Another theologian misrepresents the scope of scientific process

Commonly, when reading opinion articles by people espousing a religious viewpoint as opposed to a scientific one, I find the main error in their argument is they simply don’t understand what they’re arguing against.

The article that rustled my jimmies today is this one from The Guardian, titled “Good luck, physicists, with those tricky ‘meaning of life’ questions” from Monday 24th March, by Giles Fraser, a British priest.

Fraser’s main point is that science can’t answer the ‘big’ questions, such as ‘what is the meaning of life?’, and ‘where did we come from?’ any better than theologians could hundreds of years ago. He could possibly be right, in the end, but his flawed reasoning makes his entire argument invalid.

Let’s break it down.

“Someone asks Prof Jim Al-Khalili– a professor of theoretical physics – what came before the big bang. What caused the cause of all things? His answer is clever but unsatisfying. It’s like asking what is south of the South Pole, he says. In other words, it’s a mistaken question.”

I’m really hoping that Al-Khalili is taken out of context here, because frankly, he’s wrong. His answer should have been the same response given to any question that we haven’t discovered the answer to yet; ‘We don’t know, yet.’ Asking what is south of the South Pole is definitely mistaken, because the South Pole of a magnetic field is the most south you can go relative to that magnetic field, so going south of it is impossible. As to ‘what came before the Big Bang?’, I think that is a perfectly valid question. Surely something didn’t come from nothing? How it did come into being, we don’t know yet. There’s plenty of theories out there, but that’s not really the point, none of them have verifiably tested evidence, yet (I’m happy to be corrected on that). It could have been some omnipotent being (probably the FSM) that created all the particles involved in the Big Bang, using forces we don’t yet understand. Or maybe it wasn’t. There’s no evidence to prove it either way, yet.

Fraser used the statement above to conclude that;

“a hundred years ago, these questions would have been asked of theologians – if God created everything who created God? And, of course, we had no answer either.”

He’s right in one sense- theologians have no answer to that. Or maybe they do (of course they wouldn’t have any evidence to back up their claims), but it’s a moot point since there isn’t any evidence for God existing, meaning you’re essentially asking ‘what created something that doesn’t exist? [we will assume it/he/she doesn’t exist until it is proven that it/he/she does. A case of Russell’s Teapot]’. That is a mistaken question. However, by using the word ‘either’, Fraser was implying that scientists don’t have an answer to the question ‘if the Big Bang created everything who [what] created the Big Bang?’. Of course they do, it’s ‘we don’t know, yet.’

I’d just like to clarify here that ‘we don’t know, yet’ is shorthand for ‘we don’t know yet but we’re trying to work it out, and we’ll give you an answer when we have evidence to back it up, and we won’t make something up to fill the gap before then.’ It might take a while to get evidence that supports an explanation of some sort, but just because it hasn’t been found yet doesn’t mean there’s no possibility it can ever be found.

To compound his point, Fraser writes;

“What are gravitational waves, I ask my scientist friend Adam Rutherford. “Think of them as divine burping,” he says.”

In this case, I really suspect Mr Rutherford is just doing his best to simplify an extremely complicated piece of physics to explain it to his scientifically illiterate friend, and ironically at that. Of course, Dr Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, not a physicist, so it’s a bit dishonest to use his explanation of gravity as a demonstration of something science doesn’t know any better than religion. If Rutherford knew he was going to be quoted for this purpose, I would like to think his answer would have been- yep, you guessed it – ‘we don’t know, yet.’

However, I’m off track. The problem with Fraser using Ruthorford’s explanation of gravity as an example of something science can’t explain any better than religion is that he completely misunderstands the scope of the scientific process. To quote the ever eloquent Tim Minchin,

“Science is not a bunch of facts. Scientists are not people trying to be prescriptive or authoritative. Science is simply the word we use to describe a method of organising our curiosity. It’s easier, at a dinner party, to say ‘science’ than to say ‘the incremental acquisition of understanding through observation, humbled by an acute awareness of our tendency towards bias’.”

Science is not stuck in the present, and its conclusions now are not permanent. If it does not explain something now, this does not mean that science can never explain it. Religion can never explain gravity any better than ‘because God made it so’. Science, while it does not have any explanation for gravity beyond theories at this stage, is constantly seeking to gather more evidence so as to give us greater understanding. The current theory of gravity is not absolute. If new observations are made that do not fit the current theory, the theory will have to change.

Fraser continues,

“At least, I can’t see how something that happened 13bn years ago helps me understand anything about what I am up to this morning.”

Why does it need to? Isn’t the fact that you’re standing there this morning after 13bn years of random occurrences meaning enough? If we work out what happened 13bn years ago and everything in between then we can tell you how you’re standing there, but not why. Well, we could, but the answer is ‘by chance’. Why does everything in the universe need to explain and give meaning to human existence? We’re one species on one planet in a mind-bogglingly vast universe, why would anyone assume that we are meant to be the cause and centre of that universe?

This bit makes me feel as smug as Fraser sounds, because he’s shooting himself in the foot;

“Those scientists who stick to the more prosaic certainties of the scientific method resist the temptation to speak loosely about knowing the mind of God. Of course, some will say that these are just lively metaphors. Well, hello. That’s precisely what theologians have been saying about their language for years.”

Isn’t that basically admitting that heaven and hell and everything in between are just metaphors? Thanks for clearing that up, Fraser!

Keeping on;

“Likewise, there is no answer to the meaning of life hidden behind an exploding gas of atoms. So why do the Sheldons of this world persist in aping the theologians and looking for deep meaning in so distant a place?”

We don’t. We simply want to know what happened. Asking how something happened is not searching for deep meaning.

And last, but not least;

“What is so amusing about the current interest in popular science is that we too often assume it has come to replace theology as a way of answering ultimate questions.”

I can only assume that when Fraser uses ‘we’, he is referring to fellow theologians. Science doesn’t seek to answer ultimate questions, it just seeks to answer questions. There’s no ultimate and non-ultimate questions, only logically valid and logically invalid questions. Well, that’s my opinion anyway. Why the obsession with life having a “meaning”? What if life is just a biological accident that has no meaning, but just is? I know that’s scary to some people, but reality can be scary. We don’t need to make things up to deal with it, nor try and find meaning where there is none to be found.

So, science isn’t seeking to answer the ultimate questions, it’s just seeking to answer the questions we don’t know the answer to yet – and that’s ultimate enough for me.

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