The Alleged Conflict Continues!

The Alleged Conflict Continues!

Dr. Craig offers fresh insight into the topic of science vs. religion


Transcript The Alleged Conflict Continues

KEVIN HARRIS: How long are we going to have to fight this? People are just not getting the memo. This belief that there is a conflict between science and religion, or that science has removed God as an explanation for the universe. We continue to see this everywhere. I saw it today on an online forum for a major news organization. Several people there were saying “I don’t need God, I’ve got science.”

Dr. Craig, I wish everyone would read this article that we are going to look at today – everyone who thinks that there is a conflict between science and religion or science versus philosophy. I know we talked a lot about this but let’s continue to address it because it keeps coming up. Even though we’ve addressed it a lot on these podcasts, I think there are always fresh perspectives that you can bring and outstanding writing like this article.

DR. CRAIG: We are going to look at an article by Roger Trigg who is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Warwick in England and so a philosopher of some eminence.

KEVIN HARRIS: He was the founding president of the British Philosophical Association. The name of this article is “Why Science Needs Metaphysics: Science Can’t Tell Us Whether Science Explains Everything.”[1] We’ll begin. Let’s, once again, define metaphysics.

DR. CRAIG: Metaphysics will be a philosophical inquiry into the nature of ultimate reality – what is the nature of the world, not simply on a scientific level but ultimately.

KEVIN HARRIS: I wonder how it got mischaracterized to the extent that when you go to the bookstore you go to the New Age section and it is ghosts and goblins and things like that. People have that mistaken identity.

DR. CRAIG: Somehow metaphysics got connected with New Age mysticism. That is not classically the way it has been used. Perhaps that is a result of verificationism in the first half of the 20th century which attempted to expel metaphysics from philosophy as a meaningless exercise and wanted to simply allow science to dictate to us the way reality ultimately is. In a sense what Trigg is reacting to is that old-line verificationist approach which would exalt science over metaphysics and philosophy.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says,

Theories are more underdetermined by empirical results than ever, but scientists are reluctant to admit that the arguments they put forward are philosophical and metaphysical. Their theories provide a framework in which they can operate, but if they are removed not only from actual observation but from what in principle can be accessible to us, our descendants, or even any possible observer in our universe, it is hard to see that they are anything other than the product of pure reason. Just because scientists use such reasoning does not make it science.

The gist of this that I just read is that he apparently detects this reluctance to admit that philosophy is what they are doing quite often as science. It is not just us. It is not just others who have been jumping up and down on this.

DR. CRAIG: That’s right. It is ironic because sometimes these same persons will decry philosophy as a pointless and empty discipline which is no good and serves no purpose. And yet if Trigg is right they actually are themselves (unwittingly perhaps) engaged in philosophical and metaphysical pursuits.

KEVIN HARRIS: It says, “Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim.” We have a little bit of a contradiction there, of a self-refuting statement.[2]

DR. CRAIG: Yes, that is right. It would be self-referentially incoherent because in order to assert that science can answer all questions, he is claiming you would have to be making a non-scientific claim about science. That cannot come from within science itself. It is an external claim about science that it can explain everything.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says you can’t escape it. He continues,

Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope. The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science. It is always a statement about science.

Let’s just continue to clear this up as we look at this. He continues,

Similarly, in philosophy the question must be pressed as to where the verificationist—who believes that a proposition is meaningful only if it can be proved true or false—stands in order to deny the possibility of metaphysics.

What do you think about his definition?

DR. CRAIG: That is the old-line verificationism that I spoke of that dominated the first half of the 20th century in philosophy and then began to wane in mid-century and then was finally abandoned as untenable and obsolete by the end of the 20th century. This kind of verificationism – that is to say, that a proposition is meaningful only if it can be proved scientifically true or false – he maintains that this sort of verificationism is untenable and that you would need to have a metaphysical perspective to hold to it.

KEVIN HARRIS: Do you think that there is a difference between verificationism and empirical verificationism or is that the same thing? Usually when we say verificationism we mean empirical verificationism.

DR. CRAIG: When we are thinking of philosophy, verificationism is this theory of meaning that Trigg is talking about. But obviously when scientists are doing experimental work, they try to verify their theories through empirical evidence. But that is not the theory of verificationism which is a theory of meaning. It would be better to say that they are committed to experimentalism. They don’t just theorize, but they go out and look for empirical evidence for their theory. That would be an experimentalist.

KEVIN HARRIS: He implies that A. J. Ayer tried to get around this by saying that the verification principle is an “axiom.” He says,

That, though, does not settle the question of why we should choose such an axiom. It seems somewhat arbitrary and leaves open the possibility that others can just choose a different starting place without fear of rational criticism. Nothing has then been solved.

