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.