Posts tagged with: science

Blog author: mcavedon
posted by on Monday, July 27, 2009

God is rational, and the universe is governed by unchanging natural laws instituted by Him. The Bible tells us in the Book of Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth.” God is not arbitrary; the Bible also tells us that He is just and that He keeps promises to His people. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God has established “ordinances of heaven and earth.” Since they come from a perfect lawgiver, we know that these laws do not change on a whim.

These beliefs were radical, and given historical trends in philosophy, they remain so. Pagans argued that truth exists, but that it is dependent on the will of the gods. Since these gods were capricious rulers of the universe, there were no unchanging laws that could be discovered by humans. In our own day, postmodern constructivist philosophers like Giambattista Vico also argue that objective truth is unknowable. For them, this is because truth is only accessible to humans insofar as we agree with something we have manufactured and labeled as the truth. As Vico put it, “the norm of the truth is to have made it.” If pure naturalism is correct and there is no role for God, then Vico can reasonably argue “the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself and since it does not make itself, it does not know the genus or mode by which it makes itself.” After all, our ability to understand things as they truly are is difficult to argue in the absence of any reason to think that human reason itself is reliable.

Christianity offers just that reason by asserting two main points: that God has made the universe according to natural laws and that He has given humanity the means to understand them. As God asks Job, “Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?” God gives understanding to the mind so that we may know Who has made the world and the universe as it is.

God intends for us to exercise our reason and seek to know reality. Jesus says that He is the Truth, and He promises His followers that “the truth will set you free.” The truth that Jesus speaks of is not, of course, purely scientific and rationalistic. It is the truth of the universe and of humanity. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates this in Caritas in Veritate, where he writes, “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things.”

Since truth is objective, reason can discern it. Reason is the universal nature of humans, regardless of our race, culture, language, class, or religion. We all have access to the truth. In a world where subjective truths compete, humanity can no longer find common ground and rise above struggles for power and influence. The truth about humanity and natural reality becomes “Nordic,” “bourgeois,” “imperialist,” or “chauvinist.” The idea that truth is subjective does not set us free. It pits us against each other and fails to let us seek the truth.

Caritas in Veritate points out the dire social consequences: “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.” If we are to seek true solidarity and the creation of a humane world, we must commit ourselves to pursuing the truth. Otherwise, humanity’s divisions will only grow.

By choosing instead to follow constructivism, fundamentalism, fideism, and the consensus view of the truth, we are enslaving ourselves to error and cutting off the truth that unites us. We are also rejecting the duty that God has given us to use the gift of reason to seek Him out. Since this sin only gives us error in place of the truth about us and the universe we inhabit, it results in suffering, tyranny, and conflict.

The truth will set us free in the measure that we are willing to seek it as God commands us to, and in the measure that we reject anything less than the full, universal, reasonable nature that it has.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, October 23, 2008

Although many scientists cultivate the popular image of the benevolent, detached savant toiling away for the betterment of mankind, the fact remains that Ph.D.s in physics or genetics are subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us. The image has some currency because there is an element of truth in it: scientists in many fields have contributed in remarkable ways to the material progress of humanity. That contribution should not be underappreciated.

Yet scientists are not immune to temptations to exaggerate, distort, and deceive. And the field of politics, containing as it does the promise of access to power and funding, is the near occasion of sin par excellence.

Various PowerBloggers have detailed the problematic fusing of politics and science in the area of climate change. In the latest issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson do the same for the subject of stem cell research (currently accessible online by subscription only). It’s an outstanding summary of the relatively brief history of the debate, with special attention to the not-usually-praiseworthy role that researchers played in the political arena. “We need to remember the events from 2001 to 2007,” the authors assert, “for the history of the stem-cell debate forms a classic study of what happens when politics and science find each other useful.”

Two morsels from the essay:

Still, before we commiserate too much with America’s stem-cell researchers, so badly taken advantage of, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t just let themselves be used. They rushed to be used. Offered a public platform, they begged to be exploited, and the politicians, newspapers, and television talk shows merely obliged them.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

Blog author: paola.fantini
posted by on Friday, June 20, 2008

On Tuesday the 17th Mons. Rino Fisichella was called by Pope Benedict XVI to succeed Mons. Elio Sgreccia as the head of the Pontifical Academy of Science, Social Sciences, Life. His Excellency was also raised to the title of archbishop while maintaining his role as Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome.

The Pontifical Academy for Science, Social Sciences, Life has as its scope: “to pay honor to pure science, wherever it is found, and to assure its freedom and to promote its research, which constitute the indispensable basis for progress in science.” It assures dialogue on bioethical issues while defending those primary moral values of the Church and its position on non-negotiable issues such as, research on stem cells, human embryos, cloning, euthanasia and other bioethical and scientific issues.

