The Religion-Science Debate Is Theological

Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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34 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    “Why does theism automatically assume God pays special attention to humans “the real object” of divine creation?”

    Off the top of my head, there’s a Pascalian wager.

    If God is merely a watchmaker who really digs just building stuff, winding it up, and letting it go, then, hey, no biggie.

    But what if God actually *DOES* care about humanity? What if he loved humanity so much that he sent his Son to die for our sins? (Seriously, there are still backwater types who think this sort of thing! God only knows why!)

    Well, at that point, one can have a *PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP* with the Creator! Hell, you can talk to Him, and (in some cases) He can talk to you! Even if He doesn’t “talk”, per se, you can certainly feel His presence.

    Well, if God doesn’t give a damn about you personally, there’s no real upside or downside to much of anything… but if God *DOES*… well, you’d better get to following this little rule set right here. If you do it right, you’ll get free stuff. And, of course, if you do it wrong, there’s going to be a pineapple stuffed up your nose (or wherever) for all eternity.

    It’s your eternal soul at stake. How would *YOU* bet?Report

  2. Scott says:


    Pascal’s wager is wrong for two main reasons.

    First, it unreasonably assumes that the only two options are that the Christian God exists or that no personal God exists at all. Rah, Zeus, or Odin might exist. Or maybe a lesser known god exists, one who cares a lot about your method of reasoning and not so much what belief system you end up with. Some of these gods, if they existed, would punish you for following Christian laws, and therefore the wagerer must take them into account.

    Second, the wager uses a bungled notion of belief. We don’t say, “It’s probably beneficial for me to believe P, so I believe P.” We say, “X, Y, & Z are reasons that P is likely to be true, so I believe P.” It’s important to keep in mind the difference between convincing and coercing, argument and negotiation.

    We are looking for truth, aren’t we?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Scott says:

      Scott, I assure you that I know what the problems with Pascal’s Wager are.

      I was dealing with tighter focus… specifically trying to deal with the answer to the question I quoted.

      Let’s say that you believe in a deity. Now, is there any reason to choose a deity who knows who you are over one that does not?

      Be His name YHWH, Odin, Zeus, Pimp Daddy, or what have you, why would you pick a God who knows your name over one who does not?

      I’d say that The Wager comes in handy when it comes to answering that particular question.

      Additionally, let’s say that there are two positions. The first (let’s call it Position P) says that God exists but doesn’t know your name and isn’t likely ever to do so. The second says that God exists and not only knows your name but has a list of stuff for you to buy and the more stuff you cross off, the more stuff you’ll have in heaven.

      Wait 1000 years.

      Which proposition will have more followers at the end of this period?Report

  3. Francis says:

    “My point is that whenever someone enters this debate they have to become theologians.”

    No, they really don’t. They only need to if they wish to debate the issue on the grounds on which you prefer.

    The science case is really very simple. Methodological naturalism works; no other method of approaching science works. There is no need to invoke any god in science; every attempt to do so has failed.

    But lots of people feel the need for religion or spirituality in their lives. So scientists keep getting asked whether you can be both a good scientist and a good Christian / Jew / Muslin etc.

    The answer to that question is not so clear. On the one hand, many highly-qualified scientists are people of faith. On the other hand, when they’re asked how they reconcile their faith with their work, the answers can be quite odd. (God works thru quantum effects, etc.)

    Also, there’s a substantial component of evangelicalism / fundamentalism that is aggressively anti-science. YECs and IDiots are the worst of the bunch, but even the Templeton Foundation tries to assert that faith can inform science. Maybe it can, but so far in the history of humankind it has failed. That’s a long enough record of failure for most people to give up the idea as a lost cause. So the non-accomodationists reasonably ask whether trying to accomodate faith in the context of science is actually doing harm to society.

    What Jerry Coyne and PZ are arguing for is silence — in matters of faith scientists should say nothing. But since so many people press for scientists to accommodate faith, people like PZ feel that it is appropriate to push back hard and point out that the accomodationist scientists are in some ways more illogical than pure believers — they do actually know better yet still choose to believe.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Francis says:


      I agree that methodological naturalism works perfectly fine for science. So I’m not a fan of science proving religion arguments of any variety as I said in the post.

