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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Are Science and Religion in Conflict?

A biologist, Francis S. Collins, is arguing in lectures and in his writings that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion. His argument depends on very careful choices of terms in order to work, assuming it works at all. As a biologist, he is fully committed to the evolutionary account of the origin of the species, claiming that Creationists and other fundamentalists are setting themselves for a fall for scientists are likely to fill in the gaps in evidence as time passes, gaps that their arguments depend on. At this point it is fair to say, that most fundamentalist Christians will have fallen off the back of the truck Collins is driving. They are committed to believing that evolution is false, even the work of the Devil.

In my morning paper yesterday, he is said to be asking scientific skeptics "to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world...." The problem with this is that scientists do not investigate their domains of interest with zeal alone, but more importantly, with a scientific method, or, at least, a collection of standards that their investigations have to live up to. Such standards involve critically the use of experiment where that is appropriate or where observation is the main tool, the replicatability of observations. If I say that I have found live specimens of an extant species of some life form that has been believed to be extinct in the Big Darby Creek, then it should be possible for others to find live specimens of their own. And there would have to be agreement as to the morphological similarities of the fossil record and the living specimen.

The fact is that religious claims typically cannot be studied in the same way as are scientific questions. We can investigate specific empirical claims in the Bible, for instance, looking for the remains of Noah's Ark. I jest -- no ship big enough to have carried all these life forms could have been built then or now. It has been so long since I read the Bible that I am not sure what factual claims are made that can be verified. Can we find the crypt where the ostensibly dead body of Jesus was placed before he arose and know definitively that we have? Unfortunately, even if we found the crypt, it wouldn't prove the "risen Christ" thesis to be true. Simply studying religious issues with scientific zeal doesn't give the same reliability as studying much more limited questions pertaining to the natural world or cognitive and behavioral phenomenon.

The central issue as to whether or not science and religion are in conflict concerns whether or not they ask precisely the same questions. The question
How long ago did the Big Bang occur?
is unmistakably scientific. Religious scholars have nothing to contribute to that. The question
What is the meaning of human existence?
is either a religious or a philosophical question but it is clearly not a scientific question. On the other hand, both scientists and religious sorts feel that they have a proprietary interest in the question
When did beings like current humans first appear on this planet?
and
How did such humans come to appear on this planet?
This sort of situation presents a problem and we have two ways we can look at it. We could say that though scientists and religious scholars may be asking the same questions, we need not choose between their answers but can accept both. This response is quite tricky to deal with. Or we could say that Collins is simply wrong -- scientists get to answer these questions but religious scholars do not.

Suppose that a particular religion takes the view that biological humans are distinct from humans with souls, whatever that means. Given that assumption, one could give over to scientists questions as to the origin of biological humans and give over to religion the question as to when souls were first "implanted" in humans. It might be claimed that the former arose 60,000 years ago and the latter just 6,000 years ago. In such a way science and religion are not in conflict since scientists qua scientists don't have any interest in the concept of a "soul" while religious scholars do.

But don't be misled by hucksters like Collins. He is doing a disservice to certain religious persons by suggesting that their religious views are safe from scientific refutation or from a demonstration that their beliefs are inchoherent or have some other flaw of a sort scientists are good at ferreting out. They will be badly mistaken.


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26 Comments:

Blogger Sean said...

I've always seen a conflict between religion and science, and despite hearing many people try to work their questions and statements quite carefully so as to diminish the conflict, I have yet to be in any way swayed to think they are in harmony. Carefully crafted questions too often are followed by carefully crafted answers, and here I think I'll not bother. Can science and religion coexist? Sure, I'm all for peaceful cohabitation. Should they coexist? Na, religion is stupid. If I may be so bold as to link to this blog entry of my own, it captures in a nut shell how every religious person sounds to me. Comedy is in the end my favorite form of dissent.

There is one religious question I have from time to time pondered, as it is really the only truly important one; Is there a god? Maybe, but I don't really see how it matters. Last time I checked he/she/it wasn't taking much time to meddle in our affairs. We seem to do all the meddling ourselves, and quite a job we do of it. Contemplating religious questions beyond the one above seems futile, since we can't even come up with a solid answer for it, and all else would really be based on its outcome. Humanities imaginations have run wild for thousands of years answering fantastical questions posed by the assumption that there is a god, but one can only read fiction for so long before you crave some reality. Science bothers not with fiction (science fiction aside), and for that I'm eternally grateful.

