Michael Shermer and Ken Miller debate the compatibility of science and faith at HuffPo

March 10, 2012 • 8:23 am

Goodtimez!  Over at HuffPo (in the “Science” section, for crying out loud!), there’s a “point-counterpoint” argument with the awkward title of “Science, religion incompatible? Hot-button debate features Dr. Kenneth Miller, Dr. Michael Shermer.”  And you get to vote on whether they’re compatible both before and after you read their pieces.

Here’s my take:

Shermer (incompatibility):

  • Michael did a creditable job, but I take issue with his assertion that there is no such thing as the “supernatural” or “paranormal”: he says that these “just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural and normal causes.”  Well, that presumes from the outset that there is no God or “paranormal” phenomena that don’t obey the laws of physics.  I agree that there’s no evidence for that, but it is logically possible that there are such phenomena, and that science can investigate them. That’s what studies of intercessory prayer are about. If we found that, say, the prayers of Jews but not Catholics healed people, would that phenomenon then become a “natural and normal cause”?  “Natural,” to me, means “obeying the laws of nature as we understand them”, and prayer that works doesn’t do that; indeed, it can’t unless it’s some kind of ruse.
  • Michael properly emphasizes the shrinking role of God as simply an name for ignorance, a filler for what we don’t understand, and notes the many problems whose solutions were once imputed to God and are now explained by science. And his conclusion is excellent:
Until then, I believe that it is time to step out of our religious traditions and embrace science as the best tool ever devised for explaining how the world works, and to work together to create a social and political world that embraces moral principles and yet allows for natural human diversity to flourish. Religion cannot get us there because it has no systematic methods of explanation of the natural world, and no means of conflict resolution on moral issues when members of competing sects hold absolute beliefs that are mutually exclusive. Flawed as they may be, science and the secular Enlightenment values expressed in Western democracies are our best hope for survival.
I know he had limited space, but I wish Shermer had emphasized a little bit more the huge incompatibility in methods between science (doubt, skepticism, use of empirical test to resolve dissenting views) and religion (dogma, revelation, and acceptance of what you’re taught). Nor does he mention the incompatibility of outcomes: that faith does make truth claims, and that many of these conflict with those of science (creation ex nihilo, Adam and Eve, the exodus of the Jews from Egypt,and so on). It didn’t have to be that way: scripture could have been literally true, but it wasn’t.
But Michael makes good points, and of course, given that I agree with his view at the outset, I judge him the winner.
Miller (compatibility):
It’s no surprise that I find Miller’s performance embarrassing: he’s an observant Catholic and a scientist, and must defend the compatibility of his faith and his vocation.  In doing so, he drags out all of the tired old chestnuts of accommodationism:
  • Religion gave birth to science, and many early scientists were religious:
Modern science developed in the context of western religious thought, was nurtured in universities first established for religious reasons, and owes some of its greatest discoveries and advances to scientists who themselves were deeply religious. From Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan who pioneered the scientific method, to George Lemaître, the 20th century Belgian priest who first developed a mathematical foundation for the “Big Bang,” people of faith have played a key role in advancing scientific understanding.
This is hogwash.  Science began well before Christianity: with the ancient Greeks like Archimedes or Eratosthenes (who measured the circumference of the Earth with amazing accuracy), or with heathens like Galen.  Then Christianity took over  and plunged empirical study into the Dark Ages. It wasn’t until 1500 years later that science came along. If Christianity was such a valuable influence on science, why was science dead for a millennium and a half after Christianity took hold?
And of course modern science was developed by Christian people, but that’s because it developed in Europe (note: not in the Christian areas that were Eastern Orthodox!), and everyone was a Christian back then.  One can’t impute science to Christianity, any more than one can impute the rise of the novel to Christianity.  Correlation is not causation.
  • Much of science denial has nothing to do with religion.  Here Miller mentions climate-change denialism (not realizing that much of it stems from religion), the tobacco companies’ attempt to unlink smoking and cancer, and even the fact that an “atheist” regime, Stalin’s, promulgated an incorrect view of genetics.  He then says that one could argue that socialism and free-market capitalism are incompatible with science?
No, because such an incompatibility is not inherent in capitalism or socialism.  In extreme forms, though, any ideology or worldview can be used to suppress scientific inquiry if that inquiry produces results inimical to one’s creed.   Unlike religion, capitalism and socialism do not themselves specify methods of inquiry (revelation, adherence to scripture) that are in direct conflict with science.  In seeking its “truth,” though. Religion does.  Curiously, Miller mentions his biggest bane—biological creationism—but doesn’t seem to realize that the prevalence of creationism in America, against which he’s fought admirably, is due directly to an ontological and methodological incompatibility between how science finds truth and how religion finds “truth.”
  • Sure, religion did bad stuff, but so did science.  Miller says:
Science is a revolutionary activity. It alters our view of nature, and often puts forward profoundly unsettling truths that threaten the status quo. As a result, time and time again, those who feel threatened by the scientific enterprise have tried to restrict, reject, or block the work of science. Sometimes, they have good reason to fear the fruits of science, unrestrained. To be sure, it was religious fervor that led Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake for his scientific “heresies” in 1600. But we should also remember more recently that it was science, not religion, that gave us eugenics, the atomic bomb, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.
This argument is irrelevant about the compatibility of science and faith: all it says is that bad or misguided people can use technology in detrimental ways, just as they can foment religious wars or the Inquisition. But remember that intolerance and divisiveness is inherent in religion but not in science, which is a unifying activity.  Science gives us facts; what one does with them is based on extra-scientific considerations.  But since religious people think they are in possession of fundamental moral truths about the universe, it is inherent in many faiths to try to impose those truths upon others.  When you compare science with faith in this way, ask yourself this: would you rather live in a world in which there had been science and no faith, or a world in which there had been religion but no science?
  • Science and faith are compatible because there are religious scientists and because many of the faithful embrace science. Miller:

