In Science & Religion on June 17, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

Cal Tech physicist Sean Carroll has made the best argument yet for the incompatibility of science and religion at Discover magazine’s Cosmic Variance blog, where he is one of multiple hosts. But he’s still wrong.  My reply (#90 in the comments), follows.

It seems to me that those who believe that science and religion are incompatible are making two essential claims.  The primary claim is that science and religion are somehow inherently or philosophically incompatible.  I think that claim is clearly and demonstrably false.  Science is not a philosophy and demands no particular philosophy.

Looking at the incompatibility claim in the most generous possible light, science is incompatible with a significant number of religious claims (e.g., a 6,000 year-old earth). Moreover, religious claims have been limited dramatically by science (e.g., we can now explain thunder and no longer need to postulate some divine action to account for it).  There is no doubt that religious claims have entailed egregious overreaching throughout history in terms of what it can and does explain.  But I think the incompatibilists are engaging in similar overreaching now.  Incompatibilists cannot rightly claim that religious views cannot logically and philosophically be consistent with what is presumed to be known by science at any particular point in history.  They *can* rightly claim that a simplistic claim of “science and religion are compatible” is misleading because so many religious claims can be shown to be false by scientific means.  But a claim of “science and religion are incompatible” is as simplistic and misleading in that it has not (and cannot) be philosophically demonstrated.  In no way is a claim of epistemic incompatibility justified.  At most, it’s a shorthand device to try to divide and conquer within its constituency. 

“It’s not strictly true, but it’s *useful*.” 

The secondary claim seems to be that science and faith are methodologically incompatible.  I think this claim is perhaps trivially true but utterly beside the point.  The best that can be said (from the incompatibilist viewpoint) about this question is that there has been a historical disconnect between the scientific approach to the world and the religious approach, which follows in that religion’s methods for attempting to discover the truth have so often failed when testable by science.  Accordingly, some have concluded, perhaps understandably, that all religious claims are probably false. 

Yet even if one grants that the methodologies are different (and perhaps even incompatible, whatever that means in this sense), so what?  Science has no means to tell us what we ought to do, how we ought to live and what we ought to value.  At best, science can inform those questions.  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* will it be put to work? As Werner von Braun’s life story aptly demonstrated, that always remains an open question. 

That questions of meaning, purpose and value must not be the exclusive domain of religion is something with which I can wholeheartedly agree.  However, Gould’s NOMA is correct in the sense that science — both philosophically and methodologically — is not even equipped to deal with (much less answer) those types of questions.  Those who oppose religion can (and should) propose alternative philosophies to deal with and answer these questions.  They, like the religious, can and should use the best available facts to inform that process.  The days are long past when religion could claim to control the whole field with respect to these questions.  But the claim that science pushes religion off the field entirely is just plain wrong.

Ophelia Benson blogs on this subject here; Jerry Coyne blogs on it here.  YNH deals with them harshly (which is not to say necessarily unfairly) here.


3 Responses to “Incompatible?”

  1. YNH had no business mentioning Ophelia in that post that I can see. All of his links are completely unrelated to B&W, except for the one at the top, which deals with some issue or other that he agrees with.

  2. Love your reply, you pretty much nailed it.
    Though when you say “Science has no means to tell us what we ought to do, how we ought to live and what we ought to value” it almost sounds like you’re suggesting religion does, which obviously atheists would not agree is the case. But I think the key point here is – whether or not any religions can provide that science does not so in either case they are compatible.

  3. “Though when you say “Science has no means to tell us what we ought to do, how we ought to live and what we ought to value” it almost sounds like you’re suggesting religion does, which obviously atheists would not agree is the case.”

    Of course they will disagree with the conclusion. But that’s not the point, is it?

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