The Guardian has an interesting dialogue between Sam Harris and Robert Winston on the subject of science and faith. I have some problems with both gentlemen, but, surprise!, I have bigger problems with Winston. Let’s consider some excerpts. Harris first:

Religious language is, without question, unscientific in its claims for what is true. We have Christians believing in the holy ghost, the resurrection of Jesus and his possible return — these are claims about biology and physics which, from a scientific point of view in the 21st century, should be unsustainable.

I certainly agree with that first sentence, but the second sentence is more problematic. Biology and physics do not say that the holy ghost cannot exist, or that Jesus’ resurrection is impossible. They say simply that such things are not credible if we limit ourselves solely to natural causes. I fail to see, though, why a scientist could not believe that God established a system of natural laws that operates in most instances most of the time, but is occasionally disrupted to further some divine purpose.

You could certainly argue that there is no good evidence for such beliefs, or that it is unreasonable to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, or that religious claims to truth should not be given the slightest credence in a scientific context, and you would have my complete support. But for all of that it just seems a bit silly to suggest that biology and physics can somehow rule out any possibility of the holy ghost or the resurrection.

Here’s Winston’s reply:

You talk as if science is an absolute, and I don’t think it is at all. It isn’t the truth either, because I don’t believe there is such a thing as “the truth”. You rail against the ultimate truth of what some people believe — ie religion, God, Jesus, whatever. I don’t, because I don’t think it makes any more sense than railing against scientific truths. I say “truths” in inverted commas, because truths have a habit of being altered as we develop our knowledge.

Yikes! That’s really dumb.

No such thing as the truth? Really? I could go along with a statement that our ability to know the truth is limited by various practical considerations, or that science has more to do with control and predictability than it does with absolute truth. If that is all Winston intended then I agree, but I would add that it has little to do with what Harris said. What Harris rails against is the evidence-free nature of religious claims, coupled with the extreme importance placed upon them by their adherents. I don’t see him claiming that science is an absolute, whatever that even means.

But as phrased Winston’s statement makes little sense. I’d say there’s a pretty big difference between scientific truths and religious truths, wouldn’t you? Scientific truths have a habit of proving themselves in practical situations, say by curing diseases or developing nifty new technologies. Religious truths do not submit themselves to such testing. Somehow I suspect that Winston believes that in comparing doctors to faith healers, it is the former who are more likely to have the truth on their side. This sort of relativism can make you look measured and open-minded in debates, but it is completely unworkable in practice.

Continuing where we left off:

SH: I wouldn’t dispute that the horizon of what we know and consider true changes, but we do this in the context of a background reality which we are dimly coming to understand. I suspect that while you are reluctant to think we can ever grasp absolute truth, we can still recognise falsehood, or how implausible certain [religious] claims are.

RW: I suppose I really wonder why you’re so angry.

SH: [laughs] Do I sound angry?

RW: Yes. You write angrily, too.

SH: I’m more worried than angry, and perhaps impatient. I don’t see any reason to believe that we can survive our religious differences indefinitely. I am worried that religion is one of the forces that has balkanised our world – we have Christians against Muslims against Jews.

Harris definitely wins that round. But I would add that there is ample reason for folks to be angry at religion’s representatives. The anger arises from the extraordinary arrogance of the claims made on behalf of religion. Keep in mind that it is religion, not science, that is in the habit of claiming a monopoly on absolute truth, or of describing its leaders as infallible, or of holding out its holy texts as a source of truth to which all other truth claims must yield, or of claiming that it is only by believing as they do that one can have a basis for morality. Yes, it makes me angry that religion routinely makes such claims. And that’s before we even come to the frequently appalling behavior of religious institutions, whenever they are given the slightest power over the lives of other people.

Moving on:

RW: But the irony is that books like yours and [Richard Dawkins’s] God Delusion balkanise the world a good deal more, because they polarise views. The God Delusion has caused very aggressive reactions from [people who] previously weren’t aggressive. In my book, I try to talk about our responsibility as scientists, one of which is to indulge in dialogue with people who are not scientists. One of the ways [atheist science writers] make dialogue is by being aggressive or angry with people who don’t agree with your view.

When I first read this I thought Winston was claiming that New Atheist writing is a source of balkanization even more potent that religion. Rereading it, though, I suspect his intention was simply that NA writing leaves the world more balkanized than it was before that writing existed.

But I don’t buy that either, except in the utterly trivial sense that advocating strongly for any view angers people who don’t agree with you. I think you can count on one hand the number of people who were made aggressive (again, whatever that means) by reading NA writing. And the notion that people like Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens make dialogue by becoming angry or aggressive with people who don’t agree is just nonsense. They make no secret of their views, but in their public presentations they are among the most civilized people you will ever meet, far more so than their critics, I would add. Even their books are nowhere near as nasty as the critics pretend. You have to go pawing through them pretty carefully to find the really choice bits.

RW: I think his reasoning is not relevant to the sequencing of the human genome, which is what he’s famous for. I’m certainly not going to stand up for [Collins’s] view of Jesus or religion.

SH: But you believe he’s entitled to believe it as a scientist?

RW: I think he’s entitled to believe it as a human being. I think it’s important for scientists to be a bit less arrogant, a bit more humble, recognising we are capable of making mistakes and being fallacious — which is increasingly serious in a society where our work may have unpredictable consequences.

SH: I agree with all that. I just think you have humility and arrogance reversed in this case. Humility is very much on the side of science and honest self-criticism. The arrogance is claiming to be certain about truth claims of Iron Age philosophy, which someone like Collins does.

