10/11/10

"Religion and Science are Incompatible"

Could be, but the arguments in Jerry Coyne's USA Today article don't prove it. The main argument seems to be that religion uses different methods to arrive at claims about events that also come under the purview of science: "wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections."  Right, but then art critics make claims about entities and events that also come under the purview of science: like paintings and performances  And the methods of art critics are completely different from the methods of science.

What I suppose he meant to say is that the findings of science flat out contradict the findings of religion, and that there's a reason why science must be considered right every time.  Not every time but a few, but every single time.  I imagine his USA Today readers might like to know why that should be so.

Then there's the curious inconsistency about the use of examples. How can it make sense to scoff at using religious scientists as evidence of religion-science compatibility, but then write "don't just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it's amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists"? Either Francis Collins is evidence of compatibility and the atheist scientists evidence of incompatibility, or none of them have any evidential force.  Coyne says citing Collins is like using cases of marital infidelity to show that monogamy and adultery are compatible. But if so, it's just as pointless to use instances of marital fidelity to show that monogamy and adultery are incompatible.

Then again, the analogy isn't actually so good, because monogamy and adultery are incompatible "analytically"--it's just a matter of meaning.  But science and religion aren't incompatible just as a matter of meaning. It's harder to say what the truth is.  Citing religious and atheist scientists is at least mildly probative...in both cases. It's basically an appeal to authority.  The religious scientists presumably say: compatible. The atheist scientists say: incompatible.

But only mildly probative.  Some religious scientists probably see a tension between religion and science. They may not have sorted out how the two things fit together.  And atheist scientists don't have to see a tension between religion and science--they may reject religion just because they don't believe it.   Scientists are Democrats, by a huge majority, but that doesn't mean they think science is incompatible with Republican politics.

So:  case not closed. I don't think Coyne's arguments really ought to convince religious readers of USA Today (which means most readers) that they have to make a choice between religion and science. And it's a good thing too, because if presented with that choice, I think most would choose religion.

More here.

24 comments:

Ed said...

To me it does make sense to claim that the high rate of atheism among scientists counts as evidence while the existence of people such as Francis Collins does not.

In the first case we're not talking about the mere existence of atheist scientists. We're not setting Dawkins vs Collins and saying one is evidence but the other is not.

Instead we are referring to a statistical correlation; scientists have a significantly higher rate of atheism compared to the population norm (64% vs 6%). This is not proof of a causal relationship but is an impressive bit of evidence.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, but that's not what Coyne said. He ridiculed thinking Francis Collins shows anything whatever. Then he turned around and construed the atheist scientists as probative. This just makes no sense.

I'm happy to view both Collins and atheist scientists as probative, and yes, there's a correlation between being a scientist and being an atheist. So--that's some support for incompatibility. But fairly weak. There's also a correlation between being a scientist and being a democrat, but it doesn't show science and republicanism are incompatible--they're not.

Andrew said...

An impressive bit of evidence for what, though? The problem for Coyne is that "compatible" is a word with a clear meaning - if property A is compatible with property B, that means that something can possess both properties. Not that most things that are A are also B, or that most things that are B are also A, or even that most things are either A or B, but that it is possible for things to be both. If he's wanting to infer from the fact that most scientists are not religious believers to the conclusion that you can't be both a scientist and a religious believer, then all that's confirming evidence for is the theory that scientists shouldn't try to do philosophy (as is Sam Harris's naive moral realism). I wonder if, as a biologist, Coyne would accept the argument that most flying animals lay eggs, so being a flying animal and not laying eggs are incompatible properties?

Jean Kazez said...

I'm assuming the # of religious/atheist scientists is supposed to be evidence about compatibility via an "appeal to authority." But it's not a very strong appeal for two reasons--

(1) Scientists don't necessarily arrive at religion/atheism after thinking about science/religion compatibility.

(2) Scientists are not actually our best experts on science/religion compatibility. That's a philosophical, not a scientific, issue.

In any event, it's downright absurd to dismiss Francis Collin as evidence, if you do think the # of atheist scientists shows something.

Jean Kazez said...

CollinS.

Faust said...

Round and round and round it goes.

Charitably the argument is this:

1. Religion makes some claims that are testable. (e.g. prayer can heal the sick, the earth is 6,000 years old).

2. Science is capable of testing testable claims ("testing" just means suspcetible to scientific inquiry).


3. When we test a claim and get a result e.g. prayer does NOT impact healing in a measurable way, then we get two incompatible claims: prayer heals the sick, prayer does not heal the sick.

4. If we list all the empirical claims made by religion that science contests then we can say that, generally speaking, science and religion are incompatible on a claim by claim basis.

As far as I know 1-4 are more are less uncontroversial no?

So the real debate is about whether we should consider "religion" as being reducible to a collection of testable claims, and what happens to religion after we strip out all testable claims contradicted by science so that we can see what's left.

Jean Kazez said...

Is it part of science to purport to explain every single event, ever, as opposed to not explaining maybe 3 super-special events way back when? A science-friendly religionist may want no more than that--no intercessory prayer, no creation in 6 days, etc. etc.

