George Church expands on the harmony between science and faith

A few days ago I posted part of a piece that geneticist George Church wrote for reddit, answering readers’ questions.  In one answer Church argued that “the overlap between science and faith is vast and fertile.”  I claimed that Church’s equation of scientific faith with religious faith showed “a chronic and debilitating sympathy for religion.”

Creationists at various websites brought my piece to Church’s attention, and they have jointly circulated an email—which I’m allowed to publish—in which Church expands his argument. Here’s what he says.

Thanks for bringing this sad news to my attention. Rumors of my debilitation have been greatly understated.  Please feel free to reflect this discussion back to reddit, telic or whyevo.  My reddit response to this complex question was a bit terse (in case no one cared), so here’s a slightly unpacked version.

(“telic” refers to Telic Thoughts, an intelligent-design website that is BFF with Church. I’m beginning to wonder if Church is an advocate of intelligent design. )

Some people feel that science and faith have nothing in common. But a considerable amount of faith drives everyday science. Examples: Some of us have intense faith that one branch of science will be more worthy of our attention than other branches.  We have faith that our science will help humanity rather than hurt it. (Mountains of evidence?).  Many of us developed faith in science at an early age based on trust in “evidence” in books and teachers, before we confirmed any significant part of it (empirically or theoretically).

This doesn’t help Church’s conflation of the different ways scientists and religious people construe “faith”.  In the above quote he uses it in three different ways:  as a “predilection” (we’re more interested in some brands of science than others), as “confidence based on evidence” (“science will help humanity rather than hurt it”), and as “trust in the pronouncements of known scientific authorities” (faith in the abilities of our teachers and scientists to know and promulgate the truth).  It’s simply a canard to equate faith in the divinity of Jesus, or in the existence of God, with “faith that Mrs. Brown [my fourth-grade teacher] is telling me the truth about South America” or “faith that Richard Feynman knows what he’s talking about when he describes the two-slit expeirment.”  The veracity of Mrs. Brown and Feynman can be tested by recourse to other authorities who did the relevant scientific work.  The veracity of priests, the Pope, and the Bible has no independent way of being confirmed.  Here Dr. Church simply avoids the criticism I made about playing fast and loose with the notion of “faith.” In fact, he continues to do it, by adding even more meanings to the word.

Frequently religion addresses scientific topics (e.g. the physics/biology of miracles, ancient gods, Galileo).  Religion is not synonymous with “belief in the absence of all evidence”.  Young theists respond to evidence from books, teachers and their own experiences.  Mistakes are made (at both the individual and societal levels) and are eventually corrected.  Science also corrects some mistakes slowly (e.g. lobotomies 26 years, bloodletting 2000 years, Galen to Harvey 1500 years).  “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  Ironically, Popes required more evidence than the scientists to accept the extraordinary claims of Galileo (382 years).

The only way religion corrects its mistakes is precisely the same way that science corrects its mistakes: through the accumulation of scientific evidence.  That’s why there’s all this kerfuffle about Adam and Eve (why isn’t there a similar kerfuffle about Noah?).  Theology has no independent way to find truth, which accounts for all the conflicting theologies that infest the world.  When theology begins to correct itself based on theological rumination rather than scientific evidence or secular reason, then I’ll consider whether there might be a similarity between these “magisteria.”  When religion discards the divinity of Jesus, the existence of a soul, or the existence of God based on the verdict “not proven,” then I’ll sit up and take notice.

Surely Church can’t believe that the methodology for finding “truth” is similar in faith and science!  (Or maybe he does, and he’s simply more of a faith-head than I thought.)  And to equate these areas because science is occasionally wrong simply shows a gross misunderstanding of the difference between our field and theology.  Of course science can be, and has been wrong, but we have ways of finding that out and correcting ourselves!

And Church’s claim about Galileo is simply embarrassing.  Catholics required more evidence than science because the Pope took longer to vindicate Galileo? Really?  Scientists knew Galileo was right by the 1700s, based on real evidence.  The Church took longer not because it was waiting for the evidence to become stronger, but because Teh Pope didn’t like to admit that the Church was wrong.  Does Church understand how the Vatican operates?

