Science in Christian Perspective

  The Philosophy Page


Spurious Freedom, Mangled Science, Muddled Philosophy

David F. Siemens, Jr.*

2703 E. Kenwood St.
Mesa, AZ 85213-2384

From PSCF 49 (September 1997): 196.

J. P. Moreland, in "Complementarity, Agency Theory, and God of the Gaps" (PSCF, March 1997, pp. 2-14), has problems at several points. In the first place, he claims that the complementarity view makes the theological level emerge from the sociological level, which in turn emerges from the psychological level, and on down ultimately to the level of energy, the lowest level of the physical universe. He further claims that complementarity eliminates personal identity and libertarian freedom. What he claims holds of philosophical naturalism, a view akin to materialism. Believing that all reality is open to scientific study, the adherents to naturalism require that "science" swallow up whatever remnants are allowed of theology and philosophy. But this cannot apply to the view that scientific disciplines and religious interpretations complement each other, for complements are externally related.

Is it not curious that Moreland begins with the complementarian views of Christians (pp. 3-7), switches to compatibilism (pp.7 - 10), and then introduces "complementarian compatibilists" (p. 11), immediately following this last with statements from naturalistic philosophers to support his analysis? Does this look like reasoned discourse, or like the familiar propaganda ploy, guilt by association? Is he massaging the terms to make them fit the desired outcome?

Determinism, Indeterminism, and Freedom

To correct the errors Moreland claims complementarians make, he wants science to include such concepts as "libertarian freedom," which have no possible empirical consequences. Consider a strict determinist who claims that every human action is part of an inexorable causal chain, that the feeling everyone has of choosing is merely an illusion. How does one prove that the person could have acted differently? The person cannot return to the situation S in which one claims to have freely chosen action A, and this time choose B. The best would be a similar situation S' different from S, at least in having the S-A sequence in its past. No matter what the situation addressed, neither viewpoint can predict a different outcome. Both strict determinism and free will are philosophical assumptions, unproved and unprovable, made by human beings.

There is, however, a curious bit of evidence for human freedom: it is in fact tacitly assumed by strict determinists. They consistently try to persuade others that they should accept determinism when, on their view, one cannot help what he believes. Reduced to its ultimate essentials, this is "Do what you cannot do," a most curious command.

According to Moreland, the sole alternatives are strict determinism and his version of libertarian freedom. The agency which this freedom provides involves "gaps in the fabric of the natural world" (p. 3). This clearly implies indeterminism, the absence of cause. Unfortunately, indeterminism requires that there be no control, a state beyond even deterministic chaos and chance. Instead of indeterminism, human free will requires a type of determinism, self-determination. Strict determinism holds that every human act, like other events, is merely part of an unalterable causal chain. We expect this of all inanimate objects, quantum effects notwithstanding, but not of persons. Nevertheless, human beings are not outside causal chains, despite what Moreland claims. Formulating the matter precisely is exceedingly difficult. Arguably, more nonsense has been written about determinism, indeterminism, and free will than any other set of topics in philosophy. However, we may say that a person can nudge the causal sequence into alternate paths, for our powers do not extend beyond a choice. This is the freedom which is assumed by at least the majority of compatibilists, whose view is caricatured by Moreland.

In this connection, it appears that Moreland keeps his theology and religion rigidly separated from his philosophy. The person who wrote, "I do not do the good I want to do. On the contrary, I keep doing the evil I don't want to do,"1 did not recognize his "libertarian freedom," which Moreland's philosophical construction requires him to have. Realistically evaluated, only God has the libertarian freedom which Moreland ascribes to created persons.

"Complete" vs. Complement

Moreland wrote about "complete" physical descriptions as if they must be all-encompassing, excluding all other possible considerations (pp. 10f). If there exist dogmatically reductionistic materialists, they may hold such a view. But even they may acknowledge other explanations. Consider a personal computer, booted, a program operating. I press a key. In principle, a computer super-engineer could describe the entire sequence, from the key-code produced and its transmission; the sequence of transistors turned on or off in the CPU, auxiliary chips, memory chips, video board chips; the electrons produced by the CRT gun, accelerated, swept and modulated by electrostatic and magnetic fields, and how the required control is achieved; the specific pixels energized by these electrons, as well as the electrons that hit the mask, etc. - a great mass of information. While this would describe the physics in excessive detail, it tells us nothing about the purpose of the key press or the meaning of what appeared on the screen, yet these go to form the reason why we use computers. "What are the physical parameters and events?" and "What is it good for?" are complementary questions. Neither precludes the other.

Moreland has produced a straw man, but one with a curious consequence. If, as he claims, physics is not self-contained, that is, if there are nonphysical causes of physical phenomena, where does he draw the line? Psychokinesis? Energy vortexes, like those claimed to exist near Sedona, AZ? Crystals? Pyramidology? Alien intelligences exerting forces we cannot detect or measure? Astral influences? Despite being debunked as far back as the fourth century by Augustine of Hippo, today there are many more astrologers than astronomers. So how does one, who accepts Moreland's view objectively, separate the bogus claims from relevant considerations and secure adoption only of the latter?

