I am so tired of people making the same old arguments about why science and faith are compatible, not bothering to listen to the other side. Over at The Intersection, Chris Mooney is using authority arguments to support his case for compatibility, posting a video of Eugenie Scott (director of the National Center for Science Education) and titling his post “Eugenie Scott Powerfully Makes the Case for Science-Religion Compatibility.”
Here’s the video:
And here is what Mooney says about it:
Her view is pretty much exactly the same as ours. And I am still mystified as to how this can be so controversial–and still wholly convinced that it is the commonsense approach that will ultimately win out in the end.
I guess I’ll have to tell Chris (and Eugenie) once again why it is controversial, since he’s been told before but it doesn’t seem to have registered.
First of all, nobody doubts that science and religion are compatible in the trivial sense that someone can be a scientist and be religious at the same time. That only shows one’s ability to hold two dissimilar approaches to the world simultaneously in one’s own mind. As I’ve said umpteen times before, you could say that being a Christian is compatible with being a murderer because a lot of murderers are Christians. Yet Mooney, and Scott, make this argument, and Mooney touts it as “powerful.”
It isn’t. This is not what we mean when we say science and faith are incompatible. Got it, folks?? Let’s not hear the “there-are-religious-scientists” argument any more. It’s trivial, and insulting to anyone who can think. (See here for Clay Shirkey’s refutation of what he calls “The Doctrine of Joint Belief.”)
Scott says, “I don’t have to address this as a philosophical question; I can address it as an empirical question.” Well, it is both an empirical and philosophical question.
Here is the philosophical part: is a way of finding out things based on reason and evidence compatible with a way of finding out things based on revelation and dogma?
Here is the empirical part: are the assertions of faith in conflict, or potential conflict, with the assertions of science?
If the answer to the empirical part was “no, no conflict” then the philosophical part would show compatibility: faith and science would be equally good — and reliable– ways to find out stuff.
But in fact the answer to the empirical part is “yes” — virtually every faith, with the possible exception of Buddhism and deism, makes fact claims about the universe. And there is no evidence for any of these assertions. Indeed, many of them have proven to be false.
Scott seems to recognize part of this: she talks about the Grand Canyon, and says that the evidence that it was formed in a single alluvial event is nil: it is “not bloody likely” that the Canyon occurred during a single episode of flooding. She goes on to say that the claim of an instantaneous, canyon-forming event “is a fact claim. You can examine that scientifically . . ” She rejects it, as she should, because she says, it “can’t happen, given what we know about modern geology. So we can reject that statement.”
Indeed. Well, here are two more things that can’t happen, given what we know about modern biology: a human female can’t give birth to offspring unless she is inseminated, and people who are dead for three days don’t come back to life. Do Scott and Mooney not recognize that the foundational claims of the Abrahamic religions are truth claims? And that for many, many believers, the truth of these claims is a bedrock for belief? This is, of course, why so many Americans reject evolution: it is in absolute and irreconcilable conflict with the “truth” of Genesis and the view that we were the special objects of God’s creation. There is nothing that better demonstrates the incompatibility between science and faith than the rejection of the scientific truth of evolution by people who have a revelatory “truth” about where we came from. Is that too hard to grasp? And saying that “well, people shouldn’t accept what it says in Genesis” doesn’t solve the problem, for that’s just telling people that they should have a kind of religion that they don’t have. Try telling a devout Muslim that it is impossible for Mohamed and his horse Barack (yes, that was his name) to have been bodily sucked up into the stratosphere, and that this was merely a metaphor.
The final misconception, which I’ve also discussed at length, is this, asserted by Scott in the video:
“Science can’t test statements having to do with God. . . Science can weigh and accept or reject fact claims made by religion. . . The basic idea of whether the supernatural exists or not is not something science can measure.”
Wrong. Of course science can test statements having to do with God. It can test statements deriving from what people claim about their god. Here is one: God answers prayers. (Many people think this is true, of course.) Tests of intercessory prayer have shown that it doesn’t work. End of story. Here’s another empirical claim: God is omnipotent and benevolent. It’s falsified: God fails to prevent natural events, like tsunamis and earthquakes, that take the lives of innocent people. (Theologians, of course, don’t adhere to the same standards of evidence as do scientists, and so don’t see this as a falsification of an ominipotent and benevolent God. They are wrong.)
And there are empirical observations of the supernatural that could convince scientists that there is a God. I discuss several of these in an article in The New Republic. One of them is the appearance and documentation of a 900-foot-tall Jesus, as was supposedly seen by Oral Roberts. There are many others.
So here is what, I think, many of us see as the fundamental incompatibility between science and faith:
Science uses logic, reason and evidence to find things out. Religion uses dogma and revelation. These are fundamentally different ways of arriving at “truth.” Indeed, religions can’t arrive at truths at all, because the truth claims of different religions are in irresolvable conflict with one another, and there is no way of knowing which of these are wrong and which (if any) are right. In contrast, science has built-in ways of determining if it is wrong. When making a truth claim, scientists can answer the question, “How would I know if I were wrong?” The faithful have no such way to test their “truth” claims.
Can we talk about this kind of incompatibility, please?