Thursday, December 10, 2009

The limitations of science in regards to religion

For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship of religion and science. As you would expect of a social scientist, I’m a big fan of the scientific method. In conducting my own research and in evaluating others, I seek rigorous adherence to scientific principles. Even in my day-to-day life, I seek scientific knowledge available regarding those things important to me. For example, if I take a medicine, I want one tested with double-blind experiments, not one based on testimonies or gut-feelings or someone’s faith.

Nonetheless, science does have its limitations, and it’s worth keeping these in mind when we think about it and religion.

Science works best with empirical matters. If you can alter something and measure it, then you probably have a good topic for science. Religion, obviously, involves much of what isn’t measurable or even directly observable. This doesn’t mean that religious beliefs are less valuable or real, rather it’s difficult to use science to evaluate them.

Also, science tends to have some difficulty when applied to individual people. With groups or populations of people, it can identify trends and tendencies. With a given person, however, it’s hard using even the best measures and methods to know what they’ll do in the future or why they’ve done things in the past. Things get even more complicated with social relationships. Even the most committed scientist will probably not turn solely to science to pick a romantic partner, for example, and there’s no reason to assume that scientists have more successful relationships than others. This matters in discussions of Christianity in that it is premised on a relationship between God and His creation. If Christianity is true, then its essential nature might be better understood through poetry, literature, and analogy rather than a strict scientific method.

Finally, it’s worth noting that throughout history, and even today, there are many people groups who do not fully embrace a scientific approach to life. As such, if there is a God seeking to reveal Himself to humans, doing it through science would be relatively ineffective, and there’s no reason to assume that somehow science gets us closer (or further away) to truth about God. A rational God might be foolish to use science as a primary means of disclosing truth.

Yes, there is overlap between science and aspects of religion, but these aspects tend to be somewhat peripheral to Christianity.

Perhaps an approach of science-and-science-only misses the mark as much as one of no science.


Michael Kruse said...

Great thoughts!

Mark said...

Science and religion can complement each other beautifully but the sad news is that this beauty is obscured by the arrogance of people. Yes, the same arrogance and pride that the Bible itself warns us about.

There have always been religious nut jobs who are offended if you don't believe every detail of their religion exactly as they preach it.

How arrogant we must be to think that we get to decide for ourselves who God is and what he wants.

And just as astonishing, we see global warming nut jobs who get really upset if we don't "believe" all the hype that has been invented in the last few years concerning that so-called science.

We know that the world has gone through 11 major climate cycles (ice ages) over the last million years and the global temperature has changed 9 degrees with each cycle. We are currently in a warming cycle and we are one degree below the maximum world temp that has occurred 11 times before. We also know that man is pumping out tons of carbon dioxide and that CO2 is a green house gas (but so is water vapor). What we don't know is how much heat the Earth can absorb and thus how long it will take for the Earth to warm. What we also don't know is how much CO2 will be removed from the air through natural processes such as forest expansion and absorption from chemical reactions in the soil and the sea. These are huge unknowns but yet there are scientists behaving exactly like the religious zealots of old and they are claiming that they can predict what the world climate will be in a hundred years with no solid scientific evidence to back it up. And the most amazing thing is when you challenge their scientific house of cards they call you a "denier". They could just as well have called us an unbeliever the way the religious zealots do.

Religion and Science are wonderful things, pure and beautiful and complementing each other. Its arrogant people in both science and religion who are so sure that they know EVERYTHING that are screwing things up.

Nick said...

Professor, Have you been reading Some Stephen Jay Gould recently? Your post seems to be reflect a little non-overlapping magesteria.

But to get to my main point I would like to examine one of your last lines. "Yes, there is overlap between science and aspects of religion, but these aspects tend to be somewhat peripheral to Christianity."

I can't help but notice that science does have an impact on religion including Christianity. Consider that scientific breakthrough have shaped the theological perspectives of Christians. Such discoveries as heliocentrism, the age of the universe and our planet, evolution, DNA, and genetics (to name a few big ones) all have molded how religious people view their scripture. At one point we viewed as selves as the center of the universe (literally), and our only explanation of our existence was through Creation (capital C).Regardless of if one views this as a positive or negative thing about religion it is true that there has been much impact on religion from science. In the future, discoveries about origins of life (abiogenesis for example), bioethics, and conciseness may continue to affect modern religious belief. I cannot say that religion has such a strong altering affect upon the nature of science.

Brad Wright said...

Great reference, Nick. I'm posting on it on Monday.

As far as religion's effect on science, historically it's been quite significant. For example, countless Universities were founded as religious schools. Also, the Jesuits have promoted education quite widely. This support of education translates into support of science.

Nick said...

Your example shows some influence, albeit indirectly. Someone could say that some scientists were driven by their religious (or metaphysical) beliefs to pursue science, in the sense that they felt that science would provide enlightenment on the nature of their particular deity especially those who are spiritual pantheists who consider the Universe (capital U) as a semi-sentient "being" Excuse that nasty run on sentence.

Jeff L said...

Interesting thoughts, everyone. Brad, I agree completely: the positivists of the early and mid-20th century made the mistake of confusing the limits of science with the limits of reality. Most of us have since realized that the truth is otherwise.

Nick, Stephen J. Gould is brilliant, but, as a Christian I would be hesitant to embrace Gould's NOMA. Gould's idea that religion and science operate within different domains essentially boils down to: science deals with reality while religion (properly understood) deals with subjective feelings. In this sense, religion and science can never be in conflict because religion has no substantive content. If we are to take both science and religion seriously, we have to realize that it is possible for the two to make competing truth claims.

That said, while specific claims could potentially be in conflict, there is no conflict generally between science and religion. You are correct that science has informed religious interpretation of scripture (though geocentrism was not a Christian idea but a Greek one adopted by the church). Religion has also had profound influences on science, sometimes to its detriment but more often furthering it. As Brad mentioned, no one did more to support natural philosophy than the church throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, and as you mentioned, science was often pursued in the context of uncovering God's creation. One specific example of how religion influenced science is how Christians challenged the then dominant Aristotelian view that nature abhors a vacuum by insisting that God could have created the world however he chose; therefore, we would need to actually do empirical work to discover nature's truths rather than reason from first principles.

Nick said...

Thanks for the reply Jeff

I guess in my original reply I was trying to show that religion has not affected the nature of science rather than whether or not it has affected the history of science. While support of scientific endeavors could be related to religions I do not believe that the fundamental methodology and practices of science have been influenced by religious thought. The rigorous framework of science has always attempted to remove ideological viewpoints. Of course by no means are scientists perfects but the ideas behind science are ideal.

Contrast this with the way in which religious people have had to reexamine the fundamental belief sets and even truth claims that encompass there religion as a result of scientific breakthroughs, I believe you will see what I am attempting to get at.

Yes, I also do not like Gould's NOMA but I am coming from a very different vantage point being a secular humanist. I actually at times dislike when NOMA is brought in as a debate point (no offense to Professor Wright) because i think it is plain to see as you said that both science and religion make competing truth claims. And this is where sciences real might come from because science ends up undercutting religious truth claims and I don't believe religion has ever undercut a scientific truth claim.