What Was God Thinking? Science Can’t Tell.

| 216 Comments

2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, Eric Cornell, gave a speech at his induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Time article is an adaptation of this speech.

Cornell claims that science isn’t about knowing the mind of God, but about understanding nature and the reasons for things. For science, Cornell claims, Intelligent Design is a dead-end idea because it claims that the scientific reason for things is that God wanted it that way. Cornell calls on scientists to keep Intelligent Design out of science classes, and to keep moral and religious judgments out of science.

Time; 11/14/2005, Vol. 166 Issue 20, p98-98, 1p, 1c

Remember Behe’s testimony?

Q Intelligent design says nothing about the intelligent designer’s motivations?

A The only statement it makes about that is that the designer had the motivation to make the structure that is designed.

Q How can intelligent design possibly make that statement, Professor Behe?

A I don’t understand your question.

Q How can it possibly say anything about the intelligent designer’s motives without knowing anything about who the intelligent designer is?

Back to Cornell

Cornell is quick to point out that from a theological perspective, Intelligent Design is an exciting concept. Even Dembski seems to be returning to his long lost love of ‘apologetics’. From a scientific perspective, Intelligent Design is ‘boring’ or as I refer to it ‘vacuous’.

But as exciting as intelligent design is in theology, it is a boring idea in science. Science isn’t about knowing the mind of God; it’s about understanding nature and the reasons for things. The thrill is that our ignorance exceeds our knowledge; the exciting part is what we don’t understand yet. If you want to recruit the future generation of scientists, you don’t draw a box around all our scientific understanding to date and say, “Everything outside this box we can explain only by invoking God’s will.” Back in 1855, no one told the future Lord Rayleigh that the scientific reason for the sky’s blueness is that God wants it that way. Or if someone did tell him that, we can all be happy that the youth was plucky enough to ignore them. For science, intelligent design is a dead-end idea.

Cornell calls to action scientists to oppose Intelligent Design being taught in science classes where its impact will be disastrous.

My call to action for scientists is, Work to ensure that the intelligent-design hypothesis is taught where it can contribute to the vitality of a field (as it could perhaps in theology class) and not taught in science class, where it would suck the excitement out of one of humankind’s great ongoing adventures.

Cornell however realizes that scientists are human too and may overstep the bounds of science.

Now for my call to inaction: most scientists will concede that as powerful as science is, it can teach us nothing about values, ethics, morals or, for that matter, God. Don’t go about pretending otherwise! For example, science can try to predict how human activity may change the climate, but science can’t tell us whether those changes would be good or bad.

Should scientists, as humans, make judgments on ethics, morals, values and religion? Absolutely. Should we act on these judgments, in an effort to do good? You bet. Should we make use of the goodwill we may have accumulated through our scientific achievements to help us do good? Why not? Just don’t claim that your science tells you “what is good”…or “what is God.”

This is an important reminder for scientists. Stay within the limits of what science can tell us.

Act: fight to keep intelligent design out of science classrooms! Don’t act: don’t say science disproves intelligent design. Stick with the plainest truth: science says nothing about intelligent design, and intelligent design brings nothing to science, and should be taught in theology, not science classes.

216 Comments

Now for my call to inaction: most scientists will concede that as powerful as science is, it can teach us nothing about values, ethics, morals or, for that matter, God. Don’t go about pretending otherwise! For example, science can try to predict how human activity may change the climate, but science can’t tell us whether those changes would be good or bad.

Why do most scientists accept this notion? The only way I see in taking this view is that values, ethics, and morals are supernatural. I’m unaware of any evidence pointing in that direction, so I suspect that science has a great deal to say about values, ethics, and morals, the only problem being that to date, most scientists have abdicated the study of such to other disciplines. Most unfortunate.

The point is that values, ethics, and morals are not things for which there is an objective factual standard to compare to.

