Posted by: gcarkner | April 27, 2018

CSCA Conference TWU May 11-14

Some Reflections: Canadian Science and Christian Affiliation Conference

Approximately 150 scientists, theologians and philosophers gathered to discuss some of the cutting edge concerns in the science-theology interface. It was a well-organized event by the CSCA Team. The plenary talks were all excellent. People were especially moved by the speech by President of UBC Santa Ono, and his decision ‘not to be a stealth Christian’ when he entered the world of university administration. I thought Richard Middleton on the Fall and Genesis 3, and Robert Mann on cosmology and theology were particularly impressive and insightful. Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University gave a great presentation on climate change/atmospheric science. She is a courageous, well-informed, and influential scientist and spokesperson for responsible stewardship.

The conference fielded a tremendous range of topics in the breakout sessions: history and philosophy of science, carbon nanotechnology, biblical studies, astronomy of neutron stars, physics and theology, cognitive psychology and faith, ecological concerns, climate change, transhumanism and artificial intelligence, human evolution, Canadian Parks and Leisure. Medicine was represented by Janet Warren. The discussions appealed to a broad range of specialties.  I came away inspired with new insights and new lines of discussion to explore at UBC: for example, Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnology and Transhumanism. As I was discussing with the new Dean of a local bible school, Christian anthropology seems to be one of the current hot topics in various fields. My workshop on Scientism seemed to go over well, followed by a good question period. It was an amazing experience to pack a key group of insights into a twenty-minute talk.

Plenty to wrestle with among good colleagues. I connected with old friends, and made some new ones. Richard Middleton and I worked together back in the day at the University of Guelph and developed the Ten Myths about Christianity project. As I met this week to debrief with some UBC faculty who attended, we found some lively future topics to discuss in GFCF. One of the plenary speakers, Cosmologist Robert Mann from University of Waterloo, will be doing a guest lecture for us in January of 2019: Multiverse and Theology/Current State of Physics. To carry the conversation forward, Professor Alister McGrath of Oxford University will also be working with us in September on the topic of the Future of Natural Theology.

One prayer request coming out of this conference would seem to be the encouragement of new young thought leaders in the discourse of science and faith. The alienation/misunderstanding/confusion between science and Christianity, within the believing community and beyond, is still one of the pressing questions in our day. It is also one of the top reasons why young Millennials leave the church in adolescence.


Gordon E. Carkner Scientism Full Lecture

Click to access Schedule.pdf

Must We Remain  the Intellectual Prisoners of Ideological Scientism?

People welcome the benefits that modern science has brought us: disease control, transportation and communication wonders, space travel, phenomenal wealth production, personal empowerment, conveniences of all sorts. But the venerationof science (which has often morphed into an ideology) is called Scientism. It is a metaphysical claim about the impossibility of metaphysics. Heavy priority is placed on what the five human senses can tell us about the immanent time-space-energy-matter world,in contrast to a transcendent one, a naturalorder in contrast to a supernatural one. Science becomes the paradigm of all roads to truth. Scientism offers a metanarrative to explain everything of importance, answer all question worth investigating.

Scientism (and the philosophical positivism of A. J. Ayer) has been discredited by many philosophers and scientists in the twentieth century. Yet this ideologystill seems to dominate much popular thinking, even within academia. Leading neuroscientist William Newsome of Stanford in a recent speaking tour of UBC and TWU, noted that the major conflict between science and faith stems from an ideology, which promotes reductionism. For a belief to be considered valid or credible, scientism requires that it be scientifically testable. Thus, much claim to knowledge is devalued, discredited or excluded. We are required to be skeptical even about things that we know to be true by common sense.

A valid, while limited, approach to knowing (science) morphs into a dogma: an exclusivist ideology (scientism). In many people’s minds, it assumes its location within a ‘Closed World System’.


Philosopher Charles Taylor capturesits potency.

We can come to see the growth of civilization, or modernity, as synonymous with the laying out of a closed immanent frame; within this civilized values develop, and a single-minded focus on the human good, aided by the fuller and fuller use of scientific reason, permits the greatest flourishing possible of human beings…. What emerges from all this is that we can either see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, a distraction, or an obstacle to our greatestgood. (C. Taylor, 2007, 548)


Five Cultural Markers/Identifiers of Scientism

a. Epistemological Claim: No knowledge is deemed valid or justified unless its claims can be tested and verified empirically through experimentation, observation and repetition. This criterion is part of an intellectual house of the mind which controls the way people think, argue, infer, and make sense of things. Truth claims that do not submit to this kind of scrutiny become irrelevant, invalid, implausible, or unacceptable. This principle of knowledge is heavily weighted or biased towards the instrumentaland mechanistic. Its attraction is to greater certainty, especially of the mathematical type.

b. The Utopian Sentiment: Science is the futuristic guide to human progress, both intellectually and culturally. Past tradition, especially that influenced by Christian religion (or any religion), is taken as false opinion or superstition (even dangerous). The growth of scientific knowledge is thought to guarantee social and political progress. Scientism entails a warfare model in the science-religion relationship, a posture that began mid-nineteenth century (C. A. Russell, Cross-currents, 1985). It assumes that, as science advances religion is culturally displaced, demoted in importance to the point of irrelevance. This extreme optimism is the tone we often find in Wired Magazine, or the Humanist Manifesto. Quentin Schultze speaks to this in his Habits of the High-Tech Heart(2002). Here’s a statement that captures the sentiment.