To a theist, God is nothing less than the source of the profound rationality of nature. Naturally, a non-believer seeks another reason for that rationality. Yet despite these differences, both can embrace the systematic study of nature in the project we call science. That is the ultimate source of compatibility between science and religion.

And that is another bogus argument. Not just because of the untestable and unscientific argument that the “rationality of nature” comes from God (where’s the evidence for that?), but because embracing science and religion simultaneously shows not that they’re compatible, but that humans can hold two conflicting worldviews in their head at the same time. The ultimate source of incompatibility between science and faith is that they use different methods to ascertain “truths,” and only one of them, science, is able to increase knowledge (used in the sense of “verified true belief”) about the universe.

Miller also says this:

But on a personal level — and I will state this plainly — it seems to me that any faith that might require the rejection of scientific reason is not a faith worth having.

But his faith does! It requires (see previous post) that one believe in virgin births, immaterial souls, bodily resurrections, and the literal transformation of crackers and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.  Catholicism, with its assertions about the equivalence of a fertilized egg with an adult and its acceptance of certain non-negotiable miracles, absolutely requires the rejection of scientific reason. Miller rejects it every time he says the Nicene creed, or takes communion.

  • Scientists think that science and faith are compatible.  Here Miller cites some findings of Elaine Ecklund:
What do working scientists actually think of the relationship between science and religion? A 2009 study by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Jerry Z. Park concluded that “in contrast to public opinion and scholarly publications most scientists do not perceive there to be a conflict between religion and science.”
Well, I have Dr. Ecklund behind this sign, and her results don’t say that—not at all. In a guest post written at this site, reader Sigmund noted the following about Ecklund’s study:
In fact, [Ecklund’s] latest results show that 85% of scientists find science and religion to be in conflict, either occasionally, depending on the context (70%), or always in conflict (15%).
Curiously, Miller’s assertion links not to Ecklund’s paper itself, but to her summary of it, and, as well all know, she has constantly distorted her survey results to force a compatibility between science and faith.
Upshot:  Shermer 1, Miller 0.  Miller profoundly neglects the real incompatibility between science and faith: a difference in methodology, philosophy, how one finds out stuff, what stuff one finds out, and whether what religious people find out through their faith comports with what people of other religions find out through their faith.  As methods of ascertaining what is true about the universe, science and religion are profoundly and permanently incompatible.

As of this morning, these are the voting results, given in a screenshot from the site (click to enlarge). Most people found science and faith incompatible both before and after the debate (57% before, 60% after), while the figures also went up by 3% for those who found them compatible (33% before vs. 36% after).  Both increases were both at the expense of those who were undecided (10% before, 5% after; notice that the figure don’t add to 100% in the “afters”). Given this, why does HuffPo pronounce that Ken Miller “changed the most minds”?

73 thoughts on “Michael Shermer and Ken Miller debate the compatibility of science and faith at HuffPo

  1. ”Natural,” to me, means “obeying the laws of nature as we understand them”

    The italicized phrase is the problem, Jerry. It is simply a God-of-the-gaps claim. By your definition, quantum physics would have been supernatural to Galileo and television would have been supernatural to Darwin.

    Surely if the supernatural exists, we cannot define it as relative to our current understanding — the claim is ontological, not epistemic. The claim has to be that the supernatural violates the laws of nature, period. But since we can never know if we have a full and complete understanding of nature’s laws, we can never know if something is actually supernatural. It is an epistemically empty question.

