Response

1

THE BASIC QUESTION

SCIENCE OR RELIGION, OR SCIENCE AND RELIGION?

THE DEBATE THAT NO ONE CAN AVOID It is hard to imagine any institutions in human culture and exis- tence today with deeper roots than religion and science. Reli- gion is so basic to human history that the human species has been called homo religiosus, the religious animal. Indeed, some scholars even connect the origins of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, to the first archeological signs of religious rituals and practices. A huge proportion of the world’s population today is identified with at least one of the major religious traditions of the world.

It is equally impossible to imagine humanity without science. By 1900, about three centuries after the dawn of modern science, it was clear that this new means of studying the natural world and organizing our beliefs about it was transforming humanity more than perhaps any other development in the history of our species. By the end of World War II, when much of Europe had been reduced to rubble and Hiroshima to an atomic fall-out zone, science had changed the face of the planet forever. Today there is virtually no aspect of human existence that does not depend in some way upon scientific results and technological

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inventions. From immunizations to heart surgery, from fertilizer to genetically modified crops, from our cell phones to our com- puters, from roads to airplanes, from the bananas on our table to our ‘cash’ in the bank, existence without science has become inconceivable.

As we will see in the following pages, the impact of science is not only limited to its products. The scientific mindset has transformed humanity’s views of what knowledge is, how it is obtained, and how knowledge claims are evaluated. Even people whose central moral and religious beliefs are not determined by science are still impacted by the growth of science, since others will judge their knowledge claims in light of their agreement with or divergence from scientific results.

Science and religion: compatibility or conflict? Should we talk about ‘science and religion,’ or should it be ‘science versus religion’? By the time you finish this book, you will have a good sense of the whole range of answers that have been given to this question and the best arguments that are being made on both sides. This should give you enough information to make up your own mind and to defend your own positions in each of the major areas of the debate.

Certainly the dominant message in our culture today is that science and religion stand in deep tension. Nowhere is this mes- sage clearer than in the debate between naturalism and theism. Naturalism is the view that all that exists are natural objects within the universe – the combinations of physical mass and energy that make up planets and stars, oceans and mountains, microbes and humans. In normal usage, naturalism usually implies the claim that real knowledge of these natural objects comes through, or is at least controlled by, the results of scientific inquiry. Cognate terms are materialism and physicalism. The former has tradition- ally meant ‘all is matter’; the latter technically means reducible to the laws, particles, and forms of energy that physicists study.

Theism is the belief in the existence of God, an ultimate reality that transcends the universe as a whole. Passing over a few exceptions, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are the- ists. When the term is used broadly, it includes pantheists (the world is god), panentheists (the world is in God), and polytheists (there are many gods) – hence most of the native African religions

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and the world’s indigenous or tribal religions. Typically God is described as a personal being, often with the qualities of omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omni- benevolence (all-good). Based on the sacred scriptures of their particular tradition (the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads), theists often ascribe other qualities to God, such as conscious- ness, love, justice, and righteousness.

Theists usually defend specific ways of knowing, distinct from science, through which humans are able to know something of God and God’s nature. Traditionally, they have believed that God created the world, providentially guides it, and reveals God’s self in it. This means that God does things in the world (divine action), carrying out actions that are either consistent with natural law or that involve setting natural regularities aside (miracles).

At first blush, theism and naturalism appear to be incompati- ble positions. Naturalists affirm that all that exists is the universe (or multiverse) and the objects within it, whereas theists claim that something transcends the universe. Naturalists generally use science as their primary standard for what humans know, whereas theists defend other ways of knowing as well, such as intuition or religious experience.

So let us explore. Are the two positions incompatible? Or, when one probes deeper, can one detect any deeper compati- bilities? The best way to find out is to arrange a debate between a knowledgeable representative from each side and then to see what emerges. As you know, good debates between naturalists and theists in real life are hard to find; they often deteriorate into name-calling and shouting matches. Fortunately, in a book it is possible to imagine a calm and civil discussion between defend- ers of the two positions:

A NATuRALIST AND A THEIST IN DEBATE Host: The definitions of your positions have already been

presented. So let me ask each of you to give a basic defense of your position. Let us start with the theist.

