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Unravelling ‘scientific’ truth

This is the third post in Peter Bolt’s series on the New Atheists. (Read the first and second.)

There are many slippery words—words that appear to mean so many things, you begin to wonder if they mean anything.

Even ‘science’ can be one that gets quite greasy. It seems pretty slippery in some New Atheist discussion. Without knowing much about science—or Christianity, for that matter—some ordinary people feel that one stamps out the other—or, at least, that they are in serious conflict. On the other hand, a whole string of famous intellectuals (e.g. HG Wells, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Max Planck, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould) have, according to New Atheist Sam Harris, “declared the war between reason and faith to be long over”.1 But Harris is not happy with these intellectuals. He is even less happy with the US National Academy of Sciences, suggesting that science and Christianity should get along, because they are answering different kinds of questions about the world.2 For Sam, this is not good enough; he wants the conflict to continue because, in his mind, science has already won.

The trouble with the appeal to ‘science’—or to other commodities such as ‘fact’, ‘insight’ or ‘understanding’, which are somehow beefed up with the adjective ‘scientific’—is that the more it is done, the more troublesome it becomes. If we are told that Christianity is demolished because of ‘science’, without discussion of the actual evidence or argument that purportedly pulls the destructive pin, then this appeal becomes anti-science, because it is little more than an appeal to authority. Once upon a time, a medieval Roman Catholic believer might appeal to ‘the church’; now a secularist appeals to ‘science’ to silence the discussion.

Then there is the problem of overuse. The more the word ‘science’ is invoked— (without careful definition, or the assembly of the particular evidence or argument that supposedly has such power), the more the term ‘science’ is in danger of becoming “Vacuous. Devoid of content. A non-subject”3—to re-apply Richard Dawkins’s statement about Christian theology.

Let me explain. When someone says, “Science has shown …”, the first thing to ask is “Which branch of science?”, or “What kind of science?”. As scientific men, the New Atheists are well aware of the range of the meaning of the word and the variety of disciplines covered by it—despite rarely nuancing the word appropriately when it is used as a cipher for ‘Christianity’s nemesis’.

Sam Harris, for example, knows quite clearly (at least) four usages of the word. He is aware that it can refer to ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science, or it can represent “our best efforts to know what is true about our world”, and he is even clear that “a branch of the humanities like history” can also be ‘science’.4 His writings show that he is quite happy to use the opinion polls of ‘soft’ science—even calling the polls of Gallup and PEW ‘scientific surveys’.5 He is clear that the kind of processes found in ‘hard’ science do not apply to all kinds of knowledge. No, for “the core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty”.6 He also has no qualms about saying that a historical fact, once established, “forms part of the worldview of scientific rationality”.7

Well, that is good, because the truth claims of Christianity are, at their base, historical claims. If it is “intellectual honesty that is the key to science”, along with “an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments”,8 then such scientific inquiry will lead to questions like, “Hey, did Jesus rise from the dead, or didn’t he?”, “Was a crucified man worshipped as God, or wasn’t he?”, and, “If he was, how in heaven’s name did that happen?”

Such historical inquiries are certainly there for the taking by those who are honest seekers after truth. And if, at least, one meaning of ‘science’ boils down to ‘honest inquiry’, then how can Christianity be automatically regarded as in opposition to science? Didn’t Jesus call upon people to just this enterprise? With such a promise as “seek, and you will find” (Matt 7:7), the only real question becomes “Who is really committed to honest scientific inquiry?”

1 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, WW Norton, New York, 2004, p. 15

2 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Vintage, 2008 (2006), Random House, New York, p. 62.

3 Marianna Krejci-Papa, ‘Taking On Dawkins’ God: An interview with Alister McGrath’, Science & Theology News, 25 April, 2005.

4 Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 65.

5 ibid., pp. viii, 93.

6 ibid., p. 64.

7 ibid., p. 65.

8 ibid.

23 thoughts on “Unravelling ‘scientific’ truth

  1. Peter

    You asked:
    “how can Christianity be automatically regarded as in opposition to science”

    Because Christianity is a belief system and sometimes ignores scientific studies. For example:
    - The Christian John Templeton Foundation funded study showed that intercessory prayer does not affect the recovery of patients (Google: Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients). Now when many falsifiable scientific studies show that the Christian prayer does not work Christians still keep on believing that it against the evidence.
    - Christians keep on claiming that their God can not be tested. At the same time they claim that God acts in the natural world and even the Bible showed how to test God’s view.
    - Christian scientists don’t refer to supernatural in their work. When Christians do science they assume that only natural effects are in play, and God and devil will not interfere.
    - Evolution vs Creation debate only happens within religions which have a creation story.

