Evolving Thoughts

Religion and science

There has been a bit of a resurgence of science versus religion posts and chatter in various forums* that I inhabit when I’m not working lately. It occurred to me that it might be time to do one of my sermons.

There are basically two popular views of the relation between science and religion. One is the All-Or-Nothing view: science is either entirely subsumed under religion, or totally excluded from it. The other is the view that each has their own special role – Stephen Gould called it the Non-Overlapping Magisterial Authority (NOMA) view. Both are, in my opinion, quite wrong, both factually/historically, and prescriptively.

Science is a process undertaken by human beings. Religion is also a process undertaken by human beings. They are conceptually distinct, but human beings are not driven by conceptual niceties. Rather than seeing religion and science as isolated endeavours, or as the same thing, it is best to expect that science and religion will have their own domains but that these domains will occasionally overlap. As I like to say it, religion and science jostle each others’ elbows for space on the dancing floor of human activities.

Often, religion is used as an inspiration for some scientific goals, or even for results. It is fair to say that the linear notion of time now employed by cosmology would not have been widely adopted in western thought if not for the Christian eschatological tradition. But this doesn’t immediately license the other claim that some religious want to make: that science would not have occurred if not for theism. I think this is just wrong. Some science depended on prior religious views, but a whole lot depended even more on pre-theist views like those of Aristotle, or of Plato, or the neo-Platonists, or the classical Empiricists. And in any case, there’s a fallacy lurking here – the Genetic Fallacy.

According to the Genetic Fallacy, the worth of something is its origin, not its present utility or function. Think of those who talk about “drug money” being somehow morally tainted and therefore of no use for, say, feeding the poor. Likewise, the appeal to authority, especially long dead authorities like the authors of religious texts, is a kind of genetic fallacy. They were right or they were wrong, and it doesn’t really matter how high an esteem we now hold them in, nor how low.

So the idea that religion has to be right, or supported, or included, because some aspects of present science have a history that (necessarily, given our cultural history) includes theism, is a fallacy. If an idea came from Satan by FedEx, and worked in science, it would nevertheless be true or justified in science.

In the 18th and later the 19th centuries, there was an increasing move to distance the control and censoring of science from the religious powers-that-be. An example of this is Richard Owen, a precursor to Darwin. Owen was moved by the increasing evidence of biological variety to suggest that the morphology of animals evolved over time. This was seen as politically radical by the church authorities to whom he owed his position at the Royal College of Surgeons, and his Cambridge contacts, and contrary to religion (the two views being more or less the same at the time). He was therefore persuaded to relinquish the idea.

Now, when Darwin firmly established the view that species evolved, Owen tried, understandably, to garner some of the credit for himself, to no avail, and an anonymous review of the Origin in the Edinburgh Review by him praised his own genius and denigrated Darwin’s novelty. Had religion remained agnostic about the history of living things at the time, maybe we’d now be praising or attacking Owenism. Instead he became an implacable opponent of Thomas Huxley and therefore of the “Darwinians”.

Religion has often tried to constrain science, and always will. Conclusions that do not cohere nicely with some doctrine or suggest a consequence that is regarded as unpalatable will be attacked by largely scientifically ignorant religious authorities. Religious views that do not fit the consensus social opinions of those who are scientifically literate will be attacked as dangerous or foolish. The issue is not, therefore, whether science and religion are in conflict, for they always are to some extent. The issue is whether or not they are improperly affecting from without the development of their own traditions. Scientifically literate religious people will try to amend their own traditions from within; that is entirely appropriate in my view. And while it is every person’s right to disagree with this or that social view, I think that change of religious views in favour of a more liberal relationship between science and religion will not be achieved by critics from without those traditions. Atheists are too easy to caricature, by the religious, just as the religious believers are too easy to caricature by atheists. Instead attacking in the “name of science” any religion is simply going to harden resistance to the modern world.**

What I want to see is that religion tends to its own business and doesn’t use the secular structures and its majority of the populace to control the way science investigates, nor the conclusions it will reach. Reality is not orthodox. Likewise I would like to see that those who do science or promote it (as it surely should be, being the only successful epistemological innovation of the past 200,000 years) avoid trying to limit or denigrate the role of religion in a society. Religion is here to stay, and if we (whoever that eponymous “we” may be) insist on it going to get a reasonable society, we are in for many centuries of bitterness and disappointment. Science is here now and we should incorporate it into our society in a positive fashion, not a negative one.

So I will continue to defend the right of those with whom I disagree to believe what they like, and of those who do science to not be hedged about or attacked. There will be, as football fans like to call it here, a bit of biffo. Let’s make it constructive and fun rather than life or death.

* It’s an English word now, so it gets English plurals. Likewise platypuses, octopuses and viruses. So there.

** I really really really hate the term “modernity”, which gives a false impression that there is some monolithic worldview that opposes that which came before.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    July 15, 2007

    Hear hear!

    To what extent is the problem due to religion having to change its role. It seems clear that it use to have the role of explaining how the world came to be (by providing a history), as well as giving rules of social behaviour (whether we should poke out each other’s eyes or not). Now science is taking over the first role, but should remain agnostic about the second (it can describe, but not prescribe, I think).

    The problem for religion, from this perspective, is reinventing itself so that it only takes the second, moral, role. Some faiths have been pretty good at this (e.g. the Anglicans). Where it does have a role is in the moral realm, where it an inform us about the use of sciences, and also whether certain aspects of science should be followed up (I’m thinking here of things like animal experimentation). In this case, it’s one voice amongst many, but still one we should listen to, I think.

    Bob

  2. #2 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 15, 2007

    As an atheist, I recognize that religion is here to stay at least through my lifetime, and I don’t intend to be bitter about it at all. But I don’t see the need for atheists who are scientists to restrain from expressing their opinions (nor certain journalists who write for Vanity Fair.)

