The Truth Still Matters

Over at the Intersection, Chris Mooney is concerned that we haven’t had a science/religion tiff in what, days? So he wants to offer a defense of organizations like the National Center for Science Education, who choose to promote science by downplaying any conflicts between science and religion. For example, the NCSE sponsors a Faith Project, where you can be reassured that scientists aren’t nearly as godless as the newspapers would have you believe.

In the real world, scientists have different stances toward religion. Some of us think that science and religion are (for conventional definitions of science and religion) incompatible. Others find them perfectly consistent with each other. (It’s worth pointing out that “X is true” and “People exist who believe X is true” are not actually the same statement, despite what Chad and Chris and others would have you believe. I’ve tried to emphasize that distinction over and over, to little avail.)

In response to this situation, we uncompromising atheists have a typically strident and trouble-making idea: organizations that bill themselves as “centers for science education” and “associations for science” and “academies of science” should not take stances on matters of religion. Outlandish, I know. But we think that organizations dedicated to science should not wander off into theology, even with the best of intentions. Stick with talking about science, and everyone should be happy.

But they’re not happy; Chris and others (Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas is a thoughtful example) think that the NCSE can be more effective if it proactively tries to convince people that science and religion need not be incompatible. As an argument toward this conclusion, Chris attempts to horrify us by offering the following hypothetical conversation between a religious believer and an NCSE representative:

Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

NCSE: As a policy, we only talk about science and to not take any stance on religion. So we couldn’t comment on that.

Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

NCSE: All we can really tell you is that evolution is the bedrock of modern biology, and universally accepted within the scientific community.

Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

NCSE: ….

To which I can only reply … um, yeah? That doesn’t seem very bad at all to me. Do we seriously want representatives of the NCSE saying “No, the claim that accepting evolution is the road to damnation is based on a misreading of Scripture and is pretty bad theology. If we go back to Saint Augustine, we see that the Church has a long tradition of…” Gag me with a spoon, as I understand the kids say these days.

Of course, we could also imagine something like this:

Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

NCSE: Oh, don’t worry. There’s no such thing as “damnation,” your pastor has just been misleading you.

Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

NCSE: Well, that will happen. Prolonged exposure to scientific ways of thinking can lead people to abandon their religious beliefs. But don’t worry, you’ll be happier and have a more accurate view of how the universe works if that’s what happens.

Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

NCSE: That would be great! Because that’s what we are. But it’s not as depressing as you make it out to be; correctly understanding how the world works is the first step toward making the most out of life.

How awesome would that be? I don’t actually advocate this kind of dialogue in this particular context — as I just said, I think science organizations should simply steer clear. But these answers have a considerable benefit, in that I think they’re “true.”

That’s the major point. Advocacy and educational organizations have the goal of supporting science and education the best way they can, but there are limits. For example, they should stick to the truth. I tried to make this point in my post about politicians and critics — some people have as their primary goal advocating for some sort of cause, whereas others are simply devoted to the truth. But an organization advocating for science needs to take both into consideration.

And there are some scientists — quite a few of us, actually — who straightforwardly believe that science and religion are incompatible. There are absolutely those who disagree, no doubt about that. But establishing the truth is a prior question to performing honest and effective advocacy, not one we can simply brush under the rug when it’s inconvenient or doesn’t make for the best sales pitch. Which is why it’s worth going over these tiresome science/religion debates over and over, even in the face of repeated blatant misrepresentation of one’s views. If science and religion are truly incompatible, then it would be dishonest and irresponsible to pretend otherwise, even if doing so would soothe a few worried souls. And if you want to argue that science and religion are actually compatible (not just that there exist people who think so), by all means make that argument — it’s a worthy discussion to have. But it’s simply wrong to take the stance that it doesn’t matter whether science and religion are compatible, we still need to pretend they are so as not to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not being honest.

I have no problem with the NCSE or any other organization pointing out that there exist scientists who are religious. That’s an uncontroversial statement of fact. But I have a big problem with them making statements about whether religious belief puts you into conflict with science (or vice-versa), or setting up “Faith Projects,” or generally taking politically advantageous sides on issues that aren’t strictly scientific. And explaining to people where their pastors went wrong when talking about damnation? No way.

