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.