TIA Tuesday: The “decline” of science

One of the first lessons I learned in life is the importance of using the right tool for the right job. A razor has a sharp edge and a fine line, and is the tool you need for making careful, precise, well-defined cuts. A chainsaw, by contrast, is loud, smelly, and not well suited to making fine distinctions, preferring to chew its way through things and throwing the chips however they may fly. In the right hands, a chainsaw can be a powerful tool, and can even be used to make folksy carvings out of raw logs. In the hands of a klutz, however, it can be dangerous to both wielder and bystander alike.

We’re in Chapter 14 of TIA, watching Vox wield what he calls “Occam’s Chainsaw,” which he seems to prefer to the similarly-named Razor. It’s an apt distinction, as shown by his hack-and-slash approach to trying to craft a rebuttal to atheistic arguments. For example, see if you can figure out why he entitled the argument below, “The Argument from Temporal Advantage.”

One of the obvious weaknesses in the atheist concept of the conflict between science and religion is the fact that many, if not most, of the great scientists in history were religious men. Even the first great martyr of Science, Galileo Galilei, was not an atheist but a Christian. For every Watson and Einstein, there is a Newton, a Copernicus, a Kepler, and yes, a Galileo.

If Vox is following the pattern of the previous sections of Chapter 14, it would seem that the “argument from temporal advantage” is supposed to be an argument made by atheists, which Vox is attempting to refute. Yet as far as I can tell, no atheist is making any kind of argument from temporal advantage, nor does Vox bother to clarify what argument he thinks he might be rebutting. This is apparently a purely fictitious argument which Vox invents solely to create a pretext for making claims like the following:

[N]early all of the great religious scientists were not merely religious, but Christians, and … there were far fewer scientists than there are today. The first fact is significant because it indicates that there is likely a difference between the Christian worldview that supported a search for scientific truth and the various non-Christian worldviews which did not. The second fact is even more interesting, as it suggests that the non-Christian worldview of today’s science may in fact be hindering the pace of scientific development rather than helping it… [T]here are far more scientists [today] accomplishing far less in terms of significant scientific developments.

Vox is apparently looking at the world through Jesus-colored prisms—his view of science and history is not merely colored by his preconceptions, but seriously distorted. It’s going to take some work to put things back in their proper perspective, so we probably won’t get past this particular argument today.

Let’s start with the Christian worldview, and what it contributes to science. Once upon a time in the West, there was no separation between Church and State, and political, economic, and social factors made sure that virtually every responsible member of society was a Christian, at least in name. So yes, it’s true that famous scientists of the past were Christians. But did their Christian faith give them a worldview that led to a greater aptitude for scientific discoveries?

If that were the case, we ought to see believing scientists continuing to keep up the same pace. Granted, religion has rather fallen by the wayside as science has become more advanced, but nevertheless there are still institutions remaining that are specifically devoted to promoting the Christian worldview in the scientific domain—places like Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research and the science departments of various denominational colleges and universities.

If, as Vox suggests, the Christian worldview gives a competitive advantage to the believing scientist, and lack of a Christian worldview actually inhibits the unbelieving scientist, then we ought to see a remarkable thing: a continuing succession of Galileos and Newtons emerging from the Christian communities, and leaving their handicapped, unbelieving fellow-scientists behind. But we don’t. As Vox himself argues, the days of one man inventing calculus, or discovering genetics, are gone for good, for both believer and non-believer.

How, then, do we explain the dramatic decline in significant discoveries made by scientists? We don’t, because we don’t have to. This alleged “decline” exists only behind Vox’s Jesus-colored prisms; in real life, science is continuing to make profound and significant discoveries. Newton and da Vinci and Galileo made discoveries that seemed more significant, but that’s because they stood out, due to the rarity of such advances in those days, and because (being made in the early days of modern science) they were breaking new ground.

Take aviation science, for example. You don’t hear about modern scientists being the first to create a heavier-than-air flying machine, but that doesn’t mean that design developments have declined since the days of the Wright brothers! We all know who the Wright brothers were, but I’m guessing not as many can readily identify who invented the helicopter, the SR-71, or the Space Shuttle. Not because science is declining under a non-Christian worldview, but because science has moved past the days when one man (or woman) could do it all, and has become a field where many individuals work together to produce significant results.

