On science and faith with Karl Giberson

July 13, 2010 • 4:55 am

When you see a column at HuffPo titled, “Are science and religion compatible?” you know what the answer’s going to be.  You don’t even have to know who wrote it, which in this case is Karl Giberson, vice president of the currently imploding BioLogos Foundation.  His column happens to be about the video debate that he had with me last week, a debate that should soon go online at USA Today.

I have mixed feelings about Giberson.  He seems like a really nice guy (you’ll see that on the video), yet he takes a position that I see as indefensible and even somewhat evasive.  For example, at HuffPo he interprets our debate question thusly:

Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today‘s website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is “yes, of course,” for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover. But my position seems precarious to me in many ways, since I am getting shot at so vigorously by both sides.

Poor Karl.  Not only do his “compelling reasons” for being religious include fear of losing his job and the approval of his parents, friends, and family, but he’s also being squeezed in the BioLogos vise between the fundamentalists, who reject his message of selective Biblical interpretation, and scientists like me who reject any clinging to superstitious ideas like the virgin birth and the Resurrection.

But I too would also answer “yes, of course”  to the Big Question if “compatibility” meant only this: “can someone be religious and also be a scientist/accept science?”  You’ll see on the video that I dispose of that idea right away (and how many times do I have to do this?), defining compatibility as compatibility of method and results: do science and faith achieve their understanding of the world in the same way?

Giberson goes on to defend the compatibility between science and his definition of  religion, which is “the best in Christian thinking”—apparently that species of Christian thought that completely accepts the findings of science.  Giberson says it’s unfair to claim an incompatibility between modern science and outdated, literalist, “populist” theology.  Better, he says, to show the compatibility between “populist theology” and what he calls “populist science”—science as it is understood by the masses (in Giberson’s characterization, populist science includes astrology, alien visitation, and telekinesis).

To Giberson, those 40% of Americans who see the Bible as the literal word of God, and hence that God created life ex nihilo, are simply misguided—as misguided as those people who think they can move toasters with their thoughts.  No wonder that evangelicals will have no truck with BioLogos.

Yet even the best Christian thinking is scientifically insupportable since it still accepts undemonstrated phenomena like the soul, the efficacy of prayer, the existence of miracles, and virgin births.  More important, the way that the faithful “know” that prayer works, that we have souls, and that miracles take place is through a process completely alien to the way that scientists “know” that evolution occurs, that penicillin kills bacteria, and that the universe is expanding.  This—the disparity in “ways of knowing”—is the true incompatibility between science and faith. And it’s an incompatibility that Giberson, BioLogos, and faitheist scientists refuse to address.  In our video, Giberson skirts the issue by calling religious truths “traditions” and “affirmations”, so they appear to be on a plane completely different from scientific knowledge.   But in the end they are still beliefs about what is and about what actually happened, and they are not immune to rational scrutiny.

Let a lapsed Anglican priest have the last word. Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Eric MacDonald says this:

Biologos is founded on the assumption that there are two distinct ways of knowing, science and religion. But this is a myth. We know that, because we know that religion cannot make good its claim to knowledge. But we might know it too by the sheer abundance of ways of interpreting religious beliefs. Karen Armstrong might be able conveniently, when challenged, to slip away into realms of diaphanous nonsense; but the degree of endless disagreement amongst the religious over what is to be understood by inerrancy, atonement, resurrection, the existence of god, and so on — to go no further than one religion — means that there simply cannot be a compelling argument for compatibility between science and religion.


UPDATE: In a new post at EvolutionBlog, “Does theology progress?,” Jason Rosenhouse takes on Giberson’s claim that “popular science” is equivalent to “popular faith,” and shows that theology doesn’t progress except in reflexive response to science:

If theology must change every time scientists achieve consensus on something, then what good is it? If it is only allowed to make assertions about things that are completely divorced from any empirical consequences in the world, then how can we ever be confident that any of it is right? In what sense is it an “ology” at all?