Right now there is not a strong consensus within the scientific community about what the truth actually is vis-a-vis science and religion; I have my views, but sadly they’re not universally shared. So the strategy for the NCSE and other organizations should be obvious: just stay away. Stick to talking about science. Yes, that’s a strategy that may lose some potential converts (as it were). So be it! The reason why this battle is worth fighting in the first place is that we’re dedicated to promulgating the truth, not just to winning a few political skirmishes for their own sakes. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Mt. 16:26.)

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191 Responses to The Truth Still Matters

  1. Milton C. says:

    Of course, we could also imagine something like this:
    Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

    NCSE: Oh, don’t worry. There’s no such thing as “damnation,” your pastor has just been misleading you.

    Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

    NCSE: Well, that will happen. Prolonged exposure to scientific ways of thinking can lead people to abandon their religious beliefs. But don’t worry, you’ll be happier and have a more accurate view of how the universe works if that’s what happens.

    Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

    NCSE: That would be great! Because that’s what we are. But it’s not as depressing as you make it out to be; correctly understanding how the world works is the first step toward making the most out of life.

    How awesome would that be? I don’t actually advocate this kind of dialogue in this particular context — as I just said, I think science organizations should simply steer clear. But these answers have a considerable benefit, in that I think they’re “true.”

    Of course, even though you admit as much, Sean, a scientific organization saying that abandoning religion “makes you happier” is just as boneheaded and egregious as claiming that religion and science are cuddly buddies. If we’re going to say (to quote you with italics preserved) ” organizations that bill themselves as “centers for science education” and “associations for science” and “academies of science” should not take stances on matters of religion,” that should be a two-way street.

    Again, I get your point (and I hope it was not-so-obvious humor), but you’re treading dangerous territory. Let’s stick to pointing out the obvious and staying away from “official” philosophical declarations….like you advocate.

  2. Sam Gralla says:

    Wow, that is pretty amazing that the blogger you linked to says that science and religion are compatible because some people believe they are. (Are they also incompatible because some people believe they are?) Shouldn’t he, like, lose his blogging license for that?

    I’m not sure that’s the type of argument you even want to dignify with a response.

  3. mk says:

    No, Milton… clearly you don’t get his point. Otherwise you would not have had to write all the rest.

  4. Peter Morgan says:

    We are nothing but matter in motion? Nothing else? Wow!!! I learn some new metaphysics every day. Is this the new scientific consensus — that there are no charges, that geometry is not dynamical, that matter has trajectories in space-time?

  5. Dave says:

    A little off topic, but there’s a clear parallel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEP50dxfRAw

  6. Paul W. says:

    Sam (and Milton C)

    If you think that’s bad, check out his previous post on the subject, from a week or so ago, and particularly what he quotes from Chad Orzel. It’s an almost continuous stream of fallacies.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/01/11/orzel-nails-it-on-science-and-religion/

    Here’s my analysis, that I tried to post in the new thread at the Intersection, but it seems to have disappeared… it was originally a response to Milton C over there, but it keeps not showing up there:

    Milton C, do you have any examples of a strawman falsely so-called?

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

    It seems to me that there are a few “real” straw men that have actually come up in the previous thread and this one.

    One is a straw man Chad Orzel raised in the post Chris keeps praising so highly—the spectre of science organizations announcing that “science and religion are incompatible”.

    Nobody was advocating that, and in fact everybody thinks that would be a bad idea, and a number of New Atheists have clearly and repeatedly said so. It’s irrelevant at best, and very, very misleading to anybody who hasn’t been following the discussion closely, such that they know what less accommodating folks are actually advocating. Chad also seems to be using it to frame a false-choice fallacy-of-the-excluded-middle to make taking the opposite stance seem reasonable. No matter how you slice it, it fairly drips bogosity.

    The quoted text from Chad starts out with a straw man about philosophers, ridiculing philosophers and their “formal philosophical matters” and how they’re apparently too stupid to get to work in the morning because they never got the Zeno thing, so we should ignore obsessing on such niceties…. sure, he’s being humorous, but he’s also clearly framing the issue of truth, ambiguity, or misleadingness of a pronouncement by a scientific body as a mere “formal philosophical matter.”

    Apparently if scientists are worried whether their pronouncements are false, or technically true but clearly leading to false interpretations, they’re majoring in the minors and can never get to work on time.

    Ergo, whether the ideas we’re actually spreading are true or false is not something we scientists should be particularly concerned with, so long as the trains run on time.

    (Does a Mussolini reference Godwin a thread? 🙂 )

    Oh gee, I never realized that. I thought truth was kinda important in science. Silly me, I guess I’m in the wrong job.