    You make claims that supernatural claims can be investigated with historical method but are not answering my question (previous thread); How? How do you investigate if “Jesus did rise from the dead” or if evil spirits from Islam just deceived all early and modern Christians?

  2. - A correct view of prayer and not ‘God will give me what I want” is helpful. I’m not surprised at any study that tests prayer and it’s results
    - Whether Atheist or Christian, humans are a tiny spec in a much larger and more vast universe. Why should whatever created it and us be able to be put in a box, tested and conform to our rules. What a terribly high opinion we humans have of ourselves.
    - We can’t do a test on Jesus rising from the dead and repeat it, just like with your claim. However reports written down ARE still historical documents, whether it happened or not and are part of the evidence, inasmuch as this is what people believed then. What’s to say I didn’t plant your claim in your head and make it your own? Again we hit philosophy, and not science or history.
    - Trust/Faith is needed in everything, even science. The only reason people believe in evolution is because they make the conscious leap from “this is the evidence, it fits with my theory” to believing as fact. We will never know the truth of what has happened in the past without a time machine. As good as Dating can get, and fossils we get, there will always be holes.

    It strikes me as odd how many people will discount religion as truth without investigating it (I am generalising and not referring to anyone in particular, just what I have observed), yet freely accept science as fact, completely oblivious to the constant battle of truth within science, especially historical sciences such as palaeoanthropology or evolution. I think this is what you were getting at in your article Peter, that ‘science’ just seems a coin word now days and is accepted as true.

  3. Callan,
    Yes, I am simply saying that even ‘science’ is multifaceted and rather than leaving it undefined, we need to ask what the beast is, or which branch? Certainly a scientific approach can be turned upon any branch of human inquiry or knowledge: what is the question we are seeking to answer? what is the evidence from the real world? What is the appropriate means of testing it? How do we measure and evaluate … etc etc. Since history is a series of unique events, albeit within a world with loads of commonalities, a scientific approach to historical knowledge will have a number of differences to, say, a theory about chemical reactions, which can be repeated over and again (as you point out). But despite these differences, history, properly done, is still ‘science’ in the sense of human knowledge gained after honest inquiry (as Sam Harris concedes).

    You are right to point out that ‘trust’ is a basic requirement of any pursuit of knowledge – which of us has the time, energy, or inclination!, to repeat every experiment that has ever been done before we say, ‘yes, now I know that’? The trouble with (some)(many) is that they don’t realize that ‘faith’ is simply another way of saying ‘trust’, and often these same some/many have a definition of faith that goes something like ‘a belief that is not founded on any evidence’. If faith= trust (as in the New Testament), then the question becomes: what evidence are you trusting in, ie is your trust warranted? If faith is a priori, by definition, something that does not take into account evidence, then that is a very strange beast indeed, and is certainly not the kind of ‘faith’ the New Testament speaks about.

    It is also worth pointing out that ‘trust that’ (of evidence) is not the same as ‘trust in’ (of persons), and the New Testament also has plenty of ‘trust in’. What experiments do you, or can you, run in which the ‘object’ of your inquiry, is a ‘subject’ (person). When someone says: ‘I love you’, to answer: ‘well, prove it’, is not generally well received. Subjects have their own way of answering back — or even taking the initiative in the first place. And even if we are simply in the realm of floating possibilities, it is worth asking: if the Subject is a/the personal God, then what kind of googly might this throw the ‘researcher’??

  4. Peter T,
    Just to quibble with you about your partial quotation, my question (‘how can … etc) had a first part (‘if, at least, one meaning of ‘science’ boils down to ‘honest inquiry’, how can …’), and an accompanying sentence about Jesus urging the honest seeking after truth, with the promise of finding it. In other words, I was attempting to say that Jesus himself urged ‘scientific’ inquiry (honest seeking after truth), and that is what his followers also ought to be committed to.

