Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Science and Theology. The Same?

Karl Giberson is supposing in the defense of his career-spanning Courtier's Reply. Giberson:

Let us suppose by analogy that we attached the label “science believer” to everyone who passes the standard roster of science courses in high school and affirms that, in general, they accepted what was taught in those courses. Now we have a group that is genuinely analogous to “religious believers.” Suppose now that a well-educated theologian was describing the beliefs of these “science believers,” and using the results to evaluate the credibility of science. The theologian would note that these people really were “believers.” They loved their iPhones and thought highly of the engineers and scientists who made them possible. They are excited about space travel and encountering aliens some day. When they get sick, they look to medical science for help. Sometimes they watch the Discovery Channel and they all loved Avatar.

But what would "science" look like, were it defined by these "believers"? From actual polls and other sources we know that the physics would be an incoherent mix of Aristotelian and Newtonian ideas; most of them would accept astrology and think that a “dowser” with a stick should be consulted before you drilled a well. UFOs and aliens would be accepted as real; some would report having been abducted by aliens. General Relativity, the most important theory in cosmology, would be completely unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind and the scientific proof of free will.
Uh, yea. Enough already. The rather blindingly obvious flaw in this analogy is that these hypothetical "science believers" can be said to be either right or wrong, current or deficient. If these "science believers" accepted space aliens as established scientific fact, for example, they would be wrong; and if they had a basic grasp of Newton's work but no knowledge of Einstein's, they would possess a gravely incomplete understanding of the science; and -- here's the important part -- every accredited scientific subject matter expert in the world would agree with those assessments.

Whereas basic questions like "is god one or several" and "what are the fundamental teachings of god" and "can god(s) take corporeal form" have many answers, depending on which theologian is being consulted, where, and when. Significant disagreements over fundamental questions continue to rage unresolved even within presumptively unified creeds -- Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, though all Christian, can't decide on faith versus works, the status of priests, or the precise whereabouts of Jesus; Sunnis and Shias can't agree on the holiest sites in Islam, and so on.

These "science believers" wouldn't be able to shop around astronomy departments until they found a "sect" of professors who embraced their particular fusion of Chinese-Greco-Roman astrology; all the astronomers they encountered would say the same thing, that the alignment of stars as seen from earth at their time of birth has no influence on the course of their lives.

The most scientific experts would say is that perhaps, with further research, evidence will come to light that revises today's conclusions in the direction of the "science beliefs" that are, by today's best available understanding, wrong, provisional, merely conjectural, and so on. Notwithstanding that caveat, at any given time, there is a best available understanding in science, even as new findings continue to press at the margins.

Theology has no such limits. Theology's boundaries are formed by the opinions of the theologian speaking and nothing more.

The thrill-a-minute ideas of this post have been substantially expanded and updated.

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