It doesn’t solve the problem by saying, “No, empirical verification is an axiom.”

DR. CRAIG: The idea there is that the verification principle itself shouldn’t be applied to itself. You shouldn’t say that this statement is meaningful only if it can be proved by science to be true or false. Ayer would say it is just an axiom from which you begin. You start with this as a foundational principle. And Trigg’s point is – but then it just becomes arbitrary because there is no evidence for it. It is an arbitrarily adopted axiom. Why should we do that? I think that is actually understating the difficulty of the verificationist’s position. The fact is this is an axiom that is utterly implausible because it would foist upon us an understanding of meaning that is so narrow that the vast majority of human speech and language would have to be dismissed as meaningless. If you’ve seen my debate with Peter Atkins – the first one at the Carter Center in Atlanta[3] – he is an old-line verificationist who thinks that if a statement cannot be scientifically proven then it is just meaningless. In that debate I list something like five different fields of study including mathematics, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, and so forth in which there are clearly meaningful statements that cannot be verified or falsified through empirical science.[4] He has little response to that.

KEVIN HARRIS: William F. Buckley, after you listed those five, he said, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” [laughter] He was pretty impressed by that.

DR. CRAIG: So Trigg is quite right here. This would just be an arbitrary convention which the verificationist might adopt, but then would leave us saddled with an utterly implausible theory of meaning.

KEVIN HARRIS: He goes on to say,

Some philosophers . . . have talked of the impossibility of a “God’s eye view.” None of us can stand outside all human understanding and conceptual schemes and talk of what there is or could be. We are all anchored where we are. This is a truism, but it can quickly result in questioning the possibility of any detached reasoning.

That is one of the things that those who really . . . they promote scientism. They really try to claim as a hallmark of science is that it is detached reasoning. It is totally objective. It gets rid of all the subjective elements to it.

DR. CRAIG: Trigg wants to defend the objectivity of knowledge and reasoning here. He admits that we all are anchored in our language, in particular, and the cognitive frameworks out of which we work, but he doesn’t agree that this leads to a kind of relativity of truth and knowledge. In fact, if you think about it, that statement “None of us can stand outside all human understanding and conceptual schemes and talk of what there is or could be” - is that statement made simply from within a particular conceptual scheme? If so then it is not objectively binding, and we don’t need to agree with it. But if it is true in an objective sense, independent of a conceptual scheme, then it is false that it leads to any kind of relativity or non-objectivity. Even though we proceed from within our conceptual frameworks and language that is not a good reason to deny that we can get at objective truth and know the way the world is. In fact, I think that very often through a language and conceptual schemes we can latch onto the way the world is and understand reality.

KEVIN HARRIS: It reminds me of when someone makes the claim, which you hear quite often: “There is nothing beyond the human mind. There is nothing outside the human mind.” You’d have to go outside the human mind in order to determine that. In other words, you’ve been there and come back and say there is nothing there. But then you’ve gone beyond the human mind.

DR. CRAIG: That is very much in the spirit of Trigg’s critique, I think. In order to make these statements you have to assume an extra-scientific standpoint which the position prohibits your taking. It wants a “science gives all the answers, you are stuck within your scientific framework,” and therefore you cannot make these kind of extra- or external statements. As you point out, in order to say that there is no objective truth and that there is nothing that science can’t get at or nothing beyond human mind, you are already assuming that external standpoint.

KEVIN HARRIS: This next paragraph he really gets into an area which you have been looking at. He starts talking about mathematics. He says,

Mathematics, though, could be claimed to be merely a tool created by the human mind. Why, then, should we assume that it can express in compressible form the workings of physical reality? Those, like Max Tegmark, who assume that the nature of reality is mathematical are making a jump between symbols that seem to be the creation of mind and a reality that not only exists independently of our knowledge of it but also far outstrips any possible knowledge. Tegmark explains the utility of mathematics for describing the physical world as “a natural consequence of the fact that the latter is a mathematical structure, and we’re simply uncovering this bit by bit.”

DR. CRAIG: He is raising the question of the applicability of mathematics: why is it that a mathematical theorist like Peter Higgs can sit down at his desk and by figuring out solutions to mathematical equations on paper predict the existence of a particle which experimentalists then go out and after investing millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours manage to discover – namely, the Higgs Boson?[5] How is it that mathematics is the key to physical reality in this way? Trigg seems to think of mathematics as just a creation of the human mind – a tool that we have made – and that would make it odd why it should describe a reality that exists independently of our mind. I don’t think that that is essential to the argument here at all. I am not inclined to think that mathematics is a creation of the human mind and just a convention that human beings have adopted. But even if you think that mathematical objects exist in some sort of a Platonic realm – that numbers and sets and functions and equations all exist – the question still is: how is it that the physical world is so structured that this abstract mathematical apparatus applies to it and describes it? He says that Max Tegmark explains this utility or applicability of mathematics by saying that the physical world itself has a mathematical structure, and so we are just discovering this.

