RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific Consensus

When discussing scientific theories, it can be tempting to appeal to the consensus view of scientists when we want to silence a new theory that we don’t like. This has been done to me in online discussions by people who disagree with my position. And – frankly – I’ve not really known how to respond beyond just saying, “okay…if you say so!” However – I’m coming to think that an  appeal to consensus is not only unjustified, but its also dangerously unscientific.
In his book “Undeniable”, the biologist Doug Axe recounts his experience as an undergraduate student sitting one of his first University exams. One test question asked which macro molecule was most apt to have been the first “living” molecule. Doug decided to give the correct answer to the question, but he then decided to continue his answer by pointing out why he felt that no molecule actually had what it takes to “start life off” by itself. He did this anticipating extra credit from his professor for his creative thinking.

What he got – was marked down.

Why?

Because, “we students were expected not only to know current thinking in biology but also to accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.” (1)

Axe goes on to point out that in the conclusion of the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin voiced his hope that scientists would stop rejecting his theory of evolution, and one day they might gradually take it on board. To Darwin’s surprise (I’m sure), within a period of just three years, we read in the sixth edition of the book that

“Now things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.” (2)

What caused the change? Was it a scientific discovery? No – because as Axe points out, Darwin would have recorded the discovery and attributed the change to it. (3) No, instead “peer pressure is a part of science…scientific interests compete against one another for influence…might the sudden change in Darwin’s favour have been more like a change of power than a change of minds.” (4)

Human influence and power turned the tide opinion. Not scientific discovery. Ironically – it was Darwin at the time of his book’s first edition who was the one straying from the herd…not complying with the consensus view at the time on the origin of biological life. Consensus doesn’t move us forward. As Axe says, “those rare people who oppose the stream are the ones to watch.” (5)

In other words – scientists from the past were influenced by human factors as well as data factors. Possibly more so. Our deference to consensus seems to be about sticking with the herd and not straying too far from it. And discouraging others from straying from the consensus view. If that was true for scientists back then – its sure to be true now. Arthur Koestler talks about this principle in play during the formation of cosmology. It’s also present in biology too. 

Now – I’m not suggesting accountability is wrong. Not so – our colleagues keep us honest. What I am criticising – is consensus. Or to put it another way – “group think” holds creative scientific discovery back. It hurts scientific understanding by slowing the formation and adoption of new theories.

Here are three observations about the scientific process and the dangers of group think:

First – this suggests to to me that it takes courage to be the one to stand up and disagree with the consensus – and propose a new idea. It takes courage to put forward a new theory, and back that theory up with evidences. Courage is required because, inevitably, rejection will follow from your peers.

Second – it also suggests to me that scientific consensus does not equate to truth. I wish Darwinians today could wrap their heads around this. Just because the consensus of scientists agree on something does not make their theory true, however scientifically orthodox it may currently be. Rather – the consensus is simply that. The widely held public view of qualified people today. Tho in private – they may say something else entirely.

Thirdly – it suggests to me that anyone who rejects a new theory based on the views of scientific consensus is missing the point of science, and actually behaving in an unhelpful and non-scientific way. Consensus is just the current status quo. Humanity needs people of courage to stand up and propose something that’s new so it can be examined and tested. To simply reject this on the basis of personal and consensus led bias…seems unscientific and harmful to the scientific enterprise as a whole.

The answer to a new scientific theory is not, “Don’t be so silly. No one else believes that because its stupid.” Rather – the answer should be, “That’s an interesting idea. Let’s test it together.”

Scientific consensus is harmful to the progress of scientific understanding.

Michael Crichton, who went to Medical school and taught anthropology before he authored books like Westworld and Jurassic Park, stood against scientific consensus much more strongly then either Doug Axe or myself. He calls the notion of scientific consensus “pernicious…and the refuge of scoundrels, because it’s the way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.” Oh – how familiar that problem is to me today.

I’ll end with a Crichton quote.

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. .” (6)

(1) Douglas Axe, Undeniable How Biology Confirms our Intuition That Life Is Designed, (Harper One, 2016), 3.

(2) Online Variorum of Darwin’s Origin of Species: first British edition (1859) comparison with 1872, http://test.darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1859/1859-483-c-1872.html

(3) Axe, 5.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Axe, 6.

(6) Michael Crichton, “‘Aliens Cause Global Warming’Links to an external site.,” reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.

RESPONDblog: Galaxy Quest + My Limited Worldview

The movie Galaxy Quest tells the story of a group of washed up actors, tired and bored of living with the enduring fandom around their old space opera TV show from 20 years ago. It introduces us to Jason Nesmith, the actor who played the captain on the NSEA Protector space ship in the space opera. And he’s signing autographs at a fan convention…when suddenly and finally he explodes in a “Shatner-istic, get a life” way. Who does he explode at? Branden – a geeky fan who is asking for an autograph, while also pressing him on a tricky episode plot hole that Nesmith couldn’t care less about.  
Nesmith roasts him.

