Baggini explains why science and religion are incompatible

October 16, 2011 • 9:41 am

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

76 thoughts on “Baggini explains why science and religion are incompatible

  1. What cracks me up is the way believers proclaim, “science can’t explain WHY we are here” and other inane assertions. Actually, science HAS explained why we are here, it is just that believers don’t want to hear the answer.

    Science can even explain why most believers cling to superstitions (oops, I mean religions). Because it is what they were taught as children, and they cannot acknowledge that their parents taught them untruths.

    1. Your use of the word “why” here falls into the confusion Baggini mentioned. Science has explained “why we are here” in the sense that it has explained “how we got here.” But it has manifestly not provided any answers to agency-why questions (to use Baggini’s terminology). Instead, it’s suggested that there aren’t useful agency-why questions to ask at those particular levels, because there aren’t any relevant agents (i.e. God).

      1. Yes, your observation is correct.

        However, I don’t think we should let the theists hijack a perfectly acceptable word. They’re the ones asking the stupid questions, looking for agency where there is none. Removing “why” from the scientist’s vocabulary makes it seem as though the theists have a point – science doesn’t do “why.” Really, it needs to be explained to them that science can so do “why” – it’s just that they’ve got a narrow, silly conception of what it means to ask “why.”

          1. I like how Feynman points out that you have to base it in observation (‘something true’) because otherwise you ‘are perpetually asking why’.

            That is, of course, exactly what religion play on here. It works for them precisely because there is nothing observed and indeed nothing factual in a proposition of “gods”.

          2. perpetually asking why

            Another commenter here once made a reference to the way young children constantly ask “why”: “But why? But why? But why?” S/he called it the “rotten kid regress.”

            I thought that was funny.

        1. Sure, JS1685, I think that’s a fair point. The better solution would be to distinguish questions that look for reasons from questions that look for causes. Theists want a reason we’re here, but reason implies intentionality. Physics, chemistry, and biology combine to tell us the causes that got us here, and moreover that intentionality doesn’t figure into it.

          I’m certainly not saying scientists should stop asking “why?”. Granted, I don’t post much, but I hope that when I do post it’s clear that I don’t think that our normal language use should be interfered with for philosophical reasons (and denying “why” to scientists would surely be a case of that).

      2. The problem is the ‘why’ question is meaningless. And that’s what they rail against. There is no ‘why’ we’re here, we just are and it’s our job to figure out what we do with our life.

    2. Or their answer to “why we are here” is “to praise and worship God” or some such. Really? And how is that an answer? Why does S/He want or need praize? (Insecure, is S/He?) And how can the beyond-comprehension Ground Of All Being want or need anything?

    3. Maybe some theologian/religionist will explain WHY different religions have different answers to “why” questions.

  2. @Orlando

    We were all told at some point that the fantasy of Santa Claus isn’t true, its unfortunate that most parents can’t go the extra step to see the fantasy of god(s).

    If a true god(s) existed (an omni powerful being) it/they wouldn’t need worshipers as they would know they are god(s) the omni powerful, so they why would they interact with lesser creatures? The god that is not there is the same as the god that doesn’t exist.

  3. For the life of me, I don’t see much difference. All we need to remember is that human’s make mistakes. Let’s judge this contest on the criteria of who is more willing to admit they were wrong.

    Both sides make mistakes, but who admits it more often, and when scientists criticize the population with holding superstitious beliefs, it just seems self-defeating to me. With scientists in control of the schools, you should be winning battles, not admitting that parents have out-funked you. Otherwise, why even possess the minds of the students through education?

    I was raised in our schools and so were many people who have encountered experiences that have caused them to rethink what they have learned. People are often wrong, so is our way of dealing with this scientific or religious? What does the scientist do when something goes wrong? It doesn’t do much good for them to set about proving that it’s wrong. We know it’s wrong. We need something or someone that can set us right.

    Here’s a question for you. Why do certain experiences only happen to a few people? Could we make the claim that the descent of the girasas kingdom is not evenly applied? Could we assert that only a few girasas at present have an interest in living inside of a human? Why would this be? Are we unfriendly to them?

