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Sunday, 23 March 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #8: Persistence and Humility - Necessary Qualities for both Science and Theology

Even the greatest of scientists admit that they “stand on the shoulders of giants”. No one’s theories are free from correction or extension. Good theories (like Darwin’s theory of biological evolution) are constantly corrected, refined, and extended. Polkinghorne states it well:

Almost all scientists believe the progress of science to be a convergence onto an increasingly verisimilitudinous understanding of the nature of the physical world. We are its mapmakers and sometimes we have radically to revise our views (that patch of apparent Newtonian terra firma turns out to be a quantum swamp). Yet overall, accuracy improves with each major discovery. Scientific progress is not made either by denying the existence of phenomena that we currently cannot understand or by exaggerating the scope of what we have currently achieved. Persistence and openness in investigation, and a degree of realistically humble assessment of present attainment, are indispensable virtues in the pursuit of science.

Faith , Science, and Understanding (page 119)
It is this combination of inquisitive openness, persistence, and realistic humility that has made modern science so successful.

I think there is a lesson here for Evangelicals and our theology. Polkinghorne continues:
This edifying conclusion is of wider application than just within science alone. It certainly bears extension to theology and to the interaction between theology and science. If we do not display a certain degree of intellectual daring, no progress will be made. If we do not display a certain degree of intellectual humility, misleading and untenable claims will be made. If we are not content to live with the acknowledgement that there are phenomena that are beyond our contemporary powers of explanation, we shall have a truncated and inadequate grasp of reality.
I am not saying that we should replace our theology. Far from it. We too stand on the shoulders of Giants, in our case the Old Testament prophets, the apostles, the church fathers, and the reformers. Jumping off these shoulders would be catastrophic. But we should not confuse our theology with God’s Truth. Theology is simply our current, limited understanding of God, his creation, and the relationship between them. When required, we should not be afraid to rearticulate this understanding. Nor should we be afraid to admit that some things are beyond our understanding.

Scientists ultimately “trust” the rationality of God’s creation (as Einstein notes: “God does not play dice”), not the theories that approximate the truth about creation. As Christians the foundation of our trust must rest on our resurrected Lord, not the theologies we articulate about that Lord.

Happy Easter.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]


Scooper said...

Another great post. With regard to humility in theology, we need to remember that we humans killed Jesus because what he had to say about us and God didn't square with what was then our theology. And with regard to hubris in science, a whole generation of physicians and surgeons had get old and die before all doctors washed their hands between patients.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! No specific comments, but I've loved this entire series.

Craig L. Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig L. Adams said...

I don't remember how it is that I stumbled across this blog, but I'm glad you did. I quoted your quotes and linked back to you. I hope that's okay. I hope more people find you.

JR said...

From the post -- “...we should not confuse our theology with God’s Truth. Theology is simply our current, limited understanding of God, his creation ... we should not be afraid to rearticulate this understanding. Nor should we be afraid to admit that some things are beyond our understanding.”

So far, so good. Polkinghorne might judge that future creation evolves new contingent facts so that humility isn’t just a process embedded in method, but a surprise by novelty.

What’s not so sure is – “Scientists ultimately ‘trust’ the rationality of God’s creation (as Einstein notes: ‘God does not play dice’), not the theories that approximate the truth about creation.”

Not quite. Einstein’s ad hoc bias isn’t science. It's his. It doesn’t speak of scientists trusting either theistic rationality or atheistic rationality or any other rationality embedded in the natural universe.

Polkinghorne would re-bias this bias by the neutrality of inquiry (null hypothesis) – “we don’t know.”

An ontogenetic feeling and expression of trust by scientists can’t be reified into trust in the rationality of "God’s creation:" that’s pushing it too far.

And isn’t humility.

You'd need to capture a lot (mabye an unlimited "lifetime's" number) of further inferences. If the natural universe is your guide.


Steve Martin said...

Hi scooper: Good points.

Steven: Thanks. I’d sort of let this series lag a bit – I think I’ll correct that & do 2 in a row.

Craig: Welcome & thanks. Links are appreciated.

Hi Jim. Welcome. Thanks for the comments. My point was that everyone in science assumes that nature (or God’s creation as Christians refer to it) acts in consistent and explainable ways – even if we can’t now (or maybe ever) completely explain some of those ways to our own complete satisfaction. This consistency & rationality is the basic assumption in science, its most basic creed so to speak. And it is a “faith” that has worked remarkably well (so I just don’t get why some Christians are so opposed to methodological naturalism).