If faith had no impact on our physical brain, then by what mechanisms does it impact our spoken conversations. Billions of humans (in a very real scientific sense) have faith. The overlap is vast and fertile.  Scientists can, and do, study faith and religious experience with fMRI, psychosocial tests, psychoactive drugs, epidemiological studies, economic science, etc.

I really don’t know what the good geneticist is talking about here.  Sure we can study religion as a sociological and neurological phenomenon, but  a) that has no bearing on the truth of religious claims, and b) these scientific studies of religion are just that—scientific.  Unlike religion, they don’t involve belief in the unseen and unprovable.

As we learn more about nature, for many of us, this greatly strengthens rather than lessens our awe. If we learn enough about nature to construct an evolving ecosystem on another planet (possibly discreetly nudging it occasionally), would we expect intelligent life arising on that planet to have faith in intelligent design or evolution or both?  What is the “extraordinary evidence” that intelligent aliens had zero influence our own evolution?

Presumably intelligent life on another planet would have ways of detecting whether their evolution involved a combination of chance mutations, random genetic drift, and deterministic selection, or whether there were signs of intelligent tinkering with life, as ID advocates claim.  If our manipulations were so subtle as to be indistinguishable from natural processes, then they wouldn’t of course be detectable.  But in that case the hypothesis of human-tinkering would be unnecessary for them, just as the possibility of God-tinkering is unnecessary for us.  What is the “extraordinary” evidence for Church that mutations in the DNA he studies aren’t caused from time to time by the finger of God? Or that DNA is unzipped during replication by the hands of angels?

It’s statements like the above that make me think that George Church is somewhat of a creationist, or at least sympathetic to intelligent design.  If he’s not, and firmly adheres to the naturalistic theory of evolution, let him state that.

And of course our awe increases as we learn more about the Universe, and how much more bizarre it is than we ever suspected.  But that is no proof of God—it’s proof that science, not religion, is the only way to uncover those awe-inspiring truths about our universe.

I don’t get a lot of pleasure out of criticizing the philosophical ruminations of a scientist as accomplished as Church.  That said, nobody, however famous, is immune from criticism, particularly when they promote such foolish and embarrassing reconciliations of science and religion.

53 Comments

  1. Kevin
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Seems as if someone doesn’t take critical thinking very seriously.

    Conflating two vastly different meanings of a commonly used word doesn’t prove your point, Dr. Church. It eviscerates it.

    • Andrew B.
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      John Lennox pulled the same switch-a-roo in a debate with Dawkins.

      Dawkins: You have to have faith in your religion because you have no evidence

      Lennox: Do you have faith in your wife?

      Dawkins: Yes…

      Lennox: aHA!

      I’m beginning to notice a trend of dishonesty in Christian apologists. Does anyone else see this?

      • Tulse
        Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        I’m beginning to notice a trend of dishonesty in Christian apologists.

        “Beginning”? Lying for Jesus has a long and dishonorable history.

    • HP
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Exactly.

      Today’s vocabulary word is polysemy.

      Any discussion of faith and science is useless without this handy term from linguistics.

      • Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        Great word! I was going to go with “deliberate and disingenuous equivocation” (okay, so that’s four words).

        • Posted June 3, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          Oh, I think all those words are needed to really do the job, as in:

          “Church’s deliberate and disingenuous equivocation was made possible by the polysemous nature of the word ‘faith’.”

          Several threads back Sastra and I remarked on the problem of rampant equivocation wrt the word “faith.” It’s such an obvious ruse. I don’t understand how anyone, let alone an intellectual like Church, can think they’ll get away with it.

  2. tfk
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    My “faith” in science was shattered when I learned there is not life on Mars–despite what I was taught in 3rd grade! Now I trust that if the source is respectable, if I dig deeper, other scientists will confirm the ideas. Thanks for being respectable.