    If the ideological battle is between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists, then we can make common cause against that particular societal ill with the liberal religious among us. However, I don’t see why we should allow ourselves to be patronized by them in order to make such common cause. If they are offended by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, how strong can their faith be, anyway?

    Good post. I have said before that the Intelligent Design movement opens the door for the likes of Stenger. If they want to make God a hypothesis, then by all means Stenger should take it to them.

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich
    July 15, 2007

    And another thing. Thanks for using forums instead of fora. The word “fora” is pretentious, as is the insistence of using the article “an” to modify the word “historical.”

    And “Y” is always a vowel. If you doubt me, see what happens if you substitute the letter “i” for the letter “y” wherever it appears. Doesn’t change the pronunciation at all, does it? Why do you think the Spanish name for “y” is “i grieta?”

  4. #4 Thony C.
    July 15, 2007

    An excellent read for a Sunday morning thank you. I was particularly pleased to see your emphasis on the genetic fallacy something that is blindly ignored by many people on both sides of the argument.

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    July 15, 2007

    Mike – do you think that we’ll see “forums” being used in all mediums?

    People make the mistake in thinking that English is a logical language. They’re wrong. It’s about 17 logical languages.

    Bob

  6. #6 Chris' Wills
    July 15, 2007

    Dr Wilkins, Thank you for another excellent, concise and sensible post.

    …as is the insistence of using the article “an” to modify the word “historical.”

    And “Y” is always a vowel. If you doubt me, see what happens if you substitute the letter “i” for the letter “y” wherever it appears…Posted by: Mike Haubrich

    Using/writing “an” isn’t pretentious. As I actually say “an historical” and “an hotel” for me and others like me it is simply phonetic.
    If I hear “a historical” I actually hear it as “ahistorical” which means something else than what was most likely meant, if it is written I read it as “an” and wish that the writer had written it correctly, oh well things change.

    As for y and i, how would you pronounce ieti, iellow or iakob? :o) Though, of course, you are correct that it normally can be replaced by i when used inside or at the end of a word.

  7. #7 Chris' Wills
    July 15, 2007

    Minor addition/correction; I say “an historical” but “a history” the “a” not sounding the same as in “ahistory”, which is a word I’ve never actually had cause to use before now.

    Using an is correct, for me at least, because the h is soft to non-existant in historical and hotel. In “history” the “h” is louder so “a” is acceptable (more phonetic).
    As well as the fact that is how I was taught to write.

  8. #8 John Wilkins
    July 15, 2007

    I sound “h” as a hard aspirant. Hence, it doesn’t make sense to use “an” before it. But not all dialects of English do this, and it makes sense for those who do not sound the “h” (like North Americans and ‘erbs) to use the “an”.

  9. #9 John Pieret
    July 15, 2007

    Well done as usual.

    They are conceptually distinct, but human beings are not driven by conceptual niceties.

    No, but they can use them for cover (both internally and for purposes of their community) when shifting their intellectual ground. The creationists know that and attack the theistic evolutionists (speaking of a bad term) even more vociferously than they do atheists for just that reason. When certain unnamed scientific types do the same from the opposite side, they are making it harder for a liberal relationship to emerge between science and religion.

    They may be doing this, consciously or unconsciously, in expectation that, given an either/or between science and religion, people will choose the material comforts of science and dump religion. I think it will not only be the unnamed who will be disappointed but the rest of us will be too, because of the mischief that will come out of it.

  10. #10 Chris' Wills
    July 15, 2007

    …They may be doing this, consciously or unconsciously, in expectation that, given an either/or between science and religion, people will choose the material comforts of science and dump religion. I think it will not only be the unnamed who will be disappointed but the rest of us will be too, because of the mischief that will come out of it. Posted by: John Pieret

    There are people, not those unnamed by you, who propose returning to a more natural existance and undoing all that science has allowed us to create. So maybe they’ll be happy for a while.

    On forcing a choice between religion and science; if push comes to shove I also suspect that the result will be, at best, mildly dissapointing for the unnamed; though perhaps their purity of spirit will grant them some comfort. Won’t do me a lot of good though :o(

  11. #11 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 15, 2007

    Not intending to hijack a thread….

    I have been corrected in my usage of the article “a” attached to “historical” by people who use a hard “h” sound, as I do, and it is that which I find pretentions.

    The idea behind “y” not really being a vowel comes from looking at the situations in which “y” can be substituted for “i” without changing the way the word is pronounced:

    “senior” could be spelled “senyor” and still have the vowel transition which sounds like a consonant. It is only the transition of y to anohter vowel that sounds like a consonant, and I think that it should be considered a vowel rather than a consonant that is sometimes a vowel.

  12. #12 The Ridger
    July 15, 2007

    I say “an” before H if the onset syllable isn’t stressed, so “an historical” but “a history” and “a hotel”. I don’t think it’s pretentious; it’s involuntary. And Y is NOT always a vowel. Y can = IPA J = jot, and that’s a consonant. English doesn’t always use a Y for that – sometimes it doesn’t orthographically show it at all (think union, or do you say “an union”, hmmm?) but then English doesn’t have enough letters to be phonetic; we have 17 vowels and 6 vowel letters.

    But on to the substance of the post – hear, hear. NOMA is doomed because religion insists on making real-world claims, but I don’t call for religion to be abolished. I’d be content if it remained where it “belongs” – but the fact that moderate theists refuse to hear their co-religionists criticized by any but themselves (not that they do it often) makes it hard for atheists to see them as allies… It’s a pickle.

  13. #13 Jonathan Badger
    July 15, 2007

    Some science depended on prior religious views, but a whole lot depended even more on pre-theist views like those of Aristotle, or of Plato, or the neo-Platonists, or the classical Empiricist

    I don’t buy the notion that religion was responsible for science either, but how can you consider Aristotle, Plato, et al. “pre-theist”? “pre-Christian” certainly, but not “pre-theist”.

