The Heterodox Academy has a subgroup, Heterodox STEM, which deals with “heterodox” views of STEM—most of them being criticisms of the new “woke” initiatives that are invading the sciences. Heterodox STEM has a Substack, too, where you can see a number of people standing up against the “successor ideology”. A splendid example of that is Ilya Revakine’s recent post, “On Cancel Culture and Anti-Semitism in Academia”, a defense of the opprobrium that descended on Anna Krylov et al. after they posted an honest-to-good reviewed critique, “Scientists must resist cancel culture” in the chemistry-news journal Nachrichten der Chemie. In fact, most of Heterodox STEM seems dedicated to resisting cancel culture in science, and I’m pretty much on their side.
I was thus surprised to see an accommodationist and pro-religious piece on the site, which you can read by clicking below. You’ll recognize the last author, Dorian Abbot, as our University of Chicago professor of Geophysical Sciences, whose “heterodox” views on DEI got him into trouble with his department here (the administration stood by him), and then, because of his views, he was disinvited from a prestigious invited lecture at MIT that had nothing to do with DEI. That caused a huge kerfuffle that even made it into the New York Times. Abbot was badly treated then, and it’s brought a lot of shame on MIT.
Here, though, Abbot espouses accommodationist and religious views in a piece written with two co-authors: Daniel Selvaratnam, a Research Fellow in autonomous systems at the University of Melbourne, and Wesley Farrell, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the U.S. Naval Academy. (Farrell recently wrote another piece on the site, “Cancel Culture in Science is Real.”)
It’s in the spirit of collegial debate, then, that I offer a critique of their piece, a piece that tries to show that both religion and science offer valuable methodologies to contribute to our understanding of the universe. I would normally tell the authors to read my book, Faith versus Fact:Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, as well as my 2013 piece in Slate, “No Faith in Science“, but what fun would that be?
Since “heterodox” means “going against accepted opinion or beliefs”, and because accommodationism really is the norm in America (though not necessarily among scientists), I offer a critique that is both heterodox and, I hope, constructive.c
The piece makes a number of claims that I’ve discussed in my book, but let me lump them into three categories. The bold headings are mine, while the arguments of Selvaratnam et al. (henceforth “SFA”) are indented—with the exception of my quote from Slate given further down.
Claim 1. Science answers the “how” questions and religion answers the “why questions.” SFA:
At a fundamental level, science is a methodology for the discovery of knowledge about the natural world designed to answer the question, “how?,” which is the true question the young boy on the beach was asking. But science cannot, even in principle, answer the deeper question of the grown man: “why?.” As Bishop Robert Barron has argued, “though the sciences may be able to understand the chemical compounds that make up paper and ink, the sciences will never understand the meaning of a book.” We can investigate the physical properties of the book using science, but the ideas within it, the meaning of the symbols, the eternal truths or errors that may be held within those pages, simply cannot be reduced to an arrangement of molecules. The same is true for art. We can explain with basic physics how the violin makes noise of a certain pitch, but are completely at a loss when we attempt to explain why Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is beautiful using the scientific method. Nor can science provide us with a framework to tell the difference between right and wrong. Consider Fritz Haber. A German scientist, Haber won the Nobel Prize for his role in the development of industrial synthesis of ammonia, a revolution that has saved billions from starvation. Yet this same invention was used to manufacture munitions, and Haber also used his scientific talents to develop poisonous gasses that led to the slow and painful deaths of hundreds of thousands in the First World War. Science did not provide an ethical or moral framework for Haber because it cannot: it is merely an amoral method we can use to increase our knowledge about nature.
. . . All of this is to say that, not only is there no inherent conflict between science and Christianity, but the Christian worldview actually motivates and supports the scientific enterprise. Both science and Christianity are systems of thought based on logic, reason, and evidence which complement and build off each other. How much greater is the believer’s wonder at creation given its tremendous magnitude and complexity that have been revealed by modern science? How could science work without the axioms that flow naturally from Christianity, and what ultimate motivation could we have for doing it? Whereas science excels at answering “how?” questions and has dramatically improved the physical conditions under which we exist, Christianity deals with “why?” questions, motivates the fundamental assumptions necessary to do science, and provides us with a reason to continue existing at all.
As you’ll see, SFA tout Christianity as being able to answer the “why” questions, and so we have two nonoverlapping magisteria, or NOMA as Gould called them. Religion and science can snuggle together happily, after all.
