What Questions Can Science Answer?

One frustrating aspect of our discussion about the compatibility of science and religion was the amount of effort expended arguing about definitions, rather than substance. When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless, where usefulness is judged by the clarity of one’s attempts at communication. Personally, I think using “religion” in that way is not very clear. Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, or that God did not create the universe. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose job it is to judge whether a candidate for canonization has really performed the required number of miracles and so forth, would probably not agree that miracles don’t occur. Francis Collins, recently nominated to direct the NIH, argues that some sort of God hypothesis helps explain the values of the fundamental constants of nature, just like a good Grand Unified Theory would. These views are by no means outliers, even without delving into the more extreme varieties of Biblical literalism.

Furthermore, if a religious person really did believe that nothing ever happened in the world that couldn’t be perfectly well explained by ordinary non-religious means, I would think they would expend their argument-energy engaging with the many millions of people who believe that the virgin birth and the resurrection and the promise of an eternal afterlife and the efficacy of intercessory prayer are all actually literally true, rather than with a handful of atheist bloggers with whom they agree about everything that happens in the world. But it’s a free country, and people are welcome to define words as they like, and argue with whom they wish.

But there was also a more interesting and substantive issue lurking below the surface. I focused in that post on the meaning of “religion,” but did allude to the fact that defenders of Non-Overlapping Magisteria often misrepresent “science” as well. And this, I think, is not just a matter of definitions: we can more or less agree on what “science” means, and still disagree on what questions it has the power to answer. So that’s an issue worth examining more carefully: what does science actually have the power to do?

I can think of one popular but very bad strategy for answering this question: first, attempt to distill the essence of “science” down to some punchy motto, and then ask what questions fall under the purview of that motto. At various points throughout history, popular mottos of choice might have been “the Baconian scientific method” or “logical positivism” or “Popperian falsificationism” or “methodological naturalism.” But this tactic always leads to trouble. Science is a messy human endeavor, notoriously hard to boil down to cut-and-dried procedures. A much better strategy, I think, is to consider specific examples, figure out what kinds of questions science can reasonably address, and compare those to the questions in which we’re interested.

Here is my favorite example question. Alpha Centauri A is a G-type star a little over four light years away. Now pick some very particular moment one billion years ago, and zoom in to the precise center of the star. Protons and electrons are colliding with each other all the time. Consider the collision of two electrons nearest to that exact time and that precise point in space. Now let’s ask: was momentum conserved in that collision? Or, to make it slightly more empirical, was the magnitude of the total momentum after the collision within one percent of the magnitude of the total momentum before the collision?

This isn’t supposed to be a trick question; I don’t have any special knowledge or theories about the interior of Alpha Centauri that you don’t have. The scientific answer to this question is: of course, the momentum was conserved. Conservation of momentum is a principle of science that has been tested to very high accuracy by all sorts of experiments, we have every reason to believe it held true in that particular collision, and absolutely no reason to doubt it; therefore, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that momentum was conserved.

A stickler might argue, well, you shouldn’t be so sure. You didn’t observe that particular event, after all, and more importantly there’s no conceivable way that you could collect data at the present time that would answer the question one way or the other. Science is an empirical endeavor, and should remain silent about things for which no empirical adjudication is possible.

But that’s completely crazy. That’s not how science works. Of course we can say that momentum was conserved. Indeed, if anyone were to take the logic of the previous paragraph seriously, science would be a completely worthless endeavor, because we could never make any statements about the future. Predictions would be impossible, because they haven’t happened yet, so we don’t have any data about them, so science would have to be silent.

All that is completely mixed-up, because science does not proceed phenomenon by phenomenon. Science constructs theories, and then compares them to empirically-collected data, and decides which theories provide better fits to the data. The definition of “better” is notoriously slippery in this case, but one thing is clear: if two theories make the same kinds of predictions for observable phenomena, but one is much simpler, we’re always going to prefer the simpler one. The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.