  14. #14 Chris' Wills
    July 15, 2007

    ….but the fact that moderate theists refuse to hear their co-religionists criticized by any but themselves (not that they do it often) makes it hard for atheists to see them as allies… It’s a pickle. Posted by: The Ridger

    Doesn’t it depend on the aims.
    I make common cause with those who wish to defend scientific methodology, protect the environment, improve education, enhance individual rights, oppose goverment encroachment on civil liberties and some other things.

    If those allies in the science wars also wish to help in these other things I’ll ally with them again.

    If they wish to destroy/eradicate world views that don’t match theirs but these views aren’t opposed to my agenda and don’t harm me & mine then I won’t ally myself with them.

    I find it strange that this should leave atheists in a pickle.

    I am sure that not all atheists agree on everything. I hear that some atheists, in the USA, vote Republican and a few vote Democrat.

    —————–

    On “an”; as written English is a lingua franca standardised spelling and writing is fairly important and the fact that it isn’t phonetic isn’t suprising. Though using “an” or “a” only makes a difference if the person you are writing to doesn’t share your accent.

    Even within a small group of native speakers (GB & NI) the variety of dialects is astounding, so we had/have Received Pronunciation a standardised version which is what the BBC teaches around the world along with a standardised spelling & writing rules. It is slightly different from the RP I learnt at school.

    Of course, the colonials have added their variety to this adding to the fun & wealth of the language.

  15. #15 Caledonian
    July 15, 2007

    What does anything in this post have to do with whether science and religion are compatible?

  16. #16 John Pieret
    July 15, 2007

    What does anything in this post have to do with whether science and religion are compatible?

    What make you think that was John’s subject?

    For my part, I suspect that the answer to whatever question you think you’re raising resides here:

    Science is a process undertaken by human beings. Religion is also a process undertaken by human beings.

  17. #17 Caledonian
    July 15, 2007

    What make you think that was John’s subject?

    Besides the part where he brought up two claims about their compatibility, said that he held both claims were wrong, and expounded upon that statement?

    For my part, I suspect that the answer to whatever question you think you’re raising resides here:

    Science is a process undertaken by human beings. Religion is also a process undertaken by human beings.

    Two processes, both undertaken by human beings, can be utterly incompatible, completely dependent on each other, or anywhere in-between. That’s no answer at all. It’s a non sequitur.

  18. #18 Ian H Spedding
    July 15, 2007

    Mike Haubrich wrote:

    And another thing. Thanks for using forums instead of fora. The word “fora” is pretentious, as is the insistence of using the article “an” to modify the word “historical.”

    Nonsense, “fora” and “media” are much more pleasing to the ear and easier to say than clumsy constructions like “forums” or “mediums”. But then no one ever accused Aussies of having any great aesthetic sense. (Grumble…Ashes…mumble)

    As for the article ‘an’, I always assumed it existed to make the spoken transition between two vowels easier. If you think the aspirant ‘h’ is a vowel then it takes ‘an’, otherwise it takes ‘a’.

    “senior” could be spelled “senyor” and still have the vowel transition which sounds like a consonant.

    I would read “senyor” as being pronounced like the Spanish title “senor”, not “senior”.

  19. #19 Ian H Spedding FCD
    July 15, 2007

    John Wilkins wrote:

    What I want to see is that religion tends to its own business and doesn’t use the secular structures and its majority of the populace to control the way science investigates, nor the conclusions it will reach. Reality is not orthodox. Likewise I would like to see that those who do science or promote it (as it surely should be, being the only successful epistemological innovation of the past 200,000 years) avoid trying to limit or denigrate the role of religion in a society. Religion is here to stay, and if we (whoever that eponymous “we” may be) insist on it going to get a reasonable society, we are in for many centuries of bitterness and disappointment. Science is here now and we should incorporate it into our society in a positive fashion, not a negative one.

    Hear, hear! Well said, that man!

    Religion has been around for a long enough for us to hypothesize that it is advantageous in some respects, whatever the merits of the various doctrines. It is also so deeply embedded in human cultures that I doubt that anyone – even those who shall not be named – believes it is going to be uprooted any time soon. Certainly, the publication of a few atheist books is not going to do it, even though they are arguably a significant step forward.

    The problem, as always, is in the arena where both science and religion do come into conflict – namely, politics. If you believe you are in possession of some Truth or knowledge or wisdom or doctrine or method which can benefit your fellows – or even bring them salvation – then it is but a short step to believing that you have a duty to bring it to them. This may start with simple persuasion. But who is in a better position to persuade a society of the benefits of a particular view – and, if need be enforce it – than its government? This means that, inevitably, science and religion become contestants for influence over – or even control of – the levers of political power.

    As I think all here agree, the real problem at a practical level comes from the extreme activists who are prepared to go to almost any lengths to further the political influence of their favoured doctrine or ideology. The question is whether the more moderate adherents of these groups are effectively as guilty as the extremists by virtue of their toleration. The answer to that question determines whether the strategy to be pursued against the extremists shall be ‘the only good X is a dead X’ or ‘divide and conquer’.

  20. #20 Caledonian
    July 15, 2007

    Religion has been around for a long enough for us to hypothesize that it is advantageous in some respects, whatever the merits of the various doctrines.

    Smallpox. Syphilus. Guinea worms. Influenza.

  21. #21 John Pieret
    July 15, 2007

    Besides the part where he brought up two claims about their compatibility, said that he held both claims were wrong, and expounded upon that statement?

    Well, if that’s the meaning of “compatibility” you had in mind, and he “expounded” on it, why are you complaining that his post didn’t “have to do with whether science and religion are compatible?” You seem to have answered your own ill-stated complaint.

    Two processes, both undertaken by human beings, can be utterly incompatible, completely dependent on each other, or anywhere in-between.

