What is compatibility?

Sean Carroll, one of the sharpest guys out there, says that science and religion are not compatible. I happen to think he’s using an idiosyncratic (but not necessarily wrong) definition to reach that conclusion:

are science and religion actually compatible? Clearly one?s stance on that issue will affect one?s feelings about accomodationism. So I?d like to put my own feelings down in one place.

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn?t mean.

It doesn?t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn?t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible.

This is the logic behind Peter Hess’s objection that asking someone to choose science or religion is like asking them to decide whether a grapefruit is yellow or spherical. Yellowness and sphericity are complementary in some sense, though we’ll see that this is an imperfect analogy.

Carroll illustrates his view of compatibility:

An airplane is different from a car, and indeed if you want to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco you would take either an airplane or a car, not both at once. But if you take a car and your friend takes a plane, as long as you both end up in San Francisco your journeys were perfectly compatible.

This is a pretty reasonable definition of compatibility in some broad sense, but I don’t think it’s what anyone means when they discuss science/religion compatibility. Here’s an analogy that better matches at least my sense of the term’s meaning. A car can transport you to San Francisco, and a book can transport you to San Francisco. Reading and driving are not incompatible, as reading the book does not preclude driving to the Bay area. Indeed, one can read in the car, and reading about SF before you arrive will enhance your experience. This holds even if you are reading about fictional events in SF, or science fiction accounts of Star Fleet cadets wandering the 23rd century streets of San Francisco. Conflict between reading and driving is possible of course; one shouldn’t drive and read at the same time. But it would be wrong to take the odd car crash as evidence of incompatibility between literacy and driving.

Furthermore, some people can’t read, or can’t drive. Others can, but don’t, do either. They aren’t necessarily worse off as a result, but a case might be made that experience of driving would be enhanced by reading, and that the experience of reading something like On the Road would be heightened by having driven long distances. Similarly, religious scientists say that their scientific work is deepened and inspired by their religious practices, and that their religious worship is more profound because of the experience gained from their scientific studies.

In general, I find the analogy between religion and literature intriguing, though I’m sure that both theists and atheists would find reasons to object to it. Leave a comment either way!

I’ll grant that this is not how we tend to use the term “compatible.” It’s closer to “orthogonal,” though again, not quite. Conflict and mutual enhancement are both possible, but the two are often orthogonal. Compatibility usually refers to the ability to interoperate in some way, as with finding the right lightbulb for a socket, or software that runs on your computer. Under that definition, any evidence of conflict would be evidence of incompatibility, and proof of widespread enhancement would be necessary to claim compatibility. Carroll is to be applauded for applying a more consistent definition of compatibility to science/religion, but I think it makes it harder to apply the rest of what he says to what anyone else says. In this conflict, I feel like no one is stating that religion always enhances science and vice versa, though people do argue that their particular religion (or some theoretical religion that they wish existed) enhances and is enhanced by science. And lots of people argue that science and religion can be (if they are not already) non-interfering, which some would say constitutes neither compatibility nor incompatibility.

This all leads Carroll to an interesting view on science and religion, but one which I think misstates how people approach the matter:

Likewise, it?s not hard to imagine an alternative universe in which science and religion were compatible ? one in which religious claims about the functioning of the world were regularly verified by scientific practice. We can easily conceive of a world in which the best scientific techniques of evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing left us with an understanding of the workings of Nature which included the existence of God and/or other supernatural phenomena.?

Again, this assumes a definition of “compatibility” that no one else is using. Which is fine as an intellectual exercise, but limits the applicability of the analysis in any other context.

The incompatibility between science and religion also doesn?t mean that a person can?t be religious and be a good scientist.

This is what many people claim it means. And in this context, the analogy to software actually supports my reading over Carroll’s. If the brain is like computer, we could envision “religion” and “science” as programs running on it. If the two software systems are compatible, neither writes to the other’s memory, or locks files the other needs, or is such a resource hog that the other crashes or is unusable. If they can keep to their own domain (at least mostly, even good programmers have memory leaks!), then the two are compatible. No requirement that they enhance one another or interoperate, beyond that they can work freely on the same mental substrate.

Carroll agrees:

That would be a silly claim to make, and if someone pretends that it must be what is meant by ?science and religion are incompatible? you can be sure they are setting up straw men. There is no problem at all with individual scientists holding all sorts of incorrect beliefs, including about science. There are scientists who believe in the Steady State model of cosmology, or that HIV doesn?t cause AIDS, or that sunspots are the primary agent of climate change. The mere fact that such positions are held by some scientists doesn?t make them good scientific positions. We should be interested in what is correct and incorrect, and the arguments for either side, not the particular beliefs of certain individuals. (Likewise, if science and religion were compatible, the existence of thousands of irreligious scientists wouldn?t matter either.)

