Thursday, October 12, 2017

How a Scientist Can Believe in God, Part 1

In my previous post, I reviewed an article by Albrecht Moritz that echoes the argument of Alvin Plantinga known as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which claims that naturalism is self-refuting.  Moritz is a Christian and a scientist who appears to be competent in his own field of science, but holds unscientific theistic beliefs in matters that fall outside his area of scientific expertise.  Given that science, broadly speaking, tends to confirm a naturalist view of the world, one wonders how someone like Moritz could be competent as a scientist and still believe in God and the supernatural.  The answer is fairly clear - you have to be able to compartmentalize.  Science could not progress if observed phenomena were simply explained in terms of supernatural causes, bringing any further investigation to a halt.  A successful scientist must pursue the question without regard to any religious ideology. 

But that doesn't mean that the scientist can't go about his non-professional life as a devout religious believer.  This seems to be the case with Moritz.  He doesn't believe evolution could produce humans with the capacity for rational thinking, which in his view must be non-physical.  Fortunately for him, that belief doesn't impact his work as a micro-biologist.  And Moritz holds a number of other theistic beliefs that run counter to broadly accepted scientific understanding of how things work in our world.  But I don't think he sees it that way.  I think Moritz, like many theists, regards his beliefs as being fully compatible with science.  And he defends those beliefs in an article he wrote, called How can a scientist believe in God?  This article contains 15 objections that might be raised by skeptics, to which he provides responses, which I will address individually.

1. Positing God is not a solution: who created God?
Moritz argues that there must be a first principal (God), and God is eternal, so it makes no sense to ask who created God.  That's fine, but this question is usually posed in response to theistic special pleading, which argues that everything must have a cause, making a single exception for God.  Either everything must have a cause or not everything must have a cause.  If the former is the case, then it is reasonable to ask who created God.  If the latter is the case, as theists seem to agree, what reason is there to insist that God is the one and only exception?  God, being eternal, doesn't need a cause, but that would also be true of anything else that exists eternally.  Moritz notes that naturalists posit a quantum vacuum from which a universe might emerge, and that would be something eternal.  But he doesn't provide any further argument as to why we should reject this notion.  Instead, he veers off into related discussions about something coming from nothing and the simplicity of God (as described in Thomistic philosophy), neither of which address the core issue: what reason is there to insist that God is the one and only first principal?  Perhaps by calling it a first principal instead of a first cause, the thinks he as settled the issue.  But he never defines exactly what he means by that term.  Perhaps he thinks that by deflecting to discussions of something from nothing and divine simplicity, he can evade the question, and the reader won't notice.  In any case, I am left with serious doubts as to whether Moritz could ever be a successful particle physicist or astrophysicist.

2. The omnipotence of God is self-contradictory
Here, Moritz uses the example of the old question: Can God create something so heavy he can't lift it?  And his answer is quite simple: God can't do what is logically impossible.  But that's not what the objection is about (and it is somewhat misstated).  And it really makes me wonder if he even understands it.  The contradictory aspect of God's omni-qualities comes into focus when you consider that the world is supposedly God's creation, and it is full of suffering, but that fact isn't logically consistent with God's qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence (as I discuss here).  You can keep any two of those attributes, but the third introduces a logical contradiction.  And Moritz completely ignores this objection.

3. The creation story in the Bible is meant as a literal, historical account
Again, Moritz seems to be addressing a question that is not at the heart of the issue.  This objection is focused entirely on the creation story in the bible.  He uses it to slam the ignorance of  atheists:
If atheists think that it is essential to religion per se, their thoughts are in a world removed from religious reality, and their persistence in continuing to pound on the topic makes the impression of being an all too convenient excuse for not facing the deeper issues.
But while it's true that more scientifically-minded believers don't take that story literally, there are other parts of the bible that are arguably even more absurd from a scientific perspective, and that Christians accept literally, without question.  Does Moritz doubt the miracle stories and the resurrection myth depicted in the New Testament?  I don't think so.  He castigates atheists for holding the ridiculous notion that Christians must take the bible literally, but that's exactly what he does, although he is somewhat selective about which parts to take literally.  Nevertheless, in the final analysis, he adheres to beliefs that are not consistent with science, and he shouldn't pretend they are.

4. Religion competes with science for an explanation of the natural world
Moritz puts forth a better defense of religion in this case than he did in the previous three, but he still falls short of the mark.  It consists of three main points.  First, that monotheism fostered a scientific mindset by demystifying nature (meaning that things like the sun were no longer seen as gods), and allowing a focus on the natural order of things.  There may be some truth to this, but it was not monotheists who made the some of the earliest advances in scientific thinking.  The ancient Greeks were certainly not influenced by Christianity.  But their contributions were more numerous and more advanced than anything that arose from the whole first millennium of Christianity.  And if moving from polytheism to monotheism was helpful in the advancement of scientific thinking, eliminating theism altogether was ultimately a far more powerful force, as can be seen in the thinking of Thales of Miletus some 600 years before Christ.

