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Don't Fool Yourself

Entry 1863, on 2017-07-03 at 21:21:37 (Rating 4, Religion)

I recently started listening to Sam Harris' podcast, "Waking Up". It's an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known "militant atheist" and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn't mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast - featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne - which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they're not. I don't think science and religion are compatible at all, and I'll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that's one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren't "real religion". For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don't believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy's role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science's role in truth-based areas and philosophy's in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I'm fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I'm fairly sure he has doesn't use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It's like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn't seem to work that way!

There's one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are "real Christians" or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It's no secret that I think that the very idea of religion's epistemology is completely absurd and I can't see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool." Clearly that doesn't apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren't just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman's advice!


Comment 1 (4748) by Anonymous on 2017-07-11 at 19:29:34:

Religion and science don't do the same thing. They are both true in their own way. You are just trying to apply the standards of science to religion and even a rabid atheist should know this is not fair.


Comment 2 (4749) by OJB on 2017-07-12 at 19:01:33:

Oh no, not the old "both true in their own way" thing. If we follow this path everything is true in its own way. If everything is true then truth kind of loses its meaning, doesn't it. Also, I thought I made my opinion clear above: religion has no place because it's "useful" functions, like establishing moral values, are better done by philosophy.


Comment 3 (4750) by Richard on 2017-07-15 at 22:19:28:

As always, a mixture of good sense and not good 'sense'. First claim is a straw man. Religion and science don't have different purposes. Both are trying to do the same thing - Tell the 'story of reality'. So debunking a straw man doesn't help. The above is precisely why they do have truth claims about the physical universe, like 'it had a beginning' for example, and therefore must have a cause.

That many scientists are religious, and of course as I have stated before, most of the biggest names in science were, does show they are 'compatible'. To say they are not, means you forget what science actually is. Science is simply a methodology, dealing strictly with data measurements made in the physical realm, performed by people. Their philosophical and religious beliefs do not prevent them from doing science.

Perhaps some clarity around your particular definition of 'compatible' is required?


Comment 4 (4751) by OJB on 2017-07-16 at 14:42:15:

Regarding the different purposes hypothesis. That might be your conclusion but there are plenty of people who would disagree. I specifically get that response from some of my more sophisticated opponents: that the two examine completely different things. Personally, I think religions do seek to make truth claims about reality - and generally get them wrong unless they just happen to guess something purely by chance.

Another idea might be that they both seek to explain reality but that it is a different type of reality, or reality about a different aspect of existence. For example the physical world versus the spiritual world, or something similar. Of course, I call BS on this, because the spiritual world doesn't exist (although that depends on your exact definition of "spiritual").

I agree that most scientists are also religious to some degree but those two aspects of their lives are kept completely separate, as I said above.

I totally agree about the methodology. You could say science is a method to establish objective truths about the real world using empiricism, and rigorous truth testing through experimentation and other means. Religion is a way to fool yourself into believing an old myth through faith.

Compatible would be if the two methods worked together. For example, if a scientist was researching the Big Bang but suddenly said "no, God has revealed to me that it happened this way" or "the Bible says this", then the two would be compatible. But, of course, they don't because science isn't compatible with childish fairy stories and self-delusion.


Comment 5 (4752) by OJB on 2017-07-17 at 11:41:47:

By the way, my comment above is deliberately confrontational, but I do believe it is essentially true, although its is possibly slightly overstated, just for rhetorical effect! :)


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