more than most to defend, explain and represent in a life and writings that many Jews have loved as well as Christians.

  38. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 10, 2010 2:35 pm

    Knockgoats,
    As for your alleged full grasp of Quantum Physics and Stephen Hawking, care to part with some of that wisdom to some of ignorant boobs?

    You are reifying “the scientific method”: this is not a fixed thing, it is just as liable to correction and extension as any of the findings of science

    I find this statement highly curious. Just, exactly, how would science rectify the scientific method? I ask out of genuine wish to understand what you are saying here.

    Once again, I will point out that theology is not self correcting in the same way as science. I was not giving that argument. Therefore, I have given you a number of different examples of how theology has corrected itself. Cruz gave a great one in regards to the atonement. Oh, and I should point out, just because there is controversy on an issue doesn’t mean it isn’t close to being solved. You are certainly correct in your Adam and Eve examples. But, there again, you aren’t seeing the point. So, let me try it this way. Everyone in science agrees that evolution happend. That’s a foregone conclusion. However, how it worked out in specific instances is still being debated. For example, the debate between the neo-darwinists and the meta-darwnist as to whether natural selection can completely explain the evolution of life or where there outside factors? And, as for outside factors, I’m not saying GOd, I’m saying things like how enviormental factors might have played a part. Everyone agrees on the basics, but the specifics are up for debate. Does that throw evolution into a danger zone of being disproved? Of course not. Will the answers be solved? Of course they will.

    Same goes with theology. I find it interesting that you want to have your cake and eat it to in this particular instance. Just because there are disagreement over theological particulars doesn’t negate my argument, not does it call into question the theological process in finding theological truth.

    As for proving the Nicene Creed right according to the Bible, would you like bible verses? Or something else?

  39. Knockgoats permalink
    February 10, 2010 2:52 pm

    Cruz,

    How can science test to find out whether we are in Descartes evil demon world or in a regular world

    It can’t, of course – and nor can philosophy or theology or anything else. But the assumption that we are in a “regular” world could be overturned tomorrow, by the evil demon (or hyper-intelligent aliens, or whatever) revealing itself/themselves.

    Another point is that the claim you made (‘Literally nothing that is not logically necessary could not be overturned by new evidence in science.’) is that this claim would either have to be something that is true by logical necessity or is found to be true via science. Please show me a way in which it is is the former because no one I have ever read has been close to able to do this. But if it is the former, then it seems all you have done is made a circular argument. My guess is the circular reasoning.

    Again, this is a defeasible assumption about our world. It’s clearly not logically necessary – there are logically possible worlds in which science doesn’t work – but it could turn out to be false – science could stop working. However, see below.

    I disagree with Kripke (I don’t think his examples are a priori, because e.g. identifying something as “this bar” for the standard meter example depends on the empirically founded believe that this is a bar, not a hallucination), but I don’t think that’s relevant here.

    Your “angelic realm” example does show that I made too wide a claim: nothing that is not logically necessary, and that is believed on empirical grounds would be better.

    (Another example would be the question of whether or not we are in an Berkelean idealist world or not [these examples go on])

    Of course we can’t prove we are not – this again is a defeasible assumption. But evidence could arise that we are not in the “base” level of reality, as materialism assumes. Simply observing our surroundings and looking for unexpected anomalies is part of the scientific method. I don’t know if you have ever experienced “lucid dreaming” – dreaming while knowing you are dreaming. It happens occasionally to me, and the realisation that I am in a kind of Berkelian idealist world – a figment of the imagination – is invariably triggered by such an anomaly, usually finding that I can fly.

    For starters finding a good proof against theism would do the trick. Showing something incoherent that is inherent in the most essential pieces of the Christian doctrine.

    A disproof of theism in general is easily seen to be impossible: consider the example of an omnipotent but infinitely shy god, determined to conceal all evidence of its existence. The doctrine of the hypostatic union is necessarily false – “God” and “man” have incompatible attributes, so nothing can be both; I suggest you abandon Christianity – at least the doctrinally orthodox variety – forthwith. Arius at least had the advantage that he wasn’t arguing for a logical absurdity; or you could convert to Mormonism or Islam. However, the doctrine that God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, while not logically incoherent, is wholly untenable given the existence of evil – yes, I’m aware of all the varieties of special pleading Christians use here, but none of them come near to working, as is in effect admitted when they fall back on “It’s a mystery”, “How can you second-guess God” and similar piffle.