“It’s just a TV show. You got it?!”

The movie also tells the story of a group of alien beings – the Thermians – who have been watching Nesmith’s old TV Show from outer space…and have come to believe that the stories told in the show are actually real, rather than just hokey entertainment.

Now, in addition to their viewing habits, we learn the peace loving Thermians are facing an oppressive and controlling space gangster called Sarris who wants to oppress them. They fear Sarris…yet are actually quite technologically advanced. So they decide to emulate their heroes on the TV show and build an advanced space ship to fight Sarris…and they make the ship look and behave just like the NSEA Protector.

They make it work in exactly the same way as the ship on the show. So…the computer will only work if the girl on the bridge repeats all the data the computer provides the bridge team. And the controls for the ship’s pilot are laid out just as the actor playing the pilot pretended to fly the ship.

BUT – the Thermians have a problem – they cannot use their cool spaceship technology to defeat Sarris. They are smart enough to build their ship. They aren’t brave enough to use it.

Their solution? They decide to naively travel to earth…find their heroes from their favourite space TV show…and take them back to their planet to pilot the ship and defeat Sarris for them! After all…these guys are their heroes…and have defeated evil many times on the show. They’ve watched it on their equivalent of TV. They think its all real.

And for some cool and interesting reasons – read pride and boredom here – Nesmith and his crazy, LA based actors from the cast say “yes” to the Thermians’ request…and travel to their alien planet to man the new and very real NSEA Protector space ship. What they don’t bank on, however, is the very real jeopardy this puts them in. And so these actors must work out a way to cope in this conflict…and survive.

I’ve been sitting in a class at BIOLA University taught by PhD professor John Mark Reynolds this week. And he reminded me of the coolest part of Galaxy Quest.

What’s the coolest part?

During their conflict with Sarris – Nesmith and his crew find themselves running through the bowels of the ship to find the engine room…so they they can diffuse the reactor and stop the ship from exploding. While doing this, they realise that – in the course of the original TV show run – they never did an episode of the show where they visited the bowels of the NSEA Protector. So – they have no idea where to go to find the reactor to diffuse it. Worse – they have no idea what do do if and when they get there.

That’s a big problem. So what do they do?

Genius idea. They contact the geeky kid Branden that Nesmith roasted during the fan convention at the start of the movie. The kid who had grown up watching the show, who bought and pored over the deck plans of the NSEA Protector. Who knew this show and the ship inside out.

Nesmith contacts Branden…but before he can ask him for help finding the engine room…Branden stops him. Not realising the very real jeopardy Nesmith is in, Branden blurts out…”Look. About the convention. I know its just a TV show. I understand completely that’s its just a TV show. There is no ship…I’m not a complete brain-case…you know?”

And Nesmith responds with three words that transform Branden’s life.

“It’s all real.”

And without hesitation…and with a whoop of confident delight…Branden explodes. “I knew it. I just knew it!!!”

Here’s what’s cool about this scene. It poses a question to us.

What if my settled view of reality…actually is more about me just settling for a narrow perspective…the little bit that I understand. And dismissing the notion that there is so much more to know! Right now – I simply don’t fully understand everything that could be known about life and reality. But there’s a future awaiting me…

Further – what if that future reality is bigger…and more amazing than I could understand today. What if it truly is bursting with goodness, with truth and beauty in a way that I’ve yet to know on this planet…so its greater than I can fully comprehend right now. So much so…that when I finally DO experience it…I might just go slack jawed…and then burst with something like…

“I knew it!! I just knew it.”

Just like Branden.

And maybe then we will reflect back…and remember. We had a suspicion that there was more to life than just this one…we had this inner sense of it…maybe from our time as a child. But we’ve grown up since then. We’ve allowed other people to convince us otherwise. We’ve cooperated as others have systematically robbed us of our hope for ultimate goodness, truth and beauty.

What a shame that has happened.

One day – we will know. We will know it for ourselves in a fresh and wonderful way. And we’ll just exclaim, “You know what? I knew it!”

I’m looking forward to the day when I begin to really experience the full wonder of creation. In the here and now…I’m living in just a fraction of it…I sense that that’s true. But there is SO much more to come in the reality that’s to come.

Why do I think that? Well…because there’s this person in history called Jesus who transformed the world with his goodness, his beauty and the truth he brought to this planet. His beauty…in what he did and said. And it all culminated in his defeat of death and his invitation to join him in the bigger reality that is to come. This points to a future reality, a bigger sense of knowing reality as it truly is in all its goodness, its truth and its beauty…in a sense that I can only imagine today.