Harris is absolutely right regarding the balance of humility and arrogance. But I do object to his phrasing about someone like Francis Collins being “entitled” to his religious beliefs as a scientist. If Collins brings his beliefs into the lab and makes them the basis for his scientific work (in the way that young-Earth creationists do) then there is certainly something objectionable. Or if he claims in public presentations that science confirms religious truths then I would be in favor of criticizing him strongly. But it seems to me that outside of the lab he is “entitled” to believe whatever he wants, without being presented as some sort of traitor to science. Why not just criticize him for believing things it is not reasonable to believe, or for making bad arguments in defense of his religious faith (as he does in his writing)? That’s a project I am happy to get behind!

SH: You’re suggesting that a scientist can practice his science in isolation from the rest of the scientific worldview. In the States you find biochemists who are young-earth creationists, who think that Genesis is a literal story of cosmology.

RW: I think they’re entitled to their view. I think they’re wrong, but so what?

I have problems with both of them here. First, I suspect Winston is being disingenuous. Of course they are entitled to their view in some trivial, abstract sense. But what does that mean in practical terms? If Winston were running a biology department, and a job applicant wanted to pursue creation science as his research specialty, would Winston not think that a legitimate ground for not hiring him? Would he be gracious towards a doctor who believed faith-healing was more reliable than antibiotics? Being wrong has consequences, a simple fact I suspect Winston is happy to apply in his daily life.

But I also object to Harris’ implication that somehow a religious scientist must practice his science in isolation from his religion. I just don’t see it. It’s like saying a religious chess player must isolate his religion from his chess. While he is playing the game he adheres to its rules, and this is just separate from his views on religion. Likewise, why couldn’t a religious scientist say that he is honoring God by studying His creation through methods that have proved their worth, without also believing that science comprises some sort of all-encompassing worldview that governs every aspect of his life?

Time to bring this home:

SH: You wouldn’t say that a doctor is entitled to believe his patients were sick from the evil eye, or voodoo. You wouldn’t say Francis Collins is free to deny the germ theory of disease. You’re recommending he practises his science in a walled garden. That’s an intellectual problem. Every scientist has to admit what is offered as true in the context of religion is scientifically unjustified.

RW: Ever since I first debated this, going back 10 or 15 years, with my friend Richard Dawkins, I don’t think it has produced any real enlightenment. It reinforces the prejudices on both sides. I can’t argue with the title of your book, it’s very neutral. Much as I like and admire Richard Dawkins, I do think that to call a book the God Delusion is very worrying because the title implies that if you don’t believe in what I believe then you are “deluded”. That, I think, is a dangerous concept and one that is unlikely to win hearts and minds.

Harris is right about voodoo and the evil eye, but the sin that is being committed in those cases is improperly mixing science and religion. A person who brings his religion into science is deservedly condemned. I agree further that anyone who claims their religion is scientifically justified, or prattles about dialogue between science and theology, deserves all of the derision he gets. But for all that I think a lot of religious folks are perfectly happy to agree that their beliefs are not scientifically justified. They just think that science isn’t everything.

As for Winston, I won’t rehash here all of my reasons for thinking the success of the New Atheists is one of the very few promising developments in American culture in the past decade. I don’t know how much enlightenment Dawkins has produced (though I suspect the quantity is considerable), but he and his allies have unquestionably done much to advance the cause of atheism and reason, which, yes, I see as very closely related.

So there you go. On the substance Harris has by far the better of it here, as he usually does. But I do wish he would be a bit more careful about his rhetoric in certain instances.

Comments

  1. #1 Steven Carr
    April 19, 2011

    RW
    The God Delusion has caused very aggressive reactions from [people who] previously weren’t aggressive.

    CARR
    And standing up for gay rights caused a backlash from people who previously had never expressed any homophobia as gays had hidden themselves away.

  2. #2 That Guy Montag
    April 19, 2011

    I’m not so sure it is actually possible to separate the spheres of your life quite like you suggest. It’s becoming a bit of a philosophical hobby horse for me that I want to study the Logical Positivists and look into the assertions they made about the nature of meaning, that if a question is meaningful you should at least be able to show how it could be true. It should be a matter of great interest that it’s very easy to get scientists and people who are scientifically trained to come to the intuition that if there is any meaningful question about the world to be asked, that science can answer it. Why is it that people who have this kind of an attitude turn out to be some of the most effective people on the planet? On the other hand how can a view that places such a heavy burden on the relationship between our beliefs and actual states of the world have any place for the kind of wishy washy rationalisations that any religious belief requires? And given that this is a theory of meaning we’re talking about here I’m not so sure we get to say “I’ll just pick my theory of meaning to fit my subject”. What exactly could it “mean” to say “I will pick the way I mean what I mean”?

  3. #3 Uncle Bob
    April 19, 2011

    It is unsettling how often anti-Gnu’s make statements that flirt with postmodernism.

  4. #4 Elizabeth
    April 19, 2011

    ” I fail to see, though, why a scientist could not believe that God established a system of natural laws that operates in most instances most of the time, but is occasionally disrupted to further some divine purpose.”

    I think it would be awfully frustrating for a scientist under those circumstances to design an experiment — how could she ever be sure the supreme being wasn’t disrupting her results to further a divine purpose?

