Saturday, August 11, 2012

Science and Christianity—Different Ways of Finding Truth?

Chris Mulherin is an Anglican Minister who studies the relationship of science and religion. In this video he claims that science and religion are compatible. Specifically, science and Christianity are compatible.

UPDATE: Eric MacDonald does an excellent job of taking down Chris Mulherin in Science and Religion Again!. MacDonald is a former Anglican priest. (Hat Tip: Jerry Coyne.

He doesn't explain how rising from the dead, miracles, souls, heaven, and a Bible full of lies are compatible with science. Instead, he concentrates on the old saw of different magisteria. Christianity answers different questions than science and discovers different truths.


Id' like to echo the challenge I made some years ago and the one Jerry Coyne issues today [Do both science and faith produce truth?]. Can anyone give us an example of a "truth" discovered by religion—one that we all recognize as genuine knowledge? Name a "why" question that religion answers in a way that we all accept as meaningful and true.1

Those who think that science and religion are compatible like to accuse us of not understanding the serious philosophical issues. I don't think that's correct but, if it is, here's a chance for the serious courtier theologian to set us straight.

Waiting .....


1. It's not good enough to say that if only Christians accept the answer as true, then Christianity has discovered truth. If that were the case then astrology and homeopathy are also valid ways of finding truth even if astologers and homeopaths are the only ones who believe the answers. I'm guessing that no serious philosopher would defend such a ridiculous position.

43 comments :

  1. I'm an atheist but I'll go ahead and tell you that the standard response is going to pertain to some moral statement. Typically, you'll be asked whether or not you agree with the following example statements:

    Murder is wrong.
    Rape is wrong.
    Etc.

    If you answer yes that you agree to such statements, you'll be told that you believe a truth that science cannot reveal, but that religion "can" because it says so.

    If you answer no, you'll be told you're a terrible person for thinking murder, rape, etc. are OK, and this discussion is now over since there is no point in discussing anything with a murder and rape apologist.

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  2. And if you cannot figure out that murder and rape are wrong without religion telling you that they are wrong, then you are one seriously messed up person.

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  3. Where religion offers explanations of what is that are contradicted by science, the two are irreconcilable. Science is the better method for investigating what is as measured by its results.

    Where religion supplies the ought that cannot be derived from the is studied by science, the two are complementary.

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    1. So do the religious justifications of slavery, homophobia, child abuse, misogyny and genocide complement science ?

      While you are at it, name an is for which religion has provided a correct explanation.

      I think you will find that religion has never provided an explanation for any is that has not been contradicted by science.

      The best one can say for religion is that like Atheoclast, it has never provided a correct explanation for any is, which other than being dismally consistent has no redeeming characteristics.

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    2. steve oberski Saturday, August 11, 2012 4:58:00 PM

      So do the religious justifications of slavery, homophobia, child abuse, misogyny and genocide complement science ?


      In 1845, the Baptist church in the United States split into the southern and northern congregations over, amongst other things, the issue of slavery. In the UK, he leading campaigner against slavery, William Wilberforce, was an evangelical Christian. We also know that the agnostic Charles Darwin was also an opponent of slavery but was that based on his science or something else?

      Science can study the phenomenon of slavery but can it tell us anything about the morality of the practice? In my view, it can't, the is/ought gap is unbridgeable.

      If science cannot provide moral guidance then it must come from elsewhere and one of those sources is religion, although it is far from being the only one.

      Yes, various religions have, at various times, provided justification for we now regard as atrocious behavior. Other believers have also condemned and opposed them. Does this disqualify them for contributing to the debates about morality?

      While you are at it, name an is for which religion has provided a correct explanation.

      I think you will find that religion has never provided an explanation for any is that has not been contradicted by science.


      Science, in part, is a method of deciding between competing explanation for natural phenomena. If religion makes a testable claim about the natural world then it should be examined like any other. If the religious claim is found to be baseless while a competing naturalistic explanation is firmly grounded in observation and evidence then the latter should be preferred.

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    3. So in the areas where religion does make testable is claims, it has been proven to be 100% wrong.

      And in the areas where religion makes ought claims it has and still does condone and actively support and encourage the most anti-human behaviours our species is capable of engaging in, and as the human zeitgeist changes to suppress such behaviours it does a post hoc victory dance claiming the moral high ground.

      In current day debates about morality, we need only look at the catholic church in collusion with US envangelical churches to get a sense of their "contribution" to the debates on full and equal treatment under the law for homosexuals, a woman's right to autonomy over her own body and end of life choices.

      And then there is the catholic church's program of genocide in sub saharan Africa as promulgated by their active opposition to prophylaxis and family planning, combined with US evangelical missionaries supporting an anti homosexual agenda in Uganda and other nominally xtian African countries.

