Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Science, Atheism, Ignorance and St. Thomas Aquinas

Right now I'm listening to Professor Peter Kreeft's series of lectures on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. It's very accessible, but even so, it will take a few times through to understand most of it. St. Thomas Aquinas was so brilliant and so deep that it's impossible to comprehend him in a single pass.

Tangent: Many years ago, I was part of a scientific working group on modelling atmospheric noise. One group of credentialed researchers from a well-known university presented a paper discussing modifications to their model of global atmospheric noise. It was my first time at one of these meetings and I hadn't seen their work before.

It was horrendous.

They had data points for certain spots, but the values their computer models had come up with for points in between made no sense at all. That is, if I knew that there was 37 dB of noise in Tampa and 43 dB in Miami, then the spot in between Tampa and Miami ought to be between 37 and 43. With their model, it was something like 80. When asked to justify that value, they got all flustered and it was clear they had never thought about it before.

They were scientists, doing science, from a famous university and they were not just wrong, but wildly wrong. Had they been theologians, Bill Maher would have gone on a 10-minute comedy rant about them, claiming that people who believed what they believed were idiots.

Back to the point: St. Thomas Aquinas brilliantly married science, philosophy and faith. You can't work your way through his thinking and claim he was superstitious or believed in the Easter Bunny or was a simple-minded twit, no matter how many creationists you think can dance on the head of a pin. In fact, having engaged with science-based atheists several time on this blog, I can't see how any of their objections work against the teachings of Aquinas. I can see how you might respectfully disagree with him and cling to the belief that God does not exist, but I don't see how you could ever mock him.

The researchers I described above had a dreadful model of the world. It clearly failed the simplest tests of reality. If I wanted, I could have based my perception of science on their work. It's obvious, I might say, that scientists don't really know anything at all and they're only goal is to obscure what they're doing in fancy words and equations so they can fleece us out of money to continue their ridiculous research. They're not advancing Man's search for knowledge, they're actually retarding it!

That analysis would have been wrong. Those researchers were intelligent, educated and well-meaning. Their blunders didn't invalidate science, any more than the fellow who used the Bible to predict the end of the world invalidated Christianity. All we have to do to assure ourselves that scientists aren't all scam artists is look at Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler.

And all we have to do to take Christianity seriously is look at St. Thomas Aquinas.


AntiTheist.Now said...

"The researchers I described above had a dreadful model of the world. It clearly failed the simplest tests of reality. If I wanted, I could have based my perception of science on their work. It's obvious, I might say, that scientists don't really know anything at all and they're only goal is to obscure what they're doing in fancy words and equations so they can fleece us out of money to continue their ridiculous research."

And it is right in this set of sentences that you display your complete ignorance of what's what.

Dreadful model of the world and failed tests of reality to be sure. What you fail to understand that just because those particular scientist didn't think of looking into an explanation (which sounds like a total bullshit story, btw, but I'll proceed as if it was true) doesn't mean there isn't one, or that YOUR view is correct, or that they didn't just commit an error in reporting. See, you have no idea what it should be, you ASSUME that it should be lower, but don't know for sure. Which leads me to my next point.

In science, assumptions are tested, re-tested, verified, then re-tested again. Answers are searched out. In religion, all of the answers you ever needed were given to you and you assume the rest - hence the idiocy of the conclusion of the post, despite its seemingly conciliatory nature.

You were right to question the scientists (if that's how it really happened) and they should look at their findings. Try questioning the talking snake and creation of the entire universe in 6 days.

pathickey said...

Good old Lord Bertie Russell held the Dumb Ox in High Esteem - that was when an atheist was far less Puritanical.

K T Cat said...

AntiTheist Now (ATN), thanks for the comment! Here's a question for you: if science can evolve through experiment and thought, why can't theology?

How did St. Thomas Aquinas differ from, say, St. Augustine? How did he revolutionize our understanding of the world? What did he reconcile?

I think your assessment of science is quite good. I think your understanding of theological evolution needs a little work.