But in fact this is not the case. As I show in FvF, religion does ask “how” questions, as many religions are grounded on factual beliefs—beliefs that in principle could be tested and, if they can’t be disproven, there’s no reason to accept them. In fact, the faith extolled by SFA, Christianity, makes many statements of fact: Jesus lived, he was divine and the son of/part of God, he was crucified and then resurrected, and by accepting this fact and taking Jesus as our saviour we are vouchsafed eternal afterlife. Indeed, you can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t accept those “truths”.
And here are some “how” issues that are empirical claims, and are even mentioned by SFA:
The Bible makes two profound claims that are relevant to science. First, that the universe was created by a good, powerful, and wise Creator, who endowed it with structure and beauty, and constantly upholds it by his power.
. . . The second Scriptural claim is that man is both flesh and spirit. We are flesh, and so our bodies are subject to the laws of physics. But we are not only flesh. As spirits, we have a God-given ability to reason, to search for truth, and to discover the God who made us in his image. This worldview provides truly fertile ground for robust scientific inquiry. Within it, our five axioms are no longer arbitrary. Science has flourished in the West, not in spite of its Christian foundation, but precisely because of it.
Let’s leave aside the dubious claim that Christianity kick-started science (in fact, it impeded science for centuries, and, in the form of creationism, still does so). Neither of the claims above can be tested, and, if you’re a Bayesian, you might even claim that the priors of Christianity are low, for there’s precious little evidence for a “good, powerful, and wise creator”. (The world is a mess, and little kids die all the time for no discernible reason.) Likewise, there’s no evidence for “spirit”, which is undefined except that it seems to have something to do with our ability to reason, which of course can be explained by evolutionary biology.
Further, religion doesn’t answer the “why” questions, for every religion has a different answer to questions like “why is there physical (or moral) evil in the world.” Why did humans appear? Why should we behave morally? In the end, all of these “why” questions have a simple answer: “Because God wanted it that way.” But that’s no answer. For it leads to other “why” questions like “why is there a god” and “why does God want us not use contraceptives?” Further, if you ask for evidence for such a God, accommodationists punt, saying, “We don’t need no stinking evidence, we have faith.” But more on faith later.
Many philosophers have shown repeatedly that religion is not itself a source of ethical beliefs but a filter for them. As Plato showed in the Euthyphro Dialogue, asserting that “God is good” raises the questions, “Is God good because everything he dictates is good? Or is God good because he decrees a set of values and actions that seem to us a priori good?. And the latter was Plato’s answer. We have a pre-God-ian idea of what “good” is, and have constructed our god to comport with that.
Yes, you can derive ethics from whatever dictates your God has, but every religion has a different species of morality. If you’re a Catholic, you see homosexual acts as a grave sin that will send you to hell, Not so for many other faiths. If you’re a Muslim, you’re morally obliged to kill apostates and to many sects, women must cover their bodies lest they excite the lust of men. Religious “morality” dictates what you eat, what you wear, what you eat, and who and how you have sex with. The alternative—humanistic morality, or simple secular ethics—is not even considered by SFA as a valid way of addressing “why” questions, and even there we have the problem that all morality is, at bottom, subjective, based on what you see as desirable or undesirable. But those who argue that religion is our fount of ethics seem unaware of the long history of secular ethical philosophy going back to the ancient Greeks and through Spinoza to modern philosophers like Grayling and Rawls.
In the end I’ll say this:
Religion doesn’t answer the why questions, it addresses them. Religion has no way to answer “why questions”
In contrast, science can and does answer the how questions.
I don’t think I need to list the “how” questions science has answered. I’ll give just one: “how can we immunize people against Covid-19?”
Claim 2. Both science and religion are based on “faith”. ASN:
Some believe that science is a superior alternative to faith. But if we peer a little deeper, we see that the scientific method actually requires a great deal of faith before it can even get off the ground. For example, here are five axioms that every scientist (often unconsciously) believes:
- The entire physical universe obeys certain laws and these laws do not change with time.
- Our observations provide accurate information about reality.
- The laws of logic yield truth.
- The human mind recognizes the laws of logic and can apply them correctly.
- Truth ought to be pursued.
None of these can be proved by science; they must be assumed in order to do any science at all. They are articles of faith. The fourth point especially bears elaboration. Our ability to think rationally must be assumed before any of our thought processes can be trusted. [JAC: See Pinker’s new book, Rationality, as a refutation of this argument.] Without this assumption, we can get absolutely nowhere. Though every human must make it, critically, not all worldviews are capable of supporting it. Consider that no other rational species exists on Earth or has yet been found in the entire universe. Clearly evolution cannot be relied on, or even expected, to produce rational beings. Moreover, if all our thoughts are simply the product of chemical reactions, governed solely by the laws of physics, then there is no reason for them to have any correspondence with the truth. Assuming that we can think rationally, the atheist’s account of our origins offers us compelling reasons to doubt the validity of that very assumption.