    Indeed they can be. That’s why I said the answer to your vague carping probably lies in their someplace. If you want people not to think you’re making these cryptic comments because you have nothing of substance to contribute, you’ll have to do better than that.

  22. #22 Antonio Manetti
    July 15, 2007

    What I want to see is that religion tends to its own business and doesn’t use the secular structures and its majority of the populace to control the way science investigates, nor the conclusions it will reach.

    If all you’re advocating is freedom of inquiry, I don’t see where the problem is. If scientists nowadays worked and spoke only among themselves, who else would care? The battleground between science and religion, of course, is in the arena of public opinion and policy.

  23. #23 Chris' Wills
    July 15, 2007

    …The question is whether the more moderate adherents of these groups are effectively as guilty as the extremists by virtue of their toleration. The answer to that question determines whether the strategy to be pursued against the extremists shall be ‘the only good X is a dead X’ or ‘divide and conquer’. Posted by: Ian H Spedding FCD

    Well the option “only good X is a dead X” is rather risky and “divide and conquer” I’m not sure about. Who is to be conquered?
    If the extremals could be isolated we might have a chance to reduce the strain on the Overton window, however this is a long term education issue.

    I would also suggest that we need to decide what we are interested in achieving, I am assuming that is generally what Dr Wilkins is suggesting..

  24. #24 Chris' Wills
    July 15, 2007

    Smallpox. Syphilus. Guinea worms. Influenza. Posted by: Caledonian

    Apart from Smallpox, the things you mention are doing very well for themselves. What is your point in mentioning them?

  25. #25 Ian h Spedding FCD
    July 15, 2007

    Caledonian wrote:

    Smallpox. Syphilus. Guinea worms. Influenza.

    Sickle cell disease?

  26. #26 jeffw
    July 15, 2007

    It is fair to say that the linear notion of time now employed by cosmology would not have been widely adopted in western thought if not for the Christian eschatological tradition

    Interesting. But what about St. Augustine, or McTaggart and the A/B series? What other notions of time are you implicitly referring to?

  27. #27 John Wilkins
    July 15, 2007

    I don’t buy the notion that religion was responsible for science either, but how can you consider Aristotle, Plato, et al. “pre-theist”? “pre-Christian” certainly, but not “pre-theist”.

    A slip of the fingers. I of course meant monotheist. The monotheist religions claim, routinely (or fanatics on their behalf) that science requires this or that version of monotheism.

    jeffw [#26]: Augustine’s view of history just is the Christian eschatological tradition – most of what transpires after him follows his Civitas Dei interpretation of the Bible. McTaggart’s counterargument is in large part due, I think, to eastern influences on British Idealism popular at the time (late 19thC). But that’s my rough and ready response. It’s been a very long time since I read them, and Bradley was always my favourite member of that school.

  28. #28 James McGrath
    July 15, 2007

    Thanks for a great post ranging from the genetic fallacy to just plain genetics. You are quite right that the origins of an idea or the original context (religious or otherwise) that fostered it cannot be determinative. Indeed, in a recent book David Ray Griffin suggests that those who first argued for scientific naturalism were often motivated by Christianity, since a major alternative, which might be called “magical naturalism”, believed that various things we might call ‘supernatural’ are simply expressions of aspects of nature. For some Christians, however, it was felt to be preferable to have a world that followed set laws (attributed to a creator, of course) and have the supernatural be due to inexplicable divine interventions, which could then be appealed to as confirmation of divine revelation. Alas, this worldview came back to haunt them (if you’ll excuse the ironically inappropriate metaphor) inasmuch as less and less room was left for these miracles, and thus what was left was the natural, with less and less for a sovereign deity to directly manipulate.

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com

  29. #29 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 16, 2007

    In the 18th and later the 19th centuries, there was an increasing move to distance the control and censoring of science from the religious powers-that-be. An example of this is Richard Owen, a precursor to Darwin. Owen was moved by the increasing evidence of biological variety to suggest that the morphology of animals evolved over time. This was seen as politically radical by the church authorities to whom he owed his position at the Royal College of Surgeons, and his Cambridge contacts, and contrary to religion (the two views being more or less the same at the time). He was therefore persuaded to relinquish the idea.

    One of the books that I am currently reading is Debora Cadbury’s Terrible Lizard. I am now approaching the point at which Gideon Mantell, who was not willing to accede to divine creation to explain the fossils he was discovering, is about to run square into the ambitious young Richard Owens. The impression that I am getting from Cadbury is that Owens maintained his creationist views in large part due to his desire to retain Buckland and Cuvier as mentors. Of course, I am sure that Owens was genuinely religious.

    Mantell labored to attain recognition for the work he was doing in paleontology and geology, and gained grudging respect but it was as though he had to push the Society every step of the way. Owens had the right connections (I am not discounting the work that Owens did in cataloging and analyzing fossils.) If not for the political advantages that Owen had, Mantell would perhaps be much better known now.

  30. #30 Pseudonym
    July 16, 2007

    Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou!

    I think all other blog entries on this topic may now close. This is a great “last word”.

    OK, wishful thinking, but still.

  31. #31 Chris' Wills
    July 16, 2007

    Smallpox. Syphilus. Guinea worms. Influenza.

    Sickle cell disease? Posted by: Ian h Spedding FCD

    Oh; it’s guess the next disease or parasite in the list, well spotted Ian.

    Polio next or should it be West Nile fever ?

  32. #32 Thony C.
    July 16, 2007
    Smallpox. Syphilus. Guinea worms. Influenza.

    Sickle cell disease? Posted by: Ian h Spedding FCD

    Oh; it’s guess the next disease or parasite in the list, well spotted Ian.

    Polio next or should it be West Nile fever ?