And that’s the crucial point. Science doesn’t do a bunch of experiments concerning colliding objects, and say “momentum was conserved in that collision, and in that one, and in that one,” and stop there. It does those experiments, and then it also proposes frameworks for understanding how the world works, and then it compares those theoretical frameworks to that experimental data, and — if the data and theories seem good enough — passes judgment. The judgments are necessarily tentative — one should always be open to the possibility of better theories or surprising new data — but are no less useful for that.

Furthermore, these theoretical frameworks come along with appropriate domains of validity, depending both on the kinds of experimental data we have available and on the theoretical framework itself. At the low energies available to us in laboratory experiments, we are very confident that baryon number (the total number of quarks minus antiquarks) is conserved in every collision. But we don’t necessarily extend that to arbitrarily high energies, because it’s easy to think of perfectly sensible extensions of our current theoretical understanding in which baryon number might very well be violated — indeed, it’s extremely likely, since there are a lot more quarks than antiquarks in the observable universe. In contrast, we believe with high confidence that electric charge is conserved at arbitrarily high energies. That’s because the theoretical underpinnings of charge conservation are a lot more robust and inflexible than those of baryon-number conservation. A good theoretical framework can be extremely unforgiving and have tremendous scope, even if we’ve only tested it over a blink of cosmic time here on our tiny speck of a planet.

The same logic applies, for example, to the highly contentious case of the multiverse. The multiverse isn’t, by itself, a theory; it’s a prediction of a certain class of theories. If the idea were simply “Hey, we don’t know what happens outside our observable universe, so maybe all sorts of crazy things happen,” it would be laughably uninteresting. By scientific standards, it would fall woefully short. But the point is that various theoretical attempts to explain phenomena that we directly observe right in front of us — like gravity, and quantum field theory — lead us to predict that our universe should be one of many, and subsequently suggest that we take that situation seriously when we talk about the “naturalness” of various features of our local environment. The point, at the moment, is not whether there really is or is not a multiverse; it’s that the way we think about it and reach conclusions about its plausibility is through exactly the same kind of scientific reasoning we’ve been using for a long time now. Science doesn’t pass judgment on phenomena; it passes judgment on theories.

The reason why we can be confident that momentum was conserved during that particular collision a billion years ago is that science has concluded (beyond reasonable doubt, although not with metaphysical certitude) that the best framework for understanding the world is one in which momentum is conserved in all collisions. It’s certainly possible that this particular collision was an exception; but a framework in which that were true would necessarily be more complicated, without providing any better explanation for the data we do have. We’re comparing two theories: one in which momentum is always conserved, and one in which it occasionally isn’t, including a billion years ago at the center of Alpha Centauri. Science is well equipped to carry out this comparison, and the first theory wins hands-down.

Now let’s turn to a closely analogous question. There is some historical evidence that, about two thousand years ago in Galilee, a person named Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, and later grew up to be a messianic leader and was eventually crucified by the Romans. (Unruly bloke, by the way — tended to be pretty doctrinaire about the number of paths to salvation, and prone to throwing moneychangers out of temples. Not very “accommodating,” if you will.) The question is: how did Mary get pregnant?

One approach would be to say: we just don’t know. We weren’t there, don’t have any reliable data, etc. Should just be quiet.

The scientific approach is very different. We have two theories. One theory is that Mary was a virgin; she had never had sex before becoming pregnant, or encountered sperm in any way. Her pregnancy was a miraculous event, carried out through the intervention of the Holy Ghost, a spiritual manifestation of a triune God. The other theory is that Mary got pregnant through relatively conventional channels, with the help of (one presumes) her husband. According to this theory, claims to the contrary in early (although not contemporary) literature are, simply, erroneous.

There’s no question that these two theories can be judged scientifically. One is conceptually very simple; all it requires is that some ancient texts be mistaken, which we know happens all the time, even with texts that are considerably less ancient and considerably better corroborated. The other is conceptually horrible; it posits an isolated and unpredictable deviation from otherwise universal rules, and invokes a set of vaguely-defined spiritual categories along the way. By all of the standards that scientists have used for hundreds of years, the answer is clear: the sex-and-lies theory is enormously more compelling than the virgin-birth theory.