This discussion is familiar to me, and because I saw it so often I wrote the Slate article nearly a decade ago to clarify the difference between the usage of “faith” in science and “faith” in religion. I’ll quote myself here:
A common tactic of those who claim that science and religion are compatible is to argue that science, like religion, rests on faith: faith in the accuracy of what we observe, in the laws of nature, or in the value of reason. Daniel Sarewitz, director of a science policy center at Arizona State University and an occasional Slate contributor, wrote this about the Higgs boson in the pages of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals: “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”
Such statements imply that science and religion are not that different because both seek the truth and use faith to find it. Indeed, science is often described as a kind of religion.
But that’s wrong, for the “faith” we have in science is completely different from the faith believers have in God and the dogmas of their creed. To see this, consider the following four statements:
“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”
“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”
“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”
“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise.”
All of these use the word faith, but one uses it differently. The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
In contrast, the third statement relies on evidence: penicillin almost invariably kills streptococcus bacteria. In such cases the word faith doesn’t mean “belief without good evidence,” but “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.”
You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.
The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.
To reiterate: religious faith is based on scripture, religion, and authority, and is impervious or immune to empirical verification. Mark Twain put it bluntly: ““Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” To be charitable, I’ll amend that to “Faith is believing things for which you have no evidence, but that belief satisfies your emotional needs.”
Science, on the other hand, starts with assumptions that are tested over time to see if they help us understand the cosmos in a way that comports with other people’s understanding. There’s only one kind of science, which is based on assumptions that have been justified because they provide further empirical understanding. Or, as Richard Dawkins said, “Science works, bitches!”
In contrast, there are a gazillion religions, no two of which have identical beliefs, truth claims, and moralities. There’s no way to know which one is right. But there is a way to know whether the continents move or are static, whether infectious diseases are caused by airborne “humors” or microorganisms, and whether a molecule of benzene has six carbon atoms or eight. That way is science. There is no way that religion can tell us the truth about reality, and, in fact, theology has not advanced an iota in the last millennium. Do we know more about God than Aquinas or Augustine did? Not a whit. We just have a lot more fruitless lucubrations that have provided employment for theologians.
SFA, then, seem misguided when they assume that the “faith” we have in science (assumptions that bring confidence when they are repeatedly justified) is the same thing as the faith they have in religion (beliefs that are neither evidenced nor justified).
As for Science Faith Claim #5, “Truth ought to be pursued”, that differs from the other claims because it’s an “ought” rather than an “is”. I’d argue that that “ought” is justified by utilitarianism—that if you want to cure diseases and improve well being and understand how the planets move—you have to pursue truth. Science works, bitches.
Finally, the last claim, which can be disposed of easily:
Claim 3. Science and religion are compatible because there have been famous religious scientists. SFA:
The assumption that God’s creation is not random and chaotic, but rather orderly and rational, was necessary for scholars to begin to pursue knowledge via what is now known as the scientific method (see Theology and the Scientific Imagination by Amos Funkenstein). Even atheists today implicitly make use of this fundamental assumption. And it also explains why so many deeply religious people have been among the most important scientists historically. For example, Galileo, despite his differences with the Church, was a pious Catholic. Newton, although certainly not an orthodox Christian, was nevertheless a believer. James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin were both devout Presbyterians, with Kelvin commenting that “[t]he more thoroughly I conduct scientific research, the more I believe science excludes atheism. If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all religion.” Gregor Mendel made some of the most important contributions to the theory of genetics, and was also an Augustinian friar. The Big Bang was first theorized by Belgian priest Georges Lamaitre. Examples abound. The view that science and Christianity are incompatible is not only incorrect, it is disproven by history.
Yes, and you can argue that science and pedophilia are compatible because some famous scientists were pedophiles (Schrödinger is the latest one accused of this). The fact is that humans can hold two incompatible ideas in their head at the same time, and that fact does not make those ideas compatible. When Maxwell went into the lab, he discarded his religiosity and practiced science, as all good scientists do, as an atheistic discipline, with no need to consider gods or the supernatural. But when he went to church, he suddenly accepted a bunch of palaver that even small children can see through. Does that fact make science and religion compatible? I don’t think so. But you can read a fuller discussion of all of these questions in Faith Versus Fact.
Finally, why am I taking issue with three colleagues whom I’ve joined in a campaign to keep STEM free from ideology? Simply because I think faith is also a bad “ideology”. It does bad things to the world by misleading people, setting group against group, and, most of all, making people think that they can apprehend reality through revelation, authority, and scripture. Faith and science are not only incompatible, but opposites.