      That said, I think you underestimating the degree to which someone like PZ Myers is really an anti-theist more than just someone who wants to keep faith discussions out of science.

      My sense is that these things inevitably bleed over into philosophy (metaphysics, ontology, ethics) and there the question of whether methodological naturalism is the same thing as ontological naturalism is a very important one. Whether the results that occur from purposefully (and again correctly) applying a naturalistic mindset to nature is taken to be Reality, Capital R.

      If Coyne and Myers only want silence in regards to science then I would say the same in reverse. I.e. Science should be in my opinion agnostic. Or simply have no opinion on the matter.

      But I think in the end that really won’t ever work. The non-overlapping magisteria position really fails on a number of points it seems to me. So both sides are going to range into each other’s territories. They ought to do so with some intelligence I think.Report

      • Francis in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        “They ought to do so with some intelligence I think.”

        OK, you go first. Please recognize that a scientific analysis of the bible leads to the conclusion that it is an inconsistent amalgamation of Bronze Age stories. Let’s have mainstream religious organizations appearing in Texas and Pennsylvania in support of high schools teaching age-appropriate evolutionary theory in bio. class, and support sex ed also. Let’s have these same organizations publicly recognize that their teachings on life beginning at conception are utterly inconsistent with their silence on IVF or their toleration of abortion in the cases of rape or incest.

        Once religious organizations start acting with some intelligence, maybe scientists like Coyne and Myers will start moderating their views.

        Please note that Coyne’s most recent writings were triggered by what he felt was an excessively accomodationist position taken by NCSE. What Coyne wants is for the NCSE to be silent on the issue. What PZ wants is for people to recognize that there is no evidence in support of their particular faith, and therefore that having that faith should not give them special standing in society.

        In FSM We Trust! rAmen.Report

        • Chris Dierkes in reply to Francis says:


          The stories cover something like a thousand years worth of writing. i.e. The same amount of time from us to 1000 CE. If we read the great works of the last 1,000 years in Western literature there would definitely be some inconsistencies as you call them. I don’t adhere to Dante’s cosmology but I still love to read him. I would still call him a source of deep wisdom.

          A scientific analysis as you call leads to a view of inconsistencies. And a poetic analysis shows that the Psalms (and parts of the Book of Job) have some of the most beautiful lyricism in our culture.

          Is the poetic analysis deficient as compared to the scientific one?

          So when you think that way that then this question of evidence is of value. What does it mean to say there is no evidence for God? There’s no evidence within–as we already discussed–a purposeful methodological naturalism in terms of material explanations of phenomena to be sure. But what does that tell us about anything else? Who said the point was that God needed scientific proof? It’s a category error. Science by its (again valid) methodology screens God out. So what does that teach us? Not much on this front.

          It’s a philosophical position that what is of maximal value is explanation (and therefore proof). That’s a philosophical position, but it’s a position not necessarily the position. Does poetry explain the universe? Does symbolism? Is there any room for meaningfulness other than through explanation?

          What about adoration? Or transfiguration? These have no value–is everything just instrumental to knowledge gaining and mastery of the natural world?

          fyi, I’m all for evolutionary biology in class. My church is not out to oppose evolution in school.Report

          • Alex in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

            But should we pretend that the Bible is the only book that contains beautiful lyricisms or insights of wisdom?

            Surely the Bhagavad-Gita, the Qur’an, the Vedas, or the writings of Confucius and the Buddha are not silent on such matters?

            It is when people apply any one set of literary traditions, taken to be authoritative Truth, as a manner of fundamental revelation about the world, that religion posits itself as science and conflict with reality ensues.Report

            • Chris Dierkes in reply to Alex says:


              I don’t pretend The Bible is the only book of deep lyricism and the other texts you mention are certainly profound.

