Lane Encroachment

In Science and Anti-science, we looked at two theses.  One:  that exclusion of any possibility of the supernatural is bad science.   Two:  that some atheists depart from science altogether, subverting its principles, by attempting to brand their opponents “anti-science.”

An astute comment to that post occasions this expansion of it.  The suggestion is made that theists and scientists should maintain separate lanes, so to speak, and that “anti-science” accusations stem from lane encroachment.

The number one mistake of scientists (not “science,” perhaps) is to fail to follow the evidence where it leads.  A scientist with a strong prior commitment to atheist materialism may fall into the trap of following the evidence where it leads only as long as it doesn’t lead to God.  It’s one thing to confine one’s study to material things.  It’s quite another to say that that study of material things disproves the existence of non-material things.

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Given that, can scientists avoid the mistake by simply staying “in their lane?”  And is it correct to say that “religious folk should stay in their lane as well?” It sounds like simple fair reciprocity, employing the notion of distinct, non-overlapping “magisteria” (Stephen Gould) as between religion and science.  But science and religion do not inhabit two neatly compartmentalized, side-by-side boxes.  Consequently, the mental picture of two distinct, never-intersecting lanes is not quite apt.

The Competing Claims

Materialists say that material reality, x, is all there is.  Theists say that there is also a non-material reality, y, which coincides with x but also transcends x.

Science vs. Religion?

The study of x does not prove that x is all there is.  Neither is the study of x inconsistent with y.  There isn’t really a war between religion and science.  Whether God created the material world or not, the material world can and should be studied within a paradigm of natural laws acting on material substance, without consideration of metaphysical influences.

Indeed, theists ought to welcome this approach (and so, in this sense at least, “stay in their lane”) not only because it results in greater understanding and helpfulness to people in this life, but also because it tends to prove by exception the truth of the supernatural.

There is a sharp line between that which complies with the laws of physical reality, and that which doesn’t.  The contrast demonstrates the truth of the supernatural.  A miracle is defined as an event in defiance of materialistic constraints, such as virgin birth; walking on water; resurrection.  Even one minor miracle entirely validates the existence of non-material, super-natural, reality.

A miracle is also the exception that proves the rule of the natural world, however, and therefore also validates the usual operation of material laws.  The fact that miracles are exceptional should reaffirm for us that they are exceptional to the normal workings of material processes.  We can believe that God authored those material processes, or that they are somehow self-generating, but neither of those beliefs is required in order to do science.  There is no divergence, in doing science, except when the materialist leaves his lane and asserts that the material is all there is.

On the theist side, however, there is no similar “lane” to keep.  Remember that theism posits that the supernatural, y, not only transcends the material, x, but also coincides with it.  The presence of God precedes and is in and is through every mechanistic process.  That doesn’t mean that we’re to assume that a supernatural-only explanation pokes through and explains every poorly-understood material process, as with “god of the gaps” arguments.  God created with uniform, comprehensible laws that we can come to understand.  The theist’s search for truth about God is not constrained to study of the material, as is the scientist’s.

The mission of both atheists and theists should be to learn the truth.  That goal is not furthered by proceeding as if they’re on two separate tracks, running parallel and never meeting, as if they occupied two distinct realities.  A better understanding of the nature of philosophical inquiry, and of scientific inquiry, is called for.  Here is how it might apply, in a couple of examples.

The Big Bang

Consider the Big Bang.  It’s a fascinating theory of the origin of the universe, and many physicists consider it settled science.  The physical theory of sudden expansion into a flat universe may very well be true.  It would not be inconsistent with there being a God who created the first something out of nothing.  It would be explanatory of how God went about creation.

There are some scientists (like Lawrence Krauss, mentioned here and here) who attempt to explain the Big Bang without an uncaused-cause, explaining how something came from nothing, so that God is unnecessary to the equation. The attempts fail, as a matter of logic.  But is Krauss “outside his lane” in attempting it?  No.  Wrong, but no.  And theists are not “anti-science” nor “outside their lane” if they question the explanation.


Now consider evolution, as a theory of biological development. It doesn’t attempt to explain the origin of life nor the origin of matter.  It only attempts an explanation of the mechanism for development of life.  As such, it is not necessarily inconsistent with theism.  God obviously employs natural mechanisms.

There are some scientists (like Richard Dawkins, whose book on the subject is reviewed here) who attempt to make evolution negate the existence of God.  It is thought to “raise consciousness,” as Dawkins said, because it indicates matter before Mind.  If matter can cause more complex matter, then that suggests that matter can be self-created, he says.  It’s quite an extrapolation, however, and atheist polemicists are no longer doing science when they make it.  They’re engaged in amateur and amateurish philosophy.