11:38 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I don't see any problem with science and religion coexisting. They aren't meant to answer the same kinds of questions, and I see no reason why they should.

As for claims of the Bible that can be scientifically studied, there are many. Archaeological (sp?) evidence of things mentioned in the Bible abounds. They've found examples of coins mentioned in the Bible, and some even believe that they have found Sodom and Gomorrah as well as Jericho. It's even believed that the Red Sea began to part for Napoleon, and as they studied the floor of the sea they found that a strong wind from a particular direction would cause it to part. In contrast, there are no such verifiable claims found in the Book of Mormon, and there are probably other "holy" books that have the same problem (perhaps Dianetics?).

6:33 PM

 
Blogger Sean said...

A few tenuous bonds between the real world and Bible stories hardly qualifies as proof positive of its message. That Sodom and Gomorrah were real cities is almost certain, why make up fictional ones when you have real ones to bash on right next door? Just like Dante did in the Inferno, he put all the people that he hated in various positions of torture all through hell (the irony of him playing God like that, judging and damning people, often ones still alive, in a just, kind and Christian way just slays me). But the existence of these ancient towns hardly is proof that two angels came down, nearly got raped by a mob before two innocent girls were offered in their stead, and then the place was burned with brimstone by God. I've even heard that there are "brimstone" deposits found on the site they think is Sodom and Gomorrah, but did God “rain them down from heaven”? I'm not sure they'll find His fingerprints on them.

The same problems that are found in the Book of Mormon and in Scientology are found in every religion; mythical claims of power wielded by supernatural forces effect the lives of people on earth, and this is the meaning of life. Well I want fire and brimstone to rain down on Seattle (and not Mt. Rainer exploding, that's a volcano and can be easily explained scientifically, God was not "pissed at Starbucks and brought forth His judgment"), I want angels to come knock at my door, ANYONE'S door and ask to stay, whether a mob of rabid homosexuals show up to "know" them or not. I want anything at all that is current, real, and compelling before I will believe anything written in any of those silly books. Until that time they will remain fictional tails written by humans, sometimes used for good but too often shamelessly used for self serving ends.

And no, science and religion can't co-exist, I'm tired of people trying to convince themselves otherwise. It makes me think of a battered spouse convincing him or herself that everything will be all right, because they are too afraid of what they may loose to see the writing on the wall. Science undermines the underpinnings of religion, which is what scares so many religious people about it. And I say more power to it, we can only be better off to have fewer Books of Mormon, Dianetics, and Bibles being passed out and created anew.

8:59 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

Mortimer Adler, American educator and philosopher, said: "The more power science and technology confer upon us, the more dangerous and malevolent that power may become unless its use is checked and guided by moral obligations stemming from our philosophical knowledge of how we ought to conduct our lives and our society."

Philosophy and religion are similar in that they both attempt to answer the question how we ought to live. Science doesn't do that for us.

12:04 AM

 
Blogger Sean said...

I disagree, susieq, I find science and philosophy to be far more closely related, with very similar goals, than philosophy and religion. Philosophy seeks to answer questions, often metaphysical in nature but not always, on the grounds of logic. It is flawed philosophy if you can't argue your case on logical grounds. Science works on the same principle; you must be able to replicate your findings. There is no logical ground for religion to stand on, it stands on faith, and that is where it departs from science and philosophy, and is why I discard it.

Mr. Adler has a point, but I find it to be more a warning against us loosing our own humanity rather than a cautioning against the inherent evils of science. I don't think he was, or I hope he wasn't, trying to make the simple corruptive nature of power, whether that power come from science, technology, social standing or religion, into an inherent trait of science and technology, i.e. science and technology are somehow intrinsically evil and must be guarded against. Science and technology are neither good nor evil, they are simply knowledge and the mechanical execution of that knowledge. What we then do with either or both will determine good or evil. I've already argued in a much earlier post that religion need play no part in deciding what is good and bad, and it frankly usually muddles the distinction. Philosophy does a pretty good job with answering the question of good and bad, and it rarely involves the need of a higher power. It usually just involves us, since we are plenty powerful ourselves.

