What, Exactly, is the Secular World? A Response to Mark Mann

Bookmark and Share

November 4, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

What, Exactly, is the Secular World? A Response to Mark Mann

In Part I of his series "Let's Not Surrender Science to the Secular World," Mark Mann critiques a particular assumption made in Karl Giberson and Randall Stephenson's recent op-ed in the New York Times. "I am concerned," Mann says, "that one of their central assumptions—that there is a divide between ‘secular knowledge’ and Christian faith that must be overcome—essentially undermines their very pursuit of a middle ground."

"Science belongs," he goes on to say, "just as much to the church of Christ as it does to some so-called secular realm of knowledge. To treat the conversation otherwise is to give in to both the secular fundamentalists, who wish to see Christians surrender their faith in God for faith in science as the fount of all truth, and the Christian fundamentalists, who fear that any compromise with the secular ultimately amounts to selling out their fidelity to God." This is Dr. Giberson's response to Part I of Dr. Mann's series.

I would like to thank Mark Mann for his thoughtful response (Part I and Part II) to the op-ed piece that Randall Stephens and I published in the NY Times titled—provocatively and by our editor at the Times rather than us— “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.”

Mark—I must use his first name since I know him so well—offers the following objection to the way we set up the discussion in the op-ed.

“To talk about ‘secular knowledge’ and the ‘integration’ of science and faith is to buy into a problematic bifurcation of knowledge. The basic assumption lying behind such a distinction is that the world of knowledge can be divided into two discrete realms.”

This is a reasonable interpretation of what we wrote but it builds too heavily on an overly simplistic interpretation of our argument. We had 1000 words to make an important point, which left little room for nuance. Let me provide some of that nuance now.

I want to start by rejecting the idea that knowledge can be divided into two—or any number—of “discrete” realms. Such divisions are practical constructions that help us organize the world, but they don’t reflect the way the world actually is. An alien anthropologist might conclude that physics and biology are somehow “different and separate” because of the way they function in our universities and laboratories. But we know that the world is not adorned with little flags labeled “biological phenomena” and “physical phenomena” to help us assign the problems to the right department. The arrangement in our great universities where these disciplines are housed in separate buildings, or at our colleges where they are on different floors, reflects the practical reality that the problems of those disciplines are sufficiently different that people tend to be drawn to one or the other. But we know that there can be no discrete separation, for those disciplines meet constantly to engage problems of optics, joint mechanics, blood pressure, and so on. And we know that it would be meaningless to dispute about whether the study of blood pressure or near-sightedness properly belonged to physics or biology.

In the same way—but far more importantly—we cannot divide the world on a large scale into “secular” and “religious.” If I were to offer a slightly less flawed—but still too simple--knowledge map, I would suggest that we create a continuum stretching from “religious knowledge claims” at one end to “anti-religious claims” at the other with “secular claims” somewhere in the middle. Such a continuum—limited because of its one-dimensionality—would accurately reflect the messy reality of the world as we actually encounter it, rather than the more tidy way we construct it in our systems. Such a continuum would also remind us that there are no boundaries to any type of knowledge and that we should expect to be puzzled as we try to make sense of the world.

I suspect at this point that Mark may be wondering if I have just caved in and conceded his point. But I don’t think I have. What I have done is clarified that I am not working from the assumption that there are two discrete knowledge worlds—the religious and the secular. Just because knowledge claims lie along the same continuum does not, in any simple sense, make them all the same. The paradise climate of San Diego smoothly morphs into the hostile Arctic as one travels up the West Coast, but this is hardly a reason to equate the two.

We can say—and I have said this—that “All Truth is God’s Truth,” but such a claim turns out to be quite empty in helping us figure out which claims are actually true. Thomas Aquinas conceived of God’s truth about the solar system much differently that Galileo. Believing that “All Truth is God’s Truth” was of no help to 17th century Christians fretting about the motion of the earth. If anything, that belief interfered with their ability to think clearly about astronomical proposals at odds with the biblical claim that the earth was fixed. (Psalm 93:1).

I want to suggest that the great achievement of modern science has been to move knowledge about the natural world from the religious end of the spectrum to a middle ground that we call, for lack of a better term, secular. We rightfully celebrate the achievements of medieval natural philosophers and the superstars of the scientific revolution. But we must avoid the temptation to make them too modern. Their science was done within a worldview where there was no secular knowledge and, consequently, they were far too quick to find theological object lessons in their work. They were also reluctant to accept simple facts that undermined their theological assumptions. Even something as benign as elliptical orbits troubled 17th century astronomers because their lack of symmetry seemed to insult the Creator.

