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philosophy, Religion, science

Are Science and Religion Compatible? A Thought Experiment

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to test whether science and religion are compatible.  A couple of nights ago, with the aid of a Johnny Walker Black and soda (it really was in your honor, Hitch… hang in there!) I stumbled on a very simple truth:

We cannot use both science and religion to address the same question and arrive at the same answer with each method.

If ever there was a statement of incompatibility, that’s it, don’t you think?  Thinking back on the history of science and religion, I can’t come up with one instance of religion coming up with the scientific answer to a question — without resorting to science.  (I can’t claim to know the full extent of religious declarations, but I think it’s safe to say science has also never verified a genuinely religious claim.)

That should be the end of the discussion.  When it comes to answering questions accurately, consistently, and repeatably, science is winning by about five billion to zero over religion.  No religious experiment (what is a religious experiment anyway?!) has ever arrived at empirical truth.  No science experiment has ever arrived at religious dogma.  Incompatible.

However, we all know by now what the next objection will be.  “Science and religion don’t answer the same questions, so your point is a red herring.  Science addresses questions of how.  Religion addresses questions of why.”

This answer sounds good.  And it’s emotionally appealing.  In the end, it’s also empty.  Let’s examine it more closely:

Let’s suppose that there is a class of questions which religion addresses and science does not.  We ought to be able to figure out which questions belong to which methodology by a process of elimination.  We know what science can address — pretty much anything to do with matter/energy/space time and how it works.  So what does that leave for religion?

Well… there are those who would claim that religion addresses morality, but they are breaking their own rule when they do.  Morality is easily addressed by science, and has been since pretty much the beginning of “human science,” whether psychology, neurology, or sociology.  More importantly, when science addresses morality, the answers are different than religion’s.  So we’re back to my first statement.  Religion and science cannot address the same question and arrive at the same answer consistently and repeatably.

Others claim that religion addresses questions of comfort and hope in a dark and scary world.  This again crosses a line and goes into scientific territory.  In studying the human animal, we’ve discovered what does and does not comfort people, and we’ve learned that religion’s answers — again — do not line up with scientific answers.

The thing is, if we examine these questions carefully, we’ll see that they’re missing their own point.  It was claimed that religion answers questions of “why.”  But morality and hope are not about why.  They’re about how.  Which is what science is supposed to be addressing.

There’s only one kind of question involving “why” that science cannot answer.  “Why are we here?”

Sure, a scientist would say, “We’re here because of accretion and biological processes and so forth.”  But a religionist would respond by saying, “Yes… but why did all of that happen in the first place?”  At this point, the scientist will correctly shrug his or her shoulders and wander off to find something more productive to do.

So we’ve found something religion answers that science does not.  And I would suggest that this is fine.  I’m OK with religion answering this question.

Does that shock you?  It shouldn’t.  What are the things religion will say?  It will probably say something called god “wanted” things to be this way and made them so.  And that’s fine, because the way things are set up, that’s the ONLY question religion can answer that won’t conflict with science.  It is impotent to comment on the nature of reality, on cause/effect, on morality.  It is literally incapable of discovering any other question which science cannot address.

In the end, religion backs itself into an irrelevant corner by claiming compatibility.  We can demonstrate empirically that religion and science cannot answer any questions about reality compatibly, so all that’s left is to ascribe existence to some nebulous intelligence’s “desire.”  And that’s fine by me, I suppose.  If it makes you feel better, then good for you.  But don’t go claiming that you can discover anything about what you or I should or shouldn’t do, because that is the purveyance of science.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Are Science and Religion Compatible? A Thought Experiment

  1. Morality is not easily addressed by science, as the recent walkover of Sam Harris by William Craig demonstrated.

    At best science only addresses what is. It can tell you that sticking a knife into someone in a certain area will kill them. It cannot tell you that killing someone is wrong. Is-ought fallacy ftw.

    Applying a moral value to anything places the subject beyond the realm of science to evaluate.

    As for your conflict of science and religion, you do know that science is best at debunking scientific claims?

    A hundred years ago, scientists believed in the aether, now they don’t. In every generation of scientists people have argued passionately for positions later rejected. There is no reason to believe that the sacred cows of today will not be discarded tomorrow.

    Scientific antirealism is to my mind the only rational position to take on science.

    Religion deals with human history and the relationships of humans with their gods. That’s the realm of sociology and anthropology. Those aren’t hard sciences. That said, outside physics and its subsidiary chemistry, I have problems labelling any science “hard.”

    Posted by Jason | April 28, 2011, 6:43 pm
  2. Morality is not easily addressed by science, as the recent walkover of Sam Harris by William Craig demonstrated.

    At best science only addresses what is. It can tell you that sticking a knife into someone in a certain area will kill them. It cannot tell you that killing someone is wrong. Is-ought fallacy ftw.

    Thanks, Jason.

    You’ve actually hit on my next subject, but I’ll give you a teaser. You’re right that the scientific method by itself cannot prescribe, only describe. And you’re right that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to come up with an “objective” moral algorithm. But you’re not correct in declaring victory by pointing this out. The problem lies in the question, not the answer. But you’ll have to read my next post to get the whole story…

    As for your conflict of science and religion, you do know that science is best at debunking scientific claims?

    Of course. That’s why it works. And that’s why religion doesn’t. It doesn’t fact-check or evaluate its own claims. So it just spins in circles while science moves forward, inch by inch.

    There is no reason to believe that the sacred cows of today will not be discarded tomorrow.

    Again… of course. I understand why that seems like a problem to you, but again, it’s a matter of asking the wrong question, not providing an incorrect answer.

    Religion deals with human history and the relationships of humans with their gods. That’s the realm of sociology and anthropology. Those aren’t hard sciences. That said, outside physics and its subsidiary chemistry, I have problems labelling any science “hard.”

    Well, the question of hard vs. soft science is another matter entirely, and the academics certainly haven’t got it sorted out yet, so I’m not going to go down that path at this time. But it’s a fool who discards all the findings of anthropology/sociology/etc… simply because the subjects of inquiry are complex and difficult to quantify.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | April 29, 2011, 11:13 am
  3. Hi!

    You should read a book called “Quantum Questions” by Ken Wilbur. It is an anthology of writings from the greatest physicists about their thoughts on spiritual questions. They conclude, like you do, that science can never answer the ultimate questions. It is very thought provoking.

    Jared

    Posted by j. surnamer | June 5, 2011, 12:27 pm
  4. I dont know if I should accept the musings of Hamby during a drinking binge on Johnny Walker, or the many scientists such as Albert Einstein who disagree and state:

    “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
    Albert Einstein, “Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

    Now if the drink was a nice single malt whiskey like Glenlivets, I would have to concur with Hamby…

    Posted by PG | June 5, 2011, 3:18 pm
  5. Sticking a knife to someone will cause him die. People don’t want to die. So they come up with some arrangements. Let’s not kill each other. But people are selfish. So they said, okay, those who kill, we kill. Tada…. We got laws and justice. Then we don’t kill each other. That would be the scientific explanation of morality. Interests of the powerful.

    Still… Religious answers maybe more correct than liberal. Religious people know that you need to kill to prevent murder. Liberal that understand evolution theory doesn’t.

    Even Dawkins says that we grow out of our nature. Is he out of his damn mind? Our nature is by definition what we are. No we can’t get out of it. See communism… That’s what happen when people stamp out religions too fast.

    Religion with all the false reasoning is here first, and used to work. It’ll fade, but I won’t condemn that too quickly.

    Posted by Teguh Budimulia | November 1, 2011, 4:31 am

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