      And to give our planet's most recent Abrahamic desert dogma it's due, Islam is working equally hard to ensure that women remain chattels and property (did you see the Saudi womens beach volleyball teams at the Olympics ?) and that homosexuals are daemonized.

      One would have to be morally blind to think that religion brings anything useful to the table when human well being is being debated.

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  4. As I have posted elsewhere some time ago "God dunnit" is not an answer to the question why?

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  5. The methodologies of science and religion are clearly incompatible. You can't do science by the methodology of religion and attempts to do religion by the methodology of science have, as far as I know, wound up contradicting the "traditional" religions (but maybe not all possible religions).

    Unfortunately, while I think, accept, believe that science is much better at delivering "truth" than religion is, I can't scientifically demonstrate that.

    Nor do I accept that scientists need treat every aspect of their lives as subjects of their scientific investigations. They can believe that they love and are loved by others without hooking themselves and their loved ones up to fMRI machines or having their hormone levels analysed. Those beliefs are not "incompatible" with their work as scientists. Therefore, I also think that scientists can have religious beliefs without carrying out scientific tests on those beliefs either.

    Jerry Coyne often tries to distinguish the "truths" that the "ways of knowing" represented by art and literature (and, ultimately, religion) deliver compared to those delivered by science by saying that the former only tell us about "emotions" ... as if human emotions aren't an empiric fact of the world and an important (if not the most important) influence on our happiness and, ultimately, our well being. Knowing and improving our emotional states is as, if not even more, important to any individual as knowing whether the Higgs boson exists.

    One "truth" discovered (and much exploited) by religion is that human beings have a strong emotional need to belong to a community of fellow humans who share the same social imperatives.

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  6. So, Larry, make sure you publish when you are able to divide up an orange in such a way that you get oranges identical to the original orange.

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    1. Oh please. You onow very well the apostles never even tasted oranges, and the pope prefers donkey rides. Therefore your argument is invalid. (Not to mention nonsensical, non sequitor, ...)

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    2. If you are going to accuse someone of using a non sequitur, you should at least make the effort to spell it correctly.

      Nevertheless, there are logically true statements like the Banach-Tarski paradox that, when interpreted as statements about the physical world, yield empirically falsifiable (and empirically falsified) conseqeunces. Thus, by using logic (one of Larry's criteria for science), one can construct an apparent absurdity about the physical world, which is not only justfied and true but also a belief and therefore qualifies as knowledge by most philosophers' understanding of knowledge.

      Is the Banach-Tarski paradox "science" because it is derived from the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory? Or is it "not science" since it is any empirically falsified statement?

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    3. Well, you'll have to forgive my ignorance about Banach-Tarski, but from the Wiki page, it doesn't sound to me like it's reasonable to think an orange could be decomposed into pieces that are "not 'solids' in the usual sense, but infinite scatterings of points." So perhaps the problem is that such things shouldn't be interpreted as statements about the physical world in the first place!

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    4. The point is the Banach-Tarski paradox is knowledge, yet it contradicts empirical observations, so it fails to be "science" in the sense that science pertains to true statements about the physical world.

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    5. Does it really contradict empirical observations? I bet not.

      Banach-Tarski is logically true within the context of a formal mathematical system, yes? In which case, its truth derives from a certain set of axioms that define the system, yes?

      Now, what if we consider a system where some of those axioms don't apply. Banach-Tarski might not be true in such a system, no? Might the physical world be just such a system, where some of the axioms that make Banavh-Tarski true don't apply? If so, there's no contradiction, is there?

      So tell me: does the physical world really conform to all the axioms that are necessary to make Banach-Tarski logically true? I bet not.

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  7. Easy... one of the oldest forms of revealed truth, which clearly predates science, comes in the form of the Upanishads. Here are some of the moral truths discovered by the Hindus, long before science even existed. :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sruti#Ethics_or_moral_values_in_Hinduism

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  8. It may very well be that the two thousand year theological project we call 'Christianity' may have missed the mark from the very beginning and 'discovered' little more that the all too human capacity for self deception.

    For what science and religion, not to mention the rest of us, thought impossible has now happened. History has its first literal, testable and fully demonstrable proof for faith.

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined and predictable experience and called 'the first Resurrection' in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods' willingness to real Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence and ultimate proof!

    Thus 'faith' becomes an act of trust in action, to search and discover this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our moral compass with the Divine, "correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries." So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk,
    http://soulgineering.com/2011/05/22/the-final-freedoms/

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  9. Goliah, I seriously doubt that anyone who visits this site is going to check out your links. Any time anyone comes out with something that they claim is entirely new, the first of its kind, in short, THE ANSWER, I pretty much want to throw up. We've all heard about 'The Secret', and all sorts of mumbo jumbo that makes people try to believe that we've been doing it wrong all along, and all we need is a simple new answer that was somehow, FINALLY, revealed to some particular person at some particular time. We ain't buying.