  40. Johann permalink
    February 10, 2010 4:45 pm

    However, I think it’s you who are confusing the terms. It is possible for system of knowledge to be self correcting within it’s own spheres of disucssion.

    That’s like saying that a system of morality that does reasonably well at reaffirming its basic principles except for this one bit about eating babies is essentially self-consistent. You keep telling us that theology corrects itself except for the bits about God and souls and spirits, which are taken as foundational truths; we’re saying that this is not at all the same as what science does. I think that was the point of Ash’s post.

    So, by your definition, science is self affirming.

    Nnnnno. Ash isn’t saying that limitations in scope preclude correction; he’s referring to the way that theology assumes things that really should be questioned more than anything within its scope, such as a particular god’s existence or specific characteristics, and the way the entire field is built on such assumptions – because without them, it’s nothing. Theology cannot, as Jefferson put it, “question with boldness even the existence of God” even though such things can and should be questioned – there’s a built-in conflict of interest there. As Knockgoats pointed out, science does not suffer from the same architectural defect.

    Theology, really, is not concerned with many of the same questions as science.

    Okay, that? That is a blatant abuse of history. Even taking just Christian theology, for the better part of two millennia it has been intimately concerned with the natural world as both evidence and a direct experience of God’s handiwork. It is only recently that it has stopped presenting itself as an authority on [what we now revealingly think of as] scientific questions – why? Because now that we have science, science does it better.

    All Genesis has every been concerened with is telling us that God created the world.

    And we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

    You are making the same mistake, if you pardon me, as the YEC’s.

    Jon? I think you might’ve been arguing this position a tad too long, it seems almost as though you’re putting me with the YECs out of habit. 😉

    I wasn’t even talking about the way the Bible should be interpreted. I was talking about the way it has been interpreted, by theologians, for most of its existence – as a Creator’s inerrant guide to his Creation. And the Christians I’ve talked to still treat it that way today – the interpretations have changed, as you point out, but the attitude is basically the same, and you share it if your words above are any indication: “The Bible itself uses the natural world as a testament to God’s work”.

    The church was flat wrong about the Bible teaching the earth revolved around the sun. It never says anything like this.

    …I’m assuming you meant “teaching the sun revolved around the earth”, not “the earth revolved around the sun”, because the latter doesn’t seem to follow the discussion.

    Now you’re the one bein unfair to the church, Jon. It’s a reasonable inference from material such as Joshua 10:13 “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped…The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” This pretty vividly describes the passage of day as dependent on the movement of the sun – Joshua isn’t telling the earth to stop turning here. I won’t clutter this post up with chapter and verse on the mobility and “foundations” of the Earth according to the Bible – you know what I’m talking about, so I’ll just direct everyone here for a summary. (Before you dismiss all of these as “poetic” or “metaphorical”, could you let me know what’s poetic about describing a sphere as flat? I never really got that part of the theology. 😉 )

    What happend was that Ptolemy’s theory became fused with theology (hmmm, science and theology?).

    That’s a pretty sweet bit of equivocation. =) There was this theory and there was this theology and they met and mixed up and came to a bad end, isn’t it unfortunate how these things just happen sometimes?

    It leaves out how the Church aggressively adopted and violently defended the geocentric view because it dovetailed neatly with its story about Man’s special place in creation…but we shouldn’t focus on the messy details too much, right? Mistakes were made. Some books got banned. Some people got burned. It’s really no one’s fault; such things do happen, and we certainly shouldn’t hold theologians responsible for them.

    So, all that to say, the church didn’t see the scientific reasons to reconsider church dogma at the time. Where they wrong? Of course, but there is no reason to trumpet science’s superiority in this case.

    Oh, but I will. Because this case really is much more clear-cut in this respect than you seem to think. It’s not that the Church didn’t “see the scientific reasons” – they didn’t see because they didn’t look anywhere outside the Bible. Galileo had the evidence, but it was not even used in his accusation and eventual conviction – the important issues were whether his view contradicted the Bible and undermined church authority. They found that it did, and that because of that, it was untrue.