“Anti-science” Accusation

It is offensive that atheist polemicists label their opponents “anti-science” for not accepting the materialist atheist point of view on metaphysics.  It is also offensive that someone be labeled “anti-science” for opposing evolution or materialist theories of the origin of matter on scientific grounds.  It is offensive that someone be labeled “anti-science” for having a different interpretation of data, as with climate change.  Having a minority view on a question of science doesn’t place one in opposition to the whole enterprise of science.  And, having the view that science is not the exclusive vehicle for discerning truth does not make one “anti-science.”

As for “lane encroachment,” we’d like to have a tidy separation, but we look in two entirely distinct directions when we do philosophy, and when we do science.  Would that it were as simple as maintaining one’s lane.  Instead we should better understand what religion is asking, and what science is asking, and stop insisting on a war between them.


8 thoughts on “Lane Encroachment”

  1. Bert, I know I’ve said this to you before, but: Concerning the theory of evolution, I have wondered why we are not still in the present day observing creature-type matter being “created” from slime. There is still plenty of slime; surely in there somewhere, if evolution theory is true, is some little live “thing” ready to make the leap (a la Velveteen Rabbit) to crawl out upon the dry land and eventually turn human. Why aren’t we observing ape/human creatures still in the process of moving up the ladder? Did evolution stop somewhere?

    1. That’s a great observation. That’s actually the first epiphany that turned me away from evolution as a scientific theory. I wondered “where are all the in-betweens?” It seems to me that between the most frog-like lizard and the most lizard-like frog there ought to be a mountain of transitions, more individuals by far than are represented in the respective existing types, both in the living wild and in the fossil record. But there aren’t. The possibility of taxonomic classification seems itself to augur against evolution, to my mind. Once I realized this, other elements of the theory began to be suspect.

      I’m reading a book that is touted as a good explanation of evolution from the evolutionists’ side, Ernest Mayr, What is Evolution. But so far I’m not seeing anything that is so significant, on the other side of the debate.

      A thought about the evolution debate as it relates to this site. I’ve not been trying to debate evolution per se, at least so far, because I want to keep my eye on the ball. Evolution is only a theory of passive biological development, a combination of environmental challenge acting to de-select less fit characteristics of a population. That’s all. It doesn’t explain why there’s something rather than nothing; why there’s life; or why there is life with consciousness. So evolution, even if true, would not come close to disproving God.

      It’s important at the edge of the debate, however, because it presents what atheists revel in calling a “dangerous idea” because it proposes a process of matter before Mind, rather than the other way around. If simple matter can naturally breed more complex matter, the thinking goes, then why can’t non-living matter breed living, and even nothing breed something. But evolution as a central tenet of biology, if true, would ultimately only be a description of a mechanistic, material process. Natural processes exist, of course, and don’t by virtue of their existence explain away the need for God.

  2. Another version of the “why are there still apes?” argument, or worse yet, “Find me a crockaduck”. Is there not a fossil record showing transition over long periods of time? Evolution, “even if true”, certainly doesn’t disprove a god (nothing can). But I don’t believe your doubts about evolution are motivated by a scientific conclusion. Even if it doesn’t disprove a god, it certainly disproves certain material claims. But let me not bring attention to the elephant in the room. And about that “anti-science”; I think when one comes to a conclusion regarding material things (the science lane), that are clearly motivated by a religious belief, the “anti-science” labels should be expected.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I’m curious about the motivation comment, because the reason given for first doubts about evolution had to do with the science of evolution. Moreover, I was describing a shift from my acceptance of evolution that I acquired in school.

      Don’t quite understand how evolution “disproves certain material claims.” Do you mean “material” in the sense of significant or substantial, or do you mean it in the sense of there being an absence of any supernatural reality? I don’t grasp what material claims you mean. So I don’t follow what the elephant is.

      But let’s do talk about the “anti-science” label. This is important. Let’s take someone who believes that there is a God, and that God created material reality, and remains active in the world. And suppose that theist becomes a scientist. He’s smart enough not to just insert God whenever he doesn’t understand a material process. But he’s open-minded about ultimate questions. He’s also smart enough not to insist on a mechanistic process when the evidence doesn’t point to it.

      So now this scientist takes up the question of evolution. He along with the most die-hard atheists accept the evidence of physical life all around us. It’s objective reality, not a brain-in-the-jar perception. Where did this life come from? Well it could have developed via evolution. But there are significant problems with evolution as a scientific theory. It requires ever more complex and implausible supporting hypotheses.

