Creationist Wisdom #636: Science and Mysticism

Today’s letter-to-the-editor appears in the Visalia Times-Delta of Visalia, California. It’s titled I’ve had enough of ‘scientism’. The newspaper has a comments feature.

Unless the letter-writer is a politician, preacher, or other public figure, we won’t embarrass or promote him by using his full name. But this time we’ve got a preacher — Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Excerpts from the rev’s letter will be enhanced with our Curmudgeonly commentary and some bold font for emphasis. Here we go!

For the past several years, starting long before I was appointed auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, I’ve been posting short commentaries on YouTube. … I’ve given special attention to New Atheism, a social and political movement that began in the early years of this century that promotes the view that religion should be actively countered. Among other videos, I’ve published three answers to Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” a brief presentation of some classical arguments for God’s existence, and a rejoinder to Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous.”

That’s nice, but not particularly interesting. Then the rev says:

I’ve received countless responses to these videos, mostly negative. Setting aside the venomous and emotion-driven comments, I’ve been able to discern a few patterns.

Ah, now it gets interesting:

Many respondents display what I call “scientism,” the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe. In reaction to my attempts to demonstrate that God must exist as the necessary precursor to the radically contingent universe, respondent after respondent says some version of this: Energy, or matter, or the Big Bang, is the ultimate cause of all things. When I counter that the Big Bang itself demonstrates that the universe in its totality is contingent and hence in need of a cause extraneous to itself, they think I’m just talking nonsense.

The rev seems to be an advocate of Cosmological argument, a variation of Aristotle’s Unmoved mover. Let’s read on:

The obvious success of the physical sciences, evident in the technology that surrounds us and facilitates our lives in so many ways, has convinced many of our young people (the vast majority of those who watch YouTube are young) that anything outside the range of the empirical and measurable is simply a fantasy, the stuff of superstition. That there might be a dimension of reality knowable in a nonscientific but still rational manner never occurs to them. In their scientism, they are blind to literature, philosophy, metaphysics, mysticism and religion.

Perhaps you too, dear reader, are blind to scientific value of metaphysics, mysticism and religion. The rev continues:

Another recurring theme on my YouTube forums is the disturbing assumption that science and Christianity are, by their natures, implacable enemies. Again and again, my interlocutors resurrect the story of Galileo to prove that the church has always sided with obscurantism and naive biblical literalism over and against the sciences.

[…]

But this myth is so much nonsense. [Aaaargh!!] Leaving aside the complexities of the Galileo story, we can see that the vast majority of the founding figures of modern science – Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Tycho Brahe – were devoutly religious. More to the point, two of the most important physicists of the 19th century – Faraday and Maxwell – were extremely pious, and the formulator of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaitre, was a priest.

Isn’t it odd that it required over fifteen centuries for a society dominated by the rev’s religion to generate modern science? Perhaps it’s because the discoveries of the people he names — including Galileo — aren’t found anywhere in scripture. Here’s more:

It is no accident that modern science first appeared in Christian Europe, where a doctrine of creation held sway. To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science: namely, that the universe is not divine and that it is intelligible.

Did you understand that? Neither did we. Moving along:

If the world or nature were considered divine (as it is in many philosophies and mysticisms), then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it or perform experiments on it. But a created world, by definition, is other than God and, in that very otherness, open to inquiry.

Our confusion wasn’t helped by that. Another excerpt:

Similarly, if the world were considered unintelligible, no science would get off the ground, because all science is based on the presumption that nature can be known. But the world, Christians agree, is thoroughly intelligible, and hence scientists have the confidence to seek, explore and experiment.

The rev isn’t describing Ken Ham’s universe. Yet he claims to be an advocate of mysticism and religion, so what universe is he talking about? His letter concludes with this:

This is why thoughtful people – Christians and atheists alike – must battle the myth of the eternal warfare of science and religion. We must continually preach, as St. John Paul II did, that faith and reason are complementary and compatible paths toward the knowledge of truth.

