Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Religion in Science: A Current Case Study

A few blogs ago I pointed out a current example of how religion drives science. This is a good case study as it (1) shows how subtle and yet significant religious influence can be, (2) is a fascinating parallel of what is probably the most important example of religious influence in the history of modern science, and finally (3) is an excellent example of how methodological naturalism can fail.

To appreciate this current example, one needs a bit of background. For thousands of years thinkers have tried to figure out why and how objects move. For instance, in the sky objects tend to move sideways whereas down here on Earth objects tend to move vertically (flames move upward and apples drop down to the ground). Aristotle made the reasonable inference that the laws of motion were different up in the sky than they were down here on the ground. In other words, the laws of motion were location dependent.

Then there was the problem of simply describing motion, especially for objects up in the sky. Did the planets circle the Earth, or did they circle the Sun? In either case, their motion was apparently very complicated. Astronomers had to use epicycles to describe celestial motions. But did celestial objects really fly along such circuitous tracks, turning this way and that as they made their way around the Earth or Sun? It was about four hundred years ago when Johannes Kepler finally found that the simple ellipse nicely describes the motion of Mars about the Sun.

As profound as Kepler's discovery was, it nonetheless did not explain why a planet would trace out an elliptical orbit. Furthermore, the ellipses did not much help to reconcile the motion of objects in the sky and motion down here on the ground. Enter Isaac Newton. A bit more than three hundred years ago, Newton proposed his universal law of gravity and laws of motion. These profoundly simple laws simultaneously explained why objects move, why they move the way they do (such as planets tracing out ellipses), and Newton's laws reconciled celestial and terrestrial motion.

Newton's laws were a tremendous scientific breakthrough. They showed how apparently complex observations could result from simple laws. Appeals to unknown or mysterious causes could now be replaced with elegant mathematical formulas. Could not all of nature could be so described? Newton's findings fueled theological ideas mandating the removal of miracles. After Newton, a variety of traditions became increasingly influential which argued god works exclusively according to natural laws. The religious influence on science was not going away, as the history books tell us.

One powerful, and unappreciated, religious influence emerged from an intriguing problem in astronomy. Newton's laws explained how the planets move, but not how their motion was initiated. In particular, the planets all circled the sun in the same direction, and roughly in the same plane. In the century following Newton, scientists and philosophers developed a powerful argument for why the planets must have arisen as a result of natural laws.

The argument compared ordered motion with random motion. Simply put, the argument stated that since a creator is sovereign, it would be capricious for him to design his creations using a particular pattern. Instead, such creations (such as the planets) would exhibit random motion. And since the planets do not trace random orbits, but rather move in a pattern, they must have arisen naturalistically. The test for design became randomness and any observable order was taken as evidence for a naturalistic origin. Scientists set about devising explanations for how the planets could have evolved. The explanations grew increasingly complex and unstable as a variety of mechanisms were considered to explain the origin of the planets. The religion in science did not lead to simple, elegant explanations. Likewise, Darwin and evolutionists since Darwin used this argument as proof for biological evolution, and that too has grown increasingly complex.

This religious driver in science is very much active today, and a few weeks ago another example was reported. Physicists have been studying the small dwarf galaxies that orbit our own Milky Way galaxy. There are several dozen such dwarf galaxies, and the researchers discovered that the eleven brightest of them orbit the Milky Way in the same direction, and in roughly the same plane. Sound familiar? This is the same pattern for the planets orbiting the Sun. Of course, the researchers assumed that the pattern must have arisen naturalistically:

Professor Kroupa and the other physicists believe that this can only be explained if today’s satellite galaxies were created by ancient collisions between young galaxies. [emphasis added]

But now they are in a bind. If the dwarf galaxies were created by such collisions, then their spin rates would not make sense. The only way to explain their fast rotational rates would be to modify Newton's law of gravity. As one researcher put it:

The only solution is to reject Newton’s theory.

So in addition to forcing science toward increasingly complex explanations, in this case methodological naturalism also forces the reevaluation of Newton's law of gravity. This example shows how methodological naturalism can go beyond simply enforcing certain types of explanations--it can send feedback into science's fundamental laws in ways that are not obviously healthy.