Science can potentially give insight into what sorts of values, ethics, and morals are likely to develop in given situations. And potentially give insight into what the likely effects of specific values, ethics, and morals will be in a given situation. And can be used to judge any factual claims used to try to support specific values, ethics, and morals. What it can’t do is judge whether specific values, ethics, and morals are “good” or “bad” because that isn’t a factual question.

Clark, as I see it Cornell’s statement is a bit broad and vague … but that’s because the terms “values” “ethics” “morals” and “God” are poorly defined. To the extent the terms can be defined in a way that allows science to ask questions about them, then science can teach us something about them.

But deities, including the Christian deity, are not typically defined in a way that is amenable to scientific inquiry.

For some people, what is “right” and “wrong” (i.e., “morals” “values” “ethics”) is determined by looking at some “holy text” or consulting the local shaman or priestess, who allegedly are able to channel the answers directly from the relevant deity or deities.

Science can not tell us whether those deities exist, unless those deities are defined such that their existence can be tested.

I’m guessing this is what Cornell means when he says that “science can tell us nothing.”

It goes without saying that science has thus far not stumbled across any positive evidence to suggest that shaman and priests are actually more capable of communicating with deities than you or I.

So it goes.

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What it can’t do is judge whether specific values, ethics, and morals are “good” or “bad” because that isn’t a factual question.

———

That’s part of a major debate in metaethics. I think what is “good” or “bad” is a factual question, as do lots of people, theist or not. I dare say the idea that moral statements refer to propositions and some of them are true (i.e. there are moral facts) is the dominant view. (The formal name for this position is moral realism). In addition to that, the sub-position of moral naturalism is perfectly respectable.

I say all this to point out that it does not suffice to simply assert there is no objective factual standard for ethics or that ethics cannot be understood via respectable natural properties, etc. At the least, that’s up for grabs.

That science can’t decide moral questions does not imply that morality is supernatural. There are, after all, lots of things that are neither scientific issues nor religous ones. No tests or objective measurements are going to determine which paintings are the most beautiful, for example, or settle legal disputes or tell me what I want for lunch but that doesn’t make art, law, or eating a theological matter. Meanwhile, it is far from clear whether the circle labeled “supernatural” in the Venn diagram has any nonimaginary content.

Morality and ethics are as old as human societies. Social Science shows how ideas of morality have evolved over time. Ethics and morality are NOT supernatural, nor are they necessarily ‘natural’. They stem from the human need to have rules that govern civilized behavior. (Greco-Roman society predated Christianity and had some strict rules of conduct.) That being said I believe that science is amoral but not unethical, there are ethical rules that scientists should follow. Also, science does not exist in a vacuum. Forces outside science often influence how scientific inquiry is conducted, sometimes with deleterious results.

Sometimes?! That should read “usually”!

Jim Harrison Wrote:

No tests or objective measurements are going to determine which paintings are the most beautiful, for example, or settle legal disputes or tell me what I want for lunch

Why not?

MartinM Wrote:

Why not?

Because that’s subjective. Science deals only with objective, consensual reality. It would, for example, be perfectly scientifically valid to try to determine which paintings were considered most beautiful by a given sample group.

Corkscrew Wrote:

Because that’s subjective.

Need that be the case? As far as I can tell, each question is subjective only to the extent that it is ill-defined. The first simply needs a rigorous definition of ‘beautiful.’ The second requires a legal code sufficiently precise to avoid issues of interpretation. I’m not convinced the third is subjective even as stated. Given a sufficiently detailed model of how the human brain functions, it may be entirely possible to construct an objective test to determine what I would most like for lunch.

Need that be the case? As far as I can tell, each question is subjective only to the extent that it is ill-defined. The first simply needs a rigorous definition of ‘beautiful.’ The second requires a legal code sufficiently precise to avoid issues of interpretation. I’m not convinced the third is subjective even as stated. Given a sufficiently detailed model of how the human brain functions, it may be entirely possible to construct an objective test to determine what I would most like for lunch.