              When we talk about fundamental revelation about the world, depends on what world we mean. If we mean that The Bible’s cosmology is taken to be the really objective correct scientific account of the material causation of the world, then yeah big time conflict ensues. But if we hold (as I’m arguing with Bob) that there are also domains of truthfulness and justness (to use Habermas’ terms) then The Bible may (and I believe does) possess a great deal of truth in those domains.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

                And yet you reject the nonoverlapping magisteria viewpoint. Remind us what the matters are that science deals with that “The Bible” also does, and in what ways we should give credence to what the Bible has to say about them when it comes into conflict with the scientific account.Report

              • Chris Dierkes in reply to Michael Drew says:

                I’m not sure why The Bible is in quotes. Anyway, science I believe inherently involves values, politics, and ethics. I still think it’s science but there’s no value-free science in my book. Not on the application/large scale anyway. The Bible (among others) is interested in those. Similarly The Bible presents a by its own-time a cosmological (or if you like scientific/proto-scientific) account of the universe. So I think religious people should be interested what science has to say. I’m pushing for some as yet not totally defined third position that is neither NOMA nor religion-science should be reconciled (bc they are at war).

                They are different but also share elements that do overlap.Report

  4. Bob says:

    “On the flight over to Calgary (for Br. Scott’s nuptials) I read Bob Wright’s new book The Evolution of God. I’m wanting to do a post or two on that book, but I was having a hard time getting it together.”

    Perhaps because it very much demolishes the concept of a reveled deity. Holy, divinely inspired, books out. Organic, man created, gods in. As The Evil Dawkins puts it, if triangles had gods they would look like triangles.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:

      nice try but not so much Bob. thank you playing though.

      i’ve read all of Wright’s books, so I’m well aware of his pov which I’m not in 100% agreement with to be sure, but doesn’t bother me in anyway. I’ve learned a great deal from his books. I’m still thinking of what angle(s) to take exactly.Report

      • Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        Oh, I enjoy engaging with the delusionist, religious, crowd so I await your take on Wright’s new book. I’m looking forward to more play. Hope you muster more than snark if and when you do.Report

  5. Butters says:

    Great post. Reminds me of Terry Eagleton.Report

  6. Bob says:

    Chris, Once upon a time you took me to school on my misunderstanding of your theology. As I recall you refereed to it as “process theology.” I’m going on memory here, so if that is the incorrect term forgive me, and straighten me out regarding the correct phrase.

    In any case, I take it that your religion, Christianity,? is not defined by the Nicene Creed. Or traditional Christian theology, Pope Benedict XVI probably would not recognize your theology. Are those fair statements?

    So, in a effort to establish some sort of firm ground, would it be possible for you to give three, five, ten, 20 precepts you hold regarding God and man? Or however you see religion.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:

      Well the argument I gave up above is classic orthodox Christian theology. It’s called deification (God became human so that humanity would become God), and it’s the central teaching of what we call The Patristic (or sometimes Greek) Fathers.

      So Pope Benedict would recognize that. He and I would differ on the role of the Papacy, contraception, women’s ordination. Interestingly he and I would largely agree on matters of war, economics, ecology, abolition of the death penalty. I consider those to be disciplinary-ethical matters and not akin to having a different doctrinal theology. [i.e. I’m not going to call him a heretic]. He might not grant me that same amount of room theologically.

      Process Theology asks whether if it was a good idea to hitch Christian theology to Platonic (and later Aristotelian) philosophy–particularly as in Greek thought eternity is considered to be unchanging. So hence God is eternal; God must not change. This however seems to conflict rather clearly with the text of the Bible where God does in fact change. Various theologians make various arguments to reconcile those differences but I’m not really sure they work. In that system God tends to have power over the system. Hence all the arguments about natural versus supernatural explanations.

      Process thought is naturalistic but argues that God works through persuasion/influence not coercion (or power over). That means all beings are free and the future is not controlled and God may be said to change, to be surprised, to go through process like all other beings.

      It’s actually similar in some regards to what Bob Wright is after EXCEPT (big except) he is a materialist. An economic, technological materialist. He eventually allows some status to consciousness but only as an epi-phenomenon. I, along with Whitehead, Teilhard, and C.S. Peirce think consciousness is inherent from the beginning along with materiality. It’s open-ending processing, evolving consciousness but there. I don’t think consciousness is derivative of materialism–in the Marxist way Wright does–but rather think they co-arise as two sides of the same rather mysterious coin.

