A Templeton-funded researcher recommends five books on science and religion. Guess what take they have?

August 27, 2019 • 9:00 am

Five Books is generally a good site, and I’ve done at least two interviews with them. The site’s object is a good one: to get an expert in some field to recommend five books in their area of expertise, books from which the general public could profit. I did interviews about evolution and the incompatibility of religion and science, and in the latter recommended the following books:

I was of course being tendentious, as my subject was “The incompatibility of religion and science.” Now there’s a sort of counter-post, with historian Peter Harrison recommending five books on the history of science and religion (click on screenshot):

This, too, is a tendentious list, but that’s not clear from the title alone, since some books on the history of science and religion, like a couple I recommended in my piece, advance the thesis that these areas are incompatible. Harrison, however, thinks that’s bunk: that while there were occasional areas of conflict, by and large science and religion are not only compatible, but religion helped science advance in the West.

First, his background. Five Books gives the following bio:

Peter Harrison is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. Before coming to UQ he was the Idreos Professor of Science and Religion and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre at the University of Oxford. He has published extensively in the area of intellectual history with a focus on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Yale and Princeton, is a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

But I also remembered that I posted about Harrison before, in 2017 when, as I wrote, “In the new issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books (link below), Peter Harrison, in a piece called “From conflict to dialogue and all the way back“, purports to review Yves Gingras’s recent book on science and religion, a book whose thesis is that no useful dialogue is possible between science and religion.”

I used “purported” because Harrison strayed from criticizing the book to defending the Templeton Foundation, which itself was denigrated in Gigras’s excellent book. (In my own mini-review of Gingras’s book, Science and Religion, an Impossible Dialogue, I deemed it “essential reading for those interested in the fraught relationship between science and religion.”)

The problem is that in Harrison’s defense of the Templeton Foundation (which of course promotes the “no conflict” accommodationist thesis), he admits that much of his work—but not, he says, his books— were supported by Templeton. As I said, this doesn’t save him from accusations of conflict of interest:

If you want to see Harrison’s involvement with Templeton, check this Google search. He has given Templeton-sponsored lectures, attended Templeton-sponsored conferences, and accepted grants from the Templeton Foundation. In fact, in Templeton’s Stable of Prize Thoroughbreds, there’s a special stall labeled “Peter Harrison”. He knows which side his oats are buttered on.

Okay, that’s snarky, but true, as even this year Harrison was supported by Templeton, through both grants and Templeton-funded lectures. (If you want to see Gingras’s response to Harrison’s criticisms, and Harrison’s counter-reponse, go here.)

But on to Harrison’s Five Books piece. As you might expect, he still wants his oats, and so his recommended books are all accommodationist ones. And, in describing them, Harrison makes many of the usual (and weak) arguments that science and religion don’t just get along, but are best buddies. Here are a few of his claims (his statements are indented):

A.) There have been apparent conflicts between science and religion, but they’re really about other things.

For example, this is how he minimizes the most obvious conflict: between creationism and evolution. (In the Q&A the questions by interviewer Charles Styles are in bold, and Harrison’s answers in plain text).

But there are some religious approaches that do hold that science and religion compete for the same intellectual territory. Young earth creationism is the go-to example. Here, religious beliefs conflict directly with scientific theories. For creationists, a literal interpretation of Genesis is taken to defeat modern evolutionary theory as an explanation for the variety of life and the age of the earth.

We should be clear that when historians deny that there is perennial conflict between science and religion, they do not deny that there are episodes of conflict. With young earth creationism, there is clearly a competition to attempt to explain the same thing: the complexity and diversity of life and where it came from. Young earth creationism sees these essentially scientific questions and attempts to give an answer based on the Bible. Of course, you’re going to get conflict there. There’s no doubt about that. It’s interesting to recognise that young earth creationism is not a modern vestige of a longstanding thing. It’s a very new phenomenon—a literal reading of Genesis and the idea that Genesis teaches us something about science is a 20th-century thing.

The idea that a literal reading of Genesis is “a very new phenomenon” is bunk: all the Church fathers, from Augustine to Aquinas and thereafter, thought the Bible was literally true, including the stories of creationism and Adam and Eve, and the literal existence of heaven and hell. (Some of them also thought that there were metaphorical interpretations to be had from the literalism.) I can’t understand why anybody who has read these theologians doesn’t recognize that. And of course the conflict with Genesis couldn’t arise until Darwin proposed an alternative theory of “design” in 1859.

So Harrison’s way out of this is to insist, as he does throughout the interview, that the real conflict between religion and science didn’t exist before the modern era. Well, that’s not strictly true, as the Galileo story shows, but in general science didn’t begin dispelling the myths of religion until modern times, simply because science was rudimentary until the 17th century. When science started growing muscle, then the conflict began.