    1. That’s a blinkered sidestepping of the whole issue of a positive force possibly being attributed to a known religious cause. Prayer healing amputees, for instance. Jewish prayers working over Christian ones. There’s a zillion such claims made daily by religions all over the world that, if true, could only be from a supernatural cause (the way I or any other non-perverse person could take the word “supernatural” to mean).

      AC Clarke’s dictum need not apply. Some magic actually cannot exist, and never will. Screw Clarke. And up Dr. Who’s hole while we’re at it. Mr. Spock can bite me as well, and McCoy can take that tricorder and…

      1. So is TV supernatural because for most of human history that device would have been inexplicable? Is a portable defibrillator magic because it raises people from the dead? What are your specific criteria for the supernatural? Not what circumstances would convince you, but what are the actual criteria?

      2. “There’s a zillion such claims made daily by religions all over the world that, if true, could only be from a supernatural cause (the way I or any other non-perverse person could take the word “supernatural” to mean).”

        I take it to mean “currently, and perhaps always to remain, imaginary.”

        If we can get solid observations, carefully controlled, they whatever it is might become natural/real.

        That said, I don’t know what you have against Spock, Dr. Who, et al. Did you just have a bad breakfast?

        1. No, I was preempting the typical response which is to equate seeming magic with sufficiently evolved technology, as Tulse has just done above (with the TV example).

          What sufficiently evolved technology would render Jews prayers more effective than Christians. None. As in “ain’t gonna happen, ever”. I defy anyone to invent the Hasidic amputee-heal-o-tron who believes otherwise.

          I also find a high correlation of such a viewpoint with people who have flooded their minds with fiction, and seem to me to have difficulty distinguishing between it and reality. Thus my snark.

          1. …and come to think of it, EVEN if somebody invested the Hasidic amputee heal-o-tron (HAH), by MY rules, once such a device was discovered, that would invalidate the supernatural business anyway. No… the Jews prayers have to work without the somebody hiding behind the curtain hitting the HAH button only when the Jew mutters. So invent that non-device… figure out what incantation of syllables heals the amputee, that’s now the believer’s new task. If the HAH ain’t gonna happen (and it won’t) the non-HAH ain’t ever gonna happen nohow nuh-uh no-way itsy-bitsy nuh-uh unkly-monkly inky-rinky-stinky-poo.

      3. You’re setting up a strawman there. “Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” was what Clarke said, IIRC. What’s wrong with that statement? It doesn’t imply the necessary existence of anything supernatural so far as I can see. One just has to accept that some people believe in magic (which I think is probably indisputable), it doesn’t require that magic is real.

        What makes you think that people who watch sci-fi have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality? Got any evidence?

        1. No strawman. Nothing’s really wrong with Clarke’s statement per se. What is wrong is how it gets applied in the discussion of what would constitute evidence for the supernatural *in principle*. Evidence, I’m afraid, is only from long experience – doesn’t translate well. You seriously think I’m going to produce some stats gleaned from the prestigious Journal of Science Fiction Enthusiasts Meet Reality Studies? Christ. For the record, though, I am quite a fan of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, …could go on and on. These days, my bookshelves are overwhelmingly covered with nonfiction, and I hope I never go back. The real world is so much more interesting, IMHO.

    2. Tulse #1 wrote:

      Surely if the supernatural exists, we cannot define it as relative to our current understanding — the claim is ontological, not epistemic.

      Exactly. Otherwise, you’ve got the problem of constantly shifting goalposts (“the idea of television used to be supernatural, but now it isn’t”) coupled with the fact that when people talk about a supernatural phenomenon they mean it is a different type of thing than something natural.

      The claim has to be that the supernatural violates the laws of nature, period.

      No, that can’t be it either — because one can always shift the semantic goalposts and either redefine what is “nature,” or what is “supernatural,” without getting to the fundamental heart of the matter, the ontological difference. When quantum particles failed to follow the laws predicted by Newtonian physics, we didn’t say they broke the known laws of nature and were therefore supernatural. Why not?

      I know I’m like a broken record on this issue, but I think the critical distinction always comes down to the concept of Pure Mind. Naturalism is the theory that that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. If something is irreducibly mental, then it’s supernatural.

      If quantum particles failed to follow the laws predicted by Newtonian physics because they appeared to work on a ‘consciousness’ level, behaving as if they were intentions, thoughts, or feelings, then they “broke the laws of nature” in the right way — the way that distinguishes how we actually distinguish.

      1. If quantum particles failed to follow the laws predicted by Newtonian physics because they appeared to work on a ‘consciousness’ level, behaving as if they were intentions, thoughts, or feelings, then they “broke the laws of nature” in the right way — the way that distinguishes how we actually distinguish.

        But even then, we would have to come up with a definition of “supernatural” that has some reliable immunity against the shifting of the semantic goalposts, and then establish a direct link between the “supernatural” and intentions, thoughts, or feelings.

