Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Accommodation and compatibility

Jerry Coyne's article* has raised the question sharply to our attention: are science and religion compatible?

*I'm a lazy scholar: many of the quotations I use here were first cited in Coyne's article, others were first cited by Larry Moran.

They are definitely compatible in one sense: there are in fact people, such as Francis Collins and Ken Miller, who are both competent scientists and religious believers. But this sense of compatibility is trivial. One could in the same sense say that vigorously prosecuting prostitution is compatible with employing the services of a prostitute, or that denouncing homosexuality as evil and perversion is compatible with fucking a guy in the ass.

Indeed, we could not justly object if Collins, Miller, et al. were to simply say that their religious beliefs were part of their private lives, no one's business but their own.

But they don't so restrict their remarks. They make a stronger claim: that religion and science are compatible at a philosophical level, that one can be both a competent scientist and a religious believer without hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance.

They explicitly disclaim achieving this compatibility by removing god from the domain of the physical world. As Francis Collins writes:
Christianity, for example, professes a God actively involved in creation. Many faiths share the concept of an interactive God, or theism. The opposing belief — the belief in an uninvolved, disinterested God — is deism.
An uninvolved, disinterested god is indeed no god at all.

Just as religious scientists must differentiate religion from no religion at all, they must differentiate science and religion. If religion is the exact same thing as science, if "god" is just an pantheistic metaphor for the laws of physics and/or the universe as a whole, compatibility is trivially reduced to identity. Liking vanilla ice cream might be compatible with liking chocolate ice cream, but it's trivial or vacuous to say that liking vanilla ice cream is compatible with liking vanilla ice cream.

There are only two ways for religion to be both different from and compatible with science: Either religion and science must comprise different kinds of statements, or religion and science must evaluate statements in different ways. Furthermore, if there is any overlap between either the domain of statements or their evaluation, both religion and science must yield the same answer.

One way of achieving this separation is to define religion to comprise normative statements, and science to comprise descriptive statements. This strategy is inept on several points: on what basis should we ascribe ethical authority to mostly white mostly men whose sole claim to expertise is the study of the mythology of an ancient society most modern, civilized people would disapprove of?

But religious scientists take another approach. They ascribe to religion statements about reality that are scientifically unfalsifiable, notably the ascription of teleology to the present state of the universe and human beings. For example, Ken Miller asserts:
In reality, the potential for human existence is woven into every fiber of that universe, from the starry furnaces that forged the carbon upon which life is based, to the chemical bonds that fashioned our DNA from the muck and dust of this rocky planet. Seems like a plan to me.
Miller explicitly claims to describe reality, and describe it as teleological. Miller also states:
We are talking about a being whose intelligence is transcendent; we’re talking about a being who brought the universe into existence, who set up the rules of existence, and uses those rules and that universe and the natural world in which we live to bring about his will.
It is hard to read this statement as not making ontological claims: God is a being, a being with attributes (transcendental intelligence), a being who acts, and a being who acts to deliberate ends. Either Miller is using language entirely metaphorically, writing poetry, not philosophy, or he is speaking in almost exactly the same sense that we would speak of Mt. Rushmore as being the product of a being (Gutzon Borglum) with intelligence who acts to deliberate ends; the only difference is ascribing to god a specifically transcendent intelligence.

Similarly, in God after Darwin (p. 83) John Haught approvingly cites Teilhard de Chardin:
[A] metaphysically adequate explanation of any universe in which evolution occurs requires — at some point beyond the limits that science has set for itself — a transcendent force of attraction to explain the overarching tendency of matter to evolve toward life, mind, and spirit.
Leaving aside the validity of the assertion that there's an "overarching tendency" of matter to evolve towards life, mind and spirit, de Chardin makes a strong claim here: any universe with evolution requires a transcendent force to explain some observable phenomena, and this explanation must be beyond the limits of science.

It is unclear, however, how to read de Chardin as saying anything other than that science and religion are actually incompatible: science is limited precisely and exclusively to those explanations that are required to explain observable phenomena. It is important to note here that materialism and the fundamentally ateleological nature of the universe are scientific conclusions, not a priori limitations: only an ateleological, material universe is required to explain observable phenomena.

Similarly, Ken Miller mentions miracles:
Any God worthy of the name has to be capable of miracles, and each of the great Western religions attributes a number of very special miracles to their conception of God. What can science say about a miracle? Nothing. By definition, the miraculous is beyond explanation, beyond our understanding, beyond science. [Finding Darwin's God p. 239]
Why, we must ask, are miracles by definition beyond science? Hume's view was that because a miracle contradicts so many ordinary observations, it can never overcome our natural skepticism; it is more plausible to explain reports of miracles by appeal to inattention, hallucination, delusion, or outright mendacity.

But there's a deeper philosophical reason why a "miracle" is by definition "beyond science", if we take a miracle to be a violation of the laws of physics. But for any observable phenomenon to "violate" the laws of physics, we must be able to determine the laws of physics independently of our observations of phenomena. Such a view directly contradicts not the "limits" of science, but its very basis: the laws of physics are precisely those explanations required to explain all observable phenomena. If one accepts that some phenomenon in any sense "violates" any law of physics, one must abandon the law itself: it is definitely false. To fail to do so is to declare one's incompatibility with science.