  5. #5 SLC
    April 19, 2011

    Re Elizabeth @ #4

    Ms. Elizabeth is absolutely correct and accurate. Let’s take a specific example, namely the Michelson/Morley experiment, arguably the most important experiment in the history of science. The result of the experiment was that the researchers were unable to detect that the earth was in motion in the cosmos. If we accept Prof. Rosenhouses’ proposal, we could argue that god diddled with Michelsons’ equipment so that the earths’ motion would be undetectable. As to why god would want to do such a thing, who are we to investigate his motives? If Einstein had accepted such an explanation, he would never have proposed his Special Theory of Relativity.

  6. #6 Jud
    April 19, 2011

    SLC writes:

    If we accept Prof. Rosenhouses’ proposal, we could argue that god diddled with Michelsons’ equipment so that the earths’ motion would be undetectable.

    I’m confused. You mean the same Prof. Rosenhouse who wrote this?

    But I do object to his phrasing about someone like Francis Collins being “entitled” to his religious beliefs as a scientist. If Collins brings his beliefs into the lab and makes them the basis for his scientific work (in the way that young-Earth creationists do) then there is certainly something objectionable.

  7. #7 SLC
    April 19, 2011

    Re Jud @ #6

    No, I and Ms. Elizabeth are referring to the following statement by Prof. Rosenhouse:

    I fail to see, though, why a scientist could not believe that God established a system of natural laws that operates in most instances most of the time, but is occasionally disrupted to further some divine purpose.

    This is the position of physicist David Heddle and astrophysicist Rob Knop, both theists. In response to a challenge by me on Ed Braytons’ blog, Prof. Heddle proudly agreed that the asteroid that did in the dinosaurs was sent by god. Prof. Knop has argued that the cessation in the suns’ motion as initiated by Joshua and the Resurrection of Yeshua of Nazareth are events that actually occurred as one off exceptions to the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.

  8. #8 James Sweet
    April 19, 2011

    I’m soooooo very tired of the premature nihilator gambit. Yes, from a philosophical perspective, there are fundamental epistemological problems that may turn out to be entirely intractable (FWIW, I believe the Problem of Induction is irresolvable, and that the validity of inductive reasoning must be asserted a priori and without justification). But that’s pretty fuckin’ irrelevant when you get hit by a bus.

    It may be true that I cannot justify my belief in an objective reality and the ability of inductive reasoning to sift truths about that reality. I simply believe it. But, I am pretty sure everybody else believes it too. If Winston or anybody else wants to say he or she doesn’t believe that, then I’ve already won the argument — if they don’t believe in objective reality, then nothing they say can possibly mean anything.

    Consider: “(1) There’s no objective reality. (2) Therefore, we should respect people who believe stuff that seems crazy according to our own subjective reality.” In order to argue that (2) follows from (1), you have to have some sort of objective logic. And via (1), you don’t.

    So… if there’s no objective reality, why should I respect other people’s subjective realities? There’s no reason to do so, at all. I might as well just assert that in my reality, respect for other people’s realities causes cancer. Why not?? There’s no objective reality, so who are you to say I can’t believe that? Therefore, in order to fight cancer, I do not respect your stupid subjective reality. Want to try and point out problems in that logic? Too bad, because you just said you don’t believe in logic.

    The philosophical problems with objective reality are completely irrelevant to any discussion except one that is specifically about those philosophical problems. Any attempt to reject objective reality in any other context immediately loses you the argument.

  9. #9 kevin
    April 19, 2011

    To
    …these are claims about biology and physics which, from a scientific point of view in the 21st century, should be unsustainable.

    You replied Biology and physics do not say … impossible.

    I think you misinterpret the quote. He said “unsustainable” given what we know now, in the 21st century, by which I am pretty sure he meant “unsupported by any evidence, and contradicted by lots of evidence”. You are attacking a strawman.

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 19, 2011

    Elizabeth —

    I think it would be awfully frustrating for a scientist under those circumstances to design an experiment — how could she ever be sure the supreme being wasn’t disrupting her results to further a divine purpose?

    I would presume that for most religious scientists the answer is that God is not capricious, and that He does not try to deceive us. They might even argue that it is a belief in God that grounds their confidence in the general orderliness of the universe in the first place. I don’t see why a person who believes in God must also believe that the scientific method can’t disclose reliable information about His creation.

    More generally, to the scientist who believes in miracles I think the proper reply is, “There is not the slightest evidence that miracles occur,” and not, “You’re a bad scientist for believing that!” or, “You must exist in a state of massive cognitive dissonance!” I don’t like rhetoric that makes it sound like becoming a scientist entails certain metaphysical commitments, and I think in certain places (such as when he talks about what a scientist is “entitled” to believe) Harris’ rhetoric makes it sound like that is the case.

  11. #11 Tulse
    April 19, 2011

    it just seems a bit silly to suggest that biology and physics can somehow rule out any possibility of the holy ghost or the resurrection

    Is it silly to suggest they rule out Buraq, the flying horse that took Mohammed to heaven? Is it silly to suggest they rule out Xenu and his fleet of interstellar DC-3s? Is it silly to suggest they rule out that a spaceship followed comet Hale-Bopp? Is it silly to suggest they rule out that Native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel?

    I think you’re engaging in nothing more than special pleading. The physical claims of Christianity are no more “possible” than the absurd claims of other religions, ones that we are quite happy to dismiss, often with some contempt (e.g., Scientology). I see no basis to claim that the Christian notion of the revivification of their god is somehow less physically and biologically impossible than these other claims. Are you willing to argue for their possibility as vigorously?

