Clarifying the issue of incompatibility


A recent post about accommodationists and new atheists revolved around the question of whether science and religion were incompatible and if so, what one should do about it. The question of what constitutes religion and incompatibility perhaps needs to be clarified a bit.

It used to be the case that in the Christian world until roughly the period we know as the Renaissance, the Bible was taken as a book whose truth was largely unquestioned. It was simply a given and scientists saw their role as finding out how their god carried out his plan as revealed in the Bible. Hence there could be no incompatibility, because scientific findings were interpreted in ways that made them consistent with the Bible. Many of the early scientists were often priests or monks (Nicholas Steno, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaitre) or otherwise quite religious (Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin) and they seemed to have no personal difficulty reconciling the two areas of their thought. Compatibilism in the early days involved largely taking the religious version as a given and interpreting scientific discoveries and advances in ways that were compatible with it.

For example, the very early days of modern geology in the 17th century involved developing theories such as catastrophism (in which the major geological features of the Earth were thought to be the products of major cataclysms and upheavals that threw up mountains and created ravines and so on) to try and explain how the Earth in its present form could have come about in just the few thousand years or so that the Bible said it had existed. This way of thinking was also evident in the early archaeological work done in the Middle East where discoveries were interpreted to conform to the Biblical versions of events.

But beginning with the 18th century, modern science became less and less tethered to the Biblical version of events and started going where the evidence led it, without too much concern as to whether it contradicted religious beliefs or not. They were aided in pursuing this new freedom because the political power of religious institutions had waned and there were no longer punishments for heresy, at least among the elites who were the ones who pursued science.

As a result, new scientific findings began to emerge that contradicted the Bible. So for example, when in 1778 the Comte de Buffon published his estimate for the age of the Earth as 75,000 years, the theologians at the powerful Sorbonne created a huge fuss and demanded that he publish an apology for publishing results that contradicted the biblical chronology but he was able to withstand their pressure and did not recant.

As time went by and the power and utility of science grew, the Bible and religious dogma became increasingly marginalized and irrelevant and scientists became more comfortable saying, for example, that there is little or no evidence from archeology for almost all of the events in the Old Testament, such as the captivity in Egypt, the exodus, the stories about the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the like.

As a result of these developments, we now have a complete reversal among compatibilists. Nowadays those believers who view science and religion as compatible take science as the given and interpret all religious beliefs to make them seem compatible with the latest science. In doing so, they inevitably end up committing the ‘no true Scotsman’ logical fallacy. In that fallacy, one can make the universal claim that no true Scotsman would commit a particular wrong by defining a true Scotsman as one who would never do such a thing. Any new exception to the rule can be finessed by redefining a true Scotsman as someone who would not do the new thing as well. As long as a ‘true Scotsman’ remains undefined a priori, this can go on indefinitely

In the case of religion, it can always be argued that science and ‘true religion’ are compatible by excluding from religious beliefs all the things that science contradicts. The most popular way to deal with it is to re-label beliefs that were formerly thought of as factual events as now being metaphors and to claim that religion explains those things that science does not. Since it is in the nature of science to always have open questions, one can always define ‘true religion’ is such a way that it exists in those nooks and crannies of knowledge that science has not yet reached and thus salvage compatibility. In the early days it used to be things like the eye that were considered inexplicable but those things have long been satisfactorily explained. Currently the popular areas are the origin of our universe, the origin of life, and consciousness.

During the heyday of the so-called ‘intelligent design’ movement about a decade ago, there used to be an advocate of that view whom I would meet at various venues where the issue was being debated. It used to be exasperating talking with him because he would be extremely cagey, even in private conversations, about what he actually believed. He would refuse to directly answer any question that I put to him if it involved anything that committed him to anything specific about his beliefs, and instead would dance around the question.

At that time, I didn’t understand why he was being so evasive. After all, he proudly claimed to be a Christian. Why not say what you believe? I now realize that he was using the ‘no true Scotsman’ strategy. By keeping his specific beliefs vague, if confronted with contradictory evidence for any of the beliefs of his religion, he could always claim that his own ‘true religion’ did not involve that particular belief.

Comments

  1. Br. C says

    I think it is somewhat disruptive to you narrative that two the three priest-scientists you cite were actually quite recent. Gregor Mendel died in 1884 and Georges Lemaitre in 1966.

    Also in the development of Christian doctrine, more rather than less is defended as De Fide truth. The Biblical use of metaphor was discussed by St. Thomas in the 13th cen. and by Church Fathers before that. Early and Medieval theologians were already working on understanding the faith in light of contemporary cosmology.