Then there’s the fact that science has advanced so far in some areas that the average layperson won’t necessarily recognize the significance of new discoveries as they are made. String theory, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, and so on, are only a few of the areas that could end up having a tremendous impact on our lives and our understanding of the physical world around us, but relatively few people have more than a pop science idea of what these fields even are, let alone which discoveries would be significant, or how you would know.

One of the big things science has accomplished in the present generation is to discover enough about the universe to begin to ask the right questions—questions undreamed of by the Galileos and Newtons of the past. Vox tries to make it sound like science is in decline because we now are beginning to grasp just how much there is out there to discover: “Oh, we don’t know what dark matter is, so science must be making us ignorant!” No Vox, Galileo and Newton didn’t know what dark matter was either. We’re learning more, not less.

Naturally, he fails to address the fact that scientists today are making these discoveries by applying the same sort of scientific principles and methods that Galileo and Newton used. These scientific principles and methods—and not their beliefs about the supernatural—are what enabled the great scientists of the past to become the great scientists of the past. And if you doubt that, just ask yourself: what new discoveries have Christian theologians made in the past 500 years? You want to see what a Christian worldview gives you, look at the progress of theology. Arguments yes, but discoveries?

Vox tries to make it sound like a Christian worldview is friendlier to science than a non-Christian worldview, but that’s a claim that owes more to tribalism than objective fact. You’ll notice he never explains why you’d be a better scientist for believing distinctively Christian dogmas, like the one that says that God raised Jesus from the dead. Nor does he detail any of the significant ways in which a Christian worldview differs from a secular, scientific worldview. The latter would be a good first step in explaining why a Christian worldview would be better, except that it just won’t work.

The Christian worldview, you see, is based first and foremost on the assumption that we already know all the right answers to all the important questions. Theologians don’t make new discoveries, they merely reinterpret the “discoveries” (or rather, “revelations”) of the past. Whatever facts we may find in the real world, we already know that somehow, some way, these facts can and must glorify God, and our task is to find ways to make the evidence fit our inherited, traditional conclusions.

That kind of attitude is not helpful in scientific research, which is why it has competed poorly in the academic marketplace. Those who employ a secular worldview, who pursue knowledge with the attitude that truth is dictated by the real world, and not by any ancient writings, are the people whose minds were open to discover new answers that didn’t necessarily agree with what the Scriptures were telling us. Discovering new answers made these secular scholars more successful in their careers, and inspired others to imitate their approach, and that’s the answer to the question Vox doesn’t dare ask: Why is science becoming such a godless field? The secular approach works better, because it doesn’t burden you with the handicap of needing to make every answer agree with some predetermined list of “correct” ones.

Some have proposed that if Galileo and Newton were transported to modern times, and shown everything that science has learned since their day, they would discard their Christian faith and embrace the discoveries of science. Vox, in order to ensure that every chapter contains a full day’s supply of irony, responds:

To assert that the greatest minds of the past, the original thinkers who weren’t afraid to challenge either orthodox dogma or the intellectual conventions, would automatically abandon their faith in favor of a status quo professed by the masses of over-specialized, under-achieving scientific mediocrities of today is not only a completely baseless assumption, it is egotistic wishful thinking.

Vox could have made this section a good deal shorter, and more accurate, if he reduced it to the last three words, which pretty much sum up his whole ignorant and antipathetic rant.

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Posted in TIA, Unapologetics. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: The “decline” of science”

  1. jim Says:

    And of course, science has REALLY gone downhill since people stopped living in caves. I mean, what modern scientific accomplishment will EVER compare with Grog’s invention of the wheel?

    Or, did Jesus do that, too? Man, that guy gets ALL the credit!

  2. martin Says:

    Good post!

    It reminded me of a book I read many years ago, a biography of Johannes Kepler (The Watershed: A Biography of Johannes Kepler, by A. Koestler).

    The impetus for Kepler to get involved in astronomy in the first place was his strong Christian faith. He really believed that studying the creation led to new truths about the creator. And he really believed that the creator was perfect, so the creation would reflect that perfection.