The same thing is true for various other sorts of miraculous events, or claims for the immortality of the soul, or a divine hand in guiding the evolution of the universe and/or life. These phenomena only make sense within a certain broad framework for understanding how the world works. And that framework can be judged against others in which there are no miracles etc. And, without fail, the scientific judgment comes down in favor of a strictly non-miraculous, non-supernatural view of the universe.

That’s what’s really meant by my claim that science and religion are incompatible. I was referring to the Congregation-for-the-Causes-of-the-Saints interpretation of religion, which entails a variety of claims about things that actually happen in the world; not the it’s-all-in-our-hearts interpretation, where religion makes no such claims. (I have no interest in arguing at this point in time over which interpretation is “right.”) When religion, or anything else, makes claims about things that happen in the world, those claims can in principle be judged by the methods of science. That’s all.

Well, of course, there is one more thing: the judgment has been made, and views that step outside the boundaries of strictly natural explanation come up short. By “natural” I simply mean the view in which everything that happens can be explained in terms of a physical world obeying unambiguous rules, never disturbed by whimsical supernatural interventions from outside nature itself. The preference for a natural explanation is not an a priori assumption made by science; it’s a conclusion of the scientific method. We know enough about the workings of the world to compare two competing big-picture theoretical frameworks: a purely naturalistic one, versus one that incorporates some sort of supernatural component. To explain what we actually see, there’s no question that the naturalistic approach is simply a more compelling fit to the observations.

Could science, through its strategy of judging hypotheses on the basis of comparison with empirical data, ever move beyond naturalism to conclude that some sort of supernatural influence was a necessary feature of explaining what happens in the world? Sure; why not? If supernatural phenomena really did exist, and really did influence things that happened in the world, science would do its best to figure that out.

It’s true that, given the current state of data and scientific theorizing, the vast preponderance of evidence comes down in favor of understanding the world on purely natural terms. But that’s not to say that the situation could not, at least in principle, change. Science adapts to reality, however it presents itself. At the dawn of the 20th century, it would have been hard to find a more firmly accepted pillar of physics than the principle of determinism: the future can, in principle, be predicted from the present state. The experiments that led us to invent quantum mechanics changed all that. Moving from a theory in which the present uniquely determines the future to one where predictions are necessarily probabilistic in nature is an incredible seismic shift in our deep picture of reality. But science made the switch with impressive rapidity, because that’s what the data demanded. Some stubborn folk tried to recover determinism at a deeper level by inventing more clever theories — which is exactly what they should have done. But (to make a complicated story simple) they didn’t succeed, and scientists learned to deal.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar hypothetical scenario playing itself out for the case of supernatural influences. Scientists do experiments that reveal anomalies that can’t be explained by current theories. (These could be subtle things at a microscopic level, or relatively blatant manifestations of angels with wings and flaming swords.) They struggle to come up with new theories that fit the data within the reigning naturalist paradigm, but they don’t succeed. Eventually, they agree that the most compelling and economical theory is one with two parts: a natural part, based on unyielding rules, with a certain well-defined range of applicability, and a supernatural one, for which no rules can be found.

Of course, that phase of understanding might be a temporary one, depending on the future progress of theory and experiment. That’s perfectly okay; scientific understanding is necessarily tentative. In the mid-19th century, before belief in atoms had caught on among physicists, the laws of thermodynamics were thought to be separate, autonomous rules, in addition to the crisp Newtonian laws governing particles. Eventually, through Maxwell and Boltzmann and the other pioneers of kinetic theory, we learned better, and figured out how thermodynamic behavior could be subsumed into the Newtonian paradigm through statistical mechanics. One of the nice things about science is that it’s hard to predict its future course. Likewise, the need for a supernatural component in the best scientific understanding of the universe might evaporate — or it might not. Science doesn’t assume things from the start; it tries to deal with reality as it presents itself, however that may be.

This is where talk of “methodological naturalism” goes astray. Paul Kurtz defines it as the idea that “all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events.” That “explained and tested” is an innocent-looking mistake. Science tests things empirically, which is to say by reference to observable events; but it doesn’t have to explain things as by reference to natural causes and events. Science explains what it sees the best way it can — why would it do otherwise? The important thing is to account for the data in the simplest and most useful way possible.

