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Dec 13 2012

Is there any religion that is compatible with science?

In a post yesterday, I said that science is clearly incompatible with religion. In the comments, Beth questioned that assertion, saying that some religions might be compatible.

I don’t think that religion is necessarily in conflict with science, but it clearly is in some cases. As the original statement only said ‘most’, I didn’t find his phrasing problamatic. I think young earth creationist religions are an example of such a conflict for religious believers, but they are a minority of religious people. Old earth ‘divine guidance’ type creationist beliefs are not in conflict with science.

Why do you say “science, correctly understood, is clearly incompatible with religion.”? Do you think there is an inherent conflict between science and religion for all religions? If so, can you be more specific about what you mean because religious beliefs are very diverse.

Since this is a response I get quite a lot, I thought that I should clarify what I meant, especially concerning the word religion because, as Beth rightly points out, there is a wide diversity of meanings assigned to that word.

What I mean is that science is incompatible with all religions that involve a supernatural agency that can interact with the world in any form. A nonmaterial agency acting in such a way that it overturns the workings of the laws of science is what we normally call a miracle. It is a singular event that defies any scientific explanation or cause. The population geneticist J. B. S. Haldane captured the problem that a scientist should have with believing that such things can happen: “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.” Another biologist Richard Lewontin put it even more succinctly: “We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit.”

Let’s take the case of Beth’s example of old Earth divine guidance creationist beliefs. The problem is with the ‘divine guidance’ part. How does that ‘divine guidance’ manifest itself? It means that god nudged things along at crucial moments in the Earth’s history to make sure that the outcome is what he wants. But such interventions, however small and however rare, are in direct contradiction with science because they would violate the normal working out of the laws of science. If such an explanation is allowed to pass without challenge for even one event, then how can we counter those who say that Hurricane Sandy was god’s punishment for some perceived sin? How do we distinguish between when god acted to influence some outcome and when he left things alone? This is the problem that Lewontin pointed out.

If the meaning ascribed to religion disavows such a supernatural agency altogether and involves just a set of rites and rituals, then of course it is compatible with science because then such a ‘religion’ is more akin to a philosophy or a way of life and causes no problem for the scientist. A scientist may like to practice meditation and yoga in the company of like-minded people wearing robes and chanting, and believe that it provides her with peace of mind and improves her as a human being. She may call herself a Buddhist and there would be no problem with that. But most Buddhists also believe in reincarnation and mystical karmic forces and the like that act in the world, and those aspects of Buddhism are incompatible with science.

Similarly some people believe in some cosmic spirit force or deity that exists outside of normal space and time and does not intervene in the world at all. Such a belief is not incompatible with science but seems pointless and I doubt that it would appeal to many religious people. As Marcus Ranum pointed out in a comment to a different post, how can one tell the difference between such an inert or undetectable god and no god at all?

While it is undoubtedly possible to slap the label of ‘religion’ onto a set of philosophical beliefs (such as existentialism) or practices (such as yoga) and then correctly assert that such a ‘religion’ is compatible with science, that is not what people normally think of as a religion.

33 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    I would also argue that methodological natural is a basic requirement for doing science because supernatural explanations, by their assumption of a deity having the power to supersede natural laws, are unbounded. Explanations that are unbounded cannot be predictive and are not falsifiable.

  2. 2
    Phiknight

    I guess the cult of Cthulhu is out

  3. 3
    Reginald Selkirk

    Not only is “religion” poorly defined, so is “science.” My definition of science includes Occam’s razor, i.e. the principle of parsimony. Paraphrased for the present application, this can be stated as “accept the simplest hypothesis that explains the data. If you favour a more complicated hypothesis, you need to find some additional data which distinguishes between the two hypotheses in order to justify it.” Occam’s razor knocks out the “divine guidance” explanation.

  4. 4
    ph041985

    The question of whether or not a supernatural agent can interact directly with our universe is, I think, directly tied to determinism. If we live in a deterministic universe, then I would say no. However, because of quantum physics, where there is a possibility of anything happening, albeit in many cases with extremely small probability, it leaves room for a supernatural agent to directly interact with our universe.

    Taking for example the classic Schrodinger’s Cat, suppose after opening the box the observer should find a dead cat. However, a supernatural being kept that radioactive isotope from decaying, so that when the box is opened the cat is found alive. In this instance, the supernatural agent interacted with our universe, but did so in a way that did not violate any known physical laws. I suppose it’s just another way of arguing the butterfly effect.

    So to that end, I think that a supernatural agent who can directly interact with our universe cannot completely be excluded within our known physical laws, so long as it falls within the constraints of those laws.

  5. 5
    Jared A

    I don’t think this is true. Non-deterministic is not the same as unpredictable. Let’s take your example. A collapsed state choosing a value based on a random selection from probability distribution isn’t boundless. Let’s imagine that there really is a God-Beast that can somehow select what part of the probability distribution is going to be expressed (I think this is a bad assumption because it throws out a lot of what we know about what the meaning of information is). We then construct N cat-murder boxes, leave them closed for time T and then open them all at once. Based on physics, we would expect the number cat to be dead a number of times depending on how long the box was closed. If God-Beast intercedes some fraction of the time, then we will get a distribution that does not follow our physics.