    The problem that confronted him was the shape of planetary orbits. If the creation is perfect, then orbits have to be perfectly circular. Unfortunately, planetary motion, represented by observational data from Tycho Brahe, didn’t fit. He wrestled with the problem, even developing epicycles (smaller circular orbits that the planets would travel while on their way around the larger orbits). It got to the point where he was nesting epicycles; smaller and smaller circles each on their own orbital path. It was a mathematical nightmare, but the data still wouldn’t fit.

    I remember one passage in the book describing Kepler’s struggle. At one point, he even realized that elliptical orbits would make everything fall into place! But, no, God is perfect, His creation reflects that perfection, circles are perfect, therefore planetary orbits are circular. So back he went to the epicycles.

    At some point, he abandoned this perspective. Planetary orbits are elliptical. End of story.

    So Kepler got into the game as a result of his religious faith, but eventually the same religious faith became an obstacle. His contributions to scientific advancement are a result of overcoming that obstacle.

  3. Loren Petrich Says:

    That sort of thing annoys me — it’s the converse of the No True Scotsman fallacy. An evangelical like Vox Day would likely think that Catholics and mainline Protestants are not True Christians, but he calls them True Christians whenever is expedient for propaganda purposes.

    Galileo had argued that the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go; Vox Day would likely think that that is theological liberalism, and he would likely agree with the Pope instead, that the Bible has to be right about how the heavens go, otherwise it is not completely right.

    Furthermore, modern science got started as a result of being interested in the rediscovered works of a lot of ancient philosophers and proto-scientists, and those gentlemen had been at least nominal Greco-Roman pagans. So should we believe in the Greek gods?

    Richard Carrier also points out the unscientific epistemology of Christian theology, in “Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?” http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/improbable/ in section 13, “Would the Facts Be Checked?” and section 17, “Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?”.

  4. Steven Carr Says:

    Newton was an alchemist, which proves that the Christian world view leads inevitably to alchemy.

    It took over a thousand years from Jesus to Galileo. The Christian worldview took a long time to come to the realisation that they should be doing science.

  5. Nemo Says:

    It’s baffling to me that someone could actually think that science is in decline — I can’t imagine a more counterfactual proposition. But it’s consistent with the whole conservative world view, which always looks to an imaginary golden age of the past.

    In the real world, occasional setbacks aside, things get better over time; we stand on the shoulders of our parents, and raise up our children to stand on ours. We may be grateful to our ancestors, even revere them — but we know our world is better than theirs.

  6. Galloway Says:

    “And if you doubt that, just ask yourself: what new discoveries have Christian theologians made in the past 500 years? ”

    The only one I can think of was Father LeMaitre, first to conceive of the Big Bang Theory. Interestingly, he was always quick to point out that his theory supported his theology.

    ” Nor does he detail any of the significant ways in which a Christian worldview differs from a secular, scientific worldview. ”

    Difficult to do, even for Vox. For example, Christians today are quick to cite the scientific accomplishments of Dr Francis Collins, head of the human genome project. But they always seem to ignore the fact that Dr Collins is an ardent evolutionist.

    “The Christian worldview, you see, is based first and foremost on the assumption that we already know all the right answers to all the important questions. Theologians don’t make new discoveries, they merely reinterpret the “discoveries” (or rather, “revelations”) of the past. ”

    Excellent point. No where is this more obvious than on the application forms for admittance into the Institute for Creation Research. In addition to having the usual boiler-plate scientific credentials, prospective members are required to sign a pledge affirming, among other things, that God created the universe and the Bible is the true, inerrant word of God. So much for not being blinded by pre-conceived notions!

    “. . . “Vox doesn’t dare ask: Why is science becoming such a godless field? ”

    One reason may be that Vox is aware that the number of reported miracles and supernatural events has steadily declined since the time of Jesus, indirectly proportional to the progress made by humans in achieving scientific awareness and progress.

  7. valdemar Says:

    Well done for bravely slogging through the festering swamps of Vox Day’s ‘mind’. He really is an ignorant twerp. The idea that lack of religion puts the brakes on science is a wonderful example of sheer idiocy. But it’s clearly aimed at an audience that knows no science or history, and so will have convinced many. Pity.

  8. Modusoperandi Says:

    jim “I mean, what modern scientific accomplishment will EVER compare with Grog’s invention of the wheel?”
    Grog didn’t invent the wheel. Org did.