  3. Sigmund
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure if anyone has posted this yet but Church talked about the compatibility of science and religion on the Big Think website in 2007. There’s a 4 min video of his views here.
    http://bigthink.com/ideas/5114
    He was just as waffly in that video as his recent reddit posts but came out with some strange stuff, if I’ve interpreted him correctly. For instance he says that if we cannot categorically rule out the existence of a designer in nature then we should teach this point in schools.
    He also said in this video that he thinks there is a lot of design in the world but then immediately starts talking about natural and synthetic in a waffly style. I need someone to translate what he is saying into plain english.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      if we cannot categorically rule out the existence of a designer in nature then we should teach this point in schools.

      Hmmm, so does he think we should teach everything in school that we can’t categorically rule out? I suspect not.

      • mbee
        Posted June 3, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

        Agreed, We should only be teaching what we do know not what we do not know.
        Unless there is a class on Speculations…

        • JBlilie
          Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          Well and succinctly said.

  4. Greg Esres
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Church’s muddling of the different meanings of “faith” demonstrates how the desire to justify one’s religious beliefs cripples one’s ability to think analytically.

  5. ritebrother
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Is this the same Church as the coauthor with Walter Gilbert on the classic paper describing high-SDS blot hybridization?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      Yep.

  6. Buzz
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    There’s no kerfuffle about Noah for two reasons. One reason is the already mentioned one that the bottleneck with Adam and Eve is connected to the Christian problem of original sin. (And that this is a Christian problem is why Jews don’t particular care about having a historical Adam and Eve, any more than they might care about other parts of the Torah.)

    The other reason that there’s no argument about Noah’s genetic bottleneck is that a careful study of human population genetics was not required to falsify that the diluvian myth. Nineteenth century geology was all that was required, and Noah’s story was conclusively ruled about long, long ago. Yet people could hold onto hope for an Adam and Eve until significantly more recently.

    • Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      Another reason might be because Noah is a fictional character?

      • Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        If only Christians would use that reasoning on the entire Bible.

      • Achrachno
        Posted June 3, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

        How is Noah any more fictional than Abraham, Moses, Jesus or any other biblical character?

        Some are just more central to particular stories than others. Depending on which myths someone is determined to believe, Christians will hold tightly to this character or that. Fundamentalists even believe in the talking animals.

        It seems to me that Noah is at least as plausible as Jesus as a historical figure. That’s not saying much, of course.

        • JBlilie
          Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          I’ve known a few guys named Noah …

          • Microraptor
            Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

            I went to school with an Adam and a Jesus.

  7. jose
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    So how is this different from Jack Chick saying that we have faith in evolution?

  8. Kyle Marquis
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    The “faith as predilection” one is new to me. Apparently I have faith that I prefer fries to onion rings in the same way Christians have faith that Jesus died for our sins.

    This ghastly use of language to serve sectarian ends is going to turn me into a prescriptivist, I fear.

  9. Achrachno
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    “That’s why there’s all this kerfuffle about Adam and Eve (why isn’t there a similar kerfuffle about Noah?).”

    That puzzles me a bit. There are millions of fundamentalists (AIG, etc) willing and eager to defend the Noah tale. I’ve been involved in many kerfuffles over that big imaginary boat. It’s just the more liberal Christians, those who accept some measure of reason and science, who have thrown Noah overboard.

    Yet, some relative liberals still feel they have to cling to A & E — and almost all cling to Jesus. And to the word “God” of course. Should we be grateful for baby steps or exasperated at the persistence of related nonsense?

    • Sajanas
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      With my parents, it was because they were fine with the Bible being more mythological about stuff, but God *had* to create humans directly. It was a very, very important thing to them theologically. Really, I think only the existence of a historical Jesus would be more important to them.

      • JBlilie
        Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Hold my beer and watch while I just make some shit up …

        • Phere
          Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          LMAO!!!

    • Tulse
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Noah doesn’t have major theological implications for the liberal religions, whereas Adam and Eve do — without Original Sin ™ (“ask for it by name!”), then the whole notion of redemption by Jesus’ death and revivification goes out the window.