There’s no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design. The point is not that this couldn’t possibly happen — it’s that it hasn’t happened in our actual world. In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena. No virgin human births, no coming back after being dead for three days, no afterlife in Heaven, no supernatural tinkering with the course of evolution. You can define “religion” however you like, but you can’t deny the power of science to reach far-reaching conclusions about how reality works.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Religion, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

175 Responses to What Questions Can Science Answer?

  1. George Musser says:

    Point of information: quantum mechanics *is* deterministic; the issue is that a quantum state is a richer concept than the classical one.

    Regarding your substantive point, if you define science as an effort to explain the world which need not confine itself to naturalistic theories, then you should adopt a similarly progressive notion of religion as metaphysics. In that case, there will always be room for both religion and science to co-exist. Physics is not closed system; it cannot help but make metaphysical assumptions. That is how I personally interpret the concept of “non-overlapping magisteria”.

    To put it differently: unless I’m misunderstanding, you seem to define religion as the set of beliefs actually held by the majority of believers — some of which, such as immaculate conception and the efficacy of prayer, clearly fall within the domain of science. But for consistency you should then define science as the practices actually used by the majority of scientists, and those are clearly naturalistic. Papers that posit supernatural causes do not get a welcome reception at leading journals. If you want to adopt a more intellectually consistent view of science, then you should do the same for religion, so that you can compare apples to apples.

    George

  2. Ali says:

    You talk about the “all in our hearts” version of religion as though our hearts (i.e. our complex emotional and intuitive lives, which shape the ways in which we experience the world around us and choose to respond to it) are not also “things in the world.”

    Take, for instance, the story of Mary. A poor, unwed woman becomes pregnant by someone other than her husband-to-be. It is quite possible, given the culture of the time and her social status, that she was raped, but in any case, the pregnancy is socially unacceptable and she now faces being ostracized from her community, her family and from her husband’s family. And yet, new life is growing inside of her, a new being is taking shape, cells dividing, fingernails and lungs forming… and love of this new creature, this new potential being, quickens in her heart as the being itself quickens in her womb….. and despite the possible horror of its conception and the potential disastrous consequences, she FEELS blessed. She feels as though, despite the biological reality of a broken hymen, her virginity–her self-possession and power to choose her own destiny–has not only not been taken away, but in some way restored to her, perhaps even given to her for the first time. This feeling, in the face of all mere “physical” reality, shapes her experiences of the world, and thus guides the way in which she responds to others and the ways in which they respond to her. She seems to have a peace and confidence about her that only the virginal tend to possess, and she carries her growing belly with a kind of gratitude and love that borders on worship.

    The reason religious myths are powerful is not because they describe things that happened once in history, but because they tell the story of what is happening to us all the time, right here and now. (In some ways, the “truths” of religion can attain a relevance in their predictive capacity that even science can’t rival.) Any woman who has lost her virginity or conceived a child can feel the “truth” of the story of the Virgin Mary, or any number of other myths from other cultures about virgin conceptions. Religion is not about literal facts concerning once-and-done events, it’s about on-going experiential truths that can be shaped and shared within community. But experiential truths are still very much “in the world,” because we ourselves are living in the world not as mere machines, but as self-aware and creative beings who communicate through touch, memory, imagination and story. Because we do not live as though only literal facts were real. Even scientists tell themselves stories about why they love their wives or why they’re moved by art.

    Science is only a recent tool of understanding, born of the rigors of Western philosophy and, yes, very useful as far as it goes. But religion has cropped up in every single human culture there ever was. We can survive without knowing about conserved momentum in an atomic collision within some far away star. What we cannot survive without, are stories about why life has meaning, and how best to live meaningfully.

  3. Joseph Smidt says:

    Very well written post. I for one welcome some empirical evidence for a multiverse. I am glad that most quantum theories suggest that a multiverse is a real possibility, it makes naturalness of the universe seem so much more a reality.