    In other words, your seperation of science and theology would NOT have been recognized by the church or Galielo himself. So, it’s a little hard to make those distinctions.

    In its modern sense? I probably would’ve been tried as a heretic for voicing it, yes. Methodologically? The distinction is abundantly clear in Galileo’s case. We have Galileo’s sketches, observations and calculations on one side and the unquestionable and final authority of the Bible and the Church on the other. I must say, claiming the Bible as its own evidence and justification is a pretty neat trick politically speaking, but it’s a disaster where aspects of reality that contradict the Bible are concerned.

    All I was trying to do is talk about theology being self correcting in it’s own sphere. I did so by comparing it to science NOT as an exact example, but as a helpful discussion point.

    The function of theology is to keep religion relevant. It must be revised to account for current knowledge so as not to appear absurd; it must be elaborated to have a stand on the moral issues of the day so as not to appear archaic or repugnant; it must be interesting. Above all, it must remain popular – all but its core tenets can be bent to this goal, and this is where the popularity contest comes in. Galileo’s crime, explicitly stated by the Inquisition, was this – his theory could make Christianity less popular.

    You say that this is part of a process of correction, and to some extent it is, much like the way millions are poured into marketing research leads to ads that are more likely to get people to buy this brand of bleach and not any other. But so long as it makes things untouchable proportionally to how fantastic they are (read: how important they are to keeping the story going), comparisons with science seem misguided at best. Convincing you to buy this other brand of bleach would be a failure of marketing, even if that brand is objectively better; convincing you of something other than its core assumptions would be a failure of theology, even if they are not true, so theology preempts this by making them unquestionable. In the Middle Ages, this was accomplished through intimidation and violence; today, theologians claim that only those who accept them are qualified to discuss them. But the core problems are still the same.

  41. Ash permalink
    February 11, 2010 12:39 am

    Johann, thanx, I’ve got severe man-flu (and by that respect, it has to be worse for me coz I’m female…right?!) at the moment, and the times when I’m awake and when my brain functions are not necessarily in sync right now. You got the point tho.

    John, “Science, in it’s sphere, tells us how the natural world works. That’s it. It can’t tell us about ethics. It can’t tell us beauty. Period.” You’re actually a tad wrong there; try neuroscience, and the related field of neuropsychology, which are attempting to explain the cognitive biases (and their evolutionary inception and necessity) related to morality and mental predilection. If you meant ‘science explains is, not ought’ you’d be closer, but unfortunately there is no realm of inquiry, theology included, that has successfully addressed these questions either.

    ‘evidence or reality’ – that which is demonstratable, provable, testable. To go further, that which reliable assumptions can be made from. I know you’ll probably quibble with that last bit; but I’m talking about stuff like there has never been a ‘miraculous’ birth subject to serious enquiry, we know genetics and procreation don’t happen like that, blah, blah, blah…

    ‘So, by your definition, science is self affirming.’ How so? Because you have set arbitary limits that, as seen above, I don’t agree necessarily hold? Because of your argument earlier (yes I have read the initial post and the entire thread) that scientists often base their work on tried and tested existing theories? They are welcome to deny that electricity works and reinvent it if they so choose; they are welcome to believe that god/s created the planet and everything in it and on only that basis will their experiments work…all they have to do is show their work. Unlike theology tho, science is self correcting because there is no limit as to where you can direct your enquiries – and definately no starting point which is itself untried. Yeah, Johann probably put it better…

    3 final points…
    What do you define as reality then?

    You claim my post was mere assertion; is it only bad when I do it? Because you have failed to make any kind of case for religion or theology being anything but…

    I would love a response to my initial question;
    “I also presume when you talk of theology, you are talking of specifically Christian theology. If you are willing to label this as ’self correcting’, would you also apply that term to Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist etc. theology? why/why not?”

  42. February 11, 2010 1:41 am

    “The doctrine of the hypostatic union is necessarily false – “God” and “man” have incompatible attributes, so nothing can be both; I suggest you abandon Christianity – at least the doctrinally orthodox variety – forthwith.”

