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Science and Religion

May 19, 2010

Are science and religion compatible? There are three possibilities that I can see:

  1. Yes, science and religion are compatible.
  2. It’s a stupid question, they deal with different domains and questions.
  3. No, science and religion are competing belief systems that cannot be made to agree.

I think that the first two possibilities are obviously false. Religion makes specific claims about the creation of humans, the creation of the world, cosmology, the existence of supernatural beings, the possibility of miracles, the divine inspiration of certain texts, the list goes on. These are questions that can be asked and for the most part answered by the scientific method (or at least a rational method – the history of the bible can be ascertained fairly well using rational techniques of textual criticism). To say that science and religion are compatible ignores the fact that for a lot of people today god is a “god of the gaps”; if science hasn’t shown something, that something may provide a way in for religious beliefs. Science has, throughout history, pushed back the areas that religions and their gods can call their own.

The second point is linked to Hume’s is-ought problem. In his Treatise of Human Nature he points out that some people try to make claims about what is when they should be making claims about what ought to be (and vice versa). If religion was making only claims about what ought to be (maybe stick to making statements related to how humans should behave), then it would not be treading the same ground as science, which can tell us what is, but not how our moral system should be formed. The problem is that religion does stray from the ought into the is, and when it starts making comments about what is, it opens itself up to rational scientific questioning.

This unfortunately leaves one option, that science and religion are battling for our minds. That this battle isn’t easily resolved is shown by the strength with which religious beliefs are still held, despite no evidence for them (and despite scientific evidence for a naturalistic world-view).  The following is from

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

I find this pretty staggering, and pretty worrying. Ok, this is in America, but even so, for a country founded by some stars of the enlightenment this is pretty bad. Hopefully science and rational thinking will start winning more of the battles pretty soon; it’s either that or we find ourselves in a weird relativist world where religion regains the respect it has started to lose.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2010 10:53 AM

    I don’t see how religion and science are incompatible even if they’re both about what ‘is’. There are often competing scientific views, which each claim to be describing what ‘is’. Does it then follow that science is incompatible with itself? I think this is an unacceptable result of this line of reasoning, unless you’ve left something out important to what you’re trying to show or I misunderstood something. If not, then it seems like you’d have to show science and religion are incompatible on some other ground.

  2. May 19, 2010 11:19 AM

    That’s a a very valid point, I did forget to include one point is is crucial to the argument I was trying to make, which is as follows.

    Once religion opens itself up to rational scientific questioning, it is the different systems for making knowledge claims that make the two incompatible. Should I believe humans were made “as is” 6000 years ago because it says so in a book? Alternatively, should I believe that we evolved over a much longer time scale? The latter is backed up by a vast body of scientific evidence, and whilst there might be competing theories about how exactly we evolved, or where other species fit in our “family tree”, this view is incompatible with the acceptance of religious dogma.

    Religion encourages a faith-based knowledge of what is, science encourages an evidence-based knowledge. These are, in my view, incompatible.

    Sorry that this last stage slipped from my draft post. Hopefully it makes a bit more sense now.

  3. May 19, 2010 2:00 PM

    I think I see what you’re getting it. Although, I still think it’s not necessarily the case that science and religion are incompatible. It’s not necessarily the case that all religions would contradict science. However, you have given a specific case where you do believe a religion conflicts with science in a way that is irreconcilable. For the young Earth creationist, I do see a problem. I don’t see this as a problem for a lot of Christians who accept that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and that the Universe is something around 15 billion years old.

    Science can guide the understanding and interpretation of religious texts, I think, as well. It may have been acceptable to believe that the Earth was 6000 years old, in the past, when we had no alternative method to acquire an accurate measure. Now, we do. This 6000 year estimate, however, was taken by adding up the generations found in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t actually say that the Earth is 6000 years old and the Bible doesn’t claim that each generation is explained. In fact, it was Jewish practice to make the lineages explained a multiple of 7, because 7 was a symbol of perfection. They did this not necessarily by writing down the generations as they actually happened, father to son to father to son, in a biological sense. In actuality, they might use an important figure who lead to the spawning of a town or city and the next individual might be the next important figure, rather than biological son. So, saying that the Earth is 6000 years old, definitively, is tough even on Biblical standards.

    There are Christians, such as myself, who believe that science is very important in discovering how the world works today and should be taken seriously when interpreting the Bible. As for faith-based knowledge vs. evidence-based knowledge, the Bible purports to tell a history, as I see it, more than it attempts to be scientific. There are certainly aspects of the Bible that might seem to conflict with science, as we’ve mentioned, but this may be the result of coming to the wrong kinds of conclusions from improper assumptions about the way the history was told. This is how some reach the 6000 year old Earth conclusion, I think. They are making a judgment about what they think is the case, given what the Bible says. Even though the Bible does not explicitly say this nor does our knowledge of Jewish history writing necessarily permit us to make this claim. We need to look at how we’re interpreting these religious texts and whether or not there is a reason someone thousands of years ago would have written something one way rather than another.