        1. The definition of supernatural would be pinned down as involving a significant disconnect between intentions, thoughts, and feelings … and any physical chain of cause and effect. That’s going to include situations or claims like mind/body dualism and magical connections.
          I’m not suggesting there wouldn’t be any definitional problems — especially in gray areas — but at least we’d seem to be approaching the issue the right way. Otherwise, it just seems like word games and immunizing strategies coming from both sides.

      2. That’s an interesting thought but I still think it fails.

        To be honest, I believe “supernatural” is almost a meaningless term. Declaring something as “supernatural” is the equivalent of throwing up your hands in surrender. Even if magic (i.e., bending the laws of physics by intention, or incantation) existed, it would not have been the proof of supernatural.

        For example, BioWare has created a rich fantasy world in which spirits, magic, religion, and atheism exist. Now listen to this conversation between a believer and an atheist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkbJVNaa_DA&t=2m47s
        It is interesting, isn’t it? And they have got the atheist/theist talking points right, but in a fantasy world full of spirits and magic!

        I really don’t have a good definition of “supernatural” but to me it seems, anything that can be described as obeying some ‘laws’ is not supernatural. Assume magic is real, and that you can ‘conjure into existence a glowing orb by reciting a incantation’. But is it supernatural? The glowing orb would not come into existence without uttering the exact same incantation. I don’t know of any superstition or fantasy world where supernatural is described equivalent to random things happening for no reason. Instead in all of the examples that I know, supernatural beings are bound to follow some laws, laws that still can be understood by experimentation and following the scientific method.

  2. …why does HuffPo pronounce that Ken Miller “changed the most minds”?

    Because the people running HuffPo agreed with Ken Miller before the debate began. To focus on the actual results of the poll would be to overemphasize facts to the detriment of their preconceived narrative.

    1. HuffPo are hoping none of their readers will be able to do the basic math that shows +3% to the agree side equals the +3% to the disagree column.

      Or that in fact the 60% agree kinda proves that Miller failed to convince 2/3 of the readers that his point was the correct one.

      He could have changed the minds of those who initially agreed. But he didn’t. I guess that totally makes him the winner in Alternate Universe Land.

      1. It now has Miller changing the most minds, but at only +2, but Shermer has that same +2! It must have something to do with small fractions of a percent — Miller convinced an extra 2 people or something.

        I was no help — went in as an incompatible and came out the same. I did think Shermer’s essay was much stronger and more convincing, for whatever that’s worth.

        1. And the poll is easily corrupted — you can vote more than once.

          I’ve now voted twice — 1st time honestly as incompatible>incompatible and just now as undecided>incompatible.

          Whatever the results are, they won’t mean much.

  3. This poll may actually only be showing who is more honest, theists or nontheists. My first thought was that by answering the first agree/disagree honestly, I was in effect throwing away my vote, since if I didn’t change my mind (as I correctly predicted I would not), my vote in effect would not count. But I was honest, so, yes, my vote does not count.

  4. Why is it logically possible that there are paranormal phenomena that don’t obey the laws of physics? Wouldn’t that imply that anything is logically possible? And how could science investigate such phenomena? If they obeyed laws that we don’t understand yet I wouldn’t call them paranormal phenomena but riddles.

  5. Yes, modern science developed in Christian Europe. That’s why Newton was satisfied to say, when he couldn’t account for the discrepancies in his calculations of planetary orbits, that God could step in and “correct” them when necessary. But science progressed in spite of religion, since Laplace had no need of that hypothesis.

    And the dogma of inheritance of acquired characteristics was necessitated by the pseudo-religious Communist Party doctrine of progess through struggle. It was a classic case of scientism, where science takes on the methods of religion, and belief comes before evidence.

    1. To my knowledge, Newton said no such thing. I have asked for a reference to where he said this on several fora and no one has ever supplied me with one. He did say God was needed to set the system up in the first place, but that is a very different matter.

      1. I must admit that I know of that story only from secondary sources, though it does seem to be a common claim. In the short biography of Newton on scienceworld.wolfram.com, it says “Newton believed that God periodically intervened to keep the universe going on track,” but gives no reference to the point from any original books or letters.

        1. Yes it is a very common claim, but I have yet to find it anywhere in his work. In the Principia he claims the opposite of this:

          In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phaenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. Thus the impenetrability, the mobility, and the impulsive force of bodies, and the laws of motion and of gravitation, were discovered. And so to us it is enough that gravity does really exits, and act according to the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of the sea.

          Principia, Snowball edition p.443

          1. Neil Tyson claims that Newton implies that intervention by god is required to maintain the stability of the Solar System and that it exists in his edition of the Principia. I suggest that Mr. Hurley go argue with Dr. Tyson. He also claims that the intervention language is in another treatise authored by Newton.