To save the theory from the phenomena, religious scientists try to put God's interaction with the world beyond the bounds not of materialism but of detectability. Collins continues:
In order to understand how God could take an active role, or how the world could have any inherent freedom, the laws of nature must be somehow open or flexible. The world’s future cannot be entirely determined or predictable from any given moment. ... It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles.
For a scientist, Collins exhibits a woeful (but, I'm reliably informed, all-too-common) ignorance of statistics. To call some behavior random is to say only that it is unpredictable in specific ways; we can, perhaps counter-intuitively, actually determine whether some phenomena is indeed unpredictable, and we can actually derive statistical theorems from the premise of unpredictability.

Therefore, to say that god's interaction is in principle undetectable or unrecognizable is to say only and exactly that god's interaction is random. God, in Collins' view, can only substitute one random distribution for another random distribution. Such an "interaction" is no interaction at all; Collins implicitly endorses an covert form of nothing more than deism.

Most importantly, if god is beyond scientific understanding, then in what sense is god beyond any kind of understanding? If we cannot understand anything about god, then in what sense can we say anything at all about god? Contrawise, if we can make any definite statement about god, then we must understand god, at least partially: on what basis do we make such definite statements?

And thus we come to the fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. As Hume noted centuries ago, if one cannot say anything at all about god, one is indistinguishable from an atheist. There is nothing to distinguish a purely mysterious god from no god at all. It seems absurd to believe that religious scientists such as Miller and Collins refuse to say anything at all about god, and descend into de facto atheists. If they want to say anything definite about god, and they want to place such statements beyond the bounds of scientific understanding, then it seems incumbent on them to to provide some alternative basis for understanding, a basis more consistent than the exercise of imagination.

Merely to say they are entitled to exercise their imagination is to say nothing more than that they are entitled to create poetry and fictional literature, an entitlement trivially granted by even the most die-hard materialist scientist.


  1. Miller: "Seems like a plan to me."

    It's the language used that's always telling. Yes, we'd all like there to be meaning and a plan, a purpose and a place to arrive at. But wanting and perceiving are not the same as actually being. Sometimes it seems like the universe is conspiring against me to thwart my desire to be an action hero. But it's not.

  2. One guys says it's 50 billion stars in the milky way- another it's 100 billion. Another tells the big bang started after 0.00000 google nano seconds after reaching critical mass. How does he know, or is he acting like out of faith and stuff- and expect me to believe- as a act of faith?
    but i think meself like- that's it not the same, cos science demands u question and contradict and give ure own ideas also. U think religion wants ideas, huh, they give u like bad stuff i u even question one part of it.
    that's at one level, really story is religion and science like can u believe in both. U can- if ure stupid, cos how come religion never told about bacteria, big bang, what's stars, or anything? It's clear, use of science in religion isnt science.

  3. One guys says it's 50 billion stars in the milky way- another it's 100 billion. Another tells the big bang started after 0.00000 google nano seconds after reaching critical mass. How does he know, or is he acting like out of faith and stuff- and expect me to believe- as a act of faith? -

    They know, pretty confidently. We can actually count (at least approximately) the stars in the galaxy.

    No one expects you to believe or disbelieve: if you are in doubt, there is no mysterious or privileged information necessary to arrive at the same conclusions as any scientist.

    Also, the number of stars or the early history of the universe is of little immediate concern. If you personally find the study of science tedious, you can profess agnosticism or incredulity with little risk.

  4. the robot girl5/6/09, 1:06 AM

    Larry, u are saying what i am telling-but using me own words and stuff. so we agree, even if u do get so called 'scientific heretics' like the guy who proposed 'string theory'- they might lose some funding- unlikely to get their head u know.........
    Cosmology and stuff for me personly is very central. Me leaving me religion and stuff is totaly linked to astronomy cos i got a telescope and then i learned stuff from tv. this taught me how to see thru all what they are telling in the school was just lies and rubbish. (millions more like me and stuff also- we just afraid and can not tell u what we really think in our heads and stuff).

  5. How fucking tired is this point?

    Science and Religion are oil and water. Shake it up as you will, and it will still separate it once you put it on the metaphorically awkward table of intelligent criticism.

    I really appreciate your enthusiasm Larry, I do, but how do you go on without saying something like:

    "Accommodation and Compatibility : Seriously, are you fucking retarded?"

  6. The point is tired, true. But the religious keep trying to push their religion into our science classes, academia, and government. Worse yet, organizations that we ought to count on to maintain the integrity of science, such as the NSA and NCSE, actively support accommodation, and make bad arguments that must be countered.

    How do I go on without descending into well-deserved insults? Often I do so descend, entirely unapologetically. Other days the spirit moves me to address the issues with greater substance.

  7. The thing that I find fascinating is the tenacity with which people are willing to swallow religion shit that doesn't even pass the laxest smell test. Every single moment of actual real human experience proves that all this religion shit is a total load of crap, and yet people buy into it to a degree that they will kill over it. This tells us something very deep and very scary about human nature.

  8. This tells us something very deep and very scary about human nature. -

    Deep? Scary? That people are assholes and will accept any excuse, however moronic, if it justifies their assholery? It's depressing, but shallow and hardly scary.


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