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Why Both the 'New Atheists' and Traditional Christian Apologists Get it Wrong

Recently, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the theories and trajectories that are being expressed in contemporary physics.  Now granted, I don’t understand much of the math and notation involved, but what I am able to grasp of astrophysics, quantem mechanics, Einstein’s reflections on space/time, and so on, is absolutely mind-blowing.
However, one of the things that has struck me as I have been digging into all of this is just how much science in general, and physics in particular, are misrepresented at the popular level.  At the popular level, science is presented as though it is based upon universal laws, empirical evidence, irrefutable conclusions, and concrete ‘facts’.  Often, this is then contrasted with religious faith, which is said to be counter-intuitive, counter-empirical, and insubstantial (or unsustainable).  Science, in other words, is said to be entirely sensible, while faith is said to be entirely nonsensical.
In response to this charge many Christians, have engaged in a form of apologetics that has tried to demonstrate that faith is also a sensible enterprise based upon certain laws, proofs, empirical evidence, and other facts.  Now, I’m not convinced that any apologist of this type has actually converted his or her opposition, but I think that these apologists have probably at least convinced a few people in the public that, at the very least, people of faith aren’t complete morons.  I guess that’s something.
A more encouraging response (to me at least), is that taken by those who argue that many of these apologetic Christian approaches have allowed themselves to be dominated by the limitations and paradigms of ‘modern science’ (by that I mean science as it developed from the Enlightenment until the start of the 20th century).  As a result of this many contemporary (or ‘postmodern’ if you prefer that term) Christians now feel like apologetics that persist in that paradigm are still reflecting a type of Christianity that was overly conditioned by a particular culture and moment in history (‘modernity’).  And so, in many ways, contemporary Christianity has moved beyond this apologetic engagement with the laws, proofs, methods, and conclusions of modern science.  Instead, they have tried to make Christianity credible by living more Christianly.  I reckon this is a good step to take.
However, just as significantly, contemporary (or ‘postmodern’) science has also moved beyond the culturally conditioned reason, method, and certitude expressed within the science of modernity.  At the moment, contemporary physics requires us to move beyond certitude, beyond laws, beyond empiricism (even, in a way, beyond logic) in order to grasp the workings of the universe.  For example, the rules and conclusions of astrophysics (which works with bodies with large amounts of mass) cannot be applied in the realm of quantem mechanics (which works with bodies with tiny amounts of mass), and vice versa.  These two areas of science cannot be brought together into a single system without contradicting each other, yet each in isolation seems to provide workable conclusions for their own areas of study.  So much for universal truths or the law of non-contradiction.  Or, to take a second example, in astrophysics it seems as though a vast amount of ‘dark matter’ is required to exist so that we can explain the movement of galaxies (amongst other things).  However, the existence of ‘dark matter’ is taken on faith — we cannot (yet) prove its existence… but we can’t explain things without it.  Similarly, quantem mechanics now requires us to speak of ‘probabilities’ and not ‘laws’, while also leading us to think that there maybe be a good deal many more dimensions (11+?) than we first imagined.  Or, to provide a fourth example, Einstein’s theories require us to think of space and time as a single unit — space/time — thereby collapsing what empirically (and logically?) strike us as two distinct ‘things’.  And on and on it goes.  Examples like these could be multplied almost endlessly (string theory, anybody?).
Therefore, if many Christian apologists get it wrong because they still continue to think of Christianity in the terms established by a culturally-conditioned moment in Western history, many of those now classified as the ‘New Atheists’ get science wrong for precisely the same reason!  Oddly enough then, members of both of these opposing parties are (perhaps unwittingly) simply longing for the world (or, um, the West) as was 150 or so years ago.  Many Christian apologists seem to want to get back to a time when Christianity was in a more dominant position in our society, and many ‘New Atheists’ seem to want to get back to a time when science claimed to possess certitude.
However, probably for the best, that world has come and gone.  So now, when we listen to this or that ‘New Atheist’ debate this or that Christian apologist, we can consider ourselves lucky to witness a reenactment of what it might have been like to discuss these matters if we lived 150 years ago.  It is almost as if we get the chance to witness two dinosaurs who, unaware that they have become extinct, are putting on a spectacular show fighting each other.

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  1. While I agree with what you say about apologetics, I don’t think the discipline of physics has actually changed in the ways you describe. In its teleology, the discipline is still aimed at a coherent, non-contradictory description of physical reality.
    That is, even if we never *discover* how quantum mechanics and general relativity fit together, the discipline must (to have its reason for existence) continue to assume that such an explanation exists and pursue it. No physicist (while they are doing physics) can assume that these two contradictory descriptions are both true while being contradictory.
    Both quantum mechanics and relativity arose to deal with “contradictions” that used to exist between theory and experiment. Both are steps in the same search for “universal laws” and both rest on the assumption that reality obeys coherent natural laws. This assumption may be false, but that is a philosophical debate. The method of physics is to see how far we can get by pushing that assumption to the utmost.
    And what do you mean when you say we can’t “prove” the existence of dark matter? “Proving” its existence is about all we can do (until some better theory of gravitation comes along). What we can’t do is describe what it is.
    This is the problem with reading pop physics without actually engaging in the discipline itself. One can come away with (what I think are) mistaken impressions.