      Moreover, even if development of life occurred through the mechanism of evolution, that still does not explain the origin of life, nor the origin of matter, time, or the laws of physics. These are ultimate questions for which there is no plausible materialist explanation. Open-mindedness about non-material causes is certainly called for.

      The problems with evolution are glossed over only because the simpler and more obvious explanation is barred at the door, so to speak. That seems to me genuinely “anti-science.” Political correctness within the realm of science. It amounts to making a conclusion about a scientific question not because the evidence leads to it, but because of a prior commitment to materialism. People who think this way are “clearly motivated” by an anti-religious belief. The irony is that taking this unscientific approach to science is exactly what they accuse theists of doing.

  3. I guess we have a fundamental disagreement regarding evolution. You believe, I think, that evolutionists have made conclusions not because the evidence leads to it. Where I believe 1. the evidence leads to it, and 2. that the scientific community, generally speaking, makes their conclusions based on their belief the evidence leads to it. You seem to imply they are first anti-religious and propose evolution to bolster their arguments against religion; that bringing down religion is their primary goal in life. Or that they don’t honestly come to their conclusions.

    I referenced “material claims” simply to mean physical claims about our world. So, evolution may not disprove the existence of a god, but it may disprove the literal story of Genesis; that being the elephant in the room. The only people that seem to have a problem with evolution are those motivated by their faith to find that there is no evidence for it. I’ve never read (maybe they’re out there) of non-religious scientist who contest evolution based on what they believe to be a lack of evidence. But to be fair, I haven’t made an exhaustive search.

    I think the notion of non-overlapping magisteria is problematic because various religions make claims about the natural world that just can’t be true, thus drifting into the scientific lane; honking their allegory horn.

    1. Love the “honking . . . allegory horn” imagery.

      I think we get a bit off track when we talk about what the other side “honestly” or “genuinely” concludes. What we’re really saying is that “you can’t seriously believe that,” and therefore impute dishonest motive to them. We should all be more careful about this, me included.

      So to your two points. On number one, I grant that you genuinely believe the evidence leads to evolution. I just disagree. If it were just us, we’d be a hung jury.

      On number two, that “the scientific community, generally speaking, makes their conclusion based on the belief the evidence leads to [evolution being true],” here’s my thought. I don’t necessarily hold that evolutionists are disingenuous in their beliefs. But I think many of them are confused about something. I think there is a strong pull to confine oneself to materialistic explanations for everything, because to do otherwise seems, vaguely, to be contrary to the scientific project. But it’s confusion. It’s confusion brought on in part by the political correctness that is now infecting science. Science is the study of the material. One can be a good scientist and not buy into the atheist assertion that the material is all there is.

      So if a biologist interested in biological origins approaches his study with an open mind, he might legitimately conclude that a non-material agency is the best explanation for what occurred at a point or at multiple points in the development of life. It’s one thing to conclude that evolution is the best explanation for the complexity of life even considering supernatural agency. It’s quite another to conclude that evolution must be the only explanation because supernatural agency is excluded before the science even begins. In fact, I think that the materialist predisposition causes one to weigh the materialist evidence too strongly, attaching unwarranted significance to biological facts that are argued to support evolution.

      There are many “non-religious” scientists who take issue with evolution. Michael Behe springs to mind, but there are many others. Collectively they’re in a minority, however.

      About the elephant in the room. I take it from your comment that you mean the Genesis story. I have always thought that if evolution were in fact true, then it would certainly affect our interpretation of the Bible, but it would not mean that there is no God. Nor would it mean that He does not reveal Himself in His word. It would mean either that the Bible is not a true revelation of God; or that it is only a partially true revelation of God; or that we mis-read it when we hold to it too literally.

      Arguably, the Genesis story of creation would seem self-evidently an allegorical tale intended to impart truth but not truth in the way that science imparts truth. That is, that it tells us that God created man and other living things, in addition to the heavens and the earth, but that it’s more about explaining the relationship of man to God, and to the rest of living creation, and males to females, than it is a scientific account of facts such as speciation. Its purpose is a much greater truth than the quotidian truths of scientific inquiry.

      For just one example to support this idea, we seem to be reading about the existence of days before we read about the lights separating day from night. It’s pretty reasonable to conclude that “days” isn’t intended to mean 24-hour earth rotations, but rather a more poetic passage of time. Strong Bible literalists don’t like this, but one’s belief on this minor point is not a question of having real faith or not having it. It’s only about reading what God says to us, in good faith, with what we know.