      • Tacroy
        Posted June 3, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Not really, unfortunately; if you’re going liberal, you can go whole-hog and say that the story of Adam and Eve is just a metaphor for the way humans are sinful by nature.

        Yes indeed, with a bit of mental gymnastics, you too can go from Adam and Eve imply Original Sin to Original Sin implies Adam and Eve, while pretending that nothing’s changed.

        • Tulse
          Posted June 3, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

          if you’re going liberal, you can go whole-hog and say that the story of Adam and Eve is just a metaphor for the way humans are sinful by nature

          But “by nature” sounds like that means “by our created nature”, that is, that god made us (via evolution or whatever) inherently sinful. The point of the Fall is that the rejection of the Christian god was a choice made, and not simply a part of what being human is. If there is no choice, if evil is part of our nature, then how is it a “sin”?

          However silly inheriting sin may be, one at least needs someone to consciously sin to begin with, or else humanity isn’t “fallen”.

          • Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

            If there is no choice, if evil is part of our nature, then how is it a “sin”?

            You’re thinking too much! Stop that!

            Seriously, though, while your observation may be the logical consequence of abandoning OS, it doesn’t stop certain religions trying to square the circle – Mormons, for instance (as I pointed out in my other comment). Mostly the “squaring” is accomplished by not thinking about it, but they also have this half-assed attempt to relieve god of the responsibility for human sinfulness: life on earth is a test. God had to make the option of “sin” available so that he’d know who to put on the naughty list, and who to put on the nice list.

            And he will be checking it twice!

            • Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

              Which then calls into question god’s omniscience, and we’re right back to thinking too hard.

              • Buzz
                Posted June 3, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

                Dealing with that paradox is the primary motivation for the central Calvinist dogma of predestination. Calvin reasoned that God knows from birth which people he has made to be good and which bad.

          • Jeff Engel
            Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

            How tolerable to liberal strains of Christianity do you suppose it would be to take Adam and Eve as a metaphor for our tendency to choose to do worse than our nature (which they can suppose to be somehow God’s credit)? In effect, the Fall is an ongoing thing, starting from the first hominids with a sense of right and wrong doing the wrong thing.

            And then they could suppose that Jesus’ example is a sort of reminder that we can choose to do the right thing.

            It all gets to be metaphorical – though it’s compatible with a historical Jesus – it seems pretty feel-good, and it seems to respect the role of the stories as best we can while refusing to be tied to their literal truth.

            • Tulse
              Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              In effect, the Fall is an ongoing thing, starting from the first hominids with a sense of right and wrong doing the wrong thing

              But then that gets us to the problem of “ensoulment”. With Adam and Eve, the story is clear — a god creates the first two people, giving them souls and thus the opportunity to sin. If they become mere metaphors for hominids with a moral sense, then one loses the story of the soul. Essentially, if there is biological continuity of homo sap with earlier species, then there is no clear point of “ensoulation”.

              • Jeff Engel
                Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

                Yup, no literal ensoulment, and not even a suggestion about making a metaphor of it. I’m not suggesting anything meant to satisfy anyone who isn’t willing to be a really liberal Christian.

                My goal, at least, is to scout out the possibility of a form of Christianity that is simply a structure of myths and parables attached to conventional practices. I think that’s the only sort of religion that’s going to be safe from reality getting in the way. It’s not one that would be a draw for those of us who are cheerfully without religion, but I do think it’s a fertile ground for a safe, friendly form of de facto atheism for many.

              • Tulse
                Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                I agree that the “religion” you describe is the only one that is empirically safe, but I also think that describing that approach as “liberal” is far too mild. That’s beyond Spong territory, and well past what I think the vast majority of Christians would accept as “Christian”. As you say, it really is de facto atheism, and I think most of the religious would recognize that, however dressed up.

              • Jeff Engel
                Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

                Fair enough. I wouldn’t totally rule out the possibility that some Christians would want to keep to what they consider a reasonably Christian lifestyle and mythic framework for considering right and wrong while living within a reality-based worldview. It’s atheism technically, but it’s not the assertively secular sort. For some, the dressing’s important, and it’s not strictly implied by the core existential claims and denials to which one is committed.

