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Vibrant Dance: “Science Cannot Be God”

The last talk of Tuesday morning, and the last of the preparatory talks before the position talks was by Dan Heinze, geophysicist, Vibrant Dance co-host and co-sponsor on “Science Cannot be God: What is Science? Some Limitations, Some Implications.” Again, this was a well thought-out and apropos foundational talk for a conference of this type. As it was targeted towards clergy and non-science lay leaders, it was important to discuss what science is and isn’t, and was a helpful reminder to the scientists present.

He started with some basic principles, such as that all experiments have a self-referential component—a frame of reference that must be clearly understood and can affect the measurements. This is due partially to something called the uncertainty principle that indicates the ultimate confidence to which the accuracy of any measurement can be ascertained. One ramification of this (combined with quantum mechanics) is that observing an event affects it. It occurs to me as it might to you that how then can we have confidence that we are learning anything true about the world? We can take comfort as Christians that God is the ultimate observer, and as He is outside the universe and sees all of it, exerts an objectivity on it that gives us an extra measure of confidence.

A second point Heinze made regarded a discovery in mathematics in the 1930’s by Kurt Gödel that mathematics is incomplete, and therefore, it is impossible for all truth to be determined by math alone, and specifically, it is possible to know something to be true and yet not be able to prove it mathematically. {This is a VERY simple summary of a superficial treatment of a deep subject, so for those that have studied this, consider it a book report on the Cliff’s Notes of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of War and Peace.)

The conclusion of these ideas is that both math and science are limited.

He then discussed work by Alan Turing (British mathematician, computer scientist, cryptologist, etc) that indicates that a given system is not able to be understood within itself. A more complex system outside the studied system is needed to explain or understand it.  There are some profound comparative religion implications to this. Neither the gods of Buddhism nor New Age are able to fully comprehend the universe because they are synonymous with said universe.

Given that the universe is a complex system, some of the factors that contribute to the truth of Turing’s postulate are that nonlinearities obscure subtle features, discontinuous and emergent behaviours also impede understanding, and the limited reach of humanity affects our ability to understand such systems (a term known as complexity reach). Sartre stated that humans need an infinite frame of reference to understand {life}, something we don’t have.

Now, to briefly elaborate on the previous list. When phenomena do not act the same way at all ranges of their existence ( i.e. when a spring is pulled beyond its elasticity) it is said to have non-linear behaviour. As you can imagine, non-linear behaviour can make predictions and understanding more difficult until you can study the details much more closely, and sometimes our models are merely approximations, so we miss subtleties. In other instances, a substance will have a certain set of properties in small quantities, but then suddenly at some seemingly arbitrary point, the properties change suddenly. This is a discontinuity, and many fields of research are trying to study where these transition points lie and then to understand what happens at them. Closely related to discontinuities are emergent behaviours—synergistic or unexpected phenomena that occur when the right combination of more basic conditions happen.

Heinze concluded with the statement, “It is intellectually respectable to accept divine revelation as an authority in complex soft sciences.” This is a strong statement, and while I as a Christian am amenable to it, do not see it as an unimpeachable QED from his arguments. I would like to see that conclusion tested for its ruggedness before making it a philosophical axiom.

I should note that I completely left out of my notes portions of his talk that are concordant with a similar essay I have written, so if this post seems to jump around, that is one reason. I will sometime in the near future share that in a series of posts and refer back to this one and hopefully reintegrate Heinze’s ideas better.


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