      In the same way, about biology, we read that God created Adam “from dust” and Eve from his rib. Is that meant literally, despite the allegory of the other parts of Genesis? I don’t know. The allegorical interpretation does not trouble me a bit. The main argument against it is only the genealogies, but we see that genealogies throughout the Bible are compressed and extended according to the author’s purposes, so clearly they’re typically not intended to be a literal account of the generations, without omissions. Maybe Adam begat Cain, Abel, Seth et al just like the Bible says, but there’s no attempt to go back further because Adam was the first man, for God’s purposes and ours. The point of Genesis is not to show us the origins of man, but the origins of man’s separation from God.

      But all that is the Bible. Remember we’re talking here about theism in general: The idea that there is a God creator, and that He is active in the world. There is so much to argue about with the Bible, that we should be careful to make a distinction between abstract theism, on the one hand, and the God as described in the Bible, on the other. This post has only been about theism, though its author happens to subscribe to orthodox, reformed, Christianity.

  4. I guess both sides can look at things with a predisposition. Although, I think accepted and proper scientific study is designed to eliminate subjectivity as much as possible. I’ll have to look up Michael Behe. I’m very interested to read the views of a non-theist who argues against evolution, rather than assume one has a religious agenda.

    I think you’re right that one can argue the Genesis story of creation is self-evidently an allegorical tale. At least one can reasonably argue that now, in this century. But I’m not so sure one would argue such a thousand or more years ago. I suspect the tendency to interpret these scriptures as allegorical increases exponentially with advancements in science.

    I recognize the articles have been focused on theism in general and so I have only reluctantly brought in the specific-religious-claims issue in reaction to the offense taken by atheist calling religious views anti-science. I think it’s fair to be critical of specific material (physical) claims made by various religious texts, calling it anti-science if you will, if such claims go contrary to what we know about our physical universe. Because those are the instances when religion goes into the lane of science. Likewise, the hardcore atheist who goes beyond just not believing in a theistic God, but goes as far as asserting that there can be no god, is just as guilty of leaving their lane to make metaphysical claims. Sorry for over killing the lane analogy.

    1. I don’t think you overused the lane analogy. In fact I got a bit of mileage (heh heh) out of it myself.

      For grins I googled atheists who don’t believe in evolution. I saw one place that 9% of atheists don’t, but how could someone actually know that statistic is correct? I left off that little project because the hits I got quickly descended into the angry troll dimension.

      I’m mainly commenting back to speak to your suggestion that the tendency to allegorical interpretation of the Bible correlates to advances in science. What I have read actually suggests that the opposite has been true, which seems surprising until one considers the fuller context of history.

      The empiricist perspective that seems second-nature to us now is of fairly recent vintage. It is traced back to what is described as the “scientific revolution” and the philosophical “Enlightenment” commencing a little before the 17th century. Many would trace it back to Newton, or perhaps Francis Bacon. This time period was described on this site as the commencement of The Materialist Epoch.

      Before that time, people searched for truth, but the truth was not thought to be exclusively coincident with the results of empirical study, as tends to be the case now. The necessity of a creator was thought to be a logical necessity, starting at least as early as pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. Then one can follow the philosophical reasoning of the early Christian church fathers, like Augustine (5th century) through at least Aquinas (13th). They were not doing science, exclusively, but they were certainly seeking truth. They constructed foundations upon which we continue to try to build. To my mind, they were giants, and we are but dwarves standing on their shoulders.

      The evolution (ha!) of the empirical mind-set in the last 300 or so years has affected everyone, Christians and atheists and others. Christians in more recent years have therefore tended to look at scripture through an empiricist lens, and that way of thinking causes them to be more likely to see something like the creation story of Genesis as being a set of scientific facts, instead of an illustration of man’s changing relationship to God and to other men.

      This empiricist lens may actually detract from the truth-finding process, rather than enhancing it. But Christians with poor grounding in the history of philosophy and of theology tend to be tone-deaf about it, doubling down on their insistence that God must be an empiricist, too. I would also add that these tendencies correlate to a kind of fundamentalism that arises out of an almost gnostic belief in belief that is a uniquely American religious phenomenon, and dated to the last 150 years or so.

      In talking about this, I shouldn’t leave out the effect of the Reformation. It has tended to exacerbate these tendencies, at least among Protestants, because that schism was such a complete turning from the traditions of Christian thinking to that point, that it amounted to almost starting over, and starting over at the dawn of the scientistic age.

      You might appreciate the writings of David Bentley Hart, on these subjects among others. His book “The Story of Christianity” you might find especially helpful.

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