    A more important and very tired old straw man that Chad trots out, and Chris echoes again here, is the idea that anybody denies that religious people can be scientists. Nobody does. Nobody ever has. The New Atheists have frequently asserted the exact opposite for years, but for years, Chris and Genie and now Chad (and Chris again, above) have asserted things like “you can’t deny that it happens regularly,” as though that was a live issue. They’ve pretty consistently neglected to point out that the people they’re mainly arguing against always acknowledged that.

    If this happened once, it might just be an accident due to pounding on a point without meaning to imply that somebody disagreed… but it’s clearly a habitual framing of the subject. Either it’s an intentional straw man, or one they don’t mind “accidentally” implying, over and over, after it’s been objected to, because they can’t be bothered to disambiguate it.

    Its’ very annoying, because some gulllible people who read accommodationist rhetoric clearly do get the idea that New Atheists actually say such ridiculous things, and that they’re just too dumb or ideologically blinded to see the glaringly obvious fact that some scientists are religious. Hyeesh.

    Chris clearly knows that by now, and if it’s not intentionally misleading framing, it’s just astonishingly bad communication for somebody who pontificates about communication. When it’s obvious he accidentally straw-manned his opponents, he should come right out and say something like “sorry—I didn’t mean to imply that, and won’t do it again.”

    He definitely should not wait a few days or weeks and do it again, over and over, for years.

    Summarizing… if you look at Chad’s text, you get

    1. a “humorous” straw man, used to dismiss basic concerns about truth as irrelevant “philosophy”

    2. patently invalid argument about “doing both things” implying “compatibility,” and that being simply a “statement of fact”

    3. another patently invalid argument about such an alleged “statement of fact” never being unconscionable, irrespective of how predictably it wlll be misunderstood—if you think that’s valid, think about seeing a lit candle and yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater—-and

    4. a bonus straw man (about organizations stating that science and religion are not compatible) setting up

    5. a fallacy of the excluded middle, forcing the choice of one extreme over the other.

    And that’s pretty much it. It’s an almost continuous stream of fallacies, which Chris thinks “nails it,” and chooses to link to and praise again, after all of these fallacies have been pointed out.

    One thing that I left out, which is actually not a fallacy, is Chad acknowledging that he himself agrees science and religion are not compatible, in exactly the sense many of us use the word, and think that a general audience is likely to interpret the word. Of course, he carefully chooses other words and claims our usage is just wrong—we must interpret “compatible” in the demonstrably implausible sense of his fallacious argument.

    I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite so consistently bogus from anybody as smart as Chad. I am truly amazed.

  7. eddie says:

    Your pastor has been lying to you and you will be much happier if you get shot of religion altogether. Of course it’s not the job of the NCSA and other science advocates to say this. Though, there should be advocacy organisations dedicated to saying these things. Because they are true.

  8. Peter Morgan says:

    Truth, or “truth”, or empirical adequacy? Amelino-Camelia’s 3rd prize essay at FQXi, http://fqxi.org/data/essay-contest-files/AmelinoCamelia_fairnessShVe.pdf, for example? I particularly like his it’s “not even fun” to know the truth.

  9. Paul W. says:

    Sean,

    Here’s something I tried to post at the Intersection—few posts by me or anybody else seem to be getting through at the moment—elaborating on the same basic themes as your post.

    Thought you might like some of the juicy bits…

    Beyond a certain point, stressing the “compatibility” of science with religion and not mentioning the compatibility of science with atheism just becomes dishonest PR.

    Consider Chris’s hypothetical religious believer’s question:

    I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

    Consider this possible answer, which is 100 percent true, just for reference:

    It’s true that many people who accept science do stop going to church, and that the more scientifically oriented and accomplished they are, the less likely they are to take religion seriously. Most scientists don’t go to church, and very few top scientists do. In fact, 93 to 96 percent of the members of the most prestigious scientific organizations are either outright disbelieving atheists (the large majority) or nonbelieving “agnostics” (a minority). Most scientists do start out religious, but most do end up irreligious.