    So this is an interesting issue, but there are plenty of solutions to this problem. Michael Rea has an interesting position on the how to deal with the problem I would also suggest checking out the Scotus on this issue. Alfred Freddoso goes over some of the medieval resolutions to this problem. Then there is a good Craig and Moreland paper that is also quite worth looking into on the problem. There is plenty more good literature on the issue.

    My friend here has been doing some of his research on issues that are not related to the incarnation which as far as I can tell would provide new ways to resolve the issue.

    The thing is if any one of the many different ways of removing the paradox, remove the paradox. There is no contradiction. And, I am confident that more than one of them does. Then you haven’t given me a reason to reject my faith.

    I think that part of the problem though is that you aren’t entirely understanding how it is being said that the person of Christ is God and is man. But we can discuss that elsewhere.

    “However, the doctrine that God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, while not logically incoherent, is wholly untenable given the existence of evil – yes, I’m aware of all the varieties of special pleading Christians use here, but none of them come near to working, as is in effect admitted when they fall back on “It’s a mystery”, “How can you second-guess God” and similar piffle.”

    I think you misunderstand the mystery solution. It’s really quite similar to the moorean reply to the skeptic (at leas the version I am most familiar with). So, I’m not sure that it would be ‘special pleading’ (though I’m not sure that that is the fallacy you would be looking for). The second “How can you second guess God” seems that either it is the mystery solution or really aren’t giving a reply to the argument. Maybe you mean that the other solutions to the problem of evil are special pleading? But this seems to be quite a strong claim to be making without any further explanation as to why this would be so.

    Further you haven’t really made an argument or shown that there is a contradiction there whatsoever. Instead you have just asserted without argument that holding three things to be true is untenable. If you want me to be concerned with some sort of problem show me how you get from those properties and evil to some sort of contradiction. Otherwise, I don’t feel any pull to take your assertion seriously.

    I do love discussing these kinds of topics. If you want I can write up separate posts for the blog where we can discuss the problem of evil and the incarnation (and anything else you would want to talk about), if you wish. I can’t promise that I can promptly post something up on the blog because some time constraints, but I can have something up within the next couple of weeks.

  43. February 11, 2010 2:12 am

    Knockgoats

    “How can science test to find out whether we are in Descartes evil demon world or in a regular world” – Me

    “It can’t, of course – and nor can philosophy or theology or anything else…”

    That’s right theology and philosophy can’t test whether or not we are in an evil demon world, but philosophy doesn’t really test things (at least in the relevant sense) does it? I’m assuming you meant something else. But here is the point, science can’t do anything to justify the belief that we aren’t in an evil demon world either. Philosophy can. There is the important distinction. Our justification in the belief that scientific inquiry is truth conducive comes after our justification that we aren’t in the evil demon world. That is our justification for belief in science (no I’m not reifying science) is epistemically posterior to our justification against the proposed skeptical hypothesis.

  44. John Morales permalink
    February 11, 2010 2:59 am

    When I said that theology is self correcting, I meant that it has in built system for correcting errors.

    Interesting, I thought you’d’ve meant that it does correct itself. Still, at least you claim it has a mechanism for it. What is it?

    However, it might be rightly argued that each system is different, because each discipline is different. I think this is true, to some extent.

    Hm. You do so argue, not just “might” argue.
    Still, I grant there may be more than one mechanism for it. However, I submit that, if the scientific mechanism is different to the theological mechanism, then the latter, though it may be “self-correcting”, is not so like science, that being the original claim.

    My interest is not in those differences, but in how the systems might be simliar.

    Then, presumably, there will be a similarity of the mechanism for it.

    I think those systems are similar in two ways: [1] An appeal to an established tradition and [2] vehicles for self correction.

    Um, no.

    1. This is not a mechanism for self-correction, it’s an appeal to dogma.
    I grant that, if by it you mean that new theories must not only account for all that previous theories do, but more parsimoniously and/or more generaly, then in a sense this is valid; but I don’t think this is to what you refer.

    2. Yes, the actual mechanism for it.

    First, let’s look at science. For those who argue that science comes at a scientific problem completely “objective” and without any regards to work that has happend before, is completely ignorant of the scientific process.

    I fail to see the significance of this. Clearly, all available data must be considered, part of that data is the set of previous observations and theories.

    In fact, I know of no self respecting scientist who makes this argument.