    Caledonian Spongiform Encephalopathy

  33. #33 Jose
    July 16, 2007

    For a different view by a materialist-atheist philosopher, here’s part of an interview with Gustavo Bueno, Spain’s leading philosopher of science:
    BUENO ON MODERN SCIENCE
    12 February 2004 Interview in La Nueva España daily.
    [...]
    -Can we speak of a driving force?
    -The three key ideas of philosophical materialism are: the ego (seen not from the psychological perspective but rather as the acting subject)–; the world of phenomena; and the hind world, matter, which to Christians is the angelic world, to ancient Greeks the apeiron and nowadays that which is beyond the Big Bang, the quantum vacuum. To establish connections between the three, if the ego is subordinated to the world and to matter the result is the Greek chaos. The Ancient World began to experience a revolution when Constantine pacts with Christianity. When the Judeo-Christian religious views become official and with them the idea of creation. It is a key concept. And its origin is political. The Greeks were familiar with the concept of creation but thought it absurd. The Jews, however, introduce the same idea of creation that Christians will later inherit. It is a complete revolution. The ego was in the lowest rung of reality, it was merely a shadow’s dream, in Pindar’s words. This was precisely the case, it was not a matter of an inferiority complex, but of real inferiority. But then the ego acquires first-order importance because God is ego-morph, Yahweh speaks. Greek gods did not speak and were subjected to destiny.
    -How does Judeo-Christian thought come up with the idea of Creation?
    -The Jewish people were being harassed and they were poor, the only way for them to face Cananeans and Egyptians was to have the kind of God who could create for them food and weapons ex nihilo. An omnipotent god. A god conceived to respond to their political needs. But above all a god who speaks. This is incorporated into Christianity, but in addition the Christian god becomes human. This becomes especially powerful after Constantine. Eusebius of Cesarea and Saint Augustine see it this way: Christianity saves the Empire because God becomes human.
    -Therefore…
    -Therefore Christianity was the key to modern science. This is the great issue. This explains why Muslims were just a sect which broke away from Christianity and turned to Aristotle and stopped there. They were merely transmitters of knowledge. They never created anything and they never will, largely because of their necessitarist ideology. Modern science is linked to Christianity through the idea of creation. God creates the world. He can destroy it and reconstruct it. That is precisely what is behind the operationism of modern science which is thus based on the idea of divine creation. It is in the Bible. When the first atomic bomb was dropped Jaspers said that from that moment on mankind was free and creative because it could self-destruct. To Aristotle that would have been absurd, the Earth and the sun cannot be destroyed, they are eternal. Jaspers’ idea is a Christian one, how come we can destroy Earth and mankind? Precisely because we are God’s children and as a result we have the power of creation [and destruction]. The idea of creature lies at the basis of modern science. Christianity brings a great revolution. God is now the author of nature and man can do research on nature, Christianity is key when it comes to modern science. This is virtually a Thomistic idea. From this viewpoint the divine word is key. God speaks. Now we are atheist and secular and it has become difficult to understand the implications, but for centuries the starting point was God’s revelation. God who speaks. In the Modern Era the revolution can also be explained by religious reasons, in connection with the Protestant Reformation.
    -Luther’s revolution…
    -Luther breaks with Rome, over the control over the interpretation of Holy Scripture, the control over revelation. To Luther, God breathes in the individual subject. It is the subject who gets to interpret God. Modernity is not an anti-theological revolution, quite the opposite, it is a hyper-theological revolution.
    -And science?
    -To this we must add the technological revolution. Before then, nature was not understood. In the Modern Era nature begins to be understood. There are two great perspectives, idealism and materialism.
    -Kant’s idealism…
    -In the idealist camp we must include Descartes, Locke and Hume, Kant, Fichte and also Malebranche. Hegel was more Thomistic. Materialism begins with Spinoza and, with regard to the social conditions of the time, it swims against the tide. The great philosophical movement of modernity is idealism, which is basically Christianity, albeit secularized. A philosophy which stems from Catholic Christianity. And from Protestant Christianity also. Kant was like a secular priest.
    -What about Descartes?
    -Descartes takes chaos as a starting point. Doubt submerges him into chaos. He finds the ego, the cogito. He performs the theological inversion. He sees everything from the viewpoint of a God who is in the world. Malebranche, a priest who belongs to the Oratory of St Philip Neri and who is also one of the originators of the physical theory of colors, says that we see God in all things. Descartes and Malebranche are the great originators of modern physics. They think, “I know the world exists because revelation tells me, because the Bible tells me so”. And they say this in the 17th century. But Berkeley is the one who really takes the cake.
    -And he was a bishop.
    -Yes, bishop Berkeley, who creates material idealism. Kant makes clear that his own idealism is of a different kind. Kant is pure idealism. He is a total Scholastic. By the way, from my point of view, these are the highest words of praise. A Scholastic who plays on the very same organ of Scholasticism. Which is Aristotle’s Organon. Of course, he produces a few dissonant chords when playing on that organ, but the important fact is that he plays on it.

  34. #34 Oran Kelley
    July 16, 2007

    Doesn’t Gould’s NOMA idea assume that the border between religion and science will be a disputed one?

    I often see people write about NOMA, but rarely does what is written jibe with my impression of what Gould wrote available here.

    My impression is that Gould thought that the magisteria bordered one another at a number of hotspots, that there would be disputes and people who made claims to areas not duly their own, but that the two magisteria could theoretically be distinguished, and that scientists ought to acknowledge that religion plays a role in human life and decision-making and that religion ought to acknowledge that science has its own realm of knowledge and power.

    I don’t really see much difference between the view outlined here and Gould’s.

    People who think NOMA means Gould thought that zealots would always behave themselves don’t know what they’re talking about. NOMA is a proposal for how to think about and informally adjudicate disputes that he expects will happen.