But what about Galileo? Here’s Harrison’s take;

B.) The Galileo controversy was more about science versus science than science versus religion. Another factor promoting conflict with the Church was Galileo’s misguided use of theology rather than his scientific refutation of geocentrism.

These episodes [Harrison includes Darwinism here, maintaining that evolution was a problem for religion not because of evolution itself, but because of natural selection, which isn’t wholly true] are paradigmatic in the sense that we encounter them time and time again in the conflict narrative. They are taken to be exemplary instances, and this really goes back to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment philosophes in France used Galileo as an example as a perennial battle between the church and knowledge. The Galileo case is quite complicated, but what’s going on there is that Galileo is arguing for a Copernican view. There’s some telescopic evidence for it, but it’s not conclusive.

There are very powerful scientific arguments against it—such as the lack of observable stellar parallax. This is the key scientific objection which wasn’t solved for some time. Crucially, there’s also a hypothesis that Galileo leaves out of his consideration: the Tychonic view of the solar system. This actually satisfied much of the observational data that Galileo had, without getting into the physical problems of putting the earth into motion which was really impossible given the contemporary physics. So, there was a science versus science element involved.

The other aspect is that Galileo also got into trouble because he attempted to do some biblical interpretation to support his view. As soon as he did that, he stepped into the camp of the theologians and that was the point at which he was regarded as having gone too far. It wasn’t just Catholicism moving into the territory of science—which they certainly did by forbidding Galileo to defend the Copernican view. Galileo had also moved into the territory of biblical interpretation. To Catholics, he took a Protestant position because Protestants claimed that they could interpret Scripture for themselves. In the context of most Reformation controversies, Galileo looked dangerous in a way that Copernicus—who actually authored the hypothesis—didn’t. The Copernican hypothesis had been around for 50 years or so before it started to appear to be problematic.

Yes, yes, it’s always that l’affaire Galileo was “nuanced” or “complicated”. Note that Harrison doesn’t even mention a conflict between scripture and science here, which is simply bizarre. The idea that Galileo was threatened with torture because he was “taking a Protestant position” is new to me, and even amusing, but seems a post facto confection to exculpate religion from the conflict.

C.) Religion was actually responsible for the rise of science in the West. In fact, religion was necessary for the rise of science. Religion, says Harrison, promoted a culture, a space for science, a valuing of empirical results (!), and, most important, a conviction that there were physical laws given by God—all of which promoted science. A few quotes:

My own view is that there is more to the harmony story than to the conflict story. If we ask why science emerged in the West when it did, religion gives us much of the answer to that question. If you want to know what the key cultural ingredients are needed to get something like a scientific culture up and running and, crucially, give it social legitimacy, religion provides an important element of that. But there are crude versions of the harmony story that I think are problematic as the conflict narratives.

Merton’s book, which Harrison recommends, also claims that “Puritan values” (i.e., religious values) helped promote the spread of science.

[Merton] argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. That’s the key thing about this book. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. That means it’s not just to do with the inherent internal logic of science as something that is somehow self-evidently true. That’s not how you make science successful—it’s something external to the sciences that leads us to value them, that makes scientific advance possible, and that makes science an important and central feature of society.

Of course Harrison means religion here. But this thesis—that religious values make us appreciate science and in fact make science possible and important—is palpably wrong. Were it true, most important scientists would not be atheists, and atheists are not driven by “religious values” to do science. They are driven by pure curiosity. (I’ll add as an aside that repeated surveys show that Americans trust clergy far less than researchers, doctors, or other STEM-related people.)

As for the rise of science (which of course came well after the hegemony of Christianity during the so-called Dark Ages), the lack of coincidence is one argument against religion being a pivotal contributor to the rise of science. As Steve Pinker and others have noted (and Harrison grudgingly admits), the rise of science in the West was likely due to the proliferation of both technology and information-spread (via the printing press). After all, while science got a start in Muslim countries, it fizzled out there despite the hegemony of religion. Is there something about Christianity as opposed to Islam that spread science-congenial “values”?

But Harrison goes farther than just saying religion promoted science; he says it was necessary for the rise of science:

One of the claims that Funkenstein makes towards the end of the book is that while one “can draw many meaningful connections between medieval theology and early modern science”, the stronger claim that “without the former, the latter would never have emerged” is “neither demonstrable nor plausible.” Do you disagree?

I think I would. I’d be inclined to say that the medieval theological background is necessary but not sufficient. That would be my view, which is a bit stronger than Funkenstein’s claim.

