Posted on Jul 11, 2009 by Tom Gilson
Sean Carroll, physicist at CalTech, says science and religion are incompatible—not that they couldn’t be compatible, somewhere, though:
It’s not hard to imagine an alternative universe in which science and religion were compatible — one in which religious claims about the functioning of the world were regularly verified by scientific practice. We can easily conceive of a world in which the best scientific techniques of evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing left us with an understanding of the workings of Nature which included the existence of God and/or other supernatural phenomena. (St. Thomas Aquinas, were he alive today, would undoubtedly agree, as would many religious people who actually are alive.) It’s just not the world we live in. (That’s where they would disagree.)
Bravo! And Well Done!
Carroll makes some important and useful points in this article. He raises a warning against the Stephen Jay Gould mistake of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA),” which suggests that science and religion can get along because they never discuss the same matters. A magisterium is an area of authority to teach: religion has authority in one realm, science in another, says Gould, and the realms are so distinct from each other, there is so little overlap between them, the two could never really contradict one another. Carroll explains it this way.
One strategy to assert the compatibility between science and religion has been to take a carving knife to the conventional understanding of “religion,” attempting to remove from its purview all of its claims about the natural world.
That would be the strategy adopted, for example, by Stephen Jay Gould with his principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria.
The problem with that is plain to see, and Carroll gets it right:
It’s utterly at variance with the meaning of the word “religion” as used throughout history, or as understood by the vast majority of religious believers today. Those people believe in a supernatural being called “God” who created the universe, is intensely interested in the behavior of human beings, and occasionally intervenes miraculously in the natural world.
There are other misuses of the term “religion” that Carroll corrects:
Of course, nothing is to stop you, when you say the word “religion,” from having in mind something like “moral philosophy,” or perhaps “all of nature,” or “a sense of wonder at the universe.” You can use words to mean whatever you want; it’s just that you will consistently be misunderstood by the ordinary-language speakers with whom you are conversing. And what is the point? If you really mean “ethics” when you say “religion,” why not just say “ethics”? … If you hold some unambiguously non-supernatural position that you are tempted to refer to as “religion” — awe at the majesty of the universe, a conviction that people should be excellent to each other, whatever — resist the temptation!
To this I say bravo, and well done, sir! What’s the point of watering down a word so it doesn’t mean anything anymore?
Science Disproves Religion?
If only he got the rest of it as right as that! The quote I opened with could have been interpreted rather mildly and uncontroversially as “science and religion are incompatible simply in that because science doesn’t provide proofs for religion.” I could get along with a conclusion like that (though it’s stretching the meaning of “incompatible”), but that’s not what Carroll meant. He thinks science has disproved religion:
The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” [sic] or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.
But science does not say those beliefs are false (except for the six-day creation, of course, which continues to be a bone of contention). Consider his final example, “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” I disagree with this belief as strongly as I possibly could disagree with it. But I can’t think of any scientific reason to disagree with it. My disagreement is based in God’s word, the Bible, which says it is appointed to all to die once, and then comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Could Carroll offer one scientific reason to find reincarnation false? Does he have a test for transmigration of souls? Is there a journal article on it? Does he know of an experiment showing that souls don’t exist, and has it been published in the peer-reviewed literature?
What about “Jesus died and was resurrected,” or “Moses parted the Red Sea”? Does science say that didn’t happen? No. Some scientists say it couldn’t happen, but all they’re saying is that the regularities of nature they’ve seen have never ever been broken, and therefore their limited sample of reality rules all of it. They have a decent statistical case, perhaps, but every statistician knows that the tails of the bell curve never touch the x-axis. Statistics can’t prove an outlier (a statistically improbable event) is impossible. Even Carroll insisted in his article that science never proves anything.
No, the reason Carroll thinks these things are impossible is because he has invested natural law with metaphysical absoluteness. It is a metaphysical position, not a scientific one. The Biblical view is that miracles are statistically improbable (otherwise they wouldn’t be miracles) but nevertheless possible under God’s intentional direction. Natural law is not the ultimate or the absolute that Carroll thinks it is, and science cannot prove that it is; or if can, where then is the article in Science or Nature that actually does prove it?
Not the Only Way of Knowing
You might think that the above, Carroll’s view that science has disproved religion, would be my point of greatest disagreement with an article like his. Close, but not quite. Look again at this:
We can easily conceive of a world in which the best scientific techniques of evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing left us with an understanding of the workings of Nature which included the existence of God and/or other supernatural phenomena.
Scientifically speaking, the existence of God is an untenable hypothesis. It’s not well-defined, it’s completely unnecessary to fit the data, and it adds unhelpful layers of complexity without any corresponding increase in understanding.
What’s the problem there? It would appear that Carroll thinks the methods of science rule knowledge. God doesn’t work as a scientific hypothesis, therefore the kind of world that has a God is “just not the world we live in,” and we know for sure that resurrections can’t happen and the Red Sea will never part. Because only science can speak, and science says no to those things. It’s not only that it’s obviously wrong. It’s that this muscle-bound, “you all shut up, I’ll do the talking around here!” attitude about science is a very dangerous approach to knowledge in general.
If it really were the case that only science can produce knowledge, we would certainly lose knowledge of God, because God’s clearest self-revelation has not been through nature. It has been through his personal interaction with real individuals, recorded in the Bible. He continues to relate to persons and communities, and we continue to acquire genuine knowledge of God, through his Word and through his Spirit. Science won’t find that.
In fact it’s astonishing that Carroll would think the things he does about science being able to speak to the religious topics he mentioned. He says the incompatibility of science and religion is “perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look,” but he backs up that “perfectly evident” conclusion with examples that completely fail to address (much less prove) his point. In fact, they illustrate precisely the opposite: that science is the wrong approach to these questions.
Even those who doubt that there is any way to get good answers to those questions must admit that science can’t do it. Why would anyone think otherwise? In part it is because science has been so successful where it has been successful. Where science is competent it is very competent. This has led to a stunningly unaware kind of hubris regarding what science can accomplish—that science is the only route to genuine knowledge.
That’s what bothers me more than anything else in Carroll’s piece. For under that principle we would lose even more than knowledge of God. We would lose all knowledge about value. Science doesn’t speak to value. Science says what the world is like, but as science it does not know what the world ought to be like.
Undermining Science With Scientific Hubris
We would even lose science itself under that principle of knowledge; for the belief, “the methods of science rule all knowledge” is not a scientific belief. You won’t find this one demonstrated by experiment and reported in a scientific journal, either. If all knowledge must come through scientific methods, then there is no way we could know that all knowledge must come through science, for that is the kind of information science can’t produce.
So under this principle we would lose science. That would be a terrible, tragic loss. I don’t think we would ever actually see that happen, though, because the scientific enterprise would continue to run, in spite of false beliefs held by its practitioners, including Sean Carroll. After all, as he said himself,
There is no problem at all with individual scientists holding all sorts of incorrect beliefs, including about science.