Thursday, May 31, 2007

Post No. 110: In God We Trust? In Science We Trust?

Last Friday (25/5/2007), an article written by Mr. Andy Ho, a senior writer with the Straits Times, and entitled: “Science and Religion: The Metaphysics of Existence” was published in the Straits Times.

In this article, Mr. Ho basically argued that Science, by excluding, if not denying, the possibility of the existence of the supernatural from its scope of investigation, has closed itself off to the possibility that the supernatural may just actually exist. In his words, Science, by adhering to the position of materialism (which is in some ways akin to positivism), is “biased against the possibility of a spiritual reality”.

Mr. Ho also briefly called into question the reliability of Science and its methods, suggesting that scientific reliability is perhaps circulatory in nature, in that this reliability is based on investigation using scientific methods.

It was also argued by Mr. Ho that in Science, there is the basic & perhaps inherent assumption/belief that there exist universal principles by which the universe operates according to and that these universal principles can be observed and discovered by human beings. In other words, before scientists can go about conducting their scientific investigation, they need to believe/assume that the universe we live in is not a place of total randomness and complete chaos.

Mr. Ho then moved on to argue that the universe we live in is one which is “finely-tuned” to support life as we now know it, in that should any of the various variables, such as the strength of gravity and of nuclear forces inside atoms, deviate the slightest bit from what they are now, life as we now know it would not have been possible.

In view of the above, Mr. Ho then argues that it is possible that there perhaps exist an entity or force who/which is behind the creation of the universe. In other words, Mr. Ho suggested that God, in the form of the Creator, could perhaps exist.

More disagreement than agreement

Well, I have to confess that Mr. Ho do make some sense for some of his points which I partially agree with. Specifically, I agree that scientists do perhaps need to assume that there exist universal principles which the universe operates according to before they can embark on their scientific research & investigation. Also, I am in agreement that Science may not be the only way to reach the truth (in other words, I am no adherent of positivism).

However, the above 2 points are perhaps the only points of Mr. Ho’s article which I find myself agreeing with. For his other points, I find them both fallacious and perhaps somewhat ludicrous.

Science = “biased against the possibility of a spiritual reality”?

Firstly, let us look at Mr. Ho’s argument that Science is “biased against the possibility of a spiritual reality”. Well, if this is true, then what about Religion? Wouldn’t it biased towards the possibility of a spiritual reality? Anyway, the exclusion of the supernatural is perhaps an essential premise for Science to work. This is considering that if Science did no exclude the supernatural from its scope of investigation but instead allowed for supernatural causes & explanations, there wouldn’t be any scientific inquiry in the first place. I mean, just think about it. If we resorted to supernatural causes/explanations for a natural phenomenon that we do not understand, we would be closed off to further investigation about that particular phenomenon and perhaps not discover a non-supernatural explanation for the phenomenon.

For example, as a result of scientific investigation, we now all know that the rising and setting of the Sun is merely an illusion caused by the rotation of the Earth on its axis but if we have continued to accept supernatural causes for this phenomenon, we would still perhaps believe in the ancient myth of the Sun god riding across the sky in a blazing chariot of fire. Also, we need to keep in mind that the absence of a non-supernatural explanation for a phenomenon in the short term need not mean the definite absence of such an explanation (“Absence of evidence need not be the evidence of absence”). Thus, it struck me as rather ludicrous that Mr. Ho should fault Science for excluding the supernatural from its investigation and to suggest that Science should be open to supernatural explanations.

A monopoly on truth

It also struck me as rather ludicrous that Mr. Ho should criticise Science for making an exclusive claim on the truth. I mean, if I’m not wrong, Religion also have made an exclusive claim on the truth. For example, it is recorded in the Gospel of John that Jesus supposedly claimed that he is “the way and the truth and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father” (i.e. God) except through him (John 14:6). Yet, Mr. Ho strangely neglected this and instead decided to focus his criticism on Science for purporting to have a monopoly on truth.

“Intelligent Designer”? “Finely-tuned” universe?