The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It?s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like ?God made the universe in six days? or “Jesus died and was resurrected? or ?Moses parted the red sea? or ?dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.? And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

I don’t think science quite says “none of that is true.” Science cannot test any claim about dead souls. They cannot be shown to exist, but neither can their existence be disproven. Claims about souls are irrelevant to science, but they are not at odds with science.

Furthermore, lots of religious people and religious leaders argue that stories about the Exodus, the Resurrection, or the Creation are not to be read as history, but as literary technique. They are allegories and fables.

Again, an analogy to literature. A Tale of Two Cities is not meant as history. Events in the real French Revolution did not unfold in all their details exactly as described in the book. By Carroll’s lights, this makes Dickens (and perhaps literature in general) incompatible with history. But the goal of reading Dickens is hardly to get an accurate account of daily events in the French Revolution. You read Dickens to get the feel of events, perhaps, but more importantly, to derive deeper truths about human nature by seeing how those truths play out against a familiar backdrop.

Similarly, the supposedly literal reading of the Bible yields a decidedly unliterary understanding, and thereby costs the document its moral and emotional heft. Slacktivist has illustrated this with a different Bible story than what Carroll chooses, but I think the points stand:

One of my favorite origin stories is nominally the answer to the question “Where do rainbows come from?”

The answer the story gives has nothing to do with the refraction of light, because the story isn’t really about where rainbows come from. The story, of course, is that of Noah’s ark, as famously told in chapters 6-9 of the book of Genesis and side one of Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right!

The structure of that story is, in part, something like this:

Q: Where do rainbows come from?

A: Selfishness is destructive — to you and to every living creature. Remember that every time you see a rainbow.

Again, the answer isn’t directly related to the apparent question because the apparent question isn’t really what the story is about. This may seem complicated, but if you read these stories it’s quite obvious. They’re not subtle about it. Their message is not some hidden meaning that needs to be decoded. It would be very difficult, in fact, to read or hear such stories without taking away the meaning they are meant to convey.

The story of the Red Sea crossing is not important as an historical claim, it’s part of a story about how the Jewish people became the Jewish people. Out of adversity and danger, we rode to freedom, surviving by the skin of our teeth. When we retell this story on Passover, the message is not about meteorology or oceanography of the Red Sea, it’s about generosity to those in need, about social justice, and about the essence of freedom. Anyone who reads Exodus and feels like the only appropriate next step is to dredge the Red Sea for chariot parts has missed the point, and rather dramatically. Just so, if someone reads Into the Wild and later dies alone in Alaska, we don’t blame that death on literature, on Jon Krakauer, or even on the book. If anyone outside the victim is to blame, it’s his literature teacher, who should have helped that student see past the words on the page to the meaning they are meant to capture.

There are certain meanings that science helps us capture because science lets us read between the lines of the natural world. Religions give people certain insights into the world around them, also. Those are generally not insights of the same sort as scientific insights. Children who ask why the sky is blue are not necessarily asking about Raleigh scattering, after all. They’re asking a question that they can’t fully articular, a question about whether everything in the world has deeper meaning, and if so, what those meanings are. They are asking if the sky is blue for the same reason robin’s eggs are blue, and the ocean is blue. They wonder if people with blue eyes are more connected to the sky. To the extent science offers answers, they aren’t answers children can grasp, and the deeper questions are not questions science can answer.

We can surely show that oceans are blue because they reflect skylight, and that there is a link there. And we can show that eyes and blue jay feathers and clear skies are all blue for different physical reasons. But as philosophers since Aristotle have observed, there are different levels on which causation operates. The particular way in which light plays off of different surfaces to produce color is one level of causation, but the jay or the eye are blue because of independent selection processes as well, which provide a different level of explanation; a level different from explanations rooted only in the developmental process which yields a blue eye or a jay’s feather. There are other explanations which are not amenable to scientific testing at all. “God likes the color blue” would be such an explanation, and it would explain why those other explanations hold, but it is not empirically testable. It is a question of a different sort.


  1. #1 Sigmund
    June 24, 2009

    Any belief system that allows for miracles is incompatible with science.

  2. #2 Wonderist
    June 25, 2009

    This whole comparison of religion to fiction is entirely missing the point. If only religious people would read their books as fiction. In that case, we would have no problem with them. But they don’t. They read them as authoritative guide-books to life, reality, and worst of all, politics.

    The reality that we live in is that religious stories are considered by the majority of religious people on the planet as factually true, not merely metaphorically ‘true’. It is in this sense that science and religion are incompatible.

