He writes a regular column for The Irish Times on the relationship between science and religion. He's a Roman Catholic.
I'm interested in the conflict between science and religion and I usually pay attention to anything that John Wilkins recommends so I looked at this article. I think it might be fun to examine it to see how some theists think about the issue. Let's see how he starts out ...
The modern world runs on science-based technology, and nobody seriously disputes the importance of science.Oh dear, that's not a very good beginning. Science is a very important way of knowing that's proven to be highly successful. As far as I'm concerned, there are no rules that say what questions we can and can't address using the scientific way of knowing.
This importance has tempted many eminent scientists to adopt a dismissive attitude called "scientism" towards other disciplines. Scientism applies science to address questions in areas where science has no competence. But scientism is simply wrong, and might have disastrous consequences for science if allowed to develop. Philosophy has an important role in identifying areas where science has competence, but, by and large, philosophers are not confronting scientism.
Scientism comes in stronger and weaker forms. The robust form claims that science is the only valid way of seeking knowledge. The weaker doesn’t go that far, but it inappropriately applies science to a wide range of questions.
William Reville thinks there are, and he obviously thinks these questions are self-evident because he doesn't bother to tell us about the "areas where science has no competence." Apparently, those of us who try to use the scientific way of knowing (rational thinking, evidence, healthy skepticism) to ask questions about the protected areas are guilty of "scientism."
"Scientism" is almost always uses as a pejorative term.
I happen to believe that the scientific way of knowing is the only way of knowing with a proven track record. I'm willing to consider examples of knowledge ("truth") that have been obtained without resorting to evidence and rational thinking but so far nobody has been able to give me an example [Who's the Grownup in the Science vs Religion Debate?].
Philosophers have been grappling with this problem for years. It's called the "demarcation problem"—how do you distinguish science from pseudoscience and science from any other way of knowing? There are many prominent philosophers who use a broad definition of science and who claim that there are no questions that science can't address. William Reville seems to be unaware of those philosophers. Perhaps that's because he only reads Catholic philosophers. He should read Philosophy of Pseudoscience to learn about sophisticated philosophy [see Science Doesn't Have All the Answers but Does It Have All the Questions?].
The strong form is a ridiculous claim espoused by few scientists. One scientist who does espouse it is biologist Richard Lewontin, who has said: “In order to properly understand the universe, people should reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world and accept a social and intellectual apparatus, science, as the only begetter of truth.” (New York Review of Books, 1997.)That's it? That's all he has to say about the subject? It's "ridiculous"?
Now, I realize that William Reville is not a philosopher. That's a damn good thing because, if he were, he would be giving philosophy a bad name. As it is, he's only giving biochemistry a bad name.
The weaker form is frequently directed against religion by prominent scientists. In a BBC2 Newsnight TV programme in 2009, Richard Dawkins made the ignorant statement: "God has the same status as fairies." In other words, according to Dawkins, belief in God is childishly unreasonable. But Dawkins doesn’t enlighten us as to what aspects of the fairy philosophy of life rival the mature philosophy of Christianity. It is, of course, reasonable to be a Christian – anybody who doubts that should read, for example, the books written by the mathematical physicist and Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne, such as "Quarks, Chaos and Christianity."I don't see what this has to do with "scientism." The evidence for god(s) is no different than the evidence for fairies and you don't have to be a scientist to recognize that.
And if you think, as I do, that it's silly to base your life on believing in the existence of something that's only imaginary then "unreasonable" isn't a bad way of describing that belief.
William Reville doesn't really have an argument. He falls back on the Courtier's Reply (Myers, 2013: see The Emperor's New Clothes and the Courtier's Reply). The Coutier's Reply goes something like this ...
Lots and lots of books have been written about fairies. You can't just rely on Celtic folk tales and Hans Christian Anderson because the mature philosophy of fairy tales is much more sophisticated than that.I could go on and on but you get the picture. Reville could probably make a similar case for believing in the Roman Catholic gods. In fact, I'm sure he does make such a case ... with just about as much credibility as the defense of fairies. The point is that almost every widely held belief has volumes of literature justifying it in more or less sophisticated ways. Just because there's a complicated apologetic by a "mathematical physicist and Anglican theologian" does not mean that it's true. I'm sure there are equally "sophisticated" books defending Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. That's not an excuse.
Many theses have been written on the subject of fairies and they are even mentioned in the Bible. They've been around for a long time and millions of people believe in them. That is, they believe in the sophisticated fairies described in scholarly works and not the strawman fairies of Disneyland. The sophisticated fairies are wise and powerful. They aren't the ones that appear in the bottoms of gardens. In fact, they are often so clever that they don't appear at all. They just communicate emotively.
