Monday, 23 February 2009

God and the Mad Scientist

I've just been watching Colin Blakemore on Channel 4 "God and the Scientists" and a worse use of selective evidence I have rarely seen in recent times.

Blakemore is committed to "proving" a contradiction between the "Church"  and "Science" (which is taken in the singular - shades of Dawkins, "science says..."). If I was a scientist, I'm not sure I'd be too happy about being lumped together in Blakemore's ideology of what science is about. As with Dawkins, he seems to have no philosophical training, and his history is also pretty erratic.

He plays up the Church's opposition to Galileo and the belief in a geocentric universe as if it was totally a biblical matter, and the Aristotelian influence did not get a mention whereas a good part of the conflict was that the Church of that time, after the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas, was committed to Aristotelian science, which had a geocentric universe (along with many of the Ancient Greek thinkers). The reasons for a geocentric universe were observational and experimental.  The first is that the stars, sun, and planets appear to revolve around the Earth each day, with the stars circling around the pole and those stars nearer the equator rising and setting each day and circling back to their rising point. The second is the common sense perception that the Earth is solid and stable; it is not moving but is at rest. The third, and perhaps the strongest, was the Aristotelian argument of "the Tower". As Wikipedia notes: "The tower argument was one of the main objections against the theory of a moving earth. Aristotelians assumed that the fact that a stone which is dropped from a tower lands directly beneath it shows that the earth is stationary. They thought that, if the earth moved while the stone was falling, the stone would have been left behind. Objects would fall diagonally instead of vertically. Since this does not happen, Aristotelians thought that it was evident that the earth did not move. If one uses ancient theories of impulse and relative motion, the Copernican theory indeed appears to be falsified by the fact that objects fall vertically on earth". Galileo could not counter this, and had to make do with ad hoc hypthosesis and proceed counterinductively; the theory of relative motion relied on notions of gravity which required the later Newtonian synthesis to displace Aristotle. If Blakemore had read Stephen Toulmin's "The Fabric of the Heavens: The Development of Astronomy and Dynamics", or even Paul Feyerabend's "Against Method", he would have been able to give a more nuanced account of the controversy that the simplistic faith versus fact narrative that he provided on the TV. It was more of a clash between two scientific world views.

As usual when creationism was mentioned, but Augustine's views on genesis as not being a literal seven days were somehow overlooked; instead we had (1) a creationist presented who said that when the bible and science were in contradiction, the bible was correct, and so much the worse for science (2) other Christians whom Blakemore suggested had needed to tailor their faiths to science as it made inroads. Augustine's nuanced view on science (natural philosophy) and scripture was made well before Blakemore's supposed "conflict", and can be summarised thus by Kenneth J. Howell,:

Suppose someone says that the earth is no more than ten thousand years old, as Christians in the West believed for centuries. Again, we should test this claim by the means that science has at its disposal. For well over a hundred years historical geology has developed tests to show that the earth must be far older than ten thousand years. These tests are cross-checked and rechecked to make sure the time estimates are not flawed. Now what should we do? Shall we insist that the Bible teaches that the earth is no more than ten thousand years old? Could it be that our interpretation is wrong? Augustine advises the second step: "But if they are able to establish their doctrine with proofs that cannot be denied, we must show that this statement of Scripture . . . is not opposed to the truth of their conclusions." He urges us to change our interpretation of Scripture, not because Scripture is to be ruled by science, but because no two truths made by God will contradict one another. All truth comes from God, whether discovered by science or by the Church in its interpretation of Scripture. The first question we must ask is whether a particular scientific theory is well-founded. If it is, then we must make sure we don't read the Bible in a manner that contradicts sound knowledge of nature.

Blakemore then he presented the American Declaration of Independence as the major political triumph of the enlightenment, and while it was a triumph it had major deficiencies in its understanding of human nature. "We hold these truths to be self evident... that all men are created equal" - did not apply to women or slaves. He praised Benjamin Franklin as the "enlightment man" with his lightening conductor, and yet failed to mention that Franklin advertised slaves for sale and rewards for capturing runaways in his Philadelphia newspaper. He was proprietor and the advertisements were good business. When he did change his mind, it was first of all on economic grounds rather than humanitarian ones, and only after a time in France, much later in his life, did he accept the French ideas of equality contradicted the American ones of slavery. Thomas Jefferson saw the institution of slavery as an evil, even though he continued the practice of slave ownership. George Washington was committed to slave ownership. The failure of these supposedly rational thinkers to see this is remarkable given Blakemore's position that they had discarded religious superstitions in favour of enlightenment science. Franklin, of course, was also a freemason, and hence was certainly committed at least to what we would term "deism". Incidentally, Franklin's kite experiment probably never happened, but was written up later by him as a "back story".

When we get to the Darwin religion versus science debate, Blakemore accepts most of the Huxley propoganda at face value, and we now know that most of that never happened as he would see if he was up to date with modern historical research on the subject. It is now pretty well established that the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce never happened in the way Huxley wrote up in his memoirs nearly half a century later - as a piece of typical Huxley self-promotion. Wilberforce, far from being the old fuddy-duddy opposed to Huxley, had already made his position clear:

But we are too loyal pupils of inductive philosophy to start back from any conclusion by reason of its strangeness. Newton's patient philosophy taught him to find in the falling apple the law which governs the silent movements of the stars in their courses; and if Mr Darwin can with the same correctness of reasoning demonstrate to us our fungular descent, we shall dismiss our pride, and avow, with the characteristic humility of philosophy, our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms, - `Claim kindred there, and have our claim allowed'  - only we shall ask leave to scrutinise carefully every step of the argument which has such an ending, and demur if at any point of it we are invited to substitute unlimited hypothesis for patient observation, or the spasmodic fluttering flight of fancy for the severe conclusions to which logical accuracy of reasoning has led the way.

Darwin saw Wilberforce as presenting real and formidable criticisms, which he went out of his way to address in his later revisions. This has been well known to historians for some time, and the latest BBC History Magazine dispelled the science versus religion myths of the time. The late Stephen Jay Gould - always careful on sources - had written about the extremely suspect (and unlikely) character of Huxley's account almost a decade ago.

All in all, Colin Blakemore has presented us with a new mythology about science, presented historically selective (or discredited) evidence, weighted to "prove" his case, and given probably the best example of the New Atheist fundamentalism on television since Richard Dawkins. Why can't scientists, supposedly committed to truth, do a little historical research before presenting a kind of schoolboy textbook history that went out of date 20 years ago, and which is accepted without any criticism?

Links and References
The Fabric of the Heavens: The Development of Astronomy and Dynamics (1963) with June Goodfield ISBN 0-226-80848-3

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