Be sceptical of the merging of faith and science

(or: Foot stamping)

I caught this week’s Beyond Belief on BBC Radio 4, and suffered again the Christian extravasations of John Lennox. Listen (from @ 0:07:15) to his sought, considered, respected opinion as he declares…

“It seems to me Newton is immensely important as evidence for what we’re talking about today [Argument for first cause], because when he discovered his law of gravitation… his response was, ‘What a wonderful god he is who did it that way!’"

This is evidence alright… for Newton’s zealous faith.

“He wrote the Principia Mathematica … with the express wish that it would convince the thinking person to believe in God."

He wrote it in Latin. Unashamedly not overly-concerned with accessibility to the heathen, then.

Communicating Newton’s immense scientific achievements and his impact on the scientific method is one laudable thing; but allying them to his multifarious (often crackpot) beliefs – though historically interesting from the point of view of how they imaginatively informed (or otherwise) his scientific inspiration – has no scientific merit.

So, as Lennox is afforded repeat platform to mis-communicate the supernatural applicability of science, I will use my platform here to repeat my self, and alleviate my sulking irritation at the repeated ignoring of my efforts to get the Leicester Mercury to take my further re-edited, re-resubmitted and re-rejected contra-apologetic argument.

Because I happen to consider it (no less) valid. Thank you for reading.

We are all, to some extent, ‘philosophers’, in that we tend to advocate our view of life and the world. However, most of us have neither studied philosophy, nor do we spend much time critically examining our own reasoning. We thus tend not to consider that much of the information in our minds is false and highly susceptible to our culture and belief system. Everybody likes to have their beliefs, their opinions, their prejudices confirmed, and is inclined to reject arguments against them.

Yet we are often impressed when supposed pearls of wisdom emanate from public figures. Notorious Premier League footballer Joey Barton likes to tweet the occasional profound lyric or philosophical quote. This propensity seems to have partly restored his reputation in the eyes of a fickle public. But is he any more ludicrous than those who adopt the theological tactic known as apologetics?

Deriving from the Greek apologia, meaning ‘reasoned defence’, apologetics is a branch of theology concerned with the defence and proof of Christianity. It becomes problematic when science gets called as witness.

Christian apologists like to argue, often with cherry-picked philosophical quotations, the supernatural significance of the discoveries of great (religious) scientists, such as Isaac Newton. Science is glorified for its triumphant revealing of the workings of God’s universe. Apologetic ‘reasoning’ holds that all scientists are, wittingly or unwittingly, investigating not merely the natural world, but ’God’s plan.’ But those scientists who argue to the contrary are hypocritically reminded of the natural limitations of (their) science.

It seems the capacity of science depends on the beliefs of those doing it – if you believe you are researching God’s handiwork, then it is God’s handiwork you will see. As an academic pursuit, this apologetic merging of faith and science becomes ‘philosophy’. Or theology. Whatever, it generates statements which are potentially highly misleading.

Misappropriation of scientific laws as ‘evidence’ for the existence of an agent who set those laws in place does not follow scientifically. Whilst it has to be acknowledged that the religious belief of Newton and others was a driver for modern science, their pioneering of the mathematical explanation of the universe does not constitute retrospective evidence for ‘God.’ Quite right to recognise Newton’s brilliance as a scientist and mathematician. But appealing to the faith of great scientists does not a scientific argument make.

Philosophical quotes, whether from pseudo-intellectuals or serious intellectual scholars, often draw admiring gasps, or approving nods of recognition. But they do not necessarily convey ‘truth’. Barton’s street philosophy makes for an occasionally refreshing change from the robotic, cliché-recycling footballer. But religious misappropriation of science is pseudoscience – a cardinal sin for any scientist.

8 responses to “Be sceptical of the merging of faith and science

  1. Wasn’t the Leicester Mercury similarly dismissive of the writings and poetry of a certain A.A. Mole?

  2. Oh, that’s funny. I’ve no idea. Unlike me, Sue Townsend still lives there, I believe.

  3. I just wasn’t sure whether the whole backstory was just a clever literary device ;)
    As for the content of you post, I think it can be pithily summed up as “Appeal to authority is a logical fallacy”. Unfortunately, much theology is built on such shaky foundations.

  4. Quite. I find it perplexing when this is the resort of esteemed scientists – which I’m not, so have no ‘authority’ to appeal to.

  5. Careful – that sounds like an appeal to ignorance. Tends to work pretty well in some parts of the world though.


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