Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How religious people *should* relate to science

Some years ago, I attempted to illustrate the different views on the relationship between science and religion.  For each view, I drew two diagrams: one showing how science and religion relate, and another showing how they should relate.  This is the all-important is/ought distinction.  In fact, most people talking about the relationship between science and religion don't explicitly make an is/ought distinction, but I infer an is/ought distinction because frankly nothing makes sense otherwise.

But perhaps I've been too charitable to people who argue that there is no conflict between science and religion.  Recently Friendly Atheist hosted an essay by Sean McDowell which argues that there is no conflict.  The argument is primarily based on citing various religious scientists.  You can tell that they are not making an is/ought distinction, not even implicitly, because their argument is incoherent any way you slice it.

Interpreted one way, they are arguing that science and religion ought not to conflict.  If so, then why do they make historical arguments?  Why do they merely refer to religious scientists without making any attempt to justify the views of those scientists?

Interpreted the other way, they are arguing that science and religion do not conflict.  If so, it makes sense to refer to religious scientists, but it does not make sense to ignore the fact that they are in the minority.  Nor does it make sense to ignore the millions of religiously motivated creationists in the US.  It does not make sense to say,
The idea that science and religion are at odds is a popular myth in our culture, perpetuated by news headlines like “God vs. Science” in Time magazine.
since descriptively, it is entirely true that there is conflict between science and religion.

The arguments religious people make in favor of the compatibility of science/religion are nonsense.  Here are the arguments they should be making:*
  1. Religion has conflicted with science in both the past and present.
  2. If possible, it would be better if science and religion did not conflict.
  3. It is reasonably possible for religion not to conflict with science.
  4. Religious scientists are presented as models for this possibility.
*Whenever an opponent offers advice on how you should make your argument, it should be considered suspect at best and disingenuous at worst.  My advice is no exception.

Note how this argument is different from Sean McDowell's argument, in that it does not deny the conflict between science and religion.  In fact, it's important to recognize that conflict, because that's the first step in resolving a conflict.  It's important to study why religious people oppose evolution.  It's important to think hard about why religious scientists are the exception rather than the rule.

It's important to confront the ways in which religious scientists fail as models.  For example, Francis Collins is a great ally against Intelligent Design, but has argued that evolution cannot account for altruism, implicitly rejecting the entire field of evolutionary altruism.  Another scientist mentioned was Owen Gingerich, and I am appalled to find that he thinks some beneficial mutations must be "inspired".  (I looked into the third example named, Paul Davies, and he seems more acceptable.)

Collins and Gingerich have only minor problems, but why is it that even when people think their religion does not conflict with science, the conflict often remains?  Why is it that religious people who consciously reject the "god of the gaps" simultaneously accept the "god of the gaps" under a different name?  People who advocate the compatibility of science and religion should be thinking hard about this problem so they can solve it.  When people deny the conflicts between science and religion, they become examples of the conflict.

1 comment:

miller said...

I've long thought the real problem is with looking at "religion" as a unified category. Some religions are plainly incompatible with science because they make factual claims that contradict established scientific facts. American evangelical Protestantism's belief in special creation of life would be one; Christian Scientists who believe prayer is effective medicine would be another. But religions that don't make any claims about scientific issues are not in conflict with science. Super-liberal Christians who don't believe in miracles and see the Bible as something between myth and a quasi-historical novel would be an example. Religions with no official metaphysics (Unitarian Universalism) and religions that reject the supernatural (Church of Satan) are also not in conflict with science.

There is an intellectual problem with the practice of reinterpreting a holy text as metaphorical every time it says something that contradicts science, but that is another issue entirely.