It comes down to this…

Lately, I’ve been involved in some great discussions (one, two) with limejelly. <tangent>what makes for great discussion? For one, avoiding the use of straw men, i.e. taking the care to address someone’s actual positions and statements — a sure sign of actually wanting to communicate, rather than just wanting to make a point (or score some points). For two (speaking of points), trying to stick to the point, or some point anyways, because you can never get anywhere if you keep shooting off on tangents!</tangent>

In the course of things, the discussion wandered over to Forester‘s Pardon Me for Thinking discussion pages. It all gets very nonlinear and hard to follow, but at one point, the following statement was made:

Maybe this is a crucial difference between a religious outlook and a scientific outlook.

Now I am a big fan of reducing disagreements to crucial differences — pulling back the discussion to its lowest common denominator. For discussion to be meaningful, there has to be a common understanding of terminology (or people end up talking past each other). For discussion to be productive, it has to be at the cusp of where agreement divides into disagreement (discussion where two people are too deep in agreement is just preaching to the choir, and discussion at levels above where the root disagreement is cannot address the root disagreement).

So you can follow the link to see what limejelly was considering to be a crucial difference between a religious outlook and a scientific outlook, but I’d like to frame the crucial difference in another way.

Following my guidelines above, allow me to use the simplified terms “Religion” and “Science” to unfairly and inaccurately divide the world into two neat groups: those that believe in God, and those that don’t. So here’s the crucial difference between the two outlooks:

Religion wants to explain WHY, and Science wants to explain HOW.

Now everybody, Religion or Science, whether or not they want to admit it or even think about it very hard, is faced with the question of WHAT we should do. And though HOW is helpful in determining WHAT we can do (and of course HOW it can be done), ultimately a WHY is needed to justify doing one thing vs. another.

This is why WHY is the more important question to answer, and unfortunately Science is impotent in the realm of WHY (I claim that WHY is the archetype of what Science cannot answer). And I think that, in denial of the existence of God, or any governing metaphysical principles that might serve to define GOOD or PURPOSE, Science considers (is grudgingly forced to believe, against intuition) that the question of WHY is irrelevant (thus “copping-out” in much the same way that Science sees a “cop-out” here).

And this is the cause of the symptom which limejelly sees as the crucial difference, which is that Science keeps questioning, but at some point Religion “throws up its hands”. Science keeps questioning HOW because, according to its worldview, there’s nothing else to do. Religion isn’t saying give up. I say question all you want, but understand that

  • Science cannot answer any WHY
  • Science cannot even answer every HOW
  • Science probably cannot even determine exactly how much of HOW it can answer, so there is indeed merit to reaching the boundary empirically (by continually probing)
  • But in the end you need to spend some time and energy thinking about WHY.

18 Responses

  1. I disagree that how or why are helpful divisors – as a scientist, there is a level of abstraction at which I ask “why is there heat here”, which will be answered with some form of reason to do with a radiator, or an angry person, or a cheap publishing company. How the heat arises is important, but how can you serve God? It may not be possible to capture the difference in our goals with a small number of words. My goal is to fund understanding of things that I don’t understand in terms of all the good old wh- roots.

    My impression is that you want to serve God. Do you think I understand this?

  2. Woah, in which Jelly fails to start with a polite hello! Sorry about that – I’ve so much momentum from our discussions that I’m forgetting we’ll be getting third party interest here.

    RubeRad and I are stout pals. I love him like a brother. But I utterly disagree with him on some fundamental things which we both think are important. Hence the ongoing multithreaded discussions and arguments in three (so far) places.

  3. I think you missed my point; the words "how" and "why" can and are used by both camps, but to illustrate my division more clearly, I would recast your question&answers from "why is there heat here" to "HOW did heat get here", which Science can probably well address, but "WHY is there heat here" is related to "why is there heat", which eventually bubbles down to "why is there anything", which is related to "why is there me? what am I supposed to do with my life?"

    Science is (and must be) exclusively focused on explanation of the world, as opposed to purpose; but it does not have to go to the length of denying Religion its space to address the WHYs, as some insist that the WHYs are not worth asking, since (in their HOWish understanding) such answers and even questions themselves are meaningless. (Contrariwise, some elements of Religion have gone overboard in claiming that any empirical/sense-dependent knowledge is intrinsically worthless)

    And I must say that your lack of polite hello is nothing compared to the (loving) trash talk I engage in with some other friends around here; your English Charm is always welcome!

    PS. HOW does a cheap publishing company cause heat? Did they not pay for proper fire-prevention in their warehouse?

