The Politics of Science

This is the 4th in a Series:  Part 1 –  Post-modernism: A Challenge to Science? ; Part 2 – The Limits of Scientific Positivism; Part 3 –  Scientific Theory and Intelligent Design

Currently Intelligent Design (ID) is challenging the hegemony science claims to have on truth.   ID is in some ways accepting the post-modern claim that science is in fact an ethnocentric view – based in modernism and the European Enlightenment– but not in fact “objective” and unbiased.  Intelligent Design questions whether the basic assumptions of Darwinism are based in “scientific facts” which can be tested by the scientific method, or whether Darwinism is based in the philosophical assumptions of materialism and atheism rather than in science and is thus promoting a non-scientific agenda.

The ID movement is attempting to challenge the politics, power and construal of science and positivism.  It is attempting to do this by showing that its “design” assumptions are a fair and reasonable reading of the scientific data we have about the universe.   ID bases its claim to rationality in a mathematical assumption about probability – what is the likeliness that “design” could appear in nature as a result of random cause and effect events?   They see the orderliness in the universe as the proof that something other than random events is affecting the unfolding of the universe.   They have come to the same conclusion that countless believers have – the orderliness found in nature speaks of purpose which hints at meaningfulness.  It doesn’t prove intelligent design exists but it suggests believing in a designer is rational and based in the facts we can observe.

 Unfortunately ID has a logical flaw and limit similar to Darwinian science which means ID can also only ever be a theory, which is what ID criticizes evolution for being.   But in their own literature, ID admits to being a theory:  

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. … Is intelligent design a scientific theory?   Yes.

ID is trying to establish itself as legitimate science even if it is not based in positivism and accepts teleology.    Its criticism of Darwinism focuses purely on the notion of whether or not design exists in the universe that cannot be accounted for by cause and effect.  Recent ID claims especially through the Discovery Institute focus much more on the notion that Darwinism is about political achievement and power not about objective science.  ID does not claim that its science will make for a better universe or find new discoveries that will benefit humankind.   None seem to be claiming that ID would make any difference in the practice of medicine or engineering.   The issue is one of a political power struggle.  Can there be even an agreement on what constitutes “science”?  Is the study of science limited to cause and effect observations, or has quantum mechanics revealed that such thinking is inadequate to the understanding of nature?    If subatomic particles seem to “anticipate” certain actions, is teleology back on the scientific table?    Is science interested in objective truth or does it have some political need to reject “design”?  Can ID challenge the assumptions of Darwinism enough to make science skeptical of its certitude?  Will the rise of post-modernity truly cause all human endeavors, even science, to admit a whole new paradigm is needed to study the universe?

These are questions that swirl in the world of ideas.   Science which has felt itself almost unassailable by the ebb and flow of philosophical debates finds its thinking  changed by the discoveries of quantum mechanics at the very time that post-modernism is challenging the way in which humans construe the universe on every other level.

Francis Bacon in the early 17th Century, according to Stephen McKnight’s THE RELIGIOUS FOUNDATIONS OF FRANCIS BACON’S THOUGHT, felt that humankind “has deluded itself into thinking that the limited knowledge it does possess exhausts the mind’s capacities.”   Has science, which Bacon so promoted, also deluded itself into thinking it alone possesses the fullness of the truth and therefore has nothing to learn from ID or any other thought which challenges its assumptions?    If Darwinism is being driven by its philosophical presuppositions rather than by application of its ideas, Bacon would say it is doomed.  For he argued that discovery should always lead to new applications, while mere philosophy does nothing more than to preserve what has already been accomplished.