In addition, it appears to me that Mr. Ho’s argument that there may exist an entity or force who/which is behind the creation of our “finely-tuned” universe (note: in my opinion, this argument resembles those espoused by proponents of “Intelligent Design”) is fallacious on 2 grounds.

One, even if it is indeed true that our universe is “finely-tuned” to support life, it is only “finely-tuned” to support life as we now know it. By this, I mean that all claims about how our universe is “finely-tuned” are made with only consideration about our current circumstances. Just think about it, it is entirely possible that, though should our universe be the least bit different from what it is like now, life as we now know it may not exist, another form of sentient life could have existed. And a specimen of this sentient lifeform could be thinking: “How fortunate it is that this universe is ‘finely-tuned’ to support life!”, without realising that other forms of sentient life (e.g. us) could also perhaps have existed if the universe was not that “finely-tuned”. Hence, I do not know about you all but I find it quite fallacious and ludicrous for a person to claim that our universe is “finely-tuned” and thus, someone/something must have done the tuning.

And, two, even if it is indeed true that an entity or force is behind the creation of our “finely-tuned” universe, from where did this entity or force come from? Surely, for someone/something to be able to create our “finely-tuned” universe, that someone/something should be quite powerful and intelligent. And, so, where did this powerful & intelligent entity or force come from? It couldn’t have just popped out of nothing, can it? If it is possible for this entity or force to have appeared out of nothing, why then is it not possible for our universe to have appeared out of nothing also? Why must people be adamant about there being a “Creator” for our universe when they are not adamant about this “Creator” having a creator?

Finding God through Science?

Furthermore, I found it rather ironic that though Mr. Ho questioned the reliability of Science and faulted it for denying the existence of the supernatural, he strangely has no qualms about citing scientific findings in his other articles and about the strength of gravity and of nuclear forces within atoms to support his case that the supernatural may exist. Hmm… So after criticising Science as something unreliable which denies God, he is going to employ it to find God? Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would have said.


To end off, allow me to say that there is another point of Mr. Andy Ho’s article which I find myself agreeing with. And this point, which he made in his concluding paragraph, is that both people of Science and Religion should engage in constructive dialogue with lots of humility from both sides. Of course, as Mr. Andy Ho has shown with his article, intelligence and logical reasoning are also required for this dialogue between Science and Religion.


Anonymous said...


First off, well done on this essay! However, it would have been better if you would post it in 2 parts...perhaps you would be better able to develop your argument.

In this comparison, you compare two disciplines which profess to hold the keys to the ultimate truth, and there was a time when science and religion were much more tightly bound together than now. Ancient science had a system to accomodate the gods, and yet their discoveries have brought us to where we are today - just another viewpoint for you.

That science should stake an exclusive claim on the truth, is a claim which is finding acceptance because of positivism - a sign of our time. Scientists only allow the supernatural when logic fails, and the rise of the sciences today is perhaps a sign that positivism is becoming such a significant part of our lives - everywhere, people demand truth, the ultimate truth, without knowing if they will ever find it.

Too many believe themselves to know the truth through science and religion. But we only know this much. Scientific theories are only true until proven false, just as religious dogma remains true as long as people believe.

The Truth, just as knowledge and wisdom, is something no one can profess to know absolutely. That each stakes a claim for it is problematic, and thus it leads to this conflict. It's uncomfortable, but perhaps it is most important to know the truth that you may not know the truth at all.

As to the Creator of the Creator, it is, i believe, a metaphysical problem which was refuted in the middle ages. Although we will never know if it is true or will realise that many who start from one God understand that to ask for the Creator of the Creator will lead one nowhere.

Anonymous said...

You said "scientists do perhaps need to assume that there exist universal principles which the universe operates according to before they can embark on their scientific research & investigation".

Why do you think that?

I am a scientist working on infectious diseases. How would my research be more successful if I spend time pondering the universe or accepted some principle before I worked on a cure? The disease either gets cured or it doesn't! After spending years developing a new antibiotic and explaining exactly why bacteria are affected by it on a molecular level, I think I would be disappointed if Andy Ho then wrote an opinion piece suggesting that the supernatural were instead responsible for the cure.