  12. #12 eric
    April 19, 2011

    Tulse: I think you’re engaging in nothing more than special pleading. The physical claims of Christianity are no more “possible” than the absurd claims of other religions,

    I agree with your second sentence, but it seems to me you’re talking about “possible” as a form of likelihood while Jason’s talking about logical or philosophical possibility. It is very, very, very unlikely that any of these religious things happen to be true given what we scientifically understand about the world. But its not logically impossible for them to be true. So it is foolish to argue with any religious person that it is logically or philosophically impossible for them to be true.

    Now, you could respond to this by saying that such strict impossibility is irrelevant to real-world decisions. There is an infinity of not-philosophically-impossible things that we must discount, every day, just so we can get on with our lives. Why should we give religious not-philosophically-impossible things more weight than other not-philosophically-impossible things? The answer to this is that we probably shouldn’t, and you certainly don’t have to – but nevertheless, arguing impossibility with someone who does, for whatever reason, give religous things more weight is not likely to get you anywhere.

  13. #13 Tulse
    April 19, 2011

    It is very, very, very unlikely that any of these religious things happen to be true given what we scientifically understand about the world. But its not logically impossible for them to be true. So it is foolish to argue with any religious person that it is logically or philosophically impossible for them to be true.

    But it is not foolish to argue that if the resurrection is not logically or philosophically impossible, then neither is Scientology or Mormonism. This is what I mean by special pleading. We don’t worry about the philosophical possibility of a galactic tyrant dumping thetans in volcanos, or Israelites arriving in Bronze Age America — we typically think those things can be dismissed out of hand.

    My point is that if we are going to take seriously the logical and philosophical possibilities of Christian beliefs, and accord them some sort of intellectual respect because of that, then we must do so for any religious belief, no matter how prima facie absurd. And I don’t see folks doing that. Instead, I see them desperately trying to establish that Christianity meets the most minimal criteria for any consideration whatsoever, while at the same time laughing at Scientology, and Heaven’s Gate, and Raelians, and Theosophy, and etc. etc. etc. My point is simply that all the fancy philosophical arguments about the possibility of Christian beliefs gets you to exactly the same plausibility as these other beliefs. There is nothing special about Christianity, and its beliefs are exactly as philosophically reasonable as these other religions’ beliefs.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 19, 2011

    Tulse —

    I think you’re engaging in nothing more than special pleading.

    I’m just defining science narrowly. Science, as I see it, is primarily a set of methods for investigating questions about the natural world. Those methods can certainly tell us that resurrections from the dead would require supernatural interventions, and they can tell us that there is nothing in the natural world (claims of ID proponents notwithstanding) to suggest there is a supernatural realm interacting with it. Many religious apologists claim otherwise, and they are rightly excoriated for those beliefs.

    But I would think a religious scientist could agree that that there are no good scientific reasons for believing the claims of Christianity, but then argue that there might be good non-scientific reasons for accepting them. They might say that they have had powerful experiences that convince them of the truth of religion, for example.

    I think strong arguments can and should be made against such things. I just don’t think that people making them are necessarily betraying science. When Christians talk about the resurrection of Jesus, I don’t think they are claiming that biologists have overlooked something. They’re just saying science isn’t everything.

  15. #15 Tulse
    April 19, 2011

    Jason, I’m not arguing with your philosophical point, but with the selective way in which it typically gets applied. You haven’t actually responded to my argument, which is that your position on the resurrection is equally applicable to thetans in volcanoes. If the standard is for a claim to merely be “not logically impossible”, then anything goes, and it is not just the claims of Christianity that get warrant, but the claims of literally any religion. This is what I mean by special pleading — you will have to tolerate the anthropological claims of Mormons and the vulcanological claims of Scientologists and the cometary claims of Heaven’s Gate and the biological claims of Raelians to exactly the same degree.

    And, of course, since at issue is just the mere logical possibility of miracles, you will also have to tolerate the claims of Creationists, since it is logically possible for the world to have been created as it is, and merely appear old (the Omphalos Hypothesis). But I don’t see anyone defending the logical possibility of Creationism with the same vigour as that of the Christian resurrection, despite the fact that they are equally logically possible. That is special pleading.

  16. #16 Norwegian Shooter
    April 19, 2011

    It seems you are splitting hairs in order to disagree with Harris.

  17. #17 Jay
    April 19, 2011

    Jason Rosenhouse wrote:

    {i]t just seems a bit silly to suggest that biology and physics can somehow rule out any possibility of the holy ghost or the resurrection.

    I’m not so sure. I attended a public lecture by Caltech physicist Sean Carroll recently on a subject he calls “top-down skepticism.” Hopefully, I’m not misrepresenting him, but he argues that physics does rule out certain supernatural claims; eg, the soul, precognition, life after death, etc. I don’t recall if he mentioned resurrection, but I rather suspect he’d have a problem with it from the standpoint of souls, entropy, or the arrow of time.

  18. #18 Onkel Bob
    April 19, 2011

    …but then argue that there might be good non-scientific reasons for accepting them.

    But I don’t see anyone defending the logical possibility of Creationism with the same vigour as that of the Christian resurrection, despite the fact that they are equally logically possible. That is special pleading.

    To this observer, it appears the blog author has painted himself into a corner, and dearly hopes we haven’t noticed. Unfortunately, one astute respondent has noticed and correctly pointed it out.

  19. #19 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 19, 2011

    Tulse —

    You haven’t actually responded to my argument, which is that your position on the resurrection is equally applicable to thetans in volcanoes. If the standard is for a claim to merely be “not logically impossible”, then anything goes, and it is not just the claims of Christianity that get warrant, but the claims of literally any religion.