42 thoughts on “On science and faith with Karl Giberson

  1. Yay– I can’t wait to see the video!

    But I bet I’ll end up feeling sorry for Giberson… it must feel like you are forcing a kid to face up to the idea that there is no Santa.

    It’s hard to be the bearer of a message others desperately don’t want to accept, but someone needs to point out that maybe the emperor really is just naked. Maybe there never were such things as magical robes that only the chosen can see. It will give others the courage to speak up.

    I’m not sure there is any best way to clue someone into the the notion that they’ve been fooling themselves… especially if they’ve come to believe they are special and saved for their faith.

    1. It’s hard when a person has invested so much in a “faith” to just admit to oneself and others that it was a waste of time and effort. But it’s better to get it over with and stop wasting even more time and effort.

      1. Kind of like people on a road trip that take “shortcuts” which don’t turn out so well. They know they really should turn around and get back to the highway but another part of them insists “just another 10 miles and this shortcut will get me back on track! I’m sure of it! I can’t turn back now!”

        1. Yes, and some will change their destination to “lost” and claim there’s a “reason for everything” and they were meant to be where they are all along.

  2. Although you have to repeat yourself many times, keep hammering away. That’s the nature of mass communication.

    I look forward to watching the debate.

    “the currently imploding BioLogos Foundation” — Ha! The middle ground between science and superstition turns out to be too small, even for them.

    1. Can’t remember where I heard it, but someone once commented that the problem with seeking a middle ground between to diametrically opposed groups is that the middle ground tends to be a no man’s land.

  3. Rod Dreher, the director of publications at BioLogos’ godfather Templeton Foundation, seems to be yielding to this reality also, but in his own sniveling way, by obliquely but repeatedly calling the credibility of science and scientists into question.

    One can always make a pair of antagonists “compatible” by snapping a castration band on one of them until he chirps in tune with the other, but I don’t really think this is what Sir John originally intended.

    OTOH, as long as you’re not ashamed to refer to science as “scientism” upon editorial command, have I got a writing gig for you, castrati!

    1. I believe “scientism” is a signal word for “science method works and I don’t want any of that threatening me”.

  4. I think the incompatibility runs even deeper than this. It isn’t just that religion *accepts* faith as a ‘path to knowledge’: it actively *encourages* it, and is actively (and not surprisingly!) hostile to the seeking of evidence in questions of religion. Faith is all: salvation ultimately depends on it. If Christian claims could be proven, what role then for faith, and what hope of salvation? Christianity would implode.

    A scientist who made claims on the basis of gut feeling (aka faith) and for which he had not attempted to seek evidence, would not be accepted as a scientist by his peers. And a religious person who attempted to conduct rigorously controlled experiments to test his beliefs, would not be accepted as a person of faith by his.

    Science is not a collection of statements about the world: it is a method of enquiry: a method that religion insists may not be applied to its own claims. The incompatibility is absolute.

    1. If religious claims could be proven, there’d be no need to invoke faith as a beneficial trait. Faith would be considered contrary to church doctrine, which would demand adherence to the laws of evidence.

      It’s precisely because the claims can’t be proven that they need to invoke faith.

      I’d be a Christian if there was evidence to support any of the claims made in their books of myths. I’d be a pantheist if there was any evidence supporting the claims written in the Labors of Hercules, or I’d worship Thor if Thor could be proven…and on and on.

      1. “It’s precisely because the claims can’t be proven that they need to invoke faith.”

        Pretty much. If you can’t provide evidence for your claim, then work to delegitimize the importance of evidence! Why should you have to relinquish your DEEPLY-HELD CONVICTIONS merely because they are completely unsupported by evidence?! Don’t you know how UNFAIR and TRAUMATIC is to force people to confront uncomfortable truths?!

        1. It’s worse than that.

          Those close to the church who tried to answer certain questions found that the answers disproved their beliefs. So they concocted the strategy of telling everyone else that these were questions that could not be asked. (The “mysteries” are ALWAYS questions whose answers are contradictory to dogma)

          The “Faith” system was born in the wake of all that.

