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.