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Accepting an imperfect universe: The Birth of Science and the primacy of observation

Discussion in 'Science and Religion' started by Mr Spinkles, Sep 6, 2004.

  1. Mr Spinkles

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    The following is my own summary/commentary of one of the chapters in my astronomy book.

    In the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, philosophy was dominated by Aristotle, and much of Christian teaching was based on a reconciliation of Aristotle's philosophy with Scripture.

    Here is the rundown: Aristotle said that the heavens are perfect, the Earth is not perfect, and the stuff way down beneath the Earth is very, very imperfect. He said that, since the perfect shape is a circle, all the motion of the heavens must be in circles around Earth, and all of this motion must be constant (the stars never speed up or slow down). The Church said that the outer ring of stars (beyond the planets, sun and moon) were heavenly perfect bodies, and that the Earth was the center of the universe and did not move, and inside the Earth was the most imperfect place of all--hell.

    For centuries, astronomers and clergy based all their models of the universe on the "first principle" that all heavenly bodies moved in circles and at constant speeds. Unfortunately, these models (which were constantly bein adjusted to increase precision) could not accurately predict the positions of the seven known planets. Lots and lots of 'epicycles' (little circles inside of circles, sort of like sub-orbits) were added to increase the precision of the model, but still it was off.

    A new model based on the hypothesis of Copernicus came in the 16th century, a model that placed the Sun at the center of the universe with the Earth orbiting around it. This model did not predict the postitions of the planets any more accurately than the geocentric or "Ptolemaic" model, however it was much simpler. Even so, Copernicus, being a clergyman, did not publish his ideas until at the very end of his life, fearing charges of heresy and criticism for challenging the notions of heavenly perfection and Earth's centering in the universe.

    Well, eventually Galileo comes along and studies the night sky with the newly invented telescope, and discovers a few key things: the moon has mountains and valleys--it is not perfect but has imperfections just like Earth. Also, Jupiter has moons that orbit around it, meaing that Earth is not the center of all heavenly motion, and that objects can orbit other objects in motion without being left behind (and therefore, Earth could conceivably orbit the Sun while keeping the moon in its orbit). Finally, Galileo noticed that Venus goes through a waxing/waning gibbous phase (similar to lunar phases) but that would be impossible unless Venus orbited the Sun. Later, Kepler would discover mathematically that planetary motion is elliptical, not circular, and that planets move along their orbits at varying speeds--further disproving that the heavens were perfect and moved only in perfect fashions.

    Now I'm going to quote from my astronomy textbook, by Michael A. Seeds:
    [emphasis added] (Gelileo would be spinning in his grave right now if he knew about the evolution textbook wars.) Galileo's struggle with the Church was the birth of modern science. Modern science relies on real-world evidence, and not on "first principles" (i.e. that all planetary motion is circular). When faced with real-world observation that contradicts "first principles" and Church doctrine, Galileo beleived the evidence trumped the first principles. The Pope, however (who happened to be a friend of Galileo's) argued that since God is omnipotent, He could make nature appear to take one form while it actually takes another form, and therefore we cannot discover the nature of the heavens by mere observation....we need faith in first principles, and divine revelation.

    Galileo didn't buy this, and was finally tried by the Inquisition and forced to recant, then had to serve house arrest for the rest of his life. In 1979, the Vatican finally reopened Galileo's trial...

    St. Augustine (C.E. 354-430) promoted the doctrine of "Beleive in order to understand". But Galileo and other Renaissance scientists used their own observation to understand the universe, and when their observations contradicted scripture and/or church teaching, they beleived their observations were the true representation of reality. Galileo paraphrased Cardinal Baronius in saying "The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go".

    Nowadays, we take it for granted that science trumps religious doctrines in almost every scenario...in fact, in a desperate attempt to defend religious doctrines, many now try to disrupt true science and claim that science does in fact support their religious convictions. When science and religion disagree, people know that science is usually right....which is why Muslims, Christians, New Agers, and so forth constantly try to get science on their side when pushing their "first principles". As was proved nearly 400 years ago with the adoption of the heliocentric model, faith just doesn't cut it when confronted by contradicting observation.

    One final point: I've heard many times on this forum that science can't be relied upon, because back in the day science promoted the idea that the Sun revolves around Earth. The fact of the matter is, modern science was born when the geocentric model was finally rejected, and this improved understanding of nature was a triumph of the scientific way of looking at things, not a reversal of it.
     
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  2. Mr Spinkles

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    Come on, folks! I want to hear some comments! :D
     
  3. YawgmothsAvatar

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    Nice post!

