"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Monday, June 18, 2012

What's the Relationship between Science and Religion?

There's a debate currently going on at the Huffington Post, with user feedback, on the relationship between Science and Religion. Instead of providing commentary directly on that debate, I thought that I would take some time to outline the four basic views that philosophers and historians have had on the science/religion interaction. This is not meant as an argument for one view over any other, but as an educational outline of the way philosophers have treated this distinction. The four basic views are:

1. Conflict (the Draper-White Thesis)
2. Dialogue
3. Independence (NOMA)
4. Complexity

(1) is the idea that science and religion have always been in conflict, have never had even temporary allegiances between each other, and (often) that religion holds back scientific progress. It was most famously proposed by Draper and White in the 19th century. View (1) is an idea that plenty of people would have in mind. Unfortunately, most historians feel that view (1) is simply false.  Most historians would simply point out that the relationship between science and theism are more complex than Draper and White would have us believe. For example, medieval scholastic philosophy -- the only area in which anything like science occured during the middle ages -- was a distinctly Catholic phenomenon. And some of the most famous cases of theists supposedly suppressing scientists for their heretical views might (arguably) be better seen as political disputes between religious believers. Galileo was certainly not an atheist and his science was not altogether decoupled from his religion (in fact, Galileo's theology had about as much to do with his science as his science had to do with his theology.) The view that science and religion have any kind of professional barrier would have been an utterly foreign concept during the Scientific Revolution. The idea that there is a professional class of citizens, distinct from a professional class of religious thinkers, is a much later development.

Nonetheless, there are a few things which (1) does not say. Even if (1) is false, as most historians believe, that does not imply that science and religion have never been in conflict or that they are not presently in conflict. Nor would the falsehood of (1) imply that scientific reasoning and faith are compatible or consistent. The Draper-White Thesis is a descriptive, historical view, not a view about the fundamental natures of science and religion.

View (2) the idea that the best way to treat the relationship between science and religion is as a continuing dialogue. Religions might integrate scientific developments into new theological positions, or one think that science does nothing more than reveal a better view of God's creation. Certainly, this view is ecumenical and is favoured by many theologians and religious people (people talk about "interfaith dialogue"; this appears to be a similar concept.) Talk about reconciling religion and science implicitly assumes that something like (2) must be true. In a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II echoed view (2) when he stated:
To those whom he enjoyed calling the Scientific Senate of the Church, he asked simply this: that they serve the truth. That is the same invitation which I renew today, with the certainty that we can all draw profit from "the fruitfulness of frank dialogue between the Church and science." (Discourse to the Academy of Sciences, October 28, 1986, #1)

2. I am delighted with the first theme which you have chosen: the origin of life and evolution—an essential theme of lively interest to the Church, since Revelation contains some of its own teachings concerning the nature and origins of man. How should the conclusions reached by the diverse scientific disciplines be brought together with those contained in the message of Revelation? And if at first glance these views seem to clash with each other, where should we look for a solution? We know that the truth cannot contradict the truth. (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus) However, in order better to understand historical reality, your research into the relationships between the Church and the scientific community between the 16th and 18th centuries will have a great deal of importance.
View (3) is also one that tends to be favoured by religious people (although most famously proposed by a non-believer.) It is the view that religion and science constitute two independent domains, or, as Stephen J Gould would have put, two independent magisteria. Unlike views (1) and (2), view (3) is a prescriptive view. It attempts to inform us about what the proper relationship between science and religion should be, not what it has historically been. Some theologians have responded to New Atheist literature by citing (3); certainly, this is Alister McGrath's primary indictment of Dawkins' The God Delusion. Nonetheless, in its traditional formulation, it suffers from a variety of problems. For instance:

-Gould seemed to claim that religion covers exclusively value-laden issues, like moral quandaries and how to live a good life, but not any kind of claims about the existence of various kinds of things in the world. In other words, Gould thought that all religious language was normative while all scientific language was existential. But if that's true, then utterances like "God exists" are not claims about the existence of any sort of entity. That would seem to be rather strange to me; I've never met a religious person who told me something as perplexing as, "Oh, well, you see, when I say 'God exists', I'm not really referring to anything! Instead, I'm informing you about morality." I don't think that's what theists do when they pray, go to church, listen to sermons, and so on. I think Christians would be very surprised to learn that they don't believe in the existence of Jesus, Heaven, Hell, God, and so on.