    We know that probability distributions work, or thermodynamics would not.

    There’s another point, which is that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics is only meaningful on very minute scales. Examples where quantum fluctuations have an effect on the mesoscopic scale are rare and exotic creatures. Typically they only matter at extremely (extremely) low temperature. The “butterfly effect” almost always does not apply. Again, thermodynamics works.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    What I mean is that science is incompatible with all religions that involve a supernatural agency that can interact with the world in any form.

    “can” or “does”? Either way, I agree, but I’d prefer “interacts” because it directly addresses the claims about god doing anything observable: if god does interact with the universe, it’s amazingly stealthy about it.

    But there’s a deeper problem that the faithful ignore: where does the idea of “god” come from to begin with? What the modern woo-woo deists choose to ignore is that the very idea of “god” is established in a bunch of ancient books that are clearly the product of humans. The idea of “god” does not come from some kind of credible measurement of divine action – it’s supported by historical “evidence” such as:
    a) a talking burning bush
    b) a zombie plague
    c) vanishing bodies
    d) water turning to wine
    so the woo-woos establish a theory of a hands-off unknowable mysterious whatever in order to preserve the “evidence” that comes to them in the form of a bunch of mediocre carnival tricks. If their theory is that there’s some super-powerful hands-off agency that started the universe rolling and then went out for a 13+ billion-year nap, how is that idea justified by the carnival tricks? And if we discard the carnival tricks as simple bronze-age gullibility then what’s the basis for believing in the hands-off agency in the first place? Where did the idea of “god” come from? It certainly doesn’t come from anything like evidence or a theory that has any explanatory power.

  7. 7
    Marcus Ranum

    I think that a supernatural agent who can directly interact with our universe cannot completely be excluded within our known physical laws, so long as it falls within the constraints of those laws.

    No, because “supernatural” implies “outside of nature” which means it’s not capable of interacting with nature (because, if it were capable of interacting with nature, it would be a natural phenomenon) If there were a god that was somehow diddling quantum randomness, it would be detectable – it would be a very puzzling “hidden variable” The only way for god to remain undetectable is for god not to do anything which, for all intents and purposes means exactly the same as not being there at all. (“Being there” implies being in the natural world) Such a “god” would be – by definition – unknowable, since any way that we could learn anything about it would be through its interactions with the natural world, of which there are none.

    Besides, if god was such a not-there god that it operated only very sneakily at the quantum level (and very selectively so as not to get caught) then it’s absolutely certain that all the humans in the past who talked about “god” were talking about something else. So the whole idea of “god” as virtually everyone understands it is mooted. It would only make sense to call such a nonexistent supernatural non-interacting thing something other than “god” so as not to confuse anyone who is familiar with the conceptualized pre-technological divinities that play carnival tricks.

    The woo-woo god of the deists is wonderful fun because in order to be a deist you have to first reject the very concept of old-school gods (a step in the right direction) and then replace it with some laughably vague thinking. Basically, “maybe something impossibly contradictory but comforting happened. Because, um.”

  8. 8
    Marcus Ranum

    It means that god nudged things along at crucial moments in the Earth’s history to make sure that the outcome is what he wants.

    What a stupid, puny god. Capable of creating a universe, it suddenly has to resort to giving nano-scale nudges in order to get what “it wants”? Why not just poof things into being the way it wants them, and be done with it?

    Or why not just simulate the whole damn thing in some celestial cloud-computing server farm? Then there’d be no need to create all that expensive dark matter/energy and create a whole universe – why create a universe when what you want is an ant-farm?

  9. 9
    Paul Jarc

    “supernatural” implies “outside of nature” which means it’s not capable of interacting with nature

    The form of the word may suggest that meaning, but I don’t think it’s actually used that way (or not much). More often, it seems to imply something that behaves non-lawfully, or (equivalently, I guess) something that is irreducible–in particular, irreducibly mental.

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    Yeah, I’ve seen that usage, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. That’s describing something that’s interacting with nature (even non-lawfully) and therefore is subject to all the examination that a natural event would be subject to.

    When people talk about the supernatural, it’s generally as a dodge to claim something interacts with the natural world but that it does so undetectably. That’s a contradiction in terms. I think the term “magical” works better for that.

    Carrier’s argument appears to be a bunch of assertions and tl;dr right now. Surely Dr. Carrier is entitled to have his own vocabulary where it’s convenient to him but I’m comfortable with the more typical definition (Webster’s):
    of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe
    which means it’s unknowable since it’s outside of the visible/observable
    and
    departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
    which, by the insertion of “appears” means that we’re talking about a mistake. That’s exactly the “dodge” I am talking about, above. So someone might say something is “supernatural” because they don’t understand its natural effect. But for it to have a natural effect it’s either that physical law is misunderstood or the effect is misunderstood. I’m OK with saying “supernatural is another way of saying ‘mistaken’” but that’s implied in the definition.

