Sean Carroll on the compatibility of faith and science

Over at his website, Cosmic Variance, physicist Sean Carroll weighs in on the faith/science debates.  Carroll has always been a vociferous (note: that doesn’t mean “strident” or “militant”) atheist, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that he finds faith and science incompatible.  However, he does so not for philosophical reasons, but simply from seeing the different conclusions reached by the two “magisteria”:

The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

While Carroll says that this form of incompatibility is different from the one I see, I don’t think there’s a substantive difference.  The reason that science and faith reach different conclusions is precisely because one way of knowing, science, bases its conclusions on evidence and reason, while the other way of “knowing,” religion, uses revelation and faith.  That’s the incompatibility I see, and of course it will lead to an incompatibility of conclusions. As Carroll recognizes, this trumped-up view of “faith” as belief in some nonspecific deity who doesn’t actually do anything, was the view floated by Stephen Jay Gould as part of his NOMA concept. (Gould also made the ridiculous claim that ethics and morality were the purview of religion, neglecting two millennia of secular discussion of ethics.)

But Carroll is absolutely on the money when he describes how the enlightened faithful and faithful scientists arrive at a pronouncement of “compatibility”:

The favored method of those who would claim that science and religion are compatible — really, the only method available — is to twist the definition of either “science” or “religion” well out of the form in which most people would recognize it. Often both.

Of course, it’s very difficult to agree on a single definition of “religion” (and not that much easier for “science”), so deciding when a particular definition has been twisted beyond usefulness is a tricky business. But these are human endeavors, and it makes sense to look at the actual practices and beliefs of people who define themselves as religious. And when we do, we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it. And these claims are often very important to the religions who make them; ask Galileo or Giordano Bruno if you don’t believe me.

But the progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect. We know more about the natural world now than we did two millennia ago, and we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead. In response, one strategy to assert the compatibility between science and religion has been to take a carving knife to the conventional understanding of “religion,” attempting to remove from its purview all of its claims about the natural world.

It continually amazes me that theologians like John Haught or scientists like Francis Collins can get away with a definition of “religion” that is completely at odds with how most real non-Ph.D-holding humans practice their faith in the real world.  To enforce a compatibility between faith and science, you have to water down “faith” until it becomes a vague deism that doesn’t permit its god to interfere in the working of the universe.  And that’s simply not the way that most people construe their faith. Note to accommodationists:  religion is NOT NECESSARILY the form of faith practiced by university theologians or academic scientists.

Carroll goes on to reject the God hypothesis, and doesn’t pull any punches.

Scientifically speaking, the existence of God is an untenable hypothesis. It’s not well-defined, it’s completely unnecessary to fit the data, and it adds unhelpful layers of complexity without any corresponding increase in understanding. Again, this is not an a priori result; the God hypothesis could have fit the data better than the alternatives, and indeed there are still respected religious people who argue that it does. Those people are just wrong, in precisely analogous ways to how people who cling to the Steady State theory are wrong. Fifty years ago, the Steady State model was a reasonable hypothesis; likewise, a couple of millennia ago God was a reasonable hypothesis. But our understanding (and our data) has improved greatly since then, and these are no longer viable models. The same kind of reasoning would hold for belief in miracles, various creation stories, and so on.

So, when the faithful — or the Templeton Foundation — tell you that religion allows us to answer the Bigger and Deeper Questions about Life, ask yourself, “What are the answers?.  Do we have any answers?” I have yet to find a single “truth” about our place in the universe or about the meaning of life that has been supplied by faith.  And so Templeton and its minions continue to waste millions of dollars addressing the Big Questions, but of course not getting any answers to them.  At least science gives us some answers.

16 Comments

  1. Wes
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    And when we do, we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it.

    I’ve often made the same point in debates, only to have the “Faith goes beyond the natural world” line thrown in my face again a few minutes later. A lot of the time I think the religious want to have it both ways: They want to make claims about the world, but they don’t want to be held to the normal epistemic standard to which claims about the world are held.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I read Sean Carroll’s article and thought it was quite good with a few minor problems.

    I particularly like the way Carroll took apart Gould’s definition of the “magisterium of religion”.

  3. Matthew
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    One way in which you might claim that science and faith aren’t logically incompatible is as follows. It’s logically possible that the world could be such that employing faith and revelation reliably lead one to truth. This isn’t quite what Carroll says. He says they’re not logically incompatible because science could reach the same conclusions via a different route.

    But the idea that faith and revelation aren’t logically incompatible with reason and evidence isn’t obviously false. Now you might want to claim that in a world of super-reliable prophets, their pronouncements would count as evidence. You could say that even if they simply found themselves believing the revealed truths rather than reasoning their way to them in some distinctively religious way. But then we’re doing epistemology. All I want to suggest is that it’s at least prima facie rationally defensible to claim that revelation and reason are logically compatible.

    Of course, given the world as it actually is, we know that they aren’t compatible. But that’s an empirical incompatibility.

    And, having said all that, it’s true that this is a fairly theoretical point, not the kind that your typical self-identified believer would even think to consider, never mind endorse.