    Interestingly, few of those atheistic scientist seem unhappy it, even the ones who lose their religion. They certainly do not find that it deprives their lives of meaning and turns them into depraved nihilists, as many religious people would naively expect. They think irreligion works just fine for them. You might consider re-evaluating your attitudes toward religion and/or atheism. Go figure. Seriously, if that surprises or disturbs you, go figure

    Some scientist are religious, though, especially less accomplished scientists. It puzzles many of the atheist scientists, but they seem to make that combination work for them, too, on a personal level. Most scientists don’t care much about other scientists’ religious beliefs, as long as they don’t interfere with the particular science that they do professionally. You might get a little flak for it now and then, but hey, that’s what happens sometimes, and sometimes religious people try to proseletyze the irreligious too. That’s the sort of thing that happens sometimes when people disagree on stuff like sex, politics, or religion. It’s usually no big deal, so how about we focus on the science first, and why we think it’s true. You can worry about the religious implications later, and it’s likely to be a growth experience. (Both religious and irreligious scientist generally agree on that—you shouldn’t shy away from novel ideas that there’s real evidence for, just because they might conflict with your cherished preconceptions.)

    IMHO, that’s what a really honest answer making an empirical argument would look like if it reflected an actual expert consensus within science. The consensus is that the relationship between science and religion is controversial, but the preponderance of scientists don’t combine them, for some doubtless interesting reason.

    Chad’s “empirical” argument that “it’s a fact” that some scientists are religious is clearly a dodge to avoid the more basic and striking empirical truth—scientific knowledge and achievement are very strongly negatively correlated with religiosity, by any reasonable measure.

    Anything that stresses the “compatibility” of science and religion and ignores the irreligious alternatives is clearly slanted away from the reality on the ground, within science.

    It’s systematic lies to children and everybody within science and philosophy of science should know it.

    Sure, it’s often mostly lies by omission, and fallacies of four terms that play on ambiguities to change the subject and lead the audience to false conclusions, but hey, it’s clearly not really honest, is it? It’s a bit of a dodge, at least.

    Taking the above honest answer as a baseline, just how dishonest or shifty and weaselly are are we willing to be, to shield the religious from knowing the truth that scientists generally think their religion is kinda goofy, and that it likely has something systematic to do with the difference between science and religion as purported “ways of knowing,” and the things that scientist know but other people mostly don’t?

    Perhaps what organizations like the NAS say about different “ways of knowing” for “different spheres” or “different aspects” of human activity is just false, at least on the view of the best and the brightest, in both science and philosophy. (Philosophers of science are about 80 percent strong atheist, and another 10 percent weak atheist, IIRC. And as with the religious minority in science, the religious ones are mostly not orthodox to anywhere near the extent that typical mainstream Americans are.)

    If science and religion are so darned “compatible,” what the heck is going on there? Surely we should have a big research program to find out, shouldn’t we?

    There are very, very few correlations in the social sciences stronger than the negative correlation between scientific achievement and religiosity. (It’s considerably stronger than the correlation between scientific achievement and being white and male and middle class, but some people who’ve studied the latter try to sweep the more striking correlation under the rug. (Their Templeton funding might have something to do with that…) It’s the kind of clear and striking pattern that social scientist dream of, and it positively cries out for a scientific explanation.

    But of course, we’re not going to go there, are we? It might reveal an inconvenient truth.

    In fact, it certainly would—no matter how it came out, it would certainly be scientifically interesting.

    After all, the accommodating statements of some science organizations say that science and religion are complementary and stuff like that. If they’re so complementary, but scientists tend to fail to combine them to get the benefits of both “ways of knowing,” what’s up with that? Aren’t those scientists missing out on something that would complement their scientific worldview?

    We might find out that there’s something wrong with religion, in scientific terms, or that there’s something wrong with scientists, in religious or other terms. (Hey, perhaps most of the higher-achieving scientists are kind of autistic, asocial, and a bit sociopathic, able to focus on their research at the expense of spirituality and maintaining interpersonal connections… or something. Yeah, that’s it.)

    That is the kind of no-lose problem that social scientists dream of studying. No matter how it comes out, you get a very interesting result, and likely several.

    Hmmm… are there any social scientists out there willing to study this striking phenomenon head-on? Any foundations willing to fund that kind of politically loaded study? That might help sort out what’s really going on, so that we can use real empirical data to scientifically guide our empirical arguments about the relationship between science and religion.

    Since they like “empirical” arguments about such things, maybe Chris and Sheril could connect such people.

  10. Andrew says:

    I am religious (Catholic, go to mass each Sunday, confession once a year, etc) and a physics graduate student at a prestigious university in the SF Bay area. As such, I obviously find no incompatibility between science and religion. Now, I am intelligent and informed so I know that the history of the science/religion dialogue is far from non-blood stained, but one has to put these issues in context. That is, those who practice religion are not (sadly) necessarily representative of religion as a whole. Just as scientists can be crackpots, there are innumerable religious zealots who are ignorant, uninformed and, frankly, dangerous.