Science requires the acknowledgment of simple facts without regard for their “value” in supporting any grand system. I think the separation of fact and value is what has empowered the great engine of knowledge-creation we call science. It is another of the important changes wrought by science as it matured. We must be able to pursue simple facts about the world—the mass of the proton, the mechanism of cell division, the age of the earth, the origin of life, the relationship between humans and other life—without an a priori assumption that these facts will nestle comfortably within our religious worldview. This is what secular means to me—finding facts without worrying about their value.

I mentioned earlier that the continuum of knowledge claims, although better than discrete divisions, was still too simple. Let me now partially address that. Another axis needs to be added to enable the discussion—that of value. Some knowledge claims have positive value, some have no value, some have negative value. I think, for example, that our understanding of the importance of the mother-child bond is incredibly valuable knowledge. In contrast, it seems to me that our knowledge of how to build atomic bombs has negative value, in the sense that it would be better if we had not learned that. In between lies the atomic number of radium and the exact height of Kilimanjero—who cares about those? We could dispute about the details of such claims, of course, but I simply want to suggest that we need a clear way to talk about the value of knowledge claims apart from the truth of the those claims. (This conversation, by the way, informs granting agencies, as the value to society of undiscovered knowledge guides the allocation of research funds.)

The concern expressed in our new book that inspired the op-ed, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, is that too many prominent evangelical leaders have insisted for too long that knowledge claims must correspond to their fundamentalist worldview based on a literal reading of the Bible. Ken Ham does not want to accept simple facts about the age of the earth because those facts undermine his assumption that all knowledge will fit comfortably into his biblical framework. He is deciding which facts to accept based on his perception of their value in the system he wants to protect. But, lest we move too quickly to a more “enlightened” theological foundation, I want to suggest that all of us—Christian or otherwise—are likely to have values that we hold so close that we will, like Ham, reject secular facts that undermine those values. Many people who accept biological evolution in general reject human evolution in particular. This is, in fact, the position held by Wheaton College.

It seems to me that we need a simple robust concept of the fact, understood as a secular claim about the way the world actually is, neither for or against religion, neither good or bad. Only by acknowledging the reality of simple facts and respecting the processes that discover such facts, can we hope to understand the world.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 1 of 1   1
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66004

November 4th 2011

The confusion is created because in the West our intellectual foundation for our understanding is not theology or philosophy or science, but all three together.  Ignoring the philosophical basis of reality creates a false duality that cannot be resolved. 

Science, philosophy, and theology represent three interdendent aspects of Reality, which can an must be analyzed separately but can only be understood together.  These facts point to the truth that the structure of Human reality is trinitarian, just as Divine Reality is Trinitarian,

One more note: Philosophy, science, and theology are all based on an effort to find order, and structure, and thus meaning and truth.  The most serious issue of our day is that some scientists claim that the universe has no meaning and thus has no order or structure, that is, it is based on chance.  This view undermines the whole intellectual foundation of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition.         


Chip - #66005

November 4th 2011

Another Interesting read from Mr Gibberson.  I think I’d be inclined to agree with his final paragraph if it were edited as follows: 

It seems to me that we need a simple robust concept of the fact, understood as a secular claim about the way the world actually is, neither for or against [any particular world view], neither good or bad. Only by acknowledging the reality of simple facts and respecting the processes that discover such facts, can we hope to understand the world.

I’d make this edit simply because he’s quite naive if he believes that those on the other side of the proverbial aisle are somehow “able to pursue simple facts about the world… without an a priori assumption that these facts will nestle comfortably within [their] worldview.” 

Bertrand Russel was certainly right when he said (Gibberson’s cherrypicking notwithstanding): 

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.

 

Beyond this, simply calling something a simple fact does not make it so.  Consider Gibberson’s  list:   

the mass of the proton, the mechanism of cell division, the age of the earth, the origin of life….

Notice how he snuck that last one in there?  I personally never thought this was a simple issue, but this is probably best explained by my status as a “reason rejecting” evangelical (I know, it was the editor’s choice of words…).  Still, given his standing as an expert, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind explaining in a simple paragraph or so the “simple robust concept” of how life originated.  Thanks; can’t wait.


HornSpiel - #66009

November 4th 2011

Thank you Karl for this post.

Based on your definition of secular [thinking] as “finding facts without worrying about their value,” you should drop the word secular in the penultimate sentence of the twelfth paragraph to read:

“I want to suggest that all of us—Christian or otherwise—are likely to
have values that we hold so close that we will, like Ham, reject facts that undermine those values.”

Is it really possible to have a value neutral fact? Is it possible to have values not based on facts? For most people a fact is first, what they have experienced, second what a trusted person has told them, and then way down the list, what scientists or a scientific theory says.  Do you think that should or can be be changed?

A practical example:

Suppose science can show the precise point in the human brain development where a baby’s brain goes from what other high order animals have to something uniquely human. Let’s say science shows that that point, is actually a few months after the baby is born. Based on this would you agree that a reasonable Evangelical position would be to say that first and second trimester abortions should be allowed and are not immoral?