    With that over with (and my apologies for the quibble!), the prayer study is very interesting, isn’t it? I don’t want to ignore it, but I don’t really know what to do with it either—just like I don’t really know what to do with the very serious issues so-called ‘unanswered prayer’ causes amongst the Christian communities that I am/have been part of—and in my own life. One thing is to realize that a ‘no’, or a ‘not yet’, or a ‘not in the same form’ all appears to be ‘unanswered’ but in fact, it is just that the answer is not what we thought we wanted or needed, etc. If you have reasons to believe, on other grounds, that God is good, then bringing God’s goodness into the equation somehow is always an important part of the believer’s response to such a situation. Not always easy, however, for sure.

    But, for the purposes of this discussion, the claim that is being tested in the prayer experiment is a claim about present-day Christian experience. Such claims are made, and such tests can be made. But they are in a different category to what you might call the ‘basic claims’ of the Christian message. A claim about present-day Christian experience (of which there are many, stretching from [in my opinion] the sane to the less sane) is not, therefore, a historical truth-claim about the foundational events that got the Christian movement going.

    This gets us back to your very interesting challenge (from the thread in the last post— is it against the rules to import it to here?? Let’s hope not). There you introduced the term ‘supernatural’ (not a term I use), and gave an example of a ‘supernatural’ historical truth claim, namely, that ‘I [that is, Peter T] supernaturally created Christianity yesterday’. Here you add a similar example that ‘evil spirits from Islam just deceived all early and modern Christians’.

    Apologies that you think I did not answer your challenge, I thought I did in the previous thread. But let me be a little clearer with my answer now I have the opportunity to do so.

    If you propose either of these claims as an hypothesis, then the next step would be for you to try to articulate your research questions, and what evidence there is, or could be, and how you would assess it etc. Just like anything in science, a question is not a knock-down argument, it is simply another opportunity to do further research. If I don’t know the answer (due to my ignorance), or we don’t know the answer (due to the state of current research), this doesn’t mean that the answer cannot be found (thus, ‘in principle’). But, having said all that, at first glance, these examples of ‘supernatural historical truth claims’ which you introduce seem to me to be very difficult indeed to investigate through the normal processes of scientific historical method.

    As for ‘a priori’ reasoning, your examples, of course, are hypothetical claims, thought up for the ‘thought experiment’ that you wanted to introduce into the debate. Thus, only in the realm of thought, a priori – that is, prior to looking at actual evidence. The empirical approach would ask: what kind of historical truth-claims do, in fact, lay at the base of the Christian movement? What kind of historical events do they point to? How do we investigate these? Etc.

    Which leads me to say, how different your ‘supernatural claims’ are from the historical truth-claims at the foundation of the Christian movement. I listed some of these before (and this was where I thought I had answered your challenge), such as: a man was crucified under the Roman Procurator Pilate, he was buried, three days later his tomb was reported as empty, people reported seeing him alive for a forty day period, a new and rapidly spreading movement began on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of these events. When you compare the character of these claims to your hypothetical examples, then I would say that, unlike your examples, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus appears to be thoroughly testable, because thoroughly natural.

  5. Callan,

    - The prayer study was not about ‘God will give me what I want”. Please read it as you created a straw man here.
    - The study did not put the creator “in the box, tested and conform to our rules”. It tested the truth claims of the Bible. Again you created a straw man.
    - We have historical documents of truck load of dead and risen men/gods, and plenty of people who believed in all of them. If you are consistent you investigate them in a same way. You made a good point that maybe you planted my claim in my head and it is a not science. That is my point too. Jesus resurrection is not a type of claim that can be investigated with science or history.
    - Christians often claim that faith is needed in science. This renders the word faith meaningless. Science does not need faith, testing is opposite of faith. Scientific method has proven quite reliable. I’m afraid that you don’t fully understand the scientific method making statements like “this is the evidence, it fits with my theory”.
    You said:
    “It strikes me as odd how many people will discount religion as truth without investigating it”
    And people also discount alchemy, astrology and homeopathy without investigating it for the same reason.

  6. Peter,

    Jesus did not urge ‘scientific’ inquiry. He relied on divine revelation. Even early Christians had little interest in science. Muslims had universities, hospitals and scientific method before Christians.

    You said:
    “I don’t want to ignore [the prayer study], but I don’t really know what to do with it either”
    If you follow the evidence and science you need to be able to change your opinion. Now that you have investigated the subject you should accept as your current view that prayer does not work (until you find solid scientific proof of it). 
    Now you are at the point where you can choose scientific view or your subjective faith based opinion. (This is where religions are not compatible with science).

