Posted on Jul 17, 2009 by Tom Gilson
A while ago Geoff Arnold pointed out several “oddities” in my view of science and religion. Some of it I responded to on that thread. (The original post was one I had written about Sean Carroll’s Discover Magazine blog entry, “Science and Religion Are Not Compatible.”) I responded further on an entry titled “Explaining Souls,” and the remainder of my response I am adding here.
I had written,
The Christian response to that is that even though there are competing answers from other religions, where those answers contradict the biblical one, the biblical one is right and they are wrong. (Biblical Christianity takes an unabashedly firm stance on exclusive truth.) There is a reliable, trustworthy set of answers, and they come from one world religion. The answers given by biblical Christianity aren’t guesses, they’re knowledge.
He wrote in response,
So you agree: science and religion are not compatible. Because you clearly believe that an argument from authority (your particular authority) trumps any evidence, reason, or analysis…. why aren’t you congratulating Carroll for making your case so well?
I don’t have a problem with congratulating Carroll for making a good case. I agreed with him that NOMA (Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-overlapping magisteria” concept) is wrong, and I said in the original post, “Bravo, well done!” But Geoff as talking about the ways religion and science acquire knowledge, and he framed it as authority vs. evidence, reason, or analysis.
The two are not mutually exclusive, though. Christianity in particular does not eschew evidence, reason, or analysis. Anyone who has studied the history of ideas knows that Christians have been bringing forth evidence and letting be subjected it to reasoned analysis for thousands of years. I hope I don’t have to demonstrate that here, because it is quite simply a fact of history.
Meanwhile, authority is not the bogeyman it is sometimes portrayed to be.
We all consider it reasonable to regard certain authority-derived information as knowledge. Let me take Geoff’s flight to Shenzhen as an example, and address these questions to him. Though because of his trip, he may not be able to respond directly right away, others may put themselves in his place and answer, since the experience is almost universal, and could be asked about any airplane trip airport from the detail of the destination.
Before you flew there, did you know that the plane was going to take you where you wanted to go? How did you know? You risked a lot of money on the word of an Internet page that promised you a ticket there (I presume that’s how you booked it). You believed a handful of people, a small piece of paper, and some airport flight monitors that told you if you walked through a certain door at one airport, the next door you would walk through would be in Shenzhen. When you walked off of the plane, you (presumably) saw a sign in Roman lettering that said “Shenzhen,” and you believed that was where you were. The Internet site, the airline personnel, the monitors, the boarding pass, and the signs are all authorities. You did not perform scientific tests on them when you booked or boarded the flight, or when you deplaned. You believed them because based on prior experience or testing with like authorities, you had reason to consider them trustworthy.
For that matter, it was not on the basis of science that you believed there even existed a place called Shenzhen. It was on the basis of someone telling you so. That’s authority. Even if it’s a map or a photo, it’s still authority.
So a scientific approach to life is compatible with a parallel authority-based epistemology. I don’t need to congratulate Carroll for making a point for me, since the point Geoff thinks he made for me is not one I agree with, and it’s not a successful one besides.
How does this apply to Christianity? Christianity’s trust in the Bible has been tested, and from both a thinking and experiential perspective, it has been found to meet the test. It has shown its worth and reliability as an authority. Not all will agree with that, obviously. But even if they disagree, they would be wrong to say that a Christian such as myself has accepted authority as “trumping any evidence, reason, or analysis.” I have looked at evidence, I have reasoned and analyzed, and I have come to the conclusion that the Bible’s authority can be trusted.
What about cases where the Bible and science actually confict? In the case of young-earth creationism, I would say the conflict is only apparent. It is not the Bible that’s wrong, it’s a certain interpretation of the Bible. I don’t believe in the young earth version of origins, because I think there is adequate evidence in the natural world to overrule that interpretation, and that there is a way of looking at Genesis chapters 1 and 2 that honors its intended on an older-earth perspective.
(It is also conceivable that the evidence from science is incorrect, and that young-earth creationism is more accurate, but at this point I would consider that quite unlikely. The scientific evidence is very strong. The grounds for considering young-earth creation the only possible interpretation of Genesis are less strong. As many Bible scholars have pointed out, God has spoken through his word and through his creation. Both of them must be interpreted, and it is entirely appropriate to permit the evidence from one to influence one’s interpretation of the other. Properly understood, properly interpreted, what God says through both must agree, for God does not contradict himself.)
Anyway, that’s the only case of conflict I know of. Oh, there are conflicts with some scientists who think their metaphysical position is a scientific position. Sean Carroll is a great example. He trots out a metaphysically-based objection to miracles and says, “this is what science says!” But as I showed in the first post where all this started, it’s not a clash of Bible vs. science. It’s a clash of Bible vs. metaphysics.