Monday, October 17, 2011

Are science and religion incompatible?

Essays lauding the superiority of science over religion are not uncommon, and Julian Baggini, atheist editor of Philosopher's Magazine, gives us another one in the Guardian. Biologist Jerry Coyne, of course, is much impressed, as he is with any such pronouncement, no matter the quality of them.

Baggini acknowledges that science is focused on how questions, and religion on why questions, but contests the non-overlapping magisteria view of the late Stephen J. Gould--that religion and science deal with two completely different kinds of questions that do not impinge on one another--and correctly so. This is, in fact, one of the places in which the New Atheists are correct: you can't place religion and science in two hermetically sealed compartments and expect them never to get mixed:
This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and puts God in the answer, they are almost inevitably going to make an at least implicit claim about the how: God has set things up in some way, or intervened in some way, to make sure that purpose is achieved or meaning realised. The neat division between scientific “how” and religious “why” questions therefore turns out to be unsustainable.
So far, so good. There are claims made by Christianity that are empirically testable: That Christ was born without a human father, lived at a particular time, spent his life in particular place as a member of particular tribe who performed specific miracles, was executed on a particular mountain under the reign of a specific governor of Judea, and was raised after a specified number of days from the dead and seen afterwards by hundreds of people. And that his disciples went around afterwards preaching and baptizing and performing some of the same miracles as Jesus did in His name.

Now you can believe those claims or not, but they are the claims Christianity makes (in fact, its central claims) and they are "scientific" in the broad sense of being explicitly empirical and subject to proof or disproof by the methods of whatever empirical discipline would apply to them, which, in this case, happens to be history. Some are only empirical in theory and are not practically verifiable, but others of them are subject to at least some empirical scrutiny.

There are also philosophical or metaphysical claims made by Christians (but not necessarily by Christianity per se) who are operating in the realm of natural theology that are subject to proof or disproof. Examples of this would be the traditional proofs for the existence of God. These arguments can philosophically prove particular theistic beliefs, such as the existence of God, but if someone were to disprove any one of them, it would not affect the central claims of Christianity itself--it would only prove that some particular Christians (St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.) were mistaken.

Despite the fact that he is a philosopher, Baggini says nothing about these metaphysical issues which are neither strictly theological nor empirical. In fact, Baggini seems to somewhat confuse the two when he speaks of "an evidence-led, rational examination of a view." A view could be "evidence-led" and not rational, or rational and non "evidence-led." The traditional proofs for the existence of God (or for that matter certain theorems in mathematics) are rational, but not "evidence-led," at least in the sense of being empirically testable.

But the main problem with Baggini's piece is that he seems to see every case in which religion makes an empirical claim as a case in which science and religion are in conflict:
[H]ow easily science and religion can rub on together depends very much on what kind of religion we're talking about. If it is a kind that seeks to explain the hows of the universe, or ends up doing so by stealth, then it is competing with science. In such contests science always wins, hands down, and the only way out is to claim a priority for faith over evidence, or the Bible over the lab.
Coyne too chimes in too, shaking his pom-poms:
This, of course, is just another take on something many of us have long maintained: any theistic religion—that is, one that posits a God who is active in the universe—must perforce make claims that can in principle be empirically examined or tested. And that is a “how” question. On the level ground where science and faith must compete to answer such questions, religion always loses, and always will.
The fact that two approaches may happen to focus on the same subject does not automatically put them into conflict. Conflict only comes when one approach says one thing about it and another approach says something contradictory. If historians say that historical records show that there was a comet in the sky in 627 B.C. and astronomers say there wasn't, that's a conflict. But if they both approaches conclude there was a comet in the sky at that time, then there is not conflict. The two are perfectly compatible.

If science is "incompatible" with theology because they arrive at truth through different methodologies, then science is also incompatible with history, and with ethics--and with philosophy, Baggini's own discipline.

There is really no sense in talking about whether whether science and religion are compatible. If they look at the same alleged fact and come to differing conclusions about it, then so be it. Let it be decided using the methodology that is appropriate.

If the subject is the chemical makeup of something, then apply science. But if it is the existence of God, then science is going to have to bow to philosophy; if it is the genuineness of a historical event, then it's going to have to bow to history; and if it is the nature of the doctrine of justification, then it's going to have to bow to theology.

From the earliest times, Christianity has made empirical claims as evidence of its truth--largely having to do with miracle and prophecy. If scientists like Baggini and Coyne want to dispute them then let them have at it.

But so far they not only don't seem to have refuted them: they're too busy talking about whether magisteria are overlapping to even try.

26 comments:

Singring said...

I agree with the majority of what you have written here, Martin. Many religious claims do impinge on science and vice versa and it is not very helpful to pretend otherwise.

'But if it is the existence of God, then science is going to have to bow to philosophy;'

Interesting claim. And how do we know that philosophical conclusion A about God X is true?