      2. And remember, gods used to do miracles to convince believers all the time. “Show me a sign, O Lord” wasn’t considered hugely impolite back then. There was all sorts of smiting of cities and healing of sick and parting of seas and falling of manna and burning of bushes and flooding of worlds and feeding of multitudes and raising of dead going on back then.

        It’s only in our more modern, sceptical age that asking for proof is somehow seen as completely out of bounds. This seems to be perfectly correlated with the apparent sudden shyness of the gods and their unwillingness to perform such obvious miracles.

        1. …the miracles are just more sublime now– you know, helping football teams win games and stuff like that.

  5. Actually, gut feeling is often quite accurate when it’s a matter of pattern recognition or of immersion in a system of rules that have been internalised. E.g. highly experienced lawyers can solve tricky and novel legal problems very quickly and pretty reliably before they can articulate how they did it. I’ve heard it said that experienced fire fighters can sense that a situation has jumped in danger level before they can work out and articulate a conscious justification. Good users of a language can sense that a sentence has gone wrong, then take some time parsing out why (or be unable to do so). We often have a gut feeling for whether something is a joke, and it can outrun our ability to prove it to others who don’t “get” it. And so on – there are many such examples.

    The trouble is, religion doesn’t ask us to rely on the kind of gut feeling that comes from deep experience and a kind of unconscious fluency with patterns or systems. It relies on early socialization or emotional experiences. I’d tend to trust an experienced theologian’s intuitive feel for whether an obscure doctrine is orthodox within her theological system – she can intuit whether it “fits” – but not her intuitive feel for the doctrine’s actual truth.

    We really need to develop a better understanding of when gut feeling is likely to be useful and when it isn’t. With religion, it isn’t. There’s probably some more research to be done (I’m sure a fair bit has been done already) on why people trust gut feeling beyond the situations where it has some reliability.

    I think philosophers often go wrong with the conclusions they draw from intuitions or gut feelings. I’d trust many philosophers to have good intuitions about how people in their culture view the moral standing of a certain act – this is seeing a pattern, or the place of something in an internalised system of norms. I’m less ready to think they can intuit whether something is really wrong in an objective sense, as they so often seem to claim they can do. G.E. Moore was a good example of this.

    (And none of that is to decry the usefulness of testing hunches and gut feelings scientifically whenever we can. It’s just to note the sort of circumstances where that kind of feeling, and the experience backing it up, may actually be useful.)

    1. As soon as you start to analyse whether a gut feeling (or intuition as I’d prefer to call it) is likely to be reliable, you’ve left the realm of gut feeling and entered the realm of rational scrutiny. The gut feeling then becomes a piece of evidence to be assessed alongside all the other relevant evidence.

      We all rely on a lot of intuition. I’m pretty sure that’s even true of scientists doing science. Rather than saying that religion is a fundamentally different way of knowing from science, I would prefer to say that religion acts to protect certain intuitions and authorities from rational scrutiny, while science (and broader sceptical thinking) attempt to maximise rational scrutiny. They pull in opposite directions.

    2. The problem is that people tend to think a gut feeling is purely gut – they don’t realize it’s based on internalized knowledge and experience and the like. So they forget or never realize that gut feelings that are not based on knowledge and experience and the like are not reliable.

      1. Right. Gut feelings are more often just confirmation bias based on what one has come to believe or wants to believe in.

        People learn not to question these feelings because they are told that it’s “arrogant to question god” or that “there are mysterious higher truths” that people can’t expect to understand. They would rather believe a lie, then to find out that they’ve been fooling themselves in the very same way humans have been doing for eons. (Plus I think many believers have a Pascal’s-wager based fear that they may suffer forever if they lose their faith… they want to be able to convince any god that may require it that they believed in him enough to avoid damnation.)

        Science doesn’t have that luxury; you can’t build knowledge on wrong information.

        1. Intuition is often accurate, but it is also often inaccurate (the Sun revolves around the Earth, cows and people are not blood relatives, mass impacts the rate at which an object falls to the ground, etc.). Science is a (relatively) reliable method of determining which is which, religion is not.

