Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#6 - Do science and religion overlap?

American Heathen:  aired: 19 August 2011

Some years ago, I was introduced to the excellent writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist who has written extensively about the history and philosophy of science.  Given his chosen field of science, it’s clear that items of concern to him in his musings were evolutionary biology and geology.  Both of those fields are examples of where science and religion have very different visions of the processes by which the natural world has arrived at the present.  His interesting essays over the years ranged far and wide, clearly rooted in evolutionary biology and geology as the bedrock (a pun intended) of his scientific perspective.  Hence, as I’ll try to explain, I find his position puzzling.

In the fundamentalist biblical view, the Earth and all its life were the work of an infinitely powerful deity over the course of seven days about 6000 years ago.  In contradistinction, both geology and biology have developed evidence overwhelmingly in favor of the principle known as “deep time” – not a few thousand years after a week’s work by an omnipotent deity, but billions of years for natural processes to bring us to the present day from the formation of the Earth.  And of course, cosmology as a science is also heavily committed to the notion of “deep time” in order for the Universe as we currently understand it to have arrived at the present from its beginnings in the Big Bang.

Gould used the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” to escape the obvious conflict between religion and evolutionary biology with its associated geological deep time.  Magisterium (the singular form of “magisteria”) is a term that originated to describe the authority of the catholic church to teach what it considered to be truth.  Thus, in an obvious extension of this definition, science teaches one sort of truth and religion teaches another.  In Gould’s view of things, these don’t clash because somehow they don’t overlap! 

As he explained it,

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology.  I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature.  But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science.  My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain.  Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.

In my opinion, this is a mistaken point of view.  Either one accepts the biblical story as divine, literal truth of how the world and everything in it came to be, or one doesn’t.  Science may not be able to “prove” anything about the existence of souls, but science is not completely powerless to address such questions as the existence of souls and/or god, or even the morality of human behavior.  If experiments designed to provide evidence yield only null results for the existence of something, that itself is evidence.  That is, the absence of positive results is consistent with the rejection of the god hypothesis.  No, it’s not absolute “proof,” but science never has been about absolute proof anyway!  It’s simply a fallacy to assume that science has nothing to offer regarding the “big questions” (such as those I mentioned in my piece on Through the Wormhole).

Science proceeds by testing hypotheses against the evidence.  It offers no insight regarding speculative (untestable) notions, apart from evaluating the validity of any mathematical logic.  Science works with observations and measurements, so if an idea can offer no evidence on its behalf (like string theory, for example), it’s indeed outside of the domain of science.  As it turns out, biblical “explanations” come into direct conflict with science regarding evolutionary biology, geology, and cosmology.  Wherever believers see science as threatening their hegemony, they respond with pathetic pseudo-scientific rationalizations, such as vague notions about how the beauty and “perfection” of the universe imply a conscious creator, creationism in its many disguises, and blaming the biblical flood for killing off the dinosaurs.  The so-called evidence supporting these rationalizations is easily demolished, but such a demolition has no impact on true believers, who are willfully blind to any rational argument.  If the god hypothesis is no longer needed to explain the origin of stars or the evolution of life, then a reason for accepting the existence of this deity must be to fill the gap of explaining who created the laws of nature! 

If, as I believe the evidence shows, the bible is a collection of stories written by humans without any divine guidance and put together before science as we now know it ever came to be, that readily explains the absence of most current scientific knowledge in that “divine” document.  For example, because the bible provides no alternative to meteorological dynamics – there’s no competing biblical explanation for tornadoes to serve as a bone of contention with the proposed explanations using the science of meteorology.  No one is petitioning the their school board to sanction teaching a biblical alternative to scientific tornadogenesis hypotheses.  No one is threatening to kill severe storm meteorologists for their blasphemous contradictions with biblical versions of meteorological dynamics.  No one is organizing prayer rallies to show support for some biblical tornadogenesis myth. 

What bible passages have anything to say about quantum physics?  Relativity?  Nonlinear dynamics?  Genetics?  DNA?  Plate tectonics?  The list of scientific topics not appearing in the bible is long, of course.  Its human authors knew nothing of the sciences to come thousands of years after their writings and, apparently, the knows-it-all deity never bothered to mention to those scribes anything about that science to come so they could record that deity’s opinions about it!  This supposedly immortal, infallibly truthful document looks a lot like what you’d expect from ancient authors who had only mystical, pre-scientific “explanations” for the natural world as they knew it, doesn’t it?

Hence, while I agree with Gould that much of science indeed does not overlap with religion, which primarily is due to religion’s massive ignorance about science, there are points where such overlap exists.  He, of all people, as a paleontologist should have been well aware of that!  Stephen Jay Gould was an insightful man and his essays are interesting and informative, but he flat got it wrong on the non-overlapping magisteria concept.  The magisteria can and do overlap!  And where they do, a rational point of view must result in the rejection of religion as primitive mythology when compared to the towering achievements of science in just a few hundred years.  Religion has virtually no answer for its pervasive absence of evidence – save for the threadbare comfort of “faith”.  Basing your worldview on willful ignorance is more than foolish – it’s a dangerous thing to do.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.