Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is There a Conflict Between Religion and Science?

So Rev. Malcolm Brown, the head of the public affairs department for the Church of England, has suggested that a formal apology be issued to Charles Darwin by the Church of England. Wouldn't do him much good now, but I suppose it could be accepted on his behalf by all the working biologists.

Here's the actual statement by Rev. Brown in full. Some schools of thought might say that when a religious institution makes such an overture, the polite thing to do is to accept it graciously. Unfortunately, his statement is full of nonsense. Ostensibly he wants to mend the fences, but throughout the essay he continually suggests that science needs to reach out to religion in order to ensure protection against the moral implications and abuses that might arise from theories like Darwin's. This is the old chestnut from Einstein: "Science without Religion Is Lame, Religion without Science Is Blind".

Here's what I'd consider the most relevant section of his essay:

Darwin was, in many ways, a model of good scientific method. He observed the world around him, developed a theory which sought to explain what he saw, and then set about a long and painstaking process of gathering evidence that would either bear out, contradict, or modify his theory. As a result, our understanding of the world is expanded, but the scientific process continues. In science, hypotheses are meant to be constantly tested. Subsequent generations have built on Darwin’s work but have not significantly undermined his fundamental theory of natural selection. There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6: 25–33). Christian theologians throughout the centuries have sought knowledge of the world and knowledge of God. For Thomas Aquinas there was no such thing as science versus religion; both existed in the same sphere and to the same end, the glory of God. Whilst Christians believe that the Bible contains all that we need to know to be saved from our sins, they do not claim that it is a compendium of all knowledge. Jesus himself warned his disciples that there was more that he could say to them and that the Spirit of truth would lead them into truth (John 16: 12–13). There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that scientific theories can be overtaken in their turn even as old ideas prove to have an enduring quality. Most of us get by with some version of Newtonian physics and understand little of Quantum Theory. Newtonian ideas suffice for most of our everyday needs – but we now know that we can’t push them too far as there is plenty that they do not adequately explain.

See? No conflict! The Bible tells people to study the world around them, so science and religion are compatible.

Or not.

As I've noted before, the core difference between science and religion, the central element that brings them directly into conflict, is the way in which they deal with epistemology, or how we know things. Religious knowledge is derived primarily from ancient texts, religious authorities, and subjective experience. If you ask a believer in god why they believe in god, they will usually give one or a mix of the sources above.

Science, on the other hand, strives to eliminate human bias as much as possible through the checks and balances of peer scrutiny. Authority counts for very little, and so does subjective experience. You experienced a first-hand insight that your theory of gravitation is true? Great...now where's the evidence? I'm much more in line with the philosophy of science described by Kuhn than by the more popular one of Popper. Popper was all about falsifiability. A good hypothesis has to be falsifiable. Kuhn articulated a continuum, as opposed to Popper's binary view of the validity of a hypothesis. You come up with a hypothesis and you try to find evidence that either strengthens or weakens it, rather than outright falsifying it. Either way, the core element to both philosophies is the development of hypotheses and application of evidence to their merit.

This is why science and religion are fundamentally at odds with one another. These two ways of trying to understand the world are neither complementary or compatible. You either base the way you think the world is on the best evidence that fits the best ideas, or because a religious authority said it was that way or you just feel it to be the case.

So I guess we should accept the apology on behalf of Darwin and go about the daily process of trying to understand the world, but I don't see the need for science to reach out to religion, as Rev. Brown suggests. Religion doesn't provide any insights into science other than how not to do things.

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