Science v. Religion?

Jerry A. Coyne has a triumphalist portrayal of atheistic science that he paints as both in conflict with, and ascendant over, religious faith. It is for the most part a sneering, strawman-fighting portrait, but in the end he offers three principles that prove the superiority of science.
1. They both make truth claims about the universe, but only science has a way to settle those claims. Except for deistic religions, or godless “religions” like Taoism or Unitarian Universalism, most religions make existence claims about gods, the nature of those gods, and how those gods want us to live. Christianity, for instance, argues that there is a single God (often tripartite with Jesus and the Holy Ghost); that he sent his son, born of a virgin, down to be murdered to atone for an original sin infecting all humans; that Jesus came back to life three days after he was killed; and that some day he will return to Earth, sentencing all of us to either eternal life or the flames of hell. Those are empirical claims about the universe: they are either true or false. But the problem is that they conflict with the “truth claims” of other faiths. If you’re a Muslim, for instance, belief in Christ’s divinity will doom you to hell. Hinduism has many gods, Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, and Unitarians reject the Trinity. Almost all religious schisms, which eventually gave rise to the more than 10,000 Christian sects on Earth today, were based on irresolvable claims about what is true.

Religion has no way to settle its panoply of conflicting claims. In contrast, science can adjudicate empirical claims, for science is a toolkit: a way of thinking and doing that actually helps us understand the universe. There are thousands of religions, but there is only one science. Scientists of all faiths and ethnicities use the same methodology and agree on the same set of truths. Think of how far the unanimity of scientific understanding has progressed since 1500! Now think how far theology has progressed since 1500, at least in terms of understanding the true nature of the divine. It hasn’t budged an inch. We can’t even settle the issue of how many gods there are, much less if any exist at all. That’s what happens when you rely on faith rather than reason, and when you discern truth by listening to clerics or your own thoughts rather than by examining what actually exists out there in nature.
This is wrong for several reasons.

Science does not, in fact, have a way of settling many of the 'panoply' of claims he raises. Especially, science can't tell you anything about how human beings ought to live. Those kinds of claims have to be grounded elsewhere. You don't have to ground them in religion, but you do have to ground them in something other than the bare facts about the world.

Christianity serves as the ground for an embrace of mercy, and an ideal that human society should serve the interests of the poor as well as the powerful and wealthy. What would a scientific justification for that look like?

The closest science could come to resolving moral claims lies in the field of virtue ethics. If a virtue is a capacity, a thing like courage that will enable you to do things you couldn't do without, then we could perhaps make some headway with science. We could measure certain practices, and see if they produced increasing courage -- although measuring that in scientific terms might be challenging! First, after all, you have to define courage so that you can be certain what you want to measure. (Why is that a problem? See Plato's Laches, and Wittgenstein's 'private language' argument.)

For values beyond virtues, science can't help you. And for virtues, well, they're any excellence of capacity. Hang on to that thought.
2. Science and religious “investigation” produce different outcomes. Religion’s search for “truth” could have resulted in the same things that science has discovered, but it never has. The Bible, or God, could have pronounced that washing your hands might curb disease, or that, instead of being created de novo, life evolved from very simple precursors. But scripture didn’t say that, and science has repeatedly corrected the false conclusions of religious dogma.

The response of theologians is this: “The Bible is not a textbook of science.” Yet what they really mean by that is, “The Bible isn’t entirely true.” This then gives them license to decide which parts of the Bible are true (conveniently, they are the bits that science hasn’t yet disproven, or those that best align with modern morality) and which parts are false (for example, God’s approbation of stoning for adultery and death for homosexuality). This disparity in outcomes derives from the disparity of methods. Religion begins with conclusions that are comforting, and then picks and chooses evidence that supports those conclusions, ignoring the pesky counterevidence or fobbing it off as “metaphor.” In contrast, science is designed to prevent you from that kind of confirmation bias: it’s a method, as physicist Richard Feynman noted, that keeps you from fooling yourself and finding what you’d like be true instead of what’s really true.
One of the great writers on the subject is the Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. He doesn't at all say that 'the Bible isn't entirely true.' What he says is that the Torah is true, but it speaks in the language of men. Sometimes its truth is metaphorical. Maimonides is a tireless advocate of the sciences of the day, and articulates a principle in which the search for truth is bolstered by a community of faith whose moral commitments include a determination to speak the truth about what they find through experiment or dialectic. If that seems to conflict with an established religious doctrine, Maimonides says, the right thing to do is to reconsider whether you have understood correctly what was present in the doctrine. This is a moral commitment grounded in faith because it is a kind of natural theology: a desire to understand more about God by understanding His works. You must be honest in this endeavor exactly as you are faithful to God.