If you have evidence for your belief then you'd better produce it instead of passing off the question to others. If you can't defend your belief in the face of challenges then you have no business attacking your accuser for not understanding the "mature philosophy of Christianity." That's always going to be seen as a cop-out.
The important point is that we are almost half way though William Revilles article and he still hasn't said anything.
I think the extreme stance of Dawkins and others against religion stems from the fact that these scientists are fundamentalist materialists. Materialism is the philosophical belief that nothing exists except the material: that is, matter and energy. Therefore the supernatural doesn’t exist and religion is nonsense. However, materialism is a philosophy that has not – and probably cannot – be proved.If you don't believe in fairies or gods, then "materialism" is the only other option. It's important to understand that people like Richard Dawkins don't just arbitrarily decide to adopt a belief in materialism leading them to reject the existence of gods and fairies. Instead, they examine the extraordinary claims that fairies and gods exist and reject them for lack of evidence. The scientific way of knowing requires evidence. If you don't have evidence then it ain't scientific.
You can never prove that fairies and gods don't exist so that means that "materialism" is always a tentative position; albeit, one that looks very strong to millions and millions of nonbelievers.
I hope that William Reville isn't going to insult us by claiming that it's reasonable to believe in fairies and gods because you can't prove they don't exist.
Science studies the natural world. It is materialistic in its method but not in its philosophy. Science does not deny the supernatural, it simply has nothing to say about it. Science and religion address different aspects of reality and do not contradict each other, as noted by the eminent science writer Stephen J Gould in his book Rocks of Ages. It is not necessary to be a materialist to be a scientist. Most of the great scientists in history were Christians and, today, about 40 per cent of scientists believe in a personal God.Oh, I see where he's coming from. He's going to insult us in a different way. He's telling us that science has nothing to say about the supernatural. That's bullshit. Every claim that's ever made about the supernatural can be examined using the scientific way of knowing. We can ask whether the claim is logical and we can ask if there's any evidence to support it. So far, all those claims fail the test. The scientific way of knowing has said a lot about the supernatural.
It's true that science and religion address different aspects of the world but it's not true to say that they address different aspects of "reality." Reality lies in the magisterium of science and religion doesn't belong there. Religion lies in the magisterium of superstition, imagination, and fairy tales. You can play around in that magisterium all you want but don't pretend that what you imagine to be true is actually knowledge. So far, the scientific way of knowing is the only way that has produced true knowledge. No religious claim of true knowledge have been proven. So, right now, science and religion are in conflict as long as believers make claims about knowledge or existence.
William Reville also insults us by telling us that lots of scientists believe in various gods.
Lot's of scientists reject gods. I wonder what that means to William Reville? One of those groups has to be wrong.
Lot's of Roman Catholics believe in fairies—especially in Ireland. I wonder what that means?
It is reasonable to be a materialist. But, since materialism is unproven, materialists must accept that, no matter how improbable it seems to them, there is a possibility they might be wrong and a supernatural dimension might exist. Materialists are therefore obliged to respect the position of religious people who believe in the supernatural but accept all that science has and will discover. Of course, religious people have an equivalent obligation towards materialists.I'm beginning to wonder why John Wilkins linked to this crap. These are kindergarten arguments. Just because you can't prove the nonexistence of something does not mean that it is reasonable to believe in it. And there's no logical reason why I'm obliged to "respect" the position of people who believe silly things just because I can't prove definitively that they are wrong.
It's a kindergarten arguments, to be sure, but it's made much worse by hypocrisy; " Of course, religious people have an equivalent obligation towards materialists."
Those who espouse scientism are scathing not only of religion but of philosophy in general. For example, the eminent chemist Peter Atkins says in his article Science as Truth (History of the Human Sciences, 1995): “I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance.” And Stephen Hawking, in his book The Grand Design (2010), says: “We wonder, we seek answers: What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science”. One would imagine that such comments would cause a storm of public protest from philosophers, but no such storm has arisen. Why not?I'm one of those people who criticize philosophers for not getting their house in order. This is a perfect example. Are there any philosophers out there who want to defend William Reville?
Throughout the 20th century, philosophers have been content to politely applaud science from the sidelines. Science now thanks philosophy by declaring it dead. One very important function of philosophy is to identify scientific questions. This is important in order to keep science from going off the rails. Philosophy is not doing its job.
Many philosophy departments are dominated by theologians who call themselves philosophers. It's time for real philosophers to take back their discipline. It's time for real philosophers to admit that that they also use the scientific way of knowing to arrive at truth and knowledge.
I'm delighted to see that in the past ten years there are more and more philosophers admitting the science and religion are in conflict and religion is losing. I have no idea why William Revillle thinks that "Philosophers must oppose arrogance of scientism." Instead, they should be embracing it because it's true.