    To the extent that my position is that science does not rule out the resurrection, it is, indeed, equally applicable to thetans in volcanos. But my standard is not that both claims are logically possible. It is that both involve claims of the supernatural that are beyond science’s ability to adjudicate.

    Defenders of creationism make empirical claims that can be adjudicated by science. It is fair to say that they are poor scientists, not because they are making claims that are logically impossible (because they’re not), but because there is simply no way to arrive at creationist conclusions from a proper understanding of the facts of biology. That is precisely what is not the case about the resurrection. What facts of biology tell you that it is impossible for God to resurrect the dead?

    I really don’t see what’s complicated about this.

  20. #20 eric
    April 19, 2011

    Tulse @15: If the standard is for a claim to merely be “not logically impossible”, then anything goes, and it is not just the claims of Christianity that get warrant, but the claims of literally any religion.

    Yes exactly. You will have equally poor results arguing the strict impossibility of the ressurection with a typical christian, as you will arguing the impossiblity of alien criminals with a scientologist or jewish paleo-indians with a mormon.* No such arguments about strict impossibility are likely to succeed.

    I don’t think Jason is special pleading because I don’t think he’d think challenging scientology based on the impossibility of its beliefs would be a good idea either.

    Reread Jason’s third paragraph (beginning “You could certainly argue…”). He seems to be in violent agreement with you that these beliefs are all equally unwarranted. What he’s saying is, you’re not going to get anywhere with a believer with the argument that their beliefs are logically impossible when, technically speaking, they aren’t logically impossible. Unsupported by evidence? Sure; good argument. Make that one. But strictly impossible? Not so much.

    *I’m not implying mormons aren’t christians, just responding to the examples already given in the thread.

  21. #21 Tulse
    April 19, 2011

    Defenders of creationism make empirical claims that can be adjudicated by science.

    Jason, as I noted above, the Omphalos hypothesis argues that the world looks the way it does because of a miracle — how is that different than the resurrection?

  22. #22 Jay
    April 19, 2011

    Jason Rosenhouse wrote:

    What facts of biology tell you that it is impossible for God to resurrect the dead?

    First define what it means to “resurrect the dead.” Reassembling their molecules? Reinserting their “soul?” Running time backward just for them so that they become exactly what they were just before they died?

    I suspect that no matter how you define it, there will be facts of physics, if not biology, that will say it’s impossible.

  23. #23 Larry Moran
    April 19, 2011

    Jason says,

    I’m just defining science narrowly. Science, as I see it, is primarily a set of methods for investigating questions about the natural world.

    That’s true. It means that you have a perspective on this issue that’s very different form mine. I define science very broadly as a way of knowing that requires healthy skepticism, evidence, and rationality. My version of science isn’t restricted to laboratories. It should apply to the pursuit of all kinds of knowledge (history, sociology, law, religion).

    My version of science is not restricted to the “natural world” like yours is. In my version you can use science as a way of investigating claims of the paranormal or claims of supernatural beings. If those things exist then the application of healthy skepticism and evidence-based rationality should discover them.

    Thus, using my definition of science, people who believe in superstitious nonsense are in conflict with science. The fact that they have acquired, and practice, those beliefs outside of the laboratory is of no consequence. There’s still a conflict.

    If you read Winston carefully you’ll see that he too have a narrow view of science as a way of knowing. He seems to think that as long as a scientist behaves like a scientist when working on the human genome then it’s none of our business what a scientist does on Sunday. I disagree.

  24. #24 Deepak Shetty
    April 19, 2011

    but because there is simply no way to arrive at creationist conclusions from a proper understanding of the facts of biology.

    If you believe in an omnipotent being you can arrive at whatever conclusion you wish – no matter what the facts.

  25. #25 melior
    April 20, 2011

    I don’t like rhetoric [by some Gnu Atheist] that makes it sound like…

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but this seems like the only point you ever try to make, Jason, and even though you fail every time, you keep trying over and over again.

    Perhaps you could just make a “Shorter Jason” post that says this pinned to the top, and it would save a lot of Science Blogs readers’ time.

  26. #26 Jud
    April 20, 2011

    SLC @7:

    Ah, gotcha – I agree.

  27. #27 Ophelia Benson
    April 20, 2011

    More generally, to the scientist who believes in miracles I think the proper reply is, “There is not the slightest evidence that miracles occur,” and not, “You’re a bad scientist for believing that!” or, “You must exist in a state of massive cognitive dissonance!”

    I think your reply is one proper one, but I also think another (and broader) one is “There is no good reason to believe that miracles occur.” The fact that there is no evidence that miracles occur is one good reason that is missing, but there are others. (For instance there is no reliable shared experience of miracles.)

  28. #28 Jay
    April 20, 2011

    Ophelia Benson writes:

    There is no good reason to believe that miracles occur.

    It seems to me that there is good reason to believe that miracles do not occur. Why are we so afraid to say this?

  29. #29 Helen Wise
    April 20, 2011

    “God established a system of natural laws that operates in most instances most of the time, but is occasionally disrupted to further some divine purpose”

    C’mon. That’s rubbish, and you must know it. This is just another version of “Goddidit”, with knobs on it. Why bother studying science at all, if you’re just going to throw the rules of science out the window to make exceptions for preposterously unscientific things?

    And as for “Biology and physics do not say that the holy ghost cannot exist, or that Jesus’ resurrection is impossible”, biology most emphatically DOES make the resurrection impossible. Unless you’re claiming that the laws of biology don’t apply because God can break the rules?

    Eesh, this is not your best work, sir.

