Religion, Science, and Deduction

Religion, Science, and Deduction November 15, 2011

I find it bizarre that critics of evolution who claim that science is simply guessing, and that one cannot draw conclusions about past biological evolution based in present evidences, do not see how this undercuts their own claims every bit as much, if not more so.

Religious fundamentalists, of the sort that offer pseudoscientific critiques of evolution, typically claim that God spoke to and through people in the past. They claim that this revelation has persisted or left an impact down to our own time, in the form of texts which exist today. But today, we have only the texts – the fossils of the alleged supernatural revelation, as it were.

If one cannot legitimately deduce things about the past based on present evidence, then how can any fundamentalist make the claims that they do, while rejecting the use of deduction in science, without being thoroughly inconsistent?

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  • Cliff Martin

    I have often observed this very inconsistency, James. Often, fundamentalists are very linear in their thinking. Well, nothing could be more linear than observing data, and drawing obvious conclusion. It simply comes down to this: we choose what we believe. 

  • I think that there are epistemological differences between scientists and fundamentalists.  Fundamentalists are not empiricists and would argue that God has communicated directly to them supernaturally.  While they may offer pseudoscientific critiques of evolution they seem to see it more as an incoherence inherent in the scientific method and not that science is ultimately reliable and has established that evolution is false.

  • beallen0417

    It’s odd. We use the present to understand the past, that is certain. No child is born with any understanding of the past so the self must construct the past from its understanding of the present. But Dr. McGrath is on record as saying that there are events in the past that can’t be understood in light of the present.

    “The resurrection per se is not an event like other events in human history …”

    One wonders how the same person can make both arguments.

    • For those who want to see the context of the quote Evan gave below, so as to avoid being misled by @beallen0417:disqus ‘s characteristic quote-mining, go here:

    • If anyone wishes to avoid being misled by @beallen0417:disqus ‘s characteristic quote-mining, the source is here:  

  • Dcdeller

    Perhaps people [including non-“fundamentalists”] find the historical evidence concerning Jesus and the Bible more credible than scientific theories about the origin of everything [the universe, life, etc].

  • @bff709bfa8b1299244a978de33780a8a:disqus , I found myself talking to some young-earth creationists recently who said that deduction itself was illegitimate, that drawing conclusions about the history of life on earth based on evidence that we have access to in the present is itself mere guesswork. This post was aimed at that viewpoint.

    • Dcdeller

      So is my perhaps more general response irrelevant to this topic?

  • It may not address the specific issue that I was, but that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant. But I think that it is relatively straightforward to deduce things about the past when they involve processes that are observable in the present and thus likely to have applied in the past as well. Claims about the miraculous, on the other hand, are by definition improbable, and so it isn’t clear that evidence such as that which historians deal with are ever going to provide a better case for past divine revelation than past biological evolution.

    But of course, apart from that, there is the question of whether, even if the Bible is accepted as a divine revelation, it is a divine revelation of scientific information which ought to be treated as in competition with the results of mainstream scientific inquiry. Few who accept the Bible as inspired consider it necessary to play its language off against science the way young-earth creationists do.

    • Dcdeller

      I suppose C.S. Lewis on miracles [philosophical discussion] would be veering too far away from the focus here? I guess it’s only about assumptions – i.e. “miracles never happen,” etc.

  • beallen0417

    From my point of view, there is nothing out of context or quote-mining at all. Dr. McGrath sees the resurrection per se as a sui generis event. This means it is unlike the ascension of Julius Caesar, the resurrection of Persephone or Innana, or even the post-mortem appearances of Apollonius or Romulus, all of which historians are happy to dismiss as non-historical stories. What historical method justifies this position?

    The text of the linked explication assumes the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea without making an argument for this. One would have to assume that if Joseph of Arimathea is a historical individual, then so were the Gerasene demoniac, Bartimaeus and even Pilate’s wife. Apparently, Dr. McGrath, who often suggests that very little of the gospels depict true history, becomes quite a bit more of a biblical maximalist at times.

    One should remove the credulous beam from one’s own eye before plucking the credulous castle out of someone else’s … 

    • Again, anyone who actually reads what I wrote will understand that I am not prejudging whether the resurrection was an actual event at all, much less one that is sui generis, but am emphasizing that even as a purported event, it is a claim about something that is inherently unlikely and thus not something that a historian can judge to have likely occurred.

  • beallen0417

    Something that is unlike anything else in history is by definition sui generis, but I am happy to hear Dr. McGrath thinks the resurrection story is not unique. All he needs to do now is retract and rewrite his sentence stating that the resurrection was not an event like other events in human history. 

    A sentence like, “Stories of god-men dying and coming back to life are common in ancient literature and are generally regarded by secular scholars as fictional,” would work quite well. 

  • Abnormal Interests has chimed in on the subject of this post: 

  • A supreme god who actually became man, got crucified, and then rose from the dead would indeed be sui generis. Mere claims about god men rising from the dead, on the other hand, are not even rare. When it comes to itinerant faith healers, witch doctors, and shaman, you can’t keep a good man down.

    Unless the world is as relentlessly goofy as Hogwarts, ordinary induction suffices to rule out taking the resurrection literally—you don’t have to go the Hume route. We know that claims of bodily apotheosis are routinely false and therefore the rational presumption is that the Christ case is no different than the others. Of course, we also know that religious individuals have a terrible track record as reliable witnesses, but that’s the basis for an inference whose conclusion is left to the reader as an exercise.

  • To say that miracles can never happen in principle is indeed an assumption. What historians say is that, because their investigation can only determine what is probable, and miracles are by definition improbable events, no historian can ever say that as a result of their historical research, the best conclusion is that a miracle probably occurred.

    • Dcdeller

      Right. So what does a historian do with something that might seem improbable – but crucial [i.e. the resurrection – by a New Testament historian]?

  • Nothing. What can they do? 

    (This is something I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on in my book The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith, which is not an academic book but some self-published reflections on what the nature of historical study might mean for Christianity).

    • Dcdeller

      My access to your book, even in this age, is limited. How about an abbreviation here?

      So you’re trapped, as a historian of specifically, relatively [even historically speaking] un-precedented events?

      I’m surprised.