Theist: Religion is one of the oldest and most notable fea- tures of humanity. Some of the greatest wisdom and some of the most ennobling ethical ideals are

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contained in the world’s religious traditions. These ideals are intrinsically linked to metaphysical beliefs, beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality. In my particular case, for example, I believe that an infinite personal being exists, one who is the Creator and ultimate ground of all finite things.

Naturalist: I don’t dispute the role that religions played in the childhood and youth of our species. Indeed, although much evil has been done in the name of religion, I concede that it has sometimes also brought some good. But humanity in its maturity has developed the sciences and begun to guide its decision-making by scientific results. If religion is to play any positive role today – and at least some of my naturalist friends believe it still can – it must function in whatever spaces are left over by the results of the various sciences.

T: There is no reason to think that the advent of sci- ence spells the death of religion. I advocate a more complex worldview, in which both serve important functions. I agree that religion should not compete with science in science’s own proper domain, but many of the most important human questions lie outside the sphere of scientific competence.

Host: Thanks for those opening statements. Here’s our next question. Are there areas of human experience, outside the domain of science, where religion pro- vides knowledge?

T: Science describes what is but cannot tell us how we ought to act. Hence, ethics and morality lie out- side its sphere. Science can tell us about the laws of nature and can explain the motion of physical bodies in the universe, but it cannot tell us what came before the universe or why it was created. Yet for many of us the meaning of human life turns on questions like these, questions about the ultimate nature of reality. Religion provides knowledge in these spheres.

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N: You wrongly set limits on science by claiming that it has no moral implications. For example, there are values that arise in the process of doing science, and these provide good models for human interactions, for institutions, and for politics.1 To know what kind of animal we have evolved to be tells us something about how we should live if we are to be happy and successful.

Hence science does provide some guidance for how humans ought to live. Of course, many human decisions are not dictated by physics or biology. In cases where there is great variability across cultures and moral sys- tems, and where the beliefs in question do no damage, we can be relativists, allowing each person to choose for himself or herself. Religion falls in this category. And on the meaning question: I find meaning in the pursuit of knowledge about the world, as well as in my family, friends, and hobbies. What more meaning do I need?

Host: Okay, next question. Does anything exist beyond the natural world taken as a whole?

N: I think such questions are meaningless. We can observe empirical objects; we can measure them and make pre- dictions about their causal interactions with each other. Why would we want to make truth claims about the existence of anything else? I tend to think that all such metaphysical language is literally meaningless – sort of like the famous poem from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe . . .’

T: I think I can show that it’s impossible to argue against metaphysics (in this case, belief in God) without doing metaphysics, and therefore contradicting oneself. I also think that a number of positive arguments can be given for affirming the existence of God. I don’t actually share the view of a school called ‘intelligent design,’ which claims that these arguments are scientific arguments and can win in a head-to-head competition with con- temporary scientific accounts of the world. They are to me instead philosophical arguments. But I think they are

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compelling nonetheless. I affirm the classical proofs for the existence of God: the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. They do not force belief in the existence of God, but they at least show that it’s not unreasonable to believe in God.

N: Those classic arguments are no longer persuasive in the scientific age. Some of them make assumptions about nature that we no longer hold today. For example, the teleological argument, the so-called argument from design, is no longer valid after Darwin. It argues that God exists based on the fact that animals and plants are matched to their environments; otherwise, it says, it would be impossible to explain why organisms are so perfectly suited to their surroundings. But Darwinism as a whole explains evolution and adaptation in scientific terms.