    You said:
    “A claim about present-day Christian experience is not a historical truth-claim about the foundational events that got the Christian movement going.”
    I agree. But religious movement don’t need a truth to get started as we can see from so many religions.

    You said”
    “the next step would be for you to try to articulate your research questions, and what evidence there is, or could be, and how you would assess it etc.”
    For example:
    Q: How do you explain the Jesus resurrection A: I created that memory and see all the manuscripts about him I created?
    Q: How do you explain Christian movement A: I created that memory and see all the Christians around you supporting my theory?
    Q: How do you explain people modern day religious experiences A: I created those experiences, see how that evidence fits my theory?

    See how easy it is to answer any question with a supernatural claim. My hit rate is 100% so if you are consistent with your view of evidence you should accept my view of reality.

    You “can investigate historical truth-claims that lay at the base of the Christian/Mormon/Muslim movement” but once supernatural claims are accepted it is not historical or scientific claim.

    You said:
    “people reported seeing [Jesus] alive for a forty day period, a new and rapidly spreading movement began on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of these events.
    Come on now. Christianity did not spread rapidly. The growth curve followed the ~natural population growth curve (read Rodney Stark). Mormon’s and Jehovah’s Witness growth was a lot faster than early Christian movement. When you mix fact and fiction people are easier to convince. You need to investigate the fact not fiction to find the truth.

    You said:
    “When you compare the character of these claims [record of Jesus] to your hypothetical examples, then I would say that, unlike your examples, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus appears to be thoroughly testable, because thoroughly natural.”
    If you claim Jesus’ resurrection is a natural event then I claim that “I created Christianity yesterday” was a natural event as it happened is a natural world. You can also investigate and test my historical claims as I demonstrated before. Keep the claims in the same category so you don’t stack the deck in your favour and investigate them side by side to see which claim answers more questions.

  7. Peter T,

    - I have read the study and my comment still stands. We have a gracious and generous God who will not always heal someone we ask for, as hard as it is to rationalise a good God who allows evil/injustice in the present.

    - Also my comment about putting God in a box. Testing to see whether god does or does not give us what we ask for in the context of STEP seems to me very similar to testing God on our terms.

    - I’d like to think I do understand the scientific method as I use it frequently. And again I hold fast to my comment. I’ll take the example of evolution, as I’m more familiar with the biological sciences than chemical or physics sciences. Evolution cannot be proven. Evolution is a theory based on the truth of natural selection. We can see natural selection, and indeed within our lifetimes things have evolved due to this (the peppered moth is a wonderful example). But origins of man and other species and the whole story of evolution requires one to say “I trust/have faith in what the theory of evolution by natural selection says about the evidence we have (e.g. fossil record)”. Isn’t it great that we have been given reason and logic to think about our world and hypothesise about evidence! Being a person of science, especially biological or historical, one must acknowledge the enormous amount of uncertainty flooding our vision.

    I’ll take another example, extinction of Australian mega fauna. As one theory, which most considered most likely, mankind wiped them out when they arrived 40-60k years ago on the continent. In one fell swoop the megafauna died at the hand of how many people? a few thousand at most over the entire Australian continent? The simlpe logic of it plus some diprotodon remains dating to 20k years seems to suggest not.
    - Some even suggest that man arrived in Australia as soon as 80-100k years (I am going off previous knowledge, but will attempt to find the sources I am pulling these from, sorry I know you will not like this). Firebreathing dragons could have easily flown people out of Africa to Aus to account for the short time, then left all the fire evidence and killed all the megafauna. It fits with the evidence minus the dragons. The point is that all of these hypotheses are faith leaps, they do not necessarily make these things wrong, just like I wouldn’t call evolution wrong, but I wouldn’t ever dare to call it hard truth when history is riddled with truth that is later shown to be wrong. Scientific ignorance is a humbling thing, for example mad cow disease and its pathogenesis.

    This was a very long winded way to say that my comment still stands on faith within science.