I think two points can be made about that attempt to explain the utility or applicability of mathematics. First, it is simply not true. There are useful mathematical theories that have no counterparts in the structure of reality. For example, in quantum mechanics, physicists use something called Hilbert Space. This is a purely logical space that is infinite dimensional. It has no counterpart in the physical world whatsoever. And yet using Hilbert Space is an indispensable and fruitful tool for understanding the world as quantum physics describes it. So you cannot explain the applicability or utility of Hilbert Space by saying that the physical world meshes up with it in its structure.

But secondly, even for those mathematical structures that do find counterparts in the world – like say elementary arithmetic, the natural numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), that the world is built in such a way that 2+2=4 – the question still is then: why is the physical world built on this mathematical structure? Granted, if you say that the physical world is imbued with this mathematical structure then that would explain why mathematics applies to it. But it doesn’t explain why the physical world has that mathematical structure. Here I think that the answer is most plausibly found in theism – that God has created the world in such a way that it has both a mathematical structure and also is so-built or so-constructed that these various mathematical theories like Hilbert Space are applicable to it and therefore useful in describing it. That would be the case whether you think mathematics is just a human invention (as Trigg seems to) or whether you think mathematics and mathematical objects exists independently of the human mind in the way the Platonist does. In either case the explanation for the applicability of mathematics to the physical world will lie in the mind which designed physical reality to mesh up with such a structure and to be describable by such structures.

KEVIN HARRIS: We hear so much, especially those who embrace some form of scientism so common today, that science is the only way to discover reality. But he quotes Jim Baggot here. He says,

“reality is a metaphysical concept, and as such beyond the reach of science,” he points out that “scientific realists assume that reality (and its entities) exist objectively and independently of perception or measurement.”

. . .

Reality gives science a goal and a purpose. . . . Science has to be in the business of discovery.

DR. CRAIG: I think what he is saying there is, again, that if the scientist does really want to describe the way reality is, that reality is a metaphysical thing to which science can be applicable and can discover. This reality exists independently of science, and science is one of the ways to try to find out the way this reality is.[6] I would say that science does an excellent job in telling us much about the way the world is.

That is not to say that we should be naïve scientific realists. My own work on God and abstract objects has helped me to realize the degree to which even our best scientific theories are shot through with useful fictions – things like idealizations like ideal fluids and ideal gases composed of an infinity of points which no real fluid or gas is like. Or a frictionless plane or points at infinity. There are all sorts of idealizations, and then also theoretical entities like the Higgs boson (before the experimentalists found evidence of it), which science postulates but which are not provable by science and may even be known to be false, may even be known to be just useful fictions.

Science shouldn’t be thought of in a naïve way as just giving us a picture of reality, but I do think that it does give us insights into the way the world is – a kind of critical realism would be the best position to take.

KEVIN HARRIS: By the way, he mentions Kant here. Anytime I am reading something and I see Immanuel Kant come up I usually run from the room because it is so deep. He asks,

If we are embedded in a reality that can be beyond our reach, how can we hope to achieve any knowledge at all? Perhaps Kant was right, and what we think we know may simply reflect the categories of the human mind. We can perhaps only deal with things as they appear to us. How things are in themselves may forever be beyond our grasp.

I wanted to bring that up because I just wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about what Kant meant by the categories of the mind.

DR. CRAIG: Kant believed that we have certain inherent cognitive categories that we bring to the world when we look at it. For example, we put things in space and time. On Kant’s view, you can’t really say that things really exist in space and time. This is something that the mind imposes on reality. He thought there were a number of other categories that the mind imposes on reality in order to structure it in this way. Kant has this bifurcation between appearance and reality: the way things appear to us and the way things are in themselves. He denied that we have any knowledge of things in themselves. All we have is knowledge of things as they appear to us.

Steward Hackett argues, I think convincingly, in his book The Resurrection of Theism, this view is really again self-referentially incoherent. In order to say that there are things in themselves (and Kant did believe that) you have to already have gotten beyond the realm of mere appearance in order to assert that there is this distinction between things in themselves and things as they appear to us. You’ve already taken that external standpoint that Trigg is talking about. Moreover, what Hackett points out is that if the categories that we use to understand reality are categories in which reality itself is structured then they will mesh up and we will have an understanding of the way reality is. This is rather similar to what Tegmark said about reality having a mathematical structure in it so that when we use our mathematics then mathematics will apply to reality. The same would be true with these Kantian categories. If God has so structured the world that these mental categories line up with the way the world is then far from making us skeptical about knowing things as they are in themselves, this will actually be the means by which we could know reality as it is in itself.

