When asked by Diane Sawyer of ABC News about the biggest mystery he’d like solved, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking replied, “I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something greater than nothing.” The video is available here. The interview also includes this exchange:
Sawyer: “So, to the people who say science and religion are irreconcilable, you say. . .?”
Hawking: “One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being with whom one could have a personal relationship.”
Sawyer then asked him if there was a way to reconcile science and faith.
Hawking: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”
Not surprisingly, the blogosphere reacted.
From Jerry Coyne:
The last, terse sentence sums up in six words the entire history of science and faith….
It’s time to admit that those who still claim that religion and science are compatible–ignoring their fundamental and blatantly obvious differences in philosophy, methodology, and success at understanding the universe–are intellectually dishonest.
This is par for the course, of course, for Professor Coyne. But is he right?
I think not (and obviously not).
First, religion is often based upon authority but isn’t necessarily. Moreover, authority is a concept often honored in the breach. That Christianity is exceedingly different today than it was, say, a thousand years ago is a testament to its adaptability. God, assuming He exists as traditionally posited, has authority. But transmitting that authority through and to fallible human beings has proved…problematic. Obviously, that’s one explanation why there are so many religions and so much disparity in what they uphold. In that sense, and in the sense of trying to explain how the physical world is, religion hasn’t fared very well. However, if religion didn’t work in some crucial sense(s), it would have no adherents. Religion surely works, too, albeit in a different manner.
On the other hand, science (both as a method and as a body of knowledge) is a wonderful thing with innumerable impressive achievements. Yet Coyne promises even more on its behalf. Coyne claims that science’s philosophy (scientism?) beats any and all alternative conceptions. Indeed, he claims that to think otherwise is intellectually dishonest. But he doesn’t provide any idea of what this philosophy is or what it entails. Indeed, he offers no philosophical justification for his claim that science and religion are incompatible and offers no scientific justification for it either. Perhaps he can suggest some experiments? Science surely establishes that a number of religiously motivated claims (e.g., a 6,000 year-old earth) are incompatible with it. But that is not the same thing as demonstrating philosophical incompatibility. That failure is largely predicated upon the fact that science is not a philosophy and demands no particular philosophy.
Put another way, science surely works is the sense that its methodology is able tell us what is and, using this method to accumulate a body of knowledge, it is highly useful for us as we navigate our world. But to what end does it work?
Science is an extremely powerful phenomenon. It has provided the basis for many of the modern world’s great advances. But it also provides the raw material for much of its great evil. Indeed, the current technological state of scientific knowledge will inevitably provide the physical basis for events that will make the evil we’ve seen thus far seem to be banal anecdotes, in the same way that the horrible casualties of the WWI were dwarfed by those of WWII. So at the very least, science poses ethical questions which cannot be avoided by any conscientious person involved with it, from near or far, and in this sense, the idea of science without ideology is not just untenable, it is downright silly. As (even?) Daniel Dennett has noted, (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p.21), “there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” Since Coyne doesn’t offer a glimpse of what this scientific philosophy is, what philosophy does he seek to slip on board without examination?
Despite some recent silly attempts to claim otherwise (for example, here), and despite Coyne’s claim that science’s philosophy works (somehow), is cannot establish ought. Yet philosophy focuses heavily upon oughts. That explains why Einstein famously noted that science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind. You might recall Tom Lehrer’s famous ditty from the ’60s about Wernher von Braun and his rockets. Von Braun (pictured above) was likely the greatest rocket scientist of the 20th Century. He was also a Nazi who built rockets for the Third Reich and, after the war, switched sides and built rockets for the United States. Von Braun’s job, sings Lehrer, is simply to get the rockets into the air — “Who cares where zey come down?”
This is not to say that this ideological blame should lie entirely at the feet of science itself. However, the impossibility of the existence of science without some ideological bias is impossible because science is practiced by human beings who are morally responsible for what they do. In this context, the ultimate irony and perversity of the current cult of rationalism and science is the picture of scientists — real human beings — pretending either that they are not required to elaborate upon and question their own moral positions or that science alone can define and describe their morality. The problem is not a confusion of pure science with ideology; the problem is the delusion of real people believing that human existence can partake of scientific and rational purity, through the taking of vows forever to eschew irrationality in all of its forms.
Rationality cannot mandate ethical choice, yet we have vowed to evacuate all that is irrational? No problem, says Coyne. Yet we clearly cannot flourish without conscious moral inquiry. Thousands of years ago, the Mesopotamian adepts (male) of the goddess Ishtar, personally and publicly castrated themselves in order to achieve moral blamelessness through obedience. The modern rationalist who avoids the key questions of human responsibility by claiming that only science can provide any “genuine” answers is practicing a self-emasculation more disabling yet.