  8. Sorry, back to the STEP thing again, I’m not satisfied with what I am saying.

    The study does not prove/disprove if prayer ‘works’ at all. A biblical view of prayer would say that God can, but may or may not ‘heal’ someone, what we should be praying for is God’s kingdom to come, because we know it is here where he will do away with sickness. We know he will bring this about in his time. No where in the bible does it claim ‘If you have a cardiac bypass, have IP and you will be healed’. The ‘evidence’ here does not scream at me that prayer is useless. Also if someone is having a bypass, and I am fervently praying for healing, how wonderful is it if God provides a skilled surgeon who executes his procedure perfectly, and they are ‘healed’. Prayer does not always lend itself to the ‘supernatural’ things. ( although I’m not sure that was part of your arguement.

  9. There is a fundamental problem with studies such as that on the efficacy of prayer — they presuppose that God is constrained to operate according to the same rules of temporal causality that constrain us. If this is not true (and it is not true according to classical Christian theology), the methodology of these studies is invalidated. Unfortunately the fact that we are constrained in this way means that there’s no “scientific” way to test the efficacy of prayer, at least that I can see.

  10. Callan,

    you said:
    “I have read the study… God who will not always heal someone we ask for”
    The study actually implies that the Christian God never answers prayers.

    Re “God in a box”: Christians usually argue that God acts in the physical world (answers prayers) and that there no “scientific” way to test the efficacy of prayer. This means that Christian argument is incoherent and unscientific. This also means that Christian claims are incompatible with science.

    you said:
    “I’d like to think I do understand the scientific method as I use it frequently” and earlier “The only reason people believe in evolution is because they make the conscious leap from “this is the evidence, it fits with my theory” to believing as fact”

    I questioned your understanding of the scientific method because you made statement like “this is the evidence, it fits with my theory”. If you think that is how evolutionary biology works you are mistaken.

    you said
    “Evolution cannot be proven”
    The theory of gravity can not be proven either. Theories can only be disproven.

    you said:
    “origins of man and other species and the whole story of evolution requires one to say “I trust/have faith in what the theory of evolution by natural selection says about the evidence we have”
    In a same way you need to trust/have faith that the gravity will also work tomorrow.

    I like you example about Firebreathing dragons. If we follow the distribution of mtDNA Haplogroups and yDNA markers we get the more likely natural explanation how people got to Australia. There no need for leap of faith like it is required with Firebreathing dragons. Firebreathing dragons are like resurrection.

    You said:
    “A biblical view of prayer would say that God can, but may or may not ‘heal’ someone”
    Jesus said “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). The study indicates nobody got heal by praying.

    You said:
    “The ‘evidence’ here does not scream at me that prayer is useless.”
    This Christian designed and performed study did show that prayer did not have any effect. I find it interesting how Christians deny the evidence and the conclusion of the study and at the same time claim Christianity is compatible with science.

    Martin,

    Christians argue that God acts in the physical world (answers prayers) and that there no “scientific” way to test the efficacy of prayer. This means that Christian argument is incoherent and unscientific. It is irrelevant if God is constrained (or not constrained) to operate (or not operate) according to the same rules of temporal (or non-temporal) causality.

    I thought Jesus even said “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). He did not put limits on what you can pray for and if prayers are answered we should be able to detect it.

  11. Peter,

    I think you fail to grasp the potential complexities of the situation. If God is not constrained by time in the same way we are, then what is to stop him modifying antecedent (for us “historical”) events in order to answer prayer? ISTM that traditional Christian theology would not rule out the possibility of God operating in that way even if it is not usually explored (or even raised).

    Of course if we allow for this possibility it raises more questions than it answers — if history changes then the request to change it may no longer be made. Yet it is not inconceivable that the questions raised may have answers of which we are unaware simply because we cannot ourselves operate outside of time and are thus unaware of precisely how that might work.

    But, as I noted, if God does operate that way it does render observations made within time relatively meaningless.

    I hasten to add that I have no evidence to suggest that God does operate in this way. The take-home lesson here is that there are potentially levels of complexity in the question which those undertaking to measure the efficacy of prayer almost certainly do not consider.

  12. Peter, I feel there is a misunderstanding with what I said, probably due to the order I said it re: sceince method.

    I stated evidence first, then fits with I theory when I should have said evidence (observation), theory postulation, collection of more evidence, support of theory. It made sense in my head, sorry for not elaborating as I should. The point I was trying to make was more on the nature of truth.