  11. 11
    Doug Little

    I second Marcus’ posts on this matter.

  12. 12
    ph041985

    ” Let’s imagine that there really is a God-Beast that can somehow select what part of the probability distribution is going to be expressed (I think this is a bad assumption because it throws out a lot of what we know about what the meaning of information is). We then construct N cat-murder boxes, leave them closed for time T and then open them all at once. Based on physics, we would expect the number cat to be dead a number of times depending on how long the box was closed. If God-Beast intercedes some fraction of the time, then we will get a distribution that does not follow our physics.”

    If he has the power to keep one cat alive who should be dead, then he can counter that by killing one cat who should be alive, thereby maintaining the expected fraction. He could choose not to affect the results of any experiment where his actions would be detected by any sentient beings in the universe.

    I’m conceding that you can come up with a technically sound explanation for why these is still not possible. I’m not trying to get into that argument, ok? I’m just trying to point out that it’s hard to prove a negative, especially when the beginning is a supposedly omnipotent being. I’m just trying to argue the basic concept, that a supernatural agent who interacts with our universe can do so without violating the laws of physics. I presume that there is such a way, combining the framework of religion and the framework of science, that we could never absolutely disprove such a being exists.

    If we could understand the laws of physics so perfectly well that there leaves absolutely no room for a supernatural deity to exist and interact with our world in a conceivable way, then fine. However, anyone who truly embraces science knows that there are just some limitations in scientific knowledge that we might never break. Rather than fighting that, we should acknowledge this and use it to our advantage to reach highly religious people, i.e., let’s not waste our energy proving that religion and science are incompatible, even if that’s true. Let’s let the religious people retain some of their beliefs, while at the same time helping them embrace science, and eventually they will likely abandon their beliefs, I feel, more readily than if they have to just accept a disconnect.

  13. 13
    Corvus illustris

    The idea of “god” does not come from some kind of credible measurement of divine action – it’s supported by historical “evidence” such as:
    a) a talking burning bush
    b) a zombie plague
    c) vanishing bodies
    d) water turning to wine

    Well, ya, this is the usual vaguely anthropomorphic deity whose devotees we encounter in everyday life here in Western Civ. The “god of the philosophers” IMHO can’t be brushed off quite as naïvely, because of the implications of omnipotence.

    Capable of creating a universe, it suddenly has to resort to giving nano-scale nudges in order to get what “it wants”? Why not just poof things into being the way it wants them, and be done with it?

    Why not produce a universe in which things evolve the way it wants them, complete with prayers for mercy to be answered (or not) and build the whole plan into an initial singularity (and don’t forget that your “initial” is dependent on this cunningly constructed semi-Riemannian manifold)? Hey, it’s omnipotent. Now such an entity is undetectable–the arguments to construct it belong to metaphysics–and so its presence or absence makes no difference to the practice of science. Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là, as Laplace may or may not have said. You are thus free to slice it away with the usual razor. But I don’t see this construction being dealt with by science at all. (I must say that since it has an intellect capable of containing all universal concepts it offers a place to store the entire set of natural numbers [and the set of its subsets, etc.]; having these things exist somewhere, even though we can’t get to them axiomatically, would agree with the deepest feelings of many mathematicians–apparently including even Kurt Gödel.)

  14. 14
    Beth

    .

    such interventions, however small and however rare, are in direct contradiction with science because they would violate the normal working out of the laws of science. .

    This appears to be a fairly common belief among atheists but not so much among religious believers. I agree that for those who hold this belief, there is inherent conflict between science and religion. I don’t agree that it is a true statement. Why do you believe it true?

    It seems to me that science is based on an assumption that no such supernatural agencies exist. Because it is an assumption rather than a conclusion of science, I don’t see it as an inherent incompatibility between all religious beliefs and science. That all supernatural religious beliefs are in conflict with the starting assumption of science does not imply an inherent incompatibility between science and religion in the sense of people having to choose which to “believe” any more than the inherent incompatibility of certain mathematical axioms means that mathematicians must choose between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry.

    Similarly some people believe in some cosmic spirit force or deity that exists outside of normal space and time and does not intervene in the world at all. Such a belief is not incompatible with science but seems pointless and I doubt that it would appeal to many religious people.

    It seems to me that you are acknowledging my point here – that science and religion are not necessarily incompatible. That some religious beliefs are incompatible with current scientific theories is not in disagreement. Whether beliefs that are not in conflict are pointless or unappealing was not the issue under dispute although it might be worthy of further discussion. To characterize those beliefs as pointless is essentially marginalizing them as unimportant in the discussion of the conflict between science and religion. I would disagree. I think such beliefs are likely to be crucial to resolving the issue in a satisfactory manner for the majority of our society.