    Indeed. Thus, why introduce this straw-dummy?

    As Sir Isacc Newton put it, “If I see further, it is because I have stood on the shoulder of giants”. His point is that scienctific inquiry does have a history and does have authories that must be considered in the scientific pursuit. True, those authorties are often stuck down, but they are still consulted.

    Yes, got it. Scientific considerations do not ignore the existing corpus of observation.

    We obviously have gone beyond some of those authorties and have expanded on others. Even more, the scientific method is a hard and fast authority that all scientists must obey if they are to do good science.

    Nice to see you get around to introducing the concept of the ‘scientific method’. Hopefully, you will do likewise for the ‘theological method’, to sustain your purported equivalence.

    (Note: So far as ‘obeying’ the method, I find this terminology sophistic. If one does not use the scientific method, one is not using science; there is no ‘obeyance’, there is only methodology.)

    They respect the scientific tradition that has come before and seek to build on it through the scientific method.

    It’s not a matter of respect; scientists do science, definitionally, by using the scientific method.

    Christians have that established tradition as well, but it’s always being corrected.

    Hm. The scientific method has been fixed since its engenderment (cf. my link above; (To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning)).
    What is the Christian version of it?

    To illustrate, alllow me to use the first two chapters in Genesis. Believe it or not, the church has wrestled how to really deal with Genesis one and two. It’s only in the 20th century that six day, twenty four, ten thousand years for the age of the earth, has become a test for Christian orthodoxy.

    So, all Christians now agree, Christian theology having tested its claims empirically, and converged on an unequivocal determination?

    Their arguments were widely considered in their day as being scientifically possible. At least, in the scientific understanding of the day.

    Hm. You mean that science was the ultimate arbiter on these?
    Since theology is self-correcting (like science), I take it you hold there’s but one theological interpretation after all this time.

    Flash forward to the present day. As many of you know, the hard core YEC’s have only been around since the Scopes trial and really didn’t start gathering steam until the 1960’s. Many conservative theologians are begining to push back against the YEC’s intepretation mostly due to how the text functions.

    Um. Granting your claims for the sake of argument, are you suggesting conflict is tantamount to self-correction?

    They have argued that the YEC position is not even a very biblical one, much less a scientifically valid position to take.

    Interesting. Almost sounds as if scientific validity is the benchmark for empiricism, in the sphere of theology. Surely not! 😉

    Notice how this worked. Look at the established YEC tradition in this country. Comparing it to older tradition in the church. Comparing it to a hard core standard (the Bible and Science). End result= YEC position being corrected by theological discussion.

    Heh. The hard-core standard being “Bible and Science”. Would this be because the Bible is, to say the least, ambiguous? 🙂

    All that to say, this particular question is far from being settled in the Christian world and it’s in the process of self correcting through understanding the text, scientific investigation and good old fashioned theological debate.

    Ah yes, I was wondering when you’d introduce the analogue to the scientific method — what you refer to here as “good old fashioned theological debate”. Looking forward to it.

    We argue through academic theological journey’s (yes, there are a ton), sermons, blogs, and every place you could possibly imagine. It’s true Christians have a tradition. I would argue that this is not unique to any academic discipline and certainly is true of science. Despite the PZ comments, theology DOES have a peer review process. You write a paper. Submit it to an academic journal and then other theologians get to tear into your work.

    Um, this is the purported old-fashioned theological debate? o_O

    It it exactly like the scientific process? No, and it shouldn’t be. However, that’s not the same thing as saying it doesn’t have one at all.

    Um, where’s the part where one can verify claims by recourse to empiricism? I don’t see the equivalent.

    How do you know who’s right, and who’s wrong, other than by opinion?

    These are short thoughts, but I’m hoping to say more as all of you push back.

    Not ‘short’ — facile and shallow, perhaps.

    Please note, I’m not saying that self correcting in science is the same as in theology.

    No. You’re saying, unless I am mistaken, that theological self-correction consists of disputation, and you’ve neglected the part where contentions are tested against reality.

    However, that doesn’t change the fact it happens in both disciplines.

    An unsubstantiated assertion is not a fact.

    Look, that science is self-correcting means that, except at the very fringes of science, theories and facts are uniform and accepted world-wide.
    F=ma.
    E=mc².