    Those who say that all can be understood with science are just as misguided as those who say that the Earth is 6000 years old, or whatever a “literal interpretation” (I don’t know what that even means anymore) of the bible leads one to believe. Science can only answer those questions that are repeatable and can lead to a consistent interpretation of some natural phenomena. Really, I would say that the study of history isn’t science. That is, one cannot repeat the events of history to really test whether or not Napolean was exiled to Elba. Such a statement does not belittle history as an academic subject; it’s just not science! Our knowledge comes from so many more realms than those of science. To be truly scientific, one must test everything; from the day’s news stories to one’s own ancestry. Such an endeavor is impossible. At the end of the day, we must trust others for information.

    There is a beautiful analogy between science and religion. Looking into your eye, your optometrist sees your pupil, iris, blood vessels or the early signs of a cataract. Such knowledge was determined scientifically. The optometrist has seen many, many eyes and so knows what a pupil looks like. However, when your lover looks into your eyes, he or she sees your soul, your deepest thoughts and desires. Demanding that your lover see “hard science” of your eyes removes any emotion. Are these observations incompatible? No, they are answering different questions. A doctor asks questions that can be answered scientifically, while your lover does not (nor should he or she).

  11. Dave says:

    @Andrew: “The optometrist has seen many, many eyes and so knows what a pupil looks like. However, when your lover looks into your eyes, he or she sees your soul, your deepest thoughts and desires. Demanding that your lover see “hard science” of your eyes removes any emotion. Are these observations incompatible? No, they are answering different questions.”

    A lover doesn’t literally see a soul: he/she sees a metaphor for the soul. And scientific institutions should not offer opinions on those interpretations of metaphor, be them emotional or religious. That’s the whole point, really.

    Religion is literature, it’s a form of art, hence why it’s analyzed and interpreted without any verifiable consensus (just look at all the sects of Christianity, for instance). Science is a method used to attain objective truth, not subjective “truth.”

  12. Another astronomer who agrees with you 100% with regard to this post, Sean.

    Humans, even very smart ones, have the capacity to believe in two contradictory things simultaneously. Doesn’t mean both things are compatible. I’m rather amazed at Mooney pressing on this losing point, even if he is maintaining it for political reasons.

    As an atheist scientist, I personally prefer to keep my soul uncompromised.

  13. Paul says:

    Humans, even very smart ones, have the capacity to believe in two contradictory things simultaneously. Doesn’t mean both things are compatible. I’m rather amazed at Mooney pressing on this losing point, even if he is maintaining it for political reasons.

    He’s been called on conflating “there are religious scientists” and “science and religion are compatible” at least several months now (probably longer, but that’s as long as I’ve been familiar with him). It’s patently obvious at this point he has no interest in arguing the point honestly, he’s just another guy trying to sell a viewpoint regardless of how well grounded it is in fact. No matter how many strawmen he has to build to win converts to his side.

  14. Paul W. says:

    Those who say that all can be understood with science

    Like who, for example? Nobody I know or read says that all can be understood with science. Godel’s theorem pretty well rules that out.

    I do know lots of people who think that religion can’t tell you anything reliable that science can’t tell you.

    Science is limited. Religion appears to systematically tends toward falsity by amplifying our instinctive biases with social endorsement.

    IMHO, science is sadly limited, but a lot less limited in interesting ways that most religious people—and most religious scientists—think. (It can, for example, explain minds, morality, and religion naturalistically, and cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife, specifically religious concepts of morality, the truth claims of religion very generally, and the legitimacy of religion as an alternative “way of knowing.”

    are just as misguided as those who say that the Earth is 6000 years old, or whatever a “literal interpretation” (I don’t know what that even means anymore) of the bible leads one to believe.

    You know this how?

    Science can only answer those questions that are repeatable and can lead to a consistent interpretation of some natural phenomena.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that, exactly, but I’m guessing that either it’s false or it doesn’t have the consequences you think it does.

    I’m particularly concerned that you might have a fairly limited notion of “natural phenomena.”

    Science can study anything that has observable effects, including the “supernatural.” (“Supernatural” in the theological sense is not the complement of “natural” in the sense of what science studies.) Even if the effects are random, that says something about what’s having those effects.

