For the past week or so, I have been engaged in an interesting, but increasingly annoying, exchange with one Chad Tonka. This fellow has the appeal of a higher level of discourse than one usually finds in the blogosphere, yet he is taking it to a rather opposite extreme.
In his efforts to avoid the question of the humanity of the embryo, Mr. Tonka, who presumes a first-name basis, has insisted we veer off into a long side trip on the merits of the scholastic philosophical approach, etc. He has raised some interesting questions, and provided some insights into the narrow minds of secularists. However, a combox discussion is not suited to the complex issues he is raising, and I have decided to create some separate posts to tackle some of these issues.
One of the things that is most disingenuous about scientific atheism is the claim of being “rational.” “Big ‘S'” Scientists have inappropriately co-opted to themselves a great deal of terminology, depriving it of its original meaning. Properly speaking, the natural sciences do not require a great deal of “reason”: perhaps “rationality” in the sense of “pertaining to ratios.” The level of reasoning applied in science does not rise much above mathematics: science is about observing and quantifying phenomena. Done properly, science only involves the most simple conclusions derived from the evidence.
The problem with “scientific” Atheism is that it claims to be “science” that which is properly philosophy. For example, Darwinism. Whether or not evolution actually occurs is a scientific question. *Why* evolution occurs is a necessarily philosophical question. Atheists claim that the scientific evidence that points to evolution somehow necessitates an interpretation of that evidence that says a) it disproves the Bible and b) it proves that the unvierse is “random.” Neither of these is a necessary conclusion from the scientific evidence. Intelligent Design proponents try to make this claim, and are dismissed as “unscientific.”
The problem Christians have with “Scientists” (again, big “S”) is not the science: it is that they engage in a great deal of conjecture and speculation, loosely based upon the scientific evidence but revealing more about their own biases than anything else. Meanwhile, they demand we offer evidence of the historical truth of the Bible, and find convenient excuses to dismiss any evidence we present. We can find a mountain that matches the description of Mt. Sinai in the Bible, both by geographic location and by certain key details, and they’ll say it’s “random” or claim that we could find any number of mountanis like that, or that doesn’t prove Moses was at that mountain. They find a dinosaur with a similar skull to a duck and tell us it’s proof of evolution, and we’re supposed to accept it because they have Ph.D.’s.
The other term that science has co-opted, somewhat rightly, is empiricism. Empiricism is the approach to epistemology that emphasizes what we can observe. The school known as “British Empiricists” ran the gamut from very scientific thinkers to George Berkeley (for whom Berkeley, CA is named), who said that everything we observe is just in our minds, and that everything is ideas.
But they all based their ideas more on what is observed than on extrapolation from their observations.
Now, science has an epistemology of its own, the scientific method. That’s great . It’s a great way to learn the kinds of truths about nature that scientists study. In some ways, the scientific method can be extrapolated to other fields. The practical form of Pascal’s Wager, as embodied in the case of Fr. Alphonse Ratisbonne, is a kind of scientific method: “Wear this miraculous medal for 30 days and see if anything happens.” Interestingly, scientists insist that claims of divine activity are not scientifically provable, because they are not subject to experimentation. This has three flaws. First, there *have* been scientific studies indicating the effectiveness of prayer (proving that patients who are being prayed for, and don’t know it, are more likely to recover than patients who are not being prayed for, and don’t know it). There are also ways to prove miracles by lack of scientific explanation–the methods the Church employs in ratifying a saint’s cause or an alleged apparition. Thirdly, miracles are precisely *not* the work of natural laws; miracles are the work of an intelligent God. God is not a vending machine. If you could set up a proper experiment and test the verifiability of a miracle, then it would not be a miracle, but a previously undiscovered scientific phenomenon (like, maybe the miracle spring is drawing from some undiscovered opiate).
God would not be an intelligent being if He merely responded to stimuli, like a Pavlovian dog.
All of that said, empricism means that which we *observe*. It does not exclusively mean “That which we observe by scientific method.” This is particularly true in the case of history.
We take most things in life on faith, not empiricism. We trust other human beings to tell us the truth, particularly if they present us with plausible reason to believe them (such as a Ph.D. or evidence or a generally truthful manner). So, for example, I have never been to China. I take it on faith that all the witnesses who tell me China exists are both honest and not mistaken.
Yes, in theory, I could travel to China myself to verify its existence, but I do not feel the need to do that. Nor do I expect I ever will do so.
However, th eatheist would still contend that China is a verifiable proposition.
But is the Ming Dynasty a verifiable proposition? Barring the invention of time travel? There is no way for me to verify that any given historical event happened.
We can read primary sources. We can accept that those primary sources are more or less accurate. We can find the very scant archaeological evidence to support what the primary sources tell us. But it is really interesting how selective atheists are regarding their “evidence.” For example, I’ve read in so many “modern” Scripture textbooks how we know Jesus exists because “Josephus” confirms it. The passage in Josephus is something like, “Christians worship a man named Christ who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Josephus doesn’t really talk about Christ directly; he only verifies the existence of Christians.
But that is taken, by atheists, as being a more reliable text than the Gospels themselves in terms of verifying that there really was a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified in Rome. Does anyone have similar doubts about the mere existence of Socrates? I know they doubt whether Plato accurately depicted Socrates’ personality and/or views, but I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that the historical figure Socrates existed. Yet many people entertain doubts that Jesus Christ historically existed at all. If Christians engage in such doubt-for-the-sake-of-doubt, such as when they challenge the evidence for Evolution, they’re accused of being uneducated and anti-intellectual. Yet if atheists engage in it regarding the Bible, they’re “healthy skeptics”.
History is based upon people writing down the events they witness *empirically*.
They write down the events, and we decide whether we think their accounts are reliable. The Bible is just as much an historical record as the works of Thucidydes or Herodotus or Josephus or Tacitus. The Bible at least deserves that much credit. Indeed, since the Bible is actually a collectoin of historical documents, offering different accounts of the same events, events that were safely guarded in a people’s oral tradition, it should be considered a more reliable document than these other histories that were written by individuals.
Plus, modern scholars tend to be very dismissive of the ancients. We neglect how important oral traditions were to ancient societies (even while anthropologists put a great deal of emphasis on the oral traditions of contemporary oral cultures). We also ignore how meticulous they *were* about keeping historical records. Genealogy, for example, was crucial to these cultures.
So the Bible constitutes *empirical* evidence: it is a record of the events that these historians, or the witnesses they interviewed, observed. Or a record of what someone observed and passed down by careful oral tradition until it was written.
It is not *scientific* evidence, in that it does not fall under scientific method, but, then, no historical event is really capable of being evaluated by that standard.