No Conflict between Science and Religion?

By | February 19, 2010

From the Associated Press, March 3, 2009
* Vatican official calls atheist theories ‘absurd’
Cardinal Levada: No conflict between evolution science and faith in God
ROME – A Vatican cardinal said Tuesday that the Catholic Church does not stand in the way of scientific realities like evolution, though he described as “absurd” the atheist notion that evolution proves there is no God.


Is Religious Faith compatible with the Evolutionary Sciences?

The good Cardinal Levada may be sure of his position (*See above), but there are reasons for questioning this popular view that science is compatible with religious faith. The view of “harmony between science and faith” can be restated in terms of the following claims:

• A significant number of scientists are also people of religious faith and belief in God.
• The sciences do not disprove God’s existence.
• Being a scientist and doing scientific work is consistent with believing in God.
• Naturalism is a philosophy that is incompatible with supernatural religion, but science is not committed to naturalism as a philosophy.
(This is part of the general view that science and religion are separate endeavors and have nothing to do with each other, e.g. Stephen J. Gould’s idea of science and religion comprising Separate Magisteria.)

Let’s consider these claims. First, the alleged compatibility based on the fact that many scientists are also believers in God results in a very weak sense of “compatibility.” As Jerry A. Coyne says, it’s much like saying that marriage is compatible with adultery because some married people practice adultery. Or like saying that being a Roman Catholic priest is compatible with paedophilia because a number of priests sexually abuse young people, or like saying that investment counselling is compatible with fraudulence because some counsellors turn out to be frauds. People, like Coyne or Richard Dawkins, who argue that science is not compatible with supernaturalism, are surely aware that some scientists cannot shake free of supernaturalism of some kind. What they argue is that a correct understanding of the scientific approach and knowledge implies a rejection of supernaturalism.

Second, the sciences are not in the business of proving or disproving God’s existence; but any look at the Western history — the rise of science and enlightenment thinking — reveals that the sciences have built (and continue to build) a strong case against any super-naturalistic view of nature, of history and society.

Third, it is a very weak argument to claim compatibility because scientists, like Kenneth Miller and Francis S. Collins, find belief in a god to be consistent with their scientific work. It might be true that neither evolutionary biology nor genetics proves there is no God; thus, belief in such an entity is not directly contradicted by knowledge gained in biology or a genetics. But it is also true that other scientists might hold bizarre beliefs consistent with their scientific work, e.g. some might find belief in ‘Voodoo arts’ to be consistent, some reincarnation, and some find that New Age Mysticism is consistent with their work as chemists. In short, the fact that a Miller or a Collins finds supernaturalism consistent with their science does nothing to show any compatibility between science proper and supernaturalism, unless we also admit a ‘compatibility’ with all forms of occultism, belief in magic or a variety of other bizarre beliefs.

Fourth, this relates to the distinction between naturalism as method and as philosophy, a distinction popularized by Eugenie Scott. As philosopher M. Pigliucci states it, rather than involving philosophical assumptions regarding the nature of reality, methodological naturalism is just a “provisional and pragmatic” position that scientists take in order to do their work. Unlike philosophical naturalism, the methodological type does not involve any denial of the supernatural possibility. Thus, we have scientists like Kenneth Miller pointing out that scientists do not take a vow of philosophical naturalism, but only commit themselves to the methodological kind. He tells us that all science requires is methodological naturalism, and that we “live in a material world,’ and use “the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” Hence, science is limited to “purely naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those have validity as science.” (From “The Reality Club,” comments on Jerry Coyne Essay, Seeing and Believing,”

But according to Miller, such commitment does not commit the scientist to a philosophy (viz. naturalism) which denies the supernatural possibility. Thus, religious faith, Roman Catholicism in Miller’s case, is quite safe from erosion by the force of scientific knowledge.

Are people like Miller and Scott correct? Are the sciences correctly characterized as essentially naturalistic method, with no implication of a naturalistic philosophy?

The answer is a resounding “NO” according to a significant number of scientists, theoreticians of the sciences, and philosophers of science. Scientists like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Taner Edis and others have written books arguing the non-compatibility thesis. Philosophers like Daniel Dennett have also argued impressively against the compatibility claim. A recent article in “The New Republic” by evolutionary scientist, Jerry A. Coyne, (“Seeing and Believing,” February 04, 2009) presents interesting and telling arguments against compatibility. A materialistic explanation of nature, he tells us, is not a philosophical assumption of science but is an idea which has resulted from years of successful scientific research. In other words, the work of science supports the view that nature is to be explained in materialistic terms, completely devoid of reference to the supernatural. In short, the sciences and philosophical naturalism are more closely tied together than Miller and Scott suggest. Mario Bunge, in another recent article agrees [See his “The philosophy behind pseudoscience", Skeptical Inquirer 30 (4) 29-27 (2006)]. He tells us that every intellectual endeavor, including science, has an underlying philosophy. He states that “the philosophy behind evolutionary biology is naturalism (or materialism) together with epistemological realism.” He adds that “by contrast, the philosophy behind creationism (whether traditional or “scientific”) is supernaturalism (the oldest variety of idealism).”

Given the arguments advanced by these people, the idea that science can be characterized as pure methodology, devoid of naturalistic philosophy, is very questionable. Even Miller, when he argues the case of natural selection against so-called “intelligent design,” does not take evolutionary biology to be pure method. He cites the well-grounded theory and body of knowledge established by the science to make his case against the “Intelligent Design” proponents. But he stops there; he does not use the same biological findings to raise question regarding Christian theism. However, his work and arguments contra creationism and Intelligent Design demonstrate that he really does not limit himself, as a scientist, to method. Granted, we can make the philosophical distinction between method and philosophy; but ultimately this distinction doesn’t do much in the debate between naturalists and super-naturalists, other than offer some psychological comfort to the super-naturalist.

In conclusion, the touted distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism does little to show that science and religion are compatible. The same can be said regarding the claims that “science does not disprove God,” that many scientists are also persons of faith and find belief in God compatible with their work in the sciences. None of these makes much headway in showing that the sciences are compatible with a commitment to a supernatural view of reality.

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