      • Posted June 3, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        Tacroy’s right. Mormons, for instance, do not subscribe to Original Sin. But, so the story goes, Jesus still needed to sacrifice himself because we’re just bound to do some sinnin’ at some point in our lives.

      • Phere
        Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        “Noah doesn’t have major theological implications for the liberal religions, whereas Adam and Eve do”

        I thought that Noah was in fact a big theological implication. After god drownded everything, including teh kittehs, he promised never to drownded us again – hence why we have to wait for jeebus?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      “Should we be grateful for baby steps or exasperated at the persistence of related nonsense?”

      Both.

  10. Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Is this guy being funded by the Templeton foundation? Because that’s what it seems like. Every scientist that goes through templeton tries to wrap religion up in science. How pitiful.

    • spurge
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      Church has no need of Templeton money.

  11. vel
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I wonder, does Church have “faith” in genetics? Or does he run experiments not willing to take claims of other geneticists on “faith”?

    “Some people feel that science and faith have nothing in common. But a considerable amount of faith drives everyday science. Examples: Some of us have intense faith that one branch of science will be more worthy of our attention than other branches.” No, this is desire, not faith.

    ‘We have faith that our science will help humanity rather than hurt it. (Mountains of evidence?).” No, this is trust born out by evidence. I rather think that medicine, biology, genetics, physics, etc, have immesurably helped mankind. If Mr. Church does not feel the same way, I would suggest that he not avail himself of computers, medicine, modern foods, etc and go off to live in an adobe hut to die of dysentery.

    “Many of us developed faith in science at an early age based on trust in “evidence” in books and teachers, before we confirmed any significant part of it (empirically or theoretically).” Ah, there we have it, it’s earned trust not blind ignorant “faith”. Again, if Church does not trust “evidence” I must wonder just how he conducts any research in genetics. I find that Mr. Church is a bald-faced liar and a poor one at that.

    • Observer
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      And since when does evidence need to have scare quotes around it?

  12. Sastra
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I just thought of an interesting question for Church. Consider a sentence where someone distinguishes “faith” from “religious faith:”

    I have faith in my professor, sure — but it seems to me that Carol has a religious faith in hers.”

    For the word “professor” you can substitute “theory” or “branch of science” or “president” or any other term.

    The question then is this: What would it mean, for someone to have not just a faith in some X, but a religious faith in it?

    Doesn’t it imply some form of fanaticism? Worship? The professor or president who must be blindly obeyed. The theory or belief that cannot be wrong, a theorist who ignores contrary evidence, who stifles debate and refuses to test.

    If someone has a religious faith in his wife’s fidelity, he could hypothetically walk in on her entertaining the Green Bay Packers in bed and his trust would remain unshaken. No, it was a trick of the devil. Or, perhaps, “being faithful” was never meant to imply anything about literal sex you know: her fidelity is a matter of essence, not accident. Whatever. If we’re using religious “rules,” there will always be an apologetic. The world does not confine us.

    At some level, Church knows the difference between casual secular uses of the word “faith” and specifically religious uses of the term. I bet he could make sense out of the sentence about Carol and her professor, and knows it doesn’t just mean she admires him.

  13. BradW
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    How close of friends are Church and Collins?

    I find it absolutely fascinating that people as well educated and successful as Church appears to be can write such drivel.

    Makes me wonder whether he’s really serious or is just punching some kind of ticket with someone.

  14. Posted June 4, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    At least that “unpacking” showed that our interpretation of the original bit was correct. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t understand what he was saying, it’s that what he was saying is wrong. And since he didn’t really respond to the criticism, his “unpacked” version is just as wrong.

    As to fMRI studies of religious experiences, surely he must know that their results are more consistent with them being a product of the physical brain than of some external influence?

  15. BillyJoe
    Posted June 4, 2011 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    The alien analogy doesn’t work.

