Science/faith incompatibility at HuffPo

March 18, 2010 • 6:25 am

The Huffington Post’s new “Religion” section is a mixed bag.  It is full of their usual woo, but also has a fair dollop of articles on atheism.  Tuesday’s column by Eric Michael Johnson, a journalist and graduate student in history, asserts in its title that “The Unseen and Unknowable Has No Place in Science.

Johnson was raised as a Lutheran, but jettisoned his faith when he realized that, unlike science, it was fully prepared to accept things for which there was no evidence.  A snippet:

Faith, as Gary Whittenberger wrote in Skeptic magazine, has multiple common uses.

“Faith” may refer to a religion or worldview, as in “My faith is Islam.” It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in “I have faith in my physician.” Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which has 170 Hare Krishna centers in Europe and North America alone), was up front that he denied the evidence for evolution. Why? He didn’t argue that the methods employed may have biased the results and that he would reserve judgment until the studies were replicated. He didn’t dispute the sample size in a given study or suggest a separate interpretation of the observable facts. He completely disregarded the entire pursuit of such knowledge because it contradicted his faith in a prime mover. His faith told him that he was correct, regardless of what the facts might be. There is a word for that, when you prefer your own private fantasy to the real world. I think Richard Dawkins used it as part of the title to one of his more popular books.

Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn’t mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don’t probe too deeply into the foundations of a person’s faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases. But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close (as it has for Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe) well, that’s when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I’m sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They’ll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.

17 thoughts on “Science/faith incompatibility at HuffPo

  1. He is mentioning Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe together. Not completely inadequate 🙂

  2. Faith is believing without sufficient evidence, perhaps in the face of scads of evidence to the contrary. I had faith, for instance, that some day the Red Sox would stop snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I have faith, I like to say, in the human ability to reason. But there is plenty of good scientific evidence for the ability – it’s the disposition to reason that is questionable.

  3. That really was way above the normal HuffPO standard, and Gary Whittenberger’s article was very interesting, but for a few points.
    To reuse my comments on the original article:

    Very lucid article, but ‘mode of expression’ (From the perspective of style or mode of expression, perhaps Collins won) hardly validates an argument.
    Dawkin’s being ‘testy’ would not unlikely be the result of Collins’s failing acceptance of plain logic in trying to validate an unsustainable argument, to contain the concept of god or God within the explicable.
    Something that is outside our reality, although possible as a figment of our imagination, will always be something of no natural significance.

  4. That was actually a nice article. And he’s right in how to highlights the difference between science and religion: science says “we don’t know, but it’s an interesting question, let’s go find out”, while religion never gets past “We can’t always understand God’s will.” That’s even true for all those “sophisticated” theologians.

    1. A paraphrase of Ashley Montagu’s Intro to Science and Creationism, “Science is proof without certainty. (Faith) is (conviction) without proof.”

  5. Why “The Unseen and Unknowable Has No Place in Science“ is a subject of consideration? Are there doubts about this? I mean, please, the “unknowable” ? what is unknowable?: the unknowable, of course. And the unseen? Until is knowable, the unseen is not hither. I claim that scientists dont need “helpers” of this kind. We simply dont know what we will know. We make few predictions: some true. most wrong, but we predict and test the predicted. And sometime, truth reveal itself in the middle of the night, in the lab, in the ‘field’, in the meeting, in the stoplight: we see the unseen and know the notknown. Big fat deal. What the hell is going on? Is it the economic recession?

    1. There is a problem with your pun: theories of multiverses are testable (or they would simply remain ideas to work on). Some such theories are variants of chaotic inflation and entropic cosmology.

      1. I’m not sure how unanimous your statement is held in the scientific community.

        A 2006 Nature article noted that this “multiverse” hypothesis is not testable:

        “Since the early 1980s, some cosmologists have argued that multiple universes could have formed during a period of cosmic inflation that preceded the Big Bang. More recently, string theorists have calculated that there could be 10^500 universes, which is more than the number of atoms in our observable Universe. Under these circumstances, it becomes more reasonable to assume that several would turn out like ours. It’s like getting zillions and zillions of darts to throw at the dart board, Susskind says. “Surely, a large number of them are going to wind up in the target zone.” And of course, we exist in our particular Universe because we couldn’t exist anywhere else. It’s an intriguing idea with just one problem, says Gross: “It’s impossible to disprove.” Because our Universe is, almost by definition, everything we can observe, there are no apparent measurements that would confirm whether we exist within a cosmic landscape of multiple universes, or if ours is the only one. And because we can’t falsify the idea, Gross says, it isn’t science.
        (Geoff Brumfiel, “Outrageous Fortune,” Nature, Vol 439:10-12 (January 5, 2006).)

