How science really works, cont’d: an objection

As wonderful as I think the website Understanding Science is, I do have — as I said — objections to its statements regarding the relationship between science, religion, and atheism. The website lists among its misconceptions about science the notions that “science contradicts the existence of God” and that “scientists are atheists”; it holds that science and religion essentially deal with separate realms, the natural and the spiritual respectively (what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria” ), and that therefore they need not be in conflict — indeed are not in conflict in the minds of many people, many scientists included.

Fair enough; it’s certainly true that people can, if they choose, believe in the claims of science and the claims of religion simultaneously. But just because people can accommodate both in their minds does not mean that both are equally true.

Here is the website’s statement, with the “myth” to be debunked in bold:

Science contradicts the existence of God. Because of some vocal individuals (both inside and outside of science) stridently declaring their beliefs, it’s easy to get the impression that science and religion are at war. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. Because science deals only with natural phenomena and explanations, it cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities — like God.

This is, on its face, ridiculous. First, this statement creates a false equivalence between apologists for religion and outspoken atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins by dismissing both sides as “strident” without even a brief mention of the actual arguments involved. Second — and more to the point — it also falsely asserts that science, dealing “only” with the natural world, can therefore have nothing to say about any supernatural claims.

Of course it can. If science can have no say about the supernatural, then doctors would have absolutely no opinion about whether a patient’s condition is due to food poisoning or demonic possession. We would never truly know if the garden out front was ruined by badgers or by elves; or if a tsunami was caused by an undersea quake or by a temper tantrum from Poseidon. And we would never be completely able to rule out the existence of trolls, unicorns, dragons, invisible schools for wizardry, Santa Claus, or the deities and monsters of a thousand different mythologies. But of course we can and do rule out such things, because we accept or reject such claims based on the amount and quality of evidence that supports them. As Carl Sagan often said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Or as Christopher Hitchens more contemptuously puts it: “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”

Science has been debunking supernatural claims and replacing them with naturalistic explanations for as long as science has existed. Earthquakes turn out not to be caused by the rampaging of distant giants, but by the fracture and grind of tectonic plates. Lightning turns out not to be the wrath of God, but a burst of electrical energy that can be safely guided to the ground by metal rods. Diseases of the body and mind turn out not to be caused by demons, but by viruses and chemical imbalances for which medical and psychiatric treatments are available. It’s true that people — including many eminent scientists — have invoked the so-called “God of the gaps” to explain whatever is currently mysterious and unknown, but it’s also true that such mysteries are usually cleared up by other scientists in later generations — and the explanation always, always turns out to be a naturalistic one. As our understanding of the nuts and bolts of the Cosmos grows, we find — like the French mathematician Laplace — that God as a hypothesis is, increasingly, no longer required.

The Understanding Science website concedes as much:

This is not to suggest that science and religion never come into conflict. Though the two generally deal with different realms (natural vs. spiritual), disagreements do arise about where the boundaries between these realms lie when dealing with questions at their interface. And sometimes, one side crosses a boundary in its claims. For example, when religious tenets make strong claims about the natural world (e.g., claiming that the world was created in six days, as some literal interpretations of the Bible might require), faith and science can find themselves in conflict.

I have to admire the determination of the website’s authors to be absolutely diplomatic about the issue; they can bring themselves to say only that in such cases the two sides are “in conflict,” without actually saying which side is right. Would it have been so bad to come out and explicitly declare that the creationist interpretation is, you know, wrong?

And although the authors describe this conflict as an exception, a mere skirmish at the borders, this is precisely the point. Whenever religion makes an assertion about the natural world, or about supernatural forces affecting the natural world, then it makes an empirical claim which absolutely is subject to scientific investigation. This includes, I think, religion’s central claim: that God exists, both as the creator and mover of the physical universe and as the source of human morality. And if the existence of God can be called into question, then the sacred and inviolate rules by which religion would have us live can and should be questioned as well; religious injunctions shouldn’t be obeyed merely because “God said so” (for how can such reasoning stand if God turns out to be a fictional character?) but should be examined and debated to see if such commands actually make sense. In other words, without its supernatural claims to prop it up, religion is simply philosophy — a human-made system of ideals and moral principles that can admit of error, discussion, and improvement.