    1. It isn’t about admitting being wrong, but about being wrong so you can be right.

      Science is the “art of wrong”, scientists are exactly “proving that it’s wrong” because that is the only way to understand why, and in the end understand when and why something works.

      When we get that far we can quantify our certainty. And religion can’t, they can’t deliver certainty or being right.

      It is the fundamental difference in ways and results that gives the incompatibility.

    2. “Let’s judge this contest on the criteria of who is more willing to admit they were wrong.”

      So the winner is the one who admits to being wrong? How does that work?

      This is not a contest of who art more humble than thou. The question is whether religion has anything to add to science.

      In cases where science and religion disagree, science will win, because it works. Its predictions are tested by experiment and observation. When the evidence disagrees with the prediction, the theory behind the prediction is falsified and science discards that theory and tries something else. In that way, science learns over time what works and what does not.

      Religion, on the other hand, has a largely fixed body of dogma which cannot be questioned and is not subject to revision, even when shown to be false. Any insight into the “why” questions provided by religion comes from “just making stuff up” as they always do, and thus is of no value.

      To reiterate: science gathers data, makes theories and predictions, tests the predictions against evidence, discards what doesn’t work and continues to investigate what does. Science is the only reliable path to knowledge because that knowledge is continually tested against reality.

      This is a conclusion not understood by enough people. Most of us are not scientists, and do not employ scientific processes in our lives. For a lay person the next best thing is scientific skepticism, in which claims are evaluated with respect to the evidence provided and the scientific consensus. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. Most people employ some skepticism in their daily life but do so with irregularity and inconsistency.

      Religion fails skeptical analysis due to having no supporting evidence. Like your Girasas kingdom.

      1. In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion.

        — Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address


    3. Here’s a question for you. Why do certain experiences only happen to a few people? Could we make the claim that the descent of the girasas kingdom is not evenly applied? Could we assert that only a few girasas at present have an interest in living inside of a human? Why would this be? Are we unfriendly to them?

      Say what, now?

      I love how you just plunge right into that “girasas” nonsense as though it’s something everybody already knows about and accepts.

    4. Scientists are “in control of the schools”? What on earth makes you think that?

      Public schools are, both legally/organizationally and as a matter of practical fact, controlled by parents, voters, and politicians.

  4. Do you know what I think is wrong? I think it is wrong for our educators and journalists to make decisions for the rest of us on work of such a magnitude as H. P. Blavatsky’s work in THE SECRET DOCTRINE. They could have allowed her work to be included in our education. It’s true that The Theosophical Society itself was waiting for a messenger that was predicted to come 100 years after the publishing of the books, but even without this messenger (is it me?) people could have pondered out what this woman (H.P.B.) was telling us. They could have known today more uniformly what 7 races are and why Blavatsky thought they were known about in ancient times. Her research is published in this book and all of the American students could have known years ago, but still don’t know of her work today, largely because our schools don’t present it. A shame!

    1. This is ANOTHER theory of evolution that helps give more credence to religion. It explains Adam very well in my way of thinking. It explains there are 7 Adams and that they are forms buried during our last ROUND on earth. We draw them up as a starting point for each new race. The 5th race may not be a “human” creation, but it is the creation of the girasas kingdom on earth.

          1. Hi Allan,

            It is not so much a belief (I wasn’t taught this way of thinking) as it is a sudden departure from the past. But wouldn’t things change abruptly and without apparent cause if a cycle turned and rather than being on a world we worked to live in, we were in a world being invaded by a higher kingdom bent on replacing us here. I think we need to consider this.

          2. Hi Tucker —

            But it was what you now believe, right? You accept and claim that this is true, ne?

            If we were in a world being invaded by a higher kingdom bent on replacing us here, I’m sure there would be evidence of that.

            So, as you claim it’s so, you can show us the evidence, yes? (And I mean real evidence, not just citing Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine!


            No need to consider it, then!