The position of the Church on bioethical issues is often incorrectly interpreted by secular academic circles as an obstacle to scientific research and progress. This is a common mistake that representatives of the scientific world easily run into and is usually dictated by ignorance of the purpose of the Church’s mission, which is to act for the preservation of human dignity and for the salvation of souls.

In Veritatis Splendor, one of many of Pope John Paul II ‘s encyclicals, there is a passage that clearly mentions how human knowledge cannot be sufficient to grant true freedom and truth to mankind:

the development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of human capacity for the understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us to face the most painful and decisive struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience.

The Pope also underlines the role of Church in safeguarding man from relativism and from the false conviction that God’s law is a burden, a restriction to his freedom. It is quite the opposite, man is as much free as he can understand God’s teachings and accept his commands. Therefore, the Church, being the body of Christ, has the “duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life to come and how they are related.”

Archbishop Fisichella will certainly be able to face such a task, thanks to his excellent academic background and his personal concern for the promotion of human dignity. He is long time Acton friend and was an important speaker at two of the Centesimus Annus Conferences on May 4 2006 and on May 2 2007. During his participation at the Centesimus Annus Conferences, archbishop Fisichella recalled how the social teaching of the Church “consists in favoring, promoting and defending the central role of the dignity of the human person, of every person, of the entire person, of every individual without any exception.”

There is no choice to make because there is no opposition, there simply cannot be knowledge without truth, or scientific research without the raising of further questions or of new challenges that will require answers. These answers can be found in Christ, who is always present in the Church.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In recent years the UK has emerged as a key player in both genetic experimentation and in corresponding legal battles over the extent to which the government ought to regulate such research. The latest news coming from across the pond involves passage of a bill legalizing the creation of human-animal hybrids with certain restrictions (regarding type and length of survival).

Three members of the governing cabinet were “reportedly considering resignation if forced to back the Bill.” Controversy arose over the call from Roman Catholic bishops in the UK to allow MPs and cabinet members a “free vote” on the bill, allowing them to enjoy freedom of conscience as informed by their faith.

Since the creation of the first hybrid embryo was announced yesterday, religious leaders are calling for the creation of a national bioethics commission.

This has brought some strong reactions from critics of the Catholic and generally “pro-life” position.

My own views were lately characterized as representative of the “Roman Catholic and generally free market think tank, the Acton Institute,” and were then conflated with the reasoning of evangelical scientist Cal DeWitt (with whom I do share denominational affiliation).

According to the Reason piece, the distinction I make between the treatment of plants and animals is “based upon the idea that while God commanded Noah to save animal lineages, the Almighty said nothing about preserving plants on the Ark.” (Update: Joe Carter does a thorough and articulate job of dissecting Bailey’s article here).

In fact, in the piece in which I outline a theological framework for evaluating GM foods, I don’t mention Noah at all. And in proposing a similar framework for evaluating the treatment of animals, my only reference to Noah has to do with the inauguration and the terms of the covenant, not with the fact that the animals were preserved on the Ark.

Christian reasoning about the general treatment of animals and concerns with the role of human stewardship are not based on some obscure biblical text, as Bailey’s dismissive allusion would lead us to believe. There is an overarching biblical theme that has to do with human responsibility over the natural world, plants and animals included.

Rev. Leonard Vander Zee, for instance, uses a reference coming at the very end of the book of Jonah as a point of departure, linking it definitively to the foundational “dominion” mandate in the first chapter of Genesis. He summarizes developments in human stewardship and science this way:

State universities used to be known for their programs of “animal husbandry.” What a wonderful term. To husband the animals is to care for them, to provide for their welfare, as well as to use them for human benefit. In the past few decades, most such programs have become departments of animal science, which makes it possible to look on animals as laboratory specimens we can manipulate.

We needn’t agree with the particular conclusions that Vander Zee draws in order to agree that responsible stewardship is a biblical mandate. Clearly the idea of “animal husbandry” is closer to the biblical picture than “animal science.”

The core problem that Bailey and others have with this theological and moral insight is not that it draws too fine a distinction, but that it proposes to set any limits to research at all. That’s why religious opposition to certain kinds of research (or farming practices, for that matter) have to be construed as wholesale opposition to learning, science, and advancement.

But instead, we might also note with Aquinas that the abuse of something does not destroy it’s legitimate use. Christians do believe that scientific knowledge is a legitimate pursuit and indeed a divine calling. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t limits to legitimate practice. And identifying and defining those limits is precisely what these disagreements are all about.