  15. Yes, Paul, I’ve been watching, too. A shame, since Mooney’s book Republican War on Science was compelling and cogent. Things he has written since, online and in print, have made me lose respect for his reasoning and a lot less likely to pay attention to him.

  16. Pingback: Lying for Darwin: science/faith compatibility again « Why Evolution Is True

  17. Charon says:

    @10: “your deepest thoughts and desires.” Which are, of course, also subject to scientific inquiry, in the form of neuropsychology, for example. Your lover’s everyday, commonsense understanding of this situation is generally adequate for their life, but so is their everyday, commonsense understanding of physics (if they’re not a physicist themselves). What this clearly doesn’t mean, however, is that they are accurately assessing reality, either with your “soul” or with their Aristotelian physical intuition.

    @11: exactly.

  18. LifeonQueen says:

    “For example, they should stick to the truth.”

    Given your subject, you really ought to stick to a consideration of what is factual not what is true.

    Truth is a matter of opinion. Fact is not.

  19. shaun says:

    @Mike Brotherton
    “As an atheist scientist, I personally prefer to keep my soul uncompromised.”
    1) science cannot prove a ‘soul’ yet here you assert you have one
    2) Christianity clearly states that by this exact stance DOES compromise your soul.

    if we want to talk about whether or not hypocritical systems hold up or are practical- the stance of atheism itself, is in and of itself, completely contradictory to science.
    no matter which theory for creation is presented, there are 2 possible outcomes:
    1) matter has *always* existed, and
    2) matter *magically* appeared
    -BOTH of these are in complete violation of the law of causality, the single principle upon which all science is based, yet nobody here seems to think anything is wrong with putting 100% faith into this hypocritical system…

  20. Paul W. says:

    Really, I would say that the study of history isn’t science. That is, one cannot repeat the events of history to really test whether or not Napolean was exiled to Elba.

    I’d say that’s pretty oversimplified. History can be more or less scientific, depending on the available evidence and how you go about interpreting and looking for other relevant evidence—and a lot of things can be evidence relevant to various hypotheses, in non-obvious ways.

    It sounds like your simplistic characterization of history, and calling that not science, would also apply to evolutionary biology and cosmology.

    Such a statement does not belittle history as an academic subject; it’s just not science!

    Sometimes it is clearly scientific, and often it varies anywhere between more or less unconstrained wanking, iffy but somewhat responsible speculation, and fairly clearly scientific investigation.

    Consider, for example:

    Schliemann’s historical interpretation of the Iliad, and his consequent discovery of the actual city of Troy. That’s history, and it was brilliantly confirmed and led to many more truly scientific discoveries….

    …or the decoding of the Rosetta Stone or the Linear B language, and the resulting refutation of many, many theories of what various ancient writings were about, and the discovery of much of what they actually were about, leading to further refutations and discoveries…

    …or the textual and linguistic analysis that led to the discovery of the J, E, P, D, and R documents embedded in the first few books of the Bible, showing that the Pentateuch was written and redacted in several stages by many hands. Even Bible study can be scientific, up to a point!

    History can be, and often is, scientific. It is also often less clearly scientific because the relevant data are unobtainable, and nobody’s figured out where to look for other relevant data, or how to piece things together in a meaningful way.

    But that is not so fundamentally different as it might seem from other, less historical sciences. We often don’t have the data we want, or the tools to get it, and we often don’t know where to look. But then people start piecing togther various kinds of fragmentary evidence, and sometimes things fall into place and yield clear truths that lead to other truths.

    In cosmology and high-energy physics, consider the realization by high-energy physicists like Weinberg that to see extreme conditions we can’t experimentally reproduce on earth, you can look far away in space and thus very far back in time to conditions shortly after the big bang, and use that as a “natural experiment” to inform particle physics.

    If historical sciences were necessarily “not science,” much of modern physics wouldn’t be science, either, because it’s fundamentally grounded in and constrained by things we learned from fragamentary traces of a single unrepeatable event, billions of years ago.

    Our knowledge comes from so many more realms than those of science.

    I think you have a simplistic concept of what’s science and what’s other stuff we think about, and likely some simplistic distinction between science and philosophy. A lot of stuff can be science, and there’s no clear boundary between scientific and non-scientific thinking and speculation, or between common sense and rigorous science or philosophy.

    To be truly scientific, one must test everything; from the day’s news stories to one’s own ancestry.

