Thursday, March 01, 2007

When Philosophy and Science Collide

Not to long ago, I was in a discussion with Streak about the nature of science and its interconnectivity with philosophy, particularly that of origins. It is possible to teach science in a controlled environment and for philosophies about the origin of life to never come up. However, it is unlikely that the subject will never come up and when a student's philosophy collides with his or her view on science, what should happen? Either one should be intellectually honest and confess that one believes in a young earth, holds to creation, etc. or one could simply hide that fact from one's professors and mentors.

Just because a person studies theories that differ from a creationist standpoint does not make that student an automatic proponent of it. A creationist professor can teach theories that differ from his own perspective and vice versa. That is simply scientific faithfulness. However, what if one's beliefs collide with what a scientific institution purports and a student receives a degree that blatantly contradicts deeply held philosophical beliefs? From BP:
Typically, a scientist must follow the guidelines of secular science if he wants to earn an advanced degree in the field from a reputable university. So when Marcus Ross wrote a dissertation to finish a Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island, he had to work within a conventional scientific framework.

Even though he wrote that the earth is more than 65 million years old, he doesn’t really believe it. Ross is a young earth creationist who believes in the Genesis account of creation and is certain the earth is no more than 10,000 years old [emphasis mine].
The New York Times article, Believing Scripture but Playing by Science’s Rules, 12 February 2007, justifies Dr. Ross' actions by "separating paradigms" and that Ross' dates are "entirely appropriate."
“For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one ‘paradigm’ for studying the past, and Scripture is another,” The Times reported. “In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, ‘that I am separating the different paradigms.’”
The aforementioned quotation illustrates the tension. Can (or should) the paradigms be separated? Should one publish a work that contradicts his deeply held religious beliefs and then use those same credentials to gain employment? Dr. Ross teaches earth sciences from a creationist perspective at Liberty University.


Streak said...

This example bothers me. And the man's integrity is not enhanced with his choice of employment. But that is another issue.

With evolution, it seems to me, there is a great amount of room for both belief and science to coexist. I know some disagree with me, but evolution is about two (at least) key issues--the nature of species development and the origins of human kind. Most that I know of, don't disagree about the first part. I know very few people in any discipline who say that evolution does not occur. We have ample evidence of that. It is that second issue--the origins of man that is the sticking point, right?

So, it seems to me that a biologist can with great integrity teach evolutionary biology and still hold to a belief that God was in charge of setting all of that in motion. (That is what most Christians thought prior to the early 20th century).

But in the case of geology, isn't this person asserting a belief that is in direct contradiction with factual evidence? We have evidence of human development between 10 and 14 thousand years ago in South America, and that isn't even addressing geological evidence.

Like I have said, with all due respect, I believe that faith is incredibly important and valuable. Faith is where we can find answers that our earthly abilities deny us. Faith confirms that God really exists and cares about us. When we invoke faith in denial of empirical evidence, I cringe and am reminded of the Church resisting the notion that the earth revolved around the sun.

Tony, I suspect you are more interested in the conflict between this man saying things in his dissertation that he doesn't even believe simply to get his degree and still maintaining his integrity. I find his actions questionable, personally. In history, it would be like writing a dissertation on the Cahokia mounds and the complex cultures that lived there--all the while actualy believing that those mounds were the work of ancient Egyptians.

Or perhaps I am simply not as amiable today. Blame that on allergies. :)

Tony said...


I believe evolution can adequately explain speciation but does not possess the explanatory power to address origins (and not just man).

Ross' actions betray several philosophical conundrums, not the least of which is the crossing of beliefs about origins.

And I must admit, the sticking point for me is his essentially lying in order to be hooded.

Even that is not without its problems, because you cannot get a credible degree in creationist science. So it paints him into a corner. What should he do?

I guess this becomes one of those "graded absolutism" ethical dilemmas. So integrity is probably my primary issue with this post; though I did feel it provided an adequate example that philosophy and science will eventually collide with one another in the classroom.

I want to be sympathetic with the situation; I am sure he worked extremely hard to get his doctorate. However, in the end to me, it becomes a farce.

Streak said...

Even that is not without its problems, because you cannot get a credible degree in creationist science.

That is the rub isn't it?