-If religion uniquely covers moral quandaries, what in the world do we do with philosophy or literature? Aren't there non-religious ways of dealing with such issues? And how would Gould, himself a non-believer, deal with these kinds of issues?

-It's simply not true that all religious statements are out of the reach of science, even if some are. For example, if we proposed a non-deceitful deity who wanted the entire world to be purple and therefore made it that way, we could rule out such a being based on the observation of non-purple objects. Responding to arguments along these lines, philosophers have noted the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation; in analogy with that doctrine, a deity could make the essence of objects purple without changing their outward appearances. Still, that's altering the original hypothesis. Given enough clauses, we can surely generate a god hypothesis that can be ruled out. For instance, a non-deceitful deity who made the outward appearances of all objects purple and ensured that we humans would see them as purple. An example which Dawkins uses to address this point in his God Delusion is the Templeton Foundation funded study of intercessory prayer, which found that such prayer is ineffective (in fact, patients who know they are being prayed for were slightly worse off than those who did not.) Dawkins' claim would then follow that at least certain kinds of prayer, and in certain circumstances (like when being monitored by a double blind study), are ineffective.

Thus, neither most scientists nor most lay religious believers would really want something like (3) to be true, at least as formulated by Gould. Religious language really does appear to be making claims about the world in a way that does not create a stead-fast barrier between science and religion. This has led several theologians and several atheists to collectively reject (3). Certainly, most Intelligent Design advocates and creationists reject (3); this is plainly obvious because their view is that science can show that God exists.

View (4) is the mainstream view of historians of science. The view would simply be that the relationship between science and religion has been historically extremely varied and complex. At times, scientists and theologians have been in conflict, while at others, they have had truces or even been advanced one by the other. Note that this view is not prescriptive, nor does it inform us about whether or not the methodologies of science and theism (e.g., faith) are, at their core, compatible. There might still be a very broad inconsistency between demanding the use of Reason in addressing some questions, but not in those pertaining to gods. If this is true, then the latter would simply appear to be a case of special pleading. Nor does it tell us whether or not science and religion are presently in conflict, or how to resolve such conflicts if they are (or even if such conflicts should be resolved. For instance, some would suggest getting rid of religion altogether.)



The Huffington Post Debate

Pope John Paul II's letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution
Non-Overlapping Magisteria by Stephen J Gould

The Questions Science Cannot Answer by Alister McGrath

My Critics are Wrong to Call Me Dogmatic by Richard Dawkins (responding to McGrath)

Does Science Discredit Religion? by John Worrall


  1. This debate is about to be monkey wrenched! For what science and religion, not to mention the rest of us, thought impossible has now happened. History has its first literal, testable and fully demonstrable proof for faith.

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined and predictable experience and called 'the first Resurrection' in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods' willingness to real Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence and ultimate proof!

    Thus 'faith' becomes an act of trust in action, to search and discover this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our moral compass with the Divine, "correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries." So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk,

  2. gollah --

    I find myself extremely sceptical of your claim here. First is your bizarre use of language. Faith is certainly not a word that gets consistently defined by very many religious people, but, at minimum, it appears to be belief without evidence. You claim to have evidence that proves faith; that's a very difficult phrase to even parse. The other bizarre thing you've done with language is to consistently claim that you have such a test, but never describe it. Apparently, one needs to download your book to read about your proposed test.

    Putting aside the semantic difficulties, I visited your two websites and read through them. I'm not yet going to go through the business of reading your book since I have not been convinced that it's worth my time. For one thing, if you could actually prove the existence of God, you would have, at minimum, won (or at least applied for) Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. Still, your proposal might be worth looking at for some reason, if only to identify what might be wrong with it; if you could summarise your proposed test in a few paragraphs, that would be fantastic.