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?

Comments:

#1 Chris Peterson (Guest) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 at 11:33am

Great essay.  Full disclosure - I am one of those religious people that practices something along the lines of what you describe as pacifist accommodation.  I don’t deny the role of science or the value it provides to society, I am inclined to think evolution is far more likely than a creation event, and frankly, I think I share the secular notion that the world would be better if people were more rational.  I’m not trying to convert anyone, though I’ll engage anyone in open, intellectual discourse which encompasses my beliefs while trying to remain respectful of the others position. 

From my perspective, I see two things:

1)  What secular humanists often find problems with is not faith qua faith, but rather a particular brand of practitioner and their ways of conducting affairs.  I too am offended by these behaviors, but I often wish the battle lines were drawn in a more concise way.

2)  I have a deep desire to see people reach their full potential, a desire that a believe many secular humanists share as well.  Of course, at a theoretical level the way to full individual realization is the map, not the terrain, and we may have reasons to debate the contours of the map, but on the whole we ought to realize that our goals (secular humanists and pacifist accommodationists) are similar enough to benefit from collaboration.

I feel bad for any secular humanist that has been hurt by a fundamentalist.  I heard a particularly gut-wrenching story at a local CFI meeting from one individual that had been grossly abused psychologically by the church.  But know that these people don’t represent all of us people of faith, and that there are even those of us that want to work together where there is affinity of purpose, and be respectful with our disagreements.

#2 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Tuesday March 09, 2010 at 5:19pm

(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?

Yes. Forgivably, but yes.

To my understanding, the spirit of science is to proportion belief to the evidence. No evidence should mean no belief. End of story.

That said, I wouldn’t go running for the pitchfork if presented with such a person. Just smile and nod, keeping any eye-rolling to myself.

(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?

It depends on the focus: Do we want better or best?

If we want better, then no complaints.

If we want best, then there are grounds for complaints.

So it depends on the circumstances, and which we value more in those circumstances: Better or best?

(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?

Again - do we want better or best?

—————————————

As a more general observation, I think that the fire-brand atheism and the softer, diplomatic atheism are both good methods in their time and place. We can have the best of both worlds. We can employ either or both of these techniques as the situation calls for it.

Healthy disagreement amongst ourselves is to be encouraged - but we shouldn’t get to riled up with one another over tactics.

#3 do_no_harm on Wednesday March 10, 2010 at 3:09pm

I would like to communicate the URL for an article on “God vs. Science - A debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins:”
http://richarddawkins.net/print.php?id=4047
Francis Collins is the Director of NIH and a theist. I guess everybody knows Richard Dawkins.
Please read this excellent discussion.

#4 JamesK (Guest) on Wednesday March 10, 2010 at 3:11pm

“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).”

It seems to me that even the “truly mysterious singular events of cosmic proportions” to which you refer are mere place holders for scientific ignorance: just because there is no scientific explanation today, doesn’t mean one won’t be devised in the future. 

This still puts science and religion at odds with each other, rather than as mutually exclusive or complementary “ways of knowing:”  science will be looking to close the “gaps” in understanding where the “pacific accommodationist” places their conception of “supernatural things.”

Or do I not get it?

#5 Sofia Wilson (Guest) on Saturday March 13, 2010 at 12:14am

The touted distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism does little to show that science and religion are compatible. The same can be said regarding the claims that “science does not disprove God,” that many scientists are also persons of faith and find belief in God compatible with their work in the sciences. None of these makes much headway in showing that the sciences are compatible with a commitment to a supernatural view of reality.
Thanks & Regards
Sofia Wilson
datarecoverysoftware.com

#6 Moshe on Sunday March 14, 2010 at 6:17pm

David Hume summed up the the proper limits and roles of both empirical science and religion in the 18th century with the self evidently true and elegantly succinct phrase “you can’t get an ought from an is”. An equation that works in reverse as well as it does in its forward formulation. The amount of wasted time that has been spent by both religious and anti-religious people trying to traverse that absolute divide is a constant amazement to me. The superstitious function of religion as an explanation for empirical phenomena should have been buried in the age of enlightenment if not long before. None the less, the twisted logic that has been employed by usually rational people to try and pull morality out of a universe of empirical data is just as absurd and convoluted as the arguments of creationists trying to disprove the existence of dinosaurs, if not quite as dangerous. In short you can demonstrate through science exactly how a faith healer is defrauding his followers. You just can’t use science to say he’s wrong in doing so.