    Also, there can be faith-based beliefs about science just as much as any religious text. Not everyone in the world is a scientist. Not everyone who believes evolution is true could explain even a small fraction about how evolution works. Most people might say something like: “Evolution is the result of natural selection working on random mutation.” But what is that? Lots of religious people can spit out a few sentences about what the general claim is, how it works is another matter. Even though the theory itself might be based on evidence, more than likely a great deal of individuals actually do believe evolution is true in a faith-based way.

    So if the faith-based and evidence-based can’t overlap, in this loose sense, we are saying you have to have empirical evidence for literally everything you believe. Those who believe evolution because the scientists say so and are just fed the information and can spit it back out are just like religious faith-based believers. In fact, I bet most people can’t point to the evidence in support of evolution. But now we end up with this very strict kind of principle, basically like the verificationism that was popular from the 20s to 50s. This is that a statement only has meaning if there is some way to determine if it can be true. The problem with holding that verificationism is true, if we think it is, is that there is no way to verify that verificationism is true. So this would be a kind of self-contradictory worldview.

    But, even though I might not agree with every scientific conclusion, as a Christian, neither does every secular scientist. So, I think we might need to figure out where the real divide is here. I don’t think it’s between religion and science as much as it is faith vs. empirical, like you pointed out. But, I don’t know how to get to strictly empirical without holding on to a very bad principle, like verificationism. If we just loosen up what counts as reasonable, we’ll probably end up letting in religion anyway. Any thoughts?

  4. May 19, 2010 3:28 PM

    Thanks for the comment – I’m going to try to deal with as many points as possible, so forgive me if this comment is a bit disjointed!

    As you describe it the age of the universe as claimed by the bible is open to interpretation; this is something I need to go back to and look at again. I think the salient point is the the bible does make specific claims (and contradictory claims in different descriptions) about creation, regardless of when it happened, some of them scientifically testable. When they are tested they generally turn out to false. I’m happy to admit that many of these claims may be interpreted away, but this leaves me asking the question of why to believe in the divine nature of the bible and it’s claims when literal claims have to reinterpreted to fit actual evidence?

    I agree that we are essentially looking at the problem of faith vs. evidence-based knowledge; for me these are the defining characteristics of religion and science respectively, and the reason I think they are incompatible. I’ve seen this problem have some interesting consequences. In a recent conversation with a very religious friend, I was asked what things would make me believe in god. I listed some events that would probably sway me, and obviously asked the reciprocal question – what would make her not believe in god? Nothing. I was faced with a flat out assertion that facts are a “human” thing and that they didn’t apply to god and his creation. The fact that I could explain the evidence for evolution didn’t mean that it had happened, as it contradicts faith and religious “facts”! Now obviously I’m not claiming that all religious people are like this, and people like you make a good case for the compatibility of science and religion. However, to repeat, it is the very suggestion that I should accept factual claims (such as the existence of gods) based on zero evidence (or even in the face of existing evidence) that make the two so incompatible.

    Unfortunately this does lead to the problem that you highlight, which is that for the vast majority of people some or all scientific claims have to be taken “on faith”. This is a massive issue, and one I’m still struggling with. I wrote something about it a while ago here. The point I tried to make was that whilst we are making an appeal to authority when we say “Science says that…”, it is not an appeal to authority in the sense of a logical fallacy. The scientific method (and the rational, evidence based method in general) fulfil the criteria for being a valid appeal to authority. If this can be accepted then I don’t think we have to go as far down the road of verificationism as you suggest.

    This obviously leaves a lot of problems for me personally. A lot of my beliefs are based on “consensus” views. How do I know they’re true? I used to go along with the idea that vitamin C might stop me getting a cold, and it was only by accident that I discovered that there is no evidence to show that this is the case. How many other views do I hold like this?

    My argument would be that it is science and rational thought that are going to answer these questions and give us reasons to know things (or at least know things in the areas that science deals with). Religion and religious faith cannot, in my view, pass any test of reasonableness when it comes to claims of true knowledge.

