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Philo and Sophia

There Is A War Going On Between Religion And Science. Is A Truce Possible


by Ian R Thorpe.

The war, let's be honest, is between religious fundamentalists and science fanatics. Each is straying into the other's territory. But both are out of order and should leave the unanswetrable questions to philosophy. Can there be a truce, can the two coexist?

There Is A War Going On Between Religion And Science. Is A Truce Possible

"Religion's truce with science can't hold". a commentator in The Guardian asked. The first question the better informed reader might well ask is "What truce."

Any scientific project seeking to explain the great questions posed by the human condition is doomed to failure and will conclude with the well worn phrase "more research is needed." Any religious belief seeking to explain the 'how's of the universe is encroaching on the territory of science and for those seeking truth science will always win.

One of the most tedious and most often repeated questions in the public debate about faith has been "are religion and science compatible?" It is a question to which there can be no definitive answer and because that is the case, the question will not go away?

The usual answer is that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a categorical error. Therefore the solution would be for each to respect the other's boundaries allowing them to co - exist in a kind of truce like North and South Korea.

The biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed such an arrangement when he argued that science and religion have non-overlapping doctrines. In his book Rock of Ages, Gould wrote that science deals with "the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two areas do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry." In short, science is empirical, religion is ethical.

A similar approach was taken by by the physicist John Polkinghorne and the mathematician Nicholas Beale in their book, Questions of Truth. They put it thus: "Science is concerned with the question, How? By what process do things happen? Theology is concerned with the question, Why? Is there a meaning and purpose behind what is happening?"

It should be a simple distinction but maintaining it proves to be very difficult indeed. Many "why" questions are unanswerable and therefore stray into a very grey area. If you ask: " When iron it heated to almost white hot why does plunging it into cold water to cool it rapidly give us steel (a primitive form of steel) while allowing it to cool naturally returns it to it's original state. Science can answer that at high temperatures certain molecular changes occur and rapid cooling fixes these changes. That explains the process, the how. Why it happens is a different matter and while scientists tie themselves in knots trying to provide a credible answer to questioners, to say "because that's what God intended" is just a cop out.

This example proves there are many things in the world that are not understood, we use them, we benefit from them but we do not understand the forces at work.

The books by Gould and by Polkinghorne and Beale have both been around a few years and we could say of their reasoned approach, that was then, this is now. In the last decade a conflict has broken out between science and religion. This stems from an almost evangelical faith among some scientists that science can answer any questions and in a cop out of almost religious proportions they simply dismiss any questions that they have no answer for coming up against a resurgence of religious faith in response to the failure of science to build a perfect world.

It is necessary to understand that scientific "why" questions do not imply any deliberate action intent. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, "why" questions are usually about intent. Of a number of people with the same disease and given the same treatment, why do some die and others survive. The answer must involve causation and intention otherwise it is not an answer. The only answer that does stand up in most cases is "We don't know."

"We don't know" may satisfy those of us who have studied Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, the Stoics of Ancient Greece or the European pagan tradition but humans are by nature explanation seeking animals and most have not learned to override that impulse.

This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and the respondent puts God in the answer, it almost inevitably lead to a claim that God has set things a certain way way, or intervened in some way, to make sure the divine purpose is achieved. The neat division between scientific "how" and religious "why" questions therefore turns out to be not so neat.

A lot depends on what we mean by 'science'. If the objective of science is to uncover the laws that govern the universe and nature then no-one of any faith should have an issue with that If however the question to be answered relates to the history of the universe we are on entirely different and much more treacherous ground? Question Big Bang theory and the Science Inquisition will jump on you crying "heretic" and demanding that you be burned. And yet supporters of Big Bang theory have had to invent black holes, dark matter, dark energy and inflation (with no evidence whatsoever other than that they must exist or the equations on which our whole model of the universe is based simply fall apart.

Evolution is a theory that flatly refuses to be evidenced by the fossil record unless you begin with the a priori assumption that the theory itself is true even though there is plenty of evidence to indicate that it is a nonsense. Question evolution however and you are again branded a heretic, young earth creationist and a "right wing nut job." And yet although creatures evolve, like Big Bang, the theory is full of holes. This is largely because Charles Darwin's original theory which was based on empirical evidence has been stretched to include ideas like abiogenisis, the notion that life emerged spontaneously as a result of a chemical accident.