    “Likewise, the need for a supernatural component in the best scientific understanding of the universe might evaporate — or it might not. Science doesn’t assume things from the start; it tries to deal with reality as it presents itself, however that may be.”

    I always cringe when I hear “science explains all the way up to here, then scientists are baffled. I think this is evidence you need more than science to explain it.” Sort of like Collins’ universal constants: If scientists could just keep the faith, soon science will come through with a scientific explanation. 🙂

  4. piscator says:

    so much purple prosing piffle based on good old-fashioned muddle: poor Sean, just think of the time it took to type this…

    The whole point about a virgin birth is that its, um, virgin. And that virgin births do not happen was not unknown to the authors of the Gospels. Believe it or not, it was in fact widely known long before anything
    calling itself science got going. And when the early Christians said that Jesus was born of a virgin, they perhaps meant that it was a miracle. As in, an event not described by the laws of nature (some of which laws were even known to those unfortunate primitives without the benefit of an Ivy League education). Maybe even the virgin birth being a miracle was why they proclaimed it.

    Of course, you’re free to disbelieve them. But dressing this up in high-falutin twaddle about the inner karma of science is baloney (to call a spade a shovel). You’re a naturalist, fine. Lots of scientists aren’t. If you think your naturalism is a necessary consequence of doing science, then publish your `results’ on miracles in a peer-reviewed science journal.

    Science, by its nature, does not test miracles. They have this habit of being one-off. Science deals with predictable and repeatable events. If miracles were predictable and repeatable, they wouldn’t be miracles.

    piscator

  5. Sigmund says:

    I think there is a problem with the conflation of the terms ‘science’ (a very complicated subject) with ‘the scientific method’ – something that is much simpler to define (I would personally define the scientific method as “the way we determine whether an idea about the natural world is wrong”.)

  6. Zeb says:

    @George Musser

    Quantum mechanics is *not* deterministic. Bell’s theorem and subsequent experiments confirming the application of that theorem showed that EPR was wrong. The state of the universe at one particular time does not entirely determine subsequent states.

  7. Kernal says:

    Science does provide an explanation for virgin births. While undocumented in humans (except, perhaps, for Mary’s case), Parthenogenesis has been observed in many species.

    Kernal

  8. josefjohann says:

    There’s no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design. The point is not that this couldn’t possibly happen — it’s that it hasn’t happened in our actual world. In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena.

    Considering an event like the above to be supernatural would require not just the absence of an underlying mechanism (the tentative nature of scientific claims let the possibility of natural cause survive this quite well), it would require the extra ingredient of positive evidence that there was no mechanism. Evidence of the supernatural would have to convince us that the thoroughly scientific principle of looking for an underlying explanation was a mistake. I don’t see that there could be an empirical basis for re-writing the rules of empiricism.

  9. Aaron says:

    Zeb: Just to be clear: Bell’s theorem just rules out _local_ causality, not determinism per se.

    Unitary evolution, what happens between measurements, certainly is deterministic. The only way non-determinism leaks into quantum mechanics is at the measurements. It’s not at all clear that measurements aren’t an approximation to an Everettian like picture. It is, in fact, pretty clear that most macroscopic measurements are not direct, but of a Wigner’s friend type, but get the same results as if we used the approximation that they cause the collapse.

  10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Answerable* ones. The other magisteria get everything else, I guess.

    *(I know, I know…”Define ‘answer’!!” There’s no end to that debate, or philosophers would instantly be out of a job).

  11. jerry says:

    Religion is just a bunch of fairy tales about angels, demons, heaven, hell,…i.e. complete BULLSHIT. I find it annoying that we have these “dialogues” and “debates” as if religion is something legitimate that can be compared with science. I know we have to do this to win the public relations battle…

    It is unbelievable that in the 21st century we have full grown adults believing in angels, demons, jesus rising from the dead, Eve made from Adams rib, and all such other non-sense…it’s fine to believe in Santa Claus and other fairy tales as children…but not as adults! Why not believe that a pink rubber elephant created the universe?…this belief has the same legitimacy as any religion.
    Grow the f*** up people!

