Billions and Billions - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity



Defending Christianity

Billions and Billions


Carl Sagan was fond of talking about the vastness of the cosmos, how it included "billions and billions" of stars, was "billions and billions" of light-years across, and so on.

But there's a funny thing about Carl Sagan's cosmos: His cosmos is smaller than my coat closet.

Yes, Sagan's cosmos was big enough to include billions of stars. But not only was it too small to include any God, it was too small to even include any real people.

Materialism

Sagan was not alone in his ideas, of course. There's a whole school of thought that philosopher's call "materialism". Not materialism in the sense that we usually use the word, talking about greed. But rather materialism in the sense of believing that the universe can be entirely explained through mechanical processes: chemistry and physics and so on.

Materialism denies the existence of the supernatural, but it goes well beyond that. It denies the existence of anything we might reasonably call "human beings". It insists that the mind -- emotions, beliefs, thought and logic -- can all be understood purely in terms of the chemistry of the brain. Oh, of course no honest materialist claims that he actually can explain the mind in such terms, but he pleads that this is simply because our knowledge of science is incomplete. (In fairness we must concede him this point: People knew the world was round long before they could map its entire surface, and it would have been unfair and foolish to say that refuse to believe the world is round until someone can make a 100%-accurate globe.)

Such a belief leads to a drab universe. If my emotions are all just the product of chemical reactions in my brain, which in turn is a chance product of evolution, then they are at heart an illusion. If a sufficiently knowledgeable scientist could inject me with some chemical or insert an electrical probe in my head and artificially produce feelings of love or anger or curiosity or patriotism, which would not only be indistinguishable to me from the real thing, but which would be identical to the real thing, indeed, which would in fact be the "real thing", just as real as if they were inspired by seeing my baby being born or my country's armies topple a tyrant ... If this is so, what meaning is there to emotion? It's all a cruel joke.

Of course, if this is Truth, then it doesn't matter if it's pleasant or not. Truth is truth, regardless of whether I like it.

But on what basis do materialists claim that their beliefs are true?

Materialism and science

Materialists routinely claim to be scientific. They ridicule people who profess belief in the supernatural or the soul as superstitious, gullible fools, who base their beliefs totally on dogmatic adherence to a creed chosen for purely philosophical and religious reasons. They, on the other hand, are rational, hard-headed, scientific thinkers. They sometimes even call themselves "free thinkers" to distinguish themselves from those locked in rigid adherence to dogma, while they are free to follow scientific inquiry wherever it may lead.

So let us ask them a simple question. "Science" is all about the "scientific method". The definition of the scientific method is that you perform experiments to test the validity of your theories.

So: What experiments have the materialists perform to validate their theory? What experiments have they done to prove that their are no miracles, that there is no God, and that "mind" is just a synonym for "brain"?

I have yet to hear them give any serious scientific case. Quite the contrary, they spend most of their time belittling the very idea of scientific inquiry. They insist that the scientific method is not a valid method of determining truth, but rather that truth can only be found by adhering to a rigid dogma chosen for purely philosophical and religious reasons.

Oh, they don't word it that way. They attack science in the name of science. They call their opponent's science "dogma" and their own dogma "science".

A case study: miracles

For example, consider the question of miracles. Do miracles happen?

The materialist says no. His "proof" is that the universe operates by fixed natural laws, that these laws cannot be broken, that a miracle is by definition a breaking of these laws, and therefore miracles are impossible.

This is an interesting philosophical argument, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be called "science". A scientific approach to the study of miracles would be to perform a series of experiments.

Now, the ideal scientific investigation requires carefully controlled, repeatable experiments. For reasons that I will get to in a moment, it is probably impossible to study miracles in this ideal fashion. Instead, we must fall back on a much-less reliable alternative, but one which scientists readily use when studying many other phenomena which cannot be studied ideally. When a scientist wants to study what happens when two chemicals mix, he can usually mix them in the laboratory in precisely-controlled quantities, at precisely-controlled temperatures and pressures, etc. But when a scientist wants to study what happens when a volcano erupts or two planets move near each other, he cannot create these things in the laboratory. He must wait until they happen and observe. If he is lucky he can observe personally. If not he must rely on the reports of those who did.

Perhaps you see where I'm leading. If we cannot reproduce miracles in the laboratory, the only way to study them is to collect reports of people who claim to have seen them. Many people throughout history claim to have witnessed miracles. Unless the materialist can show us good reason to doubt these people's reports, the only possible scientific conclusion is that miracles happen.