People who reject science should pray for a cure, instead of buying medicine. I don't really think my analogy is so far off the mark.

LCC said...

To Anonymous (of 1153hrs),

Firstly, thanks for the comment and the compliment.

That aside, yup, I guess it's true that we all may never know what is the Truth (that is if such a thing even exist in the first place).

On that note, perhaps we should look at what the postmodernists have been espousing: that there is no Truth but truths...

Anyway, I am curious about what you mean by that the problem of "who/what created the Creator?" was refuted in the Middle Ages?

Are you referring to the argument (which my Christian friend used when I posed this problem to her) that the Creator has no beginning and thus there is no need to discuss about who/what created the Creator?

Well, while the above argument may be actually true, I still find it a case of special pleading (i.e. everything must have a cause except the First Cause which has no beginning) and one which cannot be proven and/or disproven.

Oh well, guess that's why I am an agnostic.

LCC said...

To Anonymous (of 0134hrs),

Thanks for the comment. And apologise for not making myself clear enough.

What I meant by that comment was that, based on my own limited observations, people may need to implicitly assume/believe that certain properties of the universe, such as the presence & strength of gravity on Earth, the speed of light, magnetic opposites attract and etc, will stay constant and not change from one moment to the other.

For example, in your case, though you may not start off your day by, as you put it, "pondering the universe", I suppose you do perhaps still need to implicitly assume that when you add Substance X to Substance Y, Reaction Z is expected to, if not will, happen and that this will stay constant; instead of having Reaction Z for today, then Reaction A for tomorrow and then Reaction B the day after that. Sortof like in Chemistry when people expect that adding alkaline to acid will netrualise the latter.

Anonymous said...

Hey, this is anon 11:53.

I believe you will find that question with relation to the theological term 'supra rationem.' it means that God is above rationality and comes to Man only through showing himself in the body of Jesus Christ.

Supra rationem as a doctrine however declined during the Enlightenment, which is why there is a natural religion today.

I'm not exactly religious...i'd like to think that i'm spiritual. Natural religion, mah. Good luck!

As for anon 1:34, scientists fix problems because they proceed from a set of rules and mechanisms which are taken to work every time. As for how such things came to be, you don't ask. I think that's what LCC is talking about here - the metaphysics of everything.

However, scientists also scoff at metaphysics. heh.

random said...

Science does not have all the answers, and that is the reason why some people believe that there are other ways of knowing other than the scientific method.

However, if we accept that there are other ways of knowing next to observation and experiments, then the question is: which of these methods are valid?

If we accept faith and mysticism as ways of knowing, we need to ask ourselves why, if they are valid ways of knowing, there are so many different interpretations of truth?

Ask a religious man why he thinks his version of Truth is more valid than that of a rival religion, and his answer will either involve faith (in which case it begs the question of why his faith is more valid than that of someone of another religion), or the scientific method.

Drizzt said...

I think that Andy Ho is a moron( pardon me)His whole discussion sound totally nonsensical.

Science is never biased against any supernatural explanation. science works by coming up with certain hypothesis based on certain observations and constantly test this hypothesis with experiments

The hypothesis is constantly modified to take into account any new evidence that suggested that it is partially false or totally false. The problem of supernatural explanations is that often they do not have any empirical or rigorous experimental evidence to substantiate that hypothesis.

I agree with lcc that the idea of the Intelligent Designer is quite fallacious.In my hummble opinion, the so called finely-tuned universe is a direct consequence of quantum mechanics and thus the uncertainty principle.

Unfortunately, i do not think that Andy Ho has the broad wisdom\ tolerance to engage people in any meaningful discussion based on his past stubborness to even engage people in the discussion of homosexuality.

Pandemonium said...



Thanks for bringing this up. I had a great laugh out of the original article.