  15. 15
    ph041985

    “No, because “supernatural” implies “outside of nature” which means it’s not capable of interacting with nature (because, if it were capable of interacting with nature, it would be a natural phenomenon)”

    Please don’t get bogged down in semantics. If there’s a word or phrase to convey the idea of a supernatural agent who is outside nature yet able to interact with nature without actually being a part of nature, assume I meant that word.

    “f there were a god that was somehow diddling quantum randomness, it would be detectable – it would be a very puzzling “hidden variable” The only way for god to remain undetectable is for god not to do anything which, for all intents and purposes means exactly the same as not being there at all. ”

    In quantum physics, we have this phenomenon called the quantum zeno effect, where an unstable particle, so long as its observed, will never decay. If we’re gonna to presume that there is such a being, then can’t we also assume that they will only choose to act when their actions are not being measured and watched for?

    I would argue that just because this being is not detectable, does not mean it is equivalent to having no being there at all. I would say that it just means that, if he is there, he’s pretending he’s not if we go looking for him.

    “The woo-woo god of the deists is wonderful fun because in order to be a deist you have to first reject the very concept of old-school gods (a step in the right direction) and then replace it with some laughably vague thinking. Basically, “maybe something impossibly contradictory but comforting happened. Because, um.”

    Ultimately, you’re right. If we restrict ourselves to just the conceptions of religion and God that have already come before, then they are just flatly incompatible with science.

    However, if the question is not, “is there any religion that is compatible with science”? but, “Could we ever conceive a religion and concept of God that is also compatible with science, but a general audience would still identify as religion?” then yes I feel like it is possible.

  16. 16
    Doug Little

    such interventions, however small and however rare, are in direct contradiction with science because they would violate the normal working out of the laws of science.

    Why do you believe it true?

    I don’t want to answer for anybody else, but I believe that it is true simply because we have not detected any abnormalities with any of our observations when it comes to the laws of physics. Physics works without having to inject a supernatural entity into the mix, so why do so?

  17. 17
    Marcus Ranum

    Please don’t get bogged down in semantics

    This is a semantic question; getting bogged down in semantics is a big piece of the issue.

    I would argue that just because this being is not detectable, does not mean it is equivalent to having no being there at all. I would say that it just means that, if he is there, he’s pretending he’s not if we go looking for him.

    If this being is undetectable, then there’s no way we could detect it enough to know it was there in the first place. We might hypothesize it’s there, but – based on what? By definition, we couldn’t base our hypothesis on anything more than our own imaginings.

    Let’s suppose I hypothesize that there is actually a great great arqlesquatch in orbit around Jupiter. One of amazing things about arqlesquatchi is that they’re undetectable by any known science. Would you expect NASA to fund an expedition to go photograph the arqlesquatch – which, by definition, we know in advance will not show up on any camera anyway? No, a perfectly reasonable response would be “what makes you think it’s there in the first place?” And, if my answer is, “I read about it in a comic book…” it’d be pretty reasonable at that point for the folks at NASA to conclude I’m a prank caller. If that scenario makes sense to you in the context of arqlesquatchi, it ought to make the same sense applied to god(s).

    In quantum physics, we have this phenomenon called the quantum zeno effect, where an unstable particle, so long as its observed, will never decay.

    Is that correct? I’m rusty at my QM but in 1985 what I learned was that we couldn’t say whether the particle had decayed or not – its state was uncertain. It took an observation to collapse the wave function. That’s not quite the same thing. What I was taught was that we didn’t know anything about the state until we had an observation – in a sense that’s very similar to the problem I’m talking about about the unknowability of something “supernatural” – we simply cannot make any claim to knowledge about it because part of our understanding of its state is that it is an unknown.

    I would argue that just because this being is not detectable, does not mean it is equivalent to having no being there at all.

    “undetectable” and “unknowable” are two very different things – and that’s not just semantics. Its state is unknown but we know that it’s there. Again, if I recall my QM, that is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

    But that doesn’t apply to a supernatural diety. In the case of the particle we know that there are probabilities that it will be observed in various places and when we observe it, we then know where it is. In principle that is knowable. A supernatural deity is placed outside of our sphere of knowledge to protect it from being discovered not to exist – quite deliberately.

    If someone proposed an experiment tomorrow that would detect the deist diety, we can be almost completely certain that the experiment will fail. It’s because of that fact that the deists keep sheltering their diety where it cannot possibly be determined to not exist. The problem with that is that when you shelter your god that far off the game-board, you can no longer make any claim to have any reason whatsoever to believe that it does, in fact, exist.

    However, if the question is not, “is there any religion that is compatible with science”? but, “Could we ever conceive a religion and concept of God that is also compatible with science, but a general audience would still identify as religion?” then yes I feel like it is possible.

    The question then would be “why bother?” I mean, we’ve already established that none of the existing conceptions of god – the ones that the very idea of “god” are based on – exist. So, sure, we can imagine that there’s some other kind of god or arqlesquatch or pink unicorn, but the only basis for which we can believe that is “because we want to.” You may as well believe in Sailor Moon. Why bother?

