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).