As for my story being inaccurate, I confess you're right. I simplified the story a bit. When I get a chance (perhaps tonight), I'll edit the post and attribute the catch to you.

tim eisele said...

"If science can evolve through experiment and thought, why can't theology?"

Good question. To what extent is theology based on experiment? Can you describe some experiments that have resolved theological points?

K T Cat said...

Aquinas reconciled the concepts of Aristotle and faith pretty well. He used what he observed around him to refine a definition of God. I've not done any thorough research into his mentor, St. Albertus Magnus, but a cursory look suggests he did the same.

On a non-Aquinas note, St. Augustine used observation and analysis to repudiate the Manichaeans.

AntiTheist.Now said...

"Aquinas reconciled the concepts of Aristotle and faith pretty well"

Well that's the problem, isn't it? It's the fact that god has to constantly be redefined and reconciled to what science discovers and understands. Reconciling a description of a flat earth to discoveries that it's round took a bit of time, but then what exactly are you basing your definition of a god on? If he's not who he says he is, and he didn't do what he said he did, and he didn't make things as he said he did - what are you left with?

Dragging a definition of a stone age product of fear through modern ages and screaming that's it's still largely true if it wasn't for these incidental things that make it less so..

John Travolta said...

I think it's a common misconception that atheists "cling to the belief that God does not exist", because that would require proving a negative, which is almost always impossible.

Rather than claiming that God (in this case, Jehovah) does not exist, most atheists (myself included) reject claims that a god exists on the basis of insufficient evidence.

As for me personally, I've read and listened to a lot of theological claims by a lot of learned theologians and apologists, and have yet to find a single one which came close to convincing me.

I should also mention that many of these same theists would tell me that for this supposed 'supernatural crime' of unbelief, I am deserving of eternal torture.

K T Cat said...

Wouldn't insufficient evidence lead you to being an agnostic?

John Travolta said...

Well, my understanding of agnosticism vs atheism is that they're two orthogonal ideas.

Gnosticism/agnosticism deals with whether it's possible to know/not know that supernatural deities exist, while theism/atheism deals with whether I believe/don't believe that supernatural deities exist.

In this regard, I consider myself to be an agnostic atheist, meaning that:

1) I don't think it's possible to disprove the existence of Jehovah, any more than I think it's possible to disprove the existence of Allah, Shiva, Ba'al, Thor, etc. But as I'm sure you know, the inability to disprove a claim is hardly a sign of the strength of that claim.

2) I don't believe that supernatural deities exist (or any supernatural aspect of reality, for that matter). As I said above, I've read and heard countless arguments for the existence of a god, and have not found any of them convincing.

AntiTheist.Now said...

"Wouldn't insufficient evidence lead you to being an agnostic?"

Only if you start out with the notion of god's existence, which is not clear why it should be.

Everyone is born an atheist, and only then acquires the necessary lunacy to regress to belief in a supernatural being.

So if you start out with a position of "there is no god", you do not move to agnosticism due to lack of evidence.

K T Cat said...

Have you ever read C S Lewis' Surprised by Joy? I'd be interested in your take on that.

AntiTheist.Now said...

Are you asking about my opinion on one of greatest christian apologetics spiritual journey and how he believed that he discovered god all by himself?

I wonder if his baptism, and being brough up in a christian household had anything to do with his "discovery".

The corollary to that is how come billions of people then are born and die without ever discovering jesus or even coming close to it? Why isn't there a jesus follower born among budhists or taoists that all of a sudden just up and believes in jesus? Like say 1,000 years ago when missionaries weren't poisoning the world over. Christian world, muslim world, buddhist world - whatever your parents have the narrow-mindedness to instill upon you, that's what you end up believing, with few exceptions.

K T Cat said...

Actually, with Lewis, his logic at the end of the book is so deep that it's still over my head and I've been through it about 5 times both in prose and in an audio book. I'm going to have to sit down and draw diagrams as I go through it in order to follow what he's saying.

