Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Science meets Religion

Three Paradigms, Three Questions

Back in high school, I took a class called Science and Religion. In retrospect, this is pretty cool. How many high school students get to take a class that introduces them to the discourse between science and religion? We read a book called When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? In it, Ian G. Barbour described four paradigms of the interaction between science and religion. Those paradigms are: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration.

Personally, I never liked how Barbour divided up the last two paradigms, dialogue and integration. Both of these describe the view that science and religion are not just compatible, but are actually friends which can contribute to each other. I'm pretty sure that Barbour advocates the integration paradigm, and that's why he divided it up that way. But if he had advocated some particular sort of independence paradigm, would he instead have split the independence category into two? Surely, the independence and conflict paradigms are complex and diverse enough that they could also be subdivided.

But never mind Barbour. Honestly, I don't remember the book too well. I just remember the three kinds of paradigms: conflict, independence, and partnership.

So the question is, which of these three paradigms to I ascribe to? But I've come to realize that this question is unclear. When we considered the question in high school, the question was specifically about our religion, Catholicism. If someone came up and said that Young Earth Creationism contradicts science, we would have responded, yeah, but Young Earth Creationism is bad religion. And with that, we would have quickly muddled up the issue with normative concepts like "good" and "bad".

Therefore, let us separate out what could be, what is, and what ought to be. For each of the three questions, I will briefly explain my position. You'll see that I give a different response for each one.

What could be

If we want to know the relationship between science and religion, we first have to define what we mean by science and religion. Science is relatively well defined. We may have lots of discussion about what is and isn't science (the demarcation problem), but that only occurs on the fringes. For most things, we can definitively say it's clearly science or it's clearly not science.

Religion is much more broadly defined. In the category of religion, we must include such disparate things such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Chinese traditional religion, Buddhism, primal-indigenous religions--and that's just going down the list of the most common kinds. Even in the individual groups, you will find much diversity. Clearly, not every religion is all about moral guidelines, though perhaps some are. Not every religion makes statements about how the universe was created, though many do.

Therefore, I think that all the paradigms are, in principle, possible, depending on what kind of religion we're talking here. If the religion is purely about moral attitudes and ritual, then obviously that religion will be independent of science. Science cannot say anything about what should be, because the universe would be the same, unaffected by what we think should be. On the other hand, if the religion requires that we believe that the world is a flat disk resting on the backs of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle, then this religion will obviously be in conflict with science. Because we've looked around, and we're pretty sure the giant elephants aren't there.

Now this is a harder example to imagine, but I believe that the partnership paradigm is also possible. Let's say we have a religion which takes the conclusions of science, puts them through some inscrutable black box of theology, and derives religious rituals from them. Science is contributing to religion, ergo they are partners in a strict sense. This might not be the likeliest of religions, but it seems possible.

One thing I do not think is possible, is for it to go the other way around, for religion to contribute to science. Science is more than just a set of conclusions, it is a set of methods which can be used to justify those conclusions. Religion cannot simply offer some conclusion to science. Then it's not science at all, since it does not have scientific justification. We might say that religion occasionally inspires scientists for whatever obscure reason, but that's pretty much the extent of it.

What is

Basically, everything which is possible is probably true of some religion out there, or at least of part of some religion. But if you asked me which paradigm is dominant, I would say the conflict paradigm is dominant, followed by the independence paradigm.

The most obvious real-life example of science-religion conflict is Biblical Creationism. Biblical Creationism holds that Genesis is an accurate account of the creation of the world. Without going into details, this is complete nonsense from a scientific perspective. What is this if not conflict? A common response is that Creationism is not true religion, or is not good religion, or is on the fringe. This is also nonsense. According to the 2008 Gallup poll, about 44% of the US believes that God created humans in their present form in the last ten thousand years. It would be quite reckless to dismiss such a large segment of the population just because you think they ought not to exist.

But even for the non-Creationists, there are more subtle conflicts going on. For example, many people believe prayer is effective. There's really no reason to think so, no more than there's reason to think that homeopathic medicine could be more effective than water. In the few conditions in which prayer has been scientifically tested with proper protocols, it has proved ineffective. So here we got another conflict, perhaps not as big a deal as Creationism, but nonetheless present and widespread.

And then we could get into fuzzier and more philosophical examples. The virgin birth and resurrection, for example. I would never say that miracles (the physical-law breaking kind) are, in principle, impossible. But they are, by their very nature, extremely unlikely, and there's no way a bit of historical evidence could possibly overcome that. Thus there is at least a weak conflict between science and religion here. And on the even fuzzier end, I could talk about "ways of thinking"... but I won't.