1:37 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Sean, science and philosophy can be as different as science and religion for all practical purposes or as similar, depending on what aspect of the latter you look at. I became a linguist (science) because of dissatisfaction with philosophy -- the latter's lack of a sound empirical basis.

Now, the study of linguistic meaning, conventional meaning that is, is doen both by linguists and philosophical logicians and they do things in similar ways. In both cases, the last I looked, they lacked sufficient empirical grounding but they were getting there. Philosophers have long been interested in meaning and they haven't given it up.

Then come the fields of ethics, ontology, and metaphysics, none of which is subject to empirical verification. They are interesting and are more respectable to my way of thinking than theology but are more like theology than science. They can be discussed without evoking paranormal events, however, which is why they are more respectable.

8:46 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Sean, I wasn't positing that the archaeological evidence is proof positive of the events described in the Bible.

And as far as philosophy goes, I think you have a skewed view of what philosophy is. Really, all schools of thought are philosophy. Science is merely one form of philosophy, and theology is another one. "Religion" is not--religion is something different. Theology, on the other hand, can have very sound logical arguments. Your only problem with them seems to be the epistemology, and if not then I'm afraid you're mistaken.

10:07 AM

 
Blogger Sean said...

I dare to make the distinction, presumptuous as it may be, between good and bad philosophy, good being that based in sound logic and without assumed variables at its heart, bad being that based in unsound logic and with assumed variables at its heart. This certainly leaves a vast arena of debate and discussion open as to the exact meanings of all these terms, but in the end I'm sure we could come up with good definitions that could cut through the crap. Philosophical ideas that have real world, empirical effects are king in my book, so Socrates is more interesting to me than Plato, as is Marx, though in him we have a perfect example of real life proof that his philosophy does not work. So I do see philosophy as more scientific than religious, but perhaps I mean the philosophies I read and follow and my own philosophy, which may someday be published if I can get it all to make sense outside of my head.

What were you positing Kelly? It seemed that the point you were making was that the archeological evidence for the Bible gave it superiority over the other books you mentioned, but I may have misunderstood you. There is no context in your post though, can you give it some?

As for my view of philosophy, I think you have a skewed view of my view of philosophy. 2+2=4; this is not a theory but fact, and while some may come up with interesting mind games to state the contrary, when I put 2 more oranges in my shopping bag with the 2 that were already there, I have 4 oranges. This is not "thought" or "philosophy" or "religion", it is empirical fact, testable and replicable. That is what differentiates science from religion, and hopefully what differentiates good philosophy from bad (see above for fabulous definitions of good and bad phil. above :) ). My problem with theology (which I would argue cannot have sound logical arguments as all theological arguments derive from an illogical root, namely God) is not the epistemology, but its complete lack of empirical fact, testable and replicable. If I am mistaken, perhaps you could tell me why instead of simply making that decree.

1:36 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

The context for my statement is that it is a response to LG's statement: "It has been so long since I read the Bible that I am not sure what factual claims are made that can be verified." I thought I'd point out a few that can be (and have, to an extent) verified.

You are mistaken because apparently you don't understand what the word "epistemology" means. Dictionary.com says epistemology is "The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity." Your clamoring for "empirical fact" is a gripe with the epistemology of theology--that revelation (or some other force outside empirical fact) can be a basis for knowledge. If you accept that, for example, the Bible is a sound basis for knowledge, then theology can have some very convincing (and perfectly logical) conclusions. Your problem with it, as you have stated, is that it lacks "empircal fact" and is not "testable and replicable," meaning that you only accept the epistemology of science. The math problem you state is not a matter of epistemology but of logic, and the logic is the same (or highly similar) from one branch of philosophy to another, even if the epistemology is not.

In short, you state that you are attacking theology for its logic, which is sound, when in fact your problem with it is in its epistemology, which you claim to have no problem with. Your penultimate sentence in that comment betrays that you have no idea what epistemology is (and raises some question as to your understanding of what logic is). Hopefully this will set you straight. (no pun intended)

3:17 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Further explanation may be in order to better explain the difference between epistemology and logic. (Sorry for the double-post)

The math problem, 2+2=4, is logic.