    To the extent that religious figures appear to have shifted position in terms of what is and is not an acceptable explanation for the material origins of the universe, contradiction with long held scientific conclusions is perhaps an even more important explanation.

    God’s revelation is meant to reveal where we are headed not offer a material explanation for the way things are.

  2. ollie says

    Personally, I see science as indifferent toward religion. For example, if we found a holy text of some sort that was carbon dated to the date of origin of some religion (say, thousands of years ago) that correctly predicted the theory of quantum mechanics, that religion might be compatible with science, but science wouldn’t be done any differently.

  3. beth says

    It seems to me that to try to determine whether science and religion are compatible or incompatible is to force an inadequate and inappropriate classification on vast arrays of diverse concepts, so my response is mu*.

    Your argument against compatibility consists of claiming that because some specific religious beliefs are incompatible with some well-established scientific facts and theories, the property of incompatibility can be extended to the general case.

    I disagree and don’t think that some specific incompatibilities implies an inherent incompatibility at the higher level as you are sugesting here. If this logic was applied to political ideologies rather than religious ones, the conclusion would be that politics is incompatible with science.

    Personally, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about compatible versus incompatible for the diverse collections of ideas that are collected under the headings of ‘science’, ‘politics’ or ‘religion’.

    Do you think politics and science are compatible or incompatible? Or is mu the best response to such a question?

    *mu was defined as ‘unasking the question’ in Douglas Hofstaders “Goedel, Esher, Bach”. He argues that it is a more appropriate response to certain questions than the dicotomous answers that appear to be the only choices.

  4. says

    The problem with compatibilism is that it is backwards – they are now trying to back-fit new facts to an old theory. An old theory that should be considered completely contradicted by many of the new facts. Humans tend to engage in this mistake often, but that doesn’t make it any less of a mistake.

    For example, let’s say I theorize that all exoplanets are made of orange juice. For centuries, this theory is accepted because, um, well, it just is. Then scientists begin spectroscopic analysis of exoplanets and observe that the ones near us are decidedly not made of orange juice. At this point, it would be rational to simply conclude “Marcus was wrong about the orange juice” and get on with astronomy. But, instead, we have apologists for Marcus saying “well, the ones NEARBY aren’t but the exoplanets farther out ARE!”

    Religions have made many claims of fact and where they’ve been tested they’ve been generally incorrect. The biblical story of “the flood” for example, is completely wrong in all respects. It’s an important part of the bible and comprises a fact-claim of a divine miracle. We ought to be rational enough to wonder “what other fact-claims of divine miracles from the bible are also wrong?” Or rather “are any of the miraculous fact-claims in the bible true?”

  5. kagekiri says

    Really.

    So Paul saying we’re sinners because Adam sinned and it was passed on, that’s not an “explanation of the way things are”? That the explanation of salvation as it applies to believers now, that’s not an explanation of how things are? All those Old Testament books, they’re not explanations of the way things were?

    The Bible is not nearly as prophetic and forward looking as you seem to be implying. It’s mostly about the past, our now, and the effects on the eternal.

    If it can’t describe our “now” or our past properly, with its many claims on historicity that are utterly disproven now (see Chronicles and Kings with all their claims of “if you want to know more, just consult the annals of the kings of Judah”), well, how in the heck do you think they knew anything about the future, let alone the eternal?

    That’s already pretty solid proof that God didn’t know anything let alone everything, or at least didn’t have much part in creating scripture. True omniscience shouldn’t look so limited on paper.

  6. kagekiri says

    The higher level is whether there’s an omniscient, infallible, and perfectly good God who wrote the scripture, making it perfect and divine.

    So yeah, problems at the lower level DEFINITELY extend up, and in ways that are a lot more problematic for supposedly divine theologies than mere political positions or scientific systems, which few claim are divine or perfect in knowledge.

    Jesus said he was there to fulfill Genesis and rectify Adam’s sin. If even Jesus, supposed incarnation of God on earth, didn’t know about the utter disproving he would face two thousand years later, well yeah, he didn’t know everything. It has multiple conflicting genealogies, starting from Adam, through Noah, down to Abraham and all that, and all the way to Jesus. How in the hell could THAT even be metaphorical?

    It claims to be absolute truth sourced from the source of all truth (supposedly God). Any failure to live to that standard makes it all crumble to dust, because the foundation of faith is absolute faith in God and his scriptures. That’s partly what happened with my faith: the first step of doubt really snowballs, because it was ALL supposed to be entirely true.