I say this because I knew a late Christian scientist who took this position, though did not publicly state it because of its controversial nature. I have always wondered if I should have respected him or not for that principled application of secular science to his theology. What do you think?


Jon Garvey - #66013

November 5th 2011

Hornspiel, I’m tempted to answer your late scientist thus: Your stand would only be principled if Christianity taught that humanity resides in the brain, or that Christ died to bring us eternal brain.

By the same principle it’s fine to lop off your neighbour’s hand or put his eye out so long as you leave his uniqely human brain alone.

Or, I suppose, to smash up your friend’s computer with all his data so long as it hasn’t finished booting up.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66015

November 5th 2011

Hornspiel,

There seems to be some confusion concerning this issue.

“Pro Life” people say that are protecting human life.  Human life begins with an embryo, however in the western tradition a human being begins with the birth of a baby.  It has been the position of the Christian faith that a human being is a person, which means a child separated from its mother.

The decision Roe vs Wade I understand makes a distinction between those human fetuses what are viable, which can survive outside their mothers’ womb, and those who cannot, with the more mature fetuses getting more legal protection.   

If the life of a human being begins with conception, that would add 9 months to our lives and the cause of death of all fetuses who do not come to term would be subject to investigation.       


Merv - #66016

November 5th 2011

While I can be sympathetic with the need for a “secular” approach due to the many historical examples where religious outlook has interfered with acceptance, I still think that a case could be made for a more biblical approach to knowledge in general than any form of  categorization, however couched that may be in gradation, or nuance. 

Scriptures offer very little support (meaning I can think of some—but a lot more Scripture would seem to run counter to this) for any part of a creation that is not God’s domain.  Yes—perhaps some or all the planet is spoken of as the devil’s domain in some passages, but not in such a way that takes it out from under God’s sovereignty. 

So here is an alternate proposal.  All knowledge, down to the “barest” mathematical facts does—indeed, must—fit into the created order theologically as well as within any other discipline of thought we find useful.  But rather than this causing us to stumble over established science that doesn’t fit our theology (the cause of the many historical examples the authors rightly point to); it should cause us to labor to make our understandings fit together. We may or may not succeed in that, of course, but that simply points to our need to hold many of our understandings lightly, both theologically and scientifically.  We can do all this without pretense that there is such a thing as “value-neutral” facts.  It’s easy to imagine many candidates like “2+2=4”, but I don’t think a human mind can pick up, let alone teach this to another human being without value laden baggage immediately being added (and rightly so.)  So while the world may be free to pretend there is such a thing as secular knowledge, I’m not convinced Christians should acquiesce to such categorization.  And I say that being fully convinced that theology has wrongly interfered (and still does) with the acceptance of some knowledge.  But that indicates insufficient humility on the theological side to take full stock of God’s creation and adjust accordingly rather than a need to think of knowledge as separated into secular /sacred or distributed thus so over a continuum.

—Merv  (thinking aloud, even if the above is written in a “declaration” motif.)


sy - #66022

November 7th 2011

I also applaud the general message of this post, but also question the universality of value free facts. Clearly there are many. But I agree with Chip, that the origin of life does not (yet?) fit into that category. In fact, in the scientific literature on that subject, one can find a great many heavily value laden facts. Recently, the primacy of RNA as a wonderful catalytic and self replicating alternative to modern life mechanisms has been appearing as “factual” material. I have even read some statements disputing the established idea that DNA is a code. The factual evidence for the aptamer theory of code evolution has been published in a number of peer reviewed papers. I don’t see these “facts” as value free at all.

I would agree however that such “value free facts” that aren’t really either value free or facts, will eventually be overturned, because there is a selective advantage in science for things that are actually true. The value laden arguments against the Big Bang, and against the “Out of Africa” theory for human evolution, eventually evaporated (or are in the process of evaporating)  due to the scientific weaknesses of the arguments. But sometimes this can take a long time. And perhaps sometimes such value laden ideas stick around much longer than they should.

Having said all of this, I agree with Karl Giberson, that we all (especially scientists) should strive to attain the ideal of value free thinking about the nature of reality, as hard as that is to do in real life. And, if we cant manage to do that, at least we should be aware of what values we do impose on our “factual” knowledge.

 


KevinR - #66023

November 7th 2011

“We must be able to pursue simple facts about the world—the mass of the
proton, the mechanism of cell division, the age of the earth, the origin
of life, the relationship between humans and other life—without an a priori assumption… “

Perhaps Karl should also draw a distinction between things that are actually observable and measurable and those that are not: One can repeatedly attempt to measure the mass of the proton and observe the cell division. One CANNOT observe the age of the earth or the origin of life. Those latter items can only be inferred based on other observable facts. In making such inferences on needs to make certain assumptions which are open to great dispute.