  30. #30 Tulse
    April 20, 2011

    Unless you’re claiming that the laws of biology don’t apply because God can break the rules?

    I thought that was exactly the position that Jason is claiming is not incoherent. I honestly don’t see how that doesn’t forestall the possibility of any scientific enquiry, however, since once miracles are in the picture, all bets are off.

  31. #31 Ophelia Benson
    April 20, 2011

    Jay, it’s not that we’re afraid to say it, it’s that the first one is much easier to defend and does more or less the same work. Jason’s point is about what kind of saying is defensible, and I think “no reason to think” is more in line with that than “reason to think not”.

  32. #32 Wowbagger
    April 20, 2011

    Isn’t the difference that we are able to investigate the claims of the creationists – via different dating methods and so forth but – since Jesus’ resurrection was a one-off – we’re not able to subject it to any empirical verification?

    While I don’t agree (on any level), it is one rationalisation I’ve encountered in the past. Thin, yes – but that’s apologetics in a nutshell.

  33. #33 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 20, 2011

    Helen —

    And as for “Biology and physics do not say that the holy ghost cannot exist, or that Jesus’ resurrection is impossible”, Biology most emphatically DOES make the resurrection impossible. Unless you’re claiming that the laws of biology don’t apply because God can break the rules?

    Eesh, this is not your best work, sir.

    With reference to the boldface remark, I’m saying that it doesn’t make you a bad biologist to think that God can suspend His laws to further some divine purpose. As it happens, I think there are plenty of good reasons for believing that nothing like the resurrection ever took place. I just don’t think those reasons are found in a biology textbook.

    If I’m understanding your position correctly, you are not claiming simply that religious biologists believe unreasonable things (a position with which I agree). You are actually claiming that they have fundamentally misunderstood a central fact about their discipline. Somehow, during their years of graduate study and professional activity in biology, they overlooked the part where they were now required to be atheists. Have I misunderstood your position?

    Tulse —

    I thought that was exactly the position that Jason is claiming is not incoherent. I honestly don’t see how that doesn’t forestall the possibility of any scientific enquiry, however, since once miracles are in the picture, all bets are off.

    You are correct about the position that I am defending. But I don’t see why that forestalls the possibility of any scientific enquiry. Believing in God does not entail that everything is chaos, or that God is endlessly intervening in the system of natural laws He created. In fact, the argument that is usually made by religious scientists is that their belief in God, and specifically that He created a rational universe for us to inhabit, is precisely what grounds their confidence in science to begin with. Once again, I don’t find that view plausible myself, but I don’t see why it makes you a bad scientist to believe it.

  34. #34 Pierce R. Butler
    April 20, 2011

    What facts of biology tell you that it is impossible for God to resurrect the dead?

    Well, if you define “God” as totally-hypothetical-being-that-resurrects-the-dead, it’s possible, if you define the last two syllables in “biology” as encompassing-all-of-formal-logic, the rest is a slam-brain no-dunker.

    And if we had some bacon, we could have lesbians and bacon, if we had some lesbians.

  35. #35 Wildsman
    April 21, 2011

    I don’t like rhetoric that makes it sound like becoming a scientist entails certain metaphysical commitments, and I think in certain places (such as when he talks about what a scientist is “entitled” to believe) Harris’ rhetoric makes it sound like that is the case

    So basically you mean that a scientist doesn’t really have to believe in science to practice it? Or he just has to believe it on Monday-Saturday but not on Sunday when he is eating a cracker that he literally believes is the body of Jesus Christ?

    This kind of divide is ok? Honestly, where has the intellectual honesty gone in this world…

  36. #36 Sigmund
    April 21, 2011

    I think that the argument that God set up the laws of physics at the moment of the big bang such that everything happened as transpired is a completely different class of argument to the standard Christian argument that God intervened to allow Christian miracles (walking on water, healing, resurrection etc). The first argument is not easily (at least not yet) amenable to scientific falsification and doesn’t affect (at the moment) how we do science.
    The second argument (miraculous Jesus) directly states that the laws of physics are not constant. They may change at a moments notice at the whim of an external creator.
    What’s more this argument directly entails that only specific miracles are allowed (those that follow the Jesus stories) while all others for every other religion are assumed to be false, mistaken myths taken as truths by misinformed individuals.
    Evolutionary theory teaches us that we are simply one species of billions here on earth. Could God choose to resurrect a bacterial colony on my agar plate for reasons unknown to us mere mortals? If so can I be sure of my experimental results (it could be a miracle!).
    I take the second argument as an extreme form of special pleading. Indeed one could argue that a creationist argument along the lines of the Omphalos point made by Tulse would allow for LESS intervention by God (a single creation of an apparent old Earth) and would therefore be more scientific than traditional interventionist christianity.
    My opinion is that it is a mistake to allow Christians or any other religious group to get away with making an argument that assumes their belief is somehow special or more scientifically verified compared to any other story that involves miracles. The very fact that there are so many beliefs with equal lack of evidence is an important point that makes their belief statistically that much less solid – in exactly the same way that one of the best arguments against Pascals wager is that there are so many Gods and beliefs that it becomes vanishingly unlikely you would have found the correct one.

  37. #37 Collin Brendemuehl
    April 21, 2011

    Back to the question-begging routine.

    It is so silly to try to claim that science is about measurable facts while faith is about what is immeasurable and therefore unscientific. I look forward to the time when you acknowledge this Platonism.

    Some fundamental questions again poke their little heads out of the ground, like moles that refuse to be wacked.

