Category Archives: Science

Belief and science

“You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010), p. 64

Probably one of the most important ideas in rhetoric.

The basic motion to change one’s mind comes internally, from a person’s volition. They decide they want to change their mind, then look to see if it can be justified.

For science, this is why it is important to cultivate a valuation of truth for truth’s sake, and why money and status in science can be problematic. If a large amount of money depends on a belief, a person will typically look every which way to see how it can be defended.


A common mistake of contemporaries is to think that there has been progress towards something better across-the-board, because there has been technological progress over the last (say) 100 years.

This is obviously false. Look at painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and so on from then and now. There is a devolution in spirit, cultural depth, and in many cases technical skill.

What is interesting from the point of Christianity is how much of this is tied to the leaving behind of an authentic Christian culture by almost all of Western culture.

Against hedonism

We can define hedonism as the conjunction of two propositions.

  1. One ought to seek out pleasurable experiences.
  2. One ought to avoid painful experiences.

where ‘pleasurable’ and ‘painful’ are understood expansively.

What is problematic with this view? At first blush, it seems unproblematic – almost trivially true. Of course one ought to want more pleasure and less pain. All I want to show here is how this is problematic from a biological perspective. Let’s consider the second proposition first.

What is a painful experience? Biologically speaking, painful experiences exist in order to guide an animal in avoiding a situation where there is damage to that animal. In other words, from a biological perspective, the important part isn’t the experience of pain but what that indicates.

Similarly, consider pleasure. In natural conditions, feeling pleasure would probably indicate that what one was doing was helping the organism to reach its goals, where the goals would typically be designed into the organism, centering around things like getting nutritional food, reproducing, keeping the right temperature, and so on.

Nowadays, we can see how the sensation of pleasure can misfire, biologically speaking, leading us to behaviour that moves us away from the things the sensation was designed to move us towards. Overeating, for example, can be motivated by a pleasure in the foods, yet given various ‘junk food’ available today it can lead to nutritional deficiencies, obesity, diabetes, and so on.

So, it seems obvious that biologically speaking, hedonism doesn’t make sense at least when operating in an environment that is substantially different from that for which the organism is designed.

The virgin birth

One aspect of Christianity that is prominent is belief in a virgin birth – Mary conceived of Jesus ‘directly’ from God. If we take the story literally (it resonates with various other myths, many of which would have been known in the Mediterranean at the time, so it is not clear to me what the reader is supposed to take from the claim), then an argument against it goes as

a) The claim is that Jesus was conceived from God by a virgin, but we now know that virgin births do not occur naturally among humans. Therefore, Jesus was not conceived by a virgin.

I think many secularists actually follow this line of thinking when denying the virgin birth. Yet, a moment’s reflection shows it is not a good argument.

The problem here is that ancients also knew that virgin births among humans do not occur naturally. The whole point of the virgin birth is that it is an unusual (perhaps unique) event. Saying we don’t see it happening today or that it doesn’t occur in nature (which would condition our sense of what can or can’t happen) is true but not to the point.

Rather, there is a premise required for the argument a) above, which is

There is no such thing as miracles.

If there are no miracles, and if virgin births don’t occur naturally, then the conclusion is much stronger.

However, now the argument has to rely upon a much more sweeping argument, namely, the argument to show there is no such thing as miracles.

My guess is that most debates about supposed miracles between secularists and theists aren’t primarily about the evidence for the miracle in question, but a more general claim. As in many beliefs, there is a cyclical component to this (if you don’t believe miracles can occur, you are less likely to think a specific instance of a supposed miracle actually occurred, which in turn helps support your more general belief).

The Christian conception of God and the start of science

It was only because Europeans believed in God as the Intelligent Designer of a rational universe that they pursued the secrets of creation. In the words of Johannes Kepler [(one of the most distinguished astronomers in the history of science)], “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony imposed on it by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” […] Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to the rise of science is that the early scientists not only searched for natural laws, confident that they existed, but they found them! It thus could be said that the proposition that the universe had an Intelligent Designer is the most fundamental of all scientific theories and that it has been successfully put to empirical tests again and again.” – Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness (2016), p. 162

My guess is that Stark is probably correct, and that the standard story that Christianity stood in the way of the rise of science is just about the opposite of what actually happened.

Simulation theory is a new theism

This article titled ‘Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not’ describes an intellectual movement, including Elon Musk, which holds that we live in a computer simulation.

I’ll leave to the side the arguments for such a position (including arguments about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness), and focus on what the position is. They are positing that the universe was created by an intelligence (or intelligences). It’s a kind of theism (my impression is that many advocates seem unaware of this – it is irrelevant that the creator is a ‘posthuman civilization’ or what have you), and generates similar problems to ones Judaism or Christianity attempt to answer (do we get an insight into the creator’s mind or purposes in seeing the universe? how does the creator effect the universe? can we interact with the creator? is the creator something like omniscient in this universe? omnipotent? and so on).