Which brings me to a related statement on the website:

Scientists are atheists. This is far from true. A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and that more than 75% believed that religions convey important truths. Some scientists are not religious, but many others subscribe to a specific faith and/or believe in higher powers. Science itself is a secular pursuit, but welcomes participants from all religious faiths.

I have no problem with the last sentence — provided religious scientists can turn off their faith-brains and turn on their skeptical brains while they’re at work. But I think the rest of the paragraph is misleading, or wilfully dishonest at worst. The fact that many scientists have a “religious affiliation” says nothing about how religious they actually are; and the fact that a majority believe that religions “convey important truths” has no bearing on whether they think those moral principles come from a divine creator, or whether they simply regard religions as human ethical systems with occasionally good ideas. The fact is that there is a much higher percentage of atheists and agnostics among American scientists (60%) than in the general American public (6% or less), and an even higher percentage of nonbelievers among the scientific elite, the members of the National Academy of Sciences (72% or more). Why that should be the case is up for debate, but clearly there is something to the correlation between rigorous skepticism and scientific thinking on the one hand and atheism or agnosticism on the other. The more one adopts a scientific worldview, the more likely it is that one rejects, or at least is less in thrall to, the claims of faith. And that’s something the Understanding Science website glosses over — understandably, perhaps, given its aim of promoting science to a predominantly religious public; but disappointing to me nonetheless.

Can we reconcile science and faith in our minds? Of course we can. But I think this says less about whether science and faith are intrinsically reconcilable, and more about our own willingness to be rational in some areas and irrational in others — to live in the messy gray area between two opposed worldviews, and avoid the uncomfortable questions and hard conclusions.

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Recommended reading: Richard Dawkins, When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf

(Photo via Flickr)

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2 responses to “How science really works, cont’d: an objection