One Brow said...

The traditional proofs for the existence of God (or for that matter certain theorems in mathematics) are rational, but not "evidence-led," at least in the sense of being empirically testable.

This is part of what makes them potentially irrelevant. The soundness of a philosophical argument depends upon the soundness of the axioms and the method of deduciton. However, sound axioms can only come from emipirical notions or from personal beliefs. Philosophy reveals the consequences of these positions, in a sense uncovering those consequences, but formal processes generate no truths that were not present in the initial assumptions.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

And how do we know that philosophical conclusion A about God X is true?

By assenting to conclusions of sound arguments.

Martin Cothran said...

One Brow:

However, sound axioms can only come from emipirical notions or from personal beliefs.

Is this supposed to be evidence that an axiom should not be accepted?

Singring said...

'By assenting to conclusions of sound arguments.'

That was not the question. Assenting to a conclusion simply means that we...assent to a conlusion. It doesn't mean the conclusion is true.

How do we know a philosophical argument is sound in addition to being valid?

One Brow said...

Martin Cothran said...
Is this supposed to be evidence that an axiom should not be accepted?

No, what I was attempting to say is that philosophy generates no new truths. In particular, proofs for the existence of God, or certain theorems in mathematics, must either be based on evidence or be the product of personal beliefs. The axioms come from one or the other.

For example, the metaphysics of Thomism is based on notions of physical change.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

How do we know a philosophical argument is sound in addition to being valid?

When the premises are true.

Singring said...

'When the premises are true.'

Exactly. So the million dollar question is: how do we assess the validity of the premises? After all, anyone can come up with his favourite set of premises. No special expertise required.

Take for example the metaphysical idea of actuality and potentiality that Thomists like yourself use as premises to prove the existence of a Prime Mover (aka God).

Why should I accept those metaphysical premises? What method can you employ to demonstrate to me that they are true?

Martin Cothran said...

OneBrow:

Is the statement, "Proofs for the existence of God must either be based on evidence or be the product of personal beliefs" based on evidence or is it the product of your personal belief?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring:

So the million dollar question is: how do we assess the validity of the premises?

Premises are neither valid nor invalid. Their truth is determined on the basis of the soundness of whatever argument produced them.

Singring said...

'Premises are neither valid nor invalid. Their truth is determined on the basis of the soundness of whatever argument produced them.'

So arguments are sound if their premises are true and premises are true if the arguments that produce them are sound?

I don't think that requires any further comment.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Where did you get that idea?

An argument is sound if it is valid and if the premises are true. That is standard introductory logic. And premises are true if the prior argument in which it served as the conclusion is itself sound.

It could even be true if the argument was unsound, by the way, so maybe the better thing to say is it is justified if it was produced by a prior argument that is sound.

Singring said...

'An argument is sound if it is valid and if the premises are true.'

Restating your assertions does not make them true. I have asked you how we know that premises are true. This is your latest attempt at explaining:

'And premises are true if the prior argument in which it served as the conclusion is itself sound.'

So how do we know that the premises of the prior argument were true? And the premises of the argument that support those premises? And the premises before that? And the premises...

et cetera, et cetera.

Rather ironic that the premises from which the existence of a Prime Mover is deduced are themselves aparently regressable ad infinitum.

This is a house of cards Martin. You can use it to make some rather intricate edifices, that may be nice to look at from some angles, but until you can build them or at least map them onto something a little more substantial than a) mere assertions or b) an infinitude of ever more flimsy premises (as you now seem to suggest in a surprising turn of events) then we are left with no more than 'pretty thoughts', floating freely in a metaphysical vacuum that requires no connection to actual, physical reality and that can be picked and chosen with impunity until they produce exactly the conclusion you want them to - the Abrahamic God, fo example.

I'm sure it's a fun, creative activity that everyone is welcome to enjoy to their heart's content.

But don't expect people who would like their beliefs to actually inform them about reality to take seriously the pronunciations that are made from those metaphysical realms.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

'An argument is sound if it is valid and if the premises are true.'

Restating your assertions does not make them true.


So you are disputing that this is the logical definition of soundness?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Where did I say they were "regressable ad infinitum"? That's your statement. Is it the conclusion of a sound argument? If so, what is it?

Singring said...

'Where did I say they were "regressable ad infinitum"? That's your statement. Is it the conclusion of a sound argument? If so, what is it?'

Right here:

'And premises are true if the prior argument in which it served as the conclusion is itself sound.'

If you want to claim that this does not mean that premises regress ad infinitum , just tell me what the 'first premise' is and how you know it is true?

I wait with baited breath...

This is rapidly devolving into the usual silly games, Martin. First you assert, then you dodge the actual, specific question raised in response (how do you know that the idea of actuality and potentiality is true?), then you play dumb.