    1.) Does information interpret itself? Of course not. All information is filtered through assumptions and presupppositions. If no religious scientist who brings religious assumptions and presuppositions to the table has any credibility, the does not the same principle hold to those who bring the presupposition of naturalism? And you juveniles who want to discuss the meta/method distinction can just go away. In either case the framework enters as a presupposition. That’s the issue here.

    2.) What is a “miracle”? That depends entirely on how you frame reality. A book that I have referenced frequently, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, paints a proper framing of this. If the physical world lies within the domain of God’s providence, then a miracle is no intrusion into some separate world. To paint such an image is nothing more than a straw man, accomplished by misrepresenting the theology in question. (Straw man arguments are common in your posts. I do think you can do much better. Really, I do.)

    3) Laws? What laws? Unchanging laws? Every year or so we turn around and read some new information about a new law. Gravity? No, space is bending. Need some dark matter? Every measure dark matter? (Oh, wait — that gets to the modeling method and is associated assumptions about things that cannot be measured. It seems science has forsaken itself.)

    4) Are you sure they’re not? Likewise, why couldn’t a religious scientist say that he is honoring God by studying His creation through methods that have proved their worth, without also believing that science comprises some sort of all-encompassing worldview that governs every aspect of his life? Yes — physicalism is everywhere in the Christian approach. Those who talk about science should also cease making the irrational demand for dismissing the Christian belief in the light of what is measurable.

  38. #38 Tulse
    April 21, 2011

    Believing in God does not entail that everything is chaos, or that God is endlessly intervening in the system of natural laws He created.

    So a little intervention isn’t a problem for science, only lots of intervention is? How does one even know when an intervention occurs? How do you know that, for example, penicillin works through naturalistic means to kill bacteria, rather than a god actively intervening to kill bacteria via a miracle each time penicillin is employed? Perhaps such god has grown angry with us of late, and thus is not acting as often when penicillin is administered, thus causing the apparent rise of superbugs.

    And, of course, by the position you advocate, the question of godly miracles in penicillin is not a scientific one, but a purely theological one, since a god could simply make it appear that bacteria are killed directly by penicillin. Indeed, any scientific question devolves into a theological analysis of the psychology of omnipotent beings, since the issue is not whether such a god could do such a thing, but whether it would. And that issue is completely unresolvable — certainly there is no way to test such claims.

  39. #39 Tulse
    April 21, 2011

    If the physical world lies within the domain of God’s providence, then a miracle is no intrusion into some separate world.

    Translation: “If god runs everything, then god can do as god pleases.” You’re simply restating the claim.

    What laws? Unchanging laws? Every year or so we turn around and read some new information about a new law. Gravity? No, space is bending. Need some dark matter? Every measure dark matter?

    And the point of this is…? How does this justify miracles? If anything, it has the potential to naturalize apparently miraculous events, and thus making a god even less necessary to understand the world.

  40. #40 Collin Brendemuehl
    April 21, 2011

    You’re simply restating the claim.
    And the point of this is…?

    No. I gave you the reason. It’s all about proper framing.
    If you want a textbook, see Clouser, chapter 3.

  41. #41 altın çilek
    April 21, 2011

    It is so silly to try to claim that science is about measurable facts while faith is about what is immeasurable and therefore unscientific. I look forward to the time when you acknowledge this Platonism.

  42. #42 JimR
    April 21, 2011

    There is a “science” of religion provided by historians looking at the texts, especially when different versions arose over several centuries. Bart Ehrman’s popularizations of some of this historical research discuss the ways that a historian, not a religious scholar, looks at the claims made in these texts. They do not attempt to refute religious claims, but look at the consistency across multiple texts.

    I believe this rigorous examination brings scientific methods into religion. Science can say something about religion, and in some cases to the detriment of some claims of religious authority about morality. Conversely, religion has nothing to say about science. Morality whether religious or common sense can have a great deal to say about the uses of scientific discoveries.

    I do not intend for this post to divert the thread of the previous comments. Just to state that science can look critically at religion and not just on the basis of claimed impossibilities

  43. #43 Peter Beattie
    April 22, 2011

    If Collins brings his beliefs into the lab and makes them the basis for his scientific work (in the way that young-Earth creationists do) then there is certainly something objectionable.

    But I also object to Harris’ implication that somehow a religious scientist must practice his science in isolation from his religion.

    It very much seems that these two statements are directly contradictory.

    But for all of that it just seems a bit silly to suggest that biology and physics can somehow rule out any possibility of the holy ghost or the resurrection.

    Would this be the same argument that Genie Scott (rightly) got excoriated for by Jerry Coyne? That to claim that the Grand Canyon was laid down by Noah’s Flood is unscientific, but to claim it was poofed into existence by Fred is somehow outside the domain of science?

    I’d say there’s a pretty big difference between scientific truths and religious truths, wouldn’t you?

    Mostly in that there is no such thing as a “religious truth”. At least as long as “religious” and “truth” mean anything at all. You say yourself that Winston’s postmodernist relativism about “truth” is “really dumb”. Then why is it not really dumb to talk about religious claims as if they were somehow even remotely comparable to rational truth claims? BTW: Jerry Coyne’s challenge to present an example of a “religious truth” still stands, so far unmet.

  44. #44 kevin
    April 22, 2011

    Jason is representing ignorance over Sam Harris’ body of work. Harris reguarly asserts that science is not, in principle, opposed to the idea of a diety–only that there is no compelling evidence for one. Sam’s usual quote is something like this, “If Jesus does come down out of the clouds like a super-hero, Christianity will be revealed as a science”.