Harrison’s answer is again bizarre. If theology was necessary for the advent of science, then science would have arisen much later in a society in which there was no religion. While we can’t do that experiment, I’d guess that simple curiosity, unimpeded by religious claims, might have led to science evolving faster without religion. For so long as there were religious or supernatural explanations for phenomena like infectious disease, lightning, epilepsy, and magnetism, people didn’t have to look for other explanations. And of course science is speeding along faster than ever, with most productive scientists being atheists—far less religious than members of the general public. But wait! There’s more!

D.) The idea of scientific laws came from religious views of God’s omnipotence.  Harrison says this:

Can you give an example of how ideas about God’s omnipotence or omnipresence could be linked to scientific thinking?

Let me start with omnipotence, because that’s a slightly simpler case. The concept of laws of nature is a modern concept that we see most explicitly articulated first by Descartes. Descartes talks about laws of nature as God directly impinging on natural order, immediately moving objects around in lawful fashion according to his choice of a particular set of laws. So, the idea of a law of nature is that God chooses to instantiate regularities in the world and we need to go out and discover what they are.

This is very different from Aristotle’s idea that the order of the world is a function of the inherent properties that things have. To overgeneralise somewhat, with the new views of Descartes and Newton, the powers of things are stripped away—they become inert—and God has to do the work of moving things around. He does according to his own laws. The notion of divine omnipotence—that God can make any kind of world he wants and is not constrained by any other considerations—then leads to the necessity of empirically investigating the world. That’s one example: the idea of laws of nature and mathematical laws of nature which are foundational to modern science come out of the idea of divine omnipotence. Descartes is explicit about this, and so too are English thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Clark. They are very explicit that laws of nature are divine edicts.

Well, I’m not sure that the idea of physical laws came from the idea that God was omnipotent. Certainly there were scientists, perhaps including Newton, who believed that laws reflected God’s will (ergo his “omnipotence”). But one could also argue that empirical investigations of the world, which would have occurred without religion as a product of simple curiosity, would have disclosed the laws as empirical regularities. And certainly modern physics, many of whose advances were made by nonbelievers like Feynman, Neils Bohr, and Paul Dirac, involved a search for laws by people who were motivated by simply trying to figure out whether there were laws, and what those laws were. They were not driven by the idea that they were elucidating God’s designs. (There is a very useful article on “Lists of atheists in science and technology” on Wikipedia, which is most enlightening.)

I should add that religion has impeded the search for laws when it imputed supposed irregularities in laws or theories to the supernatural. Newton proposed that the orbits of planets were unstable and had to be maintained by God’s action. Only later did Laplace show, using naturalism, that God’s help wasn’t necessary. And of course it’s religious people who promote the idea that Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the diversity of life, and that an Intelligent Designer is needed to explain the advent of “complexity.”

Too, the idea of regularities in biology was promoted by nonbelievers. Darwin, of course, was at best a deist, and would probably be an atheist if he lived today. Watson and Crick were atheists, and in fact Watson told me that Crick, a militant atheist, was driven to search for the structure of DNA to show that the “secret of life” had nothing to do with God, but was purely the result of molecular interactions.

E.) The hegemony of naturalism in science actually slows the progress of science. Here is where Harrison shows his real agenda—and Templeton’s as well. Read his preposterous claim that pure naturalism narrows the scope of science, and that more progress is made when science and religion work together:

The question for me is: what makes science fruitful? Clearly, the advocacy of something like intelligent design or scientific creationism in present circumstances is absolute heresy. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that. But I do think it’s very interesting to consider whether religious conceptions might lead to unconceived possibilities in terms of contexts of discovery. This is precisely Funkenstein’s point—that thinking about divine omnipotence and what God could possibly instantiate led to new ways of thinking about the world. This was also argued even more strongly by the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem.

. . .The agnostic or atheist response to that would be that once science is removed from a religious metaphysics, then the presuppositions that limit the investigation are widened because it doesn’t have to operate within the boundaries of religious belief.

But we can also look at that the other way around. I wonder whether the very strong naturalism which either explicitly or implicitly shapes virtually all modern thought is in some way restrictive. Your point is that specific religious dogmas are potentially restrictive, and I think that’s absolutely right. But there’s a difference between specific religious dogmas and thinking in more elaborate theological terms about something like divine omnipotence (which is the historical case I’m thinking of). To put it this way, I don’t buy the idea that scientific naturalism is some neutral position and that the religious position is the one invested in a set of restrictive assumptions. I think naturalism is potentially just as dogmatic and restrictive.