    Also I don’t think the theory of gravity is the same as evolution. I’m not trying to disprove the theory of evolution, and I am not going to voice my view because it’s not worth greater discussion. But gravity is something we can test here and now, it is active. The story of evolution and all historical sciences are based on evidence and can’t be repeated. Dating can but that’s only a small aspect of the larger theory.

  13. Martin

    You said:
    “I think you fail to grasp the potential complexities of the situation. If God is not constrained by time in the same way we are, then what is to stop him modifying antecedent (for us “historical”) events in order to answer prayer? ISTM that traditional Christian theology would not rule out the possibility of God operating in that way even if it is not usually explored.”

    Of course it could also be possible that the invisible space aliens cause us not to see the effects of the prayer and Christian theology would not rule that out. However “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” so potential complexity is irrelevant. I feel that Christians often seems to be wondering in “potentially levels of complexity” speculations and hiding from the evidence

    Callan,
    You said about scientific method:
    “evidence (observation), theory postulation, collection of more evidence, support of theory”
    I’m questioning if you understand science because your suggestion is not how it works. In fact it is almost opposite of what you suggest. After you research you construct a hypothesis. Then you test it and try to falsify it (not “collection of more evidence”).

    You are right that the theory of gravity is the same as evolution. We understand the evolution a lot better than gravity. With evolution we have tested over 50000 generations of bacteria evolution. We have seen evolution of trades in lizards in just over 30 generation. We can see mammal speciation happening in an inadvertent 500 year experiment. The point is that these are and can be tested.

  14. - The reason I have included “collection of more evidence” is a habit in experimental design, not using the data the question is formed from to investigate the question. It is not inherently wrong, but yes not part of the definition of ‘scientific method’, more of experimental design. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    - Yes we can test evolution now, which is why I differentiated between that which is presently testable, and that which is based on historic evidence.

    - I’ll bring my point from earlier and elaborate. I still find it odd how people investigate God purely through evidence in a way we prescribe. Through nature, through studies on prayer, through research. I’m not saying it is wrong, but if God is real, then the first place to investigate him is his word, because if he is real, the bible is true and perfect and all we need for salvation. If he is real we should expect people will seek against him and ‘see but not perceive’ and ‘hear but not understand’.

    Evidence is all well and good, the scientific method is wonderful, but why is it so commonly thought that God will be subject to our science? God, if true is much bigger than anything we know, and personal in a way that is offended and angered by our stubbornness and desire to have total control. Yet we still look for evidence, look for a sign, look for something concrete we can touch and see so we can give a black and white answer for if he is there or not.
    Even if or when evidence does come, well we will be trying to disprove the ‘God theory’ to make sure it is real, or perhaps because we don’t like the idea of not having total control in this world.

    I feel it is fitting to bring up a common misunderstanding of Christians, that is the blind faith, or being ‘oblivious to reality’, That we ignore evidence, and put on a stubborn face. We know we can’t see God, the bible even shed’s light on early Christians believing in Jesus resurrection and encouraging them on. ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him’ and what he has done.

    Most Christians I know face doubt, even daily. There are many times I wonder if there’s nothing there when I pray, and big questions that science can’t answer are always there. What’s the purpose of life, why is the universe here, why are we here? (well, I guess you could answer none, bigbang and chance from evidence)

    Christians are just ordinary people, they investigate what they believe, often more than non-Christians. If there is no God, then being a Christian is just plain silly. But so far in life I, nor many I know, have not been put to shame when they do trust in the death of Jesus, and God’s sovereignty over his creation.

    All this again brings us back to philosophy, and using purely our reason to answer these questions. Im confident at what will win out though, between our reasoning and Gods.

    Many Blessings Peter, thanks for the wonderful talk smile

  15. Why don’t I know what to do with the prayer study?

    1. Was it impertinent? One of the key things about proper scientific method is to ensure that the test suits the thing being tested. One of the difficult things about ‘testing’ a subject, rather than an object, is that the subject brings their own stuff to the experiment. When it comes to a personal God, what if God doesn’t want to be tested like this? In human relations, after hearing the words ‘I love you’, the moment would be somehow ruined if an experiment is immediately set up to test the claim. Neither does God seem to want this kind of challenge (Deut 6:16; also cited by Jesus, Luke 4:12). So what do we expect if a person who doesn’t want to be challenge-tested, is challenge-tested?