T: I agree that modern biology has rendered certain forms of the argument from design unconvincing. So let me give two arguments drawn from the context of mod- ern science, which I think are still persuasive. The first is the ‘fine-tuning’ argument. We now know that the fundamental physical variables had to fall within a very narrow range for life to be possible, and in fact they do. This suggests that we live in an ‘anthropic’ universe – a universe designed for life, or at least the only kind of universe in which life could arise. As the cosmologist Edward Harrison once said, ‘Here is the cosmological proof of the existence of God. The fine tuning of the universe provides prima facie evidence of deistic design. Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes, or design that requires only one.’

My second argument moves from the existence of natural law to the existence of God. Natural laws are prior to the existence of physical states of affairs; they are the mathematical regularities that determine the motions of particles and specify the four fundamental forces in the universe. But if laws precede the existence of the universe, and laws are more mind-like than body- like, then something like mind is the more fundamental

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order of reality. This supports the idea that ultimate real- ity is God, not matter.

And some of the traditional arguments for the exis- tence of God still remain valid in this age of science. One can answer the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ only if there exists an ultimate reality that contains the reason for its existence within itself. God is such a being; therefore God exists (the cosmologi- cal proof). The existence of values and of our awareness of moral obligation proves that there must be a highest good, which is God or is grounded in God (the axiolog- ical proof). Finally, religious experience provides some evidence of the existence of God (the argument from mysticism or religious experience).

N: I know that nothing would please you more than to draw me into the morasses of your metaphysical debates. In truth, I find that whole way of speaking a throw- back to a bygone era. You know the standard criticisms of these arguments as well as I do. We could debate the issues until we’re blue in the face, but there just isn’t enough empirical evidence to decide the issue one way or the other. These are the kind of old-style metaphys- ical disputes that my friends and I are trying to break away from.

Let’s take your last comment about religious expe- rience. In a scientific age, shouldn’t we try to learn as much as we can from the empirical study of religion? I don’t need to argue that all of your sentences are literally meaningless, like the logical positivists once did, but I do want to encourage you and your coreli- gionists to learn everything that you can about religion by scientific means. Did religious beliefs and practices help human beings in their various clans and tribes to survive in hostile environments? If so, how did this happen? Did religion increase group cohesion and motivate people to obey the social mores necessary for their survival? If so, you and I can agree that religion helped people to adapt, at least in the earlier stages of human evolution.

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Then we can discuss whether it is still adaptive today. If religion no longer is, why do people continue to believe? Perhaps religious belief is a by-product of men- tal and cognitive human traits that are adaptive – perhaps it’s something that our brains produce when they are running in neutral, as it were. The brain’s large prefrontal cortex functions to support generalizations and abstract reasoning. Maybe when it has no sense data to work with, it naturally produces ideas like God. Finally, can we agree that there are contexts in which religion is maladaptive, cases where religious practices decrease the fitness of a group? That question, too, could be studied empirically.

Such questions are only the start. Scientists are now studying how human biology shapes human feelings and desires (evolutionary psychology). There are biolog- ical explanations for why human beings believe certain things and disbelieve others. By studying evolution- ary history, we can reconstruct the ‘cognitive modules’ around which human cognition is built. The cognitive science of religion today is beginning to identify the ‘commonsense physics’ and ‘commonsense biology’ that evolution has produced, as well as why it’s intuitive for humans to detect agency in the world . . . and in the heavens.

If we did turn to metaphysics, however, I would side with Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Evolution shows more complex organisms arising out of simpler states of affairs. This pattern suggests that the origin of all things was maximally simple. Theism, by contrast, begins with a maximally complex being, God, who then creates relatively simple processes. To my mind that puts theists at a disadvantage when it comes to the evidence.

T: I am interested in the empirical evidence as much as you are, but we interpret it very differently. If God exists, as I believe, is it surprising that our brains would be naturally wired to produce the idea of God? Wouldn’t we also expect that groups that are bonded together by

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their belief in God would do better on this planet than non-religious groups? Also, you should know that tradi- tional theism affirmed the doctrine of divine simplicity. So we are not at all disturbed by Richard Dawkins’ argu- ment; it merely asks us for what we already affirm.

