UPDATE: Philosopher Maarten Boudry has issued a series of tweets also criticizing Harrison’s take on the relationship of science and religion. Here’s the first one, but there are about two dozen in the thread:
I've been away from the debate about science & religion for a few years. This interview with historian Peter Harrison (@uqpharri) is surely interesting, but I'm baffled by some of his claims (which indeed seem to be consensus in the field). A few points./1https://t.co/BxZOzWfmqt
— Maarten Boudry (@mboudry) September 2, 2021
Matthew sent me a tweet about this Five Books article telling me it would irritate me. Well, it really didn’t, as the books aren’t really about the compatibility of science and religion, but more about whether there’s been a perpetual war between science and religion. These are two different issues. The second is completely empirical: have there been recurrent clashes between religion and science over history? The first is a combination of philosophical and empirical study: do the natures of science and religion give them different ways to find out what is true about the cosmos? And, if so, have those different methodologies led to conflicting and incompatible claims?
In my book Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, I maintain that there have been sporadic clashes between science and religion (the most notable being the Galileo story and the persistence of creationism), but in general most modern science doesn’t step on religion’s toes. In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland, whose field is the relationship of science and religion, picks out five books that he’d recommend for the layperson to study the intersection of these fields. Click to read it:
Here are photos of the five books chosen by Harrison. I’ve read only one of them: the Hardin et al. essay collection.
Harrison is pretty much an accommodationist, and although he admits that, say, Darwinism conflicts with religion, this is a relatively new phenomenon because, he avers, before the 17th century nobody took the Bible as a handbook of science. What he means—and I think he’s dead wrong here—is that before the 17th century nobody thought that the Bible’s empirical claims were true. If you read the Church fathers, or the Nicene Creed (a fourth century confection) you’ll see that the account of the Bible was seen as purveying the literal truth about our origins, the existence of deities, the existence of Heaven and Hell, and many other empirical matters. Most important is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which we have no extrabiblical evidence, and yet is the fulcrum on which all Christianity rests.
So the idea that Biblical literalism is a new phenomenon seems badly wrong to me. Yes, “science” as a practice and profession didn’t come along until a few centuries ago, so there couldn’t be a conflict between science and religion per se, but even the ancient Greeks engaged in empirical studies that didn’t involve the hand of Zeus.
As with all accommodationist historians, Harrison argues that the Galileo affair has been exaggerated as a clash between empiricism and religion; these people always say it’s about religious power, or is more nuanced than we think. Harrison even emphasizes a “science versus science” element: that Galileo neglected some of his contemporaries’ claims, like Tycho Brahe’s “parallax” arguments against a heliocentric solar system. But you’d have to be deluded to think that the controversy wasn’t mainly about Galileo’s empirical claims contradicting the Earth-centricity divined from Scripture.
On to creationism. Harrison’s discussion of it is weird, and I reproduce it below:
It is slightly different with Darwin. With evolution, there are religious issues at stake. This is part of what motivates young earth creationism: fundamental questions about the nature of human beings, the origins of morality, and the literal truth of the Bible. Darwin’s theory puts question marks against these in a way that the Galileo case doesn’t. It wasn’t evolution that generated difficulties but the method of natural selection, because it made evolution look like a random directionless process. Again, that appears to be inconsistent with Christian notions of a providential direction to history and the special place given to human beings.
But, as we say, history is complicated. Darwin has very powerful highly religious supporters and he has some scientific critics as well. And until we arrived at “the modern synthesis”, with its better understandings of genetics, there wasn’t a plausible mechanism for natural selection.
At least he admits that creationism does exemplify a war between science and faith. But his claim that it was natural selection and not evolution itself that generated creationism seems wrong. Regardless of the mechanism of evolutionary change, the idea of evolution itself flatly contradicts the Bible, and much of the opposition to Darwin’s views rested on his claim that evolution happened (contradicting Genesis), that it was slow (contradicting a young Earth), and that the distribution of plants and animals on the surface of the earth, according to Darwin, could not be explained by a Flood and dispersal scenario.
Second, if you understand natural selection, you know that it is NOT a “random directionless process”. It is the presence of variation (randomly generated by mutation, but Darwin didn’t know that) interacting with a non-random process: the differential proliferation of variation that confers a reproductive advantage. Does Harrison think this? It seems so, because he implies that Darwin’s theory made evolution look like that “random directionless process.” Even if you’re a creationist, you don’t understand what you’re criticizing if you go after natural selection on that basis.