    While I was reading it, I was thinking of this:

    Take religious belief X
    People who believe X find 'facts' to support it
    When these 'facts' are solidly disproved, people still believe in X anyway, until eventually X is believed by none but the crazy and fanatic

    Insert geocentricity or creationism for X.
     
  4. painted wolf

    painted wolf Grey Muzzle

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    wouldn't a perfect univerce be boring anyway?
    I find the idea of an imperfect 'creation' much more fulfilling and interesting. =)

    wa:do
     
  5. Mr Spinkles

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    painted wolf-- A perfect universe wouldn't be boring, silly...that would make it imperfect. ;)

    That does get into the philosophical argument about how a perfect being can create something imperfect, one of many arguments against the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.

    Yawgmothsavatar (what does that mean anyway?)-- Thanks! Yeah I was thinking of creationism also....
     
  6. standing_on_one_foot

    standing_on_one_foot Well-Known Member

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    It's interesting, though, because in some ways science is based on being imperfect. It's meant to change as facts come up, it's supposed to be questioned (I mean, it's not really science unless it's testable)...

    What would a perfect universe be, anyway? Nonrandom, or what?
     
  7. Mr Spinkles

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    I would argue that we are imperfect, and therefore our knowledge is imperfect. Science, in stark contrast to religion, admits this fact. Scientific hypotheses, theories, and laws represent degrees of confidence in models of reality.
     
  8. Ceridwen018

    Ceridwen018 Well-Known Member

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    Indeed, it seems ridiculously obvious to me. The main difference between religious science and science, to me, is that religious people go about their study with a preconceived ultimatum in mind, whereas true scientists begin their observation with a blank slate. The religious find observations to fit their theories, whereas scientists find theories to match their observations.
     
  9. Rex

    Rex Founder

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    Religion:
    I won't tell
    Wouldn't the Neumena be a perfect place?


    (I hope I spelled it right)
     
  10. Mr Spinkles

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    I don't know what the Neumena is. :confused:
     
  11. standing_on_one_foot

    standing_on_one_foot Well-Known Member

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    That's actually more or less what I meant. I didn't mean to criticize science by calling it imperfect...if anything, I was praising it for being realistic about the fact, and working with it.

    And, um, what exactly is Neumena, then?
     
  12. meogi

    meogi Well-Known Member

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    Great post Mr. Spinkles!
    Noumena... pluarl? Of Noumenon?
    So... yep. I'm quite lost, not in a very philisophical mood atm it would seem.
     
  13. chlotilde

    chlotilde Madame Curie

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  14. Khale

    Khale Active Member

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    Does religion actually believe that humans or the universe in general is perfect? If we were perfect that would make us God. In terms of Christianity, God stated that human beings in Genesis were good, not perfect.

    If a being was perfect then that being would be capable of creating an imperfect being. If a being was incapable of doing something that would make them less than perfect.
     
  15. Mr Spinkles

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    You're doing fine, and welcome to the forums. :)

    The laws of causality are assumptions of science, but they aren't the same as the "first principles" of religions which are not meant to ever be questioned. Quantum mechanics defies the assumption of causality and modern science has had to take a real hard look at whether or not this assumption is valid after all. Unlike in religions, science is able to critically examine (and possibly change) its own assumptions when confronted by contradicting observation (like the observations of quantum mechanics, which appear to violate causality).

    Khale-- Religion definitely does not admit that we are imperfect in every way, because then our knowledge would be imperfect, and if our knowledge is imperfect we cannot possibly know the nature of anything that isn't strongly backed by evidence. Most religions make metaphysical claims that are not strongly backed by evidence, on the premise that some Divine act has given them perfect knowledge of the unevidenced.

    And how do you know God stated that? Because it is written in Genesis...and how do we know Genesis is actual testimony from God? Well, if our knowledge is imperfect, then we don't know it is actual testimony from God. But religions claim that we do know...somehow...
     
  16. Khale

    Khale Active Member

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    Religion does not imply that our knowledge is perfect. Imperfect knowledge simply means that we do not know all that can and cannot be. How do you equate this to not being able to know the nature of something that is not strongly backed by evidence? That aside, I do not believe religions have ever claimed to have been given perfect knowledge. If so, they are wrong. This is because what is truly impossible is for an imperfect being to truly comprehend perfect knowledge.

    What can I say, you're right. I do not know for certain that Genesis is actually a testimony from God. A more correct statement would have been that the Bible/Genesis stated that man was good. However you are incorrect in this part of your argument:

    As I stated before God would be more than capable of giving a testimony that could be understood by the minds of the imperfect (A.K.A. humanity).
     