  6. I like my gut feelings. They focus the mind and give motivation. But I do not have faith in them because they are often wrong, or incomplete. That is to say, I am skeptical of my gut feelings. They do tell me something about myself and that is a form of knowledge. It simply doesn’t work as well as the scientific method of inquiry.
    It really isn’t that hard question our assumptions and it is a fascinating way to live.

  7. But I too would also answer “yes, of course” to the Big Question if “compatibility” meant only this: “can someone be religious and also be a scientist/accept science?”

    My favourite counter to that argument is to point out that people can accept two incompatible ideas, so that one person holding those two ideas is not evidence that the ideas are compatible. And then I bring out this example: A Jew in the SS

    Therefore, being Jewish is compatible with Nazism. QED.

  8. …and how is it that Giberson gets a HuffPo piece and you don’t?

    They really are worthless over there.

  9. But I too would also answer “yes, of course”  to the Big Question if “compatibility” meant only this: “can someone be religious and also be a scientist/accept science?”  You’ll see on the video that I dispose of that idea right away (and how many times do I have to do this?)

    That’s the frustrating part. It wouldn’t be so bad if people coming up with this argument were “civilians,” – amateurs expressing an opinion. But you’d think that people who are making a living with this stuff would have at least spent a few minutes exploring the rebuttals such as the ones you have articulated on this blog more than once.

    Another case in point – Marilynne Robinson on The Daily Show last week.

    1. If Biologos has an appreciation of science then why is their site so devoid of skeptical practice? If they truly accept the deep compatibility of science and religion then they should be on the cutting edge of the scientific exploration of religious belief. They are founded by scientists but apparently not by ones who actually believe in practical and useful compatibility.

      The underlying problem is, of course, this ‘different ways of knowing’ meme. Religion is so very fractious precisely because it has no successful methodology. It seems not a day goes by that some religious leader doesn’t spout off a wild justifying hypothesis (frozen waterfalls and Adam’s bellybutton?). Take a pinch of this scripture and a handful of that, apply some do-over grease and, look!- we’re compatible with science*. When religion so thoroughly rejects foundational skepticism, it can never be compatible.

      *Follow the Shoe!

    2. Thanks for mentioning this! When JS said that science requires “faith” similar to that required by religion, it hurt my brain. Wow, that was a moment to shed a tear for a fallen hero.

  10. The “religipsychosis” is truly amazing in its power to befuddle otherwise what appear to be rational people.

  11. a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover

    Wait, so “religion” is now defined as “anything beyond what science can discover”?

    I’m so tired of this trick. To say that religion is worthless is not the same as saying that everything which is not justified by science and reason is worthless. There are things which are neither science nor religion — like, say, artistic expression.

    1. IMHO we can include general learning in that. Whether we do the primary learning (i.e. beyond accepting others ideas) by “trial-and-error” or “trial-and-reward” we gather observations that are contingent on the environment. I.e. change environment and “the facts” may change.

      That extends to ad hoc models, whether we stress test (using trial-and-reward) or hypothesis test (using trial-and-error) them or not. It is but when we start to form related, informed, or even empirically motivated models that we start to move towards something akin to empirical science and its relatedness of facts and theories.

      This later is the domain of “gut feeling” that several interesting comments above mention.

      In fact, coming back to artistic expression, its market is among experiences (art, movies, travel, adventure, et cetera), so I tend to think of it as part of “learning”. Say, what art works for me. 😀

      But as much as experience and learning can be motivated rationally for some worth (say, health benefits), there is a great part that is simply biologically motivated. Yes, having a mind and its reward system is beneficial for some organisms. No, neither contingency nor reward overuse is demanding a rational motivation. It “can happen”.

      It must be trivial that there are contingencies that aren’t “rational”, but still part of a process or, perhaps, not. A not so tricky trick after all.

    2. If science can’t know something, then why would we think some guru or prophet could? How could we test a real revelation from a false one? Obviously we can’t; hence, Biologo’s implosion.