The Hubris of God-of-the-gaps

Moreland argues explicitly for a God-of-the-gaps (pp. 6f). An unrecognized underlying assumption of this view has been noted.2 Does he really want to claim that he knows the limits of the principles the Creator could have imposed when in the beginning he created heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1)? He mentions "the direct creation of first life and the various kinds of life" (p. 12). Is he then revising the inspired record, which does not include br' (or bara') in the appearance of life on the third day (Gen. 1:11 - 13)? Should the inspired author have applied br' more than once in the description of what happened the sixth day (vv. 24-31)?

We must grant that Moreland may back away from rewriting Genesis. We may further grant that the absence of br' in connection with plant life does not prove that life originally came into being purely by natural processes. But we must also insist that science does not demonstrate that life cannot be produced by inorganic processes. There are computations that claim to prove the impossibility. But I recall that it was impossible to produce anything but racemic mixtures by inorganic processes. Now they have found an excess of levorotary amino acids in a meteorite.3 L-amino acids are those found in all living things on earth. Do we want to opt for life forms in outer space?

This is perhaps the most recent in a series of discoveries that have narrowed the gaps. Perhaps the earliest was the synthesis of urea by Wohler in 1828, although it was "impossible" for anything but life to produce organic compounds. This last was one claim of vitalism, which insisted that life is a substance. Despite setbacks, vitalism continued into the twentieth century.4 As it became clear that the doctrine could be draped over any pile of data whatsoever and that it made no testable prediction at all, it was abandoned by biologists. We still use the vitalists' term, "protoplasm." But it no longer refers to the substance which makes material things alive. When I was in college, I recall the professor discussing embryological development, the multitude of seemingly chaotic changes occurring as cells divided and redivided. How did it all come out right? "God," he said. Now I read, among other reports of discoveries, that chemical gradients control the development of legs and wings, whether vertebrate or arthropod. Sometimes we can extract or synthesize a chemical and observe its effect on cultured cells. Other times we can knock out a gene or trigger either excess production or its appearance at an abnormal time. The gaps which were once filled by appeals to "life" or to God are fewer and smaller. Moreland flatly discounts and dismisses such considerations. However, extrapolation from observable trends indicates that this is a rearguard action in imminent danger of being surrounded and overwhelmed - except that "true believers" never recognize defeat. Like Giordano Bruno and Michael Servetus, they are intransigent heretics. Moreland will proclaim a revived vitalism. He will continue to claim that almost every genus and even many species are the products of uncounted individual creative acts. He will further distort the evidence and the views of his opponents to fit his position. But no one has to believe him.

What the Proof Covers

Moreland and his associates do not seem to realize what has been proved about the "design" concept. Gaining a clear understanding of its relevance will be helped by a bit of history.

Logical positivists, also known as logical empiricists, dominated philosophy in the United States for part of this century. One of their major projects was the elimination of "metaphysical"5 terms. Included were all valuational and ethical terms, along with all theology and most traditional philosophy. They laid down the dictum that every acceptable term had to be strictly definable in terms of observables.6 They soon discovered that theoretical terms like "atoms" and "ions," and even disposition terms like "soluble," could not be so defined. So they loosened the stricture to allow terms which could be connected to observables. Carnap formalized this new criterion in reduction sentences, like: "If a galvanometer is in a circuit, a direct current is flowing in the circuit if, and only if, the galvanometer needle is deflected."7 However, he later discovered that science cannot function within the strictures of reduction sentences.8 Stephen C. Meyer has essentially extended what Carnap discovered, showing that no a priori strictures can be placed on the vocabulary and techniques of science.9

Moreland wants to turn this around from "you cannot limit...." to "you must include...." This is inconsistent with the demonstration that no strictures can be placed. "Abandon methodological naturalism" is another useless and contradictory stricture.

Internal and External Language

O'Connor speaks relevantly of the utility of methodological naturalism.10 We may expand his argument in a different direction. "Mass" is obviously an important scientific term, from Newton's [f = ma] to Einstein's       [E = mc2]. This does not mean that I can insist that it be applied by psychologists to determine the mass of anger when someone loses his temper. Conversely, I cannot ask how angry a uranium nucleus is when it spalls. Each scientific discipline restricts itself to the terms it finds useful, amenable to its approach to reality. Since no aspect of anger and other emotions can be measured in grams, meters, ergs, or most of the other units used by physicists, it cannot be incorporated into their science. Occasionally, someone will discover a new connection and extend a science. Rumford, for example, connected work and heat, overturning the view that heat is a substance; Carnot connected work and caloric (later changed to energy), introducing entropy. But such extensions seem either to develop from within or to result from combining disciplines. They are not the products of dicta.11