The next century can and should be the humanist century. Dramatic scientific, technological, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness. We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age…. Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our lifespan, significantly modify our behavior, and alter the courseof human evolution. (Humanist Manifesto II, 5)

c. Intellectual Exclusion or Hegemony: Insights from the humanities, philosophy and theology are treated with suspicion. Scientific rationalism dismisses faith as mere fideism(belief without good reasons, non-evidential). To be poetic is taken to be trivial or irrelevant. Scientism’s inherent materialism entails that “science” refuses mystery, the metaphysical or anything transcendent, the miraculous, even the metaphorical or epiphanic. Certain human ways of knowing are simply written off, ignored or treated with contempt.

d. Anthropological Implications: People are viewed as sophisticated cogs in the cosmic machinery, or simplified as the most intelligent animals (higher primates). All human characteristics, including the mind or the soul, are believed to be explicable in terms of bodily functions (neuron networks, DNA makeup, biochemistry orphysiology, or at bottom physics and chemistry). A philosophical (ontological) reductionism and determinism is at work. The higher is explained in terms of the lower, mind in terms of brain, human social behavior in terms of ant colonies. Humans are appreciated mainly for their instrumental value: their earning capacity, socio-political usefulness and their excellence of giftedness (Further discussion leads to: E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977; Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World, 1998; Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, 2012).

e. Scientism and Ethics: Science is seen to normatively provide a more reliable and superior decision-making guide. It becomes the new alternative to religion and traditional morals in discerning the good and shaping the moral self (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values, 2010). Science takes the place of dominance as a culture sphere, absorbs and redefines morality in scientificcategories, according to a scientific agenda. (Aesthetics, Ethics, Religion: Calvin Schrag). Someone captured by scientism might say that the scientific principle and scientific rationality is applicable to all things, all arenas of life, all culture spheres. Religious or personal moral values are to be kept to the private sphere of one’s life, but not to be part of public discourse (Lesslie Newbigin,1986).

In Summary: Scientism is the notion that natural science constitutes the most authoritative (if not the onlylegitimate) epistemology or form of human knowing. It is superior to all other interpretations of life. Such an outlook assumes a materialistic, immanent, Closed World System (CWS), a system which entertains a spinthat rejects the validity of any transcendent elements to reality. Philosopher David Bentley Hart captures this in his cryptic way.

An admirably severe discipline of interpretive and theoretical restraint [modern empirical science] has been transformed into its perfect and irrepressibly wanton opposite: what began as a principled refusal of metaphysical speculation, for the sake of specific empirical inquiries, has now been mistaken for a comprehensive knowledge of the metaphysical shape of reality; the art of humble questioning has been mistaken for the sure possession of ultimate conclusions. This makes a mockery of real science. (D.B. Hart, 2013, 71)

Charles Taylor: reduction of language to  designative type (vs expressive-poetic)

Our language has lost its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist) the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Namethings in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our incapacity of seeing welland flourishing. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity. (C. Taylor, 2007, 761)

Academic Virtues Worth Preserving:
  • Integrity of scholarship, protection against the evil of cheating and plagiarism, preserving the value of liberal education
  • introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry
  • equip students with analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research
  • be current in the literature of the field, teach well and be available for consultation with students
  • in publishing, one should acknowledge predecessors and contributors, provide citations to the sources and give accurate account of the material presented
  • thoroughness, perseverance, intellectual honesty, conscientious in the pursuit of truth
  • avoid politicizing the classroom
  • interrogation of ideas and events: history, why the thought is significant, prevailing answers for questions it raises, where do the answers come from
  • pursuit of truth wherever it may be found and wherever it may lead, combined with wisdom on how to use it
  • believing in Christ as Veritas brings us to the assumption that all truths ultimately cohere, and can therefore be explored critically, without limit or fear
  • understanding Christ as divine logos, bringing order and meaning out of chaos and disorder
  • therefore, we have confidence to investigate different narratives–open to learning from everyone and anyone
  • love is the foundational fact of existence and essential to the pursuit of truth
  • love must be central to academic work, providing it with integrity
  • Honesty and transparency
  • Critical rigour and humility–all people are finite and fallible
  • welcome correction of error-–stress test of criticism
  • intellectual fearlessness–willing to go beyond predecessors
  • truth applied to the common good of society and health of the planet
  • humility to learn from others, and often especially those who disagree with you most sharply
  • promotion by merit and equality of opportunity for men and women

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