      When it comes to objective reality, there is no evidence that there is any “special way of knowing”. There’s just science (or “scientism” if you are trying to convince yourself that science is another faith.)

  12. In our video, Giberson skirts the issue by calling religious truths “traditions” and “affirmations”, so they appear to be on a plane completely different from scientific knowledge.

    If this is true, then when I got married I stopped being an atheist and converted to Judaism. After all, if “religion” is nothing more than “traditions”, then celebrating Passover makes me a devout Jew!

  13. Can astrology progress? I think that is a completely fair question, analogous to the same question about religion.
    The answer is “no,” unless it can admit it is completely wrong (from a factual point of view).
    I suppose both fields could realistically claim to make believers feel better, but as epistemologies, both are equally nonsensical.

  14. Karl Giberson: “Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?”

    His answer “yes, of course”, promptly followed by a strawman: the only alternative is fundamentalism. Young earth creationism or scientism – denial of the reality of anything beyond the power of science to discover.

    However, one is perfectly free to take a sensible position on the question of whether reality extends beyond the ability of science to know. One does not need to assert or deny knowledge on the question. Giberson’s patently absurd argument reveals patently bad faith.

    Traditional religion dates back only a couple of hundred years for Giberson. Traditional religion equates to 200 years of modern theology.

    The mass of ordinary Catholics don’t subscribe to liberal theology , nor do popes. The Anglican communion doesn’t figure. 80 million people squabbling over women and homosexual bishops versus 1 billion RCs who know exactly where they stand on that score.

    Theologians are the intellectual peers of scientists. The lay public are ignorant in all manner of things. Says Giberson. But people who believe in astrology or the earthly presence or historical visits of aliens are no more ignorant than those who believe in the virgin birth or the physical ressurection.

    So Giberson doesn’t believe in any of these foolish things? Whilst claiming to hold to something resembling a traditional belief in God? True religion he cries. His. That’s what they all cry.

    1. Yep. Implicit in Giberson’s definition of Scientism (denial of the reality of anything beyond the power of science to discover) is the notion that the leaders of HIS religion HAVE found what science cannot. Oddly, believers of conflicting faiths have the same “gut feelings” that they’ve discovered the same thing!

      And, without evidence (the type that science can test), there is no way to tell any of these beliefs from delusion. If science can’t know something, than why would we think Karl Giberson could?

      Until someone can bring evidence to the table, honest scientists will treat all superstitions the way religious scientists treat all the superstitions they don’t believe in. And for the same reasons.

    2. By way of debunking Giberson’s strawman.

      Commenting on Andrei Linde and Vitaly Vanchurins’ calculation that out of 10^10^10^7 possible universes only 10^10^6 could be distinguised by a human observer, Alex Vilenkin summarised the situation thus: “There might be things an observer doesn’t see that are still there.”

      Far from science denying the reality of things beyond its power to discover, quantum cosmology suggests that there may be far more to reality than we can ever possibly know.

      New Scientist 31/10/2009. arxiv.org/abs/0910.1589

        1. Let’s see if I can get this right; it’s New Scientist: 31/10/2009, This Week, page 11.


  15. Does not Giberson notice that he offers a false trichotomy — as do so many other religious when faced with the question of science and religion? It’s a bit like the old chestnut that Jesus must either be mad, bad or god!

    My answer to this question is “yes, of course,” for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

    It is tiresome to have to point out again and again that those are not the only alternatives. Pure scientism is a very rare position. Indeed, I challenge Dr. Giberson to provide a contemporary example. Almost all scientists, asked to give it some thought, would, I think, be quite prepared to accept non-scientific ways of knowing. Art, poetry, music, social and political involvement, intimate relations: all are ways of understanding and knowing; but none of them are incompatible with science in the way that religion is. For religion is not a way of knowing at all, and the pretense that it is is becoming quite ridiculous. What the religious must provide is some evidence that their beliefs are true. I have yet to see it, and if Giberson can provide it, he should say so, instead of playing the old ‘religion is the only alternative ploy.’

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