Where measurement is difficult and indirect, the precision of formulas like those in the physical sciences is obviously not possible. For example, one may not be certain of a diagnosis, whether depression, stenosis, Alzheimer's disease, an iatrogenic problem, or some different syndrome. However, with the evidence available at an autopsy, the diagnosis becomes more definite, even if sometimes disputable. But always, given a specific state of medical knowledge, the possible diagnoses are fairly clear, even if a specific practitioner may admit, "I never thought of that."12

There are many terms relevant to the practice of science that are not scientific: grant, licensed, unlicensed, approved, unapproved, legal, illegal, informed consent, etc. All these have some type of paper test - a document which may be framed, an entry in a file, a prohibition in a legislative enactment or judicial interpretation, or a lack of such. There may be disputes about some of these matters: lawyers want a good living. But the problems are more easily resolved than those of ethics. How far, for example, in the absence of legal enactments or contractual stipulations, may one go with biological or chemical controls for weeds and pests, bioengineered plants and animals, experiments with human embryos, new treatments for diseases? Opinions vary widely. None of these matters is amenable to scientific investigation, except in the trivial sense that one may develop a sociological profile of the community's value system. One cannot determine right from wrong by a head count, nor by an experiment.

What we need to recognize is that, however important ethical, valuational, legal, and other types of terms may be, they do not enter into what scientists qua scientists test for. This is the point of Laplace's response when asked why he had not included mention of the deity in his monumental Mechanique celeste: "Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothosize." He was not flip, merely correct scientifically, in contrast to Newton who thought he had to depend on God from time to time to keep the solar system from crashing. "Design" is similar. It has no place in scientific contexts. It belongs to philosophical discussion.

Rational "Design"

"Design science" is one of the latest attempts to prove that there is a God. Whereas most earlier approaches tend to be philosophical, it calls on what has been more esteemed during the current century. But the attempt must fail. True, "the heavens declare the glory of God."13 But they do not convince all.14 Indeed, there is biblical evidence that the attempt to show God's existence is misguided. "To approach God, one must believe that he is and that he rewards those who seek him."15 Were there demonstration, it would no longer be belief. This does not eliminate natural theology, but it clearly limits it.

Meyer's work has relevance within natural theology and apologetics. He has shown that design and creation cannot be disproved by any scientific discipline. This clears away the common misconception that science supports materialism. Therefore, it should be better known.



1Rom. 7:19, my translation. The key to interpreting this chapter, I think, is the tense of the verbs. The first verses are past, Paul's pre-Damascus life. Verses 14 - 23 are present, his status as he wrote. The next verse is future, the culmination of salvation, what I John 3:2 tells us. Many people object to this, for they do not identify with Paul's declaration of sinning. I believe that, if they were as sensitive to sin as Paul, they would echo his statement. I recall that a color-blind man reported that there were no brilliant red hibiscuses when the bushes were covered with them. He could not see what was there. Will not the "sin-blind" react analogously?

2Siemens, "Don't Tar Van Till: A Response to Anderson and Mills," PSCF 49 (March 1997): 70 .

3John R. Cronin and Sandra Pizzarello, "Enantiomeric Excesses in Meteoritic Amino Acids," Science 275 (14 February 1997): 951!955. See Jeffrey L. Bada, "Extraterrestrial Handedness?" ibid.: 942f.

4nterestingly, Moreland's suggestion that a human being is a substance (pp. 4f, 7, 10) is vitalistic. "... if one discovered that living systems are discontinuous with nonliving systems" (p. 12) expresses his vitalistic expectation.

5This is not the metaphysics and occult of bookstore shelves, which mainly involve spiritism and related religious views. In philosophy, metaphysics covers such abstruse topics as being qua being. Positivists used "metaphysics" as their ultimate term of opprobrium.

6They ignored, indeed denied, the theoretical content of descriptive terms. But this is a problem which cannot be discussed here.

7Rudolf Carnap, "Testability and Meaning," Philosophy of Science 3 (1936): 419 - 471; 4 (1937): 1 - 40.

8Ibid., "The Methodological Character of Theoretical Concepts," in Herbert Feigl and Michael Scriven, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science I (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 38-76.

9This also slams the door on any attempt to argue that science can rule out theism or prove materialism.

10Robert O'Connor, "Science on Trial: Exploring the Rationality of Methodological Naturalism," PSCF 49 (March 1997): 15-30.

11Lysenkoism, the application of Marxist dogma to genetics, illustrates what happens when outside dicta are forced on science.

12I recall a report of an obviously ailing patient presented to a group of physicians. Since he was obviously affluent, not one of the assembled doctors thought of the proper diagnosis, scurvy.

13Ps. 19:1, and note the following verses.

14See Pss. 14:1; 53:1.

15Heb. 11:6, my translation.