  12. josefjohann says:

    @George Musser

    A lot of things called metaphysics (e.g. fundamental nature of space and time) have actually turned out to be scientific territory. A large part of what we think are conceptual structures outside science either have the immediate benefit of tautological consistency or of being incredibly useful

    If you want to progressivize religion, you abandon the game of putting forward anything “intrinsically” religious at all and the ballgame is over before it began (which doesn’t turn out to be the case when you do the same for science). Under this view, every religious rumination is only religious to the extent that a sociological/cultural context is needed. The body of religious thought, then, could be reproduced in whole without reference to religion at all, but rather to history, morality, ontology, etc. and would more properly belong to them. I think this is a quite helpful way to understand it all, actually, but probably not the consequence you intended.

  13. jerry says:

    one more comment…yes, we may never be able answer a question like “How did the universe start?” The undeniable truth is that “we don’t know” how the universe started…this is what science tells us today…that “we don’t know”.

    On the other hand, religion just “MAKES SHIT UP” to answer the question but still doesn’t really answer the question. If God created the universe, then who or what created God?…we are back to square one.

    So, there is no need for religion or equivalently to “make shit up and believe it blindly” just because we don’t know all the answers. We have to admit what we don’t know instead of making shit up and calling it religion.

  14. ryan says:

    These posts on religion and science are so refreshing after reading things by the likes of Eagleton and Stanley Fish, e.g.:

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/god-talk/

    and especially

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/god-talk-part-2/

    If I understand Fish et al.’s critique (and to some degree Ali’s critique, though she nuances it a bit more) of Sean’s position, then they seem to think that “things that happen in the world” are unimportant from a religious standpoint. As Ali says:

    “Religion is not about literal facts concerning once-and-done events, it’s about on-going experiential truths that can be shaped and shared within community.”

    It is precisely this disregard for events that happen in the world that pisses Sean and me off, since we love science, which is about things that happen in the world! Still, I can’t help but wonder where that leaves the humanities folk like (I presume) Ali and my wife (a literature grad student). True, they are using a poetic license with the word “religion,” but what’s so bad about that? Maybe their definition of “religion” will be more transformative for religion than the new atheists attempts at trivializing it.

  15. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

    If you mean to say that according to our current understanding of scientific theory, which is built upon evidence from reproducible experimental data, then I agree. But these events of ultimate religious significance are one-offs, and cannot be proved impossible — however unlikely — using experimental data which — by definition — arises in a different time and place in the universe.

    This is why religious people look to history as well as science to understand the claims of religion. But history, like science, only overlaps with religious methodology; the three have overlapping but distinct approaches to discovering truth.

    You think that what science says is very, very unlikely must be impossible. Fine. But that is not a proof that the thing is impossible.

  16. And if you want the best historical argument that something very unusual happened within the first few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, then let me recommend J.G. Machen’s The Origin of Paul’s Religion.

  17. Peter Beattie says:

    Sean, with regard to the misrepresentation of science that you mentioned, I posted this over on Chris Mooneys blog, who is co-author of Unscientific America and is an outspoken defender of ‘compatibility’—even if he never really says what that is supposed to mean.

    * * *

    I think what this boils down to is something Sean Carroll recently addressed over at his blog, Cosmic Variance. As I also said over there, philosophy teaches you how to think well. And as per Carl Sagan, that’s actually the better part of science. So yes, philosophy in that sense of course makes you a better scientist. But there’s more.

    One of the first things that philosophy teaches you is to properly define your terms. In this whole compatibility debate, no one who argues for such compatibility has actually taken the trouble to define what they mean by that. Hence Chris can say,

    And I am still mystified as to how this can be so controversial

    Easy, Chris: Because you never say what you mean by the term. (Not to my knowledge, that is; if you did, I’d be glad to see that mistake corrected.) That’s why different people will associate different concepts with the term and, naturally, disagree about it furiously. PZ, among others, has shown that the trivial empirical fact of coexistence in a mind is not what we should mean by ‘compatibility’. In contrast, what we should (and actually do) mean by it is that two things are contradictory, that they come to substantially different conclusions. Genie actually uses that very same concept when she talks about “evidence that is simply incompatible with [an] idea”.