          2. From Newton’s Opticks, Query 31:

            “And since Space is divisible in infinitum, and Matter is not necessarily in all places, it may be also allow’d that God is able to create Particles of Matter of several Sizes and Figures, and in several Proportions to Space, and perhaps of different Densities and Forces, and thereby to vary the Laws of Nature, and make Worlds of several sort in several Parts of the Universe. At least, I see nothing of Contradiction in all this.”

            It’s true that Newton himself didn’t publish much on this topic, but then again, apart from the Opticks and the General Scholium of the Principia, he didn’t publish much at all in a philosophical vein. But it’s very well established that Newton did have this view that God could alter the laws of nature.

            In his famous correspondence with Leibniz, Samuel Clarke (who was acting as a proxy for Newton, who certainly read and approved all of Clarke’s letters) wrote:

            “the present set-up of the solar system, according to the present laws of motion, will in time fall into confusion; and after that it may be ‘amended’ or put into a new form.” (Clarke, Second Reply)

            This was, in fact, one of the central issues in the debate between Clarke/Newton and Leibniz.

            I’m not pointing this out because I agree with Miller, let alone Newton (!), but just to set the historical record straight. Frankly, I think past theological accommodations have no bearing on how we should understand things today. But there’s no sense trying to pretend that natural philosophers like Copernicus, Galileo, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, etc. didn’t deeply integrate their theology into their science. It doesn’t hurt “our” cause to admit that, since there are a great many other things we wouldn’t agree with those folks about, either.

            1. Thanks for the references David.

              The quote from the Opticks is only about the possibilities available to God on the creation of the universe. It says nothing about the solar system being unstable and God intervening to put it right.

              I was not aware of Clarke’s letter before but it is curious that if this was Newton’s opinion then there appears to be no written record of his saying it himself. The General Scholium of Book 3 of the Principia would be the obvious place to say it but he doesn’t. Of course it may be that since he had just more or less destroyed Descartes’ vortex theory he didn’t want to say anything that might suggest that there was anything wrong with his own theory.

              It may also be that he thought his own views were not quite respectable enough to publish. This would not be the first or last time that such a thing has happened.

              Personally I don’t feel the need to pretend anything about Copernicus, Galileo, Boyle, Newton or Leibniz as I don’t see myself as having a cause or as being a partner in anyone else’s cause.

          3. Perhaps this is what you’re looking for. In the book Cosmology: The Science of the Universe by Edward Robert Harrison, there are four letters from Newton to Robert Bently – you can read them here. The second letter (17 January, 1693), includes this passage.

            “Gravity may put the planets into motion, but without the divine power it could never put them into such a circulating motion as they have about the sun, and therefore, for this as well as other reasons, I am compelled to ascribe the frame of this system to an intelligent Agent.”

  6. I have yet to read all of your article Jerry, but I must say I disagree with you on your first point about Shermer: if we found that prayer worked, for example, it’d mean that prayer has some mechanism that interacts with what we know about nature, possibly forcing us to adjust our model of physical reality, or to devise a new one. In that sense, prayer is natural in the sense that Shermer points out: “until we find natural and normal causes”. At most, it can be considered “temporarily paranormal”.

  7. I just finished reading the arguments presented and the poll. Like you Jerry I found Michael’s more persuasive. I think they have made a correction since you posted Jerry. The poll results now show Michael as having 3% more agreeing with him.

    Miller is a perfect example of just how adept so many intelligent individuals are at mental compartmentalization and the ability to hold ideas that are inconsistent with one another.

    I was troubled by the introductory paragraphs. It starts out with the question “Do you believe in God? Or do you put your faith in science?” This question frames the debate completely incorrectly. Science is not a faith-based system. Any person accepting a scientific claim does not do so on the basis of faith. Huffington Post gets it completely wrong here.

    The Huffington Post editors get it wrong a second time in the very next sentence:
    “Some argue that it has to be one or the other–that either you accept scientific dogma or give yourself over to dogma of the religious sort. Others see no contradiction between reason and faith, and are just as comfortable with the Big Bang as with the burning bush.”

    What scientific dogma? Dogma implies that you hold to a belief or conclusion without a compelling body of evidence to support that belief. Furthermore, to claim that something is a dogma is to say that it is held as an incontrovertible truth. But there are no such truths in science. All scientific truths are provisional and subject to revision in the light of new evidence. This is exactly the opposite of religion, which claims that its truths cannot be contradicted by evidence, and that when this does appear to happen then it is the evidence that is in error.

    1. Good points. This kind of framing always happens in science/religion debates to make the non-believer look like he or she has strong faith in no god, when in reality, the burden of proof should lie with the believer. I know a lot of really smart people who must do incredible mental gymnastics to justify their religious beliefs while holding science as the primary means of understanding the world. When you believe literal truths of your religious text, then science and religion are absolutely not compatible.

