Sunday, February 14, 2010

The "Ayes" Have It—Science and Religion Are Compatible

Shocking news from England. The General Synod of the Church of England considered the question of science and religion. By an overwhelming vote (241 -2) they concluded that science and religion are perfectly compatible [General Synod says religion and science not mutually exclusive].NCSE and major scientific organizations will be grateful for this show of support.
Launching the debate, a computer scientist, Dr Peter Capon of Manchester diocese, said: "We wish to refute the perception that you have to choose between science and faith … the crude caricature of faith as being blind and irrational. We reject the 'scientism' that claims that, in principle, science can resolve all questions capable of being answered.

"Most scientists accept that philosophy, theology and the humanities are alive and well and give insights and understanding that complement but are not replaced by scientific understanding."
Science is a way of knowing characterized by the use of evidence and rational thought. Modern disciplines like philosophy and the humanities use this approach to gathering knowledge—indeed, philosophy invented it. Thus, neither philosophy or the humanities provide insights and understanding that's outside of the scientific approach to knowledge. They are part of it, as long as they are done properly.

Theology, on the other hand, is definitely not scientific in its approach to knowledge. We'd all like to know the examples that Dr. Capon is referring to. What, exactly, are the examples of insight and understanding (i.e., true knowledge) that theology has given us? Perhaps Dr. Capon and his supporters could give us a short list of these examples, choosing one or two from each of the major religions.

Several theologies promote the existence of multiple gods. Is that insightful? What about reincarnation—is that an example of insight and understanding from theology? It's difficult to claim that theology offers real insight and understanding unless you're prepared to embrace the idea that only your religion is true. This is exactly what the General Synod is doing. They condemn the "insight and understanding" of theologies based on a literal interpretation of the Bible but claim that the Church of England has it right.

That's not rational. It's much more probable that all theologies are wrong because they rely on faith and not evidence. Like it or not, faith is blind and irrational. And that makes it incompatible with science.

Photo Credit: The Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Rowan Williams) with a friend.


  1. Larry,

    I just noticed that you responded to my last comment. Given that this is sort of on the same topic, I respond to it here.

    I wrote "You fail to understand that not everything is science. Math, ethics, aesthetics, logic, those are not science."

    To which you responded "Science is a way of knowing about the universe we live in. It requires evidence and rationality. Which of those other things count as valid ways of knowing that replace (compete with) science in some contexts?"

    Jeez... they don't have to compete with anything. They have different scopes. You see a universe where there's just science and nonscience, which includes pretty much only mumbo-jumbo.

    I really think you should learn some Epistemology 101. Your discourse is filled with philosophical and ethical statements that have nothing to do with science.

    Interestingly, you say "Cat aesthetics isn't any more productive than human aesthetics. Neither is cat ethics, for that matter." So the ethics of siblicide and infanticide that is rampant in feline biology is not necessarily "better" than ours. In other words, there's no inherent good or evil. There's someone that became prime minister in 1933 that had pretty similar thoughts.

  2. "There's someone that became prime minister in 1933 that had pretty similar thoughts."

    Wow, didn't take long for Godwin to appear in this one.

  3. Larry, how would you scientifically analyze a piece of music?

    Unless you think that music is fully describable in scientific terms, (i.e. frequencies of pitches, the mechanics of the musicians technique), you must be disingenuous in the statements I see you make in this blog. By totalizing knowledge into scientific terms, you are marginalizing and alienating a crucial part of human experience.
    (You may take this as a compliment, but you validate my so-called "straw men" regarding scientism in arguments such as these)

    On the other hand, Marc, whence cometh absolute ethics? I simply see no basis whatsoever for any "inherent" good or evil. I agree that infanticide is reprehensible, but only because it violates a morality that I myself have constructed.

    Also, you can find a person to instantiate any ill, but that doesn't make you right. I think moral absolutists, by and large, are far more dangerous than moral relativists.

  4. Ford Prefect,

    Music is entirely describable in scientific terms- not just the frequency, pitch, etc, of the sound itself, or the mechanics of the musicians technique, but the historical context in which it was written, and the changes in brain chemistry it evokes in the listener. Understanding at this level (even though we still have far to go to be able to do so) certainly doesn't marginalize or alienate a crucial part of what you call human experience, but enriches it.