What a shame so many of us have been duped into thinking that our narrow view of the world is the right and only one…when we haven’t given ourselves the chance to consider that there is so much more that is awaiting us.

Do you know what? My anticipation is rising…there’s going to be a whoop of delight that’s going to burst out of me that day when I see that which I confidently expect to see in the reality to come with Jesus.

I knew it. I just knew it…!

RESPONDblog: The Case from Consciousness


Introduction

When making a case for Christianity I usually focus on the scientific and historical lines of evidence. However, I’ve learned there are also philosophical evidences relating to human mind and consciousness. These arguments potentially undercut some important naturalistic assumptions relating to the human mind and the brain.

I’ve noticed when conversing with the sceptic they often tacitly accept they have a mind and are free to engage it by exploring arguments for the Christian worldview. So, I’ll investigate their tacit assumptions about mind and identify these as part of the cumulative evidential case for Christianity.

It seems to me that I can discuss four areas with the sceptic; first, I’d introduce substance dualism as proposed by the Christian worldview, second the evidences for substance dualism, third the common inadequate naturalistic explanations for mind and fourth I’d conclude by proposing a reason substance dualism points to a creator.
I’ll lay that case out in this blog.

Introducing Substance Dualism

Substance dualism claims the human mind is separate but has a causal relationship with the brain; while the brain is, “subject to the laws of physics; mental states are subject to the laws of logic.” (1)  It denies people are determined, proposing instead that we all have free will.

Alternative naturalistic explanations of mind demand everything must have an explanation that is “inside the room.” (2)  This understands the human mind as equivalent to the physical brain; our thoughts and feelings must therefore be explained by appealing to the deterministic laws of chemistry and physics. This suggests that people are pre-determined to think and act in certain ways as dictated by their physiology.

Yet evidence for substance dualism is found in the context of every debate between the Christian believer and the sceptic. Both parties exercise free will as they debate, and their discussion appeals to the laws of logic as they construct and respond to the arguments for and against Christianity. Therefore, the debate itself provides evidence for the Christian understanding of mind. Persons freely exercise their will, and are therefore not subject to the deterministic physical processes that would determine them under an equivalent brain and mind.

Arguments Supporting Substance Dualism

Having introduced substance dualism, I’d go on to strengthen the case by showing that mind and brain are different and therefore not equivalent. Mind cannot be explained in purely naturalistic terms. I’ll appeal to the following lines of evidence.

First, the physical brain is public while the contents of the mind are wholly private. The brain is public in the sense that a surgeon may open a patient’s skull, expose their brain tissue and operate on it. In that sense, brain is available to anyone who needs access to it. By contrast, the human mind is private. No-one can understand the contents of another person’s consciousness apart from that particular conscious person. Even psychologists cannot completely describe the contents of their patients mind; they only know what the patient has chosen to reveal. The rest of their mind is private to the patient. The public brain therefore does not share characteristics with the private mind; they are essentially different and cannot be the same.

Second, mental states have intentionality while physical entities do not. My mind operates from intentionality when it formulates a case against Christianity; I intend to present a case. However, the brain does not. It is physically located in one’s skull, it objectively exists, but cannot exhibit intentionality. The mind is different from the brain.

Third, while one can be incorrect about a physical entity, a mental state is always indisputable. I may incorrectly assume that a red chair is physically located in the next room, but I cannot be mistaken that I have a belief about that physical object in my mind; my belief is indisputable.

Fourth, while material objects are described objectively, the mind operates in the realm of subjective opinion. If material naturalism were true, then everything in nature could be fully described using objective terms alone. This is not the case, however, because subject opinion exists in the universe. My subjective opinion will often be shared during a debate about Christianity. But my opinion on whether or not Jesus was a real person, for example, is not physically located somewhere inside my skull. The “personal, subjective nature of mental states distinguishes them from anything physical.” (3)

Fifth, while a physical object like a brain can be measured and weighed, mental states cannot. While physical objects are evaluated by reference to physical laws, mental states are evaluated by reference to the logical laws; they cannot be measured or weighed.

Inadequate Naturalistic Explanations of Mind

In my discussion with the sceptic, I’d discuss the inadequacy of naturalistic explanation for mind. For example, sometimes mental states are described as human behaviour, therefore maintaining a naturalistic explanation for mind. Yet we intuitively know that our thoughts are the cause of our physical behaviour, not the other way round. (4)  So this naturalistic approach fails to explain mind.

