Saturday, April 05, 2008

Described, Not Explained

(Cross-posted from "More Than Words").

According to the "New Atheists", the goal of science is to provide an explanation for reality without recourse to the supernatural. Any need for a religious explanation for anything is thus removed, and the old superstitions fall to the ground, outmoded and obsolete.

Well, how are they doing? To hear some of them speak, you'd think that the goal was almost reached. Look at the progress made since the scientific revolution began, they say: we now know so much!

The real answer, though, is "absolutely zero". Science has made tremendous strides forward; but in terms of providing ammunition for atheism, the cupboard's still empty. How come?

Let's taken the law of gravity as an example. This is a case of Newton's second "law" (which we now know isn't really a law at all, but this is just for illustrative purposes). It tells us what we can expect to happen when an object goes up: it comes down again. In more technical terms, there is a force exerted on it by the immense mass of the earth, which causes it to accelerate back to the earth again. It's an inverse square law: the acceleration increases in proportion with the inverse of the distance between the object and the earth multiplied by itself.

What Newton has helped us to do there is to describe the motion of a falling body. What has this, though, to do with the atheist goal? Description is not explanation. To say that the object falls because of Newton's law is precisely the wrong way round. Newton's formula is an attempt to describe, the predictable and repeatable phenomena of gravity. It tells us nothing, though, about the fundamental questions of explanation, such as:Just why does gravity obey an inverse square law? Why not an inverse cube law? Or a linear square law? What exactly gives rise to this force which Newton observed? Where does it come from, and what's driving it? Objects do not fall because Newton's law tells them to; Newton's law is the after-the-fact description of what just happened, not the theory that tells us how it could have happened.

When Newton originally proposed his law, it was opposed for philosophical reasons - it posited an "occult" force which managed to act at a distance. Somehow, the object thrown up has knowledge about the earth and how far away it is at any one particular moment, through some kind of magical instantaneous communication. In fact it seemed to strongly imply that materialist atheism couldn't be true - because materialism cannot account for instantaneous immaterial communication.

Deists from Newton's day and onwards took his law to imply that the universe was a gigantic machine. They supposed that there was no need for God, because it implied that once started (which they allowed God to do), the universe just carried on according to a fixed set of rules. This was another colossal philosophical error, because as explained above it made the description into an explanation. You might observe that Mrs. Anderson lives in the same house as me. Good spot. That's not why she's my wife though, or how she came to be my wife. It's merely an observation of one of our marriage's consequences.

The area in which atheism needs to make advances is in explanation, particularly of origins. That means things like the following:
  • What is the cause of the "laws" by which we describe physical reality?

  • Why do those laws exist in just the form that they do, and not another?

  • How do those laws (e.g. gravity, magnetism) manage to operate at a distance, instantaneously and without material communication?

  • Why is it that these laws take such elegant mathematical forms? Elegant mathematics is intimately connected with minds - we have minds which understand this elegance; how did it arise in nature if not by a mind?

  • How did life originate? What about self-consciousness? What is the origin of the vast quantities of biological information, co-ordinated with itself at multiple levels?

  • Why do time, space and matter even exist in the first place? Where have they come from?
On the real questions which atheists need to give a naturalistic scientific answer to in order to argue that science is slowly but surely abolishing the credibility of the supernatural, the score so far is a big fat zero. Atheists who are perverting science to advance their cause are involved in a bait-and-switch. They lead us to marvel at all that science has described; and then they pull the wool over our eyes by implying that these are the same things as science has explained. Don't be fooled.

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