  6. oh man, I’m so glad one of my favorite bloggers brought this up. I’d put this is perspective, compared to HufPo’s “living” section, the “religion” section is a large improvement as far as attempting to balance their articles, and more important to me, letting people comment with less restrictions.

    As I’m sure most people know, the “living” section has been a new age woo-run-wild area of hufpo, that has been so rampant many rational thinkers have dismissed hufpo completely, and I can’t say I fault them. You can’t even post a critical comment in that section, because the moderators are quite vigilant against any critical discussion that doesn’t bow and scrape to the metaphysical nonsense. I couldn’t even count how many posts I’ve had deleted in that section.

    But I’ve personally always enjoyed the rest of hufpo, so I’ve stuck around. They do have good news coverage, especially political coverage. So I was quite interested when the new “religion” section was promoted. I wanted to see how it was going to be moderated.

    So far, it has had fairly loose moderation, and I’m glad to say, it has been more open to a wide range of opinions and articles. No doubt it slants more towards the liberal religious, but I’m at least optimistic that is will keep the door open for more thoughtful discussion across the spectrum.

    I have no problems at all with a mixed bag of articles and beliefs, and although I’d prefer their mixed bag was more balanced, I have to give them some credit for their spread so far… is far better than I was expecting when I first read about it.

  7. Speaking of Collins, Monday night (3/15) he was on the Charlie Rose show – I caught only a snippet of the interview, where Collins was giving his standard muddlehead rationale for religion so I didn’t bother to watch, but I did go and read the transcript.

    The one thing that pop out at me was this:And in our current culture where there are extreme voices — and I’m
    sorry to say Jerry is one of them on one side and fundamentalist Christians
    may be on the other — saying that reason and faith are absolutely
    opposites and people of faith have to be against science and people of
    science have to be against faith — is that where we’re going? Is that the
    future we want? Is it not enough room here for different ways of seeking –

    There is, as far as I can tell, no real clarifier about who this ‘Jerry’ is, but I conjecture that Dr. Coyne has achieved, at least in Collin’s mind, single name fame (à la Cher or Elvis.) Congrats.

  8. To support the premise that “religion is incompatible with science” requires agreement on the definition of three terms, which is, if not impossible, unlikely.

    Religion and science in their pure forms are inconsistent, not incompatible. Religion is informed by science as evidenced by the myriad scientists who are religious and the myriad religious who embrace science completely.

    Ignorance fuels both sides in this controversy; i.e., scientists who are uninformed as to the breadth of religious scholarship and vise versa.

    While there are too many self-proclaimed religious science deniers, they suffer from cognitive cessation or petrifaction or both. Too often their objection is not to science, but to scientists who attack religion as a theistic monolith, unaware of its endless variety.

    The article above is another healthy step toward resolution of the conflict born of ignorance.

    1. But that is the beauty of science, or generally any method that works: you can agree on working definitions on heretofore unclear concepts or facts. Then the burden of falsification is thrown in the laps of non-working methods.

      For example, there is a clear concept of inconsistency and incompatibility of scientific theory.

      A theory is inconsistent if it makes two irreconcilable predictions. (“The sun radiates at 6000 K on the surface _and_ the sun radiates at 270 K on the surface.”)

      [I would rather say that those predictions are incompatible, but maybe that is muddying the waters here.]

      Two theories are incompatible if they give with respect to each other irreconcilable predictions.

      Clearly then religion and science is incompatible, both as method and as fact.

      As method: Religions predicts that faith gives you facts (“truths”) while science predicts that science method, expressly not based on any faith whatsoever, gives you facts.

      As fact: Religion predicts a creator, science predicts that there isn’t one. (For many reasons, but for example: our type of universe is zero energy. Thermodynamically such can instate from a similar pre-universe, but there can be no third party involved. In a nutshell, universes begets universes, or else some are backwards eternal.)

      Now the usual recourse, which you already have set up, is to claim that this comparison is “uninformed as to the breadth of religious scholarship” and to “attack religion as a theistic monolith, unaware of its endless variety”.

      Which, as Dawkins already pointed out is neither here nor there, what religions in their “endless” (?) variety unanimously predicts is creator gods of one sort of other. It is theology that doesn’t map to the religions we observe. But that is its problem, not science.

  9. “Why should I believe anything just because they tell me to?”

    This sentence is the key to religion. It is pure and simple, believing what other people tell you to believe. I am not prepared to do it, and neither is any scientist worth their salt.

    1. In your book, all religions, and all sects of all religions are the same in this regard? Are you that much of a master of religions?

      1. Yeah, I can’t think of any religion that doesn’t tell people to believe crap that has no evidence to support it. So maybe I’ve forgotten or have no knowledge of such a religion. Perhaps Frank, if you know of one you could name it or are you just building a straw god idea?

  10. Oh no, he didn’t?!

    But he did:

    But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close (as it has for Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe)

    It must suck to be Francis Collins, faith-head of NIH.

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