Host: Thanks for that exchange; that was very helpful. What do the two of you believe about the nature of humanity?

T: Everything that exists is God’s creation. We share many qualities with the animals as a result. Still, humans uniquely reflect the ‘image of God.’ Some people read Genesis in a literal way; they believe that God created humans as a ‘special creation,’ separate from God’s cre- ation of the animals. But others, like me, do not read the Hebrew Bible as a literal guide to scientific matters. We are happy to say that there was just the one creation of ‘the heavens and the earth’ and that humans evolved from animals. Still, I affirm that some unique human quali- ties have evolved through and out of this process. They include the ability to consciously know God and God’s self-revelation, to know that we are morally responsible before others, to recognize our need for salvation and relationship with God, and to commit our lives to God’s service. There is evidence that science is now helping to establish how unique many of the human capacities are.

N: Obviously I don’t share your views on God, but in gen- eral, I would say, naturalists are more skeptical about claims for human uniqueness than you are. Evolution involves a process of many small (and some larger) muta- tions to a genome, which lead to differential survival rates of the offspring. It’s true that new abilities evolve over time: the ability to move, sexual reproduction, the emergence of a brain and central nervous system, the ability to form mental representations of one’s environ- ment, social bonding and culture, and eventually the use of symbolic language. But it is a mistake to use any of these emergent properties as grounds for drawing an ontological divide and separating organisms into funda- mentally different kinds of living beings.

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Host: Next question. Is religion necessary for making life meaningful? Can religion alone produce the sense that we are ‘at home in the universe’?

T: Here I think I am on especially strong ground. Science leads to nihilism, the sense that the world is ultimately meaningless or even absurd. On the assumption of nat- uralism, there is no purpose to our lives, no final direc- tion to cosmic history. Science also cannot serve as the ground for values. One might choose to be moral, but one is not really obligated to do so. By contrast, if the world is created by a personal God who is good and who cares for creation, it’s a very different picture. One can give compelling answers to the core questions of existence. Now there is meaning, purpose, directionality, and a real basis for distinguishing right from wrong.

N: Interestingly, I think I am on equally strong ground in answering our host’s question. If physics were the only science, one might well conclude that all that exists is ‘matter (and energy) in motion’ as Thomas Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century. But biology studies organisms, and every organism has at least one purpose in the world: to survive and reproduce. Some things are naturally more valuable to a given organism given its biology and (in some cases) culture.

T: But that’s hardly a robust defense of values! If the fun- damental value of nature is ‘the survival of the fittest,’ as Darwin wrote, then – to also quote Thomas Hobbes – the final state of man would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ You might be able to show that treating your genetic relatives is biologically good, as is doing nice things for friends in the hope that they will reciprocate, but you could never ground a universal altruism – the call to love one’s enemies, for example – on the basis of biology alone.

N: That’s right; the call to universal love can be a cultural value, but it can’t be derived from biology alone. But on the more general point, you and I disagree. Biol- ogy gives rise to culture, with its complex languages and symbol systems. The stories and the values we live by

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are among these cultural products. As a naturalist, I don’t have to reduce everything in the natural world to genes or to the struggle for survival alone. I love my family and friends, pursue projects for the good of society, and hope for world peace just as much as you do; my values are as deeply embedded in who I am as yours are in you. It’s just that I don’t think they need any grounding outside of the natural and cultural worlds.

Host: Do miracles exist? Are the laws of nature ever suspended? N: That one’s easy: no! As the Scottish philosopher David

Hume showed in his famous Dialogues Concerning Natu- ral Religion in the eighteenth century, the reasons against believing that a miracle has occurred, that natural laws have been suspended, will always be massively greater than the reasons for affirming one. Not only that; even the possibility of miracles occurring would make science as we know it impossible. Imagine that a scientist would have to say when she encountered an anomaly: ‘Well, either my data is bad, or my theories are incomplete – or perhaps God has simply set aside a few natural laws here in order to actualize some goals in the world.’ No sci- ence could be done in such a context. But since there is no scientific evidence that miracles have ever occurred, I rest easy on this one.