Take for instance the age of the earth - this was determined in the 1950s from material in a meteorite. The first question that arises is “what does a meteorite have to do with the earth?” And from that point onwards “a-priori assumptions” begin to play a critical part.

The converse of this would be to take a virtually completely closed measuring system from about about 300m to 1.6km depth into the earth - namely zircon crystals dug out of holes in New Mexico. In these crystals one can find ALL the radiation daughter products in the right proportions to assertain that about 1.5 billion years of radioactivity had occurred, given the amount of Helium atoms still trapped inside.
BUT: one can also determine that a lot more Helium should have leaked out of such a crystal over such a long time span then has actually occurred.
In fact given the measurable diffusion rate of the helium, the amount still left indicates that only roughly 5000 plus minus 2000 years of helium has left the crystal. Hence the conclusion that the rate of radioactive decay must have been a lot higher in the recent past.

Now, the really interesting part of all of this is that YOU the reader can actually go and check the research and criticize it to bits if you want. You can also go and perform exactly the same experiment to satisfy yourselves that it is correct - this is real science after all.

In fact, staunch evolutionists have already done exactly that and come up more than short.

Their OWN research measuring Argon diffusion rates were found to have a faulty conclusion based on an a-priori assumption of billions of years and in fact the evolutionist research supported exactly the same conclusion as that done to reach about 5000-7000 years for the age of the earth.

So take your pick on what FACTS you want to adhere to.


Ashe - #66025

November 7th 2011

Uncle Bonobo - #66028

November 7th 2011

“Take for instance the age of the earth - this was determined in the 1950s from material in a meteorite.”

False.  The earth was known to be billions of years old before 1950.  And the rest of your young earth argument flows from this falsehood.


beaglelady - #66030

November 7th 2011

So take your pick on what FACTS you want to adhere to.

I’ll take real FACTS, thank you.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66024

November 7th 2011

Kevin and Sy,

Since in my understanding of reality, all things are related, there is no fact that that is without meaning and thus is without value which is what I think we mean here.

The issue is imposing meanings on science that is not supported by the data, rather than trying to find meaningfree facts or information. 

Scientism says that science is “meaning free,” but then imposes its meaning on science by saying that science proves that life has no purpose and there is no God.

Creationism is clear in saying that science has meaning, but it has not been able to demonstrate that science fits into its narrow definition of truth based on the Genesis narrative of Creation. 

It is up to us as theologians and philsophers to show that all life has meaning and this is evident through the nature of science as well as philosophy and theology. 

We can do this by starting at both ends and working toward the middle, starting with Christian understanding of the Meaning of Life, the Logos, and the scientific understanding of creation and life and see how they correspond.  When we use ecology as the basis of scientific understanding of the evolutionary creation of life, I think there is a basis for common ground and meaning.  

 


Dunemeister - #66031

November 7th 2011

One can repeatedly attempt to measure the mass of the proton and observe the cell division. One CANNOT observe the age of the earth or the origin of life. Those latter items can only be inferred based on other observable facts.

 

Actually, very little of what we know scientifically is based on direct observation. The vast majority is based on inferences of various kinds, including abductive, mathematical, and inductive. Indeed, what even counts as an observed fact (let alone observable), particularly in physics, is highly contested.


Jon Garvey - #66032

November 8th 2011

I think posters from different angles have hinted at the oversimplification of any effort to separate “facts” from values. It actually can’t be done at an intellectual level, which is the level at which Dr Giberson wishes to handle the question.

For example, it has been cogently argued that the whole concept of our sense-data truly representing reality fits well with a theistic presupposition (God is rational and true, and therefore has made us to relate to genuine reason and actual truth - therefore we can do science as an exploration of reality).

On the other hand it fits less well with a Naturalistic presupposition (Evolution produces only what causes short-term survival, and therefore has fashioned us purely to survive - therefore our scientific investigations have no intrinsic reason to reflect reality, especially at scales, times and places far removed from everyday existence).

That may seem a nonsensical distinction - any fool can use common sense to see that the material world is real. Yet if we were Hindus, we’d have imbibed from childhood that material reality is maya, illusion. What makes our Western assumption different is not common sense, which is just as common in India as America, but theological heritage.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66038

November 9th 2011

Jon,

You are right.  “Common sense” is not universal, however that does not mean that there are no universals.  The confusion arises when scientism appeals to common sense when it is not based on common sense.

The appeal of scientism is based on Newtonian absolutes which made the universe understandable.  Now science is based on Einsteinian relativity, quantum probability, invisible dark matter and energy, and multiverse determinism, none of which are understood.

In a sense scientism is a smoke screen to coverup the intellectual black hole, which is today’s science.  This of course does not make Creationism is right.  What is does mean that people who are concerned about the truth need to find a answer to this mess before it consumes us and everyone else.  


Page 1 of 1   1