#7 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Sunday March 14, 2010 at 6:30pm

@Moshe

None the less, the twisted logic that has been employed by usually rational people to try and pull morality out of a universe of empirical data is just as absurd and convoluted as the arguments of creationists trying to disprove the existence of dinosaurs, if not quite as dangerous. In short you can demonstrate through science exactly how a faith healer is defrauding his followers. You just can’t use science to say he’s wrong in doing so.

Poppycock!

A description of reality alone obviously isn’t sufficient for ethical discourse - but it’s certainly necessary.

We can certainly use science to determine whether or not a faith healer is defrauding his followers.

We may also use a scientific approach to determine the consequences on individuals and society at large when such fraud is permitted.

Once this scientific view is combined with goals and and values, we then arrive at a rational ethical discourse that can assist us in prescribing an effective moral code.

Science is not divided from morality. On the contrary - it is an important and necessary component for any rational ethical framework.

#8 Moshe on Monday March 15, 2010 at 2:40pm

I completely agree that in order to operate ethically in the world we need the description of that world that scientific observation alone can provide. But at the end of all the empirical investigation you still have to conclude that one out come is to be preferred over another. It is on that level where you have reached the limit of empirical inquiry. In the example of the faith healer, we can rightly employ reason to determine what the probable outcomes of allowing the fraud to continue might be. Both on society and on the individuals involved. But no where in the empirical description of those outcomes are you going to find a phenomena that is good. You have to believe that certain realities ought to exist and there for ought to be worked towards and others are to be avoided.  With the obvious exception of empirical effects which directly impact on are own well being.  I think we can agree that self interest is not what we mean when we speak of ethics however.
Your point, that science should never be divided from morality is an excellent one. Morality dies without rational thought. However, simply because two things have a necessary relationship does not logically mean that one can be derived from the other.  the fact that we die without oxygen does not mean you can derive people from thin air. To use Hume’s language; just because we need to know what” is” in order to determine how we can achieve what “ought” to be, does not mean we can determine what “ought” to be from what “is”

#9 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday March 15, 2010 at 3:18pm

@Morshe:

Firstly, read my last post again.

Once this scientific view is combined with goals and and values, we then arrive at a rational ethical discourse that can assist us in prescribing an effective moral code.

Secondly, I feel you’ve shifted your goalpost. Perhaps this is because your original post wasn’t clear enough - but I think I’m fair in viewing a major difference between your original post and your response to me.

In the original, you say:

None the less, the twisted logic that has been employed by usually rational people to try and pull morality out of a universe of empirical data is just as absurd and convoluted as…

In your response, you say:

I completely agree that in order to operate ethically in the world we need the description of that world that scientific observation alone can provide…

Now, perhaps it was your original post that wasn’t nuanced enough - and if so, fair enough.

But I haven’t ever read anything by any author or philosopher to suggest that they attempt to derive a morality from empirical data alone. Not Pythagoras, Isocrates, Gorgias, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus or the Stoa. Not Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Spinoza, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine or Nietzsche. Certainly not Grayling, Hirsi Ali, Blackford, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Dacey, or even Dawkins.

Now, my knowledge is hardly exhaustive, so I can’t claim to know with utter certainty. But to the best of my knowledge, this hyper-rational moralizer does not exist other than in your attempts to describe him.

#10 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday March 15, 2010 at 3:20pm

Oh - I left out Clemens. ^_^

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