About two weeks ago Julian Baggini wrote a nice piece for the Guardian explaining why science and religion are incompatible. Now, over at Comment is Free, Keith Ward—a retired professor of divinity at Oxford and now a research fellow in religious philosophy at London’s Heythorp College—responds in a piece called “Religion answers the factual questions science neglects.”
Now that title is bizarre right off the bat. What factual questions has religion ever answered? It turns out that Ward wants to limit “science” to those questions that can be tested in the laboratory:
Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould’s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.
A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.
There is always argument about what “science” means in cases like this. When trying to deal with factual claims about the universe, I would use the definition of “science” as “a combination of empirical investigation and reason.” That is, if you want to see if Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves (he did), there are multiple empirical avenues of research, including letters, accounts of contemporaries, and, of course, DNA evidence (check out much of this evidence at the Monticello website). There is no notion of “repeatablility” or “direct observation” here, any more than there is about whether birds descended from dinosaurs. What we’re looking for are multiple lines of reliable empirical evidence that converge to the same conclusion.
To say that human history is “not scientifically tractable” is just about as dumb as saying that evolutionary history is not scientifically tractable. It baffles me when I hear this accusation leveled so often, as if the same methods evolutionists use to uncover the origin of birds differ fundamentally from the methods linguists use to uncover the origin of new languages, or historians use to determine how much Churchhill drank (a lot).
And, of course, even if such denigration of empirical study outside “traditional” science were correct, that doesn’t say anything about the ability of religion to uncover truth, which doesn’t rely on empirical study at all!
I do not see why Baggini says that religions “smuggle in” agency explanations where they do not belong (for instance, claiming that the cosmos exists because it is created by a God with a purpose). That seems to be a perfectly acceptable factual claim that no known scientific technique can answer. The physical sciences do not generally talk about non-physical and non-law-like facts such as creation by God. That does not mean that such questions are meaningless, or that there are not both rational and silly ways of answering them.
Saying that God created the universe is no more a “perfectly acceptable factual claim” than is “the universe was created by a giant turtle” or “invisible and undetectable fairies move the pistons of my car.” A factual claim is “acceptable” when it is both testable and doesn’t violently contradict what we know of the world. And if “no known scientific technique” can answer the question of whether some deistic act ultimately stated the universe, then, contra Ward, there is no “rational” way to answer such a question.
But not all facts are scientific facts – the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end. The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal. The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.
No, not all facts are “scientific facts” in the sense that a). they’re investigated by scientists, b). they’re studied in the laboratory, c). there has to be “repeatability” in the scientific sense; that is, you get the same result when you do the same experiment. But all “facts” must be empirical facts, susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, and the possibility that the claim can be falsified. That goes for the claim that Ward was in Oxford the night before he wrote this. There are many ways to investigate that question, including eyewitness accounts, travel receipts, videos, and so on.
This kind of denigration of “science”—with science defined so narrowly that it comprises only “the things that laboratory scientists do”—takes place for only one reason: to justify religion. But Ward’s line of analysis is so palpably weak that I’m surprised anybody would accept it. According to his definition, much of evolutionary biology isn’t science because the subjects are “not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law.”
I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.