  18. 18
    Marcus Ranum

    The “god of the philosophers” IMHO can’t be brushed off quite as naïvely, because of the implications of omnipotence.

    Watch me. What evidence is there that there is actually anything “omnipotent”? Feel free to establish a definition of “omnipotence” that is consistent with observed reality, for extra credit.

    The idea of god, which those philosophers cling to, is based on the carnival trickster god of Moses. What they’ve done is observed that there’s absolutely no sign of the carnival trickster god, and that the carnival trickster god’s tricks are pretty shabby compared to Penn and Teller’s tricks, and — concluded therefore that there might still be a god somewhere.

    That’s like saying “spider-man is god.” Then someone comes along and says, “no, spider-man is a comic book” and procedes to teach you about Stan Lee and that spider-man didn’t put in an appearance until after Stan Lee did – and then the response is, “well, there could still be a spider-man god. he just hid and remains hidden.”

    Remember – the “philosophers” that the “philosophers’ god” refers to are mystics like Spinoza, who hardly had anything resembling an epistemology built on anything more than fantasy. It was traditional for philosophers in the tradition of Aristotle (for such Spinoza was) to pull huge reams of material out of their butts on a sunny afternoon – without the burden of supporting evidence or not contradicting objective reality. What Spinoza did was pushed his god off the game-board so that it couldn’t be obviously refuted.

    Why not produce a universe in which things evolve the way it wants them, complete with prayers for mercy to be answered (or not) and build the whole plan into an initial singularity (and don’t forget that your “initial” is dependent on this cunningly constructed semi-Riemannian manifold)? Hey, it’s omnipotent.

    Why not we’re all living in a spider-man comic? It’s just a rational a belief and it’s just as supported by evidence. Because the evidence in your scenario amounts to: the universe exists and the evidence in the spider-man scenario amounts to: gotham city exists.

    If you want to imagine a god that can do anything, why not imagine a god that appears to exist? Odd that god missed that one all-important trick.

    the arguments to construct it belong to metaphysics

    Which is a nice way of saying “they are imaginary” in an attempt to place them off the game-board where they can’t be shown to be obviously untrue. But the response to that is always to push them completely off the game-board and say, “since they’re metaphysical, let’s just ignore them.”

    But I don’t see this construction being dealt with by science at all.

    That’s because you deliberately missed the part where you need to ground your epistemology in some kind of knowledge. And you can only claim to know something based on your experience – which means evidence and observation.

  19. 19
    Beth

    I must disagree regarding not detecting any abnormalities. We have detected such abnormalities in the past and when it occurred, the laws of physics had to be adapted to allow for them. My understanding is that there is an inherent disconnect within physics between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics so additional changes are expected at some point. At any rate, the fact that physics works without a supernatural entity only means that it does not require one. As ph041985 points out, It does not require nor establish that none exist. For that reason, I considered it insufficient justication for ‘belief’ in the disputed statement.

    At any rate, I appreciate your answering my question. Thank you. To answer yours regarding why inject a supernatural entity in to the mix, I think that there are various reasons that people want to do that. Some do so because it provides them with an explanation for experiences they have had that do not fit very well with their understanding of the scientific worldview. Other people may choose to believe because the were raised with the default assumption that god exists and they do not want to change their formative and fundamental worldview. No doubt there are other reasons as well. Those are simply the first two that came to my mind.

  20. 20
    Doug Little

    Sorry I don’t consider anecdotal evidence as evidence for anything. In scientific terms you can’t just make shit up because it makes you feel better about some personal experience you have had. There is no scientific reason to inject a supernatural entity into the mix, if that makes it clearer for you. Observation is perfectly consistent with both GR and QM it just depends on the scale, we have not observed anything that would point to a supernatural entity as a better explanation than what we already have. In a nutshell everything we observe is perfectly constant with our current understanding of the laws of physics invoking a supernatural entity isn’t necessary.

  21. 21
    Jared A

    The Zeno effect is a real thing. I don’t understand the details fully myself, but the basic point is that if you constantly couple the system with the environment (as you know, observation requires coupling) then it stabilizes the collapsed state with respect to other states. Thus, constant “observations” will change the populations distribution – meaning you will bias the sample toward the state you are already measuring vs. other components from the uncollapsed state. I don’t see how this has any bearing on PH’s argument because he is talking about a God-Beast that can control a population distribution without coupling to it.

    As an aside, I happen to have evidence proving the existence of arqlesquatch. For the very reasonable price of $250 (US) I will send you a pamphlet laying out all of the data that can only be explained by arqlesquatch or an arqlesquatch-like-entity (ALE). Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

  22. 22
    Beth

    I’ve no dispute with the contention that such an assumption is not necessary, In fact, it seems to me that the foundational assumption of no supernatural agents explicitly prevents such a hypothesis being made scientifically. What I dispute is the belief that because science makes that assumption and has worked well, the conclusion that no such supernatural agents exist has been established. Euclidean geometry also works quite well. That doesn’t mean that the axioms it is based on have been established as ‘true’. They remain assumptions, not conclusions.