Second, Moritz argues that there was no real conflict between the church and the early astronomers who advanced a heliocentric view of cosmology.  In particular, he makes the standard apologists' claim that the "the Galileo affair" was a matter of politics as much as it was a matter of disagreement between science and religion.  He even cites Galileo himself stating that the church had earlier accepted the works of Copernicus.  He does not mention that that church banned the works of Copernicus some seven decades after its initial publication.  But he also doesn't describe the nature of the political issue between Galileo and the church (and this is something you never hear from apologists, because they want us to think that it has nothing to do with the conflict between religion and science).  The church was happy to accept the work of these early astronomers for one reason: it yielded better better predictions of astronomical events.  Their interest in astronomy was focused primarily on making calendars with the correct dates of Christian holidays.  And they were happy to make use of the more advanced astronomical tools available to them.  But they didn't want Galileo to make his heretical theories known to the general public.  That's what the "political" conflict was based on.

Finally, Moritz argues that evolution was always accepted by the church, and that students in the Catholic education system "typically have the best education in evolution", apparently because they reject ID and Creation Science.  The truth is that the church has always been at best ambivalent toward the theory of evolution, and at worst, openly hostile - especially in the years following the publication of Darwin's book.  See this article for more information on evolution's acceptance within the church.  The church has come to be more friendly to the idea of evolution, but to this day, they reject the true scientific theory in favor of a theistic version of it that postulates divine guidance instead of random mutation.  And that's what they teach their students in the Catholic schools.

5. Accommodation of modern science into ancient religious beliefs is a desperate attempt to reconcile two irreconcilable things
Moritz' argument is a desperate attempt to defend the indefensible.  It consists of noting that church dogma has indeed evolved to accept scientific knowledge, and pointing out a "remarkable double standard of thinking and a lack of logic" in those who praise evolving knowledge in science but deny any such evolution of thinking among religiously dogmatic believers.  Ok, we can agree that church dogma has evolved.  But that doesn't address the real objection, that religion is in conflict with the development of science.  The evolution of church dogma comes grudgingly, and only after a protracted struggle against new scientific developments whenever the science is seen as heretical or somehow contrary to current dogma.  Anatomical studies were not conducted for the first millennium of Christianity.  The works of Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler remained banned for centuries.  And true scientific evolution theory is still not accepted by the church to this day.  Furthermore, a scientific view of cognition may never be accepted, as long as the religious dogma continues to cling to ancient metaphysical beliefs in immaterial entities like spirits as the seat of intelligence and rationality.  This is what Moritz believes, too.

That's enough for today.  I'll continue with the rest of Moritz' 15 objections next time.


  1. (3) Nope, this may seem the case these days, due largely to the loud influence of some mostly rich & American evangelists with lotsa media power, but a strictly literal interpretation of the scriptures is a fairly modern idea - adopted, perhaps, after Christendom's encounters with Islam & as a result of that influence. Earlier Xian figures often read the Bible in extremely allegorical manners - cf St. Origen

    ...& more really, debates about the literalness vs allegory of Genesis date way back, back to the as Second Temple era of the Jews, at least....

    More comments later, maybe!

    1. You shouldnt make generalizations, btw, based on the fundie-American model of Xianity, which is most likely less than 5% of those who proclaim the faith. (Anyway, these days, the most Xian continent is Africa) It's also a mistake of the New Atheists, who, for rhetorical reasons, want to assume this fragment represent the " true historical faith", just cuz they really loud and obnoxious. And espouse "beliefs" that sound ridiculous to many people.....

      But Xianity & all successful religions are ever-changing and adapting things, otherwise they wouldn't still be around, so it's just not that simple. Here's a bit of a quote by a religion scholar that I shared with you before, I think:

      It is just that [we] have no interest in a would-be secularist austerity proving itself by a lack of sophistication about that massive and monumentally wonderful archive that are [...] strands of “religion.” It’s always those who do not see the seething restlessness and unease of this archive who seem always to convince themselves—and others—that it is finished, over, come to nothing. Wanting to unearth, invent, and extend emancipatory instances of solidarity without the tumultuous and shifting archive of religion seems to us like cutting down the rainforest in order to see if useful plant and animal species are lying there beneath it.....

      Excerpt From: "An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics" by Ward Blanton

    2. I think you have misread what I said. The issue is not whether fundamentalists interpret the creation story literally. It is the FACT that the vast majority of all Christians DO interpret the New testament stories literally. This includes a dead guy getting up and speaking. I'm talking about scientifically-minded Catholics like Moritz. I've spoken to them. This is not a false generalization based on fundamentalist beliefs.