            PS. Jerry: Does rool #2 apply here?

          3. Ah thanks, I had forgotten about her. Laboring under yet another crackpot religion.

      1. Why do you need to find 7 races? why not 6 or 9 or 99? I am very confused as to what this has to do with Baqgini?

  5. The fundamental problem is that a “why” question of the sort for which religious people want an answer already presupposes intentionality. That is, there’s only an answer in the first place if there is a god of some sort. So to argue that the sciences can’t answer that question is not a mark against them at all, because supposing that the question needs answering requires presupposing God, the very position they want to prove.

    “Why” questions only make sense in the context of people and the more intelligent non-human animals (i.e. where there is evidence of intentionality). To ask why at higher levels requires that you provide independent evidence of God’s existence first. To do otherwise is to beg the question.

    1. Thanks for the warm replies all of you. 🙂

      In light of a point JS1685 made above, I should be clear here that I only mean “agency-why” questions, not our use of the word “why” in its other contexts, which don’t presuppose intentionality.

      1. That was clear. 🙂

        Yes, that is a frustrating thing, the way theists suppose they’re asking profound questions, but really, they’re just committing big, fat, blatant petitiones principii.

  6. Baggini says,

    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.

    I DEFINE science as a way of knowing that requires evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism.

    Thus, if religion reaches conclusions that are at variance with this way of knowing then those claims are, by my definition, incompatible with science.

    To take an example used by Baggini, I think that believing the moon landings never happened is incompatible with science. It is not based on evidence, it does not exhibit rational thinking, and it certainly isn’t skeptical.

    Baggini thinks there’s no conflict with science in that example.

    It’s very important in these debates to define your terms.

    As far as I’m concerned belief in supernatural beings is incompatible with science as a way of knowing. If there’s a “religion” that doesn’t believe in supernatural beings then it MAY be compatible with science. (But it may not be a “religion.”)

    1. +1

      The “conclusions” of religion, such as they are, can be made to agree with the findings of science. But that’s only because religion can “conclude” anything at all. There is no methodology in religion for separating truth from untruth, there is only bare assertion. It’s this conflict between methodologies which is in perpetually in tension (a fact which the accommodations always fail to address.)

      Science has rules. Religion does not. Saying religion is compatible with science is as ludicrous as stating anarchy is compatible with democracy.

      1. The methodology that I find taking place in religion is perhaps new to you. In the new religion at the “I AM” Temple, we are told to “annihilate” all of the human that is within us and around us so that we may function in consort with these higher beings.

        Is this permissible in your way of reasoning as a rule?

        We have to be very certain and careful about what we mean by “human.” Is human a reference to every one of the 7 races or is it only the 4th race? If we are half human and half girasas and we practice as a religion the continued extinction of the part that is human, are we practicing a religion as you know them to be?

        Some of the material I was reviewing yesterday was suggesting that what we know as “human” was a “whole” entity, but as that “whole” entity recedes in importance (knowledge, love, strength, whatever) it is backed into a corner in the sense that it becomes less of a “whole” and more of a “part.” The material I was reading suggested that functioning as this greater life form which contains the human as a part of its life is actually very superior to anything the “human” could do when it was a “whole” and “independent” life.

        1. None of your premises have any relation to reality, so the belief system you’ve built on these premises is entirely delusional. I’m not sure what other answers you expect to hear from the people at this website (not a blog).

          1. When we live in events that are occurring over millions of years, the events may not seem imminent and they may not appear to have any relation to reality as you say, but when I learned science, I learned that early detection is a plus in planning and preventing undesireable events from occurring – even if those events weren’t seem to be taking place for thousands of years.

            My understanding is that a 6th race isn’t set to begin until 400,000 years pass, but we are permitted to consider our course of action, regardless if the event is imminent or not. So that’s education’s role.

          2. Uh huh. And how did you “learn” these things? Was is through introspection, meditation, and self-realization? Did a spirit from a higher dimension communicate these ideas to you somehow? Because none of these things are paths to knowledge. What the error-correcting mechanisms you rely on to avoid false positives? What do you do to guard against self-deception? What are your reality checks, Brenda? How do you know you aren’t fooled?