  3. #3 Stephen Friberg
    June 25, 2009

    Dear Wonderist:

    It would be amazing if you could actually support your statement:

    “The reality that we live in is that religious stories are considered by the majority of religious people on the planet as factually true, not merely metaphorically ‘true'”

    Any support or reference for it? I’m assuming that you didn’t talk to a majority of religious people on the planet.

  4. #4 Tim H
    June 25, 2009

    Incompatible. Here’s why-

    Science and religion are not so much two different belief systems as they are two different processes for analyzing data and inferring information from it. Science uses observation and experiment. Religion uses revelation, holy books, chicken guts, etc. To be compatible, they must reach the same conclusions from the same data.

    If you wish to determine the melting point of a substance, no amount of revelation, holy book reading, or chicken guts will help you. Religion can’t deal with science. But science CAN study religion. Archeology can tell us how old a religion is. Scientific textual examination can tell us how old the holy books are, and how the religious doctrines evolved. Anatomy and culinary science can tell us how to deal with the chicken guts. The human brain can be studied scientifically to determine what is going on during a religious experience.

    This does not mean that a scientist can’t be religious. The human mind is famous for its ability to hold contradictory (and incompatible) beliefs.

  5. #5 Tim H
    June 25, 2009

    To use the analogy from above, driving or flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco is like using two different sciences to analyze a data set. If done right, you get the same answer. Using religion, you sit in Los Angeles and pray, or sacrifice a goat, and you never get to San Francisco until you give up and use science.

  6. #6 Josh Rosenau
    June 25, 2009

    Tim H: “To be compatible, they must reach the same conclusions from the same data.”

    Why? By this definition, science fiction stories are incompatible with science, yet many scientists are fans of SF. Indeed, many physicists who have no quibbles with special relativity are happy to read stories which conclude that faster than light travel is possible.

    Wonderist: Friberg’s point is fair. There are surely lots of vocal people who treat the Bible as a science textbook, but that’s a fairly modern reading, one traditionally rejected by Jews and Christians. Check out what St. Augustine had to say on the topic: http://www.noanswersingenesis.org.au/saintaugustine.htm

  7. #7 bad Jim
    June 25, 2009

    Coyne’s argument is based on this quote from Hess:

    Science and faith are but two ways of searching for the same truths.

    and concludes that the destinations are not the same. If one person drives to San Francisco and another reads a novel, they’re not going to be able to split the check at a North Beach cafe that evening.

    Rosenau notes that a variety of methods can lead to some sort of truth, loosely defined. Coyne merely points out that these various truths are not at all the same.

  8. #8 Wonderist
    June 25, 2009

    Stephen Friberg: You’re living in a fantasy if you don’t realize that most Christians believe Jesus was resurrected, was the Son of God, and that there’s an afterlife, and that most Muslims believe Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse and recited the Quran from Allah’s words dictated to him by an angel.

    These are not metaphors to the majority of believers. They are core doctrines which *define* the religions. Liberal theologians and academics tend to go with the metaphor angle, but most religious people believe the stories are facts. Note: I said most religious people, not most people.

    Islam and Christianity make up more than half the population of the planet (see http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html). Other religions have their own core beliefs.

    Metaphorical religion is mostly liberal, mostly educated, and mostly European or Commonwealth (in other words, a small proportion of religious people overall). The rest of the world is far more traditionally religious.

  9. #9 Wonderist
    June 25, 2009

    “Wonderist: Friberg’s point is fair. There are surely lots of vocal people who treat the Bible as a science textbook, but that’s a fairly modern reading, one traditionally rejected by Jews and Christians.”

    You’re criticizing a straw man. I did not say most religious people are literalists and fundamentalists. I said most people believe that their religions convey *facts* about the real world, not metaphors and fictional stories.

    Your comparison with science fiction vs. science just illustrates my point. Very few religious people consider their religious tenets as fiction, whether it be fantasy, science fiction, or historical drama. Metaphorical religion is even more modern and rare than fundamentalist religion. I’m not even talking about the fundamentalists. I’m talking about people who believe their religions are factual. God actually exists, Jesus actually was born of a virgin, was actually resurrected, actually walked on water, etc.

    If they believe in any miracles as being actually true, they fall under my description of believing that their religion is factual.

    Most religious people on this planet (i.e. Earth, not merely Europe or Australia, or whatever, but the whole planet) believe their religion is factual.

    Can we please stop dancing around this obvious point?

