Science on Localized Events in Distant Past

This is worth expanding upon. The entire Bible is really localized in geography to a very small area of land during a very short time period.

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Exactly. Turns out science is not good at all at testing intermittent or one time events that are localized and in the distant past.

You know, things like a single de novo creation event, Jesus turning water to wine, the Virgin Birth. These things, even if they are true, are not expected to leave any physical evidence. The only evidence we might expect is a change in the behaivior or recorded thoughts of those downstream from such events. Now we are moving out the natural sciences into historical study. Science cannot really adjudicate these claims, even if they are real and even if they are important to understanding how and why history unfolds the way it did.

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You will notice that I avoided entirely (or virtually entirely) the use of the term Interventions.
There is no logic to saying God intervened in God’s work. It’s God embracing and engaging the workings of the entire universe … all in an instant … from God’s perspective.



Deism is avoided as long as our “so-called imaginary God” is, first of all,
being construed as communicating with His worshippers in Real Time…
and secondly,
does not set things up and walk away … but conceives, creates and concludes all
of Creation in an instant (from His perspective).

I flatly reject the idea that God “set ups natural law, and then takes a nap”. When God naps, the Universe disappears (hypothetically speaking, for you). There is no “coming and going” of God’s attention span. His attention is the very substance of reality.

So, what do I do when confronted by someone who actually asserts a deistic type God? Well, maybe I do nothing. The point of this effort is to recover anti-science Evangelicals back into the scientific fold. A deist has taken the express bus to the general area.

Now he’s YOURS to engage.


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Except the Big Bang and the Chicxulub Crater.

So why you trying to do that?

Maybe. Stretches the limits of bieng a “local” event though. Regardless, there are always exceptions that prove the rule.

In the case of the de novo creation of Adam? For that, I’m not using science to say it happened. Just the opposite. Everyone else has said evolution rules it out, and I am insisting this is not the case. Science is silent, and does not tell us way or another.

The same is regarding God’s “intervention” or “action” in evolution. Some (not all) atheists claim evolution totally explains everything, and that we know God did not intervene. Others (like ID) claim he had to have been involved. One of these two is correct, but science cannot really tell us. It cannot tell us one way or another, for example, if God engineered a mutation or two when my son was born

The same is true regarding the resurrection. There is evidence for the resurrection (Peace Be With You - #3 by swamidass)., but it is certainly not science that adjudicates this in the end.

I’d say a general pattern in my work is more carefully delineating what science does and does not say. I am not using it to adjudicate whether or not God did something. Sometimes this is not clear, because I am talking about theological claims at times. In those cases, however, we are deviating from science per se and just looking at evidence from a logical point of view.

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Glad to see we are converging on the matter of science and unrepeatable events. The big bang cannot be tested, being unique, universal and giving rise to the very laws which science then works on and by - the most science can do is project current regularities back in time to the presumed singularity. Or at least until such time as it demonstrates a multiverse and a way to observe it beyond the Big Bang.

The KT event is only investigable because it’s not unique - the wealth of information on cosmic impacts allows us to apply them to what’s found around Mexico etc and draw reasonable conclusions based on known laws and entities.

In other words, what science can do is predict, and theorise on, regularities and, sometimes, observe (merely) unique contingencies. Which conclusion saves me from joining the other contentious thread by suggesting (not for the first time) that a term like “methodological regularism” answers the turn of both theists and materialists (and anybody else) by being based not on a metaphysical assumption (naturalism/materialism/theism etc) but on an observation (“regularity” or “reproducibility”).

Such a term links the regular (which is, it has been said, the only coherent scientific definition of “natural”) neither with God nor apart from him: it simply deals with it.

A consequence of that is science doesn’t get to rule on the causes of contingencies it can’t explain. “Chance” (when not simply meaning “of yet unknown cause” or “with a certain probability relative to particular knowledge”) would be properly outside science’s remit, allowing the materialist to believe stuff just happens in an Epicurean way, and theists to believe God governs his universe.

