Bring Me An Angel Detector!

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.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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15 responses to “Bring Me An Angel Detector!

  1. ohioobserver

    Terrific. This essay ought to be the introduction to every science textbook in the land (and maybe every theology textbook,too). A very concise statement of what science is and is not (and I teach it for a living).

  2. Thanks, ohioobserver. It’s just another part of the Curmudgeonly service.

  3. Angel Fossils?

    Curmy, you’re giving me Simpsons flashbacks!

  4. I never watched the Simpsons. They had angel fossils?

  5. Gabriel Hanna

    It’s called “Lisa the Skeptic”. That was a fantastic episode. Lisa tried to explain the angel fossil away by saying it was a neanderthal who had been bitten on both arms simultaneously by very large fish, giving the illusion of wings. She asked Steven Jay Gould to analyze the fossil, and when she said she couldn’t pay him, he said “I’m sure whatever little money you have will be enough.”

    It’s a good one. William Dembski has a favorable review here, though humor-challenged and laden with spoilers.

  6. Gabriel Hanna says:

    It’s a good one. William Dembski has a favorable review here, though humor-challenged and laden with spoilers.
    An Analysis of Homer Simpson and Stephen Jay Gould

    Thanks, Gabe. A good read, even though it’s by Dembski.

  7. “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.”

    Exactly! This is why the DI is such bunk– because they DO know the difference, but lie anyway.

  8. The Curmudgeon demands

    Give us an angel detector. Better yet, bring us an actual angel.

    No! Find your own!! Olivia is MINE!!!

  9. Great Claw fantasizes: “Olivia is MINE!!!”

    Yes, Your Excellency. And if I may add, the Russian campaign was brilliant. France is ever so much better now that you’ve become Emperor.

  10. retiredsciguy

    Curmy, I concur with ohioobserver, above. This is one of your finest essays. And ohioobserver, I hope you will continue to join the discussion. I think you’ll find the essays and comments well worth your time. (This is written under the assumption you’re relatively new to the blog, since I don’t recall seeing your posts.)

    My science teaching career was also in Ohio. The more teachers here, the merrier!

  11. Thanks, retiredsciguy. By holding the door open to theology, I’m cleverly angling for a Templeton prize.

  12. Gabriel Hanna

    SC, the reason Gould didn’t perform the test is because Lisa never gave him any money–I don’t know why Dembski left that out, or why Dembski can’t comprehend why Gould would participate in a joke at his expense.

    If you don’t watch the Simpsons you really ought to start.

  13. Gabriel Hanna says:

    If you don’t watch the Simpsons you really ought to start.

    They’re yellow!

  14. Except there are scientists who *do* study supernatural things. The field of “parapsychology,” dating back to the days of bewhiskered savants testing mediums, and stretching even until the days of Uri Geller. Looking through 1940s-era popular science and science-fiction magazines, I’m struck by how the lay public (at least that part of it paying attention to such things) was then convinced J. B. Rhine had demonstrated the existence of ESP in the laboratory. (Haven’t heard much about that lately…) So there’s been some fringe scientific interest in things that go bump in the night for over a century, and some otherwise educated scientists have even been taken in by mountebanks. Besides personal interest on the part of an individual worker, there’s always the chance of hitting on something major, overlooked by more respectable or conventional scientists. that would write the discoverer’s name in the history of science in letters of fire.

    So it isn’t that Big Science has been a monolithic conspiracy determined to rule out any and all possibility of the supernatural. For over a hundred years, a few scientists on the outskirts really have been investigating the possibility of the supernatural. Whatever their individual faults or foolishnesses, if they had found robust evidence, they would have been capable enough to do something with it, such as bringing it to the attention of more competent or better-funded scientists. But it seems indicative of something that after more than a century there is still no solid evidence of anything of the sort and all the hot investigations and discoveries of yesteryear have faded into nothing. Like there’s no “there” there.

  15. retiredsciguy

    Angels are made of neutrinos and dark matter, and they are powered by dark energy.

    The universe is expanding because there are more and more angels going to (the) heaven(s) all the time.

    It could happen.