The scientific consensus on the Resurrection

Here’s a thought experiment about how the socially-constituted rules of scientific methodology can easily be misconstrued as the real constraints of the world.

A scientist looks at the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ, is convinced it happened, and publishes a naturalistic explanation for it. This needn’t be good or original – none of the natural explanations are. Perhaps this one boils down in the Summary to “We hypothesize that on rare occasions, spontaneous re-vivification of organisms occurs through unusual environmental conditions.”

It’s complete crap, of course, but there is now, in the literature, a natural scientific explanation for the Resurrection of Christ. This is not an encroachment on religion because, in the investigator’s worldview, religion is simply false, but yet he considers the phenomenon is real on the evidence – ergo, there must be a scientific explanation. But because, in point of fact, Jesus Christ rose by the mighty creative power of God entirely contrary to nature, there can be no better scientific explanation in the wings waiting to replace his false theory, and so it stands as valid by default.

For some theologian – or even an outraged Christian scientific peer – to attempt a refutation in Nature will be – or ought to be, on the principle of methodological naturalism – forbidden. But this is not only because supernatural explanations are said not to be permissible in science, but because to refute a faulty theory without replacing it with a better one is also generally inadmissible, according to philsophers of science like Karl Popper. Lavoisier cannot pour scorn on the weaknesses of the phlogiston theory unless and until he discovers oxygen. So there is a Catch 22 situation: to refute the inadequate naturalistic theory of the resurrection in the literature, the critic has to propose a better naturalistic theory. And since he can’t, not beliving the Resurrection to be natural, the inadequate theory remains the last word in the literature.

The opponent might be told that since he is not doing science, but “theology informed by science,” and is not presenting an alternative naturalistic theory, he should try the philosophy journals if he wants to make his point. But few people read philosophy journals compared to New Scientist, and in any case, many scientists, like many theologians, despise philosophy as something that takes place in armchairs rather than the real world. They read even fewer philosophical jornals.

I suppose some other skeptic might attempt to refute the original paper by proposing instead a version of the swoon theory, and then there would be two perfectly good natural explanations in the literature, to be cited by atheist commenters on BioLogos or Peaceful Science as evidence that science has no problem with explaining the Resurrection without involving God. And there would certainly be no chance of anyone quoting a counter-citation refuting natural causes, because no such article would pass peer-review. And of course, in this case (because the Resurrection in truth lies outside science) science itself would never refute the two theories, except by generating as many other vaguely plausible, but rubbish, theories as imaginative pseudo-scientists could get published – which may, one hopes, not be many.

In fact, supposing that the first paper were found to be cited 100 times in the literature, and the second only four, it would be true to say that the consensus view of science was that Jesus returned to life by spontaneous natural re-vivification. Science may not have the right to make religious claims, but its authority to make natural claims is undisputed, and this explanation, being the best natural claim science had to offer, would be true by default… unless you know of any branch of science that admits that even its best theories in some area are, candidly, useless.

As a free agent you wouldn’t have to believe the science, of course – but that would be a rather negative and anti-intellectual response in this sad age of science-denialists, would it not? You’d put yourself in there with the climate denialists and flat-earthers, an especially risky move if you happened to work in the sciences. And of course, you’re not even qualified in the field of spontaneous re-vivification research, whereas those who publish the articles got their PhDs by studying it, under the supervision of the guy who first published. We can see that the game’s outcome would be inevitable.

Yet we all know the game would have been rigged.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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9 Responses to The scientific consensus on the Resurrection

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I’m away from my desk for the next week, so can’t reply to comments.

    • Jay313 says:

      Hi, Jon. Hope you are tied up for good reasons, not bad. Upon your return, I’d love a link to the article on the resurrection that you are referencing.

      P.S. And how about an update, via email if necessary, on the publishing status of God’s Good Earth? Praying for your success, my brother!

      • Jay313 says:

        Haha. Nevermind. This knucklehead clicked on “read more” and somehow missed the very first sentence of your essay. “Thought experiment.” Doh! Would still like that update, though.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Hi Jay

          Currently a deathly silence on the book, which I take to be due to typesetting and editorial perusal rather than shock. However, I understand it’s already been cited in anticipation in academic work, so it would be embarrassing all round if it didn’t go forward.

          Visited Rudyard’s Kipling’s country house yesterday, which he bought on the proceeds of his writing. The garden layout was financed by his Nobel Prize. So we have all that to look forward to (though more realistic was my academic relative telling me the annual royalty cheque on her books came in at £80 recently!)

          When things are a little more advanced I’ll give the book it’s own web page with further information.

  2. Avatar photo Mark says:

    Well you left on a high note. Outstanding article. That the least plausible natural explanation must be accepted in preference to the most plausible “super” natural one is indeed a fatal flaw of methodological naturalism as a measure of such things. I suppose Joshua would say that science cannot speak to such events – and with MN he is right, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.

    We need a new way of looking at this. There was an adolescence of science where we could see that things happened by rules and not according to direct action of the rule-maker. But now we are so good at detecting that perhaps we can find His fingerprints here or there. What should the viewpoint be as science enters adulthood?

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    I understand the point you wish to make Jon, but it seems your thought experiment lacks (unless I am mistaken) one aspect of science publications, and that is testing the theory by other scientists and verification by additional experimentation/observation. If a paper as controversial as this were submitted, I for one would reject it on those grounds and not atheist//theist considerations.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi GD

      Thought experiments are probably allowed to make errors of technique… It’s pretty unlikely, I agree, that many scientists (and in what field?) would be committed enough to try, let alone achieve, publication on the sensitive subject of the Resurrection. My point was that, should such a paper appear, it would be the last word on the “science of resurrection” unless somebody else were equally foolhardy in proposing a rival naturalistic theory.

      Replication on a basically untestable, narrative theory would be less likely to occur that replication of the more common kind of research.

      On the question of rejection of the theory, it seems to be at least a common accusation of those who attempt to refute controversial theories for lack of solid evidence that they have not proposed anything better. How valid that is as one of the “rules of the game” is hard to say – like methodological naturalism its seems more an unwritten, yet binding, custom that a formally agreed methodological framework.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Mark

      I haven’t chased the original work from the news article based on the press release! Unfortunately the Daily Express isn’t known for full citations.

      But the undoubted real news here is that 33 scientists, who presumably had some relevant expertise, still think the Cambrian Explosion to be sufficiently problematic for conventional theory to start fielding bizarre explanations. They are not the first of course – Francis Crick was a supporter of directed panspermia.

      Somebody ought to tell them that there’s nothing to see, that it took a leisurely 40m years (rather than the <5m argued by a number of Cambrian palaeontologists) and that neutral theory with a soupçon of natural selection has it covered.

      As described in the popular article the paper is pure design inference combined with a refusal to countenance design – which, on the face of it, is the only good reason to publish it.

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