Scientific Theory and Intelligent Design

This is the 3rd in a Series:  Part 1 –  Post-modernism: A Challenge to Science? ; Part 2 – The Limits of Scientific Positivism

Certainly on one level, Darwinist and Intelligent Design advocates are going to have a hard time coming to some kind of agreement about what constitutes science.  Science is based in positivism and so axiomatically excludes teleology; in other words science assumes all things can be accounted for by cause and effect with the past explaining the present, rather than by any idea that things are moving toward some future goal.  Whether the rejection of teleology is science – can teleology be disproven by the scientific method? – or is really is an issue of politics/power/religion is another question.  On the other hand, Intelligent Design wants teleology kept in the scientific equation, at least as a possibility – to see if in fact intentional design exists in the empirical universe.  ID wants science to admit the existence of certain factors (design, teleology) that science by definition says cannot be part of its study.  Intelligent Design accepts a notion that the purpose of something that exists may lie in the future and cannot be fully explained or understood by limiting oneself to studying the past and the cause -effect pattern.   ID assumes there is some purpose to what is unfolding which will be revealed in the future, science says the explanation for what exists can be found only in the past.

Whereas science assumes there is a natural cause for each effect we can observe and that the study of the universe must follow the unfolding of natural cause and effect, Intelligent Design assumes that complex functionality (as can be observed say in DNA or at the microbiological level) is a sign of purposeful design built into the empirical world;  “design” in ID thinking is outside the limits of the natural cause and effect unfolding of time and space as it is not explainable by what naturally preceded it (its cause) but is understood only in what comes after its appearance.   In other words in Intelligent Design encountering “design” in the universe (what they call “complex and specified information”) means there is no natural cause for the observed effect of design.  Encountering natural “design” means that “cause and effect” could not have caused the design – thus the assumption that a “designer” must exist (ID claims the “designer” does not mean de facto “God” but could be some unidentifiable power or even function in nature).    An observed design in nature for ID proves something more than natural chance would had to have caused the design.  “Design” is thus not mere effect, but involves intentional planning and purposeful function.  Darwinism is not willing to admit that irreducible complexity in nature proves design – all it proves is that our understanding of how nature works is incomplete.

To some extent Intelligent Design seems limited by the scientific positivism it wants to reject:  namely, it assumes that there is no true knowledge that cannot be observed.  Thus because they cannot observe or imagine how design came into being they assume it cannot have a natural cause.  That assumption is science in a positivistic sense.  It fails however to allow for unobservable patterns and developments in the same way that atheistic science does.  It is possible that we simply have not been able to observe or imagine the causes of “designs” in nature in the same way that we have not been able to prove teleological patterns in nature.  Both the theory of evolution and Intelligent Design have a similar flaw to them: they assume that explanations must be found in observation and that an effect must have a demonstrable cause – either a natural one or a designer.  However (and strangely) either’s assumption could be disproven by the existence of things or events that we are not capable of observing.  And both would say this very fact discredits the other as true science – science cannot prove design (and a designer) do not exist, ID cannot prove that spontaneous organization of complexity cannot happen.  

Darwinists say no test could ever be imagined let alone proposed which could disprove Intelligent Design, therefore it is not science.  On the other hand to date no test has been proposed that could disprove the evolution of new species.  Darwinists assume that given enough time future speciation would be shown.  The problem is that no amount of time can be proposed after which it is assumed that speciation cannot occur.  It becomes an endless or open ended proposition – we will only know that it cannot occur when time ends and it hasn’t occurred.   If no test can be proposed which would disprove speciation, how is that any different than the inability to propose a test which proves design?

Next –  The Politics of Science

The Limits of Scientific Positivism

Part 2 in the series.  1st blog:  Post-modernism: A Challenge to Science?

Walter Brueggemann in his  TEXTS UNDER NEGOTIATION:  THE BIBLE AND POSTMODERN IMAGINATION writes that post-modernism has shown that even a scientific worldview is not an unbiased and objective way of seeing the created order but is in fact an ethnocentric construal based in politics and rhetoric.