It would be helpful here if Harrison gave us ONE example of how naturalism impeded science: how the assumption that supernatural influences didn’t play a role in nature actually delayed a scientific discovery. I can’t think of any. But of course here he’s expounding the Templetonian view that religion somehow gives us empirical truths and science gives us evidence for the divine. Both of these notions are false.

But that brings us to the crux of what I see as the true incompatibility between science and religion: the argument I make in Faith Versus Fact. I don’t have to make it here, as Harrison inadvertently makes it in his interview:

As well as conflict, harmony, and complexity, there are also people who argue for an “independence” thesis. This is the idea that science and religion are completely independent, with separate, non-overlapping domains. It seems more of a normative claim—that religion and science should keep to themselves and not interact—than a descriptive one. But let’s suppose there was a skeleton found in Jerusalem forensically proved to be Jesus of Nazareth (in other words, that a bodily resurrection didn’t happen). That seems to be a case where scientific research would have immensely significant religious implications.

It’s partly a descriptive claim because very often science and religion go their own way. But you can’t avoid the fact that if the propositional claims of the various religions are true, then empirically they must make some difference to how the world is. There will necessarily be some touchpoints in that case because science deals with the empirical facts. Unless a religion is restricted purely to the realm of the moral, it will make at least some substantive claims about empirical reality.

At least Harrison admits here that religions do make empirical claims: statements about the way the world is and was. And if you make that admission, you must make the further admission that religion has no way to adjudicate its empirical claims, while science does. Further, science has repeatedly disproven the truth claims of religion, but it doesn’t work the other way round. Science, but not religion, has a way to decide whether your truth claims are really true. In fact, that could be the definition of “science.”

This disparity in judging the soundness of your claims is the thesis of Faith Versus Fact, and it’s the reason—along with the admission that religion does make truth claims—why science and religion are at bottom incompatible.

But I’m sure the Templeton Foundation is still pleased as punch with Harrison’s interview.

h/t: Matthew Cobb (who alerted me to the article).

45 thoughts on “A Templeton-funded researcher recommends five books on science and religion. Guess what take they have?

  1. Seconding the recommendation of Yves Gingras’s Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue. Unusually informative. Right at the beginning, Gingras puts to lie the popular notion that the conflict between the Church and Galileo wasn’t really about religious suppression of science.

  2. If religion is compatible with science then Protestant religions are compatible with the Jewish religion. The Protestants just added a few more pages to the book.

    If we buy the idea that science is compatible with religion just have a 5 minute conversation with a Seventh Day Adventist. Just mention the word evolution.

  3. (Notorious steel baron) Henry Clay Frick famously once said of Teddy Roosevelt, “We bought the son of a bitch but he didn’t stay bought!”.

    It would be nice for some Teddy Roosevelts to emerge from Templeton’s awardees.

  4. “Science and religion haven’t been at loggerheads throughout all of history. For historians, there is no question about this.”

    Well I question it. He makes it sound as both sides are equally hostile — utter rubbish. While the hostility of religion is well known, what has science done? Even with my scant knowledge of the history of science I can quickly list a few main characteristics.

    For the most part scientists have been indifferent to the multitude of religious claims and haven’t been concerned to refute them. Did the Apollo program set out to demolish Hindu fundamentalists who believe there are gods on the moon? A vast amount of scientific research contradicts some religious doctrine somewhere, but no one carries any of it out with an agenda to disprove any of it.

    Cautious accommodation.
    Descartes postponed publication of his book on cosmology when he heard of Galileo’s arrest, and then rejigged his entire philosophy in an attempt to make it compatible with Catholic philosophy while making the continuation of scientific research possible.

    Overly generous accommodation.
    No scientist cautiously explains that this species of ant evolved from an earlier form without any intervening God, but they routinely do it with humans simply to avoid upsetting people who have been told by priests since childhood that it would be disastrous if such a thing were true for us.

    Carefully restricted condemnation of religious attacks on science.
    Richard Dawkins wrote his first book in 1976. After having his entire profession trashed as an evil fraud for three decades, he finally wrote The God Delusion.

    Science is driven largely by a quite selfless curiosity in figuring out what is going on. Entire careers are dedicated to contributing to some tiny corner of knowledge. It is not driven by hostility to any of the multitude of religions in the world.

    The problem has always been between anyone who wishes to pursue reason — regardless of whether it is in religion or in science — and those who seek to prevent them. Ibn Rushd was exiled for arguing reason and religion are not necessarily incompatible, and Aquinas who followed him was initially considered a heretic. Religion is competing within itself for that territory, and it still hasn’t resolved it — as indeed it can’t, as religion cannot progress in the manner that science does.

    Beyond that, of course it’s a zero sum game when it comes to the facts that make up scientific knowledge. Hypothetically, if religion was right about any of these, there could be some common ground, but it hasn’t ever been right about any of them.