  35. #35 Oran Kelley
    July 16, 2007

    Religion has often tried to constrain science,

    But science has to be constrained by something, no? Should we think of Dr. Mengele as a martyr to the scientific spirit? No. The scientific spirit of inquiry clearly has to be constrained by values, goals and resources that are provided from elsewhere.

    So the question isn’t should science be constrained?, because science is always and always will be constrained. The question is who and what should constrain science. Which is a much thornier question, I think.

  36. #36 Dale Austin
    July 16, 2007

    “But science has to be constrained by something, no? Should we think of Dr. Mengele as a martyr to the scientific spirit? No. The scientific spirit of inquiry clearly has to be constrained by values, goals and resources that are provided from elsewhere.”

    Yah. But he didn’t get it from his hard-line Catholic upbringing, now did he?

  37. #37 Chris' Wills
    July 16, 2007

    ..Yah. But he didn’t get it from his hard-line Catholic upbringing, now did he?
    Posted by: Dale Austin

    Hardly relevant to the requirement for the need to have moral/ethical constraints.

    Even if what you write was correct it would just show that we find the constraints under which he worked wrong and would define other, more restrictive, ones based on our moral code.

  38. #38 Dale Austin
    July 16, 2007

    “Even if what you write was correct”

    Googled him a bit before I wrote it.

    Not arguing restraint is not necessary in science-as it is elswhere. Merely observing that-contrary to the assertions of the anti-science crowd-a religious (even Christian) background is no guarantee.

  39. #39 Oran Kelley
    July 16, 2007

    Not arguing restraint is not necessary in science-as it is elswhere. Merely observing that-contrary to the assertions of the anti-science crowd-a religious (even Christian) background is no guarantee.

    One of the things that I’ve found diminishes the possibilities of actually having intelligent conversations on this topic is the tendency to drag the discussion in a direct which yields easy hits on “the opposition.” Dawkins’s book is rife with this, and any attempt to be curious (rather than condemnatory) about religion over at Pharyngula will immediately reap you 1)posters who assume you are religious; 2) posters who assume you are a “concern troll”; 3)posters who assume you wish to make the maximally stupid form of anti-science argument that they then demonstrate that they can slap down; 4) posters who assume you wish to defend the Spanish Inquisition; and so on.

    There are a lot of stupid arguments out there. I think we do better to assume that people aren’t making one of them until evidence proves otherwise. We’ll get a lot more interesting conversations going that way and will be less likely to talk past each other.

  40. #40 Chris' Wills
    July 16, 2007

    “Even if what you write was correct”

    Googled him a bit before I wrote it.

    I didn’t mean to question your statement, just questioning the relevance.

    Though, rereading what I wrote, is was very poorly written. Mea culpa.

    Not arguing restraint is not necessary in science-as it is elswhere. Merely observing that-contrary to the assertions of the anti-science crowd-a religious (even Christian) background is no guarantee.
    Posted by: Dale Austin

    No philosophy guarantees good behaviour in those who claim to adhere to it.
    Some philosophies may condone acts that you & I would consider unethical, it is those that we have to stand against.
    I’ve never noticed many anti-science people around here.

  41. #41 Aaron Clausen
    July 16, 2007

    Excellent article, John! As usual, your skill with evoking concepts and your knowledge create an edifying commentary.

    In many ways, the current lot of anti/pseudo-scientists out there are rather unique. Earlier traditions, including earlier strains of Christianity, had little difficulty in altering scriptural interpretation to fit what was known (or thought) to be true of the world around us. An educated Hellenic Jew did not interpret the cosmography of Genesis chapter 1 as a literal, knowing full well that the Earth was a globe.

    This notion of sola scriptura, which has found its way into certain modern sects of Christianity (and apparently into Islam as well) is most certainly a deformed theology. While I imagine you can find religious groups that defy science in other cultures, the ones that most often come to our attention are those in the West and in the Middle East.

    The only hope those who advocate science really have is that religious leaders within these movements begin amending their ways. That can be very difficult with many strains of Protestantism or Islam, there is no overarching hierarchy, or in many cases, even a proscribed theological methodology. In the end, however, such movements will either adapt to the notion that they’re beliefs can be incorrect (even if they insist the inspiring scriptures are not), or they will continue to be marginalized.

  42. #42 jeffw
    July 16, 2007

    Augustine’s view of history just is the Christian eschatological tradition

    But would his conception of time be linear, when he seems to hold the view that only the present exists? (maybe I’m mistaken). The modern cosmological view of time seems to correspond to McTaggarts B series. Also in the 19-20th century is Husserl, who makes some interesting connections between time and consciousness (difficult for 21st century readers), -and thanks for the pointer to Bradley.

  43. #43 Matty Smith
    July 16, 2007

    When it comes to these issues I wish someone of your ilk would publish a book rather than Dawkins or Hitchens. But such calm prose probably wouldn’t sell as well.

  44. #44 Caledonian
    July 16, 2007

    Should we think of Dr. Mengele as a martyr to the scientific spirit?

    The vast majority of Mengele’s ‘experiments’ had no controls, terrible technique, and were designed so poorly that they couldn’t possibly yield worthwhile data.

    The Nazis and Japanese between them did manage to produce data that could never otherwise be generated because of ethical concerns – we bartered for that data after WWII, and traded justice for a great many crimes for it, thus making those concerns absolutely moot.

  45. #45 John Wilkins
    July 17, 2007

    But would his [Augustine's] conception of time be linear, when he seems to hold the view that only the present exists? (maybe I’m mistaken).

    I gather you are referring to the Confessions, Bk 11. It’s been so very long since I studied him, but my brief reading of him now is that he thinks that God has only a present. We humans certainly have a past and a future. In fact I read Augustine as a block theorist. So, I note, does the Wiki article linked.

  46. #46 John Wilkins
    July 17, 2007

    D’oh! And then I read chapter 16…

  47. #47 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    July 17, 2007

    Great article.

