Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Where Science Went Wrong: God, Truth, and Ricky Gervais

"Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -­- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge."  - Ricky Gervais, "Why I'm an Atheist"

Atheism is in vogue. Celebrity comedian Ricky Gervais has taken up the mantle of atheist apologist and advances his worldview every time his face is in front of a camera. He has had at least two articles published in the Wall Street Journal in the past seven months - one at Christmas and one at Easter, interestingly enough - which both present his "reasoned" (his word, not mine) explanation for not believing in God. As a host of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this year, Mr. Gervais ended his closing monologue with the memorable if unspectacular line "Thank you to God for making me an atheist." Mr. Gervais has had a nice tour hitting all the talk shows to deride theists and posture himself as a logical and enlightened atheist.

But what is Mr. Gervais really saying, and is he the enlightened erudite that he pretends to be? Let's first analyze his arguments for his disbelief in God. He uses a lot of space to say very little: "Science seeks the truth.... For better or worse it finds things out.... It bases its conclusions... on hard evidence." What does all this mean? Mr. Gervais is implying that science and theism diverge, but where and why? Mr. Gervais has very little to say here, only some empty platitudes about evolution and "truth, science, and nature." Mr. Gervais would have us accept prima facie - as self-evident and not requiring further argument - that evolution (and science and nature) and theism are mutually exclusive; his view is that the two simply cannot coexist in a coherent and rational system of thought. Mr. Gervais wants us to believe that if one person were to accept both evolution and theism as valid explanations of the world, his eyes would cross, his hair catch on fire, his head would turn 360's on his neck Excorcist-style, and his inner gray matter would burst from his ears.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gervais, this is far from the case. Two of the most prolific thinkers of the twentieth century - both countrymen of Mr. Gervais' - fall into this category: theists who were also evolutionists. It was G.K. Chesterton who wrote:

If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.[1]

C.S. Lewis, another of Mr. Gervais' countrymen and one of the most profound philosophers and writers of the twentieth century, wrote:

I am not either attacking or defending Evolution. I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true.... I can’t help regarding [advice that I refute Evolution in all my Christian apologetics] as a temptation to fight the battle on what is really a false issue: and also on terrain very unsuitable for the only weapon I have.[2]

Lewis, not surprisingly, got it right: evolution with regards to theism is a "false issue," a non-starter. As Lewis and Chesterton show, evolution and theism (particularly Christian theism) are entirely compatible. As this author has argued elsewhere, if all that evolutionists hope for could ever actually be proven true, the net result is only truly  problematic for a literal interpretation of the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis. More specifically, it would be terminal for a literal reading of the duration of the events recorded by the author of Genesis; that is, the "days" recorded by the author would not be literally interpreted as a twenty-four hour period, but instead could be understood to refer to some steps or sequences in the generative process. The rest of the creative narrative remains intact.

Science more broadly is a false issue for additional reasons as well. First, as any junior high school student with a natural science textbook can tell you, science is restricted by that which can be empirically tried and tested. Even the most novice scientist should be intimately familiar with the standard by which scientific knowledge is gathered, tested, and corrected: the scientific method. The steps of that method roughly speaking are:

1. State the problem.
2. Form a testable hypothesis.
3. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
4. Collect and analyze data produced by the experiment.
5. Draw conclusions from the analysis.
6. Communicate the results.[3]

To illustrate how the scientific method is supposed to work to arrive at what Mr. Gervais so recklessly calls "facts," let us consider an example. Our hypothetical scientist—let us call him Smee—gets an awful stomach ache after lunch. It doesn't happen every day, but just often enough to make Smee miserable. Smee needs to figure out the cause of the stomach pains and solve it. We have just stated the problem: Smee gets stomach aches after lunch. Smee must now form a hypothesis, but not just any hypothesis will do: it must be testable. He arrives at a hypothesis via observing the evidence: he gets stomach aches, always after lunch, only on occasion; ergo, Smee hypothesizes that something he is eating on occasion for lunch is upsetting his stomach. His next step is to form an experiment to test his hypothesis: he carefully plans and documents a month-long lunch diet where he isolates certain foods to eat on certain days, and he diligently records which days he gets an upset stomach. After the month is up, he collects his diet and his health reports, analyzes them, and finds that his stomach aches only happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he ate peanut butter for lunch. Smee's conclusion then: peanut butter upsets his stomach. He compiles his results and conclusions in a nice journal entry to himself so he can use them again later if he runs into any problems.

Now, imagine for a minute this process—the process, remember, by which science is supposed to arrive at Mr. Gervais' "facts"—applied to the existence of God. Step One: our problem is that we are unsure about whether or not God really exists. Step Two: our hypothesis is that God does not exist. Step Three: we need to design an experiment around our hypothesis, which if you remember is supposed to be testable. We have run into our first problem, and it is staggering. How would we go about testing our hypothesis that God does not exist? We could give God an ultimatum by saying, "God, I'm going to jump off this cliff. If you exist, you can save me from a certain death. If you don't exist, you wont' save me," and jump and see what happens. The problem with this experiment is that God, if He exists, is a sentient being who possesses free will, and He might think us foolish and simply choose not to save us. By way of cutting him off at the pass, one can assume Mr. Gervais might try to insert evolutionary theory as some kind of experiment, but that falls short as well. Here is why: in the corporate world, there is a process known as "reverse engineering" by which one company obtains the finished product of a second company and dismantles it to see how it works. Even if evolution is true, all we have done is to reverse engineer God's creation; that is, we have merely figured out how creation and biological processes work. To assert anything more would be akin to the Android engineer who, upon dismantling a new generation iPhone, decides that, because he was able to figure out his creation, the Apple engineer does not exist. His conclusion simply does not follow from his evidence.

Though he did not necessarily articulate it as such, Mr. Gervais is presumably assuming the position of naturalism: the position that the only things which can be known are those which are arrived at via the scientific method. If this is the case, fine and well, but he must be prepared to surrender a good deal of ideas that he considers "truth," most notably his own atheism. As discussed above, atheism - and theism, mind you - are not positions that can be arrived at by way of the scientific method. As such, Mr. Gervais' own atheism is a matter of faith, just like the believer's theism. The two are in the same boat. The only difference appears to be that the theist is more honest about his position with all his talk about "faith" and "belief," while Mr. Gervais' game is to parade his own faith as something more - "truth, science, and nature." We should not be fooled.

If Mr. Gervais would like to make the point that one cannot use science to prove God's existence, then his point would be well-made; but he must also concede that one cannot use science to disprove God's existence, which by my lights is precisely what he purports to do. The problem for Mr. Gervais and other psuedo-scientists like him is that the question of God's existence does not belong to the province of science. It cannot be tested or observed. It cannot be put in a beaker and heated, nor can it be dissolved in a solution and analyzed. The question of God's existence is not a scientific question, it is a philosophical question, and in that realm Mr. Gervais is out of his league. While he is certainly welcome to his opinion, and he is to be admired for his willingness to step into the ring and taking a few swings, he would be well-advised to stick to what he knows. For all his comic genius, Mr. Gervais is a very poor scientist, and an even worse philosopher.

Oh, and I thank God for making me a believer.

[1] G.K. Chestergon, Orthodoxy (Hollywood, FL 2010), p. 29.
[2] Gary Ferngren, et al. "C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960", In a reference which immediately calls to mind  Gervais' polemics, Lewis would later write to Acworth, "‘What inclines me now to think you may be right in regarding [evolution] as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders."
[3] These steps were taken from a poster on the wall in a junior high life science classroom.

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