Faust said...

Well that's where we get into the the whole "does methodological naturalism necessarily entail philosophical naturalism," argument.

If we keep it to a list of claims then we can tick through them and say no, no, no, maybe, highly unlikely, etc. However, if we want to say the very essence of science is methodological naturalism and methodological naturalism invariably entails philosophcial naturalism then science is not so much "explaining every event ever" as it is setting limits on our ontology and saying there are no supernatural entities acting on us now or ever.

This is the very crux of the entire debate, all of the arguments ultimately lead back to it.

1. IF methodological naturalism necessarily entails philosophical naturalism

2. AND "religion" is always about the supernatural

3. THEN science and relgion are fundmentaly incompatible period and anyone who says differently is confused.

Of course not everyone accepts 1. or 2. and therfore 3 does not necessarily follow.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't have a firm position about these things--I'm just saying Coyne's reasoning is seriously flawed, not trying to take a stand on compatibility myself. I'm not sure why he himself didn't notice the problem with dismissing Collins as evidence for compatibility, but then offering all the atheist scientists as evidence against. That just can't be.

Faust said...

Well I think your point is a good one.

But what I'm trying to demonstrate is WHY Coyne thinks it's analytically the case that that science and relgion are incompatible, (like monogomy and adultery). While we can't say "the number of scientists that are atheists is evidence for the incompatablitiy of science and relgion" we can ask "why is it that scientists are typically atheist?"

The answer I think is that most scientists DO think that methodological naturalism entails philosophical naturalism, and also consider God to be a concept that could only ever be understood supernaturaly. Ergo: atheists.

The interesting question is then how do the religious scientists manage to reconcile their methodological practic with their ontological commitments. Most of them, I think, will deny 1. They will say that methdological naturalism does not necessarily entail philosophical naturalism, or even that we need to introduce supernaturalism into our theories to makes sense of them: e.g. Polkinghorn with the fine tuning.

I think the issues here are complex, but ultimately the basic structure of these arguments can be hammered down fairly precisely: they will always involve disputes about to what degree MN constrains our ontological commitments, OR to what degree we can retain "religion" while fully accepting a naturalist worldview (in the manner of Johnston).

As far as I can tell there are no dicusssions about this topic that wind up anywhere else. So when you say "I'm not firm on this subject" it's either because you are not firm about 1. or 2. or both. Or if you have other reasons for not being firm I'd like to hear them!

amos said...

Has anyone ever polled scientists to see if they think that science entails philosophical naturalism or not?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think you're overestimating how much scientists think these things through. It's possible that scientists have a certain cast of mind, and the cast of mind makes them like/dislike other things. They don't go hunting much. But that's not because they think science is incompatible with hunting. They don't vote Republican much. But that's not because they think science is incompatible with hunting.

I can see why the scientific cast of mind disinclines people from religion. It doesn't mean they've thought about the compatiblity issue, and even if they have, it doesn't mean they think science and religion are incompatible. For example, my father is a theoretical physicist, and not at all attracted to religion. (This is one of the reasons why I had precisely zero religious education growing up.) But recently I asked him about the compatibility of science and religion, and he said "compatible." So his not opting for it is exactly like his not hunting or voting Republican.

I don't really have a set view about these things. I don't think science is just a methodology. Philosophical naturalism is involved as well. What I wonder is whether science purports to be comprehensive. If you think there have been three miracles in the history of universe, are you at odds with science? I'm not sure--I'm puzzled.

Faust said...

Did you press your dad on where the compatibility lies? HOW are they compatible? I'm curious what he would answer.

I think that if you think there have been 3 miracles in the history of the universe then you are not a philosophical naturalist, as I understand the term. The question of whether science = philosophical naturalism seems to me to the the question at hand.

amos said...

I don't know Jean's father, although it seems that he is a person whom I would like.


However, I know and you, Faust, undoubtedly know scores of highly intelligent people who have never dedicated 5 minutes of their mental energy to thinking about the compatibility of religion and
philosophical naturalism.


It seems to be a sign of intellectual maturity and autonomy, a stage which I have not yet reached, to not let
Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers define the agenda of intellectual problems which one seriously considers. When I reach the age of Jean's father, I hope that I will have attained that level of autonomy and maturity.

amos said...

Faust: When I reread my last comment, it sounds patronizing.
That was not my intention. Best, Amos

Jean Kazez said...

Next time I see my father (at Thanksgiving) I'll ask him about this again.

I guess this is what I'm thinking--methodological naturalism alone doesn't define the scientific outlook. You can't believe in a world infested with fairies, and really see the world scientifically. You have to get both your methods and your ontology from science. Or at least...mostly. That's what I'm wondering...can you think there have been a few weird, science-defiant moments in history?

I know--that sounds crazy. But my guess is that that's what some science-friendly religious people might say. They think as far as both methods and ontology go, science is in charge of explaining events. But they think in the middle east a couple of thousand years ago, there were some very special days...