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  10. funny how religious answers to "why" always involves human emotions and motives. so much obviously contrived made-up nonsense that it's difficult to view the true believer as anything but mentally ill. But in the end this is the last holdout for religion: despite gaining its inspiration from the all-knowing creator and intelligent designer of the universe, it has not revealed a single verifiable fact regarding the stucture, function, and origin of the universe and all emergent properties thereof, except for dubious and various notions that cannot be directly tested.

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  11. Belief in love and belief in religion aren't at all equivalent. Love is known to exist. There's nothing irrational about a scientist believing he loves someone. He observes his emotions toward that person, compares them to the emotions that define love, and makes a rational conclusion.

    In contrast, gods are not known to exist, and the Christian god can rationally be concluded not to exist (at least, not as described in the Bible). So a scientist cannot rationally believe in the Christian god.

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    1. Yes, but the experience we call love is not defined by whatever one decides constitutes it scientifically. That's essentially the problem here: just because science can devise a collection of correlates that describe phenomena common to people who express "love" doesn't that such a collection of correlates is love.

      Knowing one loves someone else does not mean that one knows that one is experiencing these correlates.

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    2. No, that's not the problem. Sure, there may be disagreement about what constitutes love, or uncertainty over whether person A 'really' loves person B,, but so what? None of that makes it unscientific to believe in love. There's more than adequate evidence to show that love exists. Thus, there's nothing inherently unscientific about believing in love.

      There is not adequate evidence to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-good being that created the universe, cares about each of us personally, and intervenes in our lives in detectable ways. Thus, it IS unscientific to believe in such a being.

      IMO, science at its most basic is about believing in things ony if they are adequately supported by empirical evidence. Love qualifies. Christianity does not.

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    3. You missed the point: people's subjecive experiences are not defined by the more-or-less objective descriptions of those experiences that science. Understanding the biogenic amine hypothesis of mood disorders does not necessarily modulate people's moods. That is, reading the clinical and pharmacological evidence for the mechanism of action of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors does not make people "happier".

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    4. I wonder if the earth orbited the sun before I read that it did, or whether it is reasonable to suspect that me reading about it might make it happen. (disclaimer: I haven't yet in my life conducted a single experiment suggesting that it actually does, but I can evidently live with that).

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    5. Yeah, you missed the point too.

      Scientific descriptions of phenomena, such as the role of biogenic amines if the regulation of mood, do not define people's subjective experiences of these phenomena, such as affective states.

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    6. Your point, as written, was apprehended. Not saying that there are not difficult questions in this universe and it is to some of these you allude, but surely no one thinks that scientific descriptions are parallels to actual experiences..they are models. If that is not good enough, then we should all be happy knowing nothing, or (as is more common) knowing things to be true that very likely aren't.

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    7. You are still missing the point. Having a scientific description does not negate or supplant subjective experience. You can associate levels of serontonin in the brain with increased affective arousal, but such an association does not define happiness. We can add to our undesrtanding of mood through neurochemistry, neurobiology, and neuroscience, but neurochimical, neurobiological and neuroscientific explanations of moods will never semantically replace our subjective experience of our moods.

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    8. Agreed. Scientific explanations of subjective states are not equivalent to the states themselves. Now please explain how that's relevant to whether belief in love is epistemically equivalent to belief in god. Failing that, explain why it's unscientific to believe you love someone.

      After all, reading the numbers that my plate reader generates is a subjective experience. You could read the same numbers, but your subjective experience will not be identical to mine, and the numbers themselves are not equivalent to our subjective understanding of them. Does that mean it's unscientific of me to use those numbers to calculate serum levels of the protein I just tested in my ELISA?

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    9. "God" is a subjective experience; "love" is a subjective experience. Asserting "love is known to exist" is as sloppy as asserting "God is known to exist". Why take you mother's word that she loves you if you won't take a theist's word that God exists?

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    10. God, as defined by the average Christian, is not merely a subjective experience, except in the trivial sense that everything we experience is subjective. The Christian god is claimed to be an objectively real being. One who manifested as a physical human, among other things.

      I'll happily concede that certain religious beliefs are compatible with science. Belief in god as some kind of purely subjective experience might qualify.

      Aside from that, if you're unable or unwilling to recognize the existential difference between love and god (as most people define both terms), there's not much point in further discussion with you.

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    11. Michael M asks,

      Why take you mother's word that she loves you if you won't take a theist's word that God exists?

      Are you being serious or are you so mixed up that you really don't know the answer to this question?

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    12. Evangelical Christians consider a "personal relationship with Jesus" to a cornerstone of their faith.

      Why do you dismiss this but accept people's subjective experiences of another person's love?