    I think that recognizing this rejection of any supernatural agents as an assumption or postulate that is invoked prior to doing science rather than an evidence based conclusion of science may be key to resolving the conflicts that do arise between religious beliefs and scientific conclusions. It basically then limits those conflicts to specific religious beliefs that conflict with well-established scientific theories (such as young earth creationism) rather than seeing those conflicts as inherent to all religious beliefs that have some supernatural component.

  23. 23
    Marcus Ranum

    This appears to be a fairly common belief among atheists but not so much among religious believers. I agree that for those who hold this belief, there is inherent conflict between science and religion. I don’t agree that it is a true statement. Why do you believe it true?

    I’m one of those atheists who doesn’t see how supernatural whatevers could interact with the natural world without violating natural law and therefore causing a contradiction in terms. That’s because natural law, as we understand it, does not have any unknown whatsits that interact with it in measurable, predictable ways — because if those unknown whatsits were measurable and predictable then they wouldn’t be unknown whatistis, they’d be dark energy or neutrinos or Higgs bosons or cosmological constants, or whatever. The way science works is that once something starts to get measured as having a detectable effect, the very first thing science looks for is a predictable effect; that’s crucial to science’s understanding that there is indeed an effect at all.

    So an effect-less unmeasurable effect is a contradiction in terms, which is why I (as one of those atheists) see an inherent contradiction between the notion of anything supernatural (religion being a subset of all beliefs about the supernatural) and science.

    There are also places where scientific observations directly contradict what you’d expect to see if religion were true. That ought to be a problem for religion and the religious, but they tend to ignore that. For example, if intercessionary prayer worked we would expect the longevity of the English royal family to be unusual. ;) Or we’d expect adherents of a particular religion to perform unusually well in Las Vegas ;) Joking aside, though, since intercessionary prayer doesn’t appear to work – at all – why don’t the religious take that as evidence that their god either doesn’t exist (seems most likely to me) or isn’t listening to anyone?

    (Oh, and I’m pretty sure the numbers are wrong but the number of documented “miracle” cancer cures at Lourdes seems to be lower than the expected baseline rate of spontaneous remissions – ! – which is rather odd but I suspect it has more to do with reporting than actual cancer-cures at Lourdes…)

    It seems to me that science is based on an assumption that no such supernatural agencies exist.

    Well, yes, but not specifically “supernatural” agencies. Science is based on the assumption that things that don’t appear to be there aren’t there. Because our understanding of “there” is rooted in “appears to be there.”

    In that sense a scientist doesn’t have to be an “atheist” any more than they have to not believe there are invisible purple dragons living in thier nose. Science is based on the assumption that unless something appears to be there, it isn’t. Unless there’s some evidence that it’s there (in which case it “appears to be there”) It’s very simple. It only needs to get complicated if you’re bending over backward to defend ideas that aren’t defensible.

    That all supernatural religious beliefs are in conflict with the starting assumption of science does not imply an inherent incompatibility between science and religion in the sense of people having to choose which to “believe” any more than the inherent incompatibility of certain mathematical axioms means that mathematicians must choose between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry.

    No, that’s incorrect. Supernatural beliefs are in conflict with the starting assumptions of science because they claim that something that’s not there and is unknowable is – in fact – there and is somehow knowable. There’s no choice what to “believe” because there’s no epistemic basis on which to accept the supernatural. In fact, there’s no possible epistemic basis on which to accept the supernatural. With geometry you can accept different geometries based on different axioms and then going forward from those axia. But a self-contradictory axiom like “supernatural” doesn’t give you any basis from which to go forward because it results in epistemological mumbo-jumbo – as I’ve tried to show, if you want to accept that there’s a god that created the universe you’ve got just as much basis to believe it was spider-man that did it as yahweh or any other god, because you actually have admitted that you can’t know anything about the god you’re claiming to believe in.

    Here’s another way of looking at it. Suppose you see a “ghost.” Well, “seeing” is a process involving photons interacting with matter. First, photons are absorbed and re-emitted from something, which (according to QCD) does various stuff to them and then they hit your eye where they interact with the rods and cones in your eye. Now you have “seen” them. To “see” a “ghost” it has to be made of matter, or you’ve just completely destroyed all of physics since Newton. You literally cannot possibly “see” something that is not real. Or, put the other way, if you “see” it, it’s made of real material or there has been a tremendous violation of a bunch of physical law (including all kinds of interesting conservation laws). Or you’re imagining that you have “seen” something that’s not there and it’s all in your head. Otherwise, in order to affect light so that you “see” a ghost, we’d need some very interesting gravity-waves or something like that. I don’t know how intense the gravity would have to be to bend light like that, but I am guessing you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it. And, of course, the array of micro black holes used to make the “ghost” appear wouldn’t go away without some additional very interesting things happening, etc., etc. So the alternative is either: a) the ghost is imaginary, or b) everything we know about physics is wrong. b) is a problem, because every day we use systems based on the correct functioning of those laws, and they work – so it’s hard to say that they are “wrong” just to have a “ghost.”

    o characterize those beliefs as pointless is essentially marginalizing them as unimportant in the discussion of the conflict between science and religion.