It is not surprising that a powerful aspect of technology (computer simulations) would be applied to create a new form of theism. It is similar to the historical movement to think of the universe as a precisely tuned machine (such as a clock), when machines like that became common several hundred years ago (often, this form of theism emphasized something like a form of deism – the machine maker set up the universe and then let it work away).

So, developments in technology cause developments in theology.

Christianity as heuristic

In his 2012 book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb distinguishes between three main categories: ‘fragile’, ‘robust’, and ‘antifragile’.

To illustrate the concept of ‘antifragility’, Taleb uses the hydra. If you chop off one of its heads, two grow in its place. Similarly, if you damage your muscles while lifting a heavy object then, given enough time, they will repair with more strength than before. These are not just robust, but ‘antifragile’.

In a table listing various kinds of fragile-robust-antifragile types, Nassim Taleb has under ‘science’

Theory (fragile). Phenomenology (robust). Heuristics, practical tricks (antifragile).

This seems right. A reliance on theories in science leads to epistemic fragility. In particular, when people start conceiving of science as a group of specific theories, their worldview becomes highly fragile, because it is open to being undermined whenever evidence suggests one of those theories is wrong.

Science’s real strength (its antifragility) is in science-as-process. This is why you can keep disproving various theories within science, and yet science as a whole becomes stronger. It is this basic ‘antifragile’ conception which is the main source of science’s great successes. That is to say, science is essentially a heuristic – a way of generating ideas that are then tested, and so on, ad infinitum. It embraces uncertainty – there is much we don’t know.

When people conceive Christianity as a collection of theological theories, this tends to develop into a fragile worldview. A better conception is of Christianity as essentially a heuristic – a way of generating practices that are then tested. Christianity isn’t essentially this-or-that-set-of-theological-theories (trinitarianism, penal substitionary atonement, and so on), but a more basic approach to living (a trusting, lived relationship with God). The latter not only contains practical tricks (discernment, and so on), but is a heuristic – a way of generating ideas that are then tested, and so on, ad infinitum. It embraces theological uncertainty – there is much we don’t know.

When either science or Christianity set into fragile theory-centric conceptions, they lose their vigour. When, instead, the focus is essentially on heuristics and practical tricks, they become ‘antifragile’.

Are humans truth-seeking organisms?

There is an argument you get both from theists (such as Alvin Plantinga) and atheists (I have seen this recently in the writings of Scott Adams), to the effect that if something like standard evolutionary theory (SET) is true, then humans aren’t capable of detecting truth.

Plantinga uses it as a reductio ad absurdem of SET itself. If SET is true, then there’s no reason to think that humans are good at figuring out theories that are true, because our cognitive architecture has been selected for reproduction, not truth. SET dissolves its own epistemic basis.

Adams uses it as a lens for understanding human society. SET says humans are as-if-designed to reproduce, not find the truth. Therefore, we should expect that humans will be persuaded not by good reasons related to the truth, but by things that make us feel good, improve our status, help us to reproduce, and so on.

(The difference being that Plantinga therefore rejects SET, Adams accepts it.)

How to respond to this line of thinking? Start with something fairly basic to animals, movement. In order for a human to navigate a complex terrain (say, a forest floor), it requires a relevantly accurate representation (i.e., ‘true belief’) of that terrain. We have a model (an ‘image’) of the floor, and we use that to navigate across it. If our cognitive ‘machinery’ weren’t so composed, we wouldn’t be able to navigate.

Since navigation is crucial for survival (we have to move from place to place to find food and so on), it is easy to see a link from survival -> accurate representations.

Similarly, look at kinds of reasoning used on a day-to-day basis. During the course of a day, there are various problems we solve using basic investigative ‘tools’ or techniques. For example, I heard a noise, where did it come from? There are nuts up there, how do I get up there? How do I capture this lady bug so I can put it outside?

What is important here is that, often in an everyday case, we care about the truth. That is because achieving some outcome is directly tied to us accurately understanding a situation (or how to solve a problem).

These everyday kinds of reasoning are actually the basis of science, which isn’t an esoteric specimen, but rather the application of everyday methods of problem solving to more-or-less novel subjects that wouldn’t typically be in our everyday purview.

The problem of science comes from a lack of a connection between truth and ‘intrinsic’ motivation towards truth (i.e., typically in an everyday sense, we care about truth because we want to solve a problem that depends on us getting it right). Put simply, scientific problem solving can easily be corrupted by extrinsic factors (status, money, and so on). It’s not that humans are incapable of truth-seeking and finding, and when doing so we seem to get significant progress (which can be seen by the technological accomplishments of, in particular, the last several hundred years).