Note that this conflict can exist even when the religions themselves deny it, or when they emphasize other non-conflicting aspects. Most people who believe in the virgin birth don't think it has anything to do with science. But then, a lot of Creationists I've met are totally gung-ho about science too.

That's not to say that the virgin birth and Creationism are completely equivalent. There are different levels of conflict, ranging from harmless to subtly malicious to outrageously absurd. I'd say it goes from "mostly harmless" to "terrible" when religion hampers people's study of science. This puts Francis Collins on the wrong side, since he apparently believes that altruism could not have evolved. But he might make a good NIH president regardless, I don't know.

What ought to be

This question is the easiest for me. There should be no conflict with science at all! Because science is knowledge. It's a good thing. Everyone ought to be on board with science. Therefore, if religion exists, then it ought to be on board with science too.

Note that I am ignoring the scenario in which religion doesn't exist. That would render the whole question of religion's relationship with science moot!

As for whether science and religion should be independent or partners, I suppose I would slightly prefer partnership. Because that would mean that religion is even more on board with science. But there are some major caveats. First of all, this should only be accomplished by a change on the religion side, not on the science side. It may require unrealistic amounts of change beyond recognition. And second of all, science may contribute to religion, but religion may never contribute to science. This is because, as I said before, it is impossible for religion to contribute to science, so we might as well not fool ourselves.

Given these caveats, and the risk of accidental conflict, it would be much more prudent to advocate independence. And they must be actually independent; just pretending doesn't count.

...Of course, I have very little power to change the nature of religion from the outside, so maybe this particular question is moot.

So that sums up my position. I hope that even if my readers disagree on the answers (there's a lot to disagree with), they realize the necessity of splitting it into at least three questions.


smijer said...

Thanks for the nice post. When I said before that I thought your position was incorrect, I believe that I did more or less understand you correctly. Nevertheless, you and I are extremely close, and I don't have a direct disagreement with anything you said here. In fact, I endorse this statement strongly:

There should be no conflict with science at all! Because science is knowledge. It's a good thing. Everyone ought to be on board with science. Therefore, if religion exists, then it ought to be on board with science too.

There are a few points I want to touch on:

1) The demarcation problem can be, in fact, a major issue in the "accommodation" debate (and in the question of the interaction between science and religion more generally). Many, most, or all anti-accommodationists I have dealt with take philosophical naturalism so far that they consider it science. Their view is if a claim about reality isn't scientifically demonstrated, then it is contrary to science to believe it.

Science as I believe it should be understood is not just an endeavor of reasoning. By definition it is an endeavor of making observations, and reasoning about them.

Science is not an obligatory program. We are not committed (by the program of science) to ensure that all of our cognition consists of proper reasoning about observation.

So, for claims that are not scientifically demonstrable, I can't see a justification for the claim that they are automatically are contrary to science.

What is directly contrary to science are claims that directly contradict scientific findings.

As you say, "scientific creationism" does directly contradict scientific findings. So - yes - it certainly does belong in the "conflict" paradigm. But, as you also point out, it is not a universal or necessary religious viewpoint.

So, what of miracle claims? I hope I won't have to elaborate on the point that they do not directly contradict scientific findings (except in certain, very specific cases) because they do not appeal to the nature that science studies for their mechanism. In other words, it doesn't matter to a miracle claim whether energy is conserved in nature - the claim itself is one of a supercession of nature (thus the term "supernatural"). So, the question cannot be 'does this claim violate the laws of science'?


smijer said...

(continued)... It can be, 'has this claim actually been falsified'? But, unlike most scientific hypotheses, miracle claims are rarely framed in such a way that they can be falsified. A carefully controlled study on the efficacy of aspirin can reveal whether aspirin is effective - because aspirin isn't thought to change its behavior under carefully controlled circumstances. A carefully controlled study of prayer, on the other hand may only reveal whether prayer is effective under those specific, controlled circumstances. If it finds prayer ineffective under those circumstances, little is said about how prayer will work "in the wild". The religious claim about prayer is not that it performs the task of healing, but that it is a sometimes compelling request that God do so. It is easy to imagine God refusing to be treated as a laboratory rat.

So, I see the conflict paradigm applying to "creationism", "flood geology", a vanishingly small and specific set of miracle claims, and maybe a few other religious elements that are not truly necessary for supernaturalist religion.