Coyne would like you to dispose of the doctrine entirely. But then you lose the ground of the moral commitment -- that one and many others. But notice something else. Insofar as this commitment creates scientists who are devoted to an honest understanding of their results, it is a virtue from the perspective of science itself. Now we said before that a virtue is any sort of excellence of capacity; here is a virtue especially for the practice of science. Faith in Maimonides' mode is a scientific virtue.
3. Science and religion have different philosophical bases. After centuries of experience, science has discarded the idea of God because it’s never been useful in explaining anything. Most religions still cling to the idea of deities, even in the absence of evidence, for a bad reason: faith. Although theologians weave a web of obscurantist verbiage around the word “faith,” it all comes down to believing something without good reasons. How can you possibly find out what’s true if you base your search for truth on confirmation bias and on assertions unsupported by evidence? How can you want to base your life on such assertions? And, if you’re a Christian, Jew, or Hindu, how can you be sure that your religion is the right one, and that, say, the tenets of Islam are simply wrong? You can never know. Religion is incompatible not only with science, but also with other religions.

In the end, the conflict between science and religion can’t be papered over by polling people who don’t want there to be a conflict. After all, most religionists pride themselves on modernity, and don’t want to be seen as unfriendly to a science that has improved their lives immeasurably. The real conflict—the one that will be with us so long as religion pretends to find truth—is between rationality and superstition. It is a conflict between using faith to discern what is real as opposed to using reason and observation of the universe. Ecklund can conduct surveys until Templeton runs out of cash, but she’ll never turn religion into a way to find truth—or to help science find truth. And so the incompatibility will remain until we realize that faith is not a virtue.
Unfortunately for the argument, we just finished proving that faith is a virtue -- at least that it can be, insofar as it is understood as a commitment to search for truth about God by searching for an honest and complete understanding of His work.

Nevertheless, it is true that science and religion have different philosophical bases. This is why religion is the kind of philosophical commitment that can ground a moral code broader than virtue ethics. That is a virtue(!) that science lacks.

But it's also why the claim of progress isn't very interesting. Science by nature pursues finite things. The scientific method requires this. In order to conduct experiments that falsify a hypothesis, it is necessary that the measurements be limited in time. It is necessary that you study a thing that has limits. Ideally, you want to focus on just one variable -- a very finite limit indeed! Religion, by contrast, deals with ultimate truth. This is not a finite question, as is easily proven: for it includes the truth about numbers, and numbers are not finite.

So let us say that we have two fields of study, one that considers the finite, and one the infinite. People begin trying to draw a picture of what the object of their study looks like. They start with a triangle, and then add another line, and then another. Each additional side improves the conception of the object of study, approaching a true and correct picture.

In a few hundred years, the first field will have made significant progress in its study. No matter how large the number of sides on the actual object of their field of study, progress will be obvious. If it had eight sides, then at first you would have 3/8ths of the truth; then 4/8ths, or half the truth, which is progress. Eventually you would have 8/8ths of the truth. So to for an object of any size: if it has N sides, at first you would have 3/N, then 4/N... and eventually N/N.

(At least you would, if you could be finally certain that you'd gotten the sides correct. Science doesn't quite work that way, but by eliminating possibilities rather than confirming them. So to be quite right, we'd have to count backwards: first we've eliminated three possibilities, now four, now ten, now a thousand, in pursuit of a negative N).

The students of the infinite, by contrast, will still be infinitely far away from their goal (a point made by Nicholas of Cusa, from whom I borrow the metaphor). This is true even if they'd added just as many sides as the finite students, or far more sides. (Or subtracted them.) The two kinds of study are different in such a way that 'measurable progress' is not a helpful standard, because it is built into the nature of the inquiry.