Anyway, I find the main problem with Mr Ho's assertion is his muddling of the limits of science. The most crucial point about a scientific theory is that it must be falsifiable. That is, one should be able to conceive, in principle, an experiment that can potentially prove the theory wrong. So questions like "does God exists?" is not a scientific question. But this simply means that science does not have an answer to this question, and not, as Mr Ho has claimed, that God does not exist! I think this is the key flaw in his argument.

No scientist has claimed that the supernatural (in the metaphysical sense) does not exist because of science. In fact, there are many scientists who believe in God. That is of course perfectly fine! Of course, there are then those, like you and me, who chooses to believe only what science can tell and put a label of "don't know" on things science can't tell: agnosticism.

Anonymous (1:34 AM):

The thing is, I suppose, you have already taken for granted certain universal principles to be the truth that you don't even question them. LCC has pointed out one. Another one: you managed to develop two drugs. Upon testing, it was discovered that one can cure 90% of the patients and the other cures only 10%, regardless of all factors (like blood type). Therefore, you would conclude that the first drug is better. There you go: utilitarianism is your yardstick for the better drug.

(Anyway, I find this talk about underlying principles is more applicable to basic research than applied research.)

And it doesn't really make you more successful in terms of research to know the origins of these assumptions. It just gives you a more complete knowledge of what you're doing; all these universal principle stuff is actually more under the subject of philosophy.

Lim Leng Hiong said...


Thanks for your insightful article. I find articles by Andy Ho very hard to read because he often uses big words and convoluted arguments to muddy simple concepts.

There may be other ways to reach the truth, but science is the only reliable way. Some of the main reasons why: science defines its questions very clearly, recognizes its own limits and can quantify its own imprecision.

All other methods of reaching the truth are more flaky and subject to much disagreement. They may make massive claims, but these are either too diffuse to test or even conceptually untestable.

Science cannot be used to "prove" God; evidence can only be used to "support" a God hypothesis. If the God hypothesis is very diffuse then any attempt at using science to support God will be weak.

However if the God hypothesis is specific and clearly defined (for example: A God who can make believers defy gravity with replicable results) then scientific investigation can either provide strong meaningful support, or quickly disprove it.

In addition, there is no real boundary between "supernatural" and natural. You made a good point that ethereal phenomena such as the Sun or Lightning that used to be attributed to Gods have now entered the realm of the natural.

Afflictions previously attributed to evil spirits and demonic possession are now in the scientific disciplines of infectious diseases and neurology/psychology. As Anon 1:34 noted correctly, we reject the "supernatural" not merely because it is "supernatural". We reject it because it fails to fit empirical evidence and generate more reliable results compared with natural explanations.

As the repertoire of natural explanations increases in depth, breadth and precision, there will be less and less room for the "supernatural" to hide.

To avoid rational inquiry the only way out for adherents of supernatural ideas is to muddy the concepts of God and spirituality as much as possible to make them impossible to disprove.

Let me summarize the entire debate into a colourful caricature:

Mr. Ho says: "Hah, scientists. Don't get cocky. Just because you can cure many diseases and land robots accurately on Mars doesn't mean you know everything. Knowing 99% of the truth still isn't 100%. You are ignoring the vast wonders of the supernatural at your peril."

To which I say: "Science is hard work. Of course we don't know everything. If the supernatural can produce better cures and land a rover more accurately than using science, then let's go for it.

Otherwise you are hanging on to your '1% of the remaining truth' at your peril. Because as of last week, it has dropped to 0.95%, give or take a few thousandth of a percent."

Would you like to know more?

YCK said...

Read your comments on Andy Ho's and was quite impressed by some of your insights.

I do not know much about the philosophy of science, strong anthropic principles and most subjects of humanities, being a student of science in the faculty way down the road, but found these things interesting. I am a philistine of sort :) But I hope to be able to make better sense of them by reading up.

I recently read a short book Le Poidevin, Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, form the school library. It was quite a good introduction to some tools that Andy Ho used.

Hope to read more of such interesting post :)

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