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. 

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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