With great ability comes great responsibility. With apologies to Browning, we might say that man’s scientific reach has exceeded his moral grasp.

“Global warming doesn’t matter except to the extent that it will affect life — ours and that of all living things on Earth. And contrary to the latest news, the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin. Most evidence suggests the contrary.”

The quote is from Dr. Daniel Botkin, professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I guess we can add him to the list of scientists who disagree with the ironclad, unshakable “consensus” that we’re on the road to catastrophe. More from Botkin, from today’s Wall Street Journal:

I’m not a naysayer. I’m a scientist who believes in the scientific method and in what facts tell us. I have worked for 40 years to try to improve our environment and improve human life as well. I believe we can do this only from a basis in reality, and that is not what I see happening now. Instead, like fashions that took hold in the past and are eloquently analyzed in the classic 19th century book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” the popular imagination today appears to have been captured by beliefs that have little scientific basis.

Some colleagues who share some of my doubts argue that the only way to get our society to change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe, and that therefore it is all right and even necessary for scientists to exaggerate. They tell me that my belief in open and honest assessment is naïve. “Wolves deceive their prey, don’t they?” one said to me recently. Therefore, biologically, he said, we are justified in exaggerating to get society to change.

The climate modelers who developed the computer programs that are being used to forecast climate change used to readily admit that the models were crude and not very realistic, but were the best that could be done with available computers and programming methods. They said our options were to either believe those crude models or believe the opinions of experienced, data-focused scientists. Having done a great deal of computer modeling myself, I appreciated their acknowledgment of the limits of their methods. But I hear no such statements today. Oddly, the forecasts of computer models have become our new reality, while facts such as the few extinctions of the past 2.5 million years are pushed aside, as if they were not our reality.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A long and detailed essay on the topic is available at The Gates of Vienna. A very small sample:

The end of religion, thus, didn’t herald an age of reason; it led to a new age of secular superstition and new forms of witch-hunts.

This will take at least an hour of your time, perhaps more, but it’s worthwhile.

Truth is definitely stranger than fiction, with Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sharing this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

In recent years, the Nobel Committee has shown itself more and more willing to name the Peace prize for political reasons. In awarding Al Gore and the IPCC the Peace Prize, however, the Nobel Committee has lost all pretense to objectivity. Not only are Al Gore and the IPCC shamelessly partisan choices, but also irrelevant ones. Whatever one thinks of their crusade to convince the world of catastrophic, human caused global warming, it has precious little to do with furthering world peace.

Gore seems to have anticipated the criticism. In his first statement, he explains: “The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity. It is also our greatest opportunity to lift global consciousness to a higher level.” Methinks this issue has much to do with ideology, and little to do with science.

[Ed. note: Hear Jay Richards discuss Gore's peace prize on the G. Gordon Liddy show here.]

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Speaking of the “priestly” voice of science,

Given all the atheist militancy raising a ruckus lately, I suppose it isn’t too surprising that I am stumbling upon more regular and more baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion among Science’s self-appointed Elite Champions online.

I’ve been a perfectly convinced and rather cheerfully nonjudgmental atheist for well over twenty years at this point, but I must say that I think it is arrant nonsense to claim that scientific and religious practices or scientific and religious beliefs are incompatible, given the overabundant evidence of people who weave them together in their lives every day so conspicuously. A little respect for the facts you claim so to cherish, people?

Check out the rest of “Priestly ‘Science’ and Democratic Politics” from Dale Carrico, Ph.D., a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

German theologian and philosopher Michael Welker describes in his book God the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) the biblical relationship between the prophet and majority opinion:

The prophet does not confuse truth with consensus. The prophet does not confuse God’s word with the word of those who happen to hold power at present, or with the opinion of the majority. This is because powerholders and the majority can fall victim to a lying spirit—and this means a power that actually seizes the majority of experts, the political leadership, and the public (88).

He previously outlined some of these lying spirits that have dominated recent decades. Welker writes,

“Water and air are inexhaustible natural resources”; “Dying forests are not connected industrial and automobile emissions”; “With permanent armament we are making peace more secure!”—those were some of the many astoundingly public opinions of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that, as has become clear in the meantime, can be ascribed to a lying spirit (85).

But if we were to ask what is the increasingly dominant opinion of the experts, the political leadership, the media, and the public of the ’00s, what would the answer be?

I have little doubt that the answer is, “Human beings are causing global climate change.”

After last week, we even have a clear “consensus” opinion on human-induced climate change from the Supreme Court. But while Welker himself might be inclined to concur with this particular opinion rather than those of previous decades, his warning about the dangers of consensus are well-taken.

