Sunday, May 10, 2009


Science & Religion, Draper & White, Redux

In my previous post, I cited some of the ideas discussed in Dr. Principe’s course on Science and Religion. My friend (and, no I don’t mean this ironically or facetiously—I know the guy and consider him a good friend) at Agnostic Popular Front ( took some issue with Dr. Principe’s assertion that science and religion use the same overall strategy, prompting this reply:

(Begin post)
It seems to me that science and religion have strategies for achieving knowledge which are so different as to be quite nearly diametrically opposed, and this is fairly obvious whenever they both attempt to answer the same questions, such as:

* What are rainbows? (faith;&version=31) < > (reason
* What are thunderstorms? (faith;&version=31) < > (reason )
* What is the nature of man? (faith,2:7;&version=9 ) < > (reason
* How can we cure mental illness? (faith;&version=49) < >
* How can we cure physical illness? (faith;&version=31 )
< > (reason
* Why are the planets arranged just so? (faith,M1 ) < > (reason )

I've drawn faith-based answers from my own faith tradition, no doubt other faith traditions have created their own answers. Answers yielded up by the scientific method, by contrast, are cross-cultural and useful regardless of whether one speaks Arabic, Basque, Castilian, Dutch, English, or Finnish, and regardless of whether one prays to Allah, Bhagavan, Christ, Deus, Elohim, Freya, or whomever. In every case, faith-based answers get about as far as "magical immaterial mind mediating by means most mysterious" and pretty much leaves it at that.

Even the great Isaac Newton, when stymied in his investigation of the origins of the solar system, decided to chalk it up to an intelligent designer and ceased doing any more research on the question. Meanwhile, methodological naturalists are busily arguing amongst themselves, refuting each other, testing out new theories, refining old ones, and generally getting on with the business of adding to humanity's understanding of the world. It is because scientific knowledge is considered provisional that they are allowed to keep moving forward and learning new things.

(End post.)

Seems to me, Damion makes the mistake of confusing strategy with tactics. While it is certainly true that the question “What is a rainbow?” will likely have a different answer from our pals at than the answer proffered at Wikipedia, that is not the point I was making: rather, the point is that in answering the question, both the scientist (I use this term loosely—I DON’T consider the Wikipedia the compendium of All Things Truly Scientific) and the theologian (again, used loosely—Biblegateway is A religious viewpoint, not the representative of all religious viewpoints) use the same fundamental strategies: a rainbow can be looked at by a simple, FALLABLE human being, and a reliable statement about an overall fundamental objective TRUTH can be adduced from it; further, this objective truth is an accurate representation of an overall objective reality—the truism is true, regardless of whether anyone actually believes in it; likewise, the truism remains valid universally. These strategies are all underpinned by various ASSUMPTIONS: that rainbows ARE knowable in any reliable sense; that our observations are reliable; and that truth isn’t one thing in this corner of the universe and another thing somewhere else. These assumptions are and must be accepted as axiomatic, without any basis for proof of their validity. They are simply taken ON FAITH.

Or, to put it another way, if the difference between science and religion is that science is based on reason and religion on faith, knowing full well that the very concept of objective truth must itself be taken on faith, doesn’t that mean that science is just another form of religion? And doesn’t that make them the same rather than different? So the difference between them is that there is no difference between them. Uh-huh…

Note also that in his reply, Damion goes little further than to cite the Wikipedia and Biblegateway to support his argument. His point, seems to me, is that in arguing that science and religion are diametrically opposed to one another in strategy, one need not look very far to find evidence supporting this position. Perhaps so. But not going any further also commits (or, at least, borders on committing) the logical fallacy of COLLECTIVISM—the identification of some viewpoint proffered by a member of some larger group and then conflating that viewpoint as representative of the entire group. An example would be to say that because some people in Nashville like Country music, all people in Nashville like Country music; thus, all people in Tennessee like Country, and since Tennessee is part of the US, so do all Americans.

The point is, not all religious people will explain rainbows in the same way that the folks at Biblegateway do. Religion is a vastly complex and often delicately nuanced human activity, oftentimes difficult NOT to oversimplify. As is, frankly speaking, practically ANY human activity.

I could, for instance, find examples of people saying incredibly stupid things in the name of science. Like this one: Eric Pianka, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, says the entire world would be just oh so much better off if 90% of human beings were suddenly wiped out. Disease, he told the Seguin Gazette, “will control the scourge of humanity. We’re looking forward to a huge collapse.” Dr. Pianka has speculated that an airborne Ebola virus would be an ideal killing medium.

Looking forward, indeed. And once again the epistemic superiority of scientific pronouncements crushes the silly speculations of all those religious folk. Is Dr. Pianka’s assertion another example of, as Damion puts it, the cross-cultural and useful answers provided to us by the scientific method?

Surely not. Surely it simply demonstrates that only SOME answers provided by the scientific method are cross-cultural and useful. True. As are SOME answers provided to us by religion.

The Bible, for instance, evinces certain truths. These truths are as real as any truths uncovered by science, “regardless of whether one speaks Arabic, Basque, Castilian, Dutch, English, or Finnish, and regardless of whether one prays to Allah, Bhagavan, Christ, Deus, Elohim, Freya, or whomever.” For instance, there is this truth:

In German, it goes like this: Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde.
In Old English, the same truth is expressed as: An angenom gesceop God heofanan and eorthan.
I have Bibles in German, Russian, Dutch, Afrikaans, Ukrainian and Bulgarian, and each one expresses that same real, objective, reliable truth: In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth. That truth is not dependent upon any language used to express it, nor does it hinge on to whom we offer our prayers. Go ahead, pray to Freya all you want—the universe is still what it is, the product of the God who made it.

Lastly, we have this comment: “It is because scientific knowledge is considered provisional that they are allowed to keep moving forward and learning new things.”

This comment gives in to two myths: the myth of the scientific juggernaut, and the myth of the recalcitrant religious zealot. The first of these myths says that scientific knowledge advances monodirectionally and purposefully. We learn a new thing and move on to learn the next new thing. However, history does not bear this out. Sometimes, in gaining some new bit of scientific knowledge, scientists are compelled to revise or even toss out various ideas previously held as true. One example is phlogiston, which scientists of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries used to explain how fires burned. However, once oxygen was discovered, phlogiston—and all the scientific advances made under phlogiston theory—had to be abandoned.

Furthermore, some scientific advances become lost technology. How, for instance, did the ancient Egyptians erect 150-ton obelisks, a thousand years or more before the invention of the pulley? Although attempts have been made at re-inventing the technology capable of doing such a thing, the fact remains that we still don’t know for certain how it was done.

The point is, science doesn’t move ONLY forward. Sometimes it moves backwards, sometimes it flounders. Sometimes it returns to ideas long ago abandoned. Seen this way, the history of science has been a history of being WRONG about one thing or another.

The second myth, that of the recalcitrant religious zealot, holds that religious people reached their conclusions about the state of the world a long time ago and obstinately resist any new ideas that come along for fear of angering some higher power. Such a view is, to use the theological term, a bunch of hooey. Theologians for centuries have tweaked and refined their views of God, nature, and religion, and, (just like scientists) continue to do so. They adhere to whatever truths they uncover (vis-à-vis my comments about Genesis 1:1), and seek to uncover new ones. Read St. Augustine of Hippo, and compare his views with those of Moses Maimonides, and then do the same with St. Thomas Aquinas. Theologians learn new things, just like scientists do, and so we’re back to where I started: the differences between science and religion are not as quite clear-cut as we often presuppose. And the notion of diametrical opposition is illusory.

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