The group called the “eliminating materialists” simply dismiss mental states, saying they are nonexistent. However, their assertion is self contradictory. I’ve stated in my case for substance dualism that mind uniquely reflects the property of intentionality. It is this property that the materialist must explain, yet they do so by appealing to an intention. Their explanation therefore fails because they cannot dismiss intentionality by exercising it. (5)

Brain injury impairs the activity of mind, and some point to this as evidence of equivalence. Rather than equate brain with mind, it may suggest a firm causal relationship between the two substances.

In summary, naturalistic explanations of mind do not work; they are self-contradictory and deficient, and they attempt to dispense with the mental states they cannot explain. (6)

Why Substance Dualism May Point to God

If people’s mental lives have a separate causal relationship with their physical existence, then this aligns with and supports the Christian understanding of God. While God is spirit, he also took physical form in the incarnated Jesus. It seems reasonable to infer therefore that God’s nature would be reflected in people; “in the image of God he created them.” (7)

[1] J. Warner Wallace, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, (David Cook), 132.

[2] Wallace, 130.

[3] Wallace, 128.

[4] Wallace, 132.

[5] Wallace, 134.

[6] Wallace, 135-137.

[7] Genesis 1:27.

RESPONDblog: Were the New Testament Authors Biased?


Introduction

I often hear something like this from sceptics:

“Christians always appeal to the Bible. But I don’t trust the Bible because it was written by authors who were biased. If the text is untrustworthy, the foundation of Christianity is therefore suspect.” 

The sceptic claims a lack of objectivity in the New Testament record. Because the authors were Christians, the sceptic assumes they were therefore not objective in their assessment of the events. Because they weren’t objective, they must therefore make claims that are biased, suffering from “unreasoned judgement.” (1)  Let’s look at the 3 primary motives for personal bias to see whether any evidence for this exists for the apostolic authors. Is there evidence the New Testament authors were intentionally misleading their readers?


Relating the Primary Motives to the Apostles

What exactly is the cause of their supposed bias? What were the authors to gain from misleading their audience? This question can be approached by considering the three most common motives for human misdemeanour.

First, the driving force of financial greed commonly leads to wrong behaviour. Yet there is no historical evidence the apostles had financial wealth, or a motivation toward amassing it. We can appeal to both the New Testament books of Acts, the letter of James and non biblical history to support this claim.

In Acts, the apostle Peter responded to a lame man, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene – walk!” (2)  Clearly Peter’s life as an apostle did not allow him to engage in much paid work; his priority was spreading Christ’s message.

The apostle James goes further, stating not only were the followers of Christ financially poor, but that their perspective was such that they prioritised eternal matters over financial ones; “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.” (3)

We must also appeal to other sources to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the biblical claim of apostolic poverty; “All the non biblical accounts related to the lives of the apostles, whether legitimate or legendary, affirm the poverty of the disciples.” (4)

Sexual or relational desire is a second driving force for immoral action. Helpfully, we know from the writings of the disciple Clement of Alexandria, that all the apostles were men who held, “sexual purity in high regard.” (5) The record shows they were all married and some had children. While Clement suggests that they chose to deny themselves sexual contact for a time, they were known as people who would, “live their sexual lives in a manner that was beyond reproach.” (6) And their attitude to these matters is clearly seen in the counterculture requirement that men had only a single wife. (7)

The third driver is the pursuit of personal power. Often, critics of Christianity point to this as a motivating factor behind much of what went wrong during church history. To an extent, church history documents the Roman Catholic Church’s power, and its corrupting influence on the lives of some popes. It is critical, however, to distinguish this later period of church history from the earlier apostolic period. One cannot criticise the apostles for the mistakes and sinful choices made by church leaders who lived hundreds of years after they died. Rather, the apostles must be measured by their own choices.

Looking at the historical record demonstrates that during the apostles’ time, “leadership within the Christian community was a liability rather than an asset.” (8)  The extra-biblical historical record from Roman historians like Tacitus and Josephus records that the first century Christians experienced uniform persecution.

Importantly, although their leadership role led to persecution rather than power, they did not change their message to lessen their persecution. Instead, they went to their deaths preaching Christ; most of them were martyred.

I have laid out important reasons why the apostles were free from the motivating factors of finances, relationships and power. Because the apostles were free from ulterior motives, the case for them as reliable witnesses is strengthened. This gives both a clear and a thoughtful response to the sceptic who dismisses the New Testament as the product of biased sources.

The burden of proof is on the sceptic to show evidence of bias.

  [1] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, (David Cook), 245.

  [2] Acts 3:6.

  [3] James 2:5.

  [4] Wallace, 242.

  [5] Wallace, 244.

  [6] Ibid.

  [7] 1 Timothy 3:2.

  [8] Wallace, 245.