We’re as pleased as the rev that his church has finally embraced Galileo — something they should have done from the beginning — but we still find his letter beyond our comprehension. Perhaps you, dear reader, can clarify things for us.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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20 responses to “Creationist Wisdom #636: Science and Mysticism

  1. > “Leaving aside the complexities of the
    > Galileo story”
    —————
    There’s nothing complex about it, you liar. Religion, especially including the Catholic Church, hates science & scientific progress & scientific discoveries, both now and in the past. You can’t deny this fact by glossing over fictitious “complexities” of the Galileo story. I’ve heard on modern Catholic radio that what the Catholic Church did to Galileo so long ago was justified. I find that interesting, because all Catholics, including those who make radio shows, are required to believe and accept what their head-honcho (“pope”) says. The church has apologized for what it did to Galileo, which is an explicit admission that they were wrong. And at the same time, many Catholics are saying that they weren’t wrong. Yeah. Right.

  2. In essence BLAH! BLAH! BLAH! I’m right cuz gawd!!!! And the fact that religion has produced NOTHING of any importance is to be ignored.

  3. I think one would be hard pressed to find Bible passages that encourages anything like scientific examination of the natural world because it should be “intelligible” as Yahweh’s creation. Rather we are told that the wonder-working power of the deity (as supposedly perceived in nature) is so mind-blowingly awesome that we can’t really hope to understand much of anything, and that we should just give up and stand there drooling in religious awe.

    Job 26:12-14: “By his power he churned up the sea (…) By his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent. And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”

  4. Bishop Barron writes:

    “When I counter that the Big Bang itself demonstrates that the universe in its totality is contingent and hence in need of a cause extraneous to itself, they think I’m just talking nonsense.”

    Bishop, you are talking nonsense. Specifically, you are committing the conjunction fallacy. Anyone concluding that any form of the cosmological argument demands recourse to supernatural agency is committing this fallacy.

    For those unfamiliar with the conjunction fallacy, here is the most often cited example:

    Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

    Which is more probable?

    A) Linda is a bank teller.
    B) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

    Source

    Most people say that (B) is the answer. However, (B) is wrong. The “conjunction” of two possibilities is always less than a singular occurrence of either.

    The cosmological argument plugged into this:

    The universe exists. Therefore, which is more probable?

    1) It has a cause.
    2) It has a cause that is a god which has attributes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J,…

    Theistic conclusions from cosmological arguments are severely fallacious under this principle because they ask us to assign not just one extra characteristic but many.

    This seems to go unnoticed by proponents of the argument. Wintery Knight on his blog is a particularly egregious proponent of such fallacious thinking; he goes so far as to basically say Big Bang Cosmology PROVES there has to be a god. Nonsense. Stupid nonsense.

  5. michaelfugate

    This op-ed appeared in the LA Times on Thursday with now an extensive comments section.

    I would suggest Barron read Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?.
    I think everyone should stop using Galileo as an example of anything and concentrate on what is happening today. Barron fails to mention that many of his fellow Christians have a conflict with mainstream science and, as we have seen with people like Ham, think that the Bible is a science book.

  6. James St. John says: “I’ve heard on modern Catholic radio that what the Catholic Church did to Galileo so long ago was justified.”

    I’ve heard that their “justification” was that they were being challenged by the Reformation, so they felt they had to assert their authority. Big mistake. Lots of people interested in science fled to Northern Europe. The Enlightenment flourished there, as did modern science.

    Look at a map showing countries where someone has received a Nobel Prize in science. Central America, South America, and Southern Europe are virtually absent. If the Pope had embraced science when it started to appear, things would have been very different.

  7. “In their scientism, they are blind to literature, philosophy, metaphysics, mysticism and religion.”

    Yes, the writer is a catholic, a leader and worshiper belonging to a polytheistic religious order. Let’s see, a father deity (god), an offspring son, an accompanying but equal supernatural spirit to make up this triad, a bad demon deity (Satan) kicked out by the father deity, a supposed virgin faux deity mother of the offspring and accordingly worshiped, other select sub-deities including the many human appointed saints to whom people pray for favors, like the many household deities of pre-christian times.

