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Science and Religion (Take 2)

June 28, 2010

A while back I wrote a post saying why I thought science and religion are incompatible. I just found the following in a long piece written by Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True. Hopefully one day I will be able to write a paragraph as short and sweet as this:

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

Earlier on in the piece Coyne quoted Darwin as saying

Your question what would convince me of Design is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, and I was convinced from others seeing him that I was not mad, I should believe in design. If I could be convinced thoroughly that life and mind was in an unknown way a function of other imponderable force, I should be convinced. If man was made of brass or iron and no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I should perhaps be convinced. But this is childish writing.

The question of what would convince one of the opposite to ones current beliefs is worthy of serious consideration – it makes you think hard about what it is that is justifying your beliefs in the first place, and opens the door to serious scepticism about others beliefs – by which I don’t mean blind disbelief but rather a questioning attitude. As I said in a comment to my earlier post, I have had discussions where I have clearly laid out what it would take for me to believe in a (Judeo-Christian) god. In response I was told that there was nothing that could convince the devout otherwise.

This blind faith worries me. We live in a world of “ugly facts”, and we need to pay attention to all of them. We might not like them all, and they might force us to change our beliefs, but if we ignore them how can we move forward?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 6:18 PM

    Thanks for the link – an interesting read. I also found many the comments on the piece very helpful as well.

    Kenneth Miller had the best explanation, I think –

    “He’s right on one score, obviously. That is that certain religious claims, including the age of the earth, a global worldwide flood, and the simultaneous creation of all living things are empirical in nature. As such, they can be tested scientifically, and these particular claims are clearly false. Claims of demonstrative miracles in the past, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection cannot be tested empirically, because there are no data from which to work. On such claims, science has nothing to say one way or the other.”

  2. June 28, 2010 6:35 PM

    Every one forgets that science and religion were one, at one time. science came out of religion.
    so, why cant we have religion and science?

  3. June 28, 2010 7:20 PM

    I like the to-and-fro of the essays after the main piece, it’s an interesting way of seeing a considered debate take place. However, I have to admit that I wasn’t a big fan of the reply by Kenneth Miller.

    Focusing on the passage you quoted, I would start by asking what exactly Miller means by “demonstrative”. From the context it seems to me that he is making a claim that these events happened, which is to assume the answer to the question, kind of defeating the point. If he isn’t making this claim, then I would further argue that science and reason do in fact have things to say about these possible events. They do after all make claims about events that, by their nature, defy established scientific principles.

    To start with, as Sam Harris pointed out in his pretty sarcastic essay, biologists do have things to say about virgin birth, or parthenogenesis. For it to occur in a human would be incredibly unlikely, and in the absence of any evidence other than second hand accounts written well after the (possible) event, it is certainly not unreasonable for me to be highly doubtful. As for the role of a god in the insemination of Mary, you’ll have to forgive an atheist a few doubts on that one as well.

    Hume said that

    …no testimony is sufficient to to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish. [An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding]

    This isn’t ruling out a miracle, it just requires that we look at the wider picture of the testimony to it. What do I consider more likely, that there was a genuine, god-induced virgin birth, or that the writers of the bible, decades or centuries after the supposed existence of their prophet, wrote this story, borrowed from much more ancient myths and religions, into their biography of Jesus in order to increase his mystery and power over people’s minds? The second choice (that is, the falsehood of the miracle actually taking place) is not miraculous at all; in fact it is just a demonstration of the human origins of the Bible.

    Science and reason certainly do have things to say about miracles. I appreciate that without some miracles many religions would be worse off, but as I said in my post, there are ugly facts in the world that everyone has to face!

    Do you agree with my argument? If not, I’d be interested to know why you think these miracles are inaccessible to us.

  4. June 28, 2010 7:30 PM

    Yes, once science and religion were one (or rather religion was science, in a very loose way; it wasn’t the scientific method, but it was our explanation for physical phenomena). When humans had a very primitive understanding of the world in which they lived, the causative agents they had experience of were human. They therefore created gods, modelled on humans, to provide explanation of the winds, of seasons, of death and famine. That these were human created myths is easy for us to see – the gods were clearly modelled on humans, complete with the full range of emotions and actions.

    However, as our understanding of the world increased, the gods had to retreat. The gods live in the mountains. Hang on, we’ve climbed the mountains and they’re not there. Ok, they live in the sky. Now we’ve looked into the skies (and flown in them), and they’re not there. They live in the heavens… We’re looking into the heavens, and there’s no gods. As our understanding of the causative relationships in nature changed, so the gods again had to retreat. It turns out they don’t cause storms, or influence the seasons.

    The progress of science has been followed by an inexorable retreat by religion, as religious claims have consistently failed to withstand an unbiased comparison to scientific claims. We don’t live in an age where it is necessary to have both religion and science to give real world empirical claims. As Laplace said to Napoleon when asked why his book on celestial mechanics didn’t mention god, “I have no need of that hypothesis”.

    Interesting arguments can be had about why we might need religion, but the fact that religion was, a long time ago, a very primitive proto-science isn’t one of them in my opinion.

  5. June 28, 2010 8:01 PM

    I think that you’re using reason to critique the claim of the virgin birth, but not science.

    But the virgin birth in particular is an interesting case. The traditional Christian argument isn’t that modern understandings of birth in homo sapiens is incorrect. Rather, it’s something like:

    “A virgin birth to a homo sapiens female absent parthenogenesis or modern fertility techniques is possible if the Holy Spirit intervenes.”

  6. June 28, 2010 8:38 PM

    I see it as using science and reason; science provides me with the justification for concluding that a virgin birth is by far the least likely of two alternatives.

    How does science view the use of the phrase “if the Holy Spirit intervenes”? The hypothesis of the intervention of god does not provide us with a testable hypothesis. It doesn’t provide us with a falsifiable hypothesis. It doesn’t provide us with anything meaningful. When testable empirical claims have been made premised on the divine, they have proven to be false. I think it isn’t honest to dismiss the claims that are provably false and yet hold on to any claims that may be, for one reason or another, untestable. It’s a “god of the gaps” argument that doesn’t answer anything. For me this means that, as every claim we can test made about the Judeo-Christian god is false, I have to reject it as a valid hypothesis.

    Given that, how would I respond to your (shortened) phrase “A virgin birth to a homo sapiens female absent parthenogenesis or modern fertility techniques is possible”? No it isn’t.

  7. June 28, 2010 10:18 PM

    Right – like art and ethics, religion makes certain claims that are without scientific meaning.

  8. June 29, 2010 7:24 AM

    It certainly does, and as you say these fall under the domain of philosophy, ethics, art, literature. I’d never claim otherwise, it’s a big mistake to say that science can answer everything. I just don’t think that claims about miracles, which are claims about phenomena in a physical setting, are in this category.

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