    Can you imagine the rapturous fervor felt from a musical piece after its been properly distilled? It'd be akin to what we've done with the sugar from sweet tasting fruits.

  5. I never meant that those aspects of music could not be explained on scientific grounds; perhaps I was unclear. I was criticizing the view that this is the only way of knowing that same music.

  6. Well Ford, what part of music do you consider to be inaccessible to empirical observation?

  7. "...I was criticizing the view that this is the only way of knowing that same music."

    But the 'other' way of knowing music is merely emotional, and varies widely among people - offering no real universal truth, just a subjective appreciation.

    This is all that religion can offer, but it instead is attempting to argue that its 'truths' are rational, universal, moral, and should hold dominion in civic affairs. There is the rub.

  8. I think that the ineffable feelings I sometimes have while listening to moving music, be they rapturous or melancholy, cannot be described in scientific terms satisfactorily.

    Psychologists can, and to my limited knowledge do, investigate the neural mechanisms that give rise to such feelings. Let's suppose that in 1000 years all of these phenomena can be utterly described, and even predicted, by scientific theory (although I might argue for the impossibility of this in principle). Even so, I find that these scientific viewpoints are incapable of broaching the irrationality of musical experience.

    Music is real, it exists. Yet as human subjects perceive it, it is profoundly irrational; that is, in its complexity and mystery, it is impossible to truly know, in any logical sense, the source or nature of this mystery.

    The ultimate cause of this irrationality at the nexus of subject and object most likely lies in the contingencies of human evolution and the evolution of our brains. Mechanistic causes, all — but because we can never escape our subjectivity, even through the tools of science as I discussed in paragraph 2, we cannot know for sure the nature of the things in paragraph 3.

  9. I don't think the General Synod's motion is bad news at all. On the contrary, I think it's very good news. As it was when the Pope said that evolution by natural selection was not incompatible with RC Christianity. Of course the whole theology of Christianity is nonsense because there isn't any theo- to have a -logy about. But that's simply irrelevant.

    It's reasonable to take as a given that a bunch of professional dog-collar wearers are NOT going to pass a motion saying "yes, we admit all our stuff is drivel, we think we should ditch the supernatural drivel and stick to science."

    Given that, how much more pro-science could the assembled bishops and bible-bashers be? They're saying something like "hey guys, science is good, science is a great way of understanding the world, we respect it, let's even promote science for understanding of the real world from our pulpits."

    I can't see the bad in that. Perhaps in some dreamworld the Synod might sudddenly realise the error of their ways and have a bonfire of their cassocks and collars, but that isn't going to happen.

    But they have affirmed that rationality should not be completely discarded simply because one has some bonkers ideas.

    In short, I say it's good because they're pointing and moving in the right direction. I think you're saying it's bad because they haven't arrived at the destination.

    Grasshopper, each journey starts with a single step...

  10. Grasshopper, each journey starts with a single step...

    Really odd, I just got in the season 1 & 2 DVDs!

  11. We are too accustomed to the duality. So we tend to discriminate between things, ideas, morals and so on. We don’t see the human being, the life like a whole, an unity. So we discriminate, between good and evil, science and religion, faith and reason, spirit and material, physic and metaphysic, and so on. Indeed everything is energy. Einstein demonstrated that, at the light speed, the matter turns into energy. According to the Russian writer Outspensky, also the inorganic matter has psychical processes. Personally in my quest I use both faith and reason, science and religion, they are like two wings of a bird, as a bird cannot fly by only one wing, so we cannot go on in our physical or metaphysical researches by using only one wing. We need both.
    The book I have recently written may help in this direction and I want to draw it to your attention. The title is “Travels of the Mind”. It is available at
    If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.
    Ettore Grillo

  12. Ettore Grillo says,

    Personally in my quest I use both faith and reason, science and religion, they are like two wings of a bird, as a bird cannot fly by only one wing, so we cannot go on in our physical or metaphysical researches by using only one wing. We need both.

    I just got back from a month in Belgium—one of the least religious societies on the planet. (Along with Denmark and the Netherlands.)

    Those countries are doing remarkably well considering that half of the population is flopping around on one wing.

    I don't need faith and neither do most of my friends. I challenge you to demonstrate that we are somehow more deficient than people like you who claim to need faith in order to "fly."

  13. YA
    Both Science and religion are mutually exclusive compatible with each other i agree with you.