JR said...

Hi Steve - I dig your blog. And your efforts on this thread.

If you’re trying to let this thread die, then I won’t belabor it.

I respectfully disagree that canons of practice in science go so far as to assume consistency and rationality in the natural order. You’re totally fair and within basic reason to make your inference, and then test it; and, you’re likely correct to sample and test scientific assumptions on this question, since scientism and scientific-fideism can be as much a danger for scientists as can legalism (or, pick your favorite departure from faith) for normally faithful believers, because we all deviate from our best canons from time to time.

I’m sure you know that the topic you’ve addressed recently (and historically has) raised a brouhaha, because Paul Davies just asserted the same thing. Most scientists would disagree with Davies, and would agree instead with Ron Giere (and other members of "The Philosophy of Science Association"), affirming that neither scientists nor scientific methods require assuming that "nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way."

Besides doing private peer review for early drafts of the NAS statement on the subject, I had the coolest and fun pleasure of working daily, for a few years, in instrumentation design and implementation with dozens of bench scientists at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Lawrence Livermore Labs, Raychem, Genentech (of the genome project fame), and a half dozen other labs – where I knew several evangelical research scientists, who despite their evangelical faith, still agree that what we think is a rational and intelligible natural order can change in a heartbeat (or might today be other than what we think), so that the assumption of an intelligible order isn’t a part of science itself, and that making this assumption pushes toward the edges of scientism or fideism.

I know this line of reasoning sounds counter-intuitive. And, it is. But, the only assumption required (in generic terms) is the humility of, “I don’t know ... let’s test and find out.”

The “I don’t know ... let's test” is required. Trust in an intelligible universe is a gratuitous artifact that you are free to hold, or to deny, but it isn’t required in science. When quantum physicists got infinite results in the early days of that discipline, then the scientists re-normalized their own mathematics, rather than trying to make nature itself have an intelligible character. See also, physicist Eugene Wigner, who put aside his neo-platonic bias in order to write a truly scientific essay on why there is no known reason why mathematics works to describe the natural world (“The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’).

In the end, while I might agree with you on many points of belief, it’s imperative if we want to engage science in mutual humility, that we accurately restate, rather than caricature, what science is all about. And this takes work, hard work. I get client referrals from over a half-dozen local pastors, with whom I work closely to resolve cases incorporating religious convictions, and only one of them can state the one-sentence definition of evolution (change in allelic frequencies in a population over time). A ton of work to do here.

Again, I mean these comments in a friendly way. Not adversarially. And I am enjoying your blog.



Steve Martin said...

Hi Jim,

No I wasn’t really trying to let the thread die. Don’t think I understood your original point (maybe I still don’t). I briefly read Davies article (I think late last year?) & scanned a few of the comments on it – but once missiles start firing back and forth between UcD and panda’s thumb I tend to tune out. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Anyways, I’m not familiar with the rest of the names you referred to. I wasn’t even aware of that famous essay by Wigner (I am now & will read it) .. for other readers, see: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html . And I bet you there are lots of other famous ideas to which I remain blissfully ignorant, even famous ideas closely related to the subject of this blog. But learning from my readers is part of the joy of blogging. So thanks.

So, let me try to understand what you are saying: We agree that the rationality of the natural order is a metaphysical claim and not something that can be deduced. However, I implied that this metaphysical claim is something that most scientists accept, where I think you are saying that is not necessarily the case. Is this correct? Is this the same as saying that ultimately nature may not be understandable? Is this related to the distinction between explanation and understanding? (Or maybe I should read the Wigner paper first – but another time, it is time for bed not blogging).

JR said...

Hi Steve,

You’re on track. Don’t let the hubbub over Davies’ article dismay you. I agree and join you in withdrawing from the debate at some point: for me, when it reaches the point of intractable dueling assertions on both sides. Or because of my work schedule. A subjective judgment call, I admit.

You’re really closer on track than you might think.

Please forgive me if this is terse. I’m working today. I’ll get back to this if it’s not at least intelligible enough for you to paraphrase and restate in words that fit you.

Here goes.

You wrote – “... try to understand what you are saying: We agree that the rationality of the natural order is a metaphysical claim and not something that can be deduced.”

Let’s break this down.

You wrote – “... we agree that the rationality of the natural order is a metaphysical claim ...”

Yes. I agree. I think most scientists would agree. I think Davies would too.

You continued - “... and not something that can be deduced ...”

Yes. For now, I agree. For the most part too.