    Ultimately it all comes down to Plato and Aristotle. One thinks that knowledge can be gained by revelation, the other encouraged his students to overcome their revulsion towards slimy things and examine nature as it is. The former leads inevitably to an unquestionable worldview that can’t be improved upon, and is highly compatible with theocracy; the latter constituted a research program that was aimed at improvement and progress.

    1. “Science and religion haven’t been at loggerheads throughout all of history. For historians, there is no question about this.”

      It is also false even for contemporary authors – both Gingras and the authors of, for example, several articles in _The Cambridge Companion to Galileo_ disagree.

      Incidentally, I am also not sure enlisting Merton makes sense – he’s not addressing the compatibility question, and “hard work” as a common value between science, religion and commerce is true, but so what? Incompatible does not mean “unlike in every way”.

  5. you must make the further admission that religion has no way to adjudicate its empirical claims . . .

    Sure it does, it functions just like social justice, Nazism or Communism:

    1.) Declare certain speech blasphemy or heresy;

    2.) Punish heretics and blasphemers informally for wrongthing;

    3.) If you have the power, punish them formally through state sanctions or inquisitions or reeducation camps;

    4.) Fight (and legitimate) wars against nations of heretics and blasphemers.

    The problem is that imposing orthodoxy creates conformity, but empirical science leads to engineering which ultimately impacts the ability of state’s to fight wars or impose internal order, and a nation of orthodox thinkers with sticks and stones will have a hard time against ballistic missiles.

    The problem with doctrinal purity is that it interferes with the capacity of the state to project force in the long-term (which is not just military tech but industrial production and population health and size), whether it is because you ban genetics or you just kick the best scientists out of your country because they have the wrong ethnic background.

  6. Religion might have promoted science in one way: by pushing bad explanations of the natural world. Even within science, the publication and dissemination of bad ideas stimulates good science to rebut it.

  7. I have to think of the Hellenistic Culture here, the Library of Alexandria and the remaining Serapeum. Erathosthenes calculating the circumference of the Earth, Hero inventing a steam machine, etc. etc.
    Had it not been for the religious (mainly Christian in the later stages of destruction) factions in Alexandria, how far might they have gone? And then later the Barbaric tribes and Middle Ages set ‘the West’ back for at least a millennium.
    A comparable thing happened to the Islamic Culture, the religious fanatic Al-Ghazali basically destroyed Islamic science. It hasn’t recovered yet.
    I China there was also a stagnation and reversal, but I’m not sure whether religion was involved there. There certainly was imperial influence, but I’m not 100% sure the emperor can be considered a god in our sense.

    1. Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in the history of our species. It began at approximately the time of the scientific revolution, and is still under way. It has included improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.

      Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World . Penguin Publishing Group.

      1. It began at least four times, but only the last scientific revolution in Europe broke the threshold to what we have now, a kind of positive feedback loop, an explosion.
        My point is that religion was probably instrumental in thwarting the other, the earlier, ‘attempts’.
        How far would the Hellenists have gone? How far would the Islamic civilisation have gone? The Chinese?

        1. My point is that religion was probably instrumental in thwarting the other, the earlier, ‘attempts’.

          I’m not disagreeing with you. (However, in my understanding of the Chinese case religion doesn’t figure heavily.)

          For the same reason that science developed out of a religious milieu, religion thwarted advances in human welfare: because religion was omnipresent, back to the origin of our species.

          Something unique happened in 17th century Europe (of course with antecedents going back to the pre-Socratics).

          1. Yes, as mentioned I’m not sure about the role of religion in China either, but then I’m not well enough acquainted with Chinese history to tell.
            Stronger, I’m not sure religion was the only factor in the other cases either, I think the argument is strongest in the case of Islamic culture, Islamic science was thriving and after Al-Ghazali it was dead. It is also strong in the killing off of the Alexandrine science (eg the murder of Hypatia and destruction of the Serapeum), but the decline had started earlier. The first burning of the Library (by Julius Caesar, no less) appears to have been accidental, ‘collateral damage’.
            I’m not sure either what made the scientific revolution -and the Enlightenment- in Europe possible. It might have been people being completely fed up with religions prescribing, it did happen after nearly a century of religious wars, after all.

            1. In China’s case it was a wrong philosophy in another way, as far as I can tell.

              They emphasized inventions and craft and did not encourage pure research. Even the Daoists, not always in favour, seem to have said there is nothing useful in worrying about how the world works, so forget about it.

  8. It is important to note that although religion and empirical science make truth claims, the meaning of “truth” in both endeavors is different as a result of the means by which that truth is achieved.