  7. beth says

    You seem to be confining your definition of religion to those that posit an omniscient, infallible and perfectly good God. While that’s certainly true for many theological positions, including the dominant religions of our society, it’s not universally true of religion in general and thus can’t be used to establish the general case that is being argued here.

    Despite the fact that most political ideologies don’t claim a divine source for their ‘truth’, my point remains that applying the same standard for compatibility with science would lead to politics being considered incompatible. Does that statement make sense to you? Do you agree with the claim that politics and science are incompatible?

    To me, it makes more sense to acknowledge that some beliefs associated with some political ideologies/religious beliefs are incompatible with some scientific facts and theories whilst allowing that such discrepancies do not establish that politics/religion and science are incompatible in the more general sense.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Beth,

    The essential incompatibility between religion and politics arises because supernatural and untestable claims form an essential part of religion and these are incompatible with science that works on the presumption that things behave according to laws that we can discern by systematic investigation. Religions that posit an “omniscient, infallible and perfectly good God” are just a subset of the spectrum of religions, with a specific form of the supernatural, and the incompatibility is not limited to them.

    Politics does not have any supernatural elements as an integral part of it. If a political ideology had one, then it too would be incompatible with science.

    To avoid the ‘no true Scotsman’ problem here, it would help if you specified what religion that you think is compatible with science.

  9. beth says

    You’re still thinking of compatibility between religion and science as a dicotomy. My point is that I don’t find it appropriate to consider it a dicotomy because in some cases the answer is yes and in some cases the answer is no.

    Supernatural beliefs and religious beliefs are not identical collections of ideas. As an example of a religion compatible with science, how about the Universal Unitarians? They have many atheist members and do not require belief in anythingsupernatural. In addition, my understanding is that there exist denominations of Jews, Christians and Bhuddists that do not require belief in the supernatural. I can personally vouch only for the existance of such Christian churches, but I’ve heard plausible tales of similar Jewish and Bhuddist temples.

    I think that untestable claims form an essential part of political ideologies. For example, can you prove that all men are created equal?

    Further, there exist political ideologies that require belief in the supernatural although those are not common today. My understanding is that many monarchs were either considered gods (Ancient Egyptian Pharohs come to mind and North Korea today I think) or considered to be divinely ordained to rule.

    Given that not all religions require a belief in the supernatural and political ideologies require such beliefs in some cases, I don’t think it’s a sufficient charactoristic to discriminate between religious beliefs and political ideologies for the purpose of determining compatibility in the general case. All we can say is that in our current society political ideologies don’t usually include supernatural beliefs while religions usually do.

    However, if you merely meant that supernatural beliefs are incompatible with science, then yes, that’s clearly the case for nearly all definitions of science and the supernatural. But that’s not the argument that you made in this post.

    Since I have answered your question, I hope you will now consider answering mine: Do you think politics and science are compatible or incompatible? Or is mu the best response to such a question?

  10. Mano Singham says

    Beth,

    If one takes all the supernatural out of a religion, is it still a religion? Or a philosophy? Would Buddhism without reincarnation still be Buddhism?

    My claim of incompatibility is grounded in the untestable nature of supernatural claims, not untestability in general. It is based on the assumption that the supernatural in some form is an essential part of religion. One can find the rare group here and there (like the UU) that does not seem to adhere to any fixed doctrine and still calls itself a religion. But the beliefs of its individual members are all over the map. If people have drained their belief system of all forms of the supernatural and still want to call it a religion, then I would have no problems with it.

    As for politics, it is the other way around. Nowadays, the supernatural is almost never an essential part of its structure, but are add-ons that can be dispensed with. Some people may think (say) that god dictated the US constitution but god can be dispensed with and the constitution can still have value. But if a political theory has the supernatural so deeply embedded (like the divine right of kings) that it makes nom sense without it, then it would be incompatible with science.

    The supernatural and science are incompatible. And since anything that most people identify as religion almost always has supernatural elements, I feel comfortable saying that science and religion are incompatible.

  11. Mano Singham says

    I am replying below since this has got too narrow to make for easy reading.

  12. Beth says

    If one takes all the supernatural out of a religion, is it still a religion? Or a philosophy? Would Buddhism without reincarnation still be Buddhism?

    My responses are: Yes. I don’t know. Are religion and philosophy mutually exclusive or can something be both? Yes.

    It is based on the assumption that the supernatural in some form is an essential part of religion.

    I’m aware of that. I’m challenging that assumption. Empirical evidence shows it to be false.

    One can find the rare group here and there (like the UU) that does not seem to adhere to any fixed doctrine and still calls itself a religion.

