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irreconcilable differences

Irreconcilable differences: the myth of compatibility between science and religions

By George A. Ricker

It is one of the great debates of our time, the ongoing argument between those who maintain that, ultimately, science and religions are compatible and those who claim they are not. There have been books, blogs, online debates, opinion columns, such as this demurral called “God and Science Don’t Mix” by Lawrence Krauss in a recent Wall Street Journal. Various foundations, such as the Templeton Foundation, which was created to promote the affirmative view, and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which seems favorably inclined to the affirmative view as well, have conducted symposia on the subject. For instance, the Pew Forum’s latest offering in the debate was titled “Religion and Science: Conflict or Harmony?” *

There seems to be a great effort on the part of those who think they have a mission to not only describe but also shape our culture to dampen any signs of disagreement between the scientific and the religious perspectives that have often appeared, to this untrained eye, to suggest some antagonism in the very public battles between them. Thus, many reporters, social commentator’s, religionists and even scientists have held forth on the necessity to promote harmony between these “nonoverlapping magisteria,” to borrow the late Stephen Jay Gould’s phrasing. (See “The trouble with NOMA” for my view of Gould’s description.)

Thus, accommodation between the religious and the scientific is presented as something to be desired, if not at all costs, certainly in the overwhelming majority of cases. And those obstreperous individuals, of whom Richard Dawkins—unfairly, in my view—appears to have become the prototype, who dare to suggest the accommodation may mask a sellout of basic scientific values are just being rude. According to the mavens of accommodation, those who cannot say anything nice about religion should just shut up about it. Now they are not quite gutsy enough to come out and declare such a requirement openly, but it is implicit in their constant insistence that those who won’t “play nice” with religion are damaging our public discourse and doing a disservice to the many believers who are not fundamentalists and who do, for the most part, believe in science.

All of this noise obscures, in the public mind at least, an obvious and, for the religious, uncomfortable fact—the “elephant in the room” that everyone seems to be ignoring. Science and religions are not just different ways of looking at things, they are in fundamental disagreement about the nature of reality. They are, in a word, incompatible.

This does not mean that a scientist may not believe in a god or practice a religion and still be a good scientist. Human beings function at high levels in all walks of life and practically every one of them believes in contradictory and, at times, mutually exclusive ideas. For example, we are very good at compartmentalizing our minds so that our fantasies can coexist with our perceptions and understanding of the real world. As long as we don’t force the issue, the two may cohabit quite peacefully, neither one intruding on the other. People do this sort of thing all the time. However, saying that two ideas may coexist in the same mind, or the same culture, should not be taken as evidence those ideas are compatible with one another. That a scientist may believe in a god says nothing about whether or not his or her religious beliefs are compatible with science.

Science is based upon observation, experimentation and demonstration. In order to be acceptable, scientific evidence must be susceptible to independent verification. When evidence cannot be verified, when experiments cannot be repeated, any conclusions drawn from them are either held in abeyance, pending further study, or disregarded. Science is about asking questions and challenging the answers. As a consequence, science is always unfinished, always contingent upon what we know today and what we may learn tomorrow. Above all else, science is a reason-based process. It is inherently rational. Science is a method of learning about the universe and everything in it through the application of human cognition.

Those who advocate accommodation between science and religions are fond of declaring that science answers the “how” questions and religions answer the “why” questions. They are not, however, very clear about exactly what that means. Sometimes how and why are inextricably intertwined so that it is not possible to understand one without the other. For example, one cannot understand how the human genome works without understanding why it is put together the way it is. It is not possible to understand the “why” of nuclear fission without understanding the “how” of atomic theory.

Of course, religionists will complain what they mean is that religions supply the answers to the “really big” questions of human existence. “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of existence?” Those kinds of questions. There are, of course, perfectly good answers to those questions supplied by science. The first answer is that I am here because my parents engaged in sexual activity and I was the result. The second is that existence appears to supply its own meaning. Existence is an end in itself and requires nothing more than that to make it meaningful.

“No. No. That is not what we mean either,” the religionists will declare. They claim to be talking about ultimate meanings and that sort of thing. What religions answer are those ultimate questions that cannot be addressed by science. In other words, religions claim to be able to answer questions for which there are no satisfactory answers except by appeal to the irrational and the indefinable. But what sort of answers are supplied thereby?

Here is the rub. It is all well and good to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as many people have. However, there is no way to get to a verifiable answer. Since we cannot see beyond the event, the “Big Bang,” which led to the development of this universe, we cannot know what conditions were before it came into existence. Maybe something always has existed. Maybe the universe is a unique event, a cosmic hiccup that will never be repeated. Maybe universes are as common as galaxies or solar systems. Maybe the universe we occupy was created as a bauble for the children of a species of cosmic overlords, something to keep the kiddies occupied whilst they were in their cribs. Maybe it is the accidental byproduct of extreme flatulence by the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Maybe the answer is simply “Why not?”