    And too, his take on science is the same arguments presented by the Dishonesty Institute as a means to support the ID assertions, nothing more.

  8. Bishop Barron opines,

    Many respondents display what I call “scientism,” the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe. In reaction to my attempts to demonstrate that God must exist as the necessary precursor to the radically contingent universe, respondent after respondent says some version of this: Energy, or matter, or the Big Bang, is the ultimate cause of all things. When I counter that the Big Bang itself demonstrates that the universe in its totality is contingent and hence in need of a cause extraneous to itself, they think I’m just talking nonsense.

    Because he is. Suppose the Big Bang is “in need of a cause extraneous to itself”; how does that prove the cause was God, as Barron believes, instead of natural law? And if the response is, “Who created natural law?” then the counter-response is “Who created God?” If the Deity can be presumed to have always been present, why can’t the same be true of natural law?

    It is no accident that modern science first appeared in Christian Europe, where a doctrine of creation held sway. To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science: namely, that the universe is not divine and that it is intelligible.

    More nonsense. One can accept the two assumptions the good bishop mentions without believing in God. And too often, the religious believe the universe is “intelligible” only in the sense that the Bible tells us what it is and how it came to be. And if what the Bible says is contradicted by reason and evidence, these are to be dismissed.

    And, oh, yes–“doctrines of creation” have “held sway” everywhere on Earth, such as in the Islamic world (which even borrowed Adam and Eve). Yet by the Bishop’s account, only in Christian Europe did modern science arise. Apparently one needs the right creation story, though Barron avoids saying so directly.

  9. michaelfugate

    The Bishop should also be concerned that in a recent Gallup poll 56% of US Catholics were creationists. That is about 40 million people – certainly many more than the number of “New” atheists.

  10. The bishop is making the argument that the creation – ie, the Universe itself – is not the Creator, and that the constant teaching of Christianity is that only God is holy. Therefore, the Universe is not holy in itself, and can be known, studied, observed, and ultimately, understood. Religions which contain an aspect of pantheism, thus projecting the divine on to the natural world, may be ambivalent or even actually reject this.

    So I think I understand what the Bishop is saying. It can be dismissed as nonsensical theology, based on nothing but a whiff of false premise – but it isn’t quite so vacuous as that. Certainly the Universe exists. The current observation – apparently valid – is that it came into existence at a point and a moment when space and time began. Certainly we do not know what caused this, or if a cause is required at all – causation becomes a very slippery concept when there is no sequential time. Alas, if we postulate God as a causation, we still have no explanation. God gets us no further forward, and even that is no more than basic deism. The only statement to be made with any certainty is that we do not know.

    The rest of Christian belief rests on nothing but unlikely supposition, some mutually conflicting ideas, and historical documents of very dubious provenance and veracity. It reduces to faith, but I really don’t like faith. It’s so orthogonal to morality.

  11. FYI, Bishop Barron’s article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It’s already gotten a critical going-over in Jerry Coyne’s blog

  12. @Reflectory

    I understand and agree with your overall point, but I’m not sure your “Linda” example is a very clear explanation of it:

    Which is more probable?
    A) Linda is a bank teller.
    B) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

    Nothing you’ve told us about Linda gives any clues as to whether or not she’s a bank teller, but it does seem a reasonable bet that she might be active in the feminist movement. So, based on the evidence given, there’s a good chance that (B) is at least half-right, and we have no way of estimating (A). It’s thus easy to understand why people might plump for (B). Were the question turned around a bit —

    Which is more probable?
    A) Linda is is active in the feminist movement.
    B) Linda is active in the feminist movement and a bank teller.

    — then the fallacy would be more obvious.