It gets old really fast.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

So you are asserting that my statement "And premises are true if the prior argument in which it served as the conclusion is itself sound" is inconsistent with the belief that there are some terminating premises, which we could call "first principles" or perhaps "axioms"?

The premises have to either be conclusions of prior arguments indefinitely or something else. What do you think they are?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

how do you know that the idea of actuality and potentiality is true

Inference to the best explanation.

Singring said...

'So you are asserting that my statement "And premises are true if the prior argument in which it served as the conclusion is itself sound" is inconsistent with the belief that there are some terminating premises, which we could call "first principles" or perhaps "axioms"?'

No. That's why I said:

'(as you now seem to suggest in a surprising turn of events)'

I'm glad that we agree that we simply assert some premises as axioms. The question then becomes on what basis we choose these axioms.

But what about premises that are not axioms? What about premises that, as you say, stem from 'Inference to the best explanation.'

Inference from what, Martin?

From what do you 'infer' that actuality and potentiality are true of every thing in the universe? And how do you infer it?

One Brow said...

Martin Cothran said...
Is the statement, "Proofs for the existence of God must either be based on evidence or be the product of personal beliefs" based on evidence or is it the product of your personal belief?

Neither. Why would this question be relevant? Do you think "Proofs for the existence of God must either be based on evidence or be the product of personal beliefs" is a proof?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

I say "inference from the best explanation" and you say "inference from what?"

Inference from the best explanation. That's what.

Inference from the best explanation is simply inferring something from the fact that it explains a truth better than any alternative explanations. It's used in science frequently.

Singring said...

'Inference from the best explanation. That's what.'

The best explanation for what? What is it you are trying to explain.

'Inference from the best explanation is simply inferring something from the fact that it explains a truth better than any alternative explanations. It's used in science frequently.'

So you are inferring the truth of a premise from the fact that it best explains the truth? A dog chasing its tail makes more sense than this.

What 'truth' are we talking about here? What is this 'truth' that is best explained by the ideas of potentiality and actuality?

'It's used in science frequently.'

Sorry to burst your bubble, Martin, but I have never in my scientific career seen anyone claim they dtermined the truth of a statement based on whether it best explained 'the truth'.

In science, we infer to the best explanation of the empirical data. Is that the 'truth' you mean?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

So you've never heard of "inference to the best explanation," also known as "abduction," commonly used as a means of forming hypotheses as a part of the logic of discovery?

Never heard of C.S. Pierce?

How about Newton, Galileo, and Kepler, all of whom used it extensively.

Ever heard of the term "hypothesis-formation"?

So you say you're a scientist?

Singring said...

Martin,

'So you've never heard of "inference to the best explanation," also known as "abduction," commonly used as a means of forming hypotheses as a part of the logic of discovery?'

So now you suddenly decide you want to talk about hypotheses? Funny, I could have sworn we were talking about explanations and premises a moment ago.

I understand your need to deflect from your misunderstandings of science, but scientists - including Kepler, Galileo, Newton et al. - infer to the best explanation from empirical evidence.

A hypothesis doesn't have to be inferred from any data at all, you can come up with it from thin air if you want. Then you test it against the data. That's why a hypothesis is not by default the 'best explanation', but - at best - has potential to be so, see? It's really quite simple.

Once empirical testing does not falsify the hypothesis, we can tentatively accept it as the or at least as close to being the 'best explanation' for the data, particularly if other hypotheses have failed the test or do nothing to explain teh data.

If you want to consider every old hypothesis as equally deserving of being the 'best explanation' - well then the term 'best explanation' simply becomes a meaningless shell.

So, unfortunately, I still have no idea what you mean when you say

'Inference from the best explanation is simply inferring something from the fact that it explains a truth better than any alternative explanations.'

See, that statement - as opposed to the simple principle of inferring from empirical evidence to the best explanation - is a completely incoherent garble.

You seem to be arguing that the premise of an argument is true if it is the best explanation for a truth.

This is a tightly circular argument.

But maybe you use the word 'truth' in two different ways here (which would be odd for someone who so frequently admonishes others for their linguistic lapses).

Maybe when you say

'...inferring something from the fact that it explains a truth better than any alternative explanations.'

you mean a different kind of truth than the one you are assigning to the premise you are trying to support. So, Martin, what 'truth' is this that actuality and potentiality is the best explanation for? I have asked you before. You don't seem to want to answer.

klatu said...

While it appears that the science vs religion debate will run and run, there appears to be a massive roadblock not far up the road and both religious and atheist are heading for a crash!

The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is spreading on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new 'claim' is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, wisdom, command and covenant, "correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries." Like it of no, a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment, evidential criteria now exists. Nothing short of a religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://soulgineering.com/2011/05/22/the-final-freedoms/

Singring said...

'a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment, evidential criteria now exists.'

And now:

How to contradict yourself in one sentence.