My hesitation here is only because I agree in part (I think most scientists would agree in part) with Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, that there could be a metaphysical truth, and more, any properly formulated metaphysical truth could not possibly be falsified (demonstrated wrong; but, there’s more to it), because by definition a properly formulated metaphysical truth would always be true.

The key is getting such a truth "properly formulated.” Many scientists today are open to the possibility of a unifying theory: even to the possibility that some future prodigy-Aquinas could state a unifying theory in inclusive theological terms. This can’t be ruled out in advance.

If we do get a properly formulated metaphysical truth, then we might (or might not - see more below) be able to deduce all kinds of new deductions about rationality embedded in the natural universe. So, on your deduction question, let’s hold. Stay open. We can’t do the deduction now. We can do an inference. But, we must stay tentative about an inference. We cannot do a deduction from a metaphysical truth. Not yet: because we don’t have one, yet.

What many theologians and philosophers do is make deductions based upon a bunch of correlated understandings. They think that their correlated understandings are “metaphysical truths.” And they deduce from there. TULIP is a collection of correlated understandings. Arminianism is too. Even atheistic libertarian political philosophy is too: correlating free will, the high priority of contracts, the axiom of rights to freedom, etc. It’s not that these ideas are wrong just because they are correlated understandings. It’s not that their deductions are wrong. They’re just not science. They may feel like “metaphysical” certainties if you buy into them. And maybe some of them are correct. I’m not ruling out this possibility. But, reasoning from correlated understandings (axioms, postulates, or speculations) does not account for scientific knowledge. So, deductions from correlated ideas are not fully meta-physical. They just feel like it.

You wrote - “... I implied that this metaphysical claim is something that most scientists accept, where I think you are saying that is not necessarily the case. Is this correct?”

Ah. Great question. Very clear. You went right to the heart of it.

The metaphysical claim is an option. Scientists are free to hold metaphysical claims. Or, to reject them. Metaphysical claims about the universe being intelligible and rationally constructed are not a requirement for doing science.

I’m sorry to be so short, terse, and heuristic. The example of the null hypothesis as an analogical example of scientific humility, and it is a key here: if a scientist says, “I don’t know .. let’s test and see,” then this question does not express or imply any commitment to a metaphysical claim.

A genuine, “I don’t know .. let’s test and see” is open to the possibility that the natural world won’t play by our rules of rationality (rationality: the various ratiocinative rules for scientific discovery used in the collection of scientific methods).

Just because a scientists goes ahead and performs an experiment based on rational questions does not mean that she holds a metaphysical claim beyond her genuine, “I don’t know.”

See below, more on metaphysical claims

You went on - “Is this the same as saying that ultimately nature may not be understandable?”

I think so. In the way you’re asking the question, yes.

Step back just a little from that question.

Focus instead on one reason why your intuitions and assertions in your previous post are partly correct and good. The part of your intuition that’s true is this: science itself - and science as we know it - cannot work if nature does not yield answers to our various rational probes (ratiocinative rules). Science as we know it requires such reason.

But, just because nature has yielded answers to our rational sciences so far does not mean that intelligibility and rationality are built into the natural world. Especially at a metaphysical level. The whole cosmos could suffer catastrophic change and redefinition (literally: see catastrophe mathematics) at any time in ways that defy our imputations of rationality and intelligibility. “We don’t know” (null hypothesis) includes not knowing long this current state of nature will last.

You finished – “Is this related to the distinction between explanation and understanding? (Or maybe I should read the Wigner paper first)”

Great question.

I personally hold that “understanding” involves more than scientific explanation. This is true at the emotional level when we experience each other as more than the sum of our scientific explanations of homo sapiens. It’s also true in many social and economic sciences which use quantitative measures (statistics) to describe human interactions, with the express admission that our measures are at best partial measures – so that when we “understand” (or think we do) beyond scientific explanations, then we’re likely using a collection of heuristic judgments and preferences in addition to explanations. But, this is contested. Very fun to speculate. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s here. I would likely join you in saying that "understanding does involve accounting for God and God's role in things too.

But, back to the natural sciences and metaphysics and “understanding.”

Here is the counter-intuitive key. Scientists who are open to discovering a metaphysical truth (Stephen Weinberg probably speaks for the overwhelming majority of natural scientists on this) hold and admit that any future metaphysical truth might end up being so general and so vague as to be practically useless!

Something like, “stuff exists” (this is an obvious reduction).

How useful is that? -- how many deductions does that support?