    If humans one day produce an ecosystem that spawns intelligent life, that would only be evidence that aliens can appear “god-like” to the creatures created by them. Likewise we could be intelligent life spawned in the ecosystem of another higher alien. And likewise for that alien. So this works only if you can have aliens all the way up. Which is impossible.

    So we are still left with the problem of god and the alien analogy hasn’t helped at all.

  16. Alan Fox
    Posted June 5, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    I see the blog, Telic Thoughts, mentioned in the OP, has picked up on the issue. Professor Coyne seems to becoming quite a celebrity, British radio, Biologos enfant terrible, and now two consecutive threads on an obscure ID friendly website In fact “chunkdz”, the pseudonymous author, claims to have posted a question here that has not surfaced from moderation. (I reckon it must be his first comment, automatically moderated, or he may already be on your banned list.)

    He neglects to quote his question but writes:

    Coyne doesn’t bother to tell us what a sign of intelligent tinkering might look like. So I asked him this question at his blog. My question was censored.

    Good grief, chunkdz. You’ve been censored? How shocking! Nothing like that has ever happened at Telic Thoughts, I am sure!

    As to what a sign of intelligent tinkering might look like. Hard to say, really. Sort of similar to the traces an invisible pink unicorn might leave, I guess.

    link

  17. Alan Fox
    Posted June 5, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Alan Fox
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Posted June 5, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink
    I see the blog, Telic Thoughts, mentioned in the OP, has picked up on the issue. Professor Coyne seems to becoming quite a celebrity, British radio, Biologos enfant terrible, and now two consecutive threads on an obscure ID friendly website In fact “chunkdz”, the pseudonymous author, claims to have posted a question here that has not surfaced from moderation. (I reckon it must be his first comment, automatically moderated, or he may already be on your banned list.)

    He neglects to quote his question but writes:

    Coyne doesn’t bother to tell us what a sign of intelligent tinkering might look like. So I asked him this question at his blog. My question was censored.

    Good grief, chunkdz. You’ve been censored? How shocking! Nothing like that has ever happened at Telic Thoughts, I am sure!

    As to what a sign of intelligent tinkering might look like. Hard to say, really. Sort of similar to the traces an invisible pink unicorn might leave, I guess.

  18. Alan Fox
    Posted June 5, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    Was it the link

  19. Dominic
    Posted June 5, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    “Some of us have intense faith that one branch of science will be more worthy of our attention than other branches.”

    As per other comments – George, that ain’t faith!

  20. George Church
    Posted June 10, 2012 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    George Church expands on the harmony between science and faith

    ** Sorry for the 372 day delay in response. (hopefully perceived as a brief time by evolutionists).

    … I posted part of a piece that geneticist George Church wrote for reddit, answering readers’ questions. In one answer Church argued that “the overlap between science and faith is vast and fertile.” I claimed that Church’s equation of scientific faith with religious faith showed “a chronic and debilitating sympathy for religion.” …

    ** “Overlap” is different from “equation”. When one says that the “overlap between science and commerce is vast and fertile”, this doesn’t mean “science=commerce”. Is the Gouldian constraint of total non-overlap of magisteria that valuable? Must we always separate wave & particle, nature & nurture, etc? Perhaps the key issue is the difference between encouraging innovative (“creative”), early-stage, phenomenological science vs late-stage proofs and dogma. I am focusing on the former (while admiring the latter).

    Some people feel that science and faith have nothing in common. But a considerable amount of faith drives everyday science. Examples: Some of us have intense faith that one branch of science will be more worthy of our attention than other branches. We have faith that our science will help humanity rather than hurt it. (Mountains of evidence?). Many of us developed faith in science at an early age based on trust in “evidence” in books and teachers, before we confirmed any significant part of it (empirically or theoretically).

    This doesn’t help Church’s conflation of the different ways scientists and religious people construe “faith”. In the above quote he uses it in three different ways: as a “predilection” (we’re more interested in some brands of science than others), as “confidence based on evidence” (“science will help humanity rather than hurt it”), and as “trust in the pronouncements of known scientific authorities” (faith in the abilities of our teachers and scientists to know and promulgate the truth).