I have been through a Phd program, though not in earth sciences, but there is a part of me that really suspects that this man could have chosen his topic differently. Not only that, but a dissertation is a huge dedication of time and effort--to dedicate yourself to explaining something you don't even believe is really hard to fathom.

I really did understand your point about philosophy and science colliding, but I am not sure this is that example. I think the evolution as origin explanation is much better.

I am curious, and perhaps treading close to the annoyance line, but at what point do we actually accept empirical data? How does someone who studies geology simply ignore the evidence of his own field of a much older earth, to say nothing of the evidence from archeology?

I ask because a big part of your last post was about scientific evidence proving viability for a fetus to support the pro-life cause, right? Why is scientific evidence in one case proof, and in another not?

Tony said...


I think I must be horribly missing your point, because I am still seeing where philosophy and science are colliding in this case.

We spoke specifically in that homeschooling post not too long ago about the inability of a science teacher, any science teacher, to teach without allowing beliefs about origins to interfere.

I felt this example squared up, because here is an educator's philosophy of origins clearly not aligned with his credentials.

But I am probably missing your point.

In regards to your concluding questions, I am no geologist, but haven't most dating systems been proven unreliable? C14 dating has been proven inadequate by a number of credible resources; not to mention the inadequacy of the fossil record. For instance the Brontosaurus, carried in science books as THE proof the fossil record was completely adequate, was proven that the skeleton was completely reassembled but without a head. A skeletal head was added from an incomplete skeleton unearthed four miles away.

Numerous inconsistencies have been found as well as a veritable lack of "transitionary fossils."

In the case of the post on abortion the raw empirical data was irrefutable. However, many points upon which claims of veracity have been made concerning the geologic record have been proven unreliable.

I know the sun does not revolve around the earth, but could it be quite possible that a new scientific trend is in the making that is working opposite of what has been accepted for hundreds of years, that the earth is unquestionably old?

And besides in your earliest comment, you concede the most the historical record can provide is 10-14,000 years. I am just much more comfortable saying "thousands" instead of "millions."

Streak said...

Actually, the 10,000 to 14,000 date is simply known human activity and that was limited to South America. Those people came from somewhere and had to make their way down the coastline of the continent.

Like I said, I completely understand when evolution and creation collide at the point of origins. That is a hazy and philosophically charged point. The age of rocks is really less so. Why so hesitant to see the earth as older? The mass of fossils and other dating techniques seem to suggest to me that the 6,000 year old earth is hard to defend.

But mostly, I am still stuck in why that is even necessary. Believing in an ancient earth never stopped the bulk of historical Christians from believing in God. It really took until the 20th century for 7th Day Adventists to create the YEC paradigm. Even William Jennings Bryan believed in an old earth as he fought evolution with his almost last literal breath.

I confess confusion of my own. Science is useful when it suggests viability earlier than pro-choicers thought, but not useful when it includes mounds of evidence on the age of the earth, or even when it suggests complicated notions of sexuality. At what point do we simply pick from facts as if we are at a buffet?

And I am still puzzled as to the nature of faith. Why do we need faith if we creation science can document and prove the creation? At what point is faith simply invoked to avoid "inconvenient facts?"

Perhaps I am too jaded today, and for that I apologize. My mother is a YEC and she told me that there was all sorts of new evidence that the Grand Canyon was formed in a few years rather than over millenia. I asked my third cousin, at a family gathering, if there were new explanations for the formation of the GC. He is a retired geologist and he looked at me as if I was crazy. My neighbors are evolutionary biologists. That is what they do--day in, day out. My cousin spent his career studying rocks.

Perhaps my reticence is that I have spent my adult life studying the past. The bulk of criticism on these issues comes from part-time biology readers--very little of it from the professionals. Perhaps I wonder how easily my historical expertise can be swept away by someone who asserts God's providence on the Constitution.

Or maybe I am just tired.

Tony said...

No, Streak,

I am the one who should apologize. I mean in no way to cast aspersions on your expertise nor the time and effort you put in to your PhD.

I probably am just one of those part time biology readers; I did major in biology but that in no way confirms me as an expert in the field.

The preponderance of evidence does weigh heavily in your favor. I am going to keep reading and studying.

I do desire further education myself and am looking at possibly starting back.

Streak said...

Tony, I don't think you owe me any kind of an apology. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and grace in discussion the thorniest of issues. My background probably helps me in some areas, but that doesn't mean it doesn't blind me in others.