Another anti-accommodationist argument is that, if we admit of the possibility of a "ghost in the machine", then the program of science would be hopeless and would have to be abandoned. I didn't see any evidence that you personally hold that view, but I thought it was worth addressing. I think that those who hold it have a straw man picture of supernaturalism in mind. Historically, supernaturalists (like the oft touted Newton) have not been bothered by fears that the existence of the transcendent will make the natural world impossible to understand. On the contrary, their view is that God purposely made the universe orderly so it could be understood. Believers in Loki might reasonably feel pessimistic about a scientific program of inquiry, but the fact is that the possibility of supernatural events is only a problem for the program of science if there is reasonable likelihood under the assumptions that accompany that supernatural vision that science will be interfered with. In other words, few believe that God is capricious and would constantly be rearranging test-tube contents just for the hell of it. Or that he is malicious and would frustrate experiments on purpose. So, I see very little room for the conflict paradigm here, also.

The final strong anti-accommodationist concern I'd like to bring up is the view that any type of inquiry that doesn't follow scientific rules is "unscientific" and therefore contrary to science. The analogy I use in this case is the difference between checkers and chess. Yes, the rules are different. Yes the chess rules cannot be made to apply to a checker game. But there is no reason why it is impossible for both to be good games. There is nothing about the one that necessarily detracts from the other.

Only in the specific aforementioned cases do religion and science necessarily detract from one another. And only in those cases should the conflict paradigm apply. There is one exception to that statement that I can think of, but I would rather discuss it while dealing with the integration paradigm.

I'm tired now. I've made a case on why I don't think all of religion should interact with science under the conflict paradigm. I'd like to talk about the places for independence, dialogue & integration as well, but I'd like to rest first... and would like to see if you agree with the case I've made so far.

miller said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

1) Demarcation problem:
I'm not sure what it means exactly to say that philosophical naturalism is science. I certainly don't think it's a prerequisite for science. A scientific conclusion, maybe, though all conclusions are tentative, especially the philosophical ones.

2) Prayer
Do you know what homeopaths say about studies that have disproven homeopathy? They say that homeopathy is not expected to work under the conditions of placebo-controlled double-blinded studies. I suppose the power of magic water simply wilts under the stare of skepticism. But then, if it doesn't work under these reasonable conditions, who knows what else could cause it to stop working, or even backfire? Maybe it only works on Saturdays, and on Sundays it backfires.

If the studies indeed did show that petitionary prayer were effective, that would be positive evidence for prayer. But we can't have it both ways; the negative results of the experiment must be considered at least weak evidence against prayer. The only reason we'd have to believe prayer is effective is if we have a high prior belief in it, and I think this high prior is unwarranted.

3) Creationism
Vanishingly small you say? Maybe in the world of "ought", but not in the world of "is".

4) Ghost in the machine
I agree with you there. When people say that supernaturalism would prevent science because miracles would be too common, I think this is a specious argument. I would instead make a converse argument: If miracles existed, they'd be exceedingly rare. As such, any specific alleged miracle must be treated with great skepticism. We also have to keep in mind that even in a natural world, there would be a high false alarm rate.

5) "Unscientific" inquiry
I agree. Unscientific reasoning isn't necessarily invalid.

However, you should realize that many new atheists refer to science in a broad sense. By science, they mean any sort of critical reasoning. Personally, I don't like this broad definition much, because it arguably includes history, social studies, political arguments, and so forth. But by this definition, unscientific does imply unjustifiable.

Of course, we still need to justify the premise that religious reasoning is unscientific (in the broad sense of science). The justification of the premise was not included in your snippet of the argument, so I can't comment one way or another.

smijer said...

1) The view that "philosophical naturalism is science" - you describe a philosophical naturalist position at the end of this paragraph:

By science, they mean any sort of critical reasoning. Personally, I don't like this broad definition much, because it arguably includes history, social studies, political arguments, and so forth. But by this definition, unscientific does imply unjustifiable.

It's the same position I hold, but it is a philosophical position - and it's only a "scientific" one by this unnecessarily broad use of the term "science" that you describe. In other words, I did not and could not arrive at this position through empirical reasoning.

2) Homeopathy is a scientific (namely medical) claim. It is not allowed excuses for not holding up under scientific scrutiny.

Supernaturalism, by definition, is about what transcends nature, and therefore does not primarily make scientific claims.