    Though I could argue about “the linear notion of time now employed by cosmology”. Technically it is correct, and it certainly seems more and more certain that natural models comes out linear. But circular notions are intimately tied into the linear notion.

    We can’t observe time without using clocks, and being harmonic oscillators they exemplify “circular time”. Of course, synchronizing phase shifted clocks still resolves the fundamental linear value in a fashion AFAIU. (I should probably try to model that at planck scales, or find references because it is probably done, but it’s a minor point here.) The same goes for cyclical universes (which seems as a more and more remote possibility), models indicates that the cycles will differ and linearity is fundamentally resolvable in a fashion.

    Even if linear time is correct I don’t believe its early adoption was essential. But since I don’t live in that mind set it is of course impossible to make certain retrodictions.

    For main gist of the article it is of course possible to agree with all of that and come to a different conclusion. This is the only difference I can see, say between PZ’s position and the poster’s.

    Personally I read this post and thinks: “Science is here to stay based on its usefulness. (I’m not so sure about religion, though. :-) I will continue to defend the right of individuals to believe and expound on their beliefs freely. And that includes those pointing out that religion is always trying to constrain science and that religion willingly accepts a continuing negative role in society.”

  48. #48 johannes
    July 17, 2007

    > Should we think of Dr. Mengele as a martyr to the scientific spirit?

    The national socialist racial theories were pseudoscience, like lyssenkism. Ideology was a motivating force for Mengele, not a constraint.

  49. #49 Oran Kelley
    July 17, 2007

    > Should we think of Dr. Mengele as a martyr to the scientific spirit?

    The national socialist racial theories were pseudoscience, like lyssenkism. Ideology was a motivating force for Mengele, not a constraint.

    It would have been both no? In fact, wouldn’t a motivating force, by motivating your work in a particular direction, necessarily constrain you from pursuing other avenues?

    But let’s say there’s a scientist who has no ideological constraints whatsoever–isn’t the ban against certain kinds of human experimentation essentially an ideological constraint?

    That’s the point of bringing up Mengele. The reason he is hated and despised is because he violated an ideological constraint. From a scientific point of view, plenty of good work can be done on human subjects, and their informed consent really has no bearing whatsoever on the science qua science. So why not do it?

    Because we have an ideological constraint heavily mitigating against it. It’s one we probably (?) all agree on, but it isn’t something that arises from within science itself. And I think we all agree that constraint ought to be there.

    So, the question is not whether science ought to be constrained, because it is and probably can’t but be. The question is how science should be constrained.

  50. #50 John Wilkins
    July 17, 2007

    Science is, and always will be, constrained by social norms. Mengele’s work (whose data is highly suspect, as he did not use double blinds or controls anyway) is bad science because it wasn’t constrained by social norms, as are similar eugenic activities in the US, Canada, and Australia (but not, it turns out, the UK).

    I do not think this is ideological (although it certainly can be), but it is moral and it is social. The point is to balance social norms (which can be based on nothing more than prejudice) with scientific facts and results. Science will lead social norms, but not too far from where they now are.

    We cannot expect science to be done in a manner that is opposite every other human activity. We are social animals and norm followers. So unless you get a sociopath running some project, those who fund science will tend to restrain excesses because they just are the wider community.

    But the problem of religion controlling science is that religion doesn’t want certain questions answered as a rule. I once wrote a paper about this.

  51. #51 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 17, 2007

    Re: post 29 in which I refer to Richard Owens. I have no idea who that was. I meant, of course, Richard Owen.

    Crap.

  52. #52 Antonio Manetti
    July 18, 2007

    No 35:
    Religion has often tried to constrain science

    I originally took ‘constrain’ to mean pressure to avoid areas of scientific speculation and experiment that call religious dogma into question, ala Copernicus, Galileo and, of course, Darwin.

    As a result, I did not see a problem, since I did not believe there were any constraints on the freedom to do science, provided that it was done within an ethical framework. However, I failed to take into account areas, such as stem cell research, where the ethical issues are being hotly contested.

  53. #53 Chris' Wills
    July 18, 2007

    …is bad science because it wasn’t constrained by social norms, as are similar eugenic activities in the US, Canada, and Australia (but not, it turns out, the UK)….

    This isn’t clear to me; the comment about eugenics not being constrained by social norms in the UK seems do imply that there are no constraints. Also, didn’t the application of eugenics (sterilisation of those deemed unfit for various reasons) start in the US and continue into the 60s and actually have political and in many cases either social backing or at best disinterest by the general populace?

    …Science will lead social norms, but not too far from where they now are…Posted by: John Wilkins

    Not sure about this; Science supplies data and the information is created by those interpreting the data. Not sure how this makes science a leader in forming social norms. Pop/Film stars and sometimes politicians seem to have more influence, leaders of popular movements have the most.

    I would guess that science data could be interpreted to say that tatooing isn’t good for the skin but many people do it and society doesn’t seem to mind. We’ve also had some strange things done in the name of social norms; fashions in clothing comes to mind.

  54. #54 John Wilkins
    July 18, 2007

    I meant that the UK never practised the eugenics of the US, Canada and Australia.

    Social norms like abortion are led to an extent by the science. Or conservation and global warming prevention by ordinary citizens. But it is not likely that scientific advances will do much more than stretch existing boundaries a little, and it is always open to the ignorant, like the Catholic Church on condoms, to lie.

  55. #55 Oran Kelley
    July 18, 2007

    I am using “ideology” in its non-pejorative sense: “the unifying system of beliefs, attitudes, and values expressed in the superstructure of a culture. The body of thought and ideas that guides a society and perpetuates the status quo . . .”

    [original said "of the bourgeoisie," but I don't think that's necessary]

    I don’t think the other use of “ideology” is particularly useful since my “moral value” may be your ideology and vice versa.

