Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Science and religion?

Today's entry in the creationism battles is Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science.

I don't care for it. It isn't bad, but it lacks insight. Surveying Nobel laureates is interesting, but throw in a philosopher of science or a theologian to clarify the underlying principles.

I can't find the post anymore, but there was a nice graphic at Unscrewing the Inscrutable about the taxonomy of religious belief systems. On one axis was theistic belief (atheist-theist) on the other was depth of religious knowledge (agnostic to gnostic). I think it's true that those are orthogonal concepts, one can be an atheistic gnostic if you know with certainty that no god exists, or an agnostic atheist if you don't believe in any god but don't claim to know that you're right, and so forth.

Science is a way of knowing certain things through empirical observation. Most scientists and theologians do not believe that scientific processes can prove or disprove the existence of supernatural beings or forces. That's not a judgment of religion or science, it's just a statement about the limits of the scientific method.

When you get used to the scientific method as a way of knowing, I suppose it is harder to accept a different system of knowledge, like religious faith. At most that pushes someone toward agnosticism, the idea that the existence of god is unknowable in a definitive sense.

Theistic scientists recognize that different and place their religious faith in a different place than they place their scientific knowledge. I don't know if I fully buy Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria or if I'm advocating something looser, but that's the right idea. Science tells us what things are false (the Moon isn't made of green cheese, the Earth isn't 6,000 years old, etc.) and offers a way of testing various hypotheses.

Those results have implications for religious belief, but that's not how you assess scientific knowledge. Does an assertion about the age of the Earth make creationists from the Christian, Hindu, and Native American traditions unhappy? Sure, but that's tough. If religions make testable statements and they're wrong, that's not science's fault.

So, some people can keep two ways of assessing beliefs in their heads, and they work out the apparent conflicts between them as they arise. Others are indifferent to the whole thing, decide that they don't know about God and don't really care, and other see no need to add God to their cosmology, so they don't.

Richard Dawkins is never one to make things simple, and says "that even scientists who were believers did not claim evidence for that belief. 'The most they will claim is that there is no evidence against,' Dr. Dawkins said, 'which is pathetically weak. There is no evidence against all sorts of things, but we don't waste our time believing in them.'"

I think that's wrong. I think that religious scientists apply non-scientific standards to their religious belief systems. They may not claim scientific proof, but they find their religious proof in their hearts and their religious texts and practices. As long as it doesn't hurt them or those around them, they can believe whatever they like.