    They’re unfounded. They’re not based on anything verifiable. If they are not completely pointless it’s only because they’re entertaining (like a belief in spider-man). But why don’t we call for taking into account the physics of spider-man when we talk about modern physics? Oh, right, because it’s pointless.

    such beliefs are likely to be crucial to resolving the issue in a satisfactory manner for the majority of our society.

    Ah, I see your mistake: reality is not democratic.

  24. 24
    Doug Little

    Point to some evidence that can’t be explained by anything other than the existence of a supernatural being and you might have something. What makes you think that there needs to be some kind of conflict resolution between the two? Science doesn’t strive toward some predetermined goal, it goes where the evidence takes it.

  25. 25
    Marcus Ranum

    What I dispute is the belief that because science makes that assumption and has worked well, the conclusion that no such supernatural agents exist has been established.

    No matter how advanced it gets, science will not be able to prove a negative.

    That’s the problem with the woo-woo religious deism: it places the “supernatural” off the game-board to protect it, because every time it does get on the game-board it loses. But by placing it off the game-board it enters the realm of the imagination and can be (and should be) dismissed out of hand.

    I think that recognizing this rejection of any supernatural agents as an assumption or postulate that is invoked prior to doing science rather than an evidence based conclusion of science may be key to resolving the conflicts that do arise between religious beliefs and scientific conclusions.

    Personally, I don’t see any conflicts between religious beliefs and scientific conclusions. The religious beliefs are just imaginary stories that are not based on anything that can actually be known. We can (and should) simply ignore those beliefs, because they have nothing to do with reality.

    Imagine how complicated it would get if scientists actually tried to factor religious beliefs into their understanding of reality, along with scientific knowledge!!! Picture this:
    - a microprocessor designer worrying that if the user engages in intercessionary prayer it might cause signals to flow incorrectly at the very small scale and high clock-speed of the chip
    - the researchers at the LHC looking for the Higgs Boson having to warn everyone not to pray or otherwise try to communicate with god during the run because it might interfere with the detector
    - GPS malfunctions for members of certain religions
    - dark matter detectors keep mis-firing whenever ghosts fly near them; the researchers have to regularly bring in priests to establish a spiritual baseline
    etc.

    The fact that the existing universe operates so predictably in accordance with physical law is as close to proof as anyone in their right mind would need that there is no god messing with our physics.

  26. 26
    Jared A

    If God kills one cat but saves another, then there is no net change, so he hasn’t done anything. The cats must be indistinguishable in order for QM to apply in this way. No effect, no change. God has done nothing.

    I agree with you that looking for common ground is the best way to interact with anybody, including the highly religious. I also agree that it is counterproductive to bring up non-starters that kill the conversation when you are trying to win someone over However, I am not going to lie about my opinions, so if it comes up I will be honest and explain why the philosophy of science is incompatible with a philosophy that allows for omnipotent beings and other supernatural constructs.

    The reason I point out the logical fallacies in your hypothetical examples is because I want you to understand that they will always be invalid. You are missing a more important philosophical point, which was posed at least as long ago as by Descartes, and it still applies – you can’t have a thing that is not part of one thing but also part of it. God can’t be both not part of physical reality but also part of it. Occasionally people have used arcane concepts like quantum mechanics to try to reopen the same door but couched in new language, but it is still the old problem. Determinism doesn’t need to be part of the formula, so excluding it doesn’t solve the problem.

    I think that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to discuss with the highly religious – after all Descartes was highly religious and he took the problem quite seriously.

  27. 27
    Marcus Ranum

    It is important to emphasize that every time religion has gone on the game-board and made an objective claim about reality, it’s been wrong. If scientists had a theory that was so consistently and thoroughly shredded, they’d make jokes about it (e.g.: “phlogiston”) not demand special respect and consideration for it.

  28. 28
    khms

    Let me try to put the proposed quantum god into a slightly more intelligible description.

    Mind you, I’m not claiming that this is representative of any actual existing religion, or that such a being would make sense as a god, or whatever – only that we could not possibly rule it out, because we could not detect it (implying that it makes no sense to assume it is present, either). Oh, and there’s also no claim that said being is the creator of the universe, or in fact omni-anything whatsoever.

    So, let’s try this thought experiment:

    We start with the Big Bang.

    Given quantum physics, from this point on, the universe can take lots of different paths. Now if we were to look at the result of any such path at any point in time (ignore the problems relativity makes for having points in time), we might conclude that the universe looks natural, or has some suspicious features.

    Let’s discard all paths that have such suspicious features. We’ll only look at paths where we cannot possibly detect any problems.

    There are still a very large number of such paths.

    Now, the being in question might look at these possible paths, and select one path the results of which, for whatever reason, it prefers over others, and make that path be the one selected. (Lalala, multi-worlds, can’t hear you!)