    Etc.

    There is one science, there are many religions.
    If, as you claim (but do not sustain), theology (by which you clearly refer to Christian theology) is self-correcting, why doesn’t it converge to one theory (world-wide) per domain, as science does?

    What is its alleged mechanism, other than disputation? How does one (staying within the Christian theological domain) determine if God is triune or singular? Whether sola scriptura is valid? Whether works or faith are necessary or sufficient for salvation? etc.

  45. John Morales permalink
    February 11, 2010 3:01 am

    Um, mild blockquote failure, but I hope my previous is still clear as to when I quote and when I respond.

  46. John Morales permalink
    February 11, 2010 3:07 am

    One final note pending a response:
    Scientific findings are always provisional, and subject to correction subject to new evidence; this is a major reason for science being self-correcting.
    Do you hold that theological findings are , similarly, always provisional, and subject to correction subject to new evidence?

  47. Knockgoats permalink
    February 11, 2010 5:57 am

    philosophy doesn’t really test things (at least in the relevant sense) does it?

    Well yes, in general, it does. A philosopher proposes an analysis of (say) what it means to say something has a mind; other philosophers then search for counterexamples that will test it for flaws or limitations. Why is this sense not relevant? However, this whole quibble of yours is irrelevant, because what I said does not imply that philosophy tests anything. If I say “philosophy cannot butter parsnips”, this does not imply that philosophy butters anything. (See, I can quibble too.)

    But here is the point, science can’t do anything to justify the belief that we aren’t in an evil demon world either. Philosophy can. – Cruz

    No, it can’t. At least, if you have found a way to refute absolute scepticism, why ain’t you famous?

  48. Knockgoats permalink
    February 11, 2010 6:18 am

    The thing is if any one of the many different ways of removing the paradox, remove the paradox. There is no contradiction. And, I am confident that more than one of them does. Then you haven’t given me a reason to reject my faith.

    Typical theologians’ evasion. You have not actually specified which of these alleged solutions you believe removes the contradiction (no, it’s not a paradox – that’s something that appears to be a contradiction, but isn’t). You’ve just given me a reading list. Come on, front up and give your preferred solution, or one of them. All you’re saying is “Yes, the Emperor really is wearing beautiful clothes, but I’m not going to describe them to the likes of you, just look in the catalogues the tailors drew up!

    I think that part of the problem though is that you aren’t entirely understanding how it is being said that the person of Christ is God and is man. But we can discuss that elsewhere.

    More evasion.

    I think you misunderstand the mystery solution. It’s really quite similar to the moorean reply to the skeptic (at leas the version I am most familiar with).

    I can’t see any similarity. (Not that Moore successfully refuted scepticism – note that he could have done his “This is one hand, this is another” stunt in a dream.) Please be clearer.

    Further you haven’t really made an argument or shown that there is a contradiction there whatsoever. Instead you have just asserted without argument that holding three things to be true is untenable.

    I did not claim a contradiction. “Untenable” was my word. Suppose you are a defence lawyer, hired to defend someone who admits to having tortured and murdered thousands of people. He says, however, that it was all for the best, and so he should be acquitted, but when asked how it is for the best, just claims all his victims are now blissfully happy in paradise, or will be. Now there is no formal contradiction there, but I think you could reasonably say the defence was untenable. The God you worship is supposed to be omnipotent (if you are a doctrinally orthodox Christian). So the burden is on you to show that every bit of suffering that has ever been or will ever be in the universe is necessary to some greater good.

    *crickets*

  49. Knockgoats permalink
    February 11, 2010 6:43 am

    our justification for belief in science – Cruz

    You’re really hung up on justification, aren’t you? We have to proceed without any ultimate justification of anything, because any supposed justification (such as Descartes’ or Moore’s) is vulnerable to absolute epistemic scepticism – the evil demon could be deceiving us at every step of our reasoning. The justification for “belief in science” is simply that so far as we can tell, it works (gets us closer to the truth) ; and that we think we understand why it should work, if the world has enough of a certain kind of regularity. Nothing more is needed, or possible. Theology, by contrast, provides no grounds for believing that it works at all.

