Friday, May 30, 2014

Science, Faith and Cognitive Dissonance

Josh Rosenau, who used to write a blog called Thoughts from Kansas, has written a very thoughtful post on the world view as it applies to faith in God and the practice of science.  It has been argued by those who view faith dimly that to practice science and believe that God can work in the modern world is to hold two cognitively dissonant views.  If science is to be reliable, the world must be a spiritually closed system—no input from God—or else one can never reliably predict the results of a particular hypothesis without knowing for sure that God did not have a hand in the outcome.

For example, if a hurricane is traveling up the eastern seaboard and the people of the coastal town of West Noiseville pray that the hurricane misses their nice little hamlet, and, lo and behold, it veers off at the last minute, was that, in fact, the handiwork of God or did the naturally-occurring prevailing winds simply act to perform this action?  When testing atmospheric models to see where the hurricane is going to go, scientists do not take into account the prayers of West Noiseville's residents.  They cannot, because those are outside the purview of the scientific method.  Did God answer their prayers?  Science cannot tell us.  The problem, according to some, however, is that by entertaining a world view that even allows the actions of God, we are compromising our scientific endeavors.  We are allowing for untestable hypotheses.  Jerry Coyne, a notable atheist, makes this argument.  Coyne, however, argues that there are perfectly good scientists who believe in God and that this dissonance is almost subconscious.  He writes:
Although I think scientists who are religious are engaged in a form of subconscious cognitive dissonance, I’ve never said that religious belief automatically prevents somebody from doing good science. There were many believers, even in my own field (Ronald Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky, to name two) who made immense contributions to evolutionary biology. And although I vehemently object to Francis Collins’s touting scientific evidence for God (i.e., “The Moral Law”), I’ve said repeatedly that Collins was a good scientist and that I had no scientific objections to his heading the National Institutes of Health.
Here is how Rosenau characterizes Coyne’s position:
Coyne takes the philosophical stance that science and religion are, in some sense, intrinsically incompatible, and he believes that a consequence of this incompatibility will be some sort of psychological conflict in the minds of religious scientists.

I happen to think that his philosophy is flawed, simplistic, and ill-argued, but that’s for another day. He’s claiming that the philosophical point makes a prediction about people’s mental processes, which should be testable. Facts are stubborn things, and a good scientist ought to be willing to adjust his philosophy in response to stubborn facts that stand at odds with those predictions.
Rosenau then goes on to give a rousing list of scientists who were devoutly religious who not only performed excellent science but did so, they felt, in the service of their God.

I also think that Coyne is wrong but for a different reason.

How you view science largely depends on whether or not you take the “short” view or the “long” view of creation. For example, there is evidence that some very bad diseases that we as humans suffer from are caused or at least activated by endogenous retroviruses. These include some cancers and MS. The short view argues that the earth was created in the very recent past and that all bad things that occur around us are direct results of a tangible, physical fall from grace by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, subsequent to which the world was irrevocably changed. They are the “decay” of this fall.

But here's the problem. There is also very good genetic evidence that there has been incorporation of parts of some of these retroviruses into systems such as placental development, which means that, from a human survivability perspective, some of this retroviral DNA has resulted in a “good” thing.  Further, it seems clear that these responses have evolved over a considerable period of time.  These findings are clearly incompatible with the short view of creation.  But need these findings lead to philosophical conundrums?

Coyne has no bad things to say about the scientists that he mentioned (Fisher, Dobzhansky) because they performed science with integrity and honesty and yet were men of faith.  These scientists were not just old earth creationists, but, like their modern counterparts Francisco Ayala, Simon Conway-Morris, Dennis Venema and others, they were evolutionary creationists.  To these people, science is our way of understanding God's creation.  In the process of doing so, however, the first casualty is the short view. These folks found, as did 99% of other Christians practicing in the sciences, that, as Pat Robertson put it a few days ago, there just ain't no way the universe was created six thousand years ago.  They further found that, yes, by gum, evolution really does happen. 

Once you open yourself up to those possibilities,  there is no scientific endeavor that will lead you to any kind of psychological conflict because all roads lead to Rome.  If you truly believe that God created the heavens and the earth, then any research will simply be illuminating that.  Does this cause a rethink of the literal nature of certain scriptural passages?  Yup, sure does.  But there have been competing interpretive models of those passages for centuries. 

Coyne is quite correct that cognitive dissonance can occur in some instances.  If you pursue scientific research to its logical ends, and your scriptural hermeneutic is narrow, you will eventually suffer from this dissonance.  This is, in part, fueling some of the problems at Bryan College right now and is causing somewhat of a crisis of faith in evangelical Christianity. 

If, on the other hand, your understanding of scripture looks more like this, then the sky's the limit.  As Conrad Hyers points out:
...the Genesis accounts of creation do not prove to be in conflict with scientific or historical knowledge. This is not because the creation texts can be shown to be in conformity with the latest scientific and historical knowledge, or supported by it, but precisely because they have little to do with it. They belong to radically different types of literature, with equally different types of concerns and goals.
Where does this leave miracles? Dunno. I will tackle that on another day.

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