It is the world of Quantum mechanics which has shown us how much of our scientific understanding of the world truly was a construal.   Newtonian physics led us to see the empirical world in a very particular way.   However, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity revealed to us the world of subatomic particles, the very interface between particle and energy  which has shown that particles exhibit behavior rather than acting as inanimate objects – behaving sometimes seemingly with intention in one way rather than another depending on what the observing scientist is seeking.   This certainly would draw into question some of the certitude with which science approached the empirical world and rejected teleology and theology.   In fact quantum mechanics would seem to question the very basis of scientific positivism  (which Brueggeman suggests is being so challenged as to no longer have a grip on all science).   Can the world really be fully known (only through) sense perception?  Is it true that in all scientific experimentation the results are not dependent on the observer?  Can all things be measured as positivism claims or is Heisenberg correct that some things cannot be measured or known?    Is the entire universe observable or will it be the case that black matter or black energy will never be observed even if we can conjecture their existence?  

Whether science itself is undergoing a post-modern transformation is beyond the scope of this blog.  I want only to connect Brueggemann’s comments to the idea that science isn’t even just about facts but is also about political power and rhetoric and construal.

Whereas we are commonly taught that science is about factual truth, truth that can be tested, proven, questioned, and examined, post-modernism claims that the scientific point of view is really an ethnocentric claim based in Western European 18th Century Enlightenment thinking.  It is not the purely objective and unbiased way of understanding or construing the universe.   Science also serves an agenda – it sustains and is sustained by an ideology which itself is materialistic and atheistic.  It makes assumptions which in themselves cannot be tested or proven:  that the universe is guided by random chance, that the universe is not moving toward any particular next stage or final goal, that function is not evidence of design, that “survival” is not purposeful, that change is random and neither guided nor purposeful, that consciousness, conscience and imagination are not meaningful, that there is no power or intelligence or logic guiding the universe, that material and corporeal things  are the only things that exist, or that the laws of the universe only exist if we observe them or can name them (not allowing that there may in fact be patterns and relationships in the universe that are so large or take so much time that they are beyond human observation even though they in fact govern the universe or our lives –  we do not want to have to exist that there may be powers at work in our lives or in the universe that we can not observe, understand, control or even affect).

This raises the question which a friend has brought to my attention regarding arguments between Darwinists and Intelligent Deisign folk.  Here I realize that the arguments being brought forth are not being brought forth only on the level of “science” (whatever that means) but in fact involve politics, rhetoric, power and construal. 

Next: 3rd in the Series:  Scientific Theory and Intelligent Design

Post-modernism: A Challenge to Science?

I just finished reading Walter Brueggemann’s  TEXTS UNDER NEGOTIATION:  THE BIBLE AND POSTMODERN IMAGINATION in which he postulates that we are (thankfully) in a time of change whereby the assumptions humans make to guide them are morphing into new ideas that present new challenges to Christianity. 

Thus many commentators say that we are witnessing the ‘end of modernity,’ that is, the end of scientific positivism, and with it the end of Enlightenment modes of certitude and certain patterns of political domination.”

He does not cite support for his claims but assumes the signs are obvious enough to all in the scholarly community.  Ironically, I find the “certitude” of his claim to conform exactly to the modernity he sees as passing away; it is a very ethnocentric view representing exactly the thinking of the male Western Europe Enlightenment he criticizes in his book.   I think the reality of his claim is that the philosophical shift may be occurring in Western theologians and scholars more than in all of Christianity let alone the entire world.   His assumptions seem based in a certain ethnocentric thinking which post-modernity and Brueggemann himself reject as the old way of seeing things.  I don’t think post-modernity has gripped the Islamic world, nor the world of Eastern Orthodox which still relies on Patristic commentaries on the Scriptures rather than on the changes and developments in 20th Century biblical scholarship.  I would even venture to say that some of his claims that the Church needs to newly read the Bible as a series of stories/drama rather than as dogmatic theological fodder may be new for Lutherans, but it is part and parcel to the Orthodox use of scripture in our various Prokeimenon, festal Old Testament Vespers readings, hymnology and Gospel lectionary.  The Orthodox frequently read scripture stories “out of context” and treat them as stories having unique insight in God and humanity without treating them in a fundamentalist or historical-critical way.  The end of modernity assumes that Christians throughout the world embraced modernity, an assumption not totally applicable to the Orthodox. 