  50. February 11, 2010 10:16 am

    Knockgoats,

    Before continuing to spout off with your extremely ornate equivalents of a ‘nu-uh’ response peppered with implausible assumptions and assertions, or continuing to not understand the points I made about epistemology, please note what I offered to you. If you want to continue the conversation elsewhere, just say yes or no. Then we could get actually into the detail. And we can avoid you having to go through the trouble of going out of your way to read and work out some of these solutions on your own.

    I did not specify answers because of this offer. You want them, say yes, and you got them, we can have a conversation centered around those topics. Otherwise, go ahead and continue your rant and I will continue to find it maybe a sliver less than unengaging.

  51. Knockgoats permalink
    February 11, 2010 11:38 am

    Cruz,
    Yes.

  52. Knockgoats permalink
    February 11, 2010 11:39 am

    BTW, I do understand the points you made about epistemology; you’re just wrong.

  53. 'Tis Himself permalink
    February 12, 2010 6:08 pm

    Since theology is purely the theologian’s opinion, then it’s “self-correcting” when the theologian changes his opinion.

    thomas2026 sez: I mean, science HAS been wrong on some pretty important questions for a long time.

    Yeah, and when science been found to be wrong then corrections are made. How can theology claim to be found wrong? Theologian A says X and theologian B says Y. X and Y are contradictory. Sect M goes with X and Sect N goes with Y. Each sect calls the other sect “heretical.” Theological “self-correction” in action.

  54. John Morales permalink
    February 13, 2010 7:09 pm

    thomas2026 :

    Even science has barriers, whether you like it or not. Case in point is Quantum Physics. The better our science gets in this area, the more we realize we aren’t going to be able to understand ow things work on the Quantum level.

    What?!

    Once again:

    The better our science gets in this area, the more we realize we aren’t going to be able to understand ow things work on the Quantum level.

    Can you please rephrase that?

  55. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 15, 2010 9:40 am

    John,
    I’m not sure what you want me to rephrase.

  56. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 15, 2010 9:40 am

    Tis Himself,
    If you look at the 2.5 version of this post, you will see that I modified my orginal postion. Welcome, by the way.

  57. John Morales permalink
    February 16, 2010 5:29 am

    John, for some reason, this got kicked into spam. Sorry about that. J-

    thomas2026,

    Even science has barriers, whether you like it or not. Case in point is Quantum Physics. The better our science gets in this area, the more we realize we aren’t going to be able to understand ow things work on the Quantum level.

    Can you please rephrase that?

    I’m not sure what you want me to rephrase.

    The emphasised text.

    I asked because I thought that if science gets better at X, it means we understand X that much better.

    You seem to be denying this obviousness, surely that cannot be what you intend to convey?

  58. John Morales permalink
    February 16, 2010 5:30 pm

    [meta]

    I’d hate to see what the template here makes of a 4-level nesting of blockquotes! 😉

    Thanks for picking it up and posting it.

  59. Andrew permalink
    February 16, 2010 6:15 pm

    (coming late to the thread due to ‘flu)

    Quantum mechanics isn’t any sort of barrier to scientific knowledge once you understand that the uncertainty principle doesn’t prevent you from knowing anything that actually exists.

    The idea that a particle has a “true” position and momentum and the uncertainly principle merely prevents you from knowing what they are is a misunderstanding of QM, in my view largely perpetuated by the earlier “semi-classical” justifications of quantum phenomena and by the fact that basic principles of QM violate our physical intuitions which are geared to dealing with the classical world. Famously (as I’ve pointed out before on this blog) this misunderstanding is the position that Einstein was trying to defend (“God does not play dice”); he used all his ability as a theoretical physicist to try and prove that QM was incomplete.

    But subsequent theoretical work and practical experiment showed that Einstein was wrong about this; as far as we can tell*, there are no “hidden variables” defining any “true” position and momentum of a particle. Instead, the right way to look at it is that in any context in which the particle’s position is narrowly defined, its momentum simply does not have a specific value and vice-versa. It’s not merely that the values can’t be known, it’s that they do not exist to be known.

    (*- The only way that hidden variables can be saved is to abandon locality, a la the Bohmian interpretations of QM; these are considered fringe theories in that they require a mechanism for faster-than-light propagation of certain state information.)

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