          3. Thank you for asking such essential questions.

            It wasn’t something that I wanted to happen. I was laboring (walking the spiritual path) in an effort to gain liberation from rebirth. I followed what I understood to be the rules to gain this end. I expected powers to result from my activities. Rather than having to learn to live with clairvoyance or some such occurrence, I had to learn to communicate my findings which were brought about through study and practice.

            I didn’t want to be a theosophical-messenger-type. I wanted to be a pscyhologist and when I failed at that and at love, I wanted liberation. Seems simple.

            I couldn’t convince anyone within either of the two organizations that I studied to work with me. Another failure. All I could do was write on the internet – join the debates I found. I don’t feel well qualified or well trained or well received.

            I only want to find out if there is someone who could repeat my studies and find the same thing that I found in the literature and if they do find confirming data in the reading of the material, couldn’t we as a society at least discuss the questions that are raised openly?

            I don’t know if I can continue with my original plan for liberation because I didn’t know that it meant sharing a body and a life with someone from a higher kingdom. It’s kind of scary. If it were done on my own, that would be different, wouldn’t it?

          4. Brenda,
            You’re not listening. No-one else seems prepared to spell it out to you, so please allow me. There are no “seven races”. There are no “higher beings”. Blavatsky wasn’t a great thinker who came up with the secret of the universe. She was a fraud and a charlatan. The books you place such faith in consist of nothing but worthless gibberish. You’d be better off looking for cosmic wisdom in the National Enquirer. Please, ditch this nonsense and stop wasting your life. You’ll find that reality is much richer, more fascinating and more rewarding than delusional fantasy can ever be.

          5. But we as a society can appreciate new thought and trends in current thinking even if it isn’t strictly true. We can report that people think this way and find some good in what they do and some predictable outcome for their thinking in this way. It’s all scientifically examined and not hush-hushed or poo-pooed.

            You don’t have to hail someone for thinking this way. Just report it openly to people who are making decisions about religion and life. In that way, you are trusting others to make the best decisions for their lives rather than assuming the responsibility to make all of their decisions for them.

          6. If we don’t report these possibilities to our younger generations, how can they intelligently make life decisions? I’m not really certain that I would elect to try for spiritual liberation if I thought that it meant living in one body with a higher kingdom and living as the lesser part of a pair like this. It wasn’t what I expected to happen and I want openness rather than secretiveness so I’m not led down a rosy path to be abruptly awakened by the ugliness that I am.

          7. I thought that the love I felt or nurtured for other people was my own. I think I may have been deluded and that all of those moments of love flowing out of me was really something from a higher kingdom using me to their own ends. I was deluded and so might others be, but help me to open their eyes.

          8. Brenda, what love you feel for friends etc is from within you not from some fancy other realm. Taking control of your life does not mean opening yourself up as a ‘conduit’ for anything other than YOUR feelings. I get the idea that you are looking for some purpose in life. Well whatever purpose you give life is entirely from YOU and has no connection with any other preceding or succeeding ‘races’.

          9. No, Brenda, I think you had it right the first time. Whatever you felt, it came from you. Not from another being. Not another dimension. It was an experience that originated in your brain. You’ve read a lot of wooish books, it seems, which have provided an explanation for your experiences, an explanation which you were eager to embrace for the validation it provided.

            But just because your experiences felt transcendent doesn’t mean you learned anything meaningful from them. The more you turn inward into the realm of the subconscious, the harder it becomes to distinguish dreams from reality.

            I empathize with your motives. I too was on a search for truth. Unfortunately, that’s not what mysticism provides. It provides comfort. It can help you ignore reality when reality seems depressing and overwhelming. It can be fulfilling when other areas of your life seem empty. But it’s not truth. It a way of avoiding truth.

          10. You wrote:

            If we don’t report these possibilities to our younger generations, how can they intelligently make life decisions?