  5. May 19, 2010 4:38 PM

    I totally agree with you when it comes to blind faith, in the sense that a person cannot be swayed, no matter what the evidence. This is an unfortunate circumstance, I think. I haven’t read why you think we can appeal to science without being fallacious, yet. I will try to get around to that sometime soon. I think it’s nearly as dangerous as appealing to a scriptural text, at the moment. I get that science is more malleable. Its answers can change as our access to new evidence and understanding changes. However, appealing to the scientific consensus, as a legitimate move, snuffs out the very thing about science that makes it malleable – at least, so far as I can tell. Let’s think of a few broad claims and see what follows from them:

    1. Science is malleable. (That is, views that are considered true are fully open to investigation and may be abandoned or modified in the light of new evidence.)
    2. Appeal to scientific consensus as an authority is not fallacious.
    3. If appeal to scientific consensus as an authority is not fallacious, scientific dissenters are snuffed out as they emerge.
    4. If dissenters are snuffed out as they emerge, science becomes static and unchanging.
    5. If science becomes static and unchanging, science is not malleable.
    6. Therefore, science is not malleable.

    I just kicked this out off the top of my head so I can’t guarantee it’s all good to go but it is a simple outline of my fear of going in this direction. Again, I still need to actually read your post on this.

    As for your last comment, what if someone simply disagrees and says that science and rational thought will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God? Or, they could make similar claims about all of the supernatural. A common thread in religion is its supernatural claims. If science investigates the natural, how can it prove or disprove the supernatural? If one goes on to make the claim that only the natural exists, they cannot do so based on any scientific approach. They merely assume it in order to do science.

    Ah, and you mention true knowledge. I really want to learn more of the current views in epistemology. I really could not say what lies within or without our grasp of reasonable belief or knowledge. That both excites and scares me.

  6. May 20, 2010 8:48 AM

    I think the problem with your argument is in statement 3:

    3. If appeal to scientific consensus as an authority is not fallacious, scientific dissenters are snuffed out as they emerge.

    I don’t think this is true. Appeal to scientific consensus as an authority is a valid move for people in my position, outside of the process. Within science itself, this appeal would not, in an ideal world be used to quiet dissenters and people who ask questions of existing scientific doctrine. Within any debate, saying “everyone thinks this is true” is a pretty bad argument, and I’d like to think that it is rarely used in scientific debates – evidence and rationality are much better tools. Science changes by this constant process of debate and questioning. However, once we leave the arena of scientific debate, we have to have some method accepting results as true, and for me an appeal to the authority of the scientific method is valid.

    I share your view of epistemology – it’s something I’m looking forward to trying to get to grips with more. However in this context I meant “true knowledge” in the sense that I can say “humans have evolved from ape-like creatures”. That’s a statement that within our naturalistic framework I can confidently state as true. There are obviously lots of stumbling blocks to this being “sure and certain” knowledge; how do I know my mind isn’t a computer program on some advanced machine? How do I know the universe wasn’t created 6000 years ago and made to look exactly as it would if it was billions of years old? I don’t have any rational reason to believe that any of these are true, and given that the universe is so convincingly real and old, I’m happy to act as if this is in fact true.

    Now, I did use the phrase “naturalistic framework” above. I don’t make an out-and-out decision to assume the non-existence of the “supernatural” – what I assume is that any supernatural being or force has no effect whatsoever on our universe. I’m happy to admit that there may be a deistic god or group of gods responsible for the creation of the universe and who have had zero involvement in it since. However this isn’t the theistic religion that most people believe; most people will claim that god can and has interfered with his creation. In the case of Christianity this is allegedly documented in the bible. In this way people claim that the supernatural interacts with the natural. If this is the case then a naturalistic world-view can be used to test these claims (and it is – there are lots of scientists investigating paranormal claims, the claims of the religious etc.). In the absence of any credible evidence that any supernatural being or force interacts with our universe, it is the rational decision to choose to assume it doesn’t exist.

    I’d be interested to know why you believe religion and science are compatible (if this is the case!). Where do you think the boundary lies? Why are religious claims not open to scientific scrutiny?

  7. Justin permalink
    May 22, 2010 6:48 AM

    Allow me to say that these are some great comments! Both Eric and Christian have done a good job of being clear and explicit. I would like to offer a few comments:

    EricBurns said

    The problem with holding that verificationism is true, if we think it is, is that there is no way to verify that verificationism is true. So this would be a kind of self-contradictory worldview.

    I really liked this bit of self-referentiality. Douglas Hofstadter would be proud. It is reminiscent (not the same) as the problem Hilbert posed, asking that mathematics be able to prove itself consistent. This was answered in the negative in Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, which can be stated as follows (Wikipedia):

    For any formal effectively generated theory T including basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability, T includes a statement of its own consistency if and only if T is inconsistent.

    The above is just a cultural nugget. The real problem with Eric’s statement on verificationism, is that Epistemology, must be decided a priori and then treated as axiomatic. You cannot reason about what you think you know until you decide what constitutes knowledge! Once you have decided upon your axioms and your induction schema – your methodology for deriving truths from your axioms – then you can argue. However, it seems folly to me to ask that your theory of knowledge prove its own correctness, because it would amount to asking that your axioms be able to derive themselves.