I'm not sure I would use pejorative terms about him. Agree with him or not, he clearly was a brilliant man.

AntiTheist.Now said...

I will give you that he was a brilliant writer. I will not call him a brilliant man, because the conclusions the reaches require a blatant disregard for reason and logic.

No amount of verbal acrobatics and intellectual muscle-flexing can compensate for disregard of known for the sake of illusion.

K T Cat said...

Lewis was a veteran of the First World War and was a philosophy professor at Oxford at the time of his conversion. (Well, I think it was Oxford. I'm in a hurry and can't check right now.)

How do you think this worked: I wonder if his baptism, and being brought up in a christian household had anything to do with his "discovery".

As for his household, if you read Surprised by Joy you might be surprised at the nature of that household.

AntiTheist.Now said...

Bah. I work for one of the top public universities in the United States that has at least a dozen programs that are ranked higher than most/all Ivy league schools - I'm not impressed by someone being a faculty at a top institution as I know them first hand, but that's sort of a side note :)

I can only tolerate Lewis for so long, but I did try to read that book a few times, I still have it somewhere. I will try and have another go at it to see where he fell off his rocker. But fell off he did. There is fallacy in his arguments, he disregards even what he knew back then, and he arrives at the most illogical conclusion possible. He's kung-fu was not as good as many christians claim it to be.

pathickey said...

Perhaps more than a glance at the work of Teilhard De Chardin's Phenomenon of Man and Falnnery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge would get one to the old < > as Teilhard calls it - the global self-relective vortex.
The Omega Point or a culmination of understanding ( agreeing really) God.

I find the old French stretcher bearer a bit dusty and dense with science, myself, and prefer the simple faith of Miss O'Connor. Saves time.

Teilhard understood that with globalization Man was prone to self-isolation and thus self absorption; explains Reality TV more than God that.

Like, Aquinas, Teilhard De Chardin was working with science understanding that it is no end in itself - that would be the Omega.

Just spitballing, Lads!

K T Cat said...

So, ATN, what's your position on physical chemistry, specifically reaction kinetics? It seems to me that a rationalist and empiricist could rather easily disprove consciousness using physical chemistry and proof by induction. The cool thing about such a proof is that, by extension, it either disproves God or makes Him completely irrelevant. It's probably the easiest of all possible proofs against the existence of God.

AntiTheist.Now said...

You're missing the point and starting from the wrong end. There is no possible way to prove lack of existence. And why should I? Why should I prove the absence of existence? Go ahead and prove that pink unicorns do not exist.

I don't need to prove that he doesn't exist. You need to prove that he does. You can't. There is no possible way to do so which is why all such conversations end with some sort of a anecdotal nonsense or calls to faith.

Besides all that, the basis for your belief, not proof, in his existence are deeply flawed, and are constantly chipped away at by science, or require some extreme and constant reconciliation. At this point, the god you think of has very little to do with what our stone age ancestors made up when they were afraid of the lighting storms and their shamans thought of to keep them in line.

K T Cat said...

You didn't answer the question about physical chemistry an proof by induction. Such a proof can be constructed in a materialist sense. The part about God is only incidental.

So how about it?

AntiTheist.Now said...

I have no clue what you are trying to get to, besides that fact that I do not know anything about physical chemistry. I am not sure why I should. But if that's what it takes to know that god is real - that's even more stupid than a talking snake.

I suppose it will lead to some sort of an Aha! moment and comment for you. Praise the lord for that.

The burden of proof is still on those that are logically challenged and look for millions of excuses to ensure they still have their security blanket.

The fact that you refer to physical chemistry as if you know it, and still choose to believe in god, puts you on a very low intellectual plank - one that denies evidence to cling to a boogie man. Sadly, people like Francis Collins are perched on the same plank. Luckily, that plank is occupied by only about 7% of members of National Academy of Sciences.

I have nothing further to add to this discussion. To use a religious bigot's famous line, you have the last word.

K T Cat said...

I like pie.