    It’s simply a canard to equate faith in the divinity of Jesus, or in the existence of God, with “faith that Mrs. Brown [my fourth-grade teacher] is telling me the truth about South America” or “faith that Richard Feynman knows what he’s talking about when he describes the two-slit experiment.”

    ** I didn’t say “equate”, nor intend it. You correctly note that I intentionally collected many meanings of the word faith in the overlap between science and religion and feel that it is worth considering that full spectrum (and more) for both. This can be seen as “integration” and “synthesis” (positive counterpoints to the pejorative term “conflation”). There are many meanings to terms like “probe”, “snow” and “synthesis” and to appreciate those concepts, it helps to consider the many meanings in an integrated way.

    The veracity of Mrs. Brown and Feynman can be tested by recourse to other authorities who did the relevant scientific work. The veracity of priests, the Pope, and the Bible has no independent way of being confirmed. Here Dr. Church simply avoids the criticism I made about playing fast and loose with the notion of “faith.” In fact, he continues to do it, by adding even more meanings to the word.

    **There are independent ways of checking the veracity of priests etc. Individual priests are criticized by other clergy and laity. Dogma does change with time (see below). Clergy can even progress ahead of mainstream scientists, e.g. Gregor Mendel.

    Frequently religion addresses scientific topics (e.g. the physics/biology of miracles, ancient gods, Galileo). Religion is not synonymous with “belief in the absence of all evidence”. Young theists respond to evidence from books, teachers and their own experiences. Mistakes are made (at both the individual and societal levels) and are eventually corrected. Science also corrects some mistakes slowly (e.g. lobotomies 26 years, bloodletting 2000 years, Galen to Harvey 1500 years). ”Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Ironically, Popes required more evidence than the scientists to accept the extraordinary claims of Galileo (382 years).

    The only way religion corrects its mistakes is precisely the same way that science corrects its mistakes: through the accumulation of scientific evidence. That’s why there’s all this kerfuffle about Adam and Eve (why isn’t there a similar kerfuffle about Noah?). Theology has no independent way to find truth, which accounts for all the conflicting theologies that infest the world.

    **Yes; in the overlap of science and religion similar methods are used. Conflicting scientific theories abound (the term “infest” is not an ideal component of a balanced discussion) — for example, Duesberg and Mullis opinions on HIV — or Rous and McClintock on their once unpopular theories. I have faith that the truth emerges eventually, but any given moment is a snapshot.

    When theology begins to correct itself based on theological rumination rather than scientific evidence or secular reason, then I’ll consider whether there might be a similarity between these “magisteria.” When religion discards the divinity of Jesus, the existence of a soul, or the existence of God based on the verdict “not proven,” then I’ll sit up and take notice.

    **This sounds like “equation” of religion with Christianity, but I’ll grant you the respect to assume that this was a poetic expedient. Suffice it to say that various religions have discarded the divinity of Jesus (and/or Mary). Some religions (like some scientific theories) are extinct.

    Surely Church can’t believe that the methodology for finding “truth” is similar in faith and science! (Or maybe he does, and he’s simply more of a faith-head than I thought.) And to equate these areas because science is occasionally wrong simply shows a gross misunderstanding of the difference between our field and theology. Of course science can be, and has been wrong, but we have ways of finding that out and correcting ourselves!
    ** “Similar” yes. Sometimes religion, law, policy, psychology and philosophy correct themselves based on evidence or inspiration from physical sciences and sometimes by reflecting on human behavior. It is worth recalling that the “methodology for finding truth in science” is diverse and subject to change – i.e. hypothesis-testing vs non-hypothesis-driven, statistical vs non, correlative vs causative, high-throughput vs focused, lumping vs splitting, etc., and various combinations.

    And Church’s claim about Galileo is simply embarrassing. Catholics required more evidence than science because the Pope took longer to vindicate Galileo? Really? Scientists knew Galileo was right by the 1700s, based on real evidence. The Church took longer not because it was waiting for the evidence to become stronger, but because The Pope didn’t like to admit that the Church was wrong. Does Church understand how the Vatican operates?
    ** Yes; Church knows something about Churches. Some scientific societies also don’t like to admit that they are wrong and can take even longer to admit it (see above).