Religion should have no problem with real, empirical science. Where there is a problem between the two lies in the area of pseudo - science, theories based on unproven and unprovable assumptions which are used as prisms through which the evidence is filtered and subjectively interpreted and presented as to "proof" that the theory is correct.

It is somewhat astonishing that may well educated people cannot, through the endless circular reasoning involved, understand and accept that humans are unscientific creatures and the mind will see what it wants to see.

From this we see how devotees of "science" don't actually understand what it is (not a political position, a method of working or a dogma but an affirmed body of knowledge based on evidence) but, led by their hatred of not knowing everything they are actually turning it into a religion.

In an approach he calls anthropic fine-tuning, the Christian physicist, Paul Davies, offers us "The Goldilocks Enigma": the conditions in the universe are just right for life to have evolved, and had a few things been just slightly different at the Big Bang, none of us would be here. At the moment, there is no generally accepted scientific explanation for why or how this is so and even big bang theory has been shown to be more full of holes that a kitchen sieve so as the vast majority of scientists totally reject any alternative to Big Bang (the only evidence of which is gathered from mathematical speculations the question "How did life evolve in the universe can only be answered with a resounding "We don't know." To answer otherwise requires an act of faith, a belief in something for which there is no proof.

Taking off his physicist's coat and donning his theologian's hat, Dr. Polkinghorne (sic) answers the "why" question by saying that the life-enabling laws of physics are "graciously provided by the creator". Not only does this introduce a theological why where we'd normally just look for a scientific why, it is also a claim about how the universe came to be the way it is, namely, by divine fiat. It trespasses onto the "how" territory of science, but since it cannot explain the mechanism by which God intervened, nor test the hypothesis that he did so, it is no substitute for a proper scientific answer. On the other hand the scientists currently chasing the epheremeral Higgs Boson, the sub atomic particle which they need to prove exists otherwise the whole scientific theory of how the universe works will simply fall apart and we are back to God or the stoical "it works."

There are ways of understanding religion that do not fall into this God versus science trap. Brauch Spinoza's "God-or-nature" approach, the divine could act with a purpose that was, at root, simply the playing out of natural forces. But the theistic God is "behind" what happens, not simply part of it. This is very close to the Hindu / Buddhist / Pagan idea of "the oneness, a whole of which we are all part.

Alternatively many people of faith say that religion is not about belief at all, and so never explains anything in terms of agency-why. By following that line we can see that any religious belief that involves an interventionist, physically present God and claims that the sacred texts of that faith hold indisputable truths about why things happen, must also be encroaching on questions of how they happen too. And if that is the case the comfortable peace which many claim should exist between science and religion just isn't possible.

The religious believer could bite the bullet, accept that religion does make some empirical claims, and then defend their compatibility with science one by one. But the fact that two beliefs are compatible with each other is the most minimal test of their reasonableness imaginable. All sorts of outlandish beliefs that the Apollo moon landings never happened, that a marginal increase in the CO2 component of air will certainly cause a global catastrophe, that weather can be controlled so accurately we can rely on the wind to generate all the electricity we need, are scientifically feasible, but that hardly makes them credible. What really counts, what should really make the difference between acceptance and rejection of an empirical claim, is not whether it is compatible with the existing science, but whether an evidence-led, rational examination a problem that offers a better solution than competing alternatives.

So the fact that science is compatible with religion turns out to be a comforting red herring. We should be asking is theoretical science compatible with reality.

How easily science and religion can rub on together depends very much on what kind of religion and what kind of we're talking about. If it is a kind of religion that seeks to explain the hows of the universe, telling us God created everything in seven days, or ends up trying to inculcate such ideas by suggestion, then it is competing with science. In the same way when scientists start trying to control nature and resort to telling lies in order to justify their meddling in what does not need to be meddled in and their refusal to seriously consider possible consequences claiming they are scientists and know what they are doing, then the two are invading each other's territory. If the religion is of a kind that doesn't attempt to explain the hows of the universe, and the science seek to understand nature rather than controlling it then the science v religion debate can move on, free from the illusion that the outcome rests on one question with one answer.

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