    No. Scientists don’t test everything. They can’t. They muddle along, testing the things they can test that seem important enough to test, trying to remember what they haven’t tested, and looking out for nasty surprises. And sometimes they screw that up, because the available data and the practical experiments are generally limited, and it’s an intrinsically error-prone process. Other times things fall into place and new ways of confirming or refuting hypotheses become available, leveraging discoveries that previously seemed unrelated and useless.

    If science were really about testing everything, rather than using much cleverer ways of piecing together partial information, almost nothing would be science—especially any science during an ongoing scientific revolution. By your standard, most great, innovative science wouldn’t count as science at all, because the mop-up work of thoroughly testing everything in sight hasn’t been done yet.

  21. Andrew says:

    @ Paul W.: “Those who say that all can be understood with science

    Like who, for example? Nobody I know or read says that all can be understood with science. Godel’s theorem pretty well rules that out.”

    Most of the atheists I have met in physics specifically think science is the be all and end all of knowledge. Godel’s incompleteness theorem applies to axiomatic systems. No branch of science has successfully isolated relevant axioms. It is not known whether science can be formulated as an axiomatic system or not.

    “I do know lots of people who think that religion can’t tell you anything reliable that science can’t tell you.

    Science is limited. Religion appears to systematically tends toward falsity by amplifying our instinctive biases with social endorsement.”

    Knowing people who think religion can’t tell you anything reliable that science can’t tell you isn’t an argument. I agree, science is terribly limited; as is religion. Please tell me your definition of religion. It seems that your knowledge of religion comes from those who speak most loudly; either religious whackos or staunch athiests and not from sources, e.g., the Bible or religious thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas or Lewis.

    “IMHO, science is sadly limited, but a lot less limited in interesting ways that most religious people—and most religious scientists—think. (It can, for example, explain minds, morality, and religion naturalistically, and cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife, specifically religious concepts of morality, the truth claims of religion very generally, and the legitimacy of religion as an alternative “way of knowing.””

    Many, many scientists are working toward understanding the mind, morality or consciousness and I believe whole-heartedly that these are worthwhile efforts. However, I don’t know of any scientific result that has “cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife”. If you know of some, please let me know and I will reconsider my beliefs.

    “are just as misguided as those who say that the Earth is 6000 years old, or whatever a “literal interpretation” (I don’t know what that even means anymore) of the bible leads one to believe.

    You know this how?”

    I apologize; this is an opinion of mine.

    ” Science can only answer those questions that are repeatable and can lead to a consistent interpretation of some natural phenomena.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that, exactly, but I’m guessing that either it’s false or it doesn’t have the consequences you think it does.”

    I do know the consequences of such a statement. I mentioned one of them in the next few lines. Please rigorously define “science” and “religion” so that we aren’t arguing over semantics.

    “I’m particularly concerned that you might have a fairly limited notion of “natural phenomena.”

    Science can study anything that has observable effects, including the “supernatural.” (”Supernatural” in the theological sense is not the complement of “natural” in the sense of what science studies.) Even if the effects are random, that says something about what’s having those effects.”

    Again, I apologize for not defining “natural phenomena”. Thank you for your concern. However, I believe that our definitions effectively coincide; that is, anything that has observable consequences is natural. I do not think that supernatural equals the complement of natural. If that was the case, there would be no reason for belief in a God at all. (Of course, modulo your misgivings about such an idea.)

  22. Rules For says:

    Good grief, shaun, couldn’t the current answer to where matter came from be “I don’t know.” How is this inconsistent with atheism?

  23. Tom says:

    Umm… “Gag me with a spoon, as I understand the kids say these days”.
    Hardly! You are only 10-20 years out of date.

    But on topic… of course religion and science are incompatible. Anyone who thinks otherwise has to jump incredible hoops for a basic reconciliation . Or sweep the issues under some rug – pretending they are not there, or relegating them to the realm of what is not known or understood.

  24. Lab Lemming says:

    Can’t we piss everyone off by saying that religion must offer some substantial increase to fitness to have evolved, even if we don’t know what the nature of that benefit is?

  25. Jason A. says:

    shaun #19:
    You cannot just make up something called the ‘Law of Causality’ and pretend it rules out atheism.

    I assume you mean something along the lines of ‘everything that happens has a cause’. This is most certainly NOT something on which ‘all science is based’, as even the most basic examination of modern physics would tell you.