Friday, January 4, 2013

Science and Religion compatible? Not exactly.

I ran across an interview yesterday on Discover between Keith Kloor and Daniel Sarewitz.

I actually agreed with most of it but Keith asks a question about whether religion and science are compatible and I took some issue with the answer.
DS: There are lots of scientists who are also religious, so as an empirical matter science and religion are apparently not incompatible. ... We have binary arguments because they are easy and mindless and comforting–no one has to acknowledge ambiguity or complexity; everyone gets to be right. Binary arguments are a refuge for orthodoxies, and atheism can be as much an orthodoxy as religion. I say this as an atheist. I am not an agnostic. I don’t believe in god(s) and I think those that do are incorrect. But I think humans have lots of different ways of making sense of their experience of the world, and my way happens to be atheism.
Now, honestly I agree that many people engage in binary arguments to comfort themselves but ironically I think this is exactly what Sarewitz is doing. When someone asks the question "are religion and science compatible?" there are several potential meanings to this question.  One possible meaning, the one Sarewitz assumes, is to ask if religious people are capable of being scientists.  If that is what is being asked then I agree with him.  It is obvious that religious people can be scientists.  Ken Miller, for instance, is a Catholic but is a also a good biologist who has strongly advocated for science standards and stood up against creationism being taught in schools.

The problem I see is that when people ask "are religion and science compatible?" they are rarely asking if religious people are capable of being scientists.  They are often asking if religion and science are philosophically compatible or they are asking if various religious claims match with the findings of science.  These are very different, and much more interesting, questions.

To examine this let me ask a question that I think is analogous.  Is homeopathy and science compatible? If by this question we are asking if homeopaths can be scientists then I would also answer yes.  A person might be a homeopath and work in a field like electrical engineering or theoretical physics and do quite well with their work in that field.  Of course if they were to speak about or try to work in the fields of medicine, biology, and perhaps chemistry it is likely that their belief in homeopathy would be a hindrance, but there are still many areas where they could produce good science.  This is because many scientists work in very narrow fields and are not necessarily any more knowledgeable about fields outside their purview than the average person.

However, if by "is homeopathy and science compatible we mean to ask if the findings of homeopathy fit with findings of science the answer is a resounding "no." Further, to believe in homeopathy is to necessarily claim things about chemistry and biology that we have good reason to think are false.

Now, granted to be "religious" is a lot more vague than to be a homeopath.  There are hundreds of religions and thousands of interpretations of each one of them.  However, many religious people do make claims that do not fit with science or at the very least have not been proven using science.  If a person claims to believe prayer can heal, he does so in direct opposition to the available evidence. (anecdotes don't count) If a person claims to believe in a god, well his claim may not be contradicted by known evidence, (depending on their definition of god) but neither is it supported by any.  This does not mean the person is a terrible scientist in the area of their expertise but it does mean they have accepted as true claims which have not been demonstrated with evidence.

Ironically I will quote Jesus here when he pointed out it was impossible to have two masters.  A religious person may practice science for years without any of their findings contradicting their religious beliefs, but the question is what will that person do if they run into something that does contradict their religion?  Are they willing to accept that their beliefs are wrong in favor of the science or will they deny the new findings to hold onto their beliefs?  Of course this is not just a problem specific with religion, anyone can choose to hold onto their beliefs in contradiction to the currently observable facts, but to do so is always counter to the scientific method.

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