    It may be that the Ten Commandments and the Law of Gravity are both true, but the means by which one demonstrates the truth of either of these claims are entirely different, which leads me to conclude that just because the same word “true” is applied, you aren’t talking about the same meaning.

    The reality is that you can treat some things as either an empirical question or as a matter of definition. “The stick is a meter” can either be a definition (normative), or something that is empirically measured (descriptive). “Revelations” amount to (normative) definitions received from antiquity that are accorded veneration in a particular community. Religion does not make “empirical claims”, because it does not employ an “empirical” method, but religious claims can sometimes be treated as empirical questions (just as ideological claims can be).

    The other issue is that science and religion not only have different methods of resolving “truth”, but they serve different social functions. Granted, a lot of skeptic literature is highly critical of the social function served by religion, but it is pretty hard to find many societies in history which were not based on a religious understanding of the world which allowed them to function. Darwinism has no relevance to promoting a sense of community centered around common liturgy and doctrine. Religious origins stories have no relevance to people revolted by belonging to a community centered around common liturgy and doctrine. Its like comparing the function of diet coke and milk–people drink them for entirely different reasons. Diet coke is a crappy substitute for milk and vice versa.

    Ibn Rushd came up with the two truths doctrine in the Middle Ages, and it was as unpopular then as it is now, but essentially it is correct from a descriptive vantage point.

    Religious truth claims must ultimately be refuted on religious/metaphysical grounds (which are why atheists, despite all the talk of science, are usually contending on metaphysical grounds such as proofs of God and freewill/determinism, etc.). [Although, this indicates that reason if not empirical science may have some role to play in examining the validity of some religious truth claims.] Scientific truths must ultimately be refuted on scientific grounds, which is why all the crypto-religious stuff like ID doesn’t actually persuade anyone not already persuaded.

    1. This is not necessarily an argument for compatiblism, at least not hard compatiblism, as the domain of “empirical” has been constantly and historically shifting, as new technology makes certain questions that were formerly not really answerable empirically empirical (carbon dating for example).

      If we try to close something off like life after death as religion, not science, what happens if we develop psionics and discover that memories are transmitted across generations (suggesting some kind of transmigration phenomenon), etc. etc. I’m not saying it is gonna happen, but then life after death might become an empirical question.

      1. “This is not necessarily an argument for compatiblism, . . .”

        Quite the contrary it seems to me. Setting aside for the moment and consideration regarding the accuracy of your arguments, you have quite clearly portrayed religion and science as being incompatible. And for reasons that, to me, seem to align quite well with some of Jerry’s stated reasons for why the two are incompatible.

    2. Granted, a lot of skeptic literature is highly critical of the social function served by religion, but it is pretty hard to find many societies in history which were not based on a religious understanding of the world which allowed them to function.

      The historical record is biased towards successful supernatural systems. Supernatural systems with too much negative impact on their subscribers tend to die out and not make it into the record.

      The fact that we’ve heard much more about successful supernatural systems than unsuccessful ones doesn’t mean that supernatural systems, on the whole, are successful (successful = helping people survive).

  9. I haven’t read any of this science/religion compatibility nonsense but I’d be willing to bet those that promote it mainly promote that science is compatible with the supernatural framework that happened to be in vogue at the time and place of the author’s life.

    I.e. not a lot of talk about how Norse mythology is consistent with our current scientific understanding of nature.

    1. Almost all the arguments I have seen on the “yes they are compatible” do not discuss the *content* and *methods* of science (even relative to the time in question).

      For example on the other side, Bunge points that Thomism was realist (in the epistemological sense) and by defending religion by antirealism (like van Fraassen and others do in our own day) was in fact then immediately a conflict, as this is arguably one of the first uses of antirealism in history and hence a denial of science from the get go. Nobody I know on the “compatible” side has ever argued here. Note that most of them are sociologists and historians (though of course there are antirealists and realists on both sides, includeing Merton in the latter case), so there is a tendency to avoid analyzing content particularly amongst the former, which is a *lot* of work and requires very detailed expertise. (I for example have done some very tiny investigations in the history of 20th century logic and would not recommend this to anyone who does not know at least textbook level standards at the beginning graduate level as taught and understood now.)

      (Disclaimer: I think all species of antirealism to be severely wrongheaded both methodologically and psychologically.)

  10. The most that can be said for Harrison’s point C.) above, I think, is that when Western mankind began clawing its way out of the Dark Ages, and people began to study subjects systematically, the primary topic they had to study was religion, given the Church’s central role in life during the Middle Ages. This systematic study was a forerunner of sorts to Empiricism.

