9/20/2008

GOOD SCIENCE, GOOD RELIGION?

Let's ignore the question of whether or not both of those are possible. After all, I have friends who maintain that the two flavors that religion come in are not 'bad and good', but 'bad and worse.' No, the question I'm interested in is whether or not there is any necessary linkage between good science and good religion, and whether this linkage flows in both directions, but just one.

With that in mind, I'd like to reference this article by Malcolm Brown, who is the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England (COE). The article is part of a general outreach/education effort on the part of COE as to how it regards Darwin and his legacy (much of which can be found on the sidebars of the web page with Brown's article). In general, Brown's conclusions are uncontroversial to the informed: there is no necessary conflict between faith and the practice of science, some Christians past and present don't give Darwin or evolution a fair shake, some people have misapplied Darwin's theory, et cetera.

However, many (including the mathematician Jason Rosenhouse) take no small exception to what seems to be part of the implied thesis, that good science needs good religion, as when Brown writes:

There is no integrity to be found either in rejecting Darwin's ideas wholesale or in elevating them into the kind of grand theory which reduces humanity to the sum of our evolutionary urges. For the sake of human integrity -- and thus for the sake of good Christian living -- some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential.

To which Jason retorts:

No, it is not essential. The cause of human integrity is not furthered in the slightest by Christianity. Nor is there integrity in trying desperately to preserve outdated ways of thinking in the face of scientific advances that show them to be entirely without merit.

Brown refers to his sort of thinking as “Good religion.” It is good in the following sense: the world would be a better place if fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity disappeared off the face of the Earth and were replaced with Brown's way of thinking.

But in another sense it is not good religion. Brown has not squarely faced the problems evolution poses for Christianity. He does not even seem to recognize them. The fundamentalists do recognize the problem, and they have made their choice as to which side they are on. He is free, of course, to believe whatever he wants. I object, however, to the suggestion that somehow he is doing it right, and those Christians less sanguine about reconciling Christianity and evolution are doing it wrong. Picking and choosing the parts of Christianity you like while ignoring the parts that conflict with science is not an act of integirty. It is an act of intellectual desperation.

Now, as a theist I'm inclined to give Brown the benefit of the doubt, and I suggested to Jason that perhaps Brown was not saying that "human integrity is furthered by, much less dependent upon Christianity":

[Brown] is saying 'good Christian living' must be in accord with 'human integrity.' It is a poor faith that denies the existence of facts simply because they seem to be at odds with traditional beliefs. I don't doubt that a believer like Brown sees Christianity as making a world a better place, and as a skeptic you are more inclined to see it as a plague, but that's not the claim that's being made. You clearly misread the claim because you are provoked by any association with Christianity.

Jason favored me with a lengthy response, and on the above point he replied:

I did not misread Brown's statement, “For the sake of human integrity -- and thus for the sake of good Christian living -- some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential.” The sentence couldn't be clearer that a rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential for the sake of human integrity. That statement is nonsense, for the reason I gave in the post. The dashed clause does nothing to change that fact.

At this point, I wondered if there was some possibility that Jason was correct, and that I was wrong. As a Christian, I had read Brown's article as an address to his fellow Christians, specifically communicants of the COE. But Jason is not a believer, and from his point of view this wasn't about Christians needing a faith that doesn't deny facts of nature---this was more along the lines of claiming that scientists need to make nice-nice with Christianity in order to have integrity. Which of these interpretations was correct? It would matter to me not just because I like to know when I am wrong, but also because as a personal matter I don't think any belief system should be priviliged outside its domain, and certainly not within science.

Obviously, the best way of answering this question is to go to the source, and so I wrote the Rev. Brown a little note, which read (in part) as follows:

Dear Sir:

I'm a high school science teacher in the United States and a member of the National Center for Science Education, which is the leading organization in the US committed to the teaching of evolution. I am also a sincere Christian (Methodist) who by virtue of my occupation is often asked to answer questions about the intersection of science and faith.