The materialist of course replies that such reports are obviously mistakes or hoaxes, because miracles do not happen. How does he know they do not happen? Because he knows that miracles are impossible. It is not necessary to study the reported claims, because they are obviously false.

Imagine if someone who claimed to be a scientist used this reasoning on a more routine scientific subject. Suppose, for example, that an astronomer published an article in a professional astronomy journal claiming to have discovered evidence of life on Mars. Suppose he admitted that the conditions under which he had made his observations were difficult to reproduce, but numerous other astronomers had made the same observation. Other astronomers might or might not be convinced by his evidence, and would surely seek to confirm or refute his observations. Now suppose another astronomer declared that these claimed observations were obviously errors or hoaxes, because by his theories on the nature of the planet Mars, life there is impossible. He refuses to even look at the claimed evidence, because he knows before he sees it that it must be wrong, because it conflicts with what he already knows is true about Mars.

This skeptic might or might not be correct in his theories. But whatever else we say about him, it is clear that he is not being "scientific".

As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, materialists routinely say that reports of miracles are not credible because the people who report them are superstitious. How do they know they are superstitious? Because they claim to have seen miracles. Of course one can "prove" anything if you accept this sort of logic. Your honor, my client was not at the scene of the crime. My proof is that no reliable witness has come forward who claims to have seen him there. Oh, four witnesses say they saw him there? Well, they're obviously committing perjury and are therefore not "reliable witnesses", because I've just proven that he wasn't there.

Perhaps it is necessary for me to clarify that I am not saying that all claims of miracles must be automatically believed. I certainly do not believe them all. What I am saying is that if we are going to examine them scientifically, we must examine each claim on the basis of the quality of the observation, corroborating evidence, etc., and not on the basis of a pre-determined decision of what is or is not possible.

Some materialists have made a fair and serious effort to investigate the claims of those with whom they disagree. James Randi comes to mind. Mr Randi is trained as a magician but he has now made something of a career of challenging people who claim to have "psychic powers", and has unveiled numerous frauds. Of course it is easy for me to applaud Mr Randi because the claims that he works to rebut are mostly claims that I don't particularly believe myself. But even when, on a particular issue, I find myself on the same side as the materialists, I still find myself disappointed by their unscientific methods. For example, I sincerely doubt there is any validity to astrology. Nevertheless I was quite disappointed when, a few years ago, a group of astronomers came out with a statement attacking astrology. Why? Because their attack was totally unscientific. They did not mention a single experiment they performed to refute the claims of astrologers, not one observation that called it into question. Instead they simply made pronouncements like, "There's no way that the stars can affect your life". I think that's probably true, but saying it doesn't make it so.

An astute reader might here point out that I have just said I don't believe in psychics or astrology but have not offered any scientific evidence against them either. By the argument I have just made, many people claim that astrology works for them. This is all true, but I am not claiming that I have proven astrology to be false, by scientific or any other means. I simply said that I doubt it, and at present I have not taken the time to study it further. I have not said here or anywhere else that a person does not have every right to say, "I have a gut feel that this is true". Indeed, every serious scientific inquiry must begin with an untested theory that simply represents someone's intuition about how the universe might be. After all, if the theory was already proven, there'd be no need to perform experiments to test it. My point is that there's a big difference between saying, "This is my theory, now let's think of ways to test it"; saying "This is my theory and I performed these experiments and it is now strongly confirmed"; and saying, "This is my theory, it sounds good to me, so it must be true and if you don't agree you're an idiot".

Ideal experiments

Earlier I mentioned that miracles probably cannot be studied in an ideal scientific sense. Perhaps this requires some explanation.

While the word "miracle" is sometimes used quite loosely, in the present context I think it is clear that we are using the word to mean some interruption in the natural order brought about by God. By this definition, then, miracles are not blind acts of nature, but the act of an intelligent being. This is, of course, the whole reason why the materialist does not believe in them: he claims that no being -- intelligent or otherwise -- is capable of performing such acts. But this also makes miracles virtually impossible to study under ideal conditions.