  4. Posted June 23, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    “Note to accommodationists: religion is NOT NECESSARILY the form of faith practiced by university theologians or academic scientists.”

    Yes it is! When accommodationists want to argue with incompatibilists it is – very necessarily indeed.

  5. Posted June 23, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look.”

    There’s a terrific essay by Georges Rey in the book Philosophers Without Gods (OUP 2007) called ‘Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-deception.’ It’s all about how perfectly evident it is to any fair-minded person who cares to look that the standard God (a psychological being who is eternal, omniscient, omnipotent and necessarily benevolent) doesn’t exist.

  6. Posted June 23, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    And that’s simply not the way that most people construe their faith. Note to accommodationists: religion is NOT NECESSARILY the form of faith practiced by university theologians or academic scientists.

    Actually, though, it’s a very common “argument” by ordinary theists, in forms like “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    That’s why that line sells fairly well. As we all know, we can’t “disprove god,” and that’s all many people really think they need to keep on believing religion. You’ll have to teach them epistemology, or at least epistemics, to disabuse them of that notion.

    So I would say that the accommodationists actually are not shifting the ground from under the public, because they really do think that way.

    What makes the accommodationist line problematic is that it’s such a bad way of thinking. Asserting existential truths without evidence is unacceptable in any serious thought.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

    • Posted June 23, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      “Asserting existential truths without evidence is unacceptable in any serious thought.”

      Pithy and pointed. I’m stealing it :)

  7. Posted June 23, 2009 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    All good, except these ARE philosophical reasons. :)

    Another bugbear of mine, apart from accommodationism, is the view that there is some kind of discontinuity between philosophy and science, or between philosophy and ordinary rational inquiry, or between science and ordinary rational inquiry. All these things are continuous with each other. Of course, the activity we call “science” has become very technical and specialised, while the activity we call “philosophy” has also become rather technical and specialised in a different way. But they can borrow from each other freely, and people who are neither professional scientists nor professional philosophers can borrow from both.

    I’d say that Sean, by stepping back from doing highly specialised science and drawing conclusions about the general kinds of findings that have come from science and the typical claims made by religion, is actually “doing” philosophy of religion. He’s perfectly entitled to do so. It’s not highly technical philosophy of religion, but it needn’t be. He makes the philosophical point that there is an incompatibility between the various pictures of the world that religion gives us and the more accurate (though of course still gappy) picture of the world that we are getting from science.

    It is of course, possible to modify the historical religious beliefs (either continually or by retreating to something unfalsifiable such as deism) in order to avoid conflict with the science. But the very need to do that is worth remarking on. Why did the historical revelations take a form that needed this kind of modification. Why did inspired prophets, angels, etc., not get it right the first time? It looks fishy, and it provides a reason to think that religion is man-made, not divinely inspired.

    • Posted June 24, 2009 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      It is sad to see philosophy dismissed as “mere” philosophy, as if it is simply a matter of unfounded speculation.

  8. Dan
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    I think Sean’s point is that science and religion would be compatible *if God was real*, since presumably in such a world, the prophets would actually be speaking God’s words, which would (presumably) be true, and thus compatible with science.

    Like, if I declared that Wikipedia was my God (*gag*) then my religion *would* be compatible with science, because the things that my God told me would be (for the most part) true facts about the universe. You and I would learn about the world in different ways; you would conduct experiments and make measurements, and I would receive direct revelation in HTML form. But we would come to exactly the same understanding of the universe.

  9. Nick (Matzke)
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    “But the idea that faith and revelation aren’t logically incompatible with reason and evidence isn’t obviously false.”

    That’s, um, let’s see, a quadruple-negative…

  10. Paul Murray
    Posted June 24, 2009 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    “The reason that science and faith reach different conclusions is precisely because one way of knowing, science, bases its conclusions on evidence and reason, while the other way of “knowing,” religion, uses revelation and faith.”

    Not at all! The “faith” way of knowing *could* have reached all the conclusions of modern science … just by sheer good luck.

    Actually … that’s not true. The problem with revelation and faith is that the information that comes via that way of knowing always comes from preexisting prejudices. That’s why it doesn’t work.

  11. Posted June 24, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Why do all of the Bigger and Deeper Questions about Life sound meaningless to me?

  12. vinny
    Posted June 24, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    While everyone here and in academia debates the finer points of God and such, the masses continue to go to church, believe in an all-powerful deity, and continue to know squat about science and the natural world.

    These are the people you need to reach, folks. Or are they too unworthy for your intellects?

    Even more – if they do realize there is no God, what will you do to fill that major hole in their lives?

    I thought so.

  13. Posted June 24, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Ooh I love it when people ask questions then reply to the absence of an answer right in the very same post!

    I can do that.

    What have you got to reply to my devastating point?

    I thought so.

  14. jjj
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    what I don’t understand, is even if science did prove some sort of God WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!

    people will want to know which god it is, what hes made of….people just assume that god can be explained just like everything else. If God could be explained by science, then I wouldn’t think of him as much of a God.


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