    Also, when universities of study were first established in Europe, the Church had a monopoly on them. Accordingly, it was under the auspices of the Church that all formal study took place, including the study of the ur-science, “natural philosophy.”

    As soon as this study of the natural world disclosed discrepancies with what Scripture said, the conflict between science and religion began, and has been escalating ever since.

    1. And to take that a step further, religion has continued to educate the willing and particularly those with money today. Schools of religion are extremely popular in this country today and this guarantees the struggle to keep religion out of politics or any part of your life.

    2. As my post about the Hellenists pointed to, I think the conflict is older than the end of the ‘Dark Ages’.

      1. Oh, I think that’s correct in terms of conflict with religion. My point was specifically responding to the argument in point C.) above regarding the limited extent to which religion — in this case, medieval Christianity — might bear some credit for the rise of science.

        1. Oh no, I think that point C is complete and utter male bovine fecal matter, it is despite of religion, not because of religion that science took off.
          Just imagine Cluny had not been a Christian abbey, but a kind of Serapeum.

    3. I think Martin Luther might have been significant player in the events that lead to the Enlightenment. By challenging the Church, and (arguably) winning, he opened the door to a kind of skepticism that the Church had kept a lid on for centuries.

      Even though he was preaching another flavor of religion, Luther showed that the official dogma wasn’t impervious.

      Throw in the printing press and all hell breaks loose.

    4. Not to (e)mpiricism, but to the ratioempiricism that is common to the sciences. (Again a philosophical mistake that makes understanding hard. :))

      Often science textbook authors make it sound like somehow science is empiricist, when it involves invention of concepts, theories, classifications, etc as well as varying degrees of deductive apparatus. Nevermind also postulating entities outside of sensory experience, etc. None of this is empiricist as understood originally. What *is* true is that it is *experimental* and requires other checks and such beyond internal coherence, etc. People say that the great advance of the 17th century was to “go out and look”, but it isn’t so – it is rather to do so in a disciplined way, with clear ideas to investigate and hypotheses to test.

      1. You are saying “empiricism is false.” Bravo! I think you are right.

        But, in reality, scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures.

        Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World . Penguin Publishing Group.

        Empiricism performs its essential duty by attacking these bold conjectures, and trying to knock them down.

  11. And of course the conflict with Genesis couldn’t arise until Darwin proposed an alternative theory of “design” in 1859.

    Darwin is one of humanity’s giants, but the conflict between Genesis and fact (or the actual world} was laid bare two centuries prior by Spinoza. A whole host of thinkers from Locke and Hobbes to America’s founders knew that Genesis was not close to being literally true, even if they lacked Darwin’s explanation of the mechanism. Spinoza made his case with close reading, linguistic analysis, and historical and cultural knowledge. The science developed by Spinoza to do this is widely accepted (350 years later) by even most religious scholars today – probably not at Templeton though.

    1. Snake oil salesmanship appears a great career prospect: It can give you serious Templeton funding, or even make you president of a superpower.

  12. “Unless a religion is restricted purely to the realm of the moral, it will make at least some substantive claims about empirical reality.” —Harrison

    I think Harrison is right, but I find your argument from this problematic. You define “empirical claims” as “statements about the way the world is and was.” I would suggest that not all such statements are empirical—that is, verifiable by the methods of science. That Jesus was a living historical person is an empirical claim; that Jesus is literally present in the Eucharist is not. Both, however, are claims “about the way the world is and was”—i.e., about reality.

    Once you define “empirical claims” to mean exclusively those that are verifiable by the methods of science, you’ve stacked the deck. If religion makes claims about reality that are not verifiable by the methods of science, then such claims are by definition not empirical, and religion can’t be faulted for not be able to verify them emprically.

    In short, it seems to me there’s something circular about your argument.

    1. Sorry, but I disagree. It is the definition of an empirical claim that it can be at least potentially investigated by science, as it’s a claim about what exists. But that’s irrelevant: the fact is that religion makes statements about reality that it has no way to test or verify, and that is different from science. That is why science arrives at consensus “truths” (granted, provisional ones with various degrees of “truthiness”), but every religion has different truth statements. There is no circularity to the argument that science has methods of arriving at the truth about the cosmos, whereas religion does not. And that is the incompatibility. There is no stacking of the deck here to say that “you have no way to test whether the wine becomes the blood of Jesus”.

      My argument is laid out if Faith versus Fact, so I’d suggest you read that.

      1. “There is no stacking of the deck here to say that ‘you have no way to test whether the wine becomes the blood of Jesus.’”

        OK, if that’s all you’re saying, then you’re clearly right: that statement is true and there’s nothing circular about it. It becomes problematic only if you go on to say “Therefore your claim isn’t true” or “Therefore you have no right to make such a claim.”

