Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Compatibility of science and religion

In the endless back and forth about whether science and religion are compatible, sometimes I feel like I'm hearing the same thing on both sides.

"There may be plenty of respectable scientists who are also religious, but a lot of religion is impossible to reconcile with science!"

"There may be a lot of religion that is impossible to reconcile with science, but there are plenty of respectable scientists who are also religious!"

Disagreement FAIL.

Chad Orzel suggested that the difference between the two views is a different definition of compatibility. One side defines compatibility in some sort of logical, philosophical, or rhetorical sense. That is, you can use science to argue against religion, and vice versa. The other side defines compatibility more empirically. That is, they are compatible if there exist people who are fully in favor of both science and religion.

But a difference in definitions does not constitute a real disagreement. To demonstrate, let's split one word into two, each with a different definition (this tactic should be in every analytic thinker's toolbox).

Compatible(1): There is no reasonable conflict between the two ideas.
Compatible(2): People can hold both ideas without conflict.

I think we can all agree that science and religion are compatible(2), but not compatible(1). Of course there are respectable religious scientists. Of course science has reasonable conflict with at least some of religion. Where is the disagreement?

I think it could be simply a disagreement of degree. Clearly, there is some conflict with science and religion, but the two sides probably disagree with how much conflict there is. This is a difficult question to analyze in a small space, because you really have to determine which beliefs conflict with science on a case by case basis, and then determine how much weight to give each case. This is the sort of thing you could write an entire blog about. So I won't go into it just now.

The other disagreement seems to be on which definition is most relevant. Except, I think they're both relevant in different situations. If someone asks me whether you can fully support science, even if they're deeply religious, I say you would have company if you did that. If someone asks me whether there is any conflict between religion and science, I say yes, though some people who are not me feel they have resolved that conflict.

And what definition should the National Center for Science Education use? Clearly, they should use compatible(2), which is ascertainable fact, and avoid a stance on compatible(1). To assert compatible(1) to any particular degree is to assert an opinion. It's not necessarily completely horrible for a national organization to offer an opinion, but it can cause problems. For instance, friends who disagree with that particular opinion (ie Sean Carroll) may start criticizing you.

Okay, so maybe you don't care what a bunch of bloggers think. That's understandable.

Speaking of bloggers, what definition of compatible is relevant to a blogger like me? I think that compatible(1) is most relevant, because a blog like this is all about offering opinions based on reasoning. If I start talking about compatible(2), there would be little to disagree about, because it is ascertainable fact. Furthermore, it would be logically irrelevant, a logical fallacy. It doesn't matter how many people favor both science and religion, it doesn't make them right. Logical fallacies have a certain power over our mind, but none of it is rightfully earned.


Jeffrey Ellis said...

Miller, I think you should add a "Best of Skeptic's Play" area in your sidebar and make this post the first entry. Nicely done.

(Also did you get my email?)

DeralterChemiker said...

You need to define "religion." Religion is not a monolithic entity. If religion is defined broadly, one can hold religious opinions that do not conflict with science. I suspect that your definition of religion is strongly influenced and defined by your Catholic background.

miller said...

I have not ever claimed that all of religion categorically conflicts with science. I claim instead that some of religion conflicts with science. Barring some unreasonably narrow definition of religion, of course this is true. It's trivial, in fact.

Far less trivial is to discuss the degree to which religions conflict with science. In this particular post, I advanced no opinions on that front.

miller said...

However, I have written about the degree of conflict between science religion in the past. See "Science Meets Religion".

ACH said...

I'm inclined to agree with some of the previous commenters. "Religion" is not a monolithic entity. Obviously some forms of religion (young earth creationism, denial of evolution) are incompatible with scientific knowledge. But this is not to say that every form of religion of incompatible with doing science. (Also, "science" is not really a monolithic entity.)

And the fact that there are lots of very respectable scientists who are religions is a significant fact: the fact that there are some very smart people who have likely thought long and hard about these issues should at least cause us to think that they should not be dismissed lightly or simply assume that they must be holding self-contradictory views.

miller said...

I can see your point, but pointing to smart people who came to a certain conclusion can never fully substitute for pointing to the reasoning they used to come to that conclusion.

smijer said...

I'm weighing in on this kind of late... but I think the more interesting question does is related to definition 1). But I think it's a poor definition. First, as numerous others have pointed out, religion isn't "an" idea - it is a class of ideas - or even a chimeric name for multiple classes of ideas. So you can't say there is or is not "reasonable conflict" between "the two ideas".

Second, "reasonable conflict" is vague. What about "necessary contradiction" instead?

In dabbling (in the past, man! in the past!) in the flame wars over this issue - especially at Mooney's and Coyne's blogs, I've developed some thinking on how this could be framed so that real differences between the camps could be highlighted and perhaps resolved (in favor of my position, of course).

I think it would pay dividends to abandon the term "religion". It's far too common to see religion criticized as supernaturalism and defended as aesthetic paradigm, with neither side able to qualify the term or give up ownership of it.

As will be pointed out from time to time, non-supernaturalistic religion or non-supernaturalistic aspects of religion are not the subject of anti-accommodationist criticism.

So, replace "religion" with "supernaturalism".

Then, differentiate between religiously motivated pseudoscience or science denial, and supernaturalism more generally understood.

No one (except pseudoscientists and deniers themselves) believes that this behavior *is* compatible with science.

So that narrows the discussion down to whether there is necessary contradiction between belief in the supernatural, generally understood, and belief in science.

Then the demarcation problem and its relevance to the question can be readily understood.

Personally, I feel that materialism of the sort that regards the supernatural as impossible is the hidden assumption of anti-accommodationists. In other words, the belief exists that there is nothing that could supervene the laws of nature in ways that careful observation is unlikely to be able to discover or document (or that the laws of nature are incontrovertible and/or careful observation is able to discover anything that happens, even unpredictably, in the real world). It is *this* belief that is incompatible with supernaturalism. If you define science to include that belief, then science and supernaturalism are incompatible. If you define science without including that belief, then science and supernaturalism may sometimes be compatible - provided that supernaturalism doesn't directly challenge a finding of science as it applies to the regularity of the operation of physical law.

In other words, is science a broad world-view that includes philosophical materialism, or is it a narrow epistemological program for discovering what can be discovered about the regularity of natural law?

I favor the latter definition of science, despite the fact that my broad world-view includes philosophical materialism and is at least somewhat incompatible with supernaturalism.

miller said...

Your analysis isn't wrong, but it's too narrow.

To start, "necessary contradiction with supernaturalism" is much clearer and better-defined than "reasonable conflict with religion", but it isn't as complete. When people talk about conflict between science and religion, they often mean more than that. Just to give an example, where does fideism fit in? Fideism isn't necessarily supernatural, and doesn't directly contradict scientific thought, but people still talk about it.

And from supernaturalism, it seems like you implicitly narrowed it down even more. You're talking about miracles, rare deviations from natural laws. Many supernatural beliefs are not like that. For instance, my friend who plays Tarot cards may not believe they are infallible, but he does believe they have enough predictive power that he bases decisions on them. This belief is supernatural, but I wouldn't call it miraculous.