Right. Let’s see if I can get back on track blogging instead of letting those pesky little details like work and life get in the way. One needs a sense of priority after all.
So, lately, the buzz around the blogosphere has been about whether or not science and religion are compatible. The spark was apparently a new blog from Jerry Coyne. In one posting, referenced is Lawrence Krauss, who quoted Sam Harris arguing that reconciling modern science with Iron age convictions was “ridiculous”. Of course, PZ Myers had several observations on this discussion, the latest of which can be found here. Another salvo was fired from Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance. Since this is a topic close to my interests, I would be remiss if I were not to throw in my 2 cents.
Are science and religion compatible? Well, if you want to define your religion as a belief in a supernatural being transcendent to the universe and who is undetectable and never interacts with anything in the universe, then sure, why not? I’m in a generous mood, and such a god and science really have nothing to say about each other. Completely useless as a religion, and in reality, this is not the type of entity most religions posit anyway. The big 3 Abrahamic faiths declare a supernatural entity who has (and in many cases continues to) interacted with the universe and humanity in particular. This means we can bring scientific methodology and logical reasoning to bear. In particular, the scriptural texts that are supposedly the best evidence for this god are full of scientific errors, misunderstandings, and contradictions. Metaphorizing stories away aside, we know there the world was not created in 6 days 6000 years ago. We were not made separate from the animals from dust. The evidence is clear that there was no global flood. The world is not supported on pillars. Historical and literary analysis shows it highly likely that Jesus never existed..
The claims about the state of the world reached via religious means have almost always been contradicted when careful scientific scrutiny has been applied. Indeed, claims about human nature reached via religious means stand in contrast to what we have learned through the painstaking rigor of science. Think about how the linkage between the physical construct of the brain and our personality stands in stark contrast to the idea of an invisible and immortal soul, for example. Each time, those who wish to hold on to religious faith must dance around the problems, squeeze their god into tinier gaps, and/or build elaborate baroque smoke, mirror metaphors to make it look like the religious stories don’t really conflict with reality, or try to dismantle science education by trying to get mythology taught as science. Now one of the ways these religions claim that a god interacts with the universe is via miracles. Making the sun stand still for a day. Resurrecting a corpse. Helping people getting better from various ailments by proper usage of various drugs under the care of a doctor. Oh wait, that latter was actually science and the hard work of doctors.
I have seen one argument made by a few of my fellow atheists (and I’m not sure where I read this) on the compatibility issue that I don’t think is quite correct. The argument is that the miracles did not happen, because they are incompatible with reality. Well, yes. That’s pretty much the point. A god above the laws of physics can do whatever he or she wants. That would count as pretty good evidence that such a being exists (assuming appropriate verification can be made, of course). The correct question is whether or not such events took place. It seems all the major miracles occurred long ago. The further back, the more miraculous. The scriptural stories including miracles have been handed down over the centuries copied down from sources which were second hand at best. We know how easily fooled our brains are, even first hand. Given the major problems inherent in the Bible, we simply have no reason to think that these stories are in any way reliable. We have no reliable evidence these events took place.
Now some do argue that science and religion are compatible in the sense that some scientists do hold religious beliefs. This does not mean that the religious beliefs they hold are compatible with scientific knowledge. As Sam Harris points in The End of Faith, our imperfect finite brains are perfectly capable of holding a contradictory set of beliefs. The scientific work is approached via honest and rigorous inquiry without mixing religion. Religious beliefs are dealt with by varying combinations of subjective feelings and authoritative dogma. As long as they are kept out of direct internal conflict, the cognitive dissonance is not recognized as such. Or the cognitive dissonance is skirted around by unjustifiable rationalizations for the religious views. Perhaps in some sense, the religious belief system is seen as a beautiful and fragile crystal. Too delicate for the full brunt of critical scientific and logical inquiry. However, long ago I and many others have seen that this beautiful crystal is nothing but cheap glass. It’s not doing anything useful and gets in the way of our understanding of how things work. Its beauty is simply an illusion that disappears on closer and honest scrutiny.