As such, I take no small interest in claims made by fellow Christians regarding that nexus, and how we should attempt to bridge the gap between the natural world of the scientist and the realm of faith. Your recent article "Good religion needs good science" naturally prompts some to wonder if the inverse is true: does good science, in effect, need good religion, or at least some kind of understanding, some quid pro quo with some sort of religion?.....I certainly agree that a Christian who denies the overwhelming evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution is at best misguided, at worst lacking integrity. We need a faith that is big enough to grapple with the world as it is, not as how some might wish it to be. But does it follow, then, that a non-Christian can not affirm a purely naturalistic account with integrity? If so, why?

I realize you are very busy in service to the Church, but if you could take the time when you can find it to venture a reply, I would greatly appreciate an elaboration of your views on these points.

To his credit, Brown replied as follows:

I think that you and I are likely to agree on all essentials. I find myself wondering whether you have read the article in full as it concludes with precisely the point you make - the suggestion that good science does indeed need good religion.

At this point, I despaired. Did I fail to read the article carefully? Is Jason correct? But Rev. Brown, in his reply, continues:

One of the anxieties which I was trying to address is the absence of integrity in lives which compartmentalise religious belief whilst continuing to relate to the material world as if those beliefs are suspended. I am more perplexed by your question about whether a non-Christian can affirm a purely naturalistic account with integrity. I would say that the naturalistic account is available to both the believer and the non believer but that, without some perception of what the religious imagination is seeking to uncover (I don't just mean adherence to a belief system or faith) the naturalistic account is distinctly "thin".

What I mean here is that reaching out to the transcendent - to God, however God is conceived - inevitably takes us beyond the limits of human language and categories. That's why it is so important to understand that great truths are conveyed in poetry as well as in formulae and that the positivist assumption that nothing is meaningful if it can't be falsified (a view which is now, of course, rather discredited amongst philosophers) is seriously deficient. This is where the militant secularists, and the fundamentalists who reject Darwin and all his works, are two sides of the same coin - both are applying an essentially modernist epistemology to matters that can't be reached that way. So the Biblical literalist is treating scripture as if it were conveying evidential meaning in the same verifyable, and falsifiable, way as a chemical formula. Indeed, religious fundamentalisms are essentially creatures of modernity - as I say in the essay, Thomas Aquinas would have been unable to understand the "science vs. religion" divide - for him they were all part of an integral human endeavour.

The bottom line, as I read it, is that Jason and I were both right. Jason was right in the sense that Brown was claiming good science needs good religion. But by that Brown wasn't meaning that you needed to be religious to be a good scientist, which is how I interpreted (misapprehended?) Jason's retort. Rather, he was saying (as he says in his article's conclusion) that science, in order to be good, 'works constructively' with religion. Now, how do I feel about that claim?

In general, I agree that the scientific community as a whole should strive to interact in a constructive way with other human communities, including those of a religious nature. Certainly, as a theist I have at times felt the anxiety that attends compartmentalizing faith and the practice of science. I think Brown's point that the present version of Biblical literalism practiced by many fundamentalists is a relatively recent innovation is sound, and I would add that the position of inerrancy taught in many churches in the States is heterodox. Certainly I agree that there are aspects of the human experience that are not amenable to scientific investigation, that there is more to life than chemical formula.

Having said that, I think Brown's conclusion is under-sourced in the facts department, and I would like a little more context. One could easily read his article's conclusion as implying that one can not practice science with integrity without, in a sense, priviliging some version of religion. In reality, as Jason and many others have pointed out, there is an overlap between the realm of testable claims and the alleged consequences of various sorts of supernatural claims. Science, in order to retain its integrity, needs to have the freedom to investigate (and attempt to falsify!) the latter, and that includes claims that might put the nose of the religious out-of-joint.