        It’s perfectly reasonable for science to accept only those claims of religion that are verifiable by the methods of science, but not to fault religion for making statements that are beyond the methods of science to verify. In other words, “Only those statements verifiable by the methods of science are true” is not a valid starting point. But that’s not what you seem to be saying—at least not here—so my apologies for the misinterpretation.

        I have in fact read Faith versus Fact and, despite disagreeing on some points, found it very lucid. That’s one reason I’m here at all.

        1. In other words, “Only those statements verifiable by the methods of science are true” is not a valid starting point.

          I don’t think many science-minded people would make such a claim. Hitchens’ razor, “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence,” provides us with a similar, but more useful rule and avoids having to define “true”.

          1. Its perfect nonsense to say that just because something is not an empirical claim it is not a valid knowledge claim, or to say that because something is not empirically verifiable, it cannot be true.

            There are mathematical truths which are not based on empirical evidence, and no one questions them. There are normative/definitional truths such as the location of zero degrees latitude, which are based upon conventions. There some general ethical things (like not lying cheating and stealing) that most people regard as self-evidently true.

            But I would note “Jesus Christ is the only Son of God” or “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet” are not analogous to math or latitude or general ethical principles. There is clearly religious knowledge, for example, one can have knowledge of the historical development of Christian doctrine. But such claims are by nature not universal, except in a hypothetical (everyone converts to Catholicism tomorrow).

            But the best parallel to religious knowledge is, of course, law. One can have knowledge of traffic laws in Indiana, but that knowledge is only authoritative in Indiana. Like religion, law can pronounce certain “facts” to be the case. For example, actual BAC from a breathlyzer depends upon lung volume and other factors and breathlyzer tests are calibrated to “average humans”. But legislatures can by decree say the BAC measured from a breathlyzer is your BAC for purposes of violating a per se DWI statute, even if empirically that is not the case.
            This is because both religion and law presuppose a system of legitimate authority.

            The problem between the Church and State, however, is that the legitimacy of the State is backed by positive force. It doesn’t matter what I think about the laws in Saudi Arabia, if I am caught breaking them, I will be punished. “Truth” in the religious context is relativized to the particular religious community, and there are limited sanctions for defecting. It is utterly distinct from the conservation of momentum in this regard, which is universal and not something that can ever be evaded. Frankly, its about submission to the authority of the leader’s of a particular community, hence the overlap between cults and totalitarian political movements.

            Since religion in the modern world probably primarily functions as a means of preserving a distinct and stable social identity, the fact that religious truths are relative and not universal is a good thing, otherwise Conservative Jews wouldn’t be able to distinguish themselves from Orthodox Jews, etc. In this regard, flat rejection of universal scientific truths is a good social marker for distinguishing yourself from everyone else, as much as wearing funny hats.
            But at the same time, it makes it difficult to compare the claims of religion to the results of empirical science with a straight face.

            1. Its perfect nonsense to say that just because something is not an empirical claim it is not a valid knowledge claim, or to say that because something is not empirically verifiable, it cannot be true.

              Who is making such claims?

              1. Once you define “empirical claims” to mean exclusively those that are verifiable by the methods of science, you’ve stacked the deck. If religion makes claims about reality that are not verifiable by the methods of science, then such claims are by definition not empirical, and religion can’t be faulted for not be able to verify them emprically.

                In short, it seems to me there’s something circular about your argument.

                The argument is that its circular to reject religious claims that are not empirically verifiable by scientific study. My point is that there are a number of non-empirical claims that people accept all the time, but religious claims have very little in common with those types of claims either, except in the realm of ideological claims. . . and the other point that religious pronouncements of fact are akin to legislative pronouncements of fact, only they have religious, not legal, consequences.

    2. “Jesus is present in the Eucharist” to be true requires Aquinas’ (or some other bastardization of Aristotle) theory of matter to be more or less correct. It isn’t, so not only is it a factual claim, it is horribly false!

      Note the difference here: Protestants nominally believe that the presence is, in fact, a metaphor; officially Catholics are supposed to believe otherwise, but if I remember correctly, most – rightly, I think – do not.

      Note also that I changed “empirical” to “factual” – see above as to why this really matters.

  13. Ah, but even if you deal in “facts”:

    A. It’s a fact that dog is spelled “d-o-g” but its also a fact that it could be spelled “g-o-d” (say you were writing a sign you wanted read when viewed in a mirror).

    B. It’s a fact that “Christ” is present in the Eucharist but its also a fact that “Satan” could be present in the Eucharist.

    A works. B would never work with a devout believer.

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