  13. We can estimate the probability of (A) as greater than the probability of (B) – they are equally probable only in the case that “activity” is certain.
    This calls to mind the csse in mathematics class in which the teacher proved that X was greater than or equal to Y by proving that X was equal to Y. A large number of students complained that that didn’t prove “greater than or equal”, it only proved “equal”. I didn’t understand at all what they found unsatisfying with that – and I still don’t.

  14. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron states,
    “…that God must exist as the necessary precursor to the radically contingent universe, …

    Radically contingent universe? Does this phrase make sense to anyone? If so, would you please explain its meaning? I’m serious. I’m not mocking the Bishop; I just don’t understand his meaning.

    He’s using the old argument of ultimate cause to prove the existence of God, but that argument is of course debunked by asking, “Who created God?” However, I’ve never seen the phrase “radically contingent universe” before, and was wondering if it was merely word salad.

  15. “a social and political movement that began in the early years of this century that promotes the view that religion should be actively countered.”
    BWAHAHAHAHA!
    Dear Monseigneur, may I introduce you to the ex-theologian

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Domela_Nieuwenhuis

    Excellent and famous quote: “to derive a divine world from the concrete world requires a salto mortale”. Such a powerful prophecy! Ol’ Hambo and the IDiots from Seattle perform that salto mortale about daily, as this nice blog is so eager to point out again and again.
    New Atheism looks quite old, don’t you think?

    “the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe.”
    That’s not scientism, that’s naturalism and/or materialism.

    “a dimension of reality knowable in a nonscientific but still rational manner”
    Method please? And how does that dimension relate to our natural/material one? How does any entity from that dimension interact with anything in our natural/material reality?

    “science and Christianity are, by their natures, implacable enemies.”
    Unfortunately you don’t do much to disprove that idea, dear Mgr. Fortunately I know of several believers who do.

    “the formulator of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaitre, was a priest.”
    See what I mean? He wasn’t the first. Soviet-commie Alexander Friedmann was. You don’t know and you probably don’t want to know.

    “it required over fifteen centuries for a society …”
    Two societies, dear SC, two societies. Let’s particularly not forget the Byzantine Empire. It might have lasted a bit longer if it could have plucked the fruits of scientific and technological developments that came the few decades after its fall.

    “Our confusion wasn’t helped by that.”
    Mine was. Mgr. postulates a peculiar form of dualism and says that the transcendental component (you know, where the Grand Old Designer resides) is divine and hence not totally intelligible to us imperfect human beings.

  16. @Realthog: ” it does seem a reasonable bet that she might be active in the feminist movement.”
    That’s the point – this probability is still less than 1 (by definition). So the probability of B always is lower than the probability of A.
    Example. Say the probability of Linda being active etc. is 0,9. Say the probability of Linda being a bank teller is 0,1.
    The probability of A is 0,1.
    The probability of B is 0,09.
    English – and every single other language – is a deceptive tool when it comes to probability calculation. I’m relatively good at it, but still had to think twice to see why Reflectory deserves a thumbs up.

  17. I . . . still had to think twice to see why Reflectory deserves a thumbs up.

    Oh, I didn’t have to think twice about it — swank, swank — although probability’s decidedly not my field (a polite way of saying that it usually makes my eyes cross in befuddled incomprehension). I just didn’t feel that the specifics of the “quiz” were as helpful as they could be. Say that, as well as attributes of being bright, single, etc., we learn that Linda handles money all day. Then the “bank teller” bit becomes related to the clues we’ve been given, and the “quiz” more illuminating.

  18. @realthog:
    I suggest that the point might be best made by not making specifics “helpful”. Perhaps making her job as unrelated as possible to the attributes. Something which is not usually thought of as a “feminine” job.
    (A’) Linda is a baseball player.
    (A”) Linda is the Pope.

  19. Thanks all related for fleshing out the conjunction fallacy while I was drowning eyeball deep in law school deadlines.

    I would only add that the specific example cited (and it is the classic example) is intentionally construed to draw attention to the tension between what feels intuitively right and what is actually and probably right.

  20. Linda is god.
    Linda is good.