One could also read Brown's conclusion as implying that good scientists are going to adopt a conciliatory attitude toward religion. If so, I disagree. E.O. Wilson (who is not a believer) strikes a conciliatory note in The Creation, for example, but does it follow because Steven Weinberg gently but firmly rejects any role for religion that the latter is a poor scientist? Certainly not. Scientific integrity doesn't require priviliging another's beliefs; in fact, the opposite is likely to be truth. In order to accept Brown's conclusion, I would have to believe that the brief 'constructive' does not preclude a healthy skepticism.

On the other hand, I do believe that, in order to have integrity, believers should pursue a rapprochement with good science. They may not achieve this goal, but they should certainly be engaged with the facts available to them, and not attempt to suppress or dismiss things simply because they present difficulties for their faith. On the other hand, I don't mean that religious people must accept the provisional claims of science as Gospel---good scientists certainly don't! Nor do I believe that creationists lack integrity because they do not accept widely-accepted scientific theories. Rather, I think that believers must have the integrity to look at the evidence honestly, and not use bad arguments, misinformation or outright falsehoods in support of their beliefs. There are creationists who do grapple with the evidence available to them, and who attempt to promote their beliefs without chicanery. I don't share their views, but I won't assume that in order to have integrity they should.

I invite comments.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Scott,

I hope this isn't too personal, (and if it is, ignore it), but I really don't understand how a rational person like you, who's a science teacher, can believe in a God, or christianity?

First of all, I'd like to know if you really believe that there exists a supernatural being who interferes and affects human activities? I'm guessing you do, because you call yourself a christian, but I'm very interested to know how you believe in this even with the lack of scientific evidence? For example, if a god was able to influence our lives, what is the measurable mechanism by which that entity does?

Also, do you really believe in the resurrection of Christ, knowing that it would be impossible based on our current scientific knowledge? How about heaven and hell, the infallibility of the pope, or the idea that prayers are answered?

I'm really curious to know how a rational person is able to reconcile religious beliefs in the total lack of scientific evidence.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Hi, anonymous!

First of all, let me begin by saying that I don't think that any one, including science teachers, can reason themselves to faith. If evidence could be produced for a miraculous event, it would almost certainly be 'naturalized', explained in terms of natural causes, and thus not a miracle at all. Science as an enterprise is successful precisely because it has limited its domain to natural causes, and so it can only rule on the alleged natural consequences of any supernatural claim.

Two well-known aphorisms apply:

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

(This typically rules out an entire host of claims, not just supernatural claims)

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Having said that, I hold pretty conventional Christian beliefs, and you can read about that here. If you peruse the categories 'Behind the Curtain' and 'science and faith discussion' you can also get further insight into my thought.

Finally, the presumption that the only category of evidence that counts is scientific evidence is not in and of itself warranted by evidence in my opinion. There is historical evidence and subjective experience, for example. Would I admit such evidence uncritically into a scientific discussion? By no means, but neither would I pretend that I can rule them out simply because they can't be placed on a lab bench.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

I appreciate your reply, thanks for the links.

R. Moore said...

My main problem with Malcom Brown, is that his logic in based upon the invention of, as he puts it "the militant atheist". His argument is not with people, it is with the universe. He is trapped in the idea that things have meaning because *he* exists -- he implies that poetry or art or "transcendental" (by its very definition a concept irrelevant to the issue at hand) things are necessary. Well to Mr. Brown perhaps, but not to the natural world. It is unimpressed by all human thought (I find his reasoning as laughable as that of Francis Collins and his experience with a rainbow).

I have to say I thought your original criticism of Jason Rosenhouse was off-base, for the reason mentioned in this post, and was interested on how this would play out.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Richard (re: Jason's original post)...it's interesting to me how often I manage to misunderstand what other bright, articulate people are saying, all but inviting the sneering comments about my reading comprehension skills. This tends to happen to me on the philosophy of science/critiques of religion quite a bit, and this suggests to me that no matter how hard people try to be objective, we end up stumbling due to our own commitments, and thus read things that were never intended. All the more reason to bend over backward in the gentility department.

Stan said...