  4. Nah, just chiselling. I reckon that "what am I supposed to do with my life" is the point, old bean.

    I accept that there is no fundamental purpose, except what we make up for ourselves. This means it can get a bit lonely when things aren't going well for a lot of people. Religion fills the void for the individual, and – through enthusiasm or dependency – for groups. As I've said before, the only reason I rail against this is that it means that significant fractions of the population stop trying to work stuff out which could help people have better lives.

    I think that it's not the belief that I object to, but its impact on mankind's progress. It may bethat we have an example in the Forester of someone swayed into religion-based denial of scientific explanatory endeavour, but who has come to understand more just recently. I hope he will come to understand the situation in a similar manner to the way you do. I don't imagine he wants to take my view.

    If we could have religion without the spreading into heresy and blasphemy and convoluted rules, it would be fine. Even if we could get everyone who insists on being religious to think more like RubeRad for some period, the nonsense would blossom at some point.

    Am I a missionary?

    (Heat is a magazine over here that caters for the stereotypical daytime TV audience)

  5. Please allow me to remonstrate against my being indirectly identified as a member of the “significant fraction”!

    I’m a bit uncomfortable with Reuben’s suggestion that Religion “throws up his hands” because it suggests that in the face of all mysteries the religious throw up their hands. They shouldn’t. God almost always works through secondary causes, and in Genesis chapter 1 He has commanded us to understand those causes. That includes seeking scientific explanations for what might be considered demon possession, or conducting medical studies on the efficacy of prayer on heart surgery patients (did it occur to anyone that God sometimes answers prayer in the negative? He’s not a drive-through window …). We should probe and investigate. We need to understand the world and all that is in it. The only exception I would make is in cases of unethical human experimentation, and potentially unethical animal abuses as well.

    If we stop too quickly at “demon possession” or “prayer did it”, we may miss some natural explanation that God expects us to master. I’m not saying demon possession and miraculous answers to prayer don’t occur — sometimes they do. But spiritual matters are invisible, as the Bible acknowledges: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

    That’s why it’d be irresponsible of us not to poke and prod to distinguish between events that have visible causes, and those that may have invisible. Doing so may eventually cause more and more events to be labeled as visible, yielding tools (surgical procedures for epilepsy and heart problems) that cause mercy and blessings to be spread all the more prevalently.

    Contrary to the direction our current discussions have taken, I’m a big fan of science. Many of my blog posts make references to scientific studies of animal behavior, brain function, human psychology, etc. I consider these gems to be life-enriching, and am grateful to the many scientists who devote long boring lab hours to crack open such mysteries. God bless ’em all! (I learned from college that a lab is not for me.)

    My sole issue is over evolutionary theory, which I hold doesn’t have the predictive power its adherents claim (how hard is it to guess that God would create a bird with a long beak to match a long flower?), nor does it necessarily drive observations that could be motivated otherwise (mice used for medical experiments because their genes are so close to humans). I would prefer to see evolutionary theory explored and discussed as more of a forensic science — a distinction that you (limejelly) haven’t disagreed with.

  6. Actually, I should clarify and say that my issue concerns any scientific origin theories, as the past is neither reproducible nor observable. This would include the Big Bang theory (which is under fire here) and geological timeframes, which in general I don’t dispute but over which I suspend final judgment, as anything created ex nihilo would by definition have an appearance of age.

    I hesitate to cite this article as it comes from a source that will not be respected. But as it counters an assertion Reuben made somewhere concerning whether or not God would fool us by concocting a universe that appears older than it actually is, it might prove an interesting read: The Parable of the Candle.

  7. Is it ok if I just watch what happens between R and the F on this one for a couple of posts? You have a right to expect me to explain myself, but I think R can take care of some of these points.

  8. Limejelly, due to extreme distance, I can't actually force you to sit at the keyboard and respond to anything, so let's just say feel free to take a break whenever your life requires it. But I'm not going to let you off scot-free. I challenge you, awaiting your eventual response, thusly:

    significant fractions of the population stop trying to work stuff out which could help people have better lives.

    By denying God and Religion, your worldview causes a significant fraction of the population to stop trying to work stuff out which could help people have better lives. The HOWs of science have limited ability to improve peoples' lives if there is no understanding of what is necessary to acheive fulfillment. As a matter of fact, I would like to switch from the term "happy" to "fulfilled" (although you might not, because the term implies a purpose to be satisfied).

    If we could have religion without the spreading into heresy and blasphemy and convoluted rules, it would be fine. Even if we could get everyone who insists on being religious to think more like RubeRad for some period, the nonsense would blossom at some point.

    You raise some good points, although probably you mean them backwards from the way I do (you want to eliminate the concepts of heresy and blasphemy, whereas I am more interested in eliminating actual heresy and blasphemy). And even if you could enforce initial conditions of your choosing on the Religious population, no amount of education/good will can hold it together. If that disappoints you, just imagine how God feels! And BTW, this is exactly analogous to my points elsewhere about how original sin doomed Communism from the start.