This is quite possibly the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

The natural world is full of things one might label subjective. IMO, that term is similar to the use of ‘instinct’ in biology, it is a polite cover for ignorance. I see no reason why anything that exists should be outside the realm of science in principle. It might well be beyond the current state of knowledge however. There are areas in this context which are not outside the current state of scientific knowledge, yet scientists fail to point them out.

For example, Christian theology wrestles with the issue of theodacy, why is there evil in the world if God is good? Science provides a very specific answer to this question. In fact, Darwin in his ‘tangled bank’ says it quite well: “a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life”. We are truely children of a lessor god, the fabric of our genes being imbued with original sin if you will. If the anthropomorphic constants of biology had been different, we could live in a world largely free of evil. But for whatever reasons, we find ourselves in a world where the constants (reproduction rate) requires evil, in fact, that one constant created evil long before any life form was complex enough to qualify as something capable of sin as defined by theologians. By common descent, we still have those genes.

The fundamental problem I have with those who argue that science cannot infringe too far into the world of values and morals is this: I suspect that values and morals which spring from a poor or incorrect understanding of the world & universe will in general be inferior to values and morals which are compatible with more accurate knowledge of the world & universe. If anyone cares to make an arguement against this, I would love to here it.

For example, the Judeo-Christian concept of the immutable immortality of the human soul is clearly a bedrock belief which guides much of Judeo-Christian morality. Science on the otherhand tells me there is mutable immortality of my DNA, a fact shared with all other DNA on earth. The contrast between those two starting points for developing a logical set of moral beliefs is almost completely opposite. It is a shame that so many scientists turn their backs on such a quest.

Got any objection of substance?

Flank

it may be entirely possible to construct an objective test to determine what I would most like for lunch.

This is quite possibly the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

That may be. But all you eat is pizza so you’re biased. ;)

How can the same concept be interesting theologically but vacuous as science? Garbage is garbage regardless of its disciplinary container.

MartinM Wrote:

Given a sufficiently detailed model of how the human brain functions, it may be entirely possible to construct an objective test to determine what I would most like for lunch.

No, then it would be telling you what you’re going to want for lunch, which is an objective datum (and it’s probably still impossible, but that’s a purely technical objection). Apart from anything else, there’s no one right answer to “what I want”.

Corkscrew Wrote:

No, then it would be telling you what you’re going to want for lunch, which is an objective datum

I don’t see what difference the change in tense makes. If I know what someone’s going to want for lunch in a particular timeframe, I know what they want for lunch at that time.

Apart from anything else, there’s no one right answer to “what I want”.

Not really important. The greater point is that, absent a supernatural component to the mind, these ‘subjective’ feelings ought to correspond to some objective physical process, which can in principle be studied through the scientific method.

The greater point is that, absent a supernatural component to the mind, these ‘subjective’ feelings ought to correspond to some objective physical process, which can in principle be studied through the scientific method.

I am reminded of some of Joe Carter’s philosophical musings about “zombie materialists” at the Evangelical Outpost.

If I may borrow a quote from the unfortunate father in Toby Hooper’s Poltergeist:

Why????!!!! WHY??!!!!!!!

OK, on reflection you could well be right here. Whether it’s possible for you to be right is heavily dependent on linguistics - I’d consider you to have been proved right if we can ever look at a brain scan, note a particular pattern of signals and say “ooh, that’s a qualia”.

And Right and Wrong could theoretically be determined if you take them as meaning “good/bad behaviour in a particular circumstance”, where good/bad are taken in terms of maximisation of pleasure and minimisation of pain. Ah, the wonders of enlightened self-interest…

We may want to act in a certain way towards other people. Science can show us which actions will bring about certain results. However, Science cannot tell us if the result is “good” or “bad.” Science deals in the “If such and such then such and such follows.” There is no implication of facts to a certain “good.” There is implications but “we” (The French, The Iraqi,The.…)may not consider it “good.” Science can tell us how to build an atomic bomb, but it cannot tell us if we SHOULD build it. This is a moral decision and scientist can make it. But it is not a scientific decision. I think this is what Cornell had in mind. Cheers!