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    June 26, 2009

    I note that science literacy is quite low as well: people believe a great number of non-factual things and claim it’s because of science. We do not condemn all of science because it is grossly misunderstood. Nor should we condemn religion just because many religious people misunderstand it. Augustine of Hippo said that Genesis could be taken as metaphor. Moses Maimonides said the same, and he is a major religious authority for Orthodox Jews. These are not theological liberals, they are intellectual leaders of major faiths. The Catholic Church endorses evolution and an old universe without problem, and can hardly be called one of the more liberal churches.

    As a general matter, you’d do well to clarify what you mean by “factual.” In dealing with people’s beliefs, it’s a fraught term. It is a fact that people believe something. If there’s no way to test it, that belief is not a scientific fact, but the question under debate is essentially whether other fields of inquiry can have facts of a different sort (as in: it is a fact that Star Trek’s universe allows faster-than-light travel, an impossibility in our universe). Assuming your conclusion is hardly a path to productive dialog.

  11. #11 Sigmund
    June 26, 2009

    Josh, most of us nasty atheists have no problem with metaphorical religion. It’s only when it strays into non-metaphor that the problem arises.
    Sure Genesis may be taken as a poetic metaphor by most Jews and Christians but what about things like the Nicene creed professed by hundreds of millions of Catholics every Sunday?
    Is there a new version that adds an extra line on the end, just after the bit about believing in someone being crucified and rising from the dead and ascending bodily to heaven?

  12. #12 Wonderist
    June 26, 2009

    “We do not condemn all of science because it is grossly misunderstood. Nor should we condemn religion just because many religious people misunderstand it.”

    Oh, please. Why are you misrepresenting this? Science relies on evidence, peer review, and other mechanisms that systematically reduce error. Religion relies on faith, which is the antithesis of evidence.

    People who do not use the standards of science, and subsequently get the science wrong, are *not* doing science.

    People who use faith *are* doing religion.

    Are you now claiming that people who believe Jesus was actually resurrected, and actually born of a virgin, are *NOT* actually religious?

    Because I *am* claiming that people who do not pay attention to evidence, who do not critically examine their own assumptions, who do not pay attention to peer review, are *NOT* actually thinking scientifically.

    This is not a minor distinction, and you should acknowledge that.

    “Augustine of Hippo said that Genesis could be taken as metaphor. Moses Maimonides said the same, and he is a major religious authority for Orthodox Jews.”

    Does Augustine of Hippo take the resurrection of Jesus as a metaphor? No. He doesn’t. I’m not as familiar with the core tenets of Judaism, but I’m sure most of them have their share of magical thinking. Moses and the burning bush, or whatever.

    My point stands. The majority of *religious people* on *this planet* believe their religions are based on fact, not metaphor.

    “The Catholic Church endorses evolution and an old universe without problem”

    So what? They also believe Jesus was born of a virgin. They believe this is a fact. Have you ever read the Nicene Creed? You should. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_versions_of_the_Nicene_Creed_in_current_use

    “As a general matter, you’d do well to clarify what you mean by “factual.””

    Metaphor: Jesus being born of a virgin is a metaphor for the ‘importance’ of his birth. (See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124597314928257169.html ).

    Fact: Jesus was actually born of a virgin in reality.

    I can’t believe I have to explain ‘fact’ to you. This is ridiculous.

    “In dealing with people’s beliefs, it’s a fraught term. It is a fact that people believe something. If there’s no way to test it, that belief is not a scientific fact,”

    Which is exactly why science and religion (faith specifically) are incompatible. Things that are clearly not scientific facts are considered actual facts by religious believers. Miracles. Hello? Can you please concede that *real* people in the *real* world actually *do* believe that miracles *actually* happen in *reality*?

    “but the question under debate is essentially whether other fields of inquiry can have facts of a different sort (as in: it is a fact that Star Trek’s universe allows faster-than-light travel, an impossibility in our universe).”

    No, this is *not* the debate under question. We don’t go to religious believers and ask, “In the fictional universe that the Bible presents, is it a fact that Jesus was born of a virgin?” They would immediately say, “That’s offensive! The Bible doesn’t portray a fictional universe! It portrays something that actually happened. Sure there are allegories, but the basis of it all is fact.”

    Instead we ask, “Was Jesus actually born of a virgin in reality?” And they answer, “Yes, of course.”

    That is the problem. They do *not* consider their religious stories as fiction.

    “Assuming your conclusion is hardly a path to productive dialog.”

    Oh, the irony. It is you who assumes that religious people do *not* believe what they say they believe. Why don’t you go out in the real world, find some religious people, and ask them what they believe. Then ask them, “Do you really believe that, or is it just a metaphor?”