Epistemology, however, is the study of how you know when you should use those logical functions. In your example, you claim have two oranges in your bag. Your epistemology will help you to determine the truth of that statement. Here, your epistemology is from observation. The same with your adding two more oranges to the bag. The decision to use the function 2+2 is also influenced by your epistemology: you have 2, you add 2, and in your experience (which is to be deemed generally trustworthy under your epistemology) is that when you put the oranges in the bag they stay there.

3:25 PM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

Truthfully, I don't see what the huge division is between science and religion. A person who really knows their religion can find harmony between science and religion. It is the anti-religious that claim there to be such a huge chasm. You see, you are basing your facts on a fundamentalist view of a religious fundamentalist. These "religious" people are just as hard-headed as those who are anti-religious. Whether or not you want to believe it, many of us do not have a problem explaining religious occurences or bible stories with scientific facts. You just have to open your mind and think outside the box. If you can't do that, then your argument is just as worthless as a fundy christian's argument. I, myself, believe Sean's argument to be worthless and lacking in merit.

6:53 PM

 
Blogger Sean said...

I think I see now what you’re driving at Kelly, condescending though the drive has been. You have no problem with the validity of revelation as a source of information, and I see revelation as no sort of information at all, so much so that I don’t even consider it information, or knowledge, and thus not part of any epistemological concern. You might as well be saying that radishes are an important concept of epistemological contemplation. This is perhaps a short coming of my own, but I would argue that it is more a short coming of revelation. Thomas Pain has already done that for me though, in the Age of Reason, so I’ll let that stand. We also disagree on the nature and roll of logic, and perhaps of reason itself, for I’m sure epistemological reasons as well. If you want to debate any of those points I’m happy to, but assuming and then claiming that I can’t look something up just as easily as you is petty.

In my view no logic can be sound if predicated on an illogical assertion, which theology is. There is no logic that can prove the existence of a god, many have tried for thousands of years and none have succeeded. It is a matter of faith, pure and simple, and all logical discussion from that point on is tainted by that fact. If one want to make the argument that “it’s all in the epistemology of it”, or in other words “it’s all in how you come to know what you know”, then we are at an impasse, because I don’t subscribe to the All is Subjective ideal. One might claim that objectivity is my “God”, and that if objectivity is in fact a farce then all the rest of my beliefs fall apart. Now THAT is something I’d be willing to discuss, because that sounds interesting. That should probably be done away from this blog though as LG’s hospitality has been imposed upon enough.

7:13 PM

 
Blogger Sean said...

Hmmm, didn't see Paul's post before I made mine, sorry for the double post. Don't confuse "thinking outside the box" with rationalizing away conflicts between ideas. It is not difficult to join science and religion, they work just fine together, and I did for quite some time. But to continue to do that I would have to overlook the conflicts, and I'm tired of doing so. I'm sorry you find my argument "worthless and lacking in merit", you are certainly entitled to you opinion. Perhaps with some out box thinking you can find some worth and merit in it.

7:25 PM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

But when things reach a point to where logic becomes subjective, then the only thing left to look at is what is plainly obvious to everyone. This isn't really saying much. Why haven't these questions been answered yet to this day? To be honest, I can't answer them either, but for you to call my way of thinking "stupid" is a bold assertion on your part. What worth or merit can I get from your position? I want to tell you that I also cannot prove the existence of God. God is in our hearts and the religion known as Christianity is in its truest sense a philosophy and a way of life. You can beat me over the head with all the atheist viewpoints you want. It's not going to change who I am or my code of honor. It won't help my self-esteem or empower me with a greater sense of being.
We Christians are a lot like the people who believe in UFO's. To this day there still isn't verifyable truth to UFO's or their existence. Does that make every single person who believes in UFO's stupid? Are the people in that Contact movie, you know, Seti scientists or something....are THEY stupid? After all, they do have scientist credentials. No, I don't think they are stupid. They just "believe" we are not alone in this universe. So if you find no merit in that argument, then I guess a response is not worth the time.

10:15 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Sean, if I was condescending (and I'm sure I probably was) then I apologize.

Paul, the UFO-believer analogy is interesting.

9:49 AM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

I just want to come back to one of Sean's previous comments. He says that "good being that based in sound logic and without assumed variables at its heart" Every philosophy has assumed variables at its heart; so does most science. There are always axioms we have to accept without question before we can build on what has so far been acheived.