T: I think things are more complex than my friend describes. God could easily be influencing the world in myriad forms without being detected by microscopes or Geiger counters. Over the eons God could have guided the course of evolution in many ways. Even if you don’t believe that God directly brings about physical changes in the world, it is possible for you to believe that God subtly influences human thought (and perhaps animals too), helping people to carry out God’s will. For me the most important point is that God is able to work mira- cles in the world if and when God wishes. This possibil- ity follows directly from God having created the finite world in the first place. The naturalist and I also disagree on the empirical question of whether miraculous things have taken place. Haven’t most of us heard stories and

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testimonies about some pretty miraculous events hap- pening? Isn’t it possible that they have? In the end, then, the most important thing for me is God’s ability to act in the world.

Host: Our time is running out, and we must draw to a close. For the last question, let me ask each of you whether you think that science and religion represent two oppos- ing worldviews, or could they offer two complementary ways of construing the one reality?

T: Some of my Jewish, Christian, and Muslim friends think that their theism is incompatible with science; but I dis- agree, as you’ve heard. It’s also true that many scientists tend to confuse the scientific data and theories them- selves with their own anti-religious prejudices and sec- ular worldview. When this occurs, they confuse science with atheism. When religious people hear scholars iden- tifying science with atheism, is it surprising that they conclude that they have to be anti-scientific?

Still, I personally am not convinced that science and religion exclude each other. Accurate scientific knowl- edge of the natural world does not exclude the existence of a supernatural God. In my view, supernatural expla- nations supplement naturalistic ones. There is no ultimate inconsistency. How could there be, if God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth?

N: I too have many friends more radical than myself who affirm a complete incompatibility between science and all forms of religious belief. The media seems to love report- ing on their views, and pays less attention to more mod- erate naturalists such as myself. I wouldn’t want to say that science excludes all religious belief whatsoever. But I do think that my theist friend here, with his robust supernaturalist claims, is going to have a harder time reconciling his the- ology with science than, say, a Buddhist would have.

Nevertheless, the theist shouldn’t derive too much comfort from my willingness to admit a compatibility- in-principle between science and religion. When it comes to concrete knowledge claims about God, I think

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there simply isn’t enough empirical evidence to war- rant your doctrines. If you want to affirm ‘ultimate mys- tery’ or stress the importance of living a ‘spiritual’ life, I can hardly complain. But as soon as you begin making any more concrete claims about God, I think you step beyond the empirical evidence.

T: I appreciate your open-mindedness. But your crite- rion, empirical evidence, begs the question against my position. If a God exists who is pure Spirit, then God will never be detected by the empirical means that you employ. God can be known only through metaphysical arguments, through the history of revelation (or scrip- ture), through the sense of moral obligation, or through religious experience. If you rule out all four of those means in advance, of course it becomes impossible for me to defend my beliefs. If you include the appropri- ate paths to knowledge, then I maintain that there is ample evidence that God exists. When one looks across the world’s religions and considers how deeply rooted religion is in human life, one realizes that there are some rather significant grounds for religious belief.

N: Actually, I think that the different religious traditions offer very different views of ultimate reality.

Host: That sounds like a great topic for us to come back to in later chapters of this book. For now, thanks for agreeing to appear in this book and to defend your views in such a clear and civil manner.

TAKING STOCK What can we learn from this debate? First, it breaks at least one widespread stereotype: the tendency to associate all naturalists with science and all theists with an anti-scientific attitude. This is the first assumption many make in any discussion of science and religion; it is also one that is widely popularized in the media and in large-market books. Many people tend to identify science with an ultimate or ‘metaphysical’ naturalism; they then associate belief in God with an anti-scientific attitude.