  8. I know Miller’s arguments are familiar and shopworn (and so this exercise may be like shooting fish in a barrel for you), but that was a beautiful summary of the flaws in each of Miller’s arguments. I would love to see him try to mount a direct rebuttal to your withering criticisms. I am always surprised that intelligent people don’t see through their own silly “but-Newton-was-religious!” arguments.

    1. Newton was a believer in god but he was an Arian, which is considered heresy by both the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

  9. Whenever I see “Shermer” I think “uh oh” only because Mike can be somewhat inconsistent. In his debate with Jonathan Wells, for example, Shermer should have been able to tear Wells apart, but let him slide on a number of points. Way too polite for my gladiatorial appetite!

    In this article, though, I thought Shermer did OK and I voted him the winner.

    As for poor old Ken, what a horrible argument. Essentially, he said that S & R are compatible because I say so. That said, what other argument could he possibly use?

      1. re CYA argument

        Which is just as stupid. Oh, I know! Miller could have used the Cowardly Lion in the Haunted Forest argument. Same as yours, Lee, only more entertaining.

        Flying monkeys would be cool, btw.

  10. Well, that presumes from the outset that there is no God or “paranormal” phenomena that don’t obey the laws of physics.

    Well, yes, it does. If supernatural events can occur, then scientific inquiry cannot be reliable. If intercessory prayer cures diseases, what’s the point in trying to understand diseases as outcomes of natural processes?

    In short, if science is compatible with religions requiring belief that supernatural events have occurred, then science is far less useful than we’ve been led to believe.

  11. “Corrected comment:

    I changed my vote from “undecided” to “disagree”, but not because I agree with Dr. Miller’s argument, rather, because I do not competely agree with Dr. Shermer’s argument. I am actually a practicing scientist (a neurobiologist with a tad of physics envy (:-)…) and I cannot wrap my mind around the concept of an absolutely complete explanation of nature. Maybe I do not know enough math. Are S and R compatible? In my case, yes, but with some qualifications. I am a scientist; I also attend church regularly. That said, sometimes I just KNOW that there is a God. Sometimes I just KNOW there is not. Most of the time, I just do not know.

    Also, to me, it looked like the two debaters were talking about different things. They did not seem to answering the same question. Dr. Miller’s argument seem to essentially say that since there are believers who happen to be scientists, S & R are compatible. I do not know about that; the same argument can be made about nurses, teaches, accountants, etc… Dr. Shermer, truth be told, presented a more logical argument in support of his position (even when, as I said above, I do not agree in full with his view).

    The bottom line is that this is a highly personal preference, but the undeniable truth is that nothing that religion can offer will change scientific facts, but scientific facts can disprove dogmatic religious principles.

    My two cents…”
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    1. I am sorry, but saying that you need “an absolutely complete explanation of nature” is a gods of the gaps claim. (And ironically a no-gods of the gaps claim as well, if you lean towards magic as explanation.) That you aren’t satisfied with 100 % natural observation and 0 % “other” observation to be able to decide that something is not, simply means you are an agnostic and not an atheist.

      And I am tired of the double standard too. Why is suddenly 3 sigma (or 5 sigma if you perversely insist that physicalism is ad hoc) not enough when it suffices everywhere else? Special pleading, indeed.

  12. Religion gave birth to science, and many early scientists were religious
    Judaism gave birth to Christianity, and many early Christians considered themselves to be Jews. Therefore, presto cadabro, Christianity and Judaism, even 2000 years later, could never be in conflict.

    1. If Religion did indeed give birth to Science, then Science is guilty of patricide.

      And a damn good thing that was.

  13. These debates are all so nebulous. Wouldn’t there be a way to tie the hinderance of science advancement with religious domination?

    I’d start with A. The top performing students in math and science apparently being in Japan and Finland and B. Places like Switzerland kicking our butts in regards to certain types of research (LHC).

    How you’d conduct this study I don’t know, but it would be less fluffy than a philosophical arument.

    Also it drives me a bit nuts to hear about “religion”. Don’t we mean Christianity and Judaism? I’ve never heard of Wiccans holding back scientific progress.

    1. blockquoteAlso it drives me a bit nuts to hear about “religion”. Don’t we mean Christianity and Judaism? I’ve never heard of Wiccans holding back scientific progress.

      Probably because they don’t have a lot of power, or a recognized presence. If Wiccans take the supernatural parts of their religion seriously (and not just as metaphors or handy therapeutic tools), then they’re on a collision course with science. Look at New Agers, who could be classified as neo-pagans. Science often has to fend off “woo,” with so-called alternative medicine currently heading the list.

