Monday, 17 July 2017

Calling Doctor Christian...


No, I'm not literally reaching out to Doctor Christian Jessen (right), much as I enjoy his tweets in defence of some of the things I have interest in, such as vaccines, health and science. 

Conscious that I haven't written anything new for a while, and with no post close enough to completion, I thought I'd give a little space to a question that comes up with some regularity in public discourse, that of the compatibility between faith and science.

This is another topic that can get a bit heated, not least among those who - as discussed in Didn't See That Coming! - think that their religion is a source of information about the future.

I know that many academics see no problem with science and faith co-existing, but I have a different view. It's probably going to ruffle a few feathers but, as Terry Pratchett said, whatever you're doing, if it isn't pissing somebody off, you're probably doing it wrong.

I want first to make it absolutely clear that there is no barrier to being a scientist, and even a good or exceptional scientist, and being religious. I do think there's a fundamental issue there, that I will get to, but I wouldn't suggest for a second that people such as Isaac Newton, Erwin Schrödinger, Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, etc, are not good scientists. They are, as are many others, exceptional scientists who've made enormous contributions to our intellectual progress over the centuries. 


The common objection erected by those wishing to counter my position is that faith and science answer different questions. This was formalised somewhat by palaeontologist Stephen J. Gould as 'non-overlapping magisteria', or NOMA, where a 'magisterium' is defined as 'a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution'. Gould himself was a sceptic, and a great scientist, but this is, to my mind, a sop to the religious; an attempt - and a noble one - to reduce the barriers that some experience in the study of science that conflicts with their religious views. I'll be coming back to Gould shortly to deal with a specific manifestation of this incompatibility.

My response to this idea is a simple one: What questions, precisely, are answered by faith? It may be that faith gives one a means to phrase certain questions about our place in the world, but does it actually provide any answers? More importantly, are they even the right kinds of question to be asking?

In Who, What, When, Where, How, Why? I talked at some length about what constitutes the right kind of question, and in fact about how philosophy is the art of learning to ask the right kind of question. In particular, we looked long and hard at 'why' questions and what they imply. This is our first stopping point.


Faith, or religion, if you prefer, deals with 'why' questions. Why questions are, from a scientific perspective, invalid. That might seem a strange thing to posit but, as we discussed in that earlier offering, when you hear a 'why' question posed by a scientist, what it really is is a 'how' question. The question 'why did that happen' is really 'what is the mechanism by which this phenomenon occurred', which is a 'how' question. Why deals with things having a reason for their having occurred. All such questions, where they're not poorly-formulated 'how' questions, are questions of teleology and, as such, they beg the question of whether there actually is a reason for something having occurred.

Coming back to the earlier point, what questions are genuinely answered by faith or religion, or indeed any doctrine? We looked at some of them explicitly in that post, such as "why are we here?" Nope, that question isn't answered by faith. Faith might provide a response, but it doesn't actually explain anything, so the question can't be said to have been answered in any satisfactory way. Besides committing a clear fallacy, this isn't even the right kind of question and, I submit, nor are any of the questions that religions purport to answer. 

In short, the idea of NOMA is, with respect to Gould, complete nonsense.

As we saw in that post, some of the questions allegedly better-answered by faith are, once correctly formulated, far better answered by science. The perennial 'why is there something rather than nothing' for example, is comprehensively answered by quantum theory, the answer being 'because it has no choice'.

The real incompatibility between religion and science is most vividly manifest in another situation in which Gould was involved. He famously had a student, widely vaunted as a future superstar of science, Dr. Kurt Wise. Wise purchased a new copy of the bible while in high school and proceeded to remove from it all the verses that could not be interpreted literally in a way that was compatible with his studies. He found that he couldn't pick the bible up without it falling apart once he was finished and, despite going on to achieve a doctorate in geology, he rejected all the evidence in favour of scripture, stating:
Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.

I don't know if Joss Whedon was aware of this, or if it played any part in the following scene, but I was put in mind of it straight away:

This is one case, and it leads me to wonder how many truly groundbreaking scientists have been lost to dogma in this way, many of them not making it anywhere near the level achieved by Wise. How many Einsteins have fallen by the wayside because they couldn't accept the basic findings of science that conflicted with their inculcated beliefs? This is insidious, and entirely hidden, but there, nonetheless.

Ultimately, the incompatibility between faith and science is one of mindset. In religion, faith is seen as a virtue; something to be lauded. In science, faith is the worst kind of treason. Is there any position that can't be accepted on faith? Of course not, even mutually exclusive or incompatible propositions can be accepted on faith, up to and including blatantly contradictory ones. In fact, on faith, we can throw out all we've learned about logic and dismiss it as not being relevant, because even howling failures of the central laws of thought aren't a problem when you think that faith can resolve them.

So, while I concede that it's perfectly possible to be an exceptional scientist and still have faith, I maintain that it isn't possible to be the best scientist you can possibly be while you can still accept any proposition on faith. Faith is anathema to the questioning mind, and there's always the danger that you will encounter a question for which your go-to answer is already in place, which stifles enquiry.

It's a war, ladles and jellyspoons, and it's a war for the future of our species.