And those who have taken up the prophetic mantle of climate change, like Jim Wallis and Rev. Richard Cizik, would do well to heed Welker’s words.

What does it truly mean to be “prophetic” about the issue of climate change? Does it mean the partnering of the Evangelical Climate Initiative with the Union of Concerned Scientists?

Or might a “lying spirit” behind the “consensus” position on climate change? How are we to tell?

Scripture itself gives us a pretty good rule of thumb to discern the spirits. In Deuteronomy 18:14-22, we read the answer to the question, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” Verse 22 contains God’s answer to the people’s question about discerning the true prophet: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

So with this in mind we might have an avenue to respond to the sorts of predictions and claims about climate change popularized most notably by Al Gore. The advocates for government action to combat human-induced climate change ought to provide a specific set of predictions and criteria for the verifiability of their claims. Let them decide in which predictions they have the most confidence and which are the most easily provable. Give us a set of clear benchmarks for the next 1, 2, 5, or 10 years. Then perhaps we can begin to judge whether the prophets of climate change have “spoken presumptuously” or not.

But to demand such explicit and verifiable criteria is to expose what is perhaps the greatest weakness of the theory of human-induced climate change: its patent lack of testability. It is at once a theory that can account for any and all future climate contingencies, and is therefore really no theory at all. It is a theory of everything and of nothing.

In the most recent Interfaith Stewardship Alliance Newsletter (April 5, 2007), Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, adjunct scholar at the Acton Institute and spokesman for the ISA, links to a story that includes the following quote from an organizer of a mountain-climbing expedition intended to bring attention to the problem of global warming (which had to be canceled because of low temperatures): “They were experiencing temperatures that weren’t expected with global warming,” Atwood said. “But one of the things we see with global warming is unpredictability.”

Beisner writes,

Re-read that last paragraph and let its epistemological implications soak in. Now literally everything constitutes evidence for global warming. Something you predicted? It’s evidence for global warming. Something you didn’t predict? It’s evidence for global warming. Something you couldn’t possibly have predicted? It’s evidence for global warming. Can you spell tautology? American Heritage Dictionary gives as its second definition, specialized use in logic: “An empty or vacuous statement composed of simpler statements in a fashion that makes it logically true whether the simpler statements are factually true or false; for example, the statement Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow.” Likewise tautological: “If what we predict happens, that’s evidence for global warming; if it doesn’t, that’s evidence for global warming.”

That of course is the beauty of the favored phrase “climate change,” because that term doesn’t necessarily imply warming or cooling. It could be either. And perhaps in some places neither, since we are so consistently reminded that these changes are really regional phenomena.

As so many of our scientifically-minded friends have been more than ready to remind us in the context of other debates, this raises the question: If it isn’t verifiable, is it really science?

And the theory of human-induced climate change isn’t science, what is it and what are the implications for the political debate about action to combat climate change? Welker gives us fair warning that the answer to the former question might well be, “A lying spirit.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, February 27, 2007

This piece from the Scientific American examines the difficulty that human beings have achieving happiness even in a world characterized by material prosperity.

“Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness,” writes Michael Shermer, in the context of Richard Lay૚rd’s observation that “we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950.”

Shermer examines various reasons that increases in objective well-being don’t necessarily correspond to increases in subjective well-being, or happiness. Perhaps it’s because of our genes. Or perhaps, as Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns argues, it’s because we seek happiness in pleasure rather than satisfaction: “Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.”

But none of these or the other possibilities Shermer surveys offer a complete answer. He concludes, “To understand happiness, we need both history and science.” I think that’s true, but I would add we also need theology.

Consider the truth of Augustine’s observations about the nature of sin and the search for happiness in a fallen world. First, “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (Confessions 10.21.31). But given the reality of sinful human nature, we constantly seek happiness and fulfillment in inappropriate places, arrogating our own misguided quest for happiness to the place of controlling priority.

Augustine’s understanding of uti and frui, or benevolence and complacence as Jonathan Edwards calls them, is illuminating here. The former regards the right use of things as means to achieve happiness, while the latter is the resting and right appreciation of something.

Thus, says Augustine,

there are some things which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them (On Christian Teaching, 1.3.3).

Ultimately it is only God in whom we are to seek our happiness, resting in him complacently. Speaking to God Augustine confesses,

A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy (Confessions 10.22.32).

Happiness can only truly be enjoyed when there is a right ordering of our affections for transient objects as means to enjoying and resting in God alone. That’s the insight provided by theology, and it helps explain the happiness conundrum plaguing various disciplines of social science.