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In the following thread ...

Does culture bias weaken the argument that modern science and a religious world view are compatible?

... the questioner presents the following discussion between an atheist and a theist, and afterwards proceeds to scrutinize the argument made by the theist.

ATH: "Modern science and reason are incompatible with a religious world view."

TH: "That's not true, many scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are also people of faith."

But, what does it even mean for a world view to be compatible with "modern science and reason"? It does not make much sense to me that we immediately rush to criticize the argument made by the theist, if we cannot first give a clear and concise definition of what scientific compatibility is all about, why it matters, and how we may go about proving its existence or inexistance in any particular context.

That is my question. You don't have to read the below text, that's just me thinking out loud.


If we define scientific compatibility as any world view for which there is no empirical (material) evidence, well, then in that case, a theist world view is by definition incompatible with modern science, and thus invoking the notion of scientific compatibility in a discussion with a theist seems like a pointless catch-22. How is the theist suppose to argue for the scientific compatibility of their belief when the word scientific compatibility has been defined in such a way to ensure their belief is incompatible?

And further, if we proceed with this definition, why should the theist even care about scientific compatibility? By the very nature of them being a theist, they do not value empirical evidence above all else, and therefore have no reason to care much for this particular notion of scientific compatibility.

We could also define scientific compatibility as any world view which does not directly contradict a prevailing scientific theory. Well, in that case, the definition is trivial and useless, as any belief can be made scientifically compatible by simply adding an addendum to explain why modern science reached a particular conclusion. By definition, such a belief would be compatible with that particular scientific conclusion. For example, take the beliefs "God created the world 5000 years ago" and "the Universe as we observe it (!) began with the Big Bang some billions of years ago". These could both be made compatible by merely adding to the first belief the addendum "...and God made it seem like the Universe began with the Big Bang some billions of years ago".

Or we could define scientific compatibility to be person-specific, in the sense that a person's beliefs are compatible with their scientific knowledge if this person can have these beliefs and still respect and contribute to that scientific knowledge. Well, in that case, the argument made by the theist in the discussion at the start of this posts seems to be perfectly valid, as indeed a scientist of faith is by definition a person who contributes to science despite having a faith, and therefore their faith is scientifically compatible using the current definition, and so pointing out that many scientists are also believers seems to be a perfectly valid why to prove that faith can be compatible with science.

Anyways, that's just my thoughts. What's the definition that other people typically use?

  • My guess: that's about miracles. – rus9384 Apr 2 '18 at 15:28
  • The whole thing feels like changing the topic; science isn't about what you can make excuses for, it's about what is true. Much of your reasoning is pretty much correct; if it is to mean very much at all, we need a strong enough definition of "compatible" that Flat Earth and homeopathy are not compatible. Definitions of this kind have the wonderful property of disallowing magic. – Veedrac Apr 2 '18 at 18:20
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I have found two definitions used in my experiences.

The first is "A scientifically compatible belief is one whose statements about the empirical world can be tested via the scientific method, and have yet to be falsified." I find this kind of definition is commonly used for dealing with beliefs which claim to be able to affect "the real world" (scare quotes included). As an example, there's a longstanding debate as to whether Chi (氣), a Chinese concept of energy, is real or not. Those who practice arts centered around it claim that it is real and can affect the world. The scientific community has steadily challenged empirical claims made by masters of these arts, and those (specific) claims have been falsified.¹ At the present, I find most non-practicioners of those arts consider chi to be "not scientifically compatible" because it's believers keep making empirical claims which get falsified by science.

That definition tends to be more benign. It could be paraphrased as "as long as you don't claim things that science proves false, you're compatible with science." There is another definition I often run into which is more strict, and more metaphysical. The definition above relies purely on the strongest part of science: it's rigorous methodology. The second definition I run into a lot digs at the metaphysics of science: "A belief is scientifically compatible if all of its claims could be arrived at via a series of tests using the scientific method." This definition is stricter because it requires the belief to make no claims to truth which do not fit science's model of how we can view reality. It comes from an assumption that all meaningful knowledge can be acquired via the scientific method, so any knowledge which cannot be acquired in this way must be meaningless. Not everyone holds this opinion, but I find many do.

This stronger definition would cause one to argue that the belief at the heart of Christianity is not compatible with science because many Christian groups believe that the Bible is the True word of God, and thus any statement made in the Bible is true. However, the Bible makes many claims which could never be tested via the scientific method. In particular, it contains one-time events such as the resurrection and the rapture which, being one-time events, are naturally untestable via a methodology which depends upon repetition and replication. This would cause someone who accepts the second definition to reject Christianity as "not scientifically compatible."

Myself, I find that when I get into debates, the former definition is more popular, but it depends on the venue. The more fire-and-forget environments like social media are weighted more towards the second definition because it is incredibly good at dismissing contrary opinions, but more serious debates tend to favor the more conservative former definition. At least that is my (unscientific) experience.

¹ This often leads to fascinating debates as to what qualifies as falsification, and how seriously any given study should be treated, but I have not yet found any study on chi with positive results which has been generally accepted by the larger scientific community.