    If faith had no impact on our physical brain, then by what mechanisms does it impact our spoken conversations. Billions of humans (in a very real scientific sense) have faith. The overlap is vast and fertile. Scientists can, and do, study faith and religious experience with fMRI, psychosocial tests, psychoactive drugs, epidemiological studies, economic science, etc.

    I really don’t know what the good geneticist is talking about here. Sure we can study religion as a sociological and neurological phenomenon, but a) that has no bearing on the truth of religious claims, and b) these scientific studies of religion are just that—scientific. Unlike religion, they don’t involve belief in the unseen and unprovable.

    ** Sorry for the unclear brevity. Religion is not focused on addressing the population genetics of Eve. It addresses the needs of many humans for meaning, caring, altruism, love, awe, moral conduct, etc. These are “unseen” at some wavelengths, but observable by many means (including introspection, discussion, MRI, etc). What are the sources of transcendent flashes of insight, empathy, inventiveness, and other differences between humans and the Jeopardy computer Watson?

    As we learn more about nature, for many of us, this greatly strengthens rather than lessens our awe. If we learn enough about nature to construct an evolving ecosystem on another planet (possibly discreetly nudging it occasionally), would we expect intelligent life arising on that planet to have faith in intelligent design or evolution or both? What is the “extraordinary evidence” that intelligent aliens had zero influence our own evolution?

    Presumably intelligent life on another planet would have ways of detecting whether their evolution involved a combination of chance mutations, random genetic drift, and deterministic selection, or whether there were signs of intelligent tinkering with life, as ID advocates claim. If our manipulations were so subtle as to be indistinguishable from natural processes, then they wouldn’t of course be detectable. But in that case the hypothesis of human-tinkering would be unnecessary for them,

    **Such a hypothesis may indeed be “unnecessary” for certain research, but potentially quite helpful for other research — like the true history of that planet (even if their designers were not made by a similar design process). We have to persist in asking awkward questions before we can even see the path toward integrating lines of evidence. Before quantum theory, the hypothesis of random quantum events seemed to be “unnecessary” (even to Einstein). But now it seems quite useful. Research on what we tell to synthetic intelligent beings may already exceed “unnecessary” status.

    just as the possibility of God-tinkering is unnecessary for us. What is the “extraordinary” evidence for Church that mutations in the DNA he studies aren’t caused from time to time by the finger of God? Or that DNA is unzipped during replication by the hands of angels?
    It’s statements like the above that make me think that George Church is somewhat of a creationist, or at least sympathetic to intelligent design. If he’s not, and firmly adheres to the naturalistic theory of evolution, let him state that.

    **I like the theory of evolution – I even harness it industrially to make practical materials. Perhaps, another less-than-ideal dichotomy here is between “naturalistic” and “supernaturalistic”. “Natural” is what is known to science at the moment. If we discover next year quantum computing and/or aliens capable of transferring bits of information to minds or DNA, then we might reconsider past “naturalism”. I like a simple Occam’s razor, but not if it gets in the way of a revolution. Complex electric shavers and unshaven faces also have their place.

    And of course our awe increases as we learn more about the Universe, and how much more bizarre it is than we ever suspected. But that is no proof of God—it’s proof that science, not religion, is the only way to uncover those awe-inspiring truths about our universe.

    I don’t get a lot of pleasure out of criticizing the philosophical ruminations of a scientist as accomplished as Church. That said, nobody, however famous, is immune from criticism, particularly when they promote such foolish and embarrassing reconciliations of science and religion.

    ** Yes; open-minded, constructive criticism, is great. Heliocentrism and evolution were initially embarrassing, but today represent improvements over previous ideas. Perhaps the overlap of science and religion will similarly yield some admirably “embarrassing” scientific insights about the function of our minds and/or ancient history.


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