    In this case, the Universe has been influenced, but by definition, we cannot possibly detect that.

    (Let me again point at the disclaimer at the beginning!)

    (tl;dr: a god we cannot disprove is a god we cannot know about.)

  29. 29
    Beth

    @Doug Little:

    What makes you think that there needs to be some kind of conflict resolution between the two.

    There doesn’t need to be conflict resolution between science and religion anymore than we need conflict resolution between the different theories of geometry. I think there needs to be conflict resolution in our society between those who are proposing the various different worldviews to be taught to children in our schools. The current conflict between evolution and young earth creationism has led to some terrible curriculum results in that regard. Escalating this particular conflict to include the idea that evolution, indeed, science in it’s very foundation is incompatible with all religious beliefs will, IMO, make things worse.

  30. 30
    smrnda

    A lot of religious claims are unfalsifiable, and for that reason alone they are incompatible with science. I mean, does a prayer to a god get an answer? If a believer prays to their god for something, and it happens, they take this as conformation that prayer works, but if it doesn’t happen, it isn’t proof that prayer doesn’t work since the god might have another agenda or the believer did the prayer wrong or didn’t have enough faith.

  31. 31
    Doug Little

    Escalating this particular conflict to include the idea that evolution, indeed, science in it’s very foundation is incompatible with all religious beliefs will, IMO, make things worse.

    So the alternative is to capitulate because we might piss a few more people off if we don’t? I don’t fall into that category, I believe we would actually do more harm by giving religion a pass and a there, there pat on the head.

  32. 32
    Jared A

    Since I was coming down kind of hard against accomodating supernatural claims with science, I felt that it is only sporting that I should articulate my own stance.

    My perspective is that religiousness that is non-supernatural (and thus non-theistic) is accomodated by science. I know Mano is in agreemend from the OP:

    While it is undoubtedly possible to slap the label of ‘religion’ onto a set of philosophical beliefs (such as existentialism) or practices (such as yoga) and then correctly assert that such a ‘religion’ is compatible with science, that is not what people normally think of as a religion.

    Where we depart is the phrase “that is not what people normally think of as a religion”. This isn’t true. There are millions of people that experience music, art, film, etc religiously. The entire idea of a ‘cult classic’ film is that watching it is a religious experience.

    Since I know others on here probably disagree with me in some way or another, let me just lay out a few of the points of contention that I think are the mostly sources of disagreement. Not that these terms are perfect, but to avoid confusion let’s distinguish between supernatural religions as “Theistic religion” and non-supernatural religious practices as “Epicurean Religion” (would “Hedonistic” be a better term?).
    *****
    a) What is the definition of religion?
    i) Are shared religious experiences enough to make a religion?
    ii) Must there be beliefs (doctrine)? What type of beliefs are sufficient? (Can the core belief be, food is delicious?)
    iii) Must it be organized?
    b) Can a person have religious experiences in one type and still adhere to the other
    (For example, can a Christian of Epicurean religious experiences at a Leonard Cohen concert that has nothing to do with her Christianity?)
    c) What is the definition of a religious experience?
    *******
    I should relate that my brother is an atheist, but he claims that his religion is orphism – the worship of music and poetry. (Not the same thing as the pre-christian Greco-Roman savior cult also called Orphism). As a philosopher of language and culture he has more authority than I on whether this counts as a religion or not. Anyway there is no philosophical conflict between science and worshiping music.

    Finally, I think there is a lot to be gained for atheists by pointing out the difference between theistic and epicurean religion (again, not great terms but sufficient for this post). This way you can continue to undermine supernatural beliefs without undermining the idea of a religious experience. And obviously religious experiences are a real thing (speaking in tongues, anybody?), even if they can be explained physically (mass-hysteria, etc.). In the end, isn’t the shared goal of most of us to keep supernatural beliefs out of the public?

  33. 33
    Paul Jarc

    Yeah, I’ve seen that usage, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

    Well, if supernaturalism is false as a result of being conceptually incoherent, we should expect any definition to not make sense. :)

    That’s describing something that’s interacting with nature (even non-lawfully) and therefore is subject to all the examination that a natural event would be subject to.

    It would be subject to examination but would not lead to any conclusion. Lightning clearly exists and interacts with the world, but that wouldn’t stop someone from calling it supernatural if they think it’s the work of Zeus. But even if they learn that Zeus really exists, they won’t call lightning supernatural anymore after he teaches them Maxwell’s equations and shows them the design plans for his Tesla coil. It’s only when no lawful explanation is available that something is called supernatural.

    When people talk about the supernatural, it’s generally as a dodge to claim something interacts with the natural world but that it does so undetectably.

    That dodge certainly happens, especially among modern believers who are faced with sophisticated criticisms that follow throught the implications of interaction. But I’d say “supernatural” refers specifically to irreducibility/non-lawfulness rather than the dodge. If they weren’t faced with those implications, they wouldn’t need to dodge, but they’re still call things supernatural.

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