  13. #13 Josh Rosenau
    June 26, 2009

    I think you are assuming that religious people “do not pay attention to evidence, … do not critically examine their own assumptions, … do not pay attention to peer review,” and in my experience, that’s wrong. There are lots of religious scientists, and if you are saying that accepting anything on faith instantly makes you unscientific strikes me as readily disproven by those scientists.

    I agree that religious people don’t consider the bible to be fiction. I don’t consider science to be the same as driving: you should investigate the meaning of “analogy.” The point of comparing literature and religion is not that they are identical, but that they are (or claim to be) nonscientific ways of getting at truths about our world.

    Finally, pointing to differences between science and religion does not prove that they are incompatible. A lightbulb is not a socket, but they are compatible. Software isn’t a computer, but they are compatible. GNOME is not Linux, but they are compatible. Religion is different than science, and the nature of its fact claims are different. The way one tests the claims of religion are not the way one tests scientific claims, and the nature of religious claims is not the same as the nature of scientific claims. Simply observing that doesn’t prove incompatibility. Indeed, incompatibility would require substantial overlap in nature or methods, and that the resulting conclusions be different.

    I don’t see it. I don’t happen to think miracles occur, but I don’t think that belief in them is incompatible with scientific study.

  14. #14 Wonderist
    June 26, 2009

    “I think you are assuming that religious people “do not pay attention to evidence, … do not critically examine their own assumptions, … do not pay attention to peer review,” ”

    How can you read what I wrote and come to that conclusion? No, that is not what I believe or assume. Religious people can do science. I am not disputing that, and no one in this debate is.

    But, religious people also believe things on faith, and those beliefs are not compatible with science, precisely *because* they are accepted on faith. They are not subjected to the scientific method.

    Have you ever heard of compartmentalization (http://freethought.mbdojo.com/compartmentalization.html )? This is what allows religious scientists to both do science (in their career, for example), and believe religious beliefs. They specially protect their religious beliefs from their scientific method.

    This is the whole, “Well, you just gotta believe it on faith,” idea.

    But the fact that people can compartmentalize their beliefs does not make those beliefs ‘compatible’. In fact it is their very incompatibility which forces the person to compartmentalize conflicting beliefs.

    This is exactly what the anti-accommodationists are saying. Religious beliefs are incompatible with science, regardless of the fact that some scientists can jump through mental hoops in order to hold conflicting ideas. It is irrelevant that Francis Collins exists. What is relevant is what he believes, and whether those beliefs conflict.

    People can hold contradictory beliefs. Nothing new there.

    “The point of comparing literature and religion is not that they are identical, but that they are (or claim to be) nonscientific ways of getting at truths about our world.”

    No, they are not ways of ‘getting at truths’. This is exactly the point. What ‘truth’ is there to the idea that Jesus was actually born of a virgin and actually resurrected?

    It has nothing to do with ‘truth’. “Jesus was born of a virgin,” is not actually true. We will never find a sample of Jesus’ DNA and see that it is missing the father’s chromosomes, nor will we find ‘Holy Ghost’ chromosomes in their place. This is because Jesus was not *actually* born of a virgin.

    The virgin birth is a dogma. It is a keystone belief in a system of beliefs. It has nothing to do with actual truth, it has to do with religious belief.

    Dogma is incompatible with science. Imagine, in some future scenario, scientists (somehow, hypothetically) were able to identify Jesus’ DNA, and Joseph’s DNA, and they found that Jesus shared 50% DNA with Joseph.

    The scientific fact would be that Jesus was born of a non-virgin Mary and a non-virgin Joseph. The religious dogma would either remain, in defiance of evidence (and we would then call these people fundamentalist in their belief), or would systematically retreat, as all science has systematically beat back religious dogmas previously believed to be facts.

    This is why science and religious belief are incompatible. They make conflicting claims about *reality*. Science follows the evidence, religion follows faith.

    Religion does not ‘get at truths’. That’s merely what religious people believe about their faith. But when you look into it, and test their faith-derived ‘truths’ with science, the ‘truths’ turn out to be not *actually* true.

    If faith can ‘get at truth’, then why are there so many conflicting faiths? In fact, faith leads people astray.

    Imagine you have two people who disagree on a statement of fact. The more faith the two people have, the *stronger* their disagreement will be. Faith leads to disagreement, not truth.

    Now, in the same scenario, two people disagree on a statement of fact. But this time, the more those two people rely on evidence-based reasoning, and the more evidence they gather, the more they will tend to agree. Evidence leads to agreement, and to truth.

    These are two fundamentally incompatible methods of reasoning about reality. The only one that actually works is evidence-based reasoning. That is why science and religion are incompatible.

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