So is religion a way of pursuing truth? Of course it is. Is it a way of finding it? Well, the truth it seeks is infinite. Just as no scientist will ever prove a truth because the scientific method can only disprove things, so too in religion there is a structural feature that prevents a final attainment of capital-T Truth. In science this feature is less obvious because it studies finite things, and so the approximation can eventually become good enough that we might no longer notice that we haven't actually come to say what is true, but only eliminated enough things that are false that our approximation of the truth of that finite question is satisfying.

Yet it is satisfying, even then, only when we ponder that question. There are many questions beyond those kinds of questions. Another method is needed to pursue those answers. There need be no conflict between science and religion: science can carry us as far as it can, and after that, faith is the only virtue there is.


Ymar Sakar said...

Might makes right. That's a better scientific experiment for religious claims than most global warming experiments full of fake data.

My god is stronger than your god, and my god supports me while yours gives you nothing.

How to prove that? Have a total war of annihilation. See what happens.

I'm surprised scientists think science is one, given they don't even understand the scientific model of Aristotle or the 4-5 elements of China (neigong, weijia, neijia, etc).

Grim said...

It's true, in a way, that the kinds of virtues empiricism can verify are essentially virtues of power. Might, as you put it.

That doesn't require a scientific ethos to devolve to 'might makes right.' If it is not to do so, however, it will need to root itself on some kind of faith. Which, as it happens, is another proof that faith is a virtue.

Eric Blair said...

Stay away from sneering atheists. They're always assholes. Even other atheists don't like them.

Grim said...

Some of my best friends are sneering atheists. Even though they're assholes. :)

Ymar Sakar said...

Real atheists aren't the problem. Dawkins isn't an atheist, though. Since he thinks science or his own intellect, is the Real God.

Real pacifists vs the Left's fake pacifists occupy the same scenario.

Texan99 said...

I was raised an atheist, but my father did not permit me to disparage the religion of others.

Ymar Sakar said...

Scientists used to find field theories felt like witchcraft, since it was like invisible magick.

So people who didn't understand, couldn't create experiments to verify it. But still held on faith that the empirical method would find the truth.

The people that created the experiments to verify what nobody could see, were the ones that accepted the blinding pain of truth, conclusions which they derived using logick or experience. The scientific community merely accepted the evidence of those experiments, it was not like all scientists understood the field of every other scientist. Too much specialization and not enough cross field comprehension in the modern era.

Without a sufficient understanding of fundamental reality principles, a scientist has problems creating experiments. But when science lacks empirical verification of divine level powers, that's not really the problem of higher dimensional entities. That's the problem of lower dimensional mortals not comprehending what else is out there that can be experimented with.

To put it another way, people don't need to know how microwaves and nuclear reactors work, to turn on their microwaves powered by electricity from nuke plants. Scientists also don't need to know how things really work, to accept on faith alone that the experiment was done correctly. These days, if a scientist cannot duplicate the experiment of another scientist in another field, they are utilizing "faith" itself in science to believe that the experiment is valid or useful.

Polymaths used to experiment with everything, so they could check the BS of other people's claims. Paradoxically, as scientists became more specialized, they required more faith, not more evidence, in the experimental methodology. People these days can't understand half of the experiments being conducted, nor could they reproduce them to check for errors. For one thing, putting a biologist in charge of a LHC, might be dangerous. It could create a Higgs boson chain reaction and blow up the Earth.

Divine level should have more energy than a super nova, as that is what the original claim is: the creation or destruction of universes.

The idea of a Dawkins or Hawkings, that we can know about this without high level energy experiments or that they know everything they need to know to know higher dimensional entities, is a bit strange for polymaths or ancient scientists to accept.

God experiments are like time travel experiments. The people who think they are gods, believe that because they can't do the experiment, nobody can or ever will.

Well, that could be said of anything in scientific history, including human flight and electricity (Tesla specifically). It's impossible, until an individual does it. Might makes right. Reality overcomes social morality of what is right or possible.