      Shermer has also debated Deepok Chopra. He’s neither Christian nor Jewish, but still has no problem claiming there is a deep compatibility between science and “spirituality” and the atheist materialist scientists don’t get this. I would not trust what would happen to scientific progress if the “spiritual but not religious” woosters get the power to control it politically.

      1. I suppose so although as a former Wiccan I know some witches who would be furious at being considered new agers. Before male Christian doctors spread nasty rumors about female healers in small villages, those women used herbal medicine for wounds and illness many of which today are recognized as effective plants and even some used by pharmacists (such as willow bark).

        Don’t confuse new age with over the counter.

  14. The basic problem is that Miller doesn’t understand the basic problem. If science and religion are really compatible, then religious beliefs are hypotheses supported by science. That’s what’s meant by “compatible.”

    It does not mean being able to think that God created a Natural world we should study through science, and lives in a supernatural way that cannot not be studied by science … unless the science supports it, in which case we discover that it can be studied by science. Compatibility entails consistency. Science is the objective study of reality — all of it.

    I think the debate between theists and atheists is fought over the question of special pleading and category error. That’s the real question. Where does “the existence of God” fall: empirical claim or expression of personal meaning?

    It all comes down to whether or not there is any good reason to have an exceptional region of existence which is empirical, but treated as if it were not — exempt from the usual rules which govern the existence of things and the usual methods of investigation.

    1. It is a rather unified cultural phenomena, with a unified tool set, a unified market of ideas, universal competition and so on.

      I don’t see how you can claim that it isn’t conceptually unified except if you only look at results. That would be sort of like measuring sports on results, no records will have the same unified conceptual numbers.

      1. In fact, all that matters are results, predictions, data. By culture, you likely mean pop culture and media.

        In fact, the types, methods and practices of evidence-based knowledge are rapidly proliferating. Perhaps, in the 1800’s there were uniformities.

        In fact, when people rhetorically refer to “science” they either mean specific studies or a straw man for rhetorical purposes.

        There is no meaningful way to talk about “science” without reference to specific daga.

  15. It is no surprise that I am siding with Coyne here. I know I will sound repetitive, but there is no other way. Since I just had reason to go other this again today, let me quote:

    “Besides the anthropic and symmetry/symmetry breaking perspective there is the perspective of efficiency of empirical investigation raised here. Here the observation of uniformity and constancy of laws is no different from the observation of uniformity and constancy of their parameters.

    That is, if parameters varied over time and space we could still do science (up to a point), but if would be harder. Instead we have predictions of uniformity (the Copernican principle, say) that are tested by observation. Based on parsimony certainly, but also resulting in efficiency.

    In the same manner, if laws varied over time and space we could still do science (up to a point), but if would be harder. Instead we have predictions of local conservation (the energy principle for closed systems, say) and global obeisance (maybe we should call that “the physicalist principle”) that are tested by observation.

    If energy conservation didn’t hold up, say once a year and/or one meter every 400 meter [or in one object out of 400], it would mean there is a contribution from some dualism that may or may not conserve its own brand of “energy”. (If it would be chaotic instead of lawful, there wouldn’t be a separate conservation at all I take it, energy is a measure of if a system configuration can replace another before or after.) It could be, but it isn’t.

    I have to agree with Markk, the complete absence of dualism is not predicted by some astounding form of anthropic/environmental selection. It is just simpler that way, and who ordered magic anyway?”

    The point is that philosophy is now left in the dust in this. Here is a minor point where I deviate from Coyne, because efficiency of science doesn’t hinge on logically possible worlds but on empirically possible.

    Tulse asked above what a person’s criteria for supernaturalism are, and I would answer for myself that they are a dualism that doesn’t conserve energy in closed systems such as local systems or the universe (energy zero).

    Note that it didn’t have to be that way, all of nature could have been non-conservative. (But _then_ we wouldn’t have this discussion because life would be impossible.) But it is, we can do science, and the rest follows.

  16. That’s what studies of intercessory prayer are about.

    The “test not the lord thy god” clause is an annoying dodge for these studies. I have had people tell me that science will never be able to study prayer or god’s work in the world because god will notice that he’s being tested and will withdraw from that part of the world at that moment.

    Also – I think if religion “gave birth” to science, it also “gave birth” to atheism in a similar sense.

  17. It may be true that Christians neglected science during the middle ages, but guess who were doing all the important science during that time: your other favorite group of religious folks, the Muslims. It’s true! And you mentioned the “pagan Galen”, while Galen and the other classical world thinkers weren’t exactly atheists. To your claim that the Greeks invited science!?! Wrong again. Have you not heard of all the important contributions by the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Indians and the Chinese. Prehistoric people were even practicing minor surgery and deep-shaft mining long before the Greeks. Carl Sagan even credits our prehistoric African ancestors for discovering science (re-read the Demon-haunted World). You should brush up on your history of science. I would recommend A People’s History of Science by Clifford D. Conner.