As for the "perfect example of real life proof that [Marx's] philosophy does not work" it is not at proof of that at all, rather a demonstration that a specific instance of his philosophy did not work. To claim that it is a proof is to confuse proof with example; plane crashes are not proof that planes can't fly.

9:56 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I forgot about that Marc. It seems that Sean's most basic axiom would be that knowledge is only good if it has pragmatic application.

11:18 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Hugh, in case you don't understand why I would object to any appeal to authority, as I suspect you don't, let me make clear that in debate, quoting Chomsky in re who is at fault in the Middle East is like quoting the Bible in debates as to the existence of God. Exactly like. That is why I will not have it. Either you can make the case on your own or you can't.

1:22 PM

 
Blogger FARfetched said...

I'm pretty much with Kelly's first post here... religion and science ask two different questions (as I wrote in the linked haiku). The problems start when people in one camp attempt to invade the turf of the other (whether it be fundies claiming evolution is bunk, or scientists claiming God is bunk).

I've actually stood in a pulpit and said this: the Bible is not a science text. You wouldn't consult a physics text to learn how to help people less fortunate than yourself, so why try using the Bible to learn about cosmology or quantum physics?

4:13 PM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I agree with Paul F. that "Paulians" are a lot like people who believe in UFOs as alien (space/air)craft, but object to the lumping together with the latter of scientists connected with the SETI project. Believing in the probability of the existence of other intelligent life in the universe, if not necessarily in our own galaxy, is in no way the same as believing that such beings have achieved interstellar travel and have visited our little planet.

(LG, as I was reading the post I got this amusing image of a picture of you on the front page of the Dispatch holding an uncharacteristically blurry photo of the creek behind your house, under the headline, "OSU Emeritus Prof Snaps Shot of 'Darbie', Columbus' Own Nessie!" Not planning a little fun, are you? :)

4:58 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Where have you been? Actually there are many strange creaters in the Big Darby, not the least of which is me when I am in it, which isn't often. So far I haven't seen Nessie. Nor did I see her when at Loch Ness many years ago.

6:04 PM

 
Blogger Sean said...

Quickly, as I am running late today;

Paul- ibadairon said it best, I need not repeat him. No desire here to change your code of honor or raise or lower self-esteem, just to wonder if there is a way to get to all of those thing without myths believed to be fact.

marc- there are assumed variables at the heart of everything, but some assumptions are based on more solid ground than others. I like to have comparatively solid ground for my thoughts. And planes crashing are proof that planes can crash, not that they can't fly. Planes that continue to crash are proof that it’s time to question the design of your plane.

Kelly- You don't know what my axioms are, and putting words in my mouth won't inform you what they are either. I get what you're trying to say, as usual, but the personal way things are being said again deflects from the issue. My most basic axiom is "do no harm", and looking over the years of religious history I see lots of harm, for reasons fundamental to the concepts and structures of religions. Science is but a tool people have used to harm others, like money and the occasional Prada shoe. So I do not care for religion and the behavior it breeds. I've always thought we'd be better off without it, and still do. Current events are strengthening that opinion.

6:10 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LG I have not participated in this thread, so on what basis do you feel compelled to address me?

Is my presence so daunting, that you have imaginary arguments with me ?

Hugh

10:27 PM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Sorry, been rather occuppied with much and various silliness. (Uni bureaucracy...that tell you enough?)

But rest assured, "Hugh were always on my mind!"

:)

2:47 AM

 
Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

"some assumptions are based on more solid ground than others" Granted. But that ground is not always tested.

"And planes crashing are proof that planes can crash, not that they can't fly. Planes that continue to crash are proof that it’s time to question the design of your plane." Exactly my point: it is not proof that the theory behind planes flying does not work. Rather that the application has been faulty.

9:57 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Sean, I apologize if my comments sounded personal. As for the basic axiom issue, I meant that it appears to be your most basic axiom for epistemological purposes, not moral purposes.

As for putting words into your mouth, I find tha it's often useful to try to restate what someone else has said or implied. It allows the person to evaluate your understanding of their position. This is quite basic to human communication, and I meant no ill will by it.

9:58 AM

 

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