Philosopher Julian Baggini, an atheist who has long been a strong critic of New Atheism (e.g., here), has a new column in Friday’s Guardian that’s actually pretty good: “Religion’s truce with science can’t hold”.
In Baggini’s view, the Gouldian NOMA-esque distinction between science and faith—that science answers the “how” questions and religion the “why” questions—is untenable, for religion obstinately refuses to stop claiming how things happen:
Many “why” questions are really “how” questions in disguise. For instance, if you ask: “Why does water boil at 100C?” what you are really asking is: “What are the processes that explain it has this boiling point?” – which is a question of how.
Critically, however, scientific “why” questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, “why” is usually what I call “agency-why”: it’s an explanation involving causation with intention.
So not only do the hows and whys get mixed up, religion can end up smuggling in a non-scientific agency-why where it doesn’t belong.
This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and puts God in the answer, they are almost inevitably going to make an at least implicit claim about the how: God has set things up in some way, or intervened in some way, to make sure that purpose is achieved or meaning realised. The neat division between scientific “how” and religious “why” questions therefore turns out to be unsustainable.
This, of course, is just another take on something many of us have long maintained: any theistic religion—that is, one that posits a God who is active in the universe—must perforce make claims that can in principle be empirically examined or tested. And that is a “how” question. On the level ground where science and faith must compete to answer such questions, religion always loses, and always will. Theologians instinctively recognize the empirical primacy of science over faith, and they hate it. That’s why people like John Haught use a variety of ploys—like saying that scientists rely on “faith”—to try to drag science down to the level of religion. They love to define terms like “truth,” “faith,” and “evidence” in ways that are not used by scientists—or anyone other than theologians, for that matter.
At any rate, Baggini’s ending is very good, though I have one quibble:
The religious believer could bite the bullet, accept that religion does make some empirical claims, and then defend their compatibility with science one by one. But the fact that two beliefs are compatible with each other is the most minimal test of their reasonableness imaginable. All sorts of outlandish beliefs – that the Apollo moon landings never happened, for instance – are compatible with science, but that hardly makes them credible. What really counts, what should really make the difference between assent and rejection of an empirical claim, is not whether it is compatible with science, but whether an evidence-led, rational examination of a view supports it better than competing alternatives.
So the fact that science is compatible with religion turns out to be a comforting red herring.
The less comfortable wet fish slapped around the face is that how easily science and religion can rub on together depends very much on what kind of religion we’re talking about. If it is a kind that seeks to explain the hows of the universe, or ends up doing so by stealth, then it is competing with science. In such contests science always wins, hands down, and the only way out is to claim a priority for faith over evidence, or the Bible over the lab. If it is of a kind that doesn’t attempt to explain the hows of the universe, then it has to be very careful not to make any claims that end up doing just that. Only then can the science v religion debate move on, free from the illusion that it rests on one question with one answer.
In other words, in Baggini’s view the debate can’t move on unless religious people all become deists. That, of course, won’t happen soon. And even then, the incompatibility will remain between a worldview based on evidence and one that posits a hands-off deity for which there is not only no evidence, but for which there can be no evidence. One might as well posit that your car is really being powered by invisible hamsters. That’s a matter not up for debate, either.
We should just give up the pretense that any “debate” between science and religion can be meaningful.
h/t: Eric MacDonald