Since the enlightment in Europe during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s there has been an increasing tension between science and theologies. Both sides have contributed to the rancor and misunderstandings.

Science has properly not labored to explain first causes, or the Why questions. Religion, including Christianity, generally has not spelled out the How and What questions.  Many scientists and researchers continually chastize religion for not embrasing current scientific explanations, while the churches often are angry with “current” scientific explanations as the last word in knowledge and understanding. Fr. Ernesto mentions how scientific explanation manages to change, or even reverse the explanation. Such flip flops generate argument within the scientific community, not  to mention the general public and Church theologies.

It is helpful for we Christians to understand the scientific method and development of theories. There is no real reason that tension and even rancor needs to exist here, at least on the part of the Church.

Fr. Ernesto, who as a worker priest, labors in a military hospital dealing with blood issues is both scientist and priest.  His article below, along with some related posts, deal with these misunderstandings.

Fr. Orthohippo   January 8. 2011


One of the things that most people do not understand about science is that one of the ways in which an accurate understanding of what we see, touch, hear, etc., is reached is by proposing alternate theories that try to explain what we see, touch, hear, etc. Then those alternate theories are tested against each other, by way of experiments and/or reasonable analysis until the results of the experiments and the analyses points more and more toward one of the theories (or none of them, in which case scientists start over).

The misunderstanding is that all too many people think that because there are different and competing theories means that science really knows nothing. That is, most people fail to notice that this method of competing theories has slowly led us to the development of the laptop on which I am writing, the Internet which makes blogging possible, etc. You see, the clash of competing theories allows for the more accurate theory to come out. Then a new clash ensues, and a better theory emerges. Sometimes, the clash is so violent that the preceding theory is completely thrown out and everything that we thought we knew on that subject is changed.

That type of event is called a paradigm shift. However, that type of major event is rare. Most of the time the changes are refinements or expansions on previously existing understandings. Even paradigm shifts do not fully wipe out what came before. For instance, the Einsteinian revolution in the conception of space/time did not invalidate the basic findings of Isaac Newton. To this day, for many basic daily mechanical calculations, Newtonian physics are as accurate as needed. But, when you get out to the level of GPS satellites, Newtonian physics no longer work for allowing GPS receivers to accurately calculate our locations on the surface of the Earth. You see, while Newtonian physics allow us to quite handily calculate orbits around the Earth, it takes Einsteinian space/time relativity to correctly calculate positions. It turns out that a clock in satellite runs slower in relation to the Earth than a clock on Earth. Thus, every GPS receiver has an adjustment, based on Einstein, that calculates the adjustment needed. And there are ways to adjust GPS satellite clocks periodically. But all that is to say that even as major a paradigm shift as general relativity did not totally undo the advances of prior centuries.

The problem today, I repeat, is that people think that just because they can quote a disagreement or because they know one or two holes in a theory that this means that they have clearly shown how bad the theory is. The reality is that the clash of theories means more than just being able to quote a disagreement. The clash is resolved by carrying out multiple experiments, by working on multiple mathematical models to see what results they predict, by looking at the long-term implications of certain theories and predicting what testable results we should see if that theory were to be true. More than that, it means that just claiming conspiracy theories or just pointing out some flaws is insufficient to claim that you have disproved a particular scientific theory. You cannot just point out flaws in someone else’s theory, you must actively prove that your theory is better and actively disprove the other.

And that is the main problem with the many people who say that in school we should “teach the controversy.” What they mean is that as long as they disagree with a particular theory then the school is duty bound to “teach the controversy.” However, I just commented that merely pointing out flaws is insufficient to disprove a theory. That is only sufficient for arguing that definitions need to be tightened up or some alternate pathways need to be considered. When teaching the controversy is merely based on clever argumentation, without significant amounts of confirmatory data, then there is no controversy, there is only endless philosophical debate whose sole purpose is to obfuscate and delay and cause sufficient “political” problems that the other side finally yields.

Mere controversy is insufficient to force the “teaching of the controversy.” If that approach were true, then schools would have to teach any of several theories of many issues. For instance, can you imagine a medical school being forced to teach every theory on the origins of certain diseases, regardless of whether the main consensus was on one particular theory? Would you care to be treated by physicians who had been told that many possible theories on [fill in the blank] were true and that many types of treatment were equally valid and could possibly be equally helpful? No, even the teaching the controversy folk do not want that type of medical training or that type of healthcare. They merely insist that on certain limited subjects, the principles of science must be suspended so that their pet theory, and only their pet theory, is taught as an alternative to the main consensus.

And that is what I have against the approach of the “teach the controversy” folk.


About Fr. Orthohippo

The blog of a retired Anglican priest (MSJ), his musings, journey, humor, wonderment, and comments on today's scene.
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