    They are not as rare as you seem to think. You might want to research creedless churches. While not the majority at this point in time, there is a long history of such religions existing. They are not simply a response to the scientific findings of the past century.

    The supernatural and science are incompatible. And since anything that most people identify as religion almost always has supernatural elements, I feel comfortable saying that science and religion are incompatible.

    Fair enough. Since I don’t view religion and the supernatural as identical, I am not comfortable with that characterization just as I don’t agree with the characterization of all atheists as skeptics or all skeptics as atheists. The two groups may have large areas of overlap but they are not identical.

    You still didn’t answer my question: Do you think politics and science are compatible or incompatible? Or is mu the best response to such a question?

  13. says

    Re: the universalists
    They have many atheist members and do not require belief in anythingsupernatural.

    Then they’re a club. Or some other kind of social group.

    Religion implies a belief in god or gods (i.e.: supernatural) – that’s in the generally used definition of the word. If you want to go all postmodernist and insist that you have your own vocabulary that trumps common use, you’re just going to confuse people who actually know the meaning of given words.

  14. Mano Singham says

    I thought I did. If there is a supernatural element embedded so deeply into a political ideology that the political theory does not make sense without it, then that political theory is incompatible with science. I’m guessing that the point you are making is that ‘politics’ is an umbrella term that has no common characteristics that allows conclusions about compatibility and you are implying that ‘religion’ has similar characteristics.

    But my point is that the word religion as commonly understood contains the supernatural as an essential element while I don’t know of any modern political theory that is of that nature. Hence the conclusion that religion is not compatible with science while politics is.

    It is always possible to define terms in such a way as to avoid any definitive conclusion. But then we are right back with the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy. We cannot say anything about a Scotsman because the term can always be redefined to meet the objection.

  15. Beth says

    I’m guessing that the point you are making is that ‘politics’ is an umbrella term that has no common characteristics that allows conclusions about compatibility and you are implying that ‘religion’ has similar characteristics.

    Basically. I don’t know that I would agree the terms have NO common characteristics. I would describe them as fuzzy terms which are difficult to define with precision. If there is any single essential characteristic of religions or political ideologies, I don’t know what it is.

    But my point is that the word religion as commonly understood contains the supernatural as an essential element.

    While I am making the point that this is not true. The supernatural is no more an essential element of ‘religion’ than it is an essential element of political theories. An exception, such as the UU’s, disproves the general rule. That’s why I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about compatibility in the general sense. The question only makes sense with respect to specific religious beliefs and scientific theories, such as young earth creationism and evolution.

    while I don’t know of any modern political theory that is of that nature. Hence the conclusion that religion is not compatible with science while politics is..

    Thank you for answering the question. I agree that most modern political ideologies don’t require belief in the supernatural while most modern religions do. What I don’t agree with is the assumption that belief in the supernatural is an essential defining characteristic of religion but not of political theories. Some religions, but not all, require such beliefs. Some political theories, but not all, require such beliefs.

    It is always possible to define terms in such a way as to avoid any definitive conclusion. But then we are right back with the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy. We cannot say anything about a Scotsman because the term can always be redefined to meet the objection.

    Er, yes, that’s the point I am making. Just as you can’t say anything definitive about ALL Scotsmen, you can’t say anything definitive about the compatibility of religion or politics with science because, to me anyway, claims of compatibility are claims about ALL religious beliefs or ALL political ideologies. Only if you restrict the definition of religion to those that contain elements of the supernatural and restrict the definition of a political ideology to exclude those with elements of the supernatural do your compatibility claims work.

    On the other hand, if you simply mean to argue that most currently popular religions have some incompatibility with some scientific theories, then I would agree. But I didn’t think that was your argument.

  16. Peter says

    Thanks for this interesting discussion.

    I think a more fun topic would be:
    Is economics compatible with science?
    (sub-topic: How is economics as a “discipline” different from religion, with the role of the deity taken by the concept of “the free market”?)

    To go back to basics, I see no reason why religion, philosophy or, more broadly, aesthetics, should be compatible with science. In none of these fields of human endeavor are the ideas of testability / empiricism of paramount importance, although some fields appear to value the appearance of logical consistency and coherent explanation (I don’t want to use the word “theory” for obvious reasons).

    Maybe even mathematics needs to be placed outside the realm of science, because of Godel’s famous theorem that states a system can either be complete or logically consistent, but not both.

    So what – let science be science and let art / music / religion / philosophy / economics / astrology / literature / movie criticism / politics / economics (did I say that already?) etc. do their own things!

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