Let's consider a simple analogy. Suppose you told me that your Uncle Henry is very generous. You tell me how he is always ready to help, not only members of the family, but any person in need who comes to him. You extol the generosity of your uncle so highly that I find your story hard to believe, so I decide to test it scientifically. I get fifty people to go to your Uncle Henry's door. My plan is that they will stand in line, and the first person will ring the doorbell and tell your uncle some tale of hardship. I will stand by with a video camera filming your uncle's response. When this person is finished, and your uncle either has or has not given him some assistance, the next person will step up and give his tale of hardship. Et cetera. When all are done, I will study the videotape and see what aid your uncle gave to each, carefully plot this on charts, and compare it against the amount of help the same group received when knocking on other people's doors. Then I will be able to precisely measure your Uncle Henry's generosity.

Do you think this experiment will give meaningful results? Surely not. The minute Uncle Henry sees the line of people waiting outside his door and me standing there with the video camera, he may not know exactly what we're up to, but it is very unlikely that he will react the same way he would to people who were truly coming to him for help in their need. He might call the police and have us all dragged away, or he might play along with it for a joke, but in any case the results of such an experiment are surely not going to be meaningful.

Scientists who attempt to study human behavior have routinely -- and surely not surprisingly -- found that people often change their behavior when they know that they are subjects of an experiment.

The same is true of any attempt to study miracles scientifically. When a scientist mixes two chemicals together, the chemicals do not know or care that they are part of an experiment. But God is not some impersonal force that can be relied on to react in such predictable ways. (Not according to Jewish, Christian, and Moslem theology, anyway, and that is the "theory" of God that we would be trying to test by such an experiment.) The very fact that we are performing an experiment alters the conditions.

Many people claim to have been healed of terrible diseases after praying to God. But it would be very unreliable to test such a claim by collecting a hundred people in a hospital ward and having fifty pray and fifty not pray and then examining how many of each group recovered. God might choose to heal all hundred out of mercy; he might choose to heal none because he has no interest in playing along with your little experiment; he might choose to heal only those who did not pray out of amusement.

Miracles and ignorance

One final thought.

Materialists often say that people in the past believed in miracles because they had little or no knowledge of science. With our modern scientific knowledge, though, we no longer believe in miracles. That is, only ignorant people -- in the literal sense of the word, not simply as an insult -- can believe in miracles.

A little thought will show that this argument makes no sense whatsoever.

For the materialist rejects miracles on the grounds that miracles violate natural law, laws which are learned through science. But if the definition of a miracle is that it is an event that violates natural law, then it is clear that a person cannot think that a miracle has happened unless he is familiar with natural law.

Suppose the people of Joshua's time had never noticed that days are consistently 24 hours long. Suppose no one had ever bothered to measure the length of the day, and they just took it for granted that long hot summer days working in the field not only seemed longer than days spent partying with friends, they really were longer. In this hypothetical situation of scientific ignorance, no one would have thought it was a great miracle for Joshua to make the sun stand still. They would just have said, "Wow, that was a really long day." If the people did not realize that by every known law of nature, a day is always 24 hours long, they would not have called it a miracle when one day was longer. It is unlikely that anyone would have even bothered to record the incident.

An ignorant person could not even notice a miracle, let alone believe in it. One must know that a natural law exists before one can tell that it has been broken.

Science and knowledge

The word "science" is used today in two very different ways.

First, it is used in the traditional sense, going back to Roger Bacon's definition of the scientific method: gaining knowledge through experimentation and observation.

But second, it is used to refer to the belief that everything in the universe can be understood through science. That is, they call materialism "science". This is very different from the first meaning of the word. I cannot imagine any experiment we could perform that would prove that any knowledge not gained by science is somehow invalid.

I have great respect for science. It is unquestionably one of the most powerful tools for acquiring knowledge ever invented -- perhaps the most powerful tool. But to say that a tool is incredibly useful hardly means that no other tools exist. I think the screwdriver is a very useful tool. Not only can you use it to put in screws and remove screws, you can also use it to pry things open, gouge things out, bend things, etc etc. But if someone told me that the fact that screwdrivers are so useful proves that there are no such things as hammers, I would surely think he was a lunatic.

I am proud of the artwork that my little children produce, but I think it is quite obvious that my five-year-old's crayon drawing is not as good a piece of art as, say, the Mona Lisa. I cannot think of any scientific experiment to prove this fact, but nevertheless it is clearly true. I could give many such examples of knowledge that cannot be tested scientifically, but which are clearly true.

Materialism is not science. Materialism is anti-science. It is a dogmatic philosophy which people believe in because they choose to believe in it. In practice, materialists routinely attack any effort to apply the scientific method to their philosophy. They just know materialism is true, with an unshakable, unquestioning faith that would inspire the most fanatical saint.

© 1998 by Jay Johansen


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