  2. David,
    You’re missing my point. My point is precisely that physics is operating on assumptions (i.e. leaps of faith) that it either cannot prove, or that it has yet to prove. (Although fair enough on the dark matter point… I didn’t express that very well.)
    In this regard, physicists are operating within the same epistemological realm as, for example, many Christian biblical scholars. I’m not saying that either of these parties are disinterested in ‘truth’, but rather that both of these parties are stuck ‘believing’ that certain unproven or unprovable things are true. What neither party can claim, is certitude (at least not in a way that is convincing to anybody outside the party).
    Speaking of assumptions, it’s interesting that you assume that I’m reading pop physics without engaging the discipline itself. This is a false assumption.

  3. Just to be clear then… all of these things (the lack of certitude, a reliance upon assumptions, contradictions between theories, etc.) are ignored by the ‘New Atheists’ who then present physics (and science) as if it is (already) something it is not (yet). By doing so, the ‘New Atheists’ reflect more of the mentality of the 19th century than that of the 21st.

  4. So, I’m totally with you on the fact that physics is based on assumptions that can’t be proven. But this was true before the problems of relativity and quantum mechanics, and it will be true even if someone succeeds in articulate a unified field theory. Also, as I said, I’m totally with you on apologetics and the New Atheists.
    I didn’t actually make an “assumption” that you’re reading pop physics. What I do assert, though, is that a lot of people who are reading pop physics say the things you’re saying, and for the most part physicists don’t.
    But, moreover, you yourself said you don’t understand the mathematics very well. As far as I can tell, the only alternative to understanding the mathematics is understanding it articulated in a “pop” fashion.

  5. I’m not sure what “engaging in the discipline itself” would mean without the mathematics. The math *is* the discipline, not the translation into English sentences like “there is dark matter” or “position and velocity are indeterminate for quantum particles.”

  6. David,
    I get where you are coming from. However one could, for example, read Moule on the origin of Christology and — even without being fluent in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin (if I recall correctly, Moule writes in all of those languages) — one could get the gist of what Moule is saying. Similarly, one can read Einstein on relativity or listen to Feynman talk about antiparticles and — without being able to confirm or refute the formulas involved — one could still get the gist of what is being said.
    That said, given that you might know a thing or two about these things, I wonder if you might be able to help me out. I’m trying to find an author who understands the physics of these things but is also interested in the origin of consciousness (the only person I’ve found so far who even addresses this is Daniel Dennett and I’ve been less than impressed by him). Got anybody you can refer me to? That would be great.

  7. Dan,
    Well, having done a bachelor’s degree in physics and being in the middle a master’s degree in theology, my opinion is that physics is at least a little bit trickier to get hold of without the requisite math than theology is without the requisite languages. It’s absolutely true that you can get a good idea of what they’re talking about, it’s just easy to misinterpret certain concepts, like “nondeterminacy” or “nonlinearity” outside of their mathematical roots.
    And again, your observation–which seems to me philosophical in nature, now that I understand better what you meant–is valid even if somebody solves the problems that exist today in a totally satisfactory way. There is a problem with science folks talking about science as the “crown jewel of epistemology.” Scientific “knowledge” is always tentative, is based on unprovable assumptions, is subject to revision, etc. So it seems that a large part of what we commonly call “scientific knowledge” doesn’t even meet the most basic philosophical criteria for “knowledge.” (Strictly speaking, much of it isn’t even true.) So, yes, the New Atheists greatly exaggerate the epistemological place of science.
    On the other hand, I have heard others before misrepresent physics as becoming a pluralistic discipline because of the kinds of things you mention. And I am just not sure many working physicists would agree to that. (And even they’d agree, they couldn’t publish a paper saying “these two physical laws contradict each other, but work within their domains, and that’s fine!” As a discipline physics is just as committed as ever to reconciling such problems and ending up wit a single, coherent description of reality).
    As far as physics and consciousness, I am unfortunately ignorant of folks working on those problems. Sorry I can’t be of more help there.
    Anyway I want to end by saying I really meant no insult earlier. I realize we agree on quite a bit. Hope my comments have helped.

  8. I argue something similar in my blog recently. Both the New Atheists and many Christian apologists are still stuck in Modernity. Godel, Wittgenstein, and Modern Physics along with the horrors of the early twentieth century buried modernity. I cannot see any good come from a return to ideologies of modernity.

  9. I think your basic point about the competing claims of certainty is right on target. Kudos!
    Ernesto: You seem to have an excessively negative view of Modernity. While it certainly had weaknesses (one of the greatest, being its declarations of certainty) it also brought humanity a great many advances. We remember the lives taken by the atomic bomb, but forget the lives saved by the advent of DDT. We remember the horrors of eugenics, but forget the blessings of germ theory, etc.
    I recognize that you were posting a brief reaction and not writing a dissertation on epistemology, so please forgive me if I have mistakenly interpreted your thoughts on this topic.