  18. If one takes a logical approach to the issue, the first questions are: What is science? What is religion? The first is fairly well agreed. The second is not. The atheist definition of religion seems to demand a deity which disenfranchises all who see religion to be god optional.

    Since there is no direct evidence for the existence of god, the answer to the question becomes personal, inarguable, and inconsequential unless imposed on another.

  19. So it is preferable for religious people to believe that science and religion are completely incompatible and to reject science where their religious views conflict with science than for religious people to find ways of reconciling science and faith even if it results in a ‘watered down’ faith? What is the point of this blog again?

    1. It is preferable for all people, not just religious people, to believe that science and religion are completely incompatible because … well, because they ARE completely incompatible. Pretending otherwise gives religious people cover for believing stupid things. Many scientifically literate people still manage to hold completely incompatible religious views, and if they want to do that, that’s their right. They should still be called on their bullshit when they make a point of insisting they’re compatible.

  20. The religion of Dr. Miller and a few other theologians is comparable with science. Unfortunately this is not the religion of the general public. It is unusual to find a religious person in the general public that is not openly hostile toward science. No evidence is too great that that they cannot deny it in order to maintain their beliefs.

  21. Lolz. The compatibility is that when science shows what parts of his religious beliefs are false, he’ll just ignore those scientific findings and facts in order to keep his faith intact. It’s pretty much cherry picking like what the religious do with their bible anyway.

    The inherent problem is that the religious don’t trust themselves let alone others. They cannot accept that they are flawed. So they invent this “perfect” sky god that knows everything that then tells them what to do and who they can trust.

    So it’s essentially an inherent fear of the unknown that drives this behaviour. This is why the priests or clerics or what have you, always prey or exploit human flaws and limitations.

  22. 3%? Bah! Humbug!
    Even in a controlled study/poll/survey this is within the error bar. Since it’s possible to vote more than once the result means absolutely nothing. But hey it looks good, I wonder if HuffPo would have published the number if Shermer had “changed” more minds.

    I’ve designed market research studies and interpreted the results. I had a hard time to explain the results to clients sometimes. “No, 3% liked this design better doesn’t mean you should go with it.” And those were controlled surveys.

  23. Would we please dump supernatural? It was invented!

    “The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages
    Robert Bartlett, University of St Andrews, Scotland
    Series: The Wiles Lectures
    Publication date:April 2008


    How did people of the medieval period explain physical phenomena, such as eclipses or the distribution of land and water on the globe?

    What creatures did they think they might encounter: angels, devils, witches, dogheaded people?

    This fascinating book explores the ways in which medieval people categorized the world, concentrating on the division between the natural and the supernatural and showing how the idea of the supernatural came to be invented in the Middle Ages.

    Robert Bartlett examines how theologians and others sought to draw lines between the natural, the miraculous, the marvelous and the monstrous, and the many conceptual problems they encountered as they did so.

    The final chapter explores the extraordinary thought-world of Roger Bacon as a case study exemplifying these issues.

    By recovering the mentalities of medieval writers and thinkers the book raises the critical question of how we deal with beliefs we no longer share.”


  24. ”Natural,” to me, means “obeying the laws of nature as we understand them”

    The immediate drawback of this usage is that it leaves radioactivity between 1896-1905 as a paranormal/supernatural phenomenon.

    Personally, I prefer trying to make clear a distinction between the rules as we understand them, and the rules that actually are (with science a quasi-algorithmic methodology for pushing the former to asymptotically approach the limit of the latter, derivable from the assumption said limit exists).

    But I just argue philosophy of science on the Internet.

  25. Has anybody else read the HuffPo article on an iPhone? I get a few introductory paragraphs, but then I can’t seem to find any link to what Shermer and Miller wrote. I don’t see anywhere to cast an initial vote on which side I stand, either.

    Man I hate it when people try to “improve” their sites for viewing on iPhones and don’t even give the option to view it normally.

  26. I think you’ve missed the real weakness of Miller’s argument, the gist of which is described in the next to last paragraph.

    Essentially, he is performing a bait and switch. He never actually addresses the incompatibility of science with a *personal* god. He never actually addresses the conflicts between science and an interventionist god.

    If you sweep away the rhetoric, his argument is actually that science is compatible with Deism. Something that I think most atheists would agree with, even if they think that proposing a deistic god is unnecessary.

  27. Philosophically speaking, science and the supernatural cannot co-exist, for if there were supernatural events, then there would be no way of determining whether any event whatsoever was of supernatural origin or not, and science would thus become meaningless.

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