Obviously, some of those answers might deserve more consideration than others and one, or maybe two of them are intended only in jest. However, there is no method known to us to prove any of them false. But what sort of answer is “God?” It really is no answer at all. Positing a god as an answer to unanswerable questions tells us absolutely nothing about anything. It is simply a pietistic way of begging those questions.

So what exactly is it about religions that science must accommodate?

This is an important question, one to which I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer. As a method of finding out about what exists, science brings a lot to the table. Religions offer nothing that is helpful in that endeavor. Instead they offer verbal slight of hand, phrases like “the ground of all being” or “a god outside of space and time” or new age gobbledygook that sounds like “the ineffable essence at the core of an inexplicable reality.” That kind of thing. Such language may be appropriate for the ethereal meanderings of theologians who rarely offer anything useful in the real world, but they are scarcely helpful in finding out about what is going on in the universe we all occupy and why it appears to operate the way it does.

It is no virtue that the only territory religion can claim for its own is that which is outside the ken of rational inquiry. In that terrain anything is possible, and nothing can be verified. It is the realm of mystic visions, spiritual entities and things that go bump in the night. The gods who populate such regions may be the creators and destroyers of worlds or the ethereal panaceas and placebos who have fed the fantasies of all manner of delusional people. And while it may be impossible to demonstrate that such fanciful notions are false, there is not the slightest bit of verifiable evidence to suggest they are true. Attempting to shoehorn such notions into scientific theories does a disservice to the work of the scientific enterprise as a whole. It also goes a long way toward destroying the credibility of the scientists who make the attempt.

Consider the “fine-tuning” argument so beloved by theists. There is a set of physical properties that need to have the values they have in order for human beings, or any complex life forms, to have evolved. Thus, it is claimed, a divine agent must have set things up so that the universe we occupy would have those values. Ergo, “God”—or whatever you want to call the agent in question—must exist, or we could not be here. Now whether it is expressed as a probability or only a possibility, this argument has no place in science. (For more treatments of this subject and a variety of arguments on both sides of the issue, I refer you here.)

The late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and other works, once compared this notion to a mud puddle declaring that the hole it occupied must have been created for it because otherwise it could not have fit it so well. (Here’s a youtube audio of Adams making the point.) Any universe occupied by complex life must be organized to accommodate that life. There’s no reason to suppose a divine agent had anything to do with it. It’s a bit like declaring that human legs are proof there must be a god because no matter how tall you are, they are exactly the right length for your feet to reach the ground.

We expect to hear this sort of pap coming from religionists. However, it is surprising to hear it put forth by any scientist, whether they have a background in astrophysics or not. Certainly, the constants exist. That’s not the point. The point is that their existence is evidence of nothing except that certain conditions may be necessary for life to evolve. Positing “God” as the source of those constants violates the most basic rules of science. It is not even a good hypothesis because there is absolutely no way to test it. Making declarations about what is necessary for a universe like ours to exist is an exercise in futility anyway. Ours is the only universe we know anything about. You simply cannot form valid conclusions about the conditions necessary for a phenomenon to exist when you have only one example of that phenomenon.

There are no concepts put forth by religions to which science must accommodate itself. However, science puts forth many ideas to which religions must accommodate their own beliefs if they wish to retain any semblance of intellectual respectability. Here in the United States, many religious people deplore evolution, dismiss modern cosmology and declare their preference for ignorance and superstition. Now, people have the right to believe such things. They have no right, however, to require anyone else to respect such nonsense. Religions that preach the world was created by a deity 6,000 years ago (or in any similar time frame) ought not be allowed to influence the way biology is taught in modern science classrooms in public schools because the theory of evolution offends their religious sensibilities. A person’s right to be an ignoramus does not translate into a right to impose ignorance on others.

Religions and science need not be in conflict. When they are, it is usually religions who pick the fight. They pick it because they see their dominance over the minds of humankind slowly being eaten away. For tens of thousands of years, supernaturalism dominated the human narrative and gave us thousands of gods and hundreds of thousands of religions. Religions, like all other human cultural artifacts, have evolved to meet the changing conditions in which they have found themselves. Today, however, modern science has evolved a new narrative that makes the hoary tales told by religions seem quaint and parochial and, at times, destructive. The story science tells us about who we are and how we came to be is far grander and far more inspiring than the puny myths peddled by modern religions.

So religions may well need to accommodate themselves to modern science if they are to have any prospect for survival in the coming centuries. But science has no need and no reason to accommodate itself to the beliefs of any religion. And unless religion can bring more to the party than wishful thinking and unverifiable observations, it would be a violation of its very nature for science to try.

© 2009 by George A. Ricker

* If you are interested in this subject and want to track the debate, two of the best sources of information are P.Z. Myers blog, Pharyngula, and Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True. Both could be characterized as anti-accommodationist, I suppose, but their reactions are informed by science, and they cite references, including those to whom they are reacting. Both blogs are well-written and informative, touching on many areas. You’ll find links to both on my “Links” page under “Blogs I like.”

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