The point is that there is no guarantee that any future metaphysical truth would be capable of supporting useful deductions (you mentioned deduction, above).

Nor is there any guarantee that any future metaphysical truth would lead to a cascade of deductions leading to God.

There is no way of knowing how useful (or, useless) any future metaphysical truth will be until we know what that metaphysical truth is in the first place!

So, wait and see.

As far as science is concerned, even if we come up with a metaphysical truth in the future, there is no guarantee that the universe will obey it!

How could we know with certainty that the universe will obey our rules?

The ethic of the scientific attitude would still be, “this is the way it seems to be - for now.”

Just because scientists keep doing experiments using rational means does not mean the universe will keep cooperating.

The Wigner article says that math works. Math is about the most rational artifact that humans have conceived. As close to a universal language as we have gotten. Math works in the natural sciences. But, there is no known (focus: known) reason why math works! That's Wigner. And he put aside neo-Platonic biases about the intelligibility of the universe in order to write that! Amazing.

That's humility.

Until a future metaphysical truth is discovered, we will not know what it is. And even then, we still may not know whether is is useful, or so vague as to be nearly useless for telling us why math works. In the meantime, we don’t know. Not really “know.”

This does not mean you should toss away your faith. It just means we should not force upon scientists ideas and claims about which they honestly -- "I don't know."

Sometimes, an honest, "I don't know," is just that. It's not a cover for a metaphysical claim.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Jim,

Um, I believe your definitions for “short” and “terse” are quite different from mine. This is by far the longest comment I’ve ever received on my blog. Period. Please give me some warning if you are going to write a “long” comment – I’ll book the day off work. :-)

Anyways, thanks. Definitely some stuff to chew on. Probably too much for now – you may have breeched my personal chewing / choking threshold.

Now catastrophe mathematics – that sounds interesting. Never heard of it before (and I pretend to have a math degree!). I’d like to see something that combines catastrophe mathematics and Christian eschatology. Even if it is only science fiction. Any suggestions? But I digress.

Maybe I should try to rephrase what I said in the post. I said: “Scientists ultimately “trust” the rationality of God’s creation”. I think there are a few aspects of what I meant:

1. critical realism: I believe that “what seems to be approximates what is”. I suspect a majority of scientists also accept this. Otherwise, what is the point of doing science?

2. the object of science (nature / God’s creation) has demonstrated patterns that allow us to understand its behaviour. ie. it demonstrates certain invariabilities that allow the rational mind to recognize patterns. (Whether these patterns will continue in the future must, I guess, be held with somewhat less confidence).

So it is these meta-physical claims about the fruitfulness of science that scientists trust / accept, whereas most recognize their theories (no matter how beautiful or brilliant) to be mere approximations.

JR said...

Hiya Steve - sorry about overloading.

Bottom line: scientists keep saying that science doesn’t need or make either the meta-physical or even lesser speculative philosophical claims about the natural order being intelligible. Religious thinkers (more than secular philosophers, who get it) continually insist that science does presuppose more. Religious thinkers end up telling scientists what scientists really believe (despite scientists’ denials). End game: dueling assertions. Scientists walk away. Go back to the lab. There’s no more to talk about when religious conversation partners force assumptions on scientists (“surely, you must believe ....”). Like one resident physicist at SLAC told me, “I feel like I’m on house arrest, like Galileo, when I’m told what I believe by theologians who refuse to hear me when I say I don’t believe it.” House arrest simply means scientists talk together in-house. And quit talking to theologians. Which is why in academic venues (e.g. Science and Ethics) and in online popular nodes where scientists are openly invited to discuss theology, they won’t touch it. They will talk amongst themselves. Theology has talked itself out of being heard. By making abusive assertions. It’s a sad impasse. I’m not saying this of you personally. But, that’s where it is. And it’s only getting worse.



Steve Martin said...

Hi Jim,

Ok, finally got around to reading the Wigner article. That was definitely interesting. Just a couple of quick quote mines:

Without the laws of invariance the physical theories could have been given no foundation of fact; if the empirical law of epistemology were not correct, we would lack the encouragement and reassurance which are emotional necessities, without which the "laws of nature" could not have been successfully explored. Dr. R. G. Sachs, with whom I discussed the empirical law of epistemology, called it an article of faith of the theoretical physicist, and it is surely that.

And then later on, after discussing false theories that give amazingly accurate results (at least for a short time):

Fundamentally, we do not know why our theories work so well. Hence, their accuracy may not prove their truth and consistency.