Brian wrote:

How can the same concept be interesting theologically but vacuous as science? Garbage is garbage regardless of its disciplinary container.

The very idea of whether or not there is a God (or more than one, for that matter) is both interesting theologically and not useful to the natural sciences. There’s a tautological component to this, of course, because by definition, if you’re studying theology, you’re interested in this kind of question (whether or not you have strong beliefs of your own on the matter). But, it also leads past pure theological speculation to lines of inquiry in sociology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. We can’t test for the presence or absence of gods, nor for physical consequences of their actions if they do exist. We can, at least qualitatively, figure out some of the causes and effects of belief in gods, and how such beliefs vary among and affect individuals and societies. This still doesn’t help us with biology or physics, but can have some value if we want to understand human societies.

I do, by the way, agree with Brian that if by “vacuous” we really do mean “a proposition itself so devoid of content and clarity as to be inane”, then it’s an idea that’s not stated clearly enough to be useful to any academic discipline except as a negative example. ID, of course, has been developed and positioned as a set of vague, “theology lite” ideas that are more concerned with publicity and political expediency than with finding any kind of satisfying way to evaluate or answer religious or philosophical questions.

But all you eat is pizza

Pizza and beer — what MORE does anyone need? :>

Lenny Should the obvious be stated about the “Behe and Dembski’s VersionsTM” of the Big Bannana?

Who is really behind the curtain in the Vatican ?

The obvious distortion of the truth and “materialism” as defined by the DI

Jack Chick and

He alone, who owns the youth, gains the Future! – Adolf Hitler, speech at the Reichsparteitag, 1935

The first simply needs a rigorous definition of ‘beautiful.’

You need more than that; you also need an argument as to why this definition would be preferable to all other definitions. Here’s a rigorous definition of ‘beautiful’: ‘X is beautiful iff the Pope says it is.’ Does that strike you as objective?

The second requires a legal code sufficiently precise to avoid issues of interpretation.

This sort of legal code is impossible (here is a good article making this point).

I’m not convinced the third is subjective even as stated. Given a sufficiently detailed model of how the human brain functions, it may be entirely possible to construct an objective test to determine what I would most like for lunch.

The possibility of such a test does not refute the subjectivity of what one wants for lunch. Only the existence of such a test would do so (and, indeed, its possibility is rather up for debate!).

Lenny Flank Wrote:

Pizza and beer —- what MORE does anyone need? :>

Caffeine, curry and cayenne, of course.  The three components of “vitamin C”.

Hey, they get me moving.

Pizza and beer —- what MORE does anyone need? :>

A gastrointestinal tract and immune system that doesn’t throw a hissy fit you you ingest them :>

hahahha A gastrointestinal tract and immune system that doesn’t throw a hissy fit you you ingest them :>

God works in mysterious ways

Pizza and beer —- what MORE does anyone need? :>

This reminds me of a quote I read somewhere that said that Irish coffee is the world’s most perfect food since nothing else simultaneously has all four of the most important food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and fat. :-)

ah yes reminds me of the old joke about the about the Young tourist who goes to Rome and asks for a pint of whatever the Pope drinks. He is served Creme de Menth He has 2 more Pints finding himself legless and very very sick gets his friends to carry him back to his lodgings in a Chair.

For me the issue has nothing to do with a purported absolute morality–I doubt if human beings have reliable access to cosmic truth and, anyhow. I’m simply pointing out that one can argue rationally about moral issues, a rather more modest assertion.

You keep using the phrase “social convention” as if you had a serious point to make. Beats me what it can be. If you’re just selling a pop version of cultural relativism, all I can say is have a nice day.