Finally, once we had genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, we knew about mutations and thus had a theory of how natural selection worked on newly arising (or standing) variation. (The “modern synthesis” didn’t begin until the mid-Thirties). But so long as there is heritable variation, which even Darwin knew about, you have a “plausible mechanism for natural selection,” which is simply the differential sorting of variants via their effect on reproductive success. If the variants are heritable, that causes evolution.
One gets the idea from these two paragraphs that Harrison doesn’t really understand Darwin’s theories, is unable to explain them, or doesn’t know their place in history.
A few more items lest I go on forever.
First, Harrison takes the common stance of believers and some philosophers (I don’t know if he’s religious) that you have to philosophically justify the methods of science a priori before you can have any confidence in what you find by doing science. I quote (here he’s talking about Merton’s book):
What’s particularly interesting is that he treats science itself as a kind of ‘black box’ and focuses on external factors and, crucially, values. He 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.
Why this question is so vital to this very day is that science is undergoing challenges to its legitimacy. It’s simply not enough for a scientist to rehearse the chorus ‘well, we’re scientists and this is what the science tells us’; they have to understand the role played by values in giving legitimacy to what they’re doing.
I’m not sure what “challenges to legitimacy” science is undergoing, but I deny that there are any “social values” or a priori philosophical rationales necessary to give us confidence in science or make it “legitimate.” While there’s no one fixed “scientific method”—and here I agree with Feyerabend that “anything goes”—there are general agreed-on principles of what counts as evidence, including empirical observation, doubt, criticism, replication, and so on, that are used by all scientists trying to discern “truth”. If there is a social value at play here, it’s merely “we value what is true.” (That’s not what Harrison means, of course.) There is nothing external to the sciences that leads us to value them, but simply the toolkit that is science that, importantly, IS A TOOLKIT THAT WORKS. Why people value science is simply that it tells us the things we want to know, and tells them truly. You don’t turn to religion if you want to make a vaccine against Covid-19. (Now why we want to make one rests on social principles, but the method itself is what gets us what we want.)
Second, Harrison claims that it is religious values that gave rise to science. That is, the legitimation of science that he deems necessary comes from faith—Christian faith. In this case, it is the faith that gives us impetus to understand God’s laws. Harrison also claims that religion is “necessary but not sufficient” to give rise to science. In other words, in an atheistic West, we would have no science. Two quotes here:
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.
Now you can argue about the extent to which scientists were motivated by religion to find out stuff, but I don’t think that, say, the ancient Greeks, or many scientists in the early days, were simply trying to work out “God’s laws”. I think you’d have a hard time arguing that William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, for instance, was motivated by his efforts to work out how God designed the body. It was motivated, as far as I know, by sheer cussedness: the desire to find out for himself whether Galen was right (Galen wasn’t). And certainly now, when most working scientists and a big majority of good ones are atheists, there is NO motivation to do science as a way to understand God or God’s plan. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, leaves God at the door of the NIH.
There’s also this:
Interviewer: 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?
Harrison: 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.
Ergo, had we not had medieval theology, we’d never have had science. Well, of course this is an untestable claim, but I’d argue that pure curiosity, and the realization that the empirical, naturalistic toolkit of science produces results, that all that would have emerged without medieval theology. You have to do some fast dancing to lay the entire enterprise of modern science at the doorstep of Thomas Aquinas.
Third, I’ve long argued that while science can make contributions to religion—by determining whether their truth statements are really true—religion has, like Laplace apocryphally asserted, nothing to contribute to science. Harrison disagrees, arguing (without giving examples) that naturalism is not necessarily a sufficient assumption for science: that maybe injecting an element of the divine or numinous could advance science:
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.
. . . 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.
I’d love for Harrison to give us an example of how naturalism has limited scientific thought, for surely there must be one example in the history of science in which thinking about God would not just motivate scientific exploration, but produce specific hypothesis that naturalism wouldn’t. He doesn’t give us those examples, and that’s because they don’t exist.
Finally, and least important, Harrison claims that the existence of religious scientists constitutes an embarrassment for those of us who claim that science and religion are incompatible. A quote:
As you say, the existence of Christian scientists who are not obviously subject to cognitive dissonance is an embarrassment for some who would claim the incompatibility of science and religion (as, for example, the New Atheists did). The fact is that there are now eminent scientists who have religious commitments, as there have always been throughout history. This is an awkward fact for advocates of the incompatibility of science and religion.
It’s not awkward to me, not if you understand human psychology. People are religious for a variety of reasons (including childhood brainwashing), and to say that people can’t be superstitious in one part of their life and rational in others is to misunderstand human nature. I think religious scientists are philosophically muddled, but don’t necessarily experience cognitive dissonance because they’ve built a mental wall between delusion and rationality.