The only people this could upset, it seems to me, are those who want to hide metaphysical presumptions under the banner of “objective science,” so that science escapes having its limitations delineated.


That is not accurate.

For example, we can use the CMB to test different theories of matter. We can judge theories based on how well they quantitatively can explain the data. The “experiment” in this case the test to see degree of fit. Keep in mind that Kepler’s foundational work was an “experiment” in just this sense.

Rather, @jongarvey, we can’t ever figure out from science if God “did it” or not.

Well I agree it can’t rule on things it can’t explain, but not because things are one time events per se. If it can’t explain something, it cannot understand them. Even if it can explain things, there is no reason to think the explanation is a total explanation. For this reason, we can never conclude with certainty that a scientific is totally “sufficient.”

As you know, I am all about defining that limit and preventing that overreach. There is fine line to walk here, or you will be mistaken for being in the “let’s revise science” camp. That is not going to be successful in the end.


Wow. Not accurate is right—and graciously understated. My jaw dropped when I read the claim that the Big Bang can’t be tested. Perhaps Jon meant that the Big Bang can’t be “replayed” from its initial moments of space-time expansion from the singularity?? (Perhaps not. I can’t say for sure what Jon meant here so I will proceed in the remainder of this post only to speak in more general terms.)

When someone tells me that some event or phenomenon X can’t be tested, I often wonder if they are also misunderstanding what is meant by science being “repeatable”. (Various misunderstandings of science tend to get packaged together, obviously.) I have many Young Earth Creationist friends who think that “For something to be science, it must be repeatable in the laboratory” and therefore they say things like, “If abiogenesis is true, scientists would be able to create life in the lab.” and “If evolutionary science is valid, scientists should be able to evolve a whale from a hippopotamus.” [Yes, they are misunderstanding a lot of things in those sentences but I’ll focus for now on just repeatability.]

On several occasions I’ve heard people (even somewhat prominent speakers/writers) say that the Big Bang Theory can’t be valid science because “it can’t be repeated and studied in the lab”. I have wondered if they reject virtually all of astronomy and facts like the orbital period of Pluto because one can’t replicate the solar system in a laboratory and because a complete 248-year orbit of Pluto around the sun has not been observed by any scientist due to the reality that Pluto has only been observed by people since 1930.

Of course, I also wonder how people like Ken Ham can appear to reject all of forensic science because of his smug retort: “Were you there?” I have always wanted to ask him if he drove home from work one day and found his house gone, but a pile of smoldering debris in its place, would his not being there to observe the day’s events mean that he would have no possible idea of what happened? If called for jury duty in a case involving forensic evidence and no observers testifying as witnesses to the alleged crime, would Ken Ham disqualify himself? (After all, wouldn’t he always have to claim reasonable doubt and a not guilty verdict, even if there was lots of DNA evidence identifying the culprit who murdered in private while unobserved?)

Testing, falsification, and repeatability are all very important in science but I’ve wondered what percentage of Americans understand what those terms mean. (Indeed, repeatability in science is not just about duplicating some thing or phenomenon in the laboratory. Repeatability is about other scientists being able to apply the same methodologies and observations and coming up with very similar data.)

I’ve long emphasized to my students that every scientific observation involves observation of the past by collecting data. This is obvious when an astronomer photographs the sun and captures photos which can tell us what happened on the sun about 8.3 minutes ago. But this time-lag may be less intuitively obvious in the laboratory when a visual observation of an experiment—or a electronic sensor connected by a wire cable—tells us what happened just a few nanoseconds ago. (I remember learning in grad school how to plan on about 8 to 12 inches of signal delay per nanosecond, depending on the material and conditions.) So one can say that scientists are always collecting data from the past, which I don’t think Ken Ham has ever thought through when he asks skeptically, “Were you there?”

My apologies for the tangent but I’m fascinated by these phenomena in the public’s perceptions of what scientists do.


But surely in this case what is being tested are the patterns of outworking of the Big Bang, not the event itself - and since the outworking is the entire universe, there are a good number of data points (10^80 or whatever it is). The properties being accounted for are regularities (aka constants and constant properties). Or from another angle, the Bang itself is an ongoing process, not a contingent event… the blind spot then becomes the unique origin of the event.