  2. Yeah, okay, so we celebrate by banqetting on undead messiahs.... So?....u find that irrational? :-o

    It's interesting to wonder if people - or even oneself - REALLY believes in the resurrection? (I am thinking of the great theologian and martyr Bonhoeffer 's remarks about "only learning to believe" from a Nazi holding cell.)

    Be also aware that someone might respond to a question with a particular answer not because they genuinely believe it, but because they think that is how they should answer it. For example, a Catholic might answer that they believe the bread and wine in communion literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ not because they actually believe it does, but because they believe they should believe it. Polls like those carried out by Pew find answers to what people believe based upon what people report believing, not what they actually believe, and the two needn't be the same

    But ....for a lot of Xians, I don't think absolute proof of the falseness of Christ rising from the dead would be a theism-defeater anyway. The belief isn't "held" like that. They'd just adjust - which is what I'm talking about above- the way religions adapt and adjust - there is no "true faith" really (and if there is it would have to belong to the early unpopular Xians who were reportedly sometimes referred to as 'atheists'.) I think that touches on a number of your points: the fluidity of religious traditions as opposed to your seeming-assumption of an eroding but essentially monolithic and static, .... Um, "primitive"... well, "enemy," which, as I said above, strikes me an error typical of "New Atheists"!

    1. This is about science vs religion. I have never spoken to a Catholic believer who doesn't believe absolutely in the resurrection. I have spoken to many who take every single word of the NT to be literally true. And these are not the fundies. The fluidity of beliefs is always in matters of dogma that can be conceded as not being core elements of the faith. Heliocentric vs geocentric earth - it took many years, but finally they decided that they could still be Christians while holding a more scientific view of the cosmos. Even evolution of man from apes, as long as they don't have to give up some form of the original sin concept. But the stories of the life and death of Jesus? No, they can't let that go. Without the resurrection, there is no basis for Christianity. They will never give that up.

      That's not to say that there aren't some who stray from the dogma of the church. They may regard themselves as more secular individuals, but they are regarded by the devout ones as heretical and unsophisticated. I don't think Moritz is in that category, though.

    2. Sounds like it's about science vs Roman Catholicism?

      I think, to make your point,you need to show that powerful religious institutions like the medieval RCC are worse than powerful secular the contemporary US Prez Donald Trump et al ....when it comes to corruption and repressing real knowledge if you want to prove there is something intrinsically "wrong" with "religious belief" (some vague concept like that) cuz, after all, the RCC in those days was in pretty deep collusion with the existing secular authorities too- ie the armies and the nobilities. Kinda reminiscent of the collusion of secular and religious authorities that put Christ to death in the first place in the Gospels, no?

      If they say,
      Why, why, tell 'em that it's human nature
      Why, why, does he do it that way

      If that's the case, it might enough even to make someone believe in original sin?

    3. An atheist guy in Sweden that Joe knows shared this with once....

    4. Sounds like it's about science vs Roman Catholicism?
      - Moritz is a Catholic. I'm talking about his religion (whatever it might be) in opposition to scientific understanding.

      cf the contemporary US Prez Donald Trump et al ....when it comes to corruption and repressing real knowledge if you want to prove there is something intrinsically "wrong" with "religious belief"
      - That was not exactly the point. But it's interesting that you mention Trumpism. In my view, followers of Trump have a religious devotion that defies reason (watch them jump for joy as Trump eliminates their healthcare and gives massive tax breaks to the wealthy, especially himself). Like religion, it is really a form of tribalism. Good discussion here.

    5. Yeah, I tend to agree there, both religion and state are really forms of tribalism.....

    6. ....but don't you think your article also sabotages your own anti-religionIst stance? If Trumpism is a kind of secularized "religion", then is "religion" secularizable?

      Is the "belief in God" aspect of religion then the part that is intrinsically bad? Or is the "religious" aspect of it all - in the negative sense you use that term - really something separable and independent from just someone believing in some kind of divinity?


    7. My own anti-religionist stance?

      You read far too much into my words. If anything, I am a defender of science and rational thinking. I make arguments against many things I see as bullshit. They are not limited to religion. My arguments with Joe are primarily based on his assuming the mantle of science when in fact he is purveying pseudoscience.

      If you would bother to read and understand what I am saying, you might see that the way I equate Trumpism to religion is instructive about what bothers me in both of these things. God has nothing to do with it. It's all about irrational thinking and beliefs, and often, the intrusion of those things into my life.

    8. Well, skep, I am learning.... & perhaps we have more in common than it might first seem, no?..... Anyway, thx for clarifying!