Creationists are forever wailing that science is unfairly biased against them because it refuses to consider their supernatural beliefs. Typical of their attitude toward science is the Discoveroids’ wedge document, which says:
Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. … [T]he Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.
The wedge document literally equates the scientific method with the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism. That philosophy asserts that nothing exists except matter and energy — things which can be detected by natural means. It assumes that everything can be explained by natural causes, as no other causes exist. The philosophy of materialism is inherently atheistic, because it assumes that supernatural phenomena — gods, devils, angels, etc. — being physically undetectable, are therefore nonexistent.
The creationists — through ignorance or artifice — equate that philosophical materialism with something very different — methodological materialism. The latter is a procedure (not a philosophy) which is inherent in the scientific method.
To be a competent scientist, no philosophical materialism is necessary, and many — perhaps most — do quite nicely without it. A scientist may even believe that a multitude of spirits inhabit this world, but being imperceptible, they are outside the scope of his professional work. For the same reason, no scientist can embark on a scientific exploration of the anatomy of angels’ wings, because there are no observable or detectable data to be examined, measured, tested, etc. This is a consequence of methodological materialism — the process of science. It says nothing at all about the existence of spiritual matters, only their inability to be scientifically studied. Methodological materialism is an operational constraint of science, not a philosophical attack on theism.
Unlike theology — the role of which is boundless — science is inherently limited by scientists’ ability to make reliable observations. The scientific method, a very recent and supremely valuable intellectual accomplishment, lacks the capacity to work with things that can’t be detected, measured, tested, etc. Because the spirit world offers no verifiable evidence of a scientific nature, there can’t be any scientific theories based upon spiritual matters. This dependence on evidence isn’t a problem of science, it’s literally the essence of science.
No scientist is philosophically required to reject the existence of gods and angels, but because there’s no way, at present, to verifiably observe those supernatural entities, or objectively test their influences on the natural world, there is no scientific work that can be done with such things. If, however, spiritual phenomena were capable of being detected, they would be eagerly studied by science.
With each new scientific instrument that is developed, science can expand its observations and our knowledge of the universe. You know the instruments we mean: the optical (and later the radio) telescope, the optical microscope, the electron microscope, the Geiger counter (and other particle detectors), etc. These have enabled us to reliably detect the very distant, very large, very small, and even invisible phenomena of which we were previously ignorant. That ignorance was due to the limitations of our biological senses — which evolved to be adequate for survival and reproduction, and very little else. Is there still more to be seen? Probably, but until we have better instruments, we won’t know.
To summarize up to this point, the trade-craft of science doesn’t arbitrarily rule out the existence of supernatural entities, ab initio. But its procedures limit the kind of work that scientists can do. That is, scientists — when doing science — can only work with objectively verifiable evidence. The rest is the work of theology.
Yet theologians say: “There is more than the visible cosmos! Much more!” That may very well be true, but until someone invents an angel detector, no one can scientifically study the supernatural side of things. The creationists’ demand that science should change its methods to include things for which no verifiable evidence exists is a demand that science should cease to be science. That cannot be done.
The scientific method is one of the most essential pillars upon which our civilization rests, and it’s one of the greatest intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment. If we lose that we’re back in the Dark Ages. Thus, the misguided assault on “scientific materialism” is of incalculable importance.
That being understood, the limits on science aren’t a locked door for theologians. Science offers theology an opportunity: Give us an angel detector. Better yet, bring us an actual angel. Alive if possible, but we’ll accept whatever evidence you can provide — perhaps a fossil.
Let us study the way the wings are constructed, how they’re attached to the torso, how they provide the necessary lift. Let us examine the angelic DNA — assuming angels have DNA, which they may not. These investigations will be speedily undertaken, and the results will be published for all to see. No one is interested in hiding the evidence — indeed, we welcome it, and the opportunity to acquire knowledge. We have nothing to fear and much to gain.
But we need evidence to work with. So if the theologians will provide the necessary observational instrument — an angel detector, we’ll get right to work. Failing that, they can give us an angel’s fossil. Whatever evidence they may have, bring it on. The door is always open.
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