    She even elaborates on that and says that certain things “can’t happen given what we know about modern geology”. That, of course, applies equally to other “fact claims”, like Moses and the parting of the sea, the virgin birth, turning water into wine, transsubstantiation, Jesus’s resurrection, and other reincarnations. Sorry, can’t happen given what we know about modern science.

    Even the claim that intercessory prayer works is plainly a fact claim, as e.g. Jerry Coyne has noted. Of course science would be able to ascertain whether, after a suitable prayer session, there are any statistically significant deviations in how the world works from the way it normally does, when there is (supposedly) no divine intervention. Which pretty ruthlessly undercuts Genie’s argument about how “science can’t test statements having to do with God.” If these statements are connected to a fact claim, science obviously can.

    The only avenue open to one who would propose the existence of a god then is to say that it is completely out of this world. In Richard Dawkins’s phrase, this “epistomological safe zone” is supposed to shield that god from the prying inquisitions of science. Genie says, “Now you’ve stepped outside of science. Science can’t say that’s wrong.” Actually, what you’ve done is you have stepped outside of rational discourse, eschewing even the theoretical possibility of being wrong. Statements, however, that cannot even be wrong are not just deeply unphilosophical. In the words of the most influential philosophers of science of the last century, Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, such statements are intellectually dishonest.

    [I am] still wholly convinced that it is the commonsense approach that will ultimately win out in the end.

    Speaking of Popper and Lakatos, you should probably be aware that the whole point of rational discourse, especially in a scientific context, is not to try to remain convinced but to try and test your ideas, to specify conditions under which you would be led to change your mind. I have yet to see you do that.

    All in all, this whole compatibility/accomodationism debate has uncovered, more than anything, a deep philosophical illiteracy. Someone should go and write a book about that.

  18. “Eventually, they agree that the most compelling and economical theory is one with two parts: a natural part, based on unyielding rules, with a certain well-defined range of applicability, and a supernatural one, for which no rules can be found.”

    According to this definition, scientists have already found the “supernatural.”

    In Quantum Mechanics, the between-measurements evolution of the wave function is governed by unyielding rules, but no rules have been found for the “collapse” of the wave function. The collapse is therefore a supernatural event – according to Sean.

  19. onymous says:

    Nice post. A nitpick:

    But we don’t necessarily extend that to arbitrarily high energies, because it’s easy to think of perfectly sensible extensions of our current theoretical understanding in which baryon number might very well be violated

    No extension whatsoever is required, because baryon number is not conserved in the Standard Model. B-L is, though. (Admittedly, sphaleron processes aren’t very important in the lab, but this is another one of those instances where the theory gives us reason to believe with confidence something that isn’t directly empirically probed.)

  20. smijer says:

    The reason why we can be confident that momentum was conserved during that particular collision a billion years ago is that science has concluded (beyond reasonable doubt, although not with metaphysical certitude) that the best framework for understanding the world is one in which momentum is conserved in all collisions. It’s certainly possible that this particular collision was an exception; but a framework in which that were true would necessarily be more complicated, without providing any better explanation for the data we do have. We’re comparing two theories: one in which momentum is always conserved, and one in which it occasionally isn’t, including a billion years ago at the center of Alpha Centauri. Science is well equipped to carry out this comparison, and the first theory wins hands-down.

    This is very clever framing, but I’m afraid it jumps the rails to get there. The choice isn’t between two scientific theories. (Just because we wield a hammer, doesn’t make the question a nail!)

    The choice is between a situation where the laws that support our theory are contingent on the will of an intelligent higher power, or a situation where they are completely inviolable.

    If, and only if we choose the later, the question is no longer scientific (except insofar as we have the capacity to make a measurement of the interaction you are talking about), but is purely theological – is our understanding of God such that we would believe a report claiming that he supervened the laws of nature to avoid conservation of momentum in A Centauri a million years ago, or isn’t it?

    Naturally, for most religious believers, the answer is that their understanding of God suggests that he would have no cause to supervene the laws of nature in order to avoid conservation in Centauri a million years ago. Yet, we might imagine that his relationship with humans is such that he would take human flesh, walk among us, be crucified and rise from the dead.

