Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Apologetics vs the Scientific Method

I've listened to a lot of apologetics lately. I mean a lot.

It has left me very frustrated. Apologetics is, or should be, a defense of the Christian faith. It really should stem from 1 Peter 3v15:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (NIV)
I find it interesting that the word 'reason' features so centrally in that verse. For it is the lack of reason in apologetics which is annoying me.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a tried and tested way of using evidence (generally, but not always, in the form of experiments) to confirm or refute hypotheses. The process goes something like this:
  1. Propose hypothesis or range of hypotheses. These may be based on prior knowledge or may be pure speculation.
  2. Carry out experiment or make observation which is able to provide evidence relevant to the hypotheses.
  3. Attempt to falsify the hypotheses using the evidence.
  4. Hypotheses which are refuted (shown to be falsifiable) by the evidence are dismissed.
  5. Hypotheses which are unable to be falsified are considered to be reasonable and are held to be valid until further evidence is found.
Stage 3 is crucial in the scientific method. It is only by attempting to falsify each hypothesis that its worth is ultimately found.

Apologetics also considers evidence and hypotheses. However, the chain of events is somewhat different:

Apologetic Method
  1. Start with a range of hypotheses (i.e. beliefs), generally derived from the bible or church tradition.
  2. When new evidence is presented, formulate a plausible argument which can be used to explain why the evidence is consistent with the prior hypotheses.
  3. If no plausible argument can be found, attempt to discredit or refute the evidence. In extreme cases, simply ignore the evidence.
  4. If none of that works, simply get the argument bogged down in really technical theories so that the audience is bamboozled or loses interest.
  5. Assert that the hypothesis is validated.
There are two basic problems here. The first is that the apologist assumes, from the outset, that the hypotheses are true. The apologist is convinced of that, so in the event of an apparent tension between hypothesis and evidence, it must be the evidence, or our understanding of it, which is at fault. The validity of the hypotheses is never seriously considered.

The second problem falls in the plausible argument. Just because an argument is plausible, doesn't mean that its probable or actually true.

The crux of the issue is that when there is a tension between hypothesis and evidence, science assumes that the hypothesis is flawed, while apologetics assumes that the evidence is flawed.

Of course, the evidence could be flawed. But apologetics will never lead to refinements in the hypotheses, thus will never take us closer to the truth about reality. Science just might.


Mike said...

The problem is that the 'evidence' for the divine is almost always anecdotal and not reproducible and therefore scientifically invalid.

I do agree with the problems of apologetics compared to science but it's basically the problems of formal debate/rhetoric compared to scientific reasoning. You could make a similar critique of politics.

My way of working around this is I just assign probabilities to all my beliefs rather than insisting things fit into the "truth" or "lies" binary that so many Christians seem to insist on.

Ricky Carvel said...

Yes, Mike. Fair point.

But what about when we are considering historical evidence? Like the total lack of evidence for Jerusalem being a major city of influence in the alleged time of David & Solomon. That counters the hypothesis that 2nd Samuel contains accurate history, and enhances the hypothesis that the biblical stories contain elaborate exaggeration. And yet, the apologist will stick to hypothesis one and dismiss the evidence: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" - except, sometimes it is.

Mike said...

Yep, I would agree with you there.

I personally don't care about the Old Testament hugely, I'm more of a Red Letter Christian so don't care whether Jerusalem was as valid as was claimed. To me the only big questions that really matter are "is there a God" and "does he perform miracles today". If you can believe in them, the rest is details. If you can't, the rest is irrelevant. Gross simplification obviously but I find this is the focus is most actual apologetics rather than just Christian bickering.

Guillermo Rein said...

Excellent piece Ricky. It can also be applied to other fields, like conspiracy theorists.

Marcus Green said...

Oh dear. Toys. Pram. I like it.

When Jesus prayed for Unity, it wasn't just about RCs & the Sally Army. It was about those of us who think differently - I mean, whose thought processes work in different ways. Who employ alternative academic methodology.

He was praying for you & me.

I think scientific method applied to theology is akin to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer. You miss out nuance. Scientific method isn't always built for the personal element, which is so often at the core of theological matters.

But I wouldn't begin to try doing your job with my approach. I couldn't. I was a failure at the one year of chemistry I attempted, and my physics teacher wanted to swap his initials from CJ to JC after getting me a B at O level.

Ricky Carvel said...


Didn't realise you were still following this...


I'm not objecting to theology. And I don't think theology needs to use scientific method. What I am objecting to is the pseudo-scientific method of apologetics. It claims to be 'reasonable' and yet isn't.

Apologetics is all about maintaining the status quo (in belief) and doesn't care about the search for truth.

camillofan said...

Is your beef with the *project* of apologetics-- viz., that it isn't about "searching for truth" in the same way that science is? If so, that seems a little unfair, in that a lot of perfectly legitimate endeavors (including art and philosophy, which are also about understanding the Universe) don't have the same aims as science.

I mean, the apologist's job is surely nothing more than to show that the hypotheses, if true, are plausible, which would necessarily entail (1) assuming (for the sake of discussion) that the hypotheses are true, and (2) setting plausibility (rather than probability or scientific verifiability) as the standard to be achieved.

On the other hand, if your complaint is about *this* -- In extreme cases, simply ignore the evidence. If none of that works, simply get the argument bogged down in really technical theories so that the audience is bamboozled or loses interest. -- then, to the extent that self-appointed apologists are actually like that, I'd be with you.

Ricky Carvel said...

I suppose my 'beef' with apologetics is the way that most apologists manage to dismiss apparently valid evidence and apparently valid arguments.

My other beef, not mentioned above, is the way that apologists generally think that any argument in defence of 'the god of the philosophers' is also a defence of the Christian God.

But fundamentally, I want to know the truth, and apologetics is not a way of ever getting there. Yet it contends with reason and science which might lead is in the right direction.

camillofan said...

But fundamentally, I want to know the truth, and apologetics is not a way of ever getting there.

I agree; however, I do think that religion (/theology) is a way of getting to certain truths, including ones that science isn't interested in. It's just that apologetics isn't much of a way of getting to religion, since it is by its nature an activity done from the inside.