My main point here however is not to contextualize his claims to embracing post-modernity.  I want to specifically look at his claims as they might relate not to theology and biblical criticism, but as they relate to science.  For if Brueggemann and others are correct and we have entered into a post-modern way of thinking, this should affect science as well as politics or history or literary writing.  Three claims he makes in the book:

“The political promise of the Enlightenment has failed to bring peace and has led to powerful tyranny sustained by ideology.” 

Referring to the thinking of Thomas Kuhn Brueggemann writes:   “That is, scientific knowledge is to some extent a political achievement whereby power is utilized to shape perception and interpretation in one direction rather than in another.  To the extent that scientific knowledge is a political, rhetorical achievement, it is not objective in any positivistic sense.  That is, the interest of the knower intrudes powerfully into what is known.”

“The core of our new awareness is that the world we have taken for granted in economics, politics, and everywhere else is an imaginative construal.  And if it is a construal, then from any other perspective, the world can yet be construed differently.” 

Brueggemann notes that post-modern thinking construes science as not THE objective means to understand the world but rather just another way humans can see the world.  It is not an “unbiased” view, but a very political construal which has its own agenda and goals which are only recently being exposed.  A challenge to the scientific view which has held such sway over modern thinking would be as big a challenge and change as was ushered in with the 18th Century Enlightenment and the rejection of a traditionalist and authoritarian way of seeing the world. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This post is part of an interfaith synchroblog on “Religion and science”.
Here are links to other synchronised blog posts on this general topic:
 K.W. Leslie (Christian/Pentecostal/Assemblies of God) of The Evening of Kent on How I taught science instead of “Christian” science. 


Matt Stone (evangelical Christian) of Glocal Christianity on Is Evolution Atheistic?

Fr Ted (Orthodox Christian) of Fr Ted’s blog on Post-modernism: A Challenge to Science?

Steve Hayes (Orthodox Christian) of Notes from underground on Reality isn’t what it used to be

Liz Dryer (Christian) of Grace Rules on Dreaming Quantum Dreams

Jarred Harris (Pagan/Vanic witch) Faith, Reason And Unreason at The Musings of a Confused Man

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

The Sunday after Christmas     Gospel:  Matthew 2:13-23   

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocent Children   –  This Gospel Lesson in contemporary society has implication for the practice of abortion in which another group of Innocents is slaughtered.  We can recognize the wholesale slaughter of the Israelite babies by Pharaoh or the Bethlehemite infants by Herod as a murderous evil, but apparently if their own mothers had decided to kill these infants in the name of liberation it would be acceptable.   

Regarding the slaughter of the Innocent Boys in Matthew 2, Dale Allison in THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: INSPIRING THE MORAL IMMAGINATION writes:

“In  chapter 2 [Matthew] Herod’s order to do away with the male infants of Bethlehem (2:16-18) is like Pharaoh’s order to do away with every male Hebrew child (Exodus 1). And if Herod orders the slaughter of Hebrew infants because he had learned of the birth of Israel’s liberator (2:2-18), in Jewish tradition Pharaoh’s slaughters the Hebrew children because he has learned of the very same thing (Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-9; Targum Ps.-Jonathaan on Exod. 1:15). Further, whereas Herod hears of the coming liberator from chief priests, scribes, and magi (2:1-12), Josephus (Antiquities 2.205 and 234) has Pharaoh learn of Israel’s deliverer from scribes, while the  Jersalem Targum on Exod. 1-15 says that Pharaoh’s chief magicians were the sources of his information. The quotation of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15 further evokes thought of the exodus, for in its original context “Out of Egypt I have called my son” concerns Israel. And then there is 2:19-22, which borrows the language from Exod. 4:19-20: just as Moses, after being told to go back to Egypt because all those seeking his life have died, takes his wife and children and returns to the land of his birth, so too with Jesus; Joseph, after being told to go back to Israel because all those seeking the life of his son have dies, takes his wife and child and returns to the land of his son’s birth.”