So I think, if I understand your discussion in this context, is that theologians are saying: “See. Everything is working great. Therefore the universe is rational” where as scientists are saying “Not so fast. The data may be pointing that way now, but future data may lead us in another direction – or no direction at all”. Is that close or am I still missing the point?

One issue I do have with your framing is the scientists vs. theologians. I am definitely an amateur here, but my own reading tends to be those that have both scientific & theological backgrounds (eg. Polkinghorne) or at least scientists that are also Christians (and therefore have there own meta-physical commitments). But doesn’t everyone have metaphysical commitments? Ie. It is not the metaphysical commitments or even metaphysical conclusions that are the problem in science. It is when one allows those metaphysical commitments to influence conclusions (maybe in conjunction with scientific data) & then call the result a scientific conclusion.

JR said...

Steve Martin - that’s the ticket!

You wrote: “.. if I understand .. is that theologians are saying: ‘See. Everything is working great. Therefore the universe is rational,’ where as scientists are saying “Not so fast. The data may be pointing that way now, but future data may lead us in another direction.”

Very good. Put a peg in that. And keep it.

That doesn’t mean you should change your theology. It just means that if you want (only if you want: if you don’t want, bets are off) to have truly enjoyable and worthwhile exchanges with scientists, then keep that peg in mind. If you do, then you will find many scientists willing to sit down with you and really enter into you (our) domain of speculating on meta-issues! It’s fun, really.

The only thing I would add from Wigner’s article is that one prime example (paradigmatic, if you’re into paradigms) of the data itself NOT leading scientists is this: the very elaborate and fancy extensions of Eienstein’s mathematics PREDICTED the existence of black holes when no scientist was even thinking or looking for them! When the math PREDICTED this, only then did scientists look. Bang, they looked and they found what the math predicted!

Wigner asks why? – why can math predict this? – can our rational math predict data where we are not looking for data, because the universe is rational and conforms to our rational ideas (e.g. rational math)? - can we use the accuracy of our predictions made by math (our most rational language so far) as a basis to say the universe is rational?

Answer: no! We don’t know why math can predict data even where we are not looking for it! We don't really *know.*

What's amazing is this. When Wigner was given the chance to import all kinds of his fancy neo-platonic religious ideals into answering why math predicts the data despite scientists not looking for what math predicts, then Wigner did exactly the right thing – the scientifically humble thing – by putting aside his meta-convictions and by saying the truth – we don’t know – we really don’t know why math predicts data in places where we are not looking. It would be extremely tempting to say that math predicts data because the universe is rational! But, we don’t know.

We could imagine a society of scientists in the backroom, smoking cigars, in a good old boys meeting, slapping each other on the back, in self-congratulation, saying, “well of course! – the universe is rational! – haha, of course .. and we scientists would be put out of business if we did not believe the universe is rational .. haha, of course!” But, that’s not science. And it’s not the way science works. That’s because the view from inside science is that science is not really an epistemology (let this soak in deep). Science is just a bunch of hackers with sets of different tools (though related), and, with each different scientific toolbox containing different tools – all trying to optimize their tools (like sharpening a knife) in order to improve our otherwise “default” epistemology (whatever your “default” is). The so-called rules used by scientists are just the “best known rules,” but these rules are not for purposes of reaching some epistemological “meta-truth,” rather, the tools are for pedagogy in reaching people so that people can do better jobs at getting a little bit closer to truth than the same people would otherwise do with their “default” epistemologies!

Steve - think of it this way. You and I have theological convictions. But, if God really exists in any interactive way, then God must sometimes correct our own faulty (“default” - but, “default” for that moment) conceptions of God. This is what happened to Paul. Boom! Wrong idea of God. Corrected! I’d say this kind of correction happens more frequently, more accurately, more precisely the more intimately we know God – even many times a day on some days – correction of our faulty “concepts” of is the meaning of being a disciple, under discipline. If we worship our “concepts” and refuse correction for false “concepts” of God, then that’s idolatry – we are worshiping the “concepts” we have made! God disciplines and corrects those God loves. Now, scientists too stray from science into “scientism” (look it up). “Scientism” is like worshiping scientific “concepts” as if they are fixed and sacrosanct. When scientists stray into scientism, like you and I straying into the idiolatry of worship our wrong “concepts” of God, then scientists too need to be corrected. Most of them are humble enough to accept the correction away from “scientism” and back to humble science (see Wigner, above): many times a day!