KEVIN HARRIS: On theism, God would create the universe in such a way as it could be discovered. Maybe not all at once, but he seems to have made things discoverable. We can discover.

DR. CRAIG: That certainly has been the mainstream Christian position. God, as a rational Creator, has made a universe that is amenable to rational exploration and discovery. This helps to motivate the whole project of modern science. Whereas on this Kantian skeptical view, honestly it is more like Hinduism.[7] All we see is the world of appearance, but we do not know reality – the reality behind the appearance. I think that view is both in a sense self-refuting and also unprovable because it just assumes that the categories that the mind brings to experience are not also categories of reality itself. If they are then we can know more than just appearance – we can know reality. As you say, the Christian position traditionally has been that is the way God has made the world, as well as the soul, so that we can know the world.

KEVIN HARRIS: That is a good thing because we get to discover. We get to participate.

DR. CRAIG: It validates the project of science.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yes, it does. I don’t run from the room quite as fast when David Hume is brought up, but he is brought up here.

David Hume, as an empiricist philosopher in the 18th century, tried to remove the need for metaphysics by saying that our reasoning concerning the uniformity of nature is not grounded in the character of reality. “It is,” he says, “not reason, which is the guide of life, but custom.” We merely expect the future to resemble the past, for example.

DR. CRAIG: This is the old problem of inductive reasoning. Just because every time you’ve observed A happen in the past that it has been followed by B, Hume says: how do you know that tomorrow when A occurs it will be followed by B? If you say every time in the past A has been followed by B and that gives me some grounds for thinking that it will be tomorrow, Hume will say: how do you know that you are not just at the beginning of a long series of chaotic As and Cs and Ds and other things, but just the first segment of the series is structured A, B, A, B, A, B and that soon is going to terminate? So it would lead to a skepticism about all inductive reasoning thereby undermining the project of science itself.

Whatever else might be said about this, I think, again, the theist will maintain that God has so structured the world that inductive reasoning will apply, and that the world will not descend into a sort of chaos but that it is a world that is amenable to this kind of inductive inference.

KEVIN HARRIS: He brings this paragraph to a close by saying,

Science becomes more the expression of human nature and our preference for the familiar than a quest for knowledge. We describe what happens and give up looking for any deeper explanation as to why it does.

DR. CRAIG: Right. That would be his critique of the Humean view – that it ultimately undermines science as a quest for knowledge about the world.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, concluding,

There is such a thing as scientific progress, and it happens through systematic trial and error . . . A “scientific realist” has to be wary, though, about how such realism is defined. A realism that makes reality what contemporary science says it is links reality logically to the human minds of the present day. Science is then just a human product, rooted in time and place. Bringing in future science—or ideal science—may sound more plausible, but even then there is a distinction between science reflecting (or corresponding to) the nature of reality and it being simply a human construction. . . . Even the greatest scientists, such as Einstein, have seen that the intelligibility of the world is a mystery.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. If you say that there is a reality which is not just constructed by science but rather uncovered or discovered by science then he says the question arises: why does reality have a character that enables it to be understood scientifically? He says this:

Like the way in which mathematics seems to map the intrinsic rational structure of the physical world, this is presupposed within science and cannot be given a scientific explanation. It appears to be a metaphysical fact, and the explanation for which, if there can be one, must come from beyond science.

I, as a theist, would say the explanation is to be found in God. This is indeed a metaphysical explanation for both a mathematical and rational structure of the physical world which is presupposed by science and makes science possible. This shows that in order to justify science, I think theism provides a plausible grounding.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let me conclude today by asking you one of those Sunday School questions. Do you think that when we get to heaven, the new heaven and new Earth, that we will have all the answers? The reason I am asking that is because, Paul said right now we see through a glass darkly but then we will know. You got to put that in context. But kids seem to think that. I’ve always thought that as a kid – when you get there you are going to have all the answers. You are going to know how all of this works. But now I’ve kind of changed that. God is infinite; we will remain finite. We can discover God from now on.

DR. CRAIG: Right. You could go on. If He truly is infinite, you could embark upon an infinite exploration of truth and ever-deeper insights into the nature of reality.

KEVIN HARRIS: I like that a lot better. I like to discover than just knowing it all.[8]



[1] See http://nautil.us/issue/29/scaling/why-science-needs-metaphysics (accessed February 21, 2016).

[2] 5:08

[3] See http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-atkins-carter-center-atlanta (accessed February 21, 2016).

[4] 10:07

[5] 15:10

[6] 20:13

[7] 25:09

[8] Total Running Time: 31:43 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)