So science covers everything but those few days. Is that nuts? Or is it like saying Italian law doesn't cover the vatican--perfectly intelligible?

I'm just think aloud. As I say, I don't have a position. I just wanted to point out a few problems with Coyne's argument, as opposed to taking a stand on compatibility.

So don't hold me to the "weird days" story! Just thinking here... I'd like to see a sophisticated discussion of this issue from the philosophy of religion crowd before making up my mind.

Faust said...

1. Amos: Not offended. I tend not to take things personally, but thanks :)

2. Jean: Believe me, I'm definitely using this as a forum to think out loud. If you want "nuts," remember who my favorite philosopher is...

Having said that I want to make clear what I'm saying. I'm not talking about how people reason here (not ultimately) I'm just expressing what I see as the logical LIMITS of what can be done in this problem space (to borrow a term from physics).

I think if you admit at any point that there were some "special days" regardless of what other commitments you have, you think there is a supernatural layer to reality. Otherwise how else could those special days have occured? And to be clear this could be supernatural in the broad sense e.g. "we live in a giant simulation and there are superintelligences one world up that occasionaly intervene by alterering the code that underlies the nomic structure of the universe."

If you think there are/were miracles, even ONE miracle, then you have to ask: why then and not now? And if you don't, if you want to carve out a "special place" for your "special days" then you are essentially admiting that you are rational in all areas but this one area. I just don't see any way around it.

Now here I will put my own cards on the table. As it happens I think, with Wittgenstein, that morality is supernatural. I think you can't ever get a naturalist closure on ethics. I think everyone ultimately carves out a "special place" for their commtiments, and there is no objective way to justify those commitments. You can give good reasons, GREAT reasons, for those commitments, but those reasons will ultimately fold on some premise that is MERELY asserted. Suffering is bad. Pleasure is good. etc. And I think this line of thinking is exactly what Sam Harris wants to defeat.

Of course this is a different kind of supernaturalism than the kind of supernaturalism that dallies with ontology and root causes. It's not concerned with explanation at all. It tells us what we ought to be doing, and when we engage in that activity we may draw on all the facts we like, but we are still bringing an order to the way things are (when we suggest how they ought to be) that comes from "the outside" of how they are in and of themselves.

Jean Kazez said...

The "3 weird days" idea doesn't completely throw out philosophical naturalism--people who think this way don't believe there are fairies and ghosts all over the place. There were just...well, 3 weird days. With some extra entities going rogue... Apart from the 3 days, both methodological and philosophical naturalism are in force.

Well...that's how I read science-friendly religious folk, anyway. I'm not sure that's irrational, and not sure science itself is badly undermined by such a vision. In short...I'm not sure.

Hmm--"me first" morality as a kind of supernaturalism. Because all the "me first" attitudes are true, despite their incompatibility?

amos said...

Maybe the 3 rogue days can be explained better in psychological terms than in philosophical ones.

People, especially smart people like most scientists, are good at compartamentalizing their minds.

For Christian scientists, those 3
rogue days are a separate compartment of their mind, which in no way touches their scientific work.


For people who aren't so smart and aren't as skillful at keeping compartments separated, those 3 rogue days tend to filter into their general way of explaining or describing the universe and that creates problems such as the rejection of methodological naturalism in their daily life.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not trying to explain the days. I'm trying to think about what it means to believe in them. Is it irrational? Does it undercut science badly? Does it mean completely rejecting philosophical naturalism? If you do believe in them, how should you see yourself--still as a friend of science (or not)?

amos said...

My language was not exact: I actually wasn't trying to explain the days myself.


I was trying to explain how smart scientists can believe in those rogue days, without it undermining their commitment to science and how belief in those rogue days can undermine a scientific worldview in people who are less smart and less skillful at compartimentalizing their thoughts.

I assume that the ability to compartimentalize one's thoughts is related to intelligence.

Faust said...

I still think "3 special days" creates a problem, but I think I need a white board at this point.

And I wouldn't say it's "me first" morality, it's not about "me" per se, it's just the way subjectivity works. Here is an analogy:

If I'm in Australia the equator is North. If I'm in the US the equator is South. The direction of the equator is relative to my position on the earth, but it is the true direction of the equator relative to my position.

If I'm a strong deontologist then lying is wrong no matter what. If I'm a strong utilitarian then lying is acceptable if it brings about net positive conequences. The ethical logic in both cases is valid once one accepts the presuppositional axioms of the ethical systems as sound.

No "me first" required.

Jean Kazez said...

Yeah, I simplified much too much. Maybe "me special"? Sorry for the two word summaries, I was/am pressed for time. I think I do get it though, even without the white board:-)

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think you're talking about "agent relative" duties, prerogatives, permissions, etc., to use the jargon in the literature.

But anyway...

I was hoping to get back to the main point of the post. There is a logical blunder in the middle of Coyne's column, and I'm amazed his fans haven't discussed it (that I can see). I was kind of hoping a Coyne-o-phile would drop by and comment, or maybe even the great man himself.