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    13. Michael: if by "God" you mean a subjective experience, there is no conflict with science - no one is denying your subjective experiences. As long as you're not claiming that subjective experiences can turn water into wine or raise the dead your religion is essentially that of many scientists (such as Einstein) who are/were highly religious in a science-compatible way.

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    14. @Michael

      I would dismiss a "personal relationship with Jesus" to the same extent that I would dismiss a "personal relationship with Santa Claus" or any other imaginary being.

      The above relationships are no more or less subjective than relationships with real people, but can not be used as proof that Jesus/Santa Claus exist and most certainly can't be used to inform public policy, which unfortunately seems to be a habit with those who claim to be in an abusive relationship with a jewish zombie.

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    15. I don't think you understand what I am saying, Steve. I'm not saying that Christians who have a "personal relationship with Jesus" have a relationship with a real person, just that such a relationship is a subjective experience.

      Does that help in your understanding that I am not trying to prove the existence of God through personal testimony?

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    16. You asked why one would dismiss "personal relationship with Jesus" but accept people's subjective experiences of another person's love and I answered that question.

      Was there another question hidden in your comment that I missed ?

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    17. Do you understand that most Christians think that relationship involves a real entity? That they think it's more than just a subjective experience? That they think God is a real being, who became a real man, and really died on a real cross?

      Do you not understand that those are the beliefs we are saying are irrational and unscientific? We're not doubting that Christians have a personal subjective experience that they ascribe to God. We're doubting that the Chistian God objectively exists as anything more than a personal subjective experience.

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    18. And why do you not similarly doubt love?

      The existence to the object of love doesn't make the love any less of a subjective experience.

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  12. Michael M, you are making an important distinction.

    Science can only deal with tangible things, mostly things that can be measured. But things that go on inside human minds are much harder to deal with.

    Of course, it's hard to communicate about such things -- how can you ever be sure what is happening inside somebody else's mind? Only by things that can be measured. Well, and telepathy which we have all experienced though it in fact may not be real.

    So in a fundamental way our personal experience -- which in many ways is what matters most to us -- cannot be subject to science. And yet it is somehow private, and we can't communicate reliably about it either. When we can communicate feelings effectively there's no scientific way to confirm that it happened and we aren't just making it up and believing in it.

    I'm not sure what to say about that, but the fact that it's this way is important.

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    1. but it is the age-old fatal mistake of assuming that, that which is not known cannot be known. Wasn't everything once unfathomable, and indeed still is by virtually every organism on this planet save but a very few. But for lack of evidence, everything might some day be known, notwithstanding (I stress) the near inevitable extinction of our species. If we succumb to any sense of spirituality let it be that somewhere, sometime, there might be or have been an organism that came to know things about the universe that we did not.

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  13. He doesn't explain how rising from the dead, miracles, souls, heaven, and a Bible full of lies are compatible with science.

    I'm always curious why it is only religious ideas that are required to be "compatible with science" when scientists who are atheists hold huge numbers of ideas that are incompatible with science. Having been involved with a long argument down below about some of the most seriously unscientific of "scientific" holdings that got huge numbers of people maimed and killed, why is this the one area that gets so much attention? It would seem that these religious topics get you guys worked up in a way that racism, sexual inequality, and many other topics asserted as science by even your greatest heroes doesn't. That's a rhetorical question, someone else answered it very well on that discussion thread, it's because it all depends on how science and "science" can be used to further atheist ideology.

    Is atheism compatible with science? How about ideological materialism? How about any ideology? I was taught, way back in the dark ages of the 50s and early 60s science boom in the United States, that ideology had no place in science. Only, the history of science shows that ideology has repeatedly been inserted into science. Since the beginning of the 20th century about the only ideology that hasn't been successfully pushed into science is religion. That would be science as it actually exists in the world, not the make believe Platonic ideal that is "science".

    How about political opinions? Those can't honestly be squeezed into a sciencey format. Yet scientists have those as well.

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  14. Larry: one philosophical problem with your position (as you are of course aware) is that you (and science) are taking the existence of objective truth for granted. This is an attractive but by no means proven assumption; if you reject it, all ways of "knowing" become equivalent.

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    1. By all means feel free to consider other ways of "knowing" the next time you are on an aircraft cruising at 800kph at an altitude of 10,000 meters.

      You will have no problem rejecting non-science based ways of "knowing".

      Unless of course you regularly do your long distance traveling on a flying broomstick or on the back of a winged horse.

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    2. Unfortunately to reject it means the "other ways of knowing" that involve pulling ideas out of one's ass are given equal billing to ideas that stem from reproducible experience. Bah. I am not a philosopher. But if I persuaded all 7 billion people on this planet to run head-long toward the tree outside my house, my 7 billion experimental replications would hold up well against the person who claims (without a single piece of supporting evidence) the tree is not actually real.

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