    Christian seems to operate in an epistemological framework that is different from most religious people. It should be no surprise that there seems to be conflict, but the rationale doesn’t support either proponent in this fight. There is no reason to pick one set of axioms over another! However, this might allow us to think about the compatibility issue of Science and Religion. Imagine that Science has a well-defined methodology and set of axioms and that Religion does too (Of course, the label “Religion” becomes harder to use because different religions endorse different sets of axioms). Now think of all the statements that are true in either system. Just as in sets, we can have containment, disjointness or some intersection. “Compatibility” solved. However, in the end, the Science v. Religion arguments are less a concern of logic – because we are arguing axioms – and more a mission of cultural understanding.

    With this viewpoint in mind, I would like to counter the idea that Science should make its results and methods more accessible to the populace at large. I think religious leaders need to spend more time becoming familiar with ideas in science. There seem to be very few exceptions – the Dalai Lama being one. I challenge anyone to find a religious leader who has spent more time attending scientific conferences and inviting scientists for talks and asking for personal lessons in anything from Quantum Mechanics to Neuroscience. His Holiness once said

    If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

  8. May 26, 2010 10:13 AM

    I would like to counter the idea that Science should make its results and methods more accessible to the populace at large.

    I’m not entirely sure how you’re supporting this statement here. Are you saying that it should focus on making results and methods accessible to religion leaders?

    The Dalai Lama has certainly keenly embraced science. A quote of his:

    Buddhism is not so much a religion, but a ‘science of the mind’ or an ‘inner science’ … there is much benefit to learning from [scientists’] findings

    If only more religions were able to say similar things about science! I guess I’ve been focusing my thinking on the Judeo-Christian monotheistic religious model; it’s familiar and I know a bit about it. I can’t see the pope saying Catholicism “is not so much a religion” but something else.

    Alas though, even enthusiastic language about embracing modern thought doesn’t stop the Dalai Lama proclaiming that Steven Seagal is a tulku. I’d like to see his evidence for reincarnation.

  9. May 26, 2010 10:52 AM

    I thought I’d have a bit more of a read about the Dalai Lama and his approach to science. I stumbled across this article at The Island of Doubt that is a longer, better version of what I was thinking when I replied to Justin above.

  10. Justin permalink
    May 27, 2010 2:40 AM

    No! I was running ‘counter’ to the idea that science should be more accesible. I think science has done enough to make itself an open enterprise. It’s the public at large and religious leaders that need to put in time to understand the results of science.

    By the way, has anyone heard any religious response to the first artificial cell? I’m sure it’s out there.

  11. May 27, 2010 7:53 AM

    ah, ok, understood. Have got a bit more to say about another of your comments, will get back to you once I’ve got some work done.

    In the mean time, I’ve read a few posts about the responses to the “artificial cell” (you want to be careful about calling it that, the cell they used to start the process off wasn’t artificial, the genetic material they put into it was). There’s a good post by P Z Myers here, and a quick guide to what was actually done by Jerry Coyne here.

  12. May 29, 2010 9:56 AM

    I’ve been thinking more about science/religion compatability. I think I can frame my argument in a better way than I have been.

    Science and religion are incompatible if they cannot have a reasonable disagreement. By “reasonable disagreement” I mean a disagreement where it is possible to share the same information and in some “reasonable” way (using the same underlying logic, but possibly with different value judgements about what is important to the argument) come to different conclusions.

    Now, if religion stuck purely to matters of values and morals there would (at least for know) be nothing to disagree with science about. However, how many religions do this? Whatever religion we choose to discuss, they make claims about the material world and about the origion and purpose of life. These are claims about which science and religion disagree.

    I come from a very non-relativist viewpoint; the things about which science and religion disagree are either true or false, there is no “what’s true for him is false for me” possible. More importantly, the same is true of the assumptions underlying my view. Take the assumption that life has a purpose (as in, a purpose given to it by a god). This is either true or false, and we can argue about this legitimately.

    Where a disagreement between science and religion becomes unreasonable is in the assumptions. Religious views, where they differ from a reasoned scientific viewpoint, are usually based upon an assumption that either god exists, the universe treats humans differently from other matter, that god created humans etc. (I acknowledge that there are disagreements within science – I would argue that these are reasonable in that they share the same information and assumptions and are merely interpretations of these as stated where I pseudo-defined “reasonable” above).

    These assumptions are the source of unreasonableness. If a disagreement between science and religion comes down to a difference of assumption (I don’t believe god exists, you do), we can argue about this. The only way you have of backing up your belief is by faith in the absence of evidence, and that is a position that the scientific viewpoint cannot take. We therefore cannot reasonably disagree, and science and religion are incompatible.

    Hopefully that makes sense!

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