    What does science have to say about abortion, for instance? Well science may make procedures available–make abortion cheap, safe, easy. Make younger and younger fetuses viable. So it changes the landscape of the discussion.

    I can’t think of a scientific reason to say that a fetus at one particular point becomes a human being. Science can provide a lot of data: Blastocysts are just a bunch of cells; spontaneous abortions take place in nature at such-and-such a rate. But these facts don’t really resolve the central issue.

    Do I believe that considering a sperm a “potential human life” is insane? Sure. Does science tell me that? No.

    My point would be that the interaction of social values and ideals and science is complex. Things like suppressing Copernican science may not be a discrete category which we can just condemn wholesale. It may be that such constraint is an example of the sort of practice that always goes on and always will, only this particular application was wrong.

    Unless someone can come up with a good way to categorically distinguish between good constraints on science and bad ones? My suspicion is that this is bound always to be disputed territory and that trying to stake out a “society should never constrain or interfere with science” sort of position is really counterproductive.

  56. #56 Aaron Clausen
    July 18, 2007

    Social norms like abortion are led to an extent by the science. Or conservation and global warming prevention by ordinary citizens. But it is not likely that scientific advances will do much more than stretch existing boundaries a little, and it is always open to the ignorant, like the Catholic Church on condoms, to lie.

    I’m not too sure how much social norms are lead by science. Feminists were advocating changes in abortion laws before science came along with some finer detailed observations on brain development. It took nearly a century or more for the science of human evolution to really catch up with Abolitionists in the essential idea that all humans, regardless of ethnic or racial group, are essentially equal in mental capabilities.

    What science has often been useful in doing is giving those seeking social change a solid emperical grounding on which to build their arguments. Abortion became more acceptable in part because science was able to say “Look, there’s no real possibility of personality or emotion at this stage of fetal development”. The argument was given new weight.

  57. #57 Chris' Wills
    July 18, 2007

    …and it is always open to the ignorant, like the Catholic Church on condoms, to lie. Posted by: John Wilkins

    If someone says something that is untrue is it a lie if they are ignorant?

    I would call it a lie when someone knowingly states an untruth and claims it to be true.

    The RCs position on condoms doesn’t seem particularly helpful, especially given the prevelance of STDs and people having multiple sexual partners, however I suspect that they don’t consider it a lie; unless you know of a case where they have said condoms don’t reduce the spread of STDs.

  58. #58 Chris' Wills
    July 18, 2007

    ….My suspicion is that this is bound always to be disputed territory and that trying to stake out a “society should never constrain or interfere with science” sort of position is really counterproductive.
    Posted by: Oran Kelley

    I agree.

    It seems to me that such a claim has a major problem in who pays.
    Whoever pays the piper calls the tune; now I might not play the tune called but then I won’t get paid.

    Science cannot divorce itself from the desires of the society (or at least from the paymasters of that society) in which it operates.

    The fear of Frankenstein’s Monster is strong and I don’t think that it is unjustified given that scientists are just humans.

    As you say, it is how the constraints are decided and policed that is the question, not the need for them

  59. #59 John Wilkins
    July 18, 2007

    The Cahtolic Church knows the science – their ignorance is of a different kind. Perhaps I should have said “prejudiced”. They lie about the science they know to discourage the use of condoms to prevent STDs like HIV.

    And note that I never said society should not constrain science. Not only is that not desirable, it is not possible. What I said is that religion should not constrain science. This is a fine distinction, I know, but in a secular society religion should not have exceptional influence, and it should not be able to enforce its views on those not of its faith community.

  60. #60 Chris' Wills
    July 19, 2007

    The Cahtolic Church knows the science – their ignorance is of a different kind. Perhaps I should have said “prejudiced”. They lie about the science they know to discourage the use of condoms to prevent STDs like HIV. Posted by: John Wilkins

    This is slightly off topic, but I always understood the RC church to be anti condom because they hold that sex is for procreation. They also adhere to the idea that faithful monogamous relationships will prevent the spread of STDs, which is true of course, and that spreading the abstinance message will do more long term good in mitigating the effect/spread of STDs and improving the moral well being of society.

    They are the largest NGO care provider for those afflicted with HIV/AIDs in Southern Africa, so not all bad.
    For a long time; whilst most African goverments had their heads up their arses, they were one of the few groups actually providing health care to AIDs victims and teaching a method of prevention that didn’t include beetroot juice or raping virgins.

    No, before anyone makes the claim, they didn’t check if the person was baptised or not before supplying help.

    So no, I don’t think that they are lying or ignorant.
    They would be lying if they claimed that their only aim was to prevent the spread of STDs, this isn’t the case however as they have more than one aim.

    Also it isn’t a monobloc, Bishop Kevin Dowling may be the most upfront in his dissent but he isn’t the only one within the RC hierarchy who thinks the church’s policy on Condoms & AIDs is orthodoxy gone mad and an immoral policy.

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2004/04/10/bishop_in_south_africa_targets_aids/
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5032190
    —————–

    This is actually more on topic than I thought. If a set of believers (not necessarily religious believers but any group with a general comity of ideas) inflicts harm on itself because its ethics/morals are bad for them won’t it die out?

    I do agree that religions shouldn’t be able to enforce their ideas on those who don’t agree with them; but surely we have a problem here. If we take believers to be just those who share a common set of beliefs (i.e. Chinese goverment would claim not to be religious) doesn’t this happen all the time; or are we limiting religion to those groups who claim to know The Truth and believe in a Deity?

  61. #61 Eamon Knight
    July 19, 2007

    Smallpox. Syphilus. Guinea worms. Influenza.
    Sickle cell disease? Posted by: Ian h Spedding FCD
    Oh; it’s guess the next disease or parasite in the list, well spotted Ian.
    Polio next or should it be West Nile fever ?

    I thought it was a disease-name variant of M******ton C******t.

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