  1. I very much agree with your critique of the science/religion analysis of Berkeley’s “Understanding Science” site. Just a couple of miscellaneous thoughts, however.
    1. Berkeley is presenting this “explanation” (I think) to public school educators. Much as we would like that every public school science teacher be able to say We don’t need God to explain the universe, the political realities are otherwise. Public schools need public support. What they don’t need is a bunch of people with pitchforks and torches yelping about Ole Time Religion. Not all of us live in metropolitan areas. I suspect the mushiness of the explanation is helpful in the Ozarks are West Virginia.
    2. Religion is an intellectual activity of “choice.” It is a social construct. You can learn that fire is “hot” by very few encounters. You can’t learn religion from experience. There is nothing that will explain “God” except stories that have been handed down from who knows when. But the construct is internally inconsistent in important places and hard to swallow in others. And nobody, absolutely nobody, buys the whole thing. If people really believed that there was a personal God who cared about what they did and determined their eternal fate based on their actions, would we really see the kind of behavior exhibited by the religious? These considerations lead me to believe that people always choose how much of religion they are willing to accept. And they ignore the inconsistencies and contradictions and how it doesn’t really apply to day-to-day life. The latter stuff they explain by something like “God’s ways are mysterious.”
    3. Since you can (and have to) choose how much of religion you will buy and forget about its contradiction with everything else, there really is no reason to doubt the sincerity of scientists who say: “I believe in a deistic god who created everything according to natural laws but who communes with my soul [in some sense].” It’s merely an aesthetic or metaphysical stance that doesn’t interfere with anything else. But that’s true even of the most religious. Mystics are constantly talking about doubt and their unbelief and so forth.
    4. Even “atheists” strike an aesthetic or metaphysical stance not necessarily supported by skepticism or “science.” I don’t see much of a difference between a scientist saying what I posited in 3, and a non-scientist saying “I believe in a heliocentric solar system but a God that created the universe in 6 days.” I’ll go one step further. I don’t think there is a difference between that statement and Sagan’s statement that “we are the means by which the universe knows itself.” Any one of these (or other) choices of aesthetic or metaphysical stances are necessary for us to get through the day. You really couldn’t live with an entirely materialistic view of the world. Otherwise there is not reason to read Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is all untrue, right? Bach’s music is simply stimulus to our auditory nerves, right? None of it has any significance. In fact, since it all boils down to the belief in cause and effect (which is invariable), we cannot have free will, so why bother with anything? The answer is that we have to have a meta-”belief,” above materialism, even if we are strict materialists–this allows us to say: Yes, it is worthwhile to learn how the universe works or how life arose. And it is also useful to create “arts” that are games that stimulate us in a highly derived way.
    5. I think we all have to come up with explanations–the meta-”beliefs”–that allow us to deal with a material world. The fact that the God of the Roman Church, for example (but this applies to all “gods”), is not particularly useful for those beliefs is a matter of choice which is permitted (or not) by the social structure we live in. Market capitalism has done more to kill God than Darwin or Galileo ever did, because it allows individuals to move around, separate from their community and independent of an over-arching set of imposed meta-”beliefs.” It has also encouraged materialistic views of the world because science produces things (ideas, products, processes, etc.) that fuel the efficient flow of capital. Living in Puritan 17th Century America or Muslim 21st Century Somalia gives less (or no) opportunity.
    6. So where does this rambling lead me? I guess the point is that it doesn’t bother me that some large portion of the country doesn’t believe in neo-Darwinism so long as they don’t bother me (too much) and don’t interfere with public science education. I think probably 80% of people who say they don’t believe in evolution are really saying: “It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve never looked at it and don’t intend to.” That doesn’t bother me any more than most of the inanity that is broadcast on TV most of the time. As for interfering with public education, I think the Berkeley approach (while not what I choose to believe) is probably as good as any. If I lived in, say Dover, Pennsylvania or rural Alabama, it might be the only approach that wouldn’t lead to interminable squabbles over the control of the public school.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, DK. All excellent points.

      Just to clear things up, I wasn’t accusing the scientists of being insincere when they responded to the survey questions; clearly they’re as capable as everyone else of practicing skepticism in some areas of their lives and faith in others. I was, rather, criticizing the quoted passage from the website for (as I see it) using their statements about “religious affiliation” and “important truths” to imply a higher level of religious belief among scientists than I think can justifiably be claimed. I could be wrong. And yes, I recognize that the website’s mission isn’t to be confrontational but to make science appealing and accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

      I absolutely agree that we all, atheists included, rely on some kind of meta-narrative to make sense of existence. What I don’t agree with is the notion that atheism (or materialism) automatically leads to nihilism; there’s no reason that it can’t lead to, say, Carl Sagan’s brand of humanism, as you pointed out. (Sagan also said: “If we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?”) I don’t think that materialism precludes the idea that, within the context of human society, humans can generate meaning and make meaningful things. I think Philip Pullman, in his essay on the “Republic of Heaven” (as opposed to the “Kingdom”), says it well:

      The neo-Darwinians tell us that the processes of life are blind and automatic; there has been no purpose in our coming here.

      Well, I think a republican response to that would be: there is now. We are conscious, and conscious of our own consciousness. We might have arrived at this point by a series of accidents, but from now on we have to take charge of our fate. Now we are here, now we are conscious, we make a difference. Our presence changes everything.

      And of course I, too, would have no problem with people’ religious beliefs if (as Hitchens says) they keep them to themselves. But of course they don’t — or, at least, a very vocal and influential subset don’t — and erroneous religious beliefs have real-world consequences: from the Catholic Church banning condom use in AIDS-ridden Africa, to the persecution of gays, to creationist attempts to sneak ID into the science classroom, to leading Republicans giving religious justifications for climate change denialism. All the more reason, I think, for atheists, skeptics, and science advocates to firmly confront and investigate religious claims when they threaten to do real harm.

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