  17. Mr Spinkles

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    No, not knowing all that can and cannot be is not the same as having imperfect knowledge. We could have perfect knowledge of some things, and not have perfect knowledge of others. For example, the Catholic Church in Medieval times claimed that our knowledge that all heavenly bodies revolve around the Earth was perfect--to question this perfect, Holy-Spirit endowed knowledge, even in the face of contradicting evidence, was heresy.

    Only if He first endowed us with perfect receptors with which to receive and understand this testimony. Judging by the immense amount of disagreement among humanity concerning spiritual matters, it appears more likely that we do not all have such perfect receptors or that God does not dispense such testimony, or both of these. In any case, a lot of uncertainty is cast upon all beleifs that require such divine testimony (rather than scientific observation) to be known.

    Remember, when I say that religions have a hard time accepting an "imperfect" universe, I'm saying that religions have a hard time accepting any view of the universe that contradicts their a priori view. Any contradicting view (i.e. the planets do not orbit Earth after all!) is very unsettling for those who have pictured the universe a certain way as part of a dogmatic, communal belief system. New scientific discoveries on the nature of the universe can seem too unlike their a priori notions, or too "imperfect" for them to accept. It doesn't take much to admit we are imperfect, but it does take a strong pill of humility to put this into practice and admit it when sacred beleifs turn out to be wrong after all.
     
  18. chlotilde

    chlotilde Madame Curie

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  19. Mr Spinkles

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    I'm glad you're a fan of science!

    There's a big difference between an assumption and religious first principles, my good man. Assumptions can be carried through to their logical conclusion, then later compared to real-world observation to test their validity. First principles are the anti thesis of the scientific assumption-- they are "truth", ultimate, Divinely inspired truth, not open to debate or question. Armed with observations that appear to contradict assumption "A" of science, a scientist can and will challenge it, and remain a scientist. If assumption "A" is contradicted by observation, science accepts it, moves on, and continues to be science.

    However, armed with contradicting observation, a Christian who challenges basic tenant "B" of Christianity is no longer a Christian. By definition, tenant "B" of Christianity has to be true in order to remain Christianity. Herein lies the difference between the posited assumptions of science that are tested/validated/contradicted based on observation, and the supposedly Divinely-mandated "first principles" of religion.

    Philosophically, can we really be sure of anything? I would argue no...however, we can be more sure of some things than we are of others. But good question--is our inductive scientific reasoning an accurate method of understanding the universe? Let's find out by performing an experiment. Put two apples in a basket, then add one more apple. Did we end up with three apples, as reason predicts? We did--success! After a few thousand trials, we will have strong evidence that yes, the universe is rational, as far as apples are concerned ;). Once again, observation, not first principles, carries the day. If the universe wasn't rational to some extent, science shouldn't work...and yet here we are, with computers, wireless communications, and space shuttles.

    I'm not sure I understand you here...the scientific method assumes objectivity? If the scientific method assumed objectivity, why would it incorporate things like control groups, multiple trials, and percent error in measurement calculations? Based on what I was taught in middle school about the scientific method, it is the antithesis of a divinely-inspired religious doctrine in that it does not assume objectivity in any respect.

    Galileo was right about some things, and wrong about others. We now have more plentiful and more accurate space observations to work with which contradict the notion that the sun is the center of the universe. However, those same observations have confirmed Galileo was right that the Sun and the planets do not orbit the Earth. The real question is, whose model of the universe was more accurate? Galileo's observation-based model, in which the moon and the planets were imperfect, Earth-like worlds which orbit the Sun in imperfect ellipses? Or the Church's "first principle"-based model in which the Earth was the center of a series of perfect spheres containing heavenly orbs which orbited in perfect circles? Galileo's model was more accurate than the Church's because observation is a more accurate method by which to understand the universe than religious first principles.

    Please reassure me you are not implying that elliptical orbits, mountain ranges on the lunar surface, and the satellites of Jupiter are mere "theories". :rolleyes:

    That's the great thing about science...those who see farther do so by standing on the shoulders of giants. :)
     
  20. chlotilde

    chlotilde Madame Curie

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    This is good, I have you thinking (at least legalistically). That "God exists", a religious first principle, sounds like an assumption to me.
    (PS, although your current view of me is bouncing electrons taking the form of a computer, in another realm, I am bouncing electrons taking the form of a woman.)