Unless it makes scientific claims, it isn't required to justify its "failures" under scientific approaches. That is because the hypothesis doesn't posit the magic of prayer, but the action of God - and there is no way to place God under a microscope unless he wills it so.

3)Creationism was I was talking aobut when I said "vanishingly small". Cases, other than creationism, where there is direct conflict are described as "vanishingly small".


It is apparent that you are thinking largely in terms of how religious claims can be justified. I don't blame you... Many if not most religious people do present arguments that are meant to justify religion under modern styles of critical thinking. We are right to undermine those justifications. However,

a) I do not think that many people believe religion on the basis of these (admittedly poor) justifications.
b) It isn't necessary for them to posit these justifications, if in fact some breed of faith is their primary epistemological tool for the supernatural.
c) The fact that religion isn't philosophically justified (from our perspective) doesn't make it contrary to science, properly defined as empirical reasoning.

smijer said...

correction 3) Creationism was *not* what I was talking about when I said "vanishingly small".

miller said...

3) Sorry, I had misunderstood.

2) If God feels that it is not time for the efficacy of prayer to be detected by scientific studies, then that just means it is not time for us to believe in the efficacy of prayer. Mere consistency with the results is insufficient to establish plausibility.

And remember, you can't have it both ways. If positive results of the experiments would confirm prayer, then negative results must at least weakly disconfirm it. This is mathematical necessity.

Justification of religion:
I believe that "Justification isn't strictly necessary" is one of the poorest justifications of all. But no, these poor justifications don't necessarily mean it's contrary to science. It means it's wrong. Being wrong and being contrary to science are two different things. Religion can be wrong even if it is independent or in partnership with science. It's a separate issue, and might even be considered off topic.

smijer said...

It means it's wrong. Being wrong and being contrary to science are two different things. Religion can be wrong even if it is independent or in partnership with science.

This is absolutely, 100% my view, and stated well and succinctly.

And remember, you can't have it both ways. If positive results of the experiments would confirm prayer, then negative results must at least weakly disconfirm it.

I agree with this as far as it goes. But, just because religious group A says that positive results of experiments would confirm prayer, doesn't mean that religious group B should hold the same view. In fact, group B might find such tests to be blasphemous.

If God feels that it is not time for the efficacy of prayer to be detected by scientific studies, then that just means it is not time for us to believe in the efficacy of prayer.

That is one conclusion we could draw, similar to a weak atheist's conclusion that a God indetectable to science doesn't want to be known. But, it isn't a necessary conclusion. If we are working from a faith paradigm, we don't necessarily hold that we should only believe what God has chosen to reveal in scientifically detectable ways.

I think you & I are mainly on the same page on just about every point.

I think all of religion that doesn't directly conflict with science belongs in one of the other paradigms... Which one depends on what sort of theology is being espoused. An extremely liberal (i.e. non-supernaturalist or deist) theology might work under an integration model (though I fail to see the point). A more fundamentalist view (minus creationism - which defaults to conflict) could probably only avoid conflict under the independence model (aka NOMA).

Dialogue is fine for moderate supernaturalist viewpoints, so long as they don't make the mistake that some of the big names have made - i.e. doing violence to science (usually outside their own field of expertise) in order to make apologetic points... Problems of this sort that make dialogue unprodutive are such as Collins' fine tuning and Miller's (Ken - not you) quantum tinkerer.

I do think it is necessary to engage the conflict where appropriate. I think it is problematic to characterize all interaction as conflict. With clearly defined rules for how conflict can be avoided, open-minded and intelligent religious people can refine their thinking, and the "is" can become closer to the "ought" that you suggested:

There should be no conflict with science at all! Because science is knowledge. It's a good thing. Everyone ought to be on board with science. Therefore, if religion exists, then it ought to be on board with science too.

The trick is convincing both non-accommodationist scientific types and reasonable religious types to get in line with those rules.

That latter may not be as hard as it is made out to be. I think most people - religious or otherwise - want to be well & truly on board with science - they just aren't all aware of what's required of them to get that way.

smijer said...

Ummm... correction... when I said that non-supernaturalist religion could come under the integration model but that I didn't see the point... that wasn't the best expression of my view.

I forget it sometimes, but I could myself be characterized as non-supernaturalist religious. That is, I attend a UU church, and my 'theology' is atheistic and non-supernaturalistic. If you call my brand of humanist participation in community 'religion', then certainly there is room to constructively integrate science with that program.