            No. The “possibilities” are infinite. We don’t need to, and shouldn’t, take any possibilities into consideration until there is real evidence for them. We don’t need to make a list of infinite possibilities and then slowly whittle it down. That is exactly backwards.

    2. Yes! The claims of (some) religion(s) may be compatible with the findings of science (that is, scientific laws, theories, model, and so on). But religion as a “way of knowing” is incompatible with science as a “way of knowing”.


      PS. I made a similar point regarding morality in response to Egbert on Eric’s blog: New atheists’ liberal, humanist morality is superior to religious morality not because it’s objectively “better” (and, of course, it’s not always different), but because it’s not drawn from a “way of knowing” that has no naturalistic basis. (Still moot: New atheists’ morality is based on a naturalistic “way of knowing”.)

  7. Personally, I find the “how-why” distinction is usually a really sloppy way of expressing the “is-ought” distinction.

  8. “… but whether an evidence-led, rational examination of a view supports it better than competing alternatives.”

    The funny thing is that in the past 200 years numerous field trips to the supposedly holy lands has uncovered evidence that the bible stories are nothing but stories. In a more distant past, trips to the holy lands brought back numerous sacred relics – miraculous pieces of the Original Cross which amount to quite a few large trees, Jesus’ finger bones which proliferate like no bones are known to, etc. It’s funny how modern expeditions suddenly can’t come up with such things – have a look for example at the search for Noah’s Ark. So the bible is wrong through and through – how is this slapdash book at the center of christian relisions compatible with science? The muslim holy book is even worse – it is an older version of Joseph Smith’s scam.

  9. Yes,again confirmaation of the scientific basis of Lamberth’s teleonomic argument!
    Carneades’s argument is that theists beg the question of directed,wanted outcomes in their teleological arguments.
    Thales and Strato, opposed to their fellow naturalist, Aristotle warn against the use of teleology.
    Directed- theistic-evolution is no more than an oxymoronic obfuscation!

  10. One might as well posit that your car is really being powered by invisible hamsters. That’s a matter not up for debate, either.

    Sheesh, everyone knows there is no such thing as ‘invisible hamsters…’ My car is powered by a miniture giant space hamster…

  11. We should just give up the pretense that any “debate” between science and religion can be meaningful.

    Yeah ,it’s like endlessly talking about the tooth fairy. Pointless.

  12. Well it’s fun listening to the religious argue their points.

    I find endless entertainment in it.

    Now I find attending catholic mass alot more entertaining than going to any sporting event! And it’s free! Well maybe I should put something in the collection basket that goes around during the service.

    I can only hope that somehow in the future, religion really will become as a sort of hobby for people to do as I’d like to attend other religious ceremonies and listen and be entertained by the various mythologies and stories that they hold.

  13. Rosenhause has many good points as usual. But after having read him read him and made Sober deliberation, I can’t agree with either. My take, which I suspect both would label “incompatibilist” while it doesn’t exclude gods otherwise:

    Sober is discussing the fact of evolution, the evolutionary creationist home territory. But that isn’t all of science. The main part is in the theory.

    And it is in evolutionary theory that the incompatibility between theology/philosophy and science comes out. While Sober claim that “The theory of evolution is a probabilistic theory” which “does not tell you what causes each and every thing that happens”, it is a naturalistic theory.

    The theory that explicitly counts natural contingency as a parameter of the stochastic process is more parsimonious than the theory that explicitly counts natural contingency + intelligent agent creation. The latter is rejected on parsimony but foremost untestable parameters. As is the more conscientiously labeled theory that explicitly counts natural contingency + magic, as magic prevents testing if hidden.

    So while we don’t have to explicitly detail all hidden variables, we do have to state their nature. They should be in principle testable as we may learn of them. (Say, mutations by copy errors.) Science use the “natural contingency” theory, while the others have been found wanting as science.

    To sum up, and end in a familiar theme: science and religion are incompatible worldviews as one is based on tested methods to uncover facts, while the other is based on sophistry to hide facts.

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