Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford (owner of Felix) has a nice analysis of the National Academy of Sciences’ policy on reconciling religion and science, decrying their accommodationism. Part of the NAS’s statement is below (these are NOT Russell’s words); you can hear the same tired old bromides falling into line. When are we going to stop hearing that religion finds “another kind of truth” or enables us to “understand the world”? It just ain’t so!
Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.
Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.
Russell handily eviscerates this accommodationism in his post, which I’ll let you read yourself. Just a couple of snippets to whet your appetite:
It is not so much that there is more than one way of knowing. Rather, there are different techniques for investigating different aspects or parts of reality. Not all aspects lend themselves to investigation through distinctively scientific techniques, and some lend themselves to investigation through other techniques (examining historical records, etc.). Still, we expect that knowledge and understanding obtained through different techniques will be consistent. Where lines of evidence obtained from different techniques show a convergence, we can be confident that we’re getting at the truth. . .
As for the inability of science to investigate the supernatural, this is either trivially (and unhelpfully) true or false. Unfortunately, the NAS statement doesn’t nail down what is involved here beyond saying that religious faith typically involves “supernatural forces or entities”. It is trivially and unhelpfully true that science cannot investigate such forces or entities if “supernatural” is defined to mean “that which science cannot investigate” (or in some other way that amounts to the same thing).
But it is false if it means that science is, in principle, unable to investigate claims about such paradigmatically “supernatural” things as ancestor spirits, water nymphs, fire demons, magic dragons, or astrological influences. If these things exist and behave in fairly regular ways – like lions, elephants, kangaroos, crocodiles, and the flow of water – then science can investigate them. Of course, if they did exist we might come to think of them as part of “nature”, but that’s just the point. There is no clear and meaningful line between “natural” and “supernatural”, such that science cannot investigate beyond that line. It is simply that certain kinds of things, notably disembodied intelligences, don’t actually seem to exist; in any event, hypotheses involving these things have had a lousy track record over centuries. It is usually good practice for scientists to avoid those kinds of hypotheses if they can (this is the grain of truth in “methodological naturalism”).
Nonetheless, there is no reason, in principle, why science cannot investigate claims about, say, ancestor spirits as long as the spirits in question are alleged to behave in ways that are reasonably regular and affect things that can be detected by our senses (possibly via scientific instruments). . .