    About his comment:
    “I fail to see, though, why a scientist could not believe that God established a system of natural laws that operates in most instances most of the time, but is occasionally disrupted to further some divine purpose.”

    You also fail to see that this supposed scientist is making claims about the physical universe that are entirely uncontaminated by evidence, which is both intellectually dishonest and dangerous. By that logic, must you also fail to see why a scientist could not beleive that two-headed warlock and his pet goldfish, “established a system of natural laws that operates in most instances most of the time, but is occasionally disrupted to further some divine purpose.”

    This is called DOGMA

  45. #45 Dan L.
    April 22, 2011

    @37:

    1. Contrasting “religious presuppositions” and “naturalist presuppositions” creates a false dichotomy. Supposing I don’t have religious presuppositions, that doesn’t necessarily mean I have naturalist presuppositions. What if I am completely willing to consider “supernatural” explanations and simply have found all such explanations wanting?

    This is an especially interesting problem because “supernatural” explanations are usually touted as being necessary to explain the big mysteries, the stuff we can’t completely get a handle on, and so these “supernatural” explanations are almost always underdetermined…consider the notion that “free will” is a function of having a “soul.” There’s no mechanisms here, just new labels for the same old mysteries.

    Contrast to modern physics, in which we’re told that particles take every possible path from point to point, that even macroscopic objects have an essentially undetectable wave nature, that mass warps space-time itself…the appeal of “supernatural” explanations was that we need wild explanations to explain wild phenomena. By this light, modern physics seems to be every bit as “supernatural” as the religious explanations, with one important difference. If you tell me the capacity for free will is due to the soul, there’s no possible experiment I could design to prove you wrong. If I tell you the math behind wave/matter duality, you absolutely can.

    In short, the “you skeptics are closed-minded” gambit would be fine if skeptics weren’t already willing to consider explanations that are much wilder than “supernatural” explanations. The problem isn’t that skeptics have naturalistic presuppositions, it’s that they expect an “explanation” to actually make predictions so that the explanation can be subject to experimentation. Or at least that’s so for me, I suppose I shouldn’t speak for everyone else.

    2. This is a great example of the above. The definition of “miracles” is underdetermined, just like any “supernatural” explanation for a phenomenon. Since it’s not clear what a miracle is except with reference to some a priori ontological schema, there’s no real way to test whether or not some particular event constitutes a “miracle.”

    In other words, the word “miracle” would seem to simply be useless for describing the world around us. Your particular formulation strikes me as saying “natural law is defined as God’s will” and throwing up one’s hands. For someone such as myself who is trying to understand things, this point of view isn’t so much wrong as simply empty. It doesn’t tell me anything about the world at all.

    3. This bit doesn’t really make any sense, so I’m not sure how to respond to it. People come up with new kinds of instrumentation and new methods for measurement, so old theories are constantly tested against not just new evidence but new kinds of evidence. As this happens, we find that some theories are underdetermined — not so hopelessly as “supernatural” explanations, mind you — and we need more precise formulations of those theories.

    BTW, “dark matter” IS NOT something that cannot be measured. In fact, “dark matter” IS a measurement; the problem is that we’re not sure what we’re measuring (just as Galileo didn’t know what he was measuring with his thermometer). This misunderstanding seems to be rife among you “sophisticated” anti-skeptics…you peddle your own misunderstandings of scientific topics as weaknesses in scientific culture.

    4. Believe whatever the hell you want. But if you want me to believe it (or respect belief in it), I’m going to need more than your say-so that it’s true.

  46. #46 Collin Brendemuehl
    April 23, 2011

    Dan,
    #1 You missed the point entirely. I was talking about the presence of presuppositions.
    #2 Underdetermined by what set of assumptions? That goes to the framework used to define reality, which is what Clouser addresses. IOW, you make a good point but to the wrong issue.
    #3 If by “theory” you mean “model” then you have nothing measurable. The demand made in the post was for something measurable, and that assertion is challenged by the very “science” in which the assertion operates.
    #4 Just come back with a treatment of “science” that is free of question-begging assumptions and there is plenty to do together. Religious bigotry and bad science, both being quite common here, are completely unnecessary.

  47. #47 Lenoxuss
    April 27, 2011

    On the whole question of whether it’s “okay” for scientists to be religious, my answer is no, because I don’t think it’s okay for anyone to be religious. To phrase that in more seriousness: I think it is a mistaken dichotomy to single out scientists for the often-vague “is faith compatible” question, because one subtext of that line of thinking is to separate science from reality.

    In other words, it’s not like science occupies some special subset of reality into which gods and ghosties may not cross, but “outside” of science, those things are acceptable. I think something akin to that is how lots of people, even many atheists, think of science. But as I see it, there is no “outside”. Science is everything. And as a consequence, religious scientists are no more irrational or “bad” than any other religious (or otherwise not-100%-rational*) people.

    Faith-based thinking isn’t compatible with any occupation (though the Earth somehow continues to rotate regardless). A paleontologist’s profession is as incompatible with Christianity as a priest’s is, because Christianity makes no kind of sense in the first place. (In fact, a priest has a closer acquaintance to the faith’s flaws and inconsistencies, and hence less excuse.)

    Sure, maybe it’s all right for a minister to be religious outside the church, but not when he’s on the job… he needs to be objective!

    * A category in which I include myself. I just don’t know yet which of my beliefs are the irrational ones. If I did, I wouldn’t keep them. (And it could very well mean I was omniscient.)

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