Sola Scriptura or the Incarnation of the Word of God?

nativity72 Notes from Christmas Sermon 2008   Luke 2:1-20   and  Matthew 1:18-2:23

One of the truths about the entire Christmas story is that it is all about God’s intervention into human history.  God speaks to Mary and Joseph through dreams and angels, to the shepherds through angels, and to the non-Jewish magi through the movement of the stars in the cosmos.  God intervenes into human history and uses supernatural and natural events to convey His message.

For us as Christians today, we also have ways in which God can speak to us – certainly through His Scriptures, His written word, but also in and through His people, the Church, through His saints, through the Liturgy, and also through angels, the Holy Spirit, through dumb beasts, the stars in the heavens, through poets and scientists.   God can use not only His written word, but people, events, symbols, poetry, prophecy, dreams, and animals to convey His message to us.   Our task is to be able to discern these messages, and to know the difference between hearing God speaking to us and listening to our selves, or between God speaking to us and the evil one tempting us.

annunciation1The teenager and Virgin Mary is pure and holy and yet finds herself pregnant.  She certainly knows the Torah and the righteous demands of how a woman impregnated by someone other than her husband is to be punished.  The Torah, the Scriptures,  are very clear.   And if all she has to rely on are the Scriptures, she is in trouble.  And yet she has heard the word of the Angel Gabriel, and accepts the pregnancy because she has been faithful to both God and to her betrothed.  The Scripture alone would not have been enough to guide her.

nativity4aJoseph the Betrothed is a righteous man.  He has studied Torah and knows the Law of righteousness.  He contemplates what to do with this pregnant teenager to whom he is betrothed.  And he is a just man and righteous, but also kind and merciful.  He knows what the Torah, the written word of God says about the likes of Mary.  But he is also moved by the mercy taught so clearly in the Torah.  He decides to quietly divorce Mary and not make a big deal or demand justice or public penance or punishment.  His mercy exceeds what Torah expects of him.  And yet, even in this God has some other word to him –  don’t follow Torah, take the pregnant teenager as your wife.  Don’t be afraid, for all of this is the will of God.  And Joseph the old man wizened by years of listening to and obeying Torah is open to the promptings of God and keeps Mary as his wife while contemplating what it could all mean to set aside Torah in order to obey God.

The shepherds hear of the birth of the Messiah from the angelic host, not in the temple, not from rabbis, but out in the field at night as they are keeping watch over dumb sheep – not while they are reading scripture.  They hear God’s message through the angels and then go to see what they have heard about.  Their faith guides them to seek out what new thing God may be doing.

nativity41The magi too apparently know of the scriptural prophecies of a Messiah King to be born, but it is not scripture but the stars which lead them to Bethlehem.  They too are open to the promptings of the Spirit and discern not only the stars but their own dreams to obey God.

We too are invited each Christmas to consider God’s revelation to the world and intervention in the world.   How does God speak to each of us at Christmas?  Through all of these people who were open to God’s promptings – magi, shepherds, teenage girl, old man.  God continues to speak to all of us through His scriptures, but also through the saints, in the Liturgy, and through nature itself.  The Holy Spirit is at work in the Church today and speaks in our hearts about what God is doing in the world right now but also in our hearts.   We like the characters in the Nativity story must be ready to hear God and to follow His people and His plan.

