Thursday, December 15, 2011

Science and Religion

The English seem to be ahead of the Americans in matters of science and religion. That does not mean they know more. It means they know less. Society has been moving in the direction of forgetting truth it once understood. This comes from  a series called Heathen's Progress by Julian Baggini. It does not mean "progress" in the sense of learning and developing deeper understandings. Here it means progressively asking more questions and admitting fewer answers.
One of the most tedious recurring questions in the public debate about faith has been "is religion compatible with science?" Why won't it just go away?
I'm convinced that one reason is that the standard affirmative answer is sophisticated enough to persuade those willing to be persuaded, but fishy enough for those less sure to keep sniffing away at it. That defense is that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a category mistake of the worst kind. So we should just leave science and religion to get on with their different jobs free from mutual molestation.
Why it won't go away is because you have the wrong answer. Religion is more concerned with spiritual matters but it can say things about the physical world. Christianity has the doctrine of the incarnation. It has the doctrine of creation. Certainly the bible has many stories which have archeological evidence that seems to be related.

So religion and science are answering different questions but it is not like they will never run into each other. They will. The assumption is that they will always contradict. They won't. There is one truth out there. We want to know it as well as we can. Science can only address the physical world but religion can address both the physical and the spiritual. If they contradict then your science or your religion is wrong. You can't finesse the law of non-contradiction  by labeling some truths scientific and some truths religious.
Critically, however, scientific "why" questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, "why" is usually what I call "agency-why": it's an explanation involving causation with intention.
I don't like his term "agency" because science is interested in certain kinds of agents. If the dinosaurs does out because a meteor hit the earth then that meteor is the agent of their demise. That is still in the realm of science. I would prefer he say "teleological" because that is what he means.

He does not touch on the most common error. That is the assumption that the silence of science on teleological questions means they are unimportant or they do not exist. Most of the time when people assert that science and religion are not compatible they are confused about that. They note that science has determined the proximate cause of many things and even those things who's proximate cause we don't know we have good reason to believe that science will figure that out as well. Then they make the leap that somehow religion and even philosophy is not needed. I guess since this guy is a philosopher he does not want to go there. Still I think society's silence on teleological questions has caused the most confusion on the relationship between religion and science. It is ironic that Biggini, as a philosopher, is silent about these questions as well. 
Consider, for example, anthropic fine-tuning, which the religious physicist, Paul Davies, calls "The Goldilocks Enigma": the conditions in the universe are just right for life to have evolved, and had a few things been just slightly different at the Big Bang, none of us would be here. At the moment, there is no generally accepted scientific explanation for why or how this is so. Taking off his physicist's coat and donning his theologian's hat, Polkinghorne answers the "why" question by saying that the life-enabling laws of physics are "graciously provided by the creator". Not only does this introduce agency-why where we'd normally just look for scientific-why, it is also a claim about how the universe came to be this way, namely, by divine fiat. It trespasses onto the "how" territory of science, but since it cannot explain the mechanism by which God intervened, nor test the hypothesis that he did so, it is no substitute for a proper scientific answer.
This is an interesting theory. It is really a "God of the gaps" argument. It points out a pretty huge gap in science. Can that gap be filled? It is hard to imagine but not impossible.  It is somehow easier for us to see the fingerprints of God on something we don't understand scientifically. To the extent that is true then noting the huge number of things in the universe that seem to have been put in place so we could exist will tend to strengthen our faith. But he is not suggesting that this is instead of trying to answer the why question in a scientific way. All the phenomenon he describes are still the subject scientific research and I don't think Davies is calling for that to stop. He is just noting that the universe not only looks big and beautiful but it also look's like it is ordered towards life. How precisely it was ordered towards life is still an interesting question we should try and answer. But it right now it might also give us an important clue as to the ultimate cause of why the universe exists. It has something to do with life.

The comment about divine fiat is instructive. It comes from Genesis 1. God spoke things into being. But that is not an anti-science speaking. God is a God of power but also a God of order. One does not cancel out the other. If they did then the conflict between science and religion would make sense. To say God brings rain on the righteous and the unrighteous would be to deny that rain is scientifically explainable. But we don't deny it. We hold that both explanations are valid and true.
The religious believer could bite the bullet, accept that religion does make some empirical claims, and then defend their compatibility with science one by one. But the fact that two beliefs are compatible with each other is the most minimal test of their reasonableness imaginable. All sorts of outlandish beliefs – that the Apollo moon landings never happened, for instance – are compatible with science, but that hardly makes them credible. What really counts, what should really make the difference between assent and rejection of an empirical claim, is not whether it is compatible with science, but whether an evidence-led, rational examination of a view supports it better than competing alternatives.
So the fact that science is compatible with religion turns out to be a comforting red herring.
This is absolutely true. He is implying that religion is irrational and therefore should be rejected. I don't agree with his premise and he does not try and defend it. I do agree that is it were true that religion is irrational then it should not be believed. In today's world you can just state that religion is irrational and people will accept it. That is because secular people are ignorant not because religious people are irrational. Religion is very rational. It takes the data from prophets or whatever and scrutinizes it. It determines what is believable and tries to put it into some system of theology. This is really the only kind of religion I have been exposed to so when people just assume all religions are irrational I wonder how much they get out.
The less comfortable wet fish slapped around the face is that how 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. If it is of a kind that doesn't attempt to explain the hows of the universe, then it has to be very careful not to make any claims that end up doing just that. Only then can the science v religion debate move on, free from the illusion that it rests on one question with one answer.
This explains a lot. Religions can be grouped loosely into two categories. Fundamentalists and liberals. Either doctrine trumps secular reasoning or doctrine changes to accommodate secular reasoning. The trouble is Catholicism does not fit into either category. It is always open to new ideas but it can firmly reject new ideas as well. The answer is not a firm and unthinking No like the fundamentalists give. It is also not an initial No that inevitably changes to a Yes like the liberals give. It is an open mind that will eventually close on either a No or a Yes. It does not compete with science. It accepts scientific results for what they are. Then it determines the doctrinal implications.

That kind of religion seems foreign to him. The kind that can accept evolution and reject contraception. That cannot be fit into the simple categories he offers. That takes both faith and reason very seriously.That does not pit progress against tradition. In other words he has not considered the Catholic faith very well when he wrote off religion. 

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