My point, and my intention entirely. Science is being properly limited, on my model, to the realm of the measurable. It has the same methods and results if there is no God, or if God produces every effect directly. You don’t even need to embrace the metaphysical belief in primary and secondary causes, so long as you accept causality itself.

I’m not sure, though, how one could ever “measure”, or understand, an individual event in isolation. One can only deal with a contingency scientifically by assigning it to a class of similar events (like the class of asteroid impacts, or the class of changes occurring after the Big Bang).

Identical, or mathematically predictable, events are no problem. Classes of events with a statistical distribution can be understood statistically, though the individual causes of each event may not be fully understood: we may assume that molecules in a gas always move by Newtonian collisons, but would have to accept that God or goblins or human influences on quantum wave collapse may be at work when we aren’t actually able to measure those collisions.

Take an example from another thread - suppose that one found that the octopus, and the octopus alone, really did have a completely different system of life from all other organisms. Perhaps it comes from an otherwise extinct tree of life, or an alien world, or was created by God or an alien race or unsuspected intelligent dinosaurs…

Measurement, explanation and understanding all depend on finding something to compare it with, or it’s like trying to steer a stationary boat. There is no pattern on which to theorise. As soon as you found a comparable fossil on Mars, however, you could change mere speculation into an hypothesis - based on the observations you had made on octopus biology already.

I’ve forgotten what point was being made by Russell in 1952 about a teapot orbiting the sun, but if one had been found at the dawn of space travel, and remained a unique anomaly, what useful science could be done on its cause?

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The key point is that the Big Bang can be tested. However we cannot see what Caused the Big Bang, nor could we be certain this is a total explanation.

@jongarvey I largely find myself agreeing with you, and supporting your impulse to give a limited account of science. Where I deviate is when it turns (at times) to trying to revise science. We have to accept that science is doing just fine as it is. None of us (not even me) have authority to change how science is done.

Focusing on the interface, and how we are to understand science from outside science, is a much more effective strategy. This keeps us from railing against things we cannot change. If you took this view, most our differences would evaporate.

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Except it is not limited to the realm of the measurable. A great counter example is the entire effort to delimit what genetics can and cannot tell us. We have to understand and study genealogy, even thought it is not in the realm of measurable (in the distant past). So science is studying and making statements about something that is not measurable, and that is how we give better understanding of its limits.

That seems about right.

That we will cover in another thread, on reproductively compatible aliens: A Science Fiction Riddle.

If that was the case, we would be deciding between 2 possibilities in science:

  1. Independent evolutionary origin on earth.
  2. Independent evolutionary origin from another planet.

Christians, out side of science, could legitimately wonder about a third hypothesis:

  1. A special creation event, or independent abiogenesis that gives rise to them.

The thing is, we can never full confidence in #3, without completely ruling out #1 and #2, and I do not know how to do that. The more people work to establish #1 and #2, the more confidence we’d have in #3, so it is best to just leave science to do its thing, without allowing recourse to #3 in science, even if we take that position outside of science.

There is some subtly here that I hope you are seeing. Every event is simultaneously (1) regular and (2) unique. It all depends how you look at it. One of the tricks of scientific progress is reframing a problem to see regularities that were previously hidden. Science rewards us for looking at the world in a way that uncovers the regularities, but that does not deny the uniqueness of every event. So we have to be a bit careful here about how we work this out.


Most excellently phrased, @swamidass !


When I read the writings of ID advocates, I often get the impression that they want to redefine science to where it becomes nothing but more philosophy. But why? I sometimes suspect that at least some of them want to be able to cast their philosophical and theological ideas as science because they know that the average person tends to be more impressed with scientific ideas than philosophical ideas (or at least, that average person thinks that science is more impressive, even though, in reality, philosophy is the basis for very important things, like logic itself. I consider philosophy a very important field of study but lots of non-academics do not. Even far too many academics do not!)