    Obviously, everyone religious or otherwise agrees that this contravenes the laws of nature as understood by science. But only the philosophical materialist must insist that the laws of nature as understood by science are so complete as to rule out any supervening intelligence upon the will of which they may be contingent.

    And so it is that the materialism that supposes there is no resurrection is a philosophical one, not a scientific one.

  21. smijer says:

    I see #4 piscator beat me to my response. Nevertheless, maybe my angle will help illuminate the position he & I apparently both share wrt NOMA.

  22. Zeb says:

    @Aaron

    “Just to be clear: Bell’s theorem just rules out _local_ causality, not determinism per se.”

    Okay, fair enough, things like determinism are never ruled out, you just have to accept different assumptions. Accept hidden variables, give up local causality, etc. But it is misleading to say that quantum theories are deterministic, because various schools of thought differ on this, and there isn’t a solid consensus.

    ” It’s not at all clear that measurements aren’t an approximation to an Everettian like picture.”

    It’s not clear that they aren’t, but you do have to give up some assumptions to get there. As an example of what I was talking about before, multiple-universe picture often have problems with probability. I don’t fully understand them, but here’s a short description of them:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-manyworlds/#6.3

    At any rate, even if you end up with an Everett-like picture, your idea of “determinism” is going to be somewhat different from what you normally think of when you think of determinism – the state of the multiverse as a whole is deterministic, but the future state of individual universes is not determinable based on evidence within that universe. You can’t ever make predictions about quantum states.

  23. thales says:

    Brilliant post. Clear, succinct, and relevant.

  24. Pieter Kok says:

    At the dawn of the 20th century, it would have been hard to find a more firmly accepted pillar of physics than the principle of determinism…

    The principle of Causality?

  25. Ali says:

    ryan (comment #14), I appreciate your response, especially when you say, “It is precisely this disregard for events that happen in the world that pisses Sean and me off, since we love science, which is about things that happen in the world!”

    You misunderstand me if you think I would encourage religiousness or spirituality at the expense of historical events and other “things that happen” the world. I see no reason to disregard physical, literal facts for the sake of religious belief; indeed, this is an attitude I see more often in scientific atheists who claim, as Sean has, that science and religion simply are not compatible.

    Here the metaphor of art might be helpful: simply because a person viewing a painting might find certain “truths” of an aesthetic, philosophical or even spiritual nature, does not mean she is utterly disregarding the fact that the painting itself is nothing but pigment on canvas. The rather mundane physical fact of the painting’s make-up might actually increase the viewer’s appreciation, marveling at the artist’s ability to create and communicate meaning in such a medium. It might even inspire her to take up painting herself, to study the physical nature of pigment and canvas, to better understand how it can communicate ideas “beyond” its mere physicality.

    Religion does not (at least not inherently) ask us to ignore “things that happen in the world.” If it really did that, it would soon cease to be relevant and fade away without any help from science. And while you suggest that I’m using “poetic license” to define “religion,” the reality is that the atheist-versus-fundamentalist debate of recent decades have dumbed down the definition of religion to a paltry shadow of its former meaning. As someone with a degree in comparative religious studies, it always astounds me that men like Sean, who have not studied religion from a scholarly perspective in any depth, feel comfortable making vast claims about it based on a few personal confrontations with fundamentalists and the shallow portrayal of religion found in modern television-and-reader’s-digest media. A student of philosophy knows better than to look to the standard dictionary to understand words like “intention,” “world,” “mind” and “being.” A student of comparative religion knows better than to look to a dictionary to define words like “religion,” “god” and “sacred.” These are places to begin, but they cannot possibly be comprehensive, exhaustive or even intellectually subtle.

    Yet Sean, and others who share his views, continue to reject all attempts at subtlety and complexity in discussing religion if it doesn’t fit with the “dictionary definition” and his predetermined views of what religion is or isn’t. And that is what annoys people like me, who think that the world of the human mind, heart and spirit are just as fascinating as the world of quarks and ectoplasm.