    2. How does it fit with the vast array of other evidence to its contrary? Perhaps, to remove the ‘challenging God’ factor, a more appropriate instrument for answering the question, ‘does God answer prayer?’ would be to make it a truly post-hoc, empirical inquiry and ask those who pray, ‘<em>has<em> God answered your prayers?’. This (even according to Sam Harris) could be done with a ‘scientific survey’. On the basis of my own anecdotal impressions, I suspect that this would come back with mixed results, that is, ‘yes, God has answered my prayers’, but also ‘not all of them’, ‘not always exactly in the way that I thought he would’,  or ‘not yet, but I am still praying’, etc. There are strong encouragements to pray expecting God to answer, but these need to be placed against the equally strong recognition that God is God, and his will needs to prevail, for this will be best for all.

    So, just like one experiment doesn’t topple or establish anything by itself, the study is interesting, because it raises some questions. But, as is appropriate in scientific inquiries, new questions are never demolitions, they are just questions. And questions head us in the direction of more inquiry in the quest for possible solutions.

  16. Peter T,
    Good conversation requires good listening, and so does the discovery of truth.

    The point being made was that, if ‘honest inquiry’ is part of ‘science’ then this is certainly what Jesus urged. You bring in ‘divine revelation’ at this point, as if it is in dichotomous relation to ‘honest inquiry’. But Jesus thought differently. His promise was that the honest seeker after truth would find the truth (even if that came from divine revelation). In the context of listening carefully, he gave a promise/warning: ‘pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be given to you’ (Mark 4:24). 

    So, this is the same as other empirical inquiries. If we approach the evidence with a set of a prior assumptions, knowing the conclusion before the evidence is even examined, then we won’t hear what the evidence is saying. Getting rid of prejudice and listening to evidence is the fundamental scientific stance.

    As to your claim that ‘early Christians had little interest in science. Muslims had universities, hospitals and scientific method before Christians’. You know Stark, so you would also know his treatment of Christian health care during the ‘plagues’ of AD 180 and 250 etc. Although it would be anachronistic to use the term ‘university’ prior to the medieval period, you probably also know of the monastic movement (3rd -4th century) which were repositories of learning and communities of scholars. You may know of the Alexandrian Catechetical school of an even earlier time. 

    Again, historical claims need to sit under the historical evidence.

  17. Peter T.
    Back to your thought experiment of inventing Christianity with the power of your mind—that is some mind, by the way! It is, of course, a variant on Descartes’ evil demon/genius issue. And I guess this focuses the question somewhat, that a basic thing to untangle is whether we are going to be in the Rationalist strand, or the Empiricist strand.

    If we are going to sit under evidence, that is empirical, and the historical truth claims of Christianity can be examined according to ‘scientific’ historical method. If we are going to decide all things before we get to the evidence, then this is not empirical science. As we ‘untangle scientific truth claims’ (blatant return to the original post), it is important to listen for what is science proper (ie empirical evaluation), from rationalistic a prioris smuggled in under the claim to be ‘science’.

    There is a ‘public’ element to the kinds of historical truth claims such as I listed before (Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, buried, tomb was found empty, etc.), and so, in principle, examinable. It is out there in the real world (which, admittedly, Descartes’ puzzle had problems with), and so, in principle, findable.

  18. You said:
    “what if God doesn’t want to be tested like this? Neither does God seem to want this kind of challenge”
    Actually God seems to be happy to be tested (Judges 6:36-40) and I don’t think his character has changed since. So I don’t understand why you think that God does not like to be challenge-tested.

    You said:
    “empirical inquiry and ask those who pray, ‘has God answered your prayers?’. This (even according to Sam Harris) could be done with a ‘scientific survey’.”
    Not so. You are misinterpreting Harris’ position. Harris would say that this survey give evidence about opinions of the people. You try to claim that their opinion is evidence of prayer working, which is not scientific.

    You said that there is a vast array of other evidence to support that prayer works. Could you state your source for that or is that anecdotal evidence? Do you also accept that praying for Allah works because we have similar evidence for it?

    You said:
    “You know Stark, so you would also know his treatment of Christian health care during the ‘plagues’ of AD 180 and 250 etc.”

    It is sad to see that Christians still refer to Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” apologetics how Christians cared for the poor and pagans ran to the hills. This is of course nonsense as anyone who has read non-Christian text or historians knows. Before Christianity pagan had health care and of course cared for the sick. What happened to the truth?