“I have demonstrated in my research that science supports the existence of God” tends to sound more impressive to a lot of people than “I have demonstrated in my research that philosophy supports the existence of God.” Is that not a powerful incentive for some people to want to recast their philosophical and theological conclusions as science instead?

We already have lots of philosophers doing philosophy scholarship. And that’s good. But Christian scholars over many centuries decided to develop the methodologies of Natural Philosophy, including the Scientific Method, in recognition of the fact that some fields of study can reap significant benefit from those “special” methodologies. They began to treat Natural Philosophy as a unique subdomain of philosophy for very good reasons. Should we turn the clock back and conduct scientific research as a 12th century philosopher might have done, that is, as just another interesting aspect of general philosophy? Do we make theology a part of science? Do we want to pretend that science is indistinguishable from theology and that scientists should publish theological conclusions in scientific journals? [See footnote below.]

Christian philosophers over many centuries put a lot of thought and effort into making the Scientific Method and the scientific methodologies which have been so successful in helping us to understand the world. If we are going to upend their efforts, we’d better have very good reasons. What are those reasons?

FOOTNOTE: Some philosophers-theologians were quite alarmed at Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion and his ideas about universal gravitation. Many insisted that it was obvious why the heavenly bodies move through the heavens as they do: “God commanded the angels to fly through the heavens, propelling the planets in their paths according to the Divine will.” Yes, the will of God is a good theological explanation for planetary motion but it is neither predictive nor all that useful for any other application. Newton wasn’t so interested in the Ultimate Causation which was the focus of theologians and philosophers. He wanted to understand Proximate Causation, which we easily recognize today as the domain of science. There is no conflict between “God willed the planets to move as they do” and “The movements of the planets can be better understood by gravitational forces and mathematics.” (I could have added to that last sentence “…than by flying angels” but a scientist has no reason to hypothesize about the roles of angels, even if theologians do.) I get the impression that at least some ID advocates want to return to the days of letting the Ultimate Causation of theological discussions get in the way of investigating Proximate Causation.

I’m fine with ID as philosophy (even when it is manifested in very mediocre philosophy.) But when ID pretends to be science, yet without applying scientific methodologies and falsification testing, I flag the foul. As I’ve said many times, I’d be thrilled to see the publication of A Comprehensive Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design in a peer-reviewed scientific journal which includes a point-by-point explanation of how the proposed “ID theory” better explains the available evidence and details the ways in which the theory can be falsification tested. Until I do—and I’ve been waiting for decades now—it is hard to take “ID theory” as valid science. It remains little more than philosophy and theology discussing a variety of scientific ideas.


I added a footnote to my last post just a few minutes later, in hopes of not being misunderstood.

The perspective of ID is not mere philosophy; it allows the investigator the heurism to ask the question, "given the building blocks available, how might I, as an engineer, go about assembling things together in a manner that accounts for the system I see in operation? That’s an INVESTIGATIVE QUESTION, suggested by a more open metaphysical framework than the worst versions of “methodological naturalism” [they’re not all bad, obviously].

I certainly agree that ID doesn’t have to be “mere philosophy”. Instead, I am lamenting what it all too often is: mediocre philosophy pretending to have the perceived “authority” of science.

Of course, I also wince at the idea of “mere philosophy”, because it can imply that philosophy is something inferior or even without merit. (Some people assume that “mere philosophy” is merely someone’s personal opinion.)

Why would we think that drawing analogy between us and God like this would be valid? Life is nothing like human designed technology, despite @scd’s insistence that we are robots, and parables of reproducing cars.

This is an example of Bacon’s Idol of the Tribe, and the Idol of Superstition.

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It’s a heuristic question, not a claim to equal facility, obviously. The Bible dies state, however, that we were “created in the image of God,” and so, many great scientists have found great joy in “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” (which, admittedly, is still a poor analogy). : )

Well yes, I do know that. But what evidence in theology do we have that this is remotely plausible heuristic? Regarding creation, Scripture goes out of its way to emphasize that “God’s ways are not our ways.”

See edit above.