A Good Question

“Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?” asks Jerry Coyne in his essay Seeing and Believing. Simply put, the question is, is it psychologically contradictory to claim to believe in God and evolution (or science in general) at the same time?

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

I think Jerry Coyne, whose book Why Evolution is True I intend to read some day, has posed a very good question here. The answer is certainly not straightforward. According to Albert Einstein science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind. He observed strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies between religion and science. But as Coyne has noted, the existence of religious scientists is wearing thin. A survey involving thirty-four countries revealed an inverse correlation between the degree of faith and the acceptance of evolution.

There’s a very interesting debate about this question here. I liked the following comment by the philosopher Daniel Danette:

Each reason for belief in God is defensible up to a point, but we need to weigh the indirect side effects of going along with tradition. First, there’s the systematic hypocrisy that poisons discourse, and even more important, our vulnerability to those who abuse the “reverence” with which we are supposed to respond to their indulgences. We can continue to respect the good intentions of those who persist in professing belief in God, but we’ll be doing them a favor if we stop pretending that we respect the arguments they use to sustain these fantasies.

Sam Harris’ sarcastic response is worth reading. But the best response comes from Steven Pinker. At the risk of quoting too much, below is an excerpt:

Knowledge is a continuous fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas. Reason-free zones, in which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric, just as a contradiction can corrupt a system of logic, allowing falsehoods to proliferate through it.

Science can not be walled off from other forms of belief. That includes meaning and morality – reason connects them all. […] Just as coherent biological reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that God can step in at any moment and push the molecules around, coherent moral reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that the universe unfolds according a divine merciful plan, that humans have a free will that is independent of their neurobiology, or that people can behave morally only if they fear divine retribution in an afterlife.

Reason is non-negotiable. Try to argue against it, or to exclude it from some realm of knowledge, and you’ve already lost the argument, because you’re using reason to make your case. And no, this isn’t having “faith” in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don’t “believe” in reason; we use reason.

I think Pinker is absolutely right that the rigorous standards of logic and evidence should be applied to the claims of religion and its attempts to reconcile with science. There’s no reason why the validity of religion should not be tested against the standards of reason.

One response to “A Good Question

  1. Pingback: The Incompatibility Between Science and Religion « A Blank Slate

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