False Dilemmas In Science and Faith

farHeads or tails? Odds are somewhat even either one of these will be the result of a coin toss. Sure, there is an infintessimal chance that it will land on its edge, but seriously? The concept of “heads or tails” is the go-to principle for just about every “either/or” situation that comes up, and many of us humans are so very fond of feeling the need to pick one.The dictionary even has an entry for “Either-Or,” defining it as an unavoidable choice or exclusive division between only two alternatives.

In literay circles, this is referred to as a “false dilemma,” or a “false dichotomy”, and a “fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses,” to name a few. Generally, it involves the presentation of a situation where only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. Sometimes presenting a false dilemma is quite intentions. A good example would be “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” However, a false dilemma can be caused simply by accidentally omitting additional options, or not knowing that additional options even exist.

When dealing with false dilemmas, problems arise not generally out of the arguments itself, but from the options that make up the crux of the argument. The first question that should be asked is whether or not the options are valid, to start with. An example would be if someone argues that fire is hot, and another argues that fire is cold, and thus a compromise is made (argument from moderation) that fire is lukewarm. The result is going to be that no matter who touches the fire, they are going to get burned because fire is, indeed hot.

It’s not so cut-and-dried in other areas, and this mostly due to the presence of both a false dilemma, and putting an unarguable premise up for argument. Complicating the problem is a lack of understanding on difinitives, or what something means. Using the example of the fire as stated above, the argument of whether or not fire is hot should have ended if both persons first had a rudimentary understanding of the properties of fire.

The person who presented the argument that fire is cold could present his argument that the word “hot” has a subjective meaning, however. There are circumstances where they would be correct, but the field of interpretation is pretty narrow. I find an ambient temperature of 80 degrees to be quite comfortable. However, my wife finds an ambient temperature of 80 degrees to be uncomfortable warm. A difference of ten degrees either way will change whether or not either one of use will use the phrase, “It’s hot.” This levity disappears when fire is present.

Such are the literary differences when we use vernacular definitions. What’s this got to do with false dilemmas? Quite a lot, particularly where science is concerned, and specifically where matters of faith intersect. The word “theory” is a perfect example. When used in non-scientific context, the word “theory” implies that something is unproven or speculative. When used by scientists, and as party of the scientific method, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning. A theory is a principle that has been tested and confirmed, and can explain and predict something. It is based on a careful examination of facts, and include observational consequences.

An example that most of us know and accept is Newton’s theory of gravity, which consists of problem-solving strategies that are applied to many scientific circumstances, and like other theories, is formed from independently tested hypothesis. In short, a scientific theory represent the best explanation of some aspect of the natural world using facts, laws, and tested hypotheses.

I don’t really know anyone who disputes the theory of gravity, and anyone who does will likely not be around long enough to argue their point. I know of nobody who states that their belief in the God rests upon whether or not gravity exists. If they did, they would be unceremoniously heckled.

This brings me to two other theories. Evolution and the Big Bang. These two scientific theories had to undergo the same scrutiny that the theory of gravity (and relativity – E=MC2) had to, but among many of the faithful, they are still considered arguable or something that is to be “believed in” or worse yet, principles that belief or rejection of God somehow rests.

There are several reasons why many Christians take issue with Evolution and the Big Bang. One, obviously, is the application of the vernacular definition of the word “theory” on these scientific principles. We often hear “It’s just a theory” when many Christians refer to Evolution and the Big Bang, but this is an incorrect use of the word, and you will never hear this coming from a scientist.

Another reason is the incorrect assumption that Evolution and the Big Bang encompass “first cause.” Fact is, neither Evolution or the Big Bang make any reference to First Cause. Yet another reason is the insistence by hard-core atheists that belief in God is incomptible with Evolution and the Big Bang.

Finally, the common premise among many that evolution and the big bang are a question of belief, when it is only a matter of whether or not one understands them. When properly understood, these facts of our scientific world are not in competition with faith.

Regarding the Big Bang Theory, consider this, from S. Michael Houdmann:

Prior to the 20th Century, it was not clear if the universe ever had a beginning. Had it always existed? No one knew. It was a matter of faith. Then a succession of discoveries throughout the 20th Century showed beyond a reasonable doubt that the universe did have a beginning. It wasn’t always here.

First, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, published in 1916, suggested that the universe had not always existed. Unsettled by the implications of his own theory, however, Einstein added a “cosmological constant” to make his equations support the possibility of a static (and therefore eternal) universe. Then the works of Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble in the 1920s demonstrated that the universe is expanding and that Einstein’s cosmological constant was a mistake. This left a lot of astrophysicists very unhappy. Many felt that Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest, was trying to inject religion into physics by suggesting that the universe had a beginning.

Over the next several decades, physicists tried to salvage the eternality of the universe by proposing everything from the Milne model (1935) to the steady state theory (1948). But with the 1964 discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation—predicted by Big Bang theorists in the 1940s—the Big Bang theory became the preeminent cosmological model. The question was no longer, did the universe have a beginning? The question became, how did it happen?