  9. That’s fine, but I hope the bulk of what I said on the usefulness of science isn’t taken as a criticism of Reuben’s “throw up hands” comment. I was only trying to demonstrate the great value I see in the sciences. I’m not (nor are other creationists, to my knowledge) out to degrade the benefits and wonders that science can bring us.

  10. Now for Forester:

    Reuben’s suggestion that Religion “throws up his hands”

    I was quoting limejelly there, although I do admit that earlier in that same thread I uncomfortably juxtaposed "cop-out" and God's nature as the eternal, uncaused cause.

    anything created ex nihilo would by definition have an appearance of age.

    I don't understand that definition of ex nihilo. And the standard short-earth scientist approach certainly doesn't seem to think this way, as there are plenty of attempts to prove that apparent measurements of extreme universal age were actually mismeasured, and thus a proper measurement would reveal the true short duration since creation. Radio-carbon dating is a favorite line of attack, and see also this link I just found yesterday. Basically, however, I still contend that either

    • It is not in God's nature to fool us, so apparent age is real age (up to our ability to measure what is apparent)
    • If He did want to fool us by creating the universe with apparent age,
      • We wouldn't be able to outwit him by uncovering short-earth evidence that he neglected to cover-up
      • We should probably be content to let ourselves be fooled!

    The unnerving possibility remains, that by giving us Biblical truth about creation with one hand, and fooling us with apparent age on the other hand, God is testing our faith in special revelation over natural revelation. That is, unless the proper interpretation of the Biblical creation account meshes with the apparent age of the universe.

    The Candle Parable is cute — a nice illustration of using the Bible for what it is intended. Although I am trying to figure out whether the names were chosen to have symbolic meaning: M, C, L; Messiah, CHRIStian, Laughablymisguidedscientist?

  11. I’m glad you enjoyed the Candle Parable. I gather you don’t generally agree with the point — rather than God fooling us about the age of the universe, we might be fooling ourselves, making physical measurements under the assumption that things have always been the way they are now.

    If God made a man in one day, a physician might calculate him to have an age of 18 or 25 or 40 or however old he appeared, when instead he was only a few hours old. Making the calculation itself isn’t the problem (indeed, I find geological studies interesting) — it’s the assumption that the calculation can authoritatively determine what happened in the unobservable past. Perhaps science wouldn’t even be able to detect the traces of such a supernatural event, which admittedly throws this into the realm of tautology (I maintain that ultimately this is a battle of opposing tautologies).

    Limejelly, itchythumbs, I suspect you’ll have a field day with that. And thus I retreat back to the acknowledgement that I have little to question concerning geological origins (you’ll notice none of my PMFT questions address geology), but prefer instead to suspend final judgment.

  12. So we both think that the other’s approach will make “significant fractions of the population stop trying to work stuff out which could help people have better lives.” I need to think about that.

    There’s no central definition of how I think people should live their lives. That’s a weakness for a significant fraction of the population – no question there.

  13. […] Maybe what it really all comes down to is an understanding of consciousness. If you can convince yourself that consciousness is merely a biochemical illusion (as limejelly), then it is a short logical jump to nihilsim: I don’t believe there is a universal good, except insofar as we define one. … I also reject the idea that life itself has meaning per se. My life has no absolute meaning. … There is no fundamental point in my existing. I just am. … In my hello world post I stated that I believe that the only point to anything is to enjoy yourself, and that everything spins out from that. [from this thread] […]

  14. […] I think ‘Presuppositional Apologetics‘ is an awful name. It is supposed to mean defense of Christianity at the worldview level — pitting assumptions (presuppositions) against assumptions — rather than at an empirical level (did Jesus resurrect? Is the world X thousand years old?). […]

  15. Rube,

    I see your FULL name in these comments.


  16. Hmmm, a search revealed that those that are conspiring to reveal my secret identity have done that in 21 comments sprinkled all over the site (including one by yourself!)

    I think my self-deceiving illusion of anonymity is slowly crumbling. Maybe by some time next year, I may be ready to reproduce this entire blog with actual names at (which domain my Dad, brother, and I have not yet coordinated to acquire).

    What can I do? My adoring fans will not be denied!

  17. […] Today I stumbled across an interesting article with the intriguing title “The JFK Assassination and Apologetics,” which suggests the answer is worldview. Arguing facts will get us nowhere; going deeper to uncover and argue the presuppositions that form each of our worldviews (the medium through which facts take on meaning) is the only way. So we’re on the right track! […]

  18. […] be played out in the arena of “Why should we do this instead of that?”) And note that (as I argue elsewhere), this is exactly the kind of why question that science (and atheism) is impotent to address. If […]

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