So, Plantinga is wrong in that he doesn’t recognize the link between everyday reasoning, visualization, and so on – techniques which have a strong link to our survival – and scientific theories, such as SET. Adams is wrong in that he doesn’t recognize that, when motivated to actually get things right, humans can at least significantly increase their chances of doing so in at least certain domains (as witnessed by both everyday problem solving and technological breakthroughs related to science).

Coherence and prediction

Theologians seek to find a coherent account of things. That is well and good (although sometimes breakthroughs come from actively disregarding certain things – what we think we know isn’t always right, and anyone can sometimes get a breakthrough in trying to solve a problem by saying ‘what if this particular ‘fact’ is actually not the case, even though people tend to take it to be the case?’). That is to say, theologians look to figure out how certain ideas and observations can cohere.

The next step is to find relatively independent confirmation. One might have a nice theory that seems to comport with the observations – which in itself might be a significant breakthrough. Yet, it’s just the first step. Now go out and figure out how to test it, beyond the coherence.

In a nutshell, this figuring-out-how-to-test is the essence of the scientific method, to the extent there is one. To the extent theologians adopt this, they become scientists. To the extent someone does not – especially if they set up a theoretical model that seems to be able to account for any and all new observations – they are just blowing smoke.

How does God act?

How does the Christian God act?

I want to suggest an hypothesis, which is summarized as follows.

1. Miracles are marked out by (as the name suggests – ‘miraculum’ meaning wonder) their tendency to cause wonder.

2. They cause wonder because the observer notices the event seems highly unlikely to have occurred in the way it did, even though, for example, they witnessed it (hence, wonder at how it occurred).

3. What is unlikely is the coordination of things in the world.

4. These sorts of events are on-going and widespread.

Before discussing the advantages of this hypothesis, a brief aside on the supernatural-natural notion.

Supernatural vs. natural causes

Consider if someone claimed electromagnetic phenomena were ‘supernatural’ and contact mechanics was ‘natural’. OK, but in what way does that distinction make a difference in the cause-and-effect world? For the people drawing up equations and models of electromagnetic activity, it’s not clear why this kind of distinction would matter. Electromagnetic phenomena operates in a very different way from contact mechanics, but so what?

What I’m interested in here is how God (supposedly) acts, not in theological speculation about what ‘kind’ God’s acts are. Instead of theology -> theory of how God acts, I rather observation -> theory of how God acts.

Consider. The idea of supernatural causation is about a creator ‘outside’ of nature. Nature (the universe) is a creation of God. Involved in this notion of God being the creator of nature are theological ideas, such as God being necessary, unchanging, outside of time, and so on. These are all important theological topics.

That the Christian God is such a being is debatable. Christians need not look to the Old Testament to figure out how the universe came into being, but if a Christian is looking to the Old Testament, the accounts of what God did don’t seem to be a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), even though creation ex nihilo is the standard Christian theological view nowadays. Rather, God is portrayed as shaping or ordering something – perhaps as a potter crafts clay to form pottery.

Yet, to what extent does the idea of a God existing outside of the universe impact our understanding of how God acts? For example, if Jesus healed someone, was this a natural or supernatural event? Well, it was unusual, and no one knows how it would have happened, but for all that it could have occurred within creation, i.e., without any kind of (special) outside-of-nature activity. That it’s unusual, or because we don’t have a well worked out model of how it works, doesn’t mean it’s supernatural. This is an old point, and I hope it’s obvious.

Now consider 3. If it’s right, then when looking at miracles, the ‘efficient causes’, so to speak, at least in most cases, should be findable. Yet, you don’t explain the miracle of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, say, by saying ‘there was a donkey, and someone found it’. Instead, you have to explain the likelihood of it. It is the unlikeliness that points to God’s activity, i.e., a miracle.

This is why the Catholic church’s attempts to discern if something is a miracle are misled (and this mistake is based on their theology, and in particular the supernatural-natural distinction about God’s activity originating ‘outside’ of nature). They attempt to see if any known natural cause could account for the miracle. Being unable to find one, they conclude it is a miracle. This leads to ignoring large amounts of what Christians take to be everyday miracles, and excludes ascribing to God these miracles by definition.

Yet, when Christians talk about everyday miracles, they are almost always talking about natural causes that have been coordinated in an unlikely way. What’s key (under the theory I am here expounding) isn’t natural causes but how likely it is that those causes came together in the way they did. We can say God’s activity can be found in the ‘final’ cause, not a lack of natural ‘efficient’ causes.

Advantages of this characterization of miracles

1. It describes a large number of miracles Christians report, where there are conventional operators but unconventional coordination of them.

2. For miracles where it is not clear if it’s just the coordination of conventional operators, this is a matter of our knowledge. We don’t know what’s going on, and so it could be just a coordination.

3. It is compatible with either supernaturalism or naturalism – God can be conceived as the creator in the sense of being ‘outside’ of the universe and creating all things ex nihilo, or a creator in the sense of being ‘inside’ of the universe and creating all things as a ‘shaper’ of pre-existing aspects of the universe.