As more and more astrophysicists focused their attention on what happened in the first few moments, months and years of the universe, some Christians became upset that the new theoretical models didn’t match up with their interpretation of Genesis. Just as many astrophysicists felt that the expanding universe theory was a ploy to inject religion into science, many Christians have come to feel that the Big Bang is an effort to undermine the biblical account of creation. Other Christians, however, feel that the Big Bang is consistent with the Bible’s account and welcome such compelling evidence for the creation of the universe.

Keep in mind that the Big Bang wasn’t a sudden explosion of energy in some empty part of space at some distant moment in time. According to the theory, all space, time and energy came into existence together in that “bang.” Before the Big Bang, there was no time. There was no space. Then, suddenly, an exceedingly dense, incredibly hot, infinitesimal ball of something – everything – appeared somewhere, somehow for reasons unknown and began to expand rapidly with our whole world inside of it.

It is hard not to see the evidence for the Big Bang as a stunning example of where science and theology intersect. Astrophysicist Dr. Robert Jastrow phrased it this way in his book God and the Astronomers (New York, W.W. Norton, 1978, p. 116): “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” Why? Because, as Jastrow explained in a subsequent interview, “Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. . . .That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact” (“A Scientist Caught Between Two Faiths: Interview with Robert Jastrow,” Christianity Today, August 6, 1982, pp. 15, 18).

If Christians are to have objections to the Big Bang theory, it should only be in the atheistic presuppositions that often go along with the theory. The idea itself, that the universe came into existence due to an explosion, is not necessarily incompatible with the biblical creation account. As one Christian theologian has stated, “I am not necessarily opposed to the Big Bang theory. Rather, I know who banged it.”

Also, consider that Pope Pius XII declared, at the November 22, 1951 opening meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that the Big Bang theory does not conflict with the Catholic concept of creation. In fact, some Conservative Protestant Christian denominations have also welcomed the Big Bang theory as supporting a historical interpretation of the doctrine of creation.

In fact, the Catholic Church maintains the position that the mind of God is at the genesis of the Big Bang Theory, as well as Evolutionary Theory. Pope Benedict said,

“The universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe,” Benedict said on the day Christians mark the Epiphany, the day the Bible says the three kings reached the site where Jesus was born by following a star. Contemplating it (the universe), we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God.”

Accepting the Big Bang and Evolution doesn’t require the adoption of atheism. Here’s what the Episcopal Church says about “creation science:”

Whereas, … several states have recently passed so-called “balanced treatment” laws requiring the teaching of “Creation-science” whenever evolutionary models are taught; and …

Whereas, the terms “Creationism” and “Creation-science” … in these laws do not refer simply to the affirmation that God created the Earth and Heavens and everything in them, but specify certain methods and timing of the creative acts, and impose limits on these acts which are neither scriptural nor accepted by many Christians; and

Whereas, the dogma of “Creationism” and “Creation-science” … has been discredited by scientific and theologic studies and rejected in the statements of many church leaders; …

[T]he … Convention affirms the glorious ability of God to create in any manner, whether men understand it or not, and in this affirmation reject the limited insight and rigid dogmatism of the “Creationist” movement…

Here is a 1996 quote from Pope John Paul II:

“Today, almost half a century after the publication of [Pius XII’s] Encyclical, fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

The Catholic Church also officially supports the Big Bang theory because it agrees with their theological position that time itself began at creation. The reference to “Creationists” mean people who reject standard science. The Pope certainly believes the universe was created by God, but he is not a “creationist” in this sense.

Hard core atheists are fond of attributing the discoveries made at CERN, the nuclear research center in Geneva, as proof that God doesn’t exist. But many people of faith see the beauty and the mystery of the world as indicators that God is creator of heaven and earth, as well as how God could have used a natural evolutionary process in the forming of the human species.

In fact, the Catholic Church no longer teaches creationism (that God created the world in six days), and states that the account in the book of Genesis is an allegory for the way God created the world. While the church objects to using evolution to bolster atheism, which denies God’s existence or any divine role in creation, it also objects to using Genesis as a scientific text. Fact is, teachings about God are compatible with modern scientific understanding about biological evolution, including both macro and micro-evolution.

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Christians generally accepted evolution as they reconciled it with the design argument. A popular theology at the time involved creation as an indirect process that is controlled by divine laws. Natural selection was readily defenced as being compatible with intelligent design, and Darwin wrote in his second edition, the following conclusion:

“I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide.

“Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator.”

Within a decade most scientists had also been won over to evolution.

There is no reason to believe that God was not a guiding force behind evolution or the cause of the Big Bang. Sure, this contradicts some specific interpretations of God (like those requiring a literal interpretation of Genesis 1) relatively few people have such a narrow of a view of God.

There are many people who believe in the existence of God and understand the science behind the facts surrounding Evolutionary Theory and the Big Bang. In fact, the concept of God and science being harmonious would seem to only be objectionable to hard-core atheists and religious fundamental literalists. The atheists and religious literalists present an either-or proposition between belief in God and acceptance of evolution and the big bang. The atheist demands proof of the unprovable, and the religious fanatic cannot reconcile the known and the unknown.

When left with only the “false dilemma” of either God or science, it is difficult (if not impossible) to wholeheartedly reject God and choose science.

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