Where can Science and Religion conflict?

March 9, 2010

In a previous post, I described how religion has perennially tried to force accommodation upon science . Science uses empirical experiment while religion uses submissive conviction. However, that very difference gives religion the option of staying out of science’s way. That “pacifist accommodationism” might not be such a bad thing.

Science must never compromise its empirical methodology: postulate hidden things responsible for nature's ways, pursue new observations that can test hypotheses, and permit bad predictions to damage theoretical credibility. Modern religion has noticed the first stage: science postulates hidden things responsible for nature's ways. Some theologians are tempted to force accommodation with science at this methodological starting point: Religion postulates hidden things, too! 

Yes, religion postulates hidden things behind nature's evident ways. Religion postulates REALLY hidden things -- not like tiny atoms or distant black holes -- but utterly supernatural things. All the same, scientific methodology seeks "best explanations" and perhaps supernatural things (a god, etc.) can supply better explanations. However, religion's inherent instinct for submissive conviction betrays it. It is too easy to "see" evidence supporting only your favored theory, or to "see" evidence unexplainable by the competition as supporting evidence for your favored theory. Intelligent Design and theistic evolutionism fall into these two traps with enthusiasm. Science uses safeguards against these temptations. For example, a community of scientists will pass judgment on whether evidence supports one theory or another (or neither). And a theory needs to pass fresh tests against new evidence rather than just rest easy with support from old evidence. Notoriously, religions don't like to be asked for specific predictions that a neutral public can test for confirmation. (But I do hope that fundamentalists can share a laugh with atheists in 2013.)

Religion just can't resist submissive conviction. This instinct is also obvious in the sort of hidden entities that religions offer as "explanations". Religions typically resort to postulating unpredictable willful agents to explain particular extraordinary events (deeds done by fairy sprites, evil spirits, thunder gods, immortal souls, devils and angels, creator gods, etc.). No matter what happens, religion stays safe by putting responsibility on a deity who could do just about anything at anytime. Could a God destroy a city? Sure! Could a God tweak a law of nature? Why not!

There is a “smart” match here, even in religion, in a manner of speaking: if you need an explanation for some quite surprising singular event, that doesn't seem to part of any familiar pattern at all, our intuition suggests that an agent, a living mind, is responsible. The point of being an agent is that an agent has an unpredictable mind and will of its own. Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett, among others, suggest that humans instinctively try to spot agents behind peculiar and otherwise unpredictable events. As summarized here , an over-active agency detection instinct may have gradually inflated into stories about gods with supernatural powers who unpredictably interact with nature and people. Religion can offer huge “explanatory power” for otherwise completely mysterious and uncontrollable (and distressing) events. 

By contrast, science does not prioritize agents as fine explanations. The psychological and social sciences deal with agents, of course, but scientific method itself prefers trying non-agents first. Science prefers postulating things that are more habitual and predictable, because that’s what the logic of testing hypotheses requires: to rigorously test a hypothesis, specific predictions must be made, so postulated entities must behave the same way under set conditions. That is why science has an innate preference for habitual impersonal forces in explanations. Each atom has its characteristic properties and mathematical habits, and atoms can’t just decide to misbehave one day. 

Religion favors postulating unpredictable willful agents to explain particular extraordinary events. Science, by contrast, favors postulating habitual impersonal forces to explain regular patterns in nature. Religion should admit that it really isn’t made for undergoing scientific methodology. On the other hand, religion will never run out of extraordinary events to try to explain. Religion can stay busy for a very long time if it retreats away from science.

Religious people who realize that religion and science have very different jobs are better off in the long run than advocates of Intelligent Design or theistic evolutionism. A “pacifist accommodation” instead says: let religion continue to handle explaining truly mysterious singular events of cosmic proportions (the universe’s “design”, or the universe’s creation in the first place). This pacifist accommodation will never have to worry about running out of work. Science does a great job of predicting results from initial conditions, and can predict those initial conditions from prior initial conditions, but the question of “why just those peculiar initial conditions” can always be asked at any stage of science. 

The fact that pacifist accommodation can keep religion busy forever adds nothing to its reasonableness, of course. Deism deserves as much skepticism as theism. I would point out that at least pacifist accommodation has a better grasp of scientific method and a higher respect for science than militant anti-science fundamentalists.  But this essay went into details about science and religion in order to set up these questions for the non-religious to try to answer:

(1) If a scientist happens to be a religious person who accepts pacifist accommodation, does this scientist anywhere betray the principles or spirit of science?

(2) If a religious person uses pacifist accommodation to convert a anti-science fundamentalist into a fellow accommodationist, should friends of science complain about such tactics?

(3) If a non-religious person mentions pacifist accommodationism as a preferred alternative to anti-science fundamentalism, should other atheists complain about some betrayal of atheism?