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Yet our short debate has already shown that such easy identi- fications are too simplistic. Our theist, at any rate, was interested in the results of science. He accepted evolution and incorporated it as part of his understanding of life on earth and of human beings. He grounded his arguments for the existence of God in data about the origin of the universe and its laws (cosmology). His understanding of God and the created world drew signifi- cantly from scientific results. Clearly, he saw science and religion as compatible, though not identical.

Nor did the naturalist fit the stereotype of a scientific natural- ist, just as many scientists don’t fit the stereotype either. She was not inherently antagonistic to religion or to broader metaphysi- cal positions. Of course, she did greatly value empirical data and would not endorse any position that made the doing of science impossible. She also tended to be skeptical about metaphysical claims and did not herself believe in the existence of God or a higher power. But she manifested a sort of healthy agnosti- cism about such questions, rather than a virulent hostility toward them. She might even have said, ‘Whatever religious or spiritual beliefs I end up affirming, I am concerned that they should not be in conflict with empirical results, for I want to learn as much as possible from scientific inquiry.’

Even this brief debate provides some sense of the range of possible positions. As we will soon see, the range only increases as we consider the vast differences between the world’s major religious traditions. Some theists are deeply antagonistic toward all science, and some scientists are hostile toward all religion, and we will want to better understand why. But sometimes the roles are reversed. Some theists build the core ideas of their theism out of science. If this is true for theists, it holds all the more for non-theistic traditions such as Buddhism, as we will see in Chapter 3. Likewise, devotion to the practice of science need not make one anti-religious. Many scientists have pursued the practice of science from the standpoint of deeply religious goals.

It will be our task in the following chapters to explore the intricacy of the questions and the main answers that are being given to them today – to take this opening debate deeper, as it were. Instead of black and white connections, we will find a world of complex interconnections, of similarities and differences, of

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shared partnerships and sometimes conflicting projects. Readers will be encouraged to take their own positions on the various debates and to construct the best arguments they are able to construct. Sometimes you will resonate strongly with one or more of the existing positions in a given debate. At other times you may find yourself formulating and defending positions that no one has ever advanced before. Like all philosophical topics, this one admits of many different possible responses, which – ideally – will lead to ever deeper and more adequate answers.

But first, before the wider plains of discourse open up, we must cross the high mountains of the contemporary warfare between science and religion. We will find places where the hos- tility seems insurmountable, where the two perspectives appear to be incommensurable. We will see how the media can whip up the fires of disagreement so that smoke covers the plains and one loses her bearings altogether. But we will also encounter peace keepers who seek to diminish the hostilities, and bridge builders who connect the two shores so that others can move more comfortably between them.

quESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCuSSION 1 Who do you think won this debate? Why? 2 If there was not a clear winner, what do you think was the

best argument that the theist brought? The best argument by the naturalist?

3 Were there any points in the debate where their beliefs were simply incommensurable – points at which they really could not establish any common ground as a basis for productive discussion? See if you can identify two or three of these points.

4 Clearly, this naturalist and this theist were working with some conflicting assumptions. Can you identify some of the deeper-level assumptions that each one held? If the discus- sion partners brought them to the surface, do you think they could give reasons to support their own assumptions as more adequate than their opponent’s assumptions? Try it. Can you formulate their assumptions and then come up with some reasons of your own for or against these deeper beliefs?

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16 THE BASIC quESTION

5 This was a remarkably civil debate: there was no name- calling, and both speakers stayed beautifully on topic. Are debates between naturalists and theists usually like this? If not, why not? What are some of the factors that helped to keep this particular conversation productive? To what extent are these factors present in ‘real-life’ debates between science and reli- gion? How could the real-life debates be improved?

NOTE 1 Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values, rev. edn. (New York: Harper &

Row, 1975).

Clayton, P. (2018). Religion and science : The basics. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com Created from lehman-ebooks on 2019-06-04 17:28:21.

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