Mr. Harrison:

You originally declared:

Morality is not just a matter of social convention. Driving on the right is a social convention. Not murdering people is a moral imperative.

So, if all you wanted to do was instead

simply pointing out that one can argue rationally about moral issues

you certainly chose a rather strange way to do it.

My point, on the other hand, has always been the same: morality is the product of the consensus of the group(s) one belongs (and belonged) to. I keep using the phrase “social convention” because it corresponds nicely to this concept. If you are allergic to the term, feel free to use a different one. And have a nice day to you too.

John Lyon Wrote:

…the fact that humans have children and are forced to raise them is nature’s way of forcing humans to change their point of view from pure selfishness to one of love and looking out for the other person. Is this nature’s clever way of teaching us morality?

Nature really hates it when people anthropomorphize her.

But seriously, this doesn’t help. Humans are not forced to raise their children. They are strongly compelled by instinct because our young are not self-sufficient at birth. I don’t think this quality of human offspring is due to conscious meddling by a deity. I also don’t believe that women suffer menstruation and pregnancy because of Eve’s so-called sin. But I digress.

If caring for one’s young does force one to shift from selfishness to caring for another person, it can be as narrow as simply looking out for one more person: the child. It need not (and frequently doesn’t) lead to any pseudo-Christian panphilia.

Nature really hates it when people anthropomorphize her. But seriously, this doesn’t help. Humans are not forced to raise their children. They are strongly compelled by instinct because our young are not self-sufficient at birth. I don’t think this quality of human offspring is due to conscious meddling by a deity. If caring for one’s young does force one to shift from selfishness to caring for another person, it can be as narrow as simply looking out for one more person: the child. It need not (and frequently doesn’t) lead to any pseudo-Christian panphilia.

Hello!!! I said “nature’s way” (not a diety or a pseudo-Christian whatever) and is “forced” really that different from “strongly compelled”? Strikes me as an example of a scientist-type (no idea if you are) assuming a greater insight into what nature “likes” and shaking their finger accordingly. Hey, we’re finally back on topic and you’re not supposed to do that! (Just joshin’ you - no offense.)

John I think it would be worth your while to have a listen to the free mp3’s on the download section at www.jcf.org they explain how self/worldviews have evolved from pre-Christian times in both the East and the West with a trip through Western liturature and science. There is a rich source of information in the form of actual *history* that may help you formulate your own world view. And it *is* your worldview .…..to understand *why* you need to take a step or just *be comfortable* which is OK.…..just don’t expect all to listen to you or take *your* views that seriously. I promise you will be able to give Lenny a run for this money then_;0 What you are asking is for *you* to find out.… I suggest you get on with it.

ke-

Places like this are very odd. Elsewhere, I was recently involved in a discussion about how having skill in social situations contributed to man’s evolution, and I made a (snide) comment that Paris Hilton must be the epitome of our development. I thought this was rather funny, but a grumpy guy responded that I should “learn first; then talk.” In pressing him, I find that not only does he know absolutely nothing about the topic himself, but that my common-sense observations (not just this one) were actually mirrored by some scientist commentators. So talk about hot air, but a typical attitude toward people “like me.” Maybe that’s your point - why bother?

Give Lenny a run for his money? I think you’re kidding, but no run is required. I do try to respond to all questions out of politeness, but Lenny’s were all about going for a cheap win, not about sharing knowledge or possibilities. Conversations like this always seem to erode into my being asked to defend things I didn’t say, simply because these little “gotchas” are **presumed** to be part of my worldview. Whether they are or not, is it really a “win” to try to point out that God told the Israelites to kill an enemy? Well, a much easier to find quote would be the flood story, which is about God killing EVERYTHING ON EARTH!! So no, its not a “win” – its simply off-point.

I’ll take a look at the site. Thanks.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on November 27, 2005 3:37 PM.

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