The Guardian continues its string of ludicrous essays defending religion against the encroachment of science. The latest is a “Comment is Free” piece by Mark Vernon (you’ll remember him as the guy who wrote perhaps the all-time classic work of aphophatic tripe: “God is the Question” [see a response here]), reporting (and praising) a talk by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor has raked in the cash for his efforts at reconciling science and faith: he won not only the 2007 Templeton Prize (one million pounds), but also the 2008 Kyoto Prize ($470,765). I tell you, there’s serious money in accommodationism!
At any rate, here’s Taylor’s point, much lauded by Vernon: although science is usually based on evidence and rational inquiry, there are times when it’s not. Those are the times when a scientist suddenly has an intuition, or a hunch, that turns out to revolutionize the way we see the world. So, for example, we have Einstein and relativity, Planck and quanta, and, I suppose, Darwin and evolution (although in that case his “hunch” evolved, so to speak, from looking at a lot of evidence). According to Taylor and Vernon, these Kuhnian “paradigm shifts” are nothing other than a “leap of faith” or, to use religious words (which these people love to do), a “revelation”:
But take, for the sake of the argument, one of the best known attempts to understand what really happens in scientific reasoning, that put forward by Thomas Kuhn. . .
. . . What analysis of this kind suggests is that the reasonableness of science is partially true, during periods of what Kuhn called normal science, when puzzles are proposed and solved. However, during paradigm shifts, that evaporates. Science enters a period of flux and uncertainty until a new paradigm is settled. Intellectual wars break out too. Scientists stop talking to one another. They label opponents “heretics”. Then rational discourse breaks out once more – until the next shift.
The challenge is to understand what happens during the shifts. What processes are at play then? There’s a huge debate about this. But it is at least plausible that the rational periods of normal scientific enquiry are only possible because enough scientists have decided to go with the disruptive hunch or intuition. Certainly, they test it. And their tests “prove” it – until the next shift, that is.
So, the suggestion is that you could be forgiven for concluding that science is only possible because scientists are prepared to make a collective leap of faith, a commitment to the prevailing paradigm. Further, science just wouldn’t be possible if scientists always and everywhere adhered to the scientific method alone, the procedures that have come to define what counts as rational. Something other than repeated observations and correct inference is required for progress.
It’s because of him we have the phrase “paradigm shift” – those breaks between the science of Aristotle and Copernicus, or between that of Newton and Einstein. What happens, he thought, is that there is no procedural appeal to reason in these moments, no patient weighing of the evidence. Instead, there is a rupture, a revelation. Science finds itself teleported to a new world, in which even the questions it asked before now look foolish.
Indeed, sometimes scientists do rely on intuition. And I suppose you could, in some cases, use the word “faith”. Einstein, for example, thought that his theory of relativity was true simply because it had to be true: he knew in some way that his beautiful equations represented the state of the universe. But what do we mean by “faith” here? In the case of Einstein—or Darwin—their “faith” meant this: trust or confidence that their hunch was correct.
Taylor and Vernon, however, want us to take “faith” in its other, religious sense: belief in God, the supernatural, and things that can’t be verified emprically. Trusting that the reader won’t notice this sleight-of-hand, they then proclaim that, like believers, scientists take leaps of faith. Here’s what Vernon says:
To put it another way, the neat distinction between science and religion unravels, for religion involves commitments made on faith too. You might protest: revelation purports to come from God and is untestable, two characteristics that the scientist would certainly reject. Except that regardless of its source, a revelation can only make an impact if it makes sense to people, which is to say that they test it against their lives, that it can account for the evidence of their experience, like a theory. Revelation can only bear the weight of significance when people have engaged with it rationally too.
Moreover, a particularly successful religious revelation, or should we call it a “faith hunch”, may come to have global appeal: it becomes a kind of universal language. The Christian in Sante Fe can worship with the Christian in Shanghai. Perhaps in this respect religion is closer to science too. We might take Taylor’s lead and discuss, rationally if we can.
Can the lucubrations of philosophers and journalists manqué get any sillier than this? A scientist’s confidence that he or she is on the right track is not the same religion’s absolute belief in the verity of propositions that can’t be supported empirically. And, of course, none of these scientific “leaps of faith” are accepted by scientists as true until they’re vetted by scientific experiment or observation. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, for example, wasn’t widely accepted as a true theory until Eddington demonstrated the bending of light around stars during an eclipse in 1919. In what way does this equate to a believer’s assertion that Jesus died for his sins because that believer simply knows that it’s so?
Now Vernon seems to know that something is amiss here. After all, he notes that “revelation purports to come from God and is untestable, two characteristics that the scientist would certainly reject.” But he then implies that revelations have their own sort of “truth,” for they “make sense to people”, who “test [these relations] against their lives, that it can account for the evidence of their experience.” But is that the same as testing the theory of relativity? Certainly not, for those revelations that are “tested” against people’s experience, and “make sense” to them, conflict among people of different faiths!
To a Muslim, Mohamed was the prophet of God, while Jesus was certainly not the son of God. To a Christian, things are reversed. To a Hindu, neither is true, and what “makes sense” is a complex polytheism. The lack of agreement among the claims of faith, but the requirement for agreement in science, is the crucial difference between scientific truth and religious “truth.” It would be well if Vernon and Taylor could grasp this simple distinction. True, “the Christian in Santa Fe can worship with the Christian in Shanghai”, but the Christian in Santa Fe cannot worship with the Muslim in Santa Fe!
And of course Taylor and Vernon might consider that what “makes sense” to religious people is remarkably coincident with what those people were taught as children. Most Muslims don’t accept Islam because it makes more sense to them than, say Christianity. They accept it because, when they were children, they were taught that Islam was true.
All this is obvious. What may not be obvious is the conflating of the two meanings of the word “faith” by those who assert that both science and religion rely on faith. This is a philosophical shell game. Maybe Vernon is taken in by it, but he’s small potatoes compared to Taylor, a man of reputation and, now, wealth. People lap up this kind of stuff, so eager are they to hear that they really can retain their religious beliefs in the face of creeping atheism and materialism. And they don’t want to look too hard at the arguments. Even very smart people can be gullible when it comes to claims like this, and that gullibility translates into wealth and fame for people like Taylor.
If they want to give a Templeton Prize to a philosopher, how about Anthony Grayling or Dan Dennett?
UPDATE: Over at Mark Vernon’s website, it says this: “Mark Vernon is a writer, broadcaster and journalist. He began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England: it may not seem an obvious step from there to journalism but writing a sermon is remarkably similarly to writing a feature; and speaking to parishoners is remarkably like talking to a microphone.”