    I guess we have different definitions.
    To me, First Principles are assumptions that can not be proven, and are accepted on faith alone. (faith (small f) defined as belief not based on logical proof...if we add in the God factor, we get Faith (big F).
    There are Principles in science (such as Newton's), that are accepted based on another principle that came before it, eventually leading back to a First Principle.

    In logical reasoning, you must start with a true premise. If we work our way backwards through "true premises", we end up at something called First Principles. Lets do this with science.

    Why are Newton's Principles true...eventually we'd get to a point where we'd say that the scientific method is true.
    Why? It always works? Well, not always, in fact we have something call pseudoscience (things like ghost hunters with fancy electronic equipment fall into this category, as well as astrologers like Johannes Kepler)...but we'll kick them out of the club for
    now (except, quite frankly, I like Kepler, he was clever...beyond his astrology...he had interferences with the Protestant clergy, much like Galileo's problems with the Catholics)

    So, can we prove the validity of the scientific method...
    Step 1 of the scientific method is to make an observation, we'll call that "a priori" truth (it stands on the truth of it's word).
    Next we form a hypothesis using inductive reasoning. Induction is essentially reasoning from the specific to the general. Now we are at the premise that inductive reasoning must be true. This is where Hume comes into the science picture.
    This is what Hume argued: What rational justification do we have for making inductive inferences? .

    He came up with what is called the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature: nature is uniform in such a way that the future resembles the past.
    It has become the "First Principle" in Science.

    Now, we have to ask: What rational justification do we have for believing the principle of the uniformity of nature?
    Hume stated that there are two ways to rationally justifying a belief. You can justify a belief either by showing that you know it a priori or by showing that you know it a posteriori (essentially, you know it as true beforehand, or after the fact).
    If you know something a priori, it is usually true by virtue of the meanings of the words. We can't except uniformity of nature a priori as we don't yet know the future.
    If we do not know this principle to be true a priori, then we have to be able to show that we know it to be true a posteriori.

    But now the problem is that we get caught in a circle.
    What reason do we have for thinking that the future will resemble the past?
    Well, we could deductively say...in the past the (then) future resembled the (further) past, hmmm, doesn't make sense.
    Reword that a little and say...Our reason for thinking that the future will resemble the past is that the future resembled the past in the past.
    But it is circular reasoning to say: the belief that X is said to be justified by the belief that X. (hence, my "It is what it is" comment).

    Hume's conclusion is called the Sceptical Conclusion about Induction: Since we have no rational justification for believing the principle of the uniformity of nature, we can have no rational justification for making inductive inferences.
    In science, inductive reasoning is accepted as a true First Principle by faith alone.

    What do you think theology is? It is the study of religion (IOW religion and theology are not the same thing). There are both theistic and atheistic theologians who question the First Principle of "God exists".

    Oops, sorry, if ghost-hunters want to be called scientists, so be it.


    Yes, science has accepted a concept of probabilities. Whether all propabilities occur..(shoulder shrug). Such are the theories of parallel universes (which IMO are as probable as something called heaven).


    You're performing math logic here, not science.
    Why does reason predict 3 apples? Because math is true.
    Is math true? Yikes, now your getting into abstract thinking. Does a "3" exist? Or is it a figment of our imagination? I can't do a scientific proof of math, because I can't observe a "3".
    You'd have to ask a mathmatician to prove his math. Are you familiar with Godel's Incompleteness Theorum? Essentiality again, we are faced with another First Principle that must be accepted on faith alone.

    Part of the scientific method is incorporating things like control groups etc...You've just reworded what I said. Sorry for not being clearer.

    Huh, now I'm lost? Are you saying science claims to be subjective and not objective? Yikes, what are they teaching in school?

    I don't remember ever seeing this as some doctrine of religious faith. It may have been the opinion of some people, and no doubt was discussed by theologians. If the Church specifically taught this idea as a religious truth, I'm an unaware of it.
    However, it may have indeed been considered a scientific truth by the Church. In that era, the Church was the source for education (i.e, they ran the schools). That topics such as science, history and art were all taught by the men of religion seems kind of logical to me. It still happens today at places like Georgetown University. Even 500 years ago, religion and science were separate subjects of study. Why do people today think they were the same thing?

    No, you've just added words in my mouth. I was talking heliocentric theory only.

    Galileo couldn't prove the heliocentric theory as he couldn't observe the predicted parallax shifts. That proof came about 50 or so years after him, with better telescopes. Today's scientists no longer need to see something to believe it (wow, It sounds like I'm talking about religion...believing without seeing), e.g. radiowaves, photons, electrons. This was not true for the 16th century scientist, he needed visual proof for his theories (almost like a role reversal...such is the paradox we call life).
     
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