    Re universities: No matter how you want to define it similar institution existed before Christians founded any. Muslims had a university in Morocco in the 9th century for example, well before Christians had their first one.

  19. Peter T,
    Gideon is an interesting case, isn’t he? Even here you can see that he is fearful of provoking the Lord’s anger with his challenge. The fact that God relents and gives him what he asks for is an indication of God’s grace. I am glad you have a hunch that God’s character hasn’t changed—his grace always abounds, that’s for sure. And Gideon is ‘the exception that proves the rule’.

    Sam Harris uses Gallup polls and others and he specifically calls them ‘scientific surveys’. This is a proper recognition that there is more kinds of ‘science’ than just in the test tube kind (see this post!). Yes, my vast amounts of evidence is anecdotal (as I thought was clear from the context, but apologies if not). That is, as someone who has mingled in the Christian crowd for about 25 years in a variety of locations and countries and socio-economic groups, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to the effect that people have prayed and received positive answers (along with the other answers I give above). What I am suggesting is that this kind of evidence could be assembled by a series of ‘scientific surveys’, and this seems to be more appropriate than the kind of prayer study that we have been discussing.

    As for health care and education, I am sure you would agree that anachronism doesn’t breed good clear discussion. Historical evaluation should be done in a way that suits the time period, not by criteria drawn from a later time.

  20. Peter,

    You said:
    “[an indication of God’s grace to] Gideon is ‘the exception that proves the rule”
    Is it really biblical to say that God’s behaviour has exceptions which prove that his normal behaviour is consistent? This really sounds like a heresy. How do you know which of God’s actions are normal and which are exceptions?

    If you take a scientific approach to the “anecdotal evidence” do you also accept that the vast amounts of anecdotal evidence that Allah answers every day to Muslim prayers proves Allah’s existence? It is important to be honest and apply same criteria to all God claims. Here I think you apply special pleading for your own favourite claim, which pushes you out of science.

    You still write that you could use Gallup polls as “scientific surveys” like Harris. Harris only uses them to get people’s opinions. You additionally try to use people’s opinions to estimate if those are true. You are misinterpreting Harris’ work and how science is done.

    Re health care and education: I’m not sure what your point is, sorry. Have you read any pagan writers who describe the plagues and health care? Please don’t use Stark’s argument about “Christian health care during the ‘plagues’” until you checked his claim from pagan sources. My point about education was that any type of institute you define (in a way that suits the time period), those existed in non-Christian world before Christians had theirs.

  21. Peter T,
    To back up on Gideon, you made the claim that the story shows God likes to be tested. My point was that even in this story Gideon was fearful of offending God by asking for a sign. The fact that God gave it is out of his grace. Once again, living with the evidence will ask the question, after the event, what does this show about God? Rather than decreeing that he must or must not do something.

    i am just quoting Harris. He calls Gallup and other such surveys, ‘scientific surveys’ (Harris, Letter, viii, 93. He refers to such surveys frequently, e.g. Letter, viii, x; End of Faith, 17). He —quite rightly in my view— has a broad definition of ‘science’ which is about honest inquiry, knowledge, finding the facts through the appropriate means, and when it comes to people, such surveys are part of the way we honestly gather the facts about human life, ie ‘science’. (re-read post above!).

    As to education and health care, now I don’t understand your point. Are you saying that because something existed prior to another version of it, it is truer?? In this case it would be extremely important to avoid anachronism, I would think.

  22. Peter Bolt,

    Harris writes:
    “According to Gallup, 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe (Harris, End of Faith, 17)”
    Harris claims that Gallup provides the opinion of the people (=science)

    You wrote:
    “I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to the effect that people have prayed and received positive answers”
    You claim that the survey provided the opinion of the people (=science) and their opinion can be used to find the truth (=not science)

    I’m sorry if you don’t see the difference.

    RE health care: All I meant that Christians were late at the scene and Stark is wrong. That’s all.

    Thanks for this discussion.

  23. Peter T.,

    I certainly get the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’. The tricky thing when it comes to establishing truth about persons is that it becomes difficult to disentangle. The use of ‘scientific surveys’ has become usual and, despite that they uncover ‘opinion’, with proper analysis and interpretation, they are generally taken to elicit some kind of ‘knowledge’ nevertheless.

    Thank you, too, for the discussion.

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