  • +1 However, by the first definition Einstein's gravitation theory is falsified by the rotation of galaxies given that dark matter has not been found. By the second I wonder if that means the research done by Dean Radin on psi phenomena is considered scientifically compatible. It looks to me like he follows the scientific method. Personally, I don't trust demarcation arguments. They sound too much like old religious arguments looking for heretics. – Frank Hubeny Apr 2 '18 at 16:04
  • @FrankHubeny You bring up a good point. There's some temporal logic to be had, in order to capture the idea of theories which were phrased scientifically and not falsified in the past, but new data has challenged them. Although, it might be fascinating to explore how science operates from this very position: that the instant a theory is falsified, it ceases to be science, no matter how scientific we thought it was in the past. It'd be interesting to see how we could view science through such a lens. – Cort Ammon Apr 2 '18 at 16:32
  • As for Dean Radin, I think he might point out an interesting subjectivity in that demarcation problem. It looks like he would consider his theories to be scientifically compatible, for he believes such phenomena are repeatable, but other scientists disagree with that assessment based on the data that they analyze. It would seem natural to me that the bleeding edge of science must always be this way -- taking something that others are not entirely convinced is scientifically compatible and beating on it until it is. – Cort Ammon Apr 2 '18 at 16:38
  • Does your second definition tell something about flat Earth and other rejected theories which religious texts claim to be true? – rus9384 Apr 2 '18 at 17:16
  • @rus9384 The usual argument about that is the black swan argument: if someone asserts "All swans are white," it takes just one black swan to disprove that statement. If a theory is falsified by science, it's hard to argue that the theory will be arrived at by scientific tests in the future. Of course, I'd argue it's not impossible. If there was some borderline-magical optical illusion that made us all feel the earth is round, and one day that illusion vanishes and all of our observations show the earth is flat, we may need to un-reject such a theory. – Cort Ammon Apr 2 '18 at 17:41
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In this context, I believe this is a reference to the non-overlapping magisteria theory, which claims that science and religion are separate "magisteria," and cannot contradict each other because they are talking about different things. Similarly, you might reasonably expect that physics and economics are unlikely to contradict each other.

This view is criticized by Dawkins (and others) with regard to contemporary religions. It works well for deism and other non-interventionist theistic beliefs. As soon as you introduce things like intercessory prayer and miracles, however, the religion is making predictions which are clearly within the domain of empirical science. Prayer, for example, has been repeatedly studied but does not seem to work very well (if at all).

Weaving this all together, we could call any belief which is not apparently subject to empirical testing (such as the Holy Spirit) "compatible with science." This understands "compatible" to mean "able to coexist with science" rather than "scientific in its own right." The latter is a much stronger criterion, which requires that we actually test the belief and subject it to scientific study.

Definitions, of course, are ultimately just labels. Personally, I'm of the opinion that "able to coexist with science" is a more useful label for religious beliefs than "scientific in its own right." However, there is certainly room for both labels in the world. You just need to ensure that you are clear about which label you choose to use in any given situation.

  • +1 I see prayer as a kind of placebo/nocebo effect which is real enough. – Frank Hubeny Apr 2 '18 at 17:14
  • @FrankHubeny I find the rejection of placebo effects, even if they were helpful, to be one of the interesting hallmarks of modern science. It really runs from the perspective of "If we don't 'understand it,' we wont accept it," which is a really fascinating perspective. – Cort Ammon Apr 2 '18 at 17:50
  • @CortAmmon: I don't think anyone rejects placebo effects (as in claiming they don't exist), and I also don't think that is what you mean by "reject." If you're talking about using them as the control to a biomedical experiment, the idea is that since any treatment will generate placebo effects, we want to see whether this particular treatment does anything else on top of those effects. If you meant something entirely different by "rejection," then I don't understand your comment. – Kevin Apr 2 '18 at 18:56
  • @Kevin That is what I mean. The medical community in particular seems loathe to use a treatment which appears to be a placebo effect, even if it might resolve the issue. – Cort Ammon Apr 2 '18 at 20:51
  • @CortAmmon: That's certainly true, but I think it has more to do with medical ethics than science (i.e. "It is unethical to lie to someone in order to treat them, because it denies the patient's Kantian agency"). The placebo effect still works if you tell the patient about it, but it is less effective. – Kevin Apr 2 '18 at 23:07
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For the atheist, religions lack of scientific compatibility, is an argument against the religion. For the theist, scientific compatibility matters, because it disables the first argument.

You could invent a religion that says all matter has a soul, i.e. stones, metal bars, bricks, etc. (The Hare-Krishna movement claims so, as I understand). If your religion claims this and only this, it is scientifically compatible because science has nothing to say about souls in stones and bricks. My house will still be a house and function as one, my bricks having a soul or not.

Regarding the sentence about scientists and mathematicians who are people of faith, we shall not forget that there is a lot of views of divined interference. 'God created man' is by some considered metaphor for God creating the earth, abiogenesis and evolution, thus ending up 'creating man'. One more point is, that some of those living hundreds of years back in the past, like Newton, Aristotle, etc. had absolutely no idea about how the universe, the sun and the earth was created, or how the sun worked. If a very well-educated man began to doubt the idea of God creating everything, anybody could point to the sun and ask him to explain it: How could a fire burn forever? At that time, the sun itself looked like a solid proof of something divined.

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