The Spirit of Christmas – The Spirit of Christ

While we can find plenty of references from our culture as to what the “spirit of Christmas” is (gift giving, family, food, friends, shopping, peace, warmth, light, tradition, feelings), I’ve tried to offer through this blog more theological ideas about the meaning of spirit of Christmas.   At nativity71least in its origins Christmas was a Christian Feast focusing on the birth of Jesus the Son of God and Messiah.  And yes there is good evidence that the Christians intentionally placed the Feast of the Nativity of Christ on December 25 to compete with pagan festivals of the Winter Solstice and the Invincible Sun.  Nevertheless, the Feast is a Christian theological feast, even though for the most part our culture and society endeavors to remove the theology to make Christmas into a winter festival acceptable to all.   As Christians, our best way to keep the Spirit in Christmas is to keep it as a Trinitarian Feast – a Feast which upholds the theology of God the Father, and God the Son/Word and God the Holy Spirit.   It was the Holy Spirit which came upon the Virgin Mary and impregnated her with the Word of God Jesus, Who also is the son of God the Father.   It is the Trinitarian truth about Christmas that gives the Holy Day its power and meaning.   Dorotheos of Gaza in the 6th Century wrote:

“Therefore our Lord did come, by being made man for our sakes, so that, as the scripture says, like should be healed by like, soul by soul, flesh by flesh, for he became completely man-without sin.  He took our very substance and took his origin form our race and he became a New Adam, like the Adam he himself had formed.  For he renewed man in his nature, restored the depraved senses and sensibility of human nature to what it had been in the beginning.  Having become man, he lifted fallen man up again.”    (DOROTHEOS OF GAZA: DISCOURSE AND SAYINGS

Constantine Tsirpanlis in his  INTRODUCTION TO EASTERN PATRISTIC THOUGHT AND ORTHODOX THEOLOGY says of the 4th Century St. Athanasius:

“For salvation and deification, therefore, Athanasius demands the Incarnation of God.  And even though he mingles the need of the redemption into his explanation, that need is not the ultimate reason, according to  him, why the Incarnation was necessary; the ultimate reason is the fact that man was a mere creature, and it takes a God-Man to deify man.  Consequently, if man was destined to be deified from the beginning, the Word had in mind, from the beginning, to become man.  Union with God is as impossible without the Incarnation as deification.” 

Mary Conceived Faith and Joy

The Patristic writers and later hymnographers of our Church loved the interplay of ideas which they found in the scriptures.  One such idea is that the Virgin Mary serves as the fulfillment of what God intended humanity to be, thus undoing Eve’s disobedience.  One of the earliest references connecting Mary and Eve comes from St. Martyr Justin the Philosopher (mid-2nd Century). 

annunciation“Eve was a virgin, without corruption.  By conceiving through the word of the serpent, she gave birth to disobedience and death.  The virgin Mary conceived faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced to her the good news.” 

In the Orthodox Church, the Virgin Mary is no mere passive recipient of God’s grace.  She actively, though humbly, cooperates with God for the salvation of the world.  To be Theotokos, Mary actively listens to God’s Word through the Angel Gabriel, and willingly agrees to accept God’s Word.  In this sense, she is very much a proto-model disciple of Christ, God the Word.  Unlike Eve who disobeyed God and listened to the serpent, Mary rejects the concerns of the world not only to hear God, but to allow His Word to dwell in her so that she could bear fruit for Him.

Christmas: When Repentance is Not Enough

Though the first message Jesus proclaimed was a call to repentance (Matthew 4:17), the early Christians understood that the purpose of Christ’s coming was not mostly about this message.  For indeed the prophets had already called God’s people to repentance, and before Jesus, St. John the Forerunner also called all to repent (Mark 1:15).   Repentance however was not enough to accomplish salvation.   St. Athanasius in the 4th Century AD said:

“Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning.  Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.  No, repentance could not meet the case.  What-or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required?  Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing?  His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all.”  

nativity7Christmas for St. Athanasius is about God healing human nature which had become corrupted by sin.   God had already given the Law and sent the prophets to tell the world to stop sinning and how to live properly.  If all that was needed was that humans stop sinning, Christmas would never have been necessary.  For us Christians, we can look at Christmas and ask, “What  was the purpose of the Incarnation?    What was the problem or evil for which God determined the birth of Christ was the solution?”   Christmas is the undoing of what had happened to humanity and to our relationship with God ever since the sin of Eve and Adam in Genesis 3.