Scott said,
"On the other hand, I don't mean that religious people must accept the provisional claims of science as Gospel---good scientists certainly don't! Nor do I believe that creationists lack integrity because they do not accept widely-accepted scientific theories. Rather, I think that believers must have the integrity to look at the evidence honestly, and not use bad arguments, misinformation or outright falsehoods in support of their beliefs."(emph added)

Scott, I think there is a persistent misperception of science as "fact-producing" when its claims are, as you say, provisional, not incontrovertable.

Similarly, the bible is taken to be "infallible", in the sense of factually incontovertable, when it is a group of historical, biographical, literary, allegorical and other types of writing deivices that contains an underlying truth, not an attempt at empirical fact.

Just as truth will not come out of a continuing empirical search of our universe, neither is empirical fact to be expected of the bible.

Philosophical Materialist scientists are myopic in their philosophy of material existence only; physics has burst free of these space-time dimensions, even if biology has not. Positing the existence of reality beyond the space-time dimensions in no way violates empirical science; it merely violates the philosophy of materialism.

So it is important to differentiate between the two, the voluntary functional materialism of science and the arbitrary declaration of the material limits of reality demanded by philosophical materialism.

If these are not clarified, then the word "science" takes on a burden it does not deserve, and a criticism it does not deserve.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Actually, Stan, as this article discusses, the technical term for the position you are describing is 'inerrancy', rather than 'infallibility.'

And also, by way of clarification, if I understand you correctly, contemporary physicists are properly speaking neither functional nor philosophical materalists, in that they admit non-material constructs in their theories. Maybe I'm dense, but it seems to me the operative distinction here is not so much whether causes or claims refer to material things, but whether they refer to natural phenomena. And the presumption of naturalism, as I understand it, is binding for all scientists, even string theorists....though it would be hard to tell through all the hand-waving.

R. Moore said...

Stan said:

Similarly, the bible is taken to be "infallible", in the sense of factually incontovertable, when it is a group of historical, biographical, literary, allegorical and other types of writing deivices that contains an underlying truth, not an attempt at empirical fact.

This is a new argument to me, and I am not sure I understand it. As I parse it, the bible is inerrant because it contains various literary constructs that reveal an underlying truth that is inerrant, therefore the bible is inerrant.

This is circular reasoning maybe. But if I restate "the bible is false because if contains various constructs that reveal an underlying inaccuracy, therefore the bible is false" it seems like ok logic. Where is the error? In the middle statement I think. To restate now:

"The bible is partly true and partly false (not inerrant) because it contains various constructs, some true, some false". No last clause needed, and the rules of logic hold, I think.

Now the problem is to sort the true and the false into different sets. If we can do this with reliablity, we can begin to make accurate statements about underlying truths. But we must be careful about the application of the constructs. For instance, history. While the bible contains passages of independently verifiable history, it also contains passages of unverifiable history. We cannot say the unverifiable history is false, but neither can we say it is true just because the bible contains passages that are true. Conversely, the bible contains historical passages that are false, we cannot from this conclude all the unverifiable passages are false.

This inability to sort ruins the basis for any logical arguments of biblical truth that depend upon the unverifiable passages. Still a lot of interesting stuff left, though.

benjdm said...

I would say that the naturalistic account is available to both the believer and the non believer but that, without some perception of what the religious imagination is seeking to uncover (I don't just mean adherence to a belief system or faith)

Well, then, what is the religious imagination seeking to uncover if not a belief system? Googling the Church of England...Wiki says, among other things:

"...This is expressed in its strong emphasis on the teachings of the early Church Fathers, in particular as formalised in the Apostolic, Nicene and Athanasian creeds."

Seems pretty solidly a belief system to me.

...the naturalistic account is distinctly "thin".

What I mean here is that reaching out to the transcendent - to God, however God is conceived - inevitably takes us beyond the limits of human language and categories.


So, if I don't use language and categories beyond my abilities, my conceptions are "thin"? I'll have to start trying to figure out how to exceed my limits as a human...

benjdm said...

I have no idea what link I followed to get here to resurrect this old post...oh, well. I love the 'Friend of A' picture on the side.