      This does not require a supernaturalistic edifice. Just that consciousness not be considered a brain state, an illusion, or a by-product of neuron collisions.Report

      • Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        “This does not require a supernaturalistic edifice. Just that consciousness not be considered a brain state, an illusion, or a by-product of neuron collisions.”

        Is the use of “supernaturalistic edifice” something of an escape hatch? In other words, are you saying, “don’t pay attention to those crazies over there, they really don’t understand God. Their edifice is bogus.”

        If I play around with that statement and write, “This does not require a supernatural explanation. Just that consciousness not be considered a brain state, an illusion, or a by-product of neuron collisions.” Would you accept that?

        If I assert that consciousness is a result of something other than neuron collisions, chemical reactions, trauma and a host of other physical reactions plus socially induced factors what is left but a supernatural explanation? It may not require an “edifice” but it does require the supernatural. And that I reject.

        Regarding your orthodoxy, you seem fairly unorthodox. I also hold some of the views you ascribe to Benedict but that does not qualify me as religious and orthodox.

        Christian religious orthodoxy is a nebulous concept but perhaps a starting point are such affirmations as, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Or, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Are you orthodox as to those views?

        And then a whole host of *lesser* beliefs, original sin, virgin birth, eternal damnation and on and on and on.

        I take it that your religious process has moved you away many of those views.

        Here is my bottom line, and it is egregiously pedestrian and repetitive, religion is a man made institution and it can embody any oogedy-boogedy desired.Report

        • Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:

          on the edifice part. I know that my views (philosophically) on this are considered kinda crazy, but I just don’t know how we reduce consciousness to materiality. Again you don’t need an super-natural explanation because consciousness in this understanding is not “over” nature.

          Science discusses emergence–qualities that arise that are more then the sum of its parts. Not supernatural but it is an open-ended, mysterious? process.

          On my orthodoxy. Relative to the Nicene Creed or the Our Father. The ancients had a cosmological view that heaven was up above earth. Hence all the talk of God coming down. We don’t live in that universe-picture anymore. We know that heaven isn’t up above. Up above is more space.

          Now the question is whether the truth/meaning of the statements is bound to their worldview. This is a biggie. Some people both religious and non-religious would say yes. I say no. I hold it’s possible to adhere to the belief without necessarily having to describe it in ways that don’t make sense to our world any longer. Like heaven is up.

          e.g. Our Father the key meanings in the line you quoted are:

          1. Does a person recognize God as one who is related to us (Father) and source of holiness in life (hallowed).

          2. Does that person to desire to do (what s/he understands to be) the will of God?

          I do believe in those. I don’t do so in a way with a crass literal image of a old man up somewhere. The Father part is metaphor. And it’s only one metaphor among a whole host of metaphors in The Bible relative to God. Others include Mother, Warrior, Comforter, Creator, Spirit, Glory, Wisdom, so on and so on. I think the key is to use as many metaphors as possible so that you can then realize that all of them ultimately are not ultimately God. For that it requires undergoing a deep contemplative practice to encounter the Living God beyond our normal human limited capacities.Report

          • Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

            “on the edifice part. I know that my views (philosophically) on this are considered kinda crazy, but I just don’t know how we reduce consciousness to materiality. Again you don’t need an super-natural explanation because consciousness in this understanding is not “over” nature.”

            I don’t have a lot of time right now, so for now let be just respond to the above.

            Do you really think your lack of understanding, “I just don’t know….” is in anyway helpful? I guess if I just don’t know I’m free to invent any explanation that fits my ignorance. On the other hand a lot of folks have no difficulty reducing “consciousness to materiality.” If you said, “I just don’t know how to preform a face-lift” would it follow that no one knows how to do it?

            You are the one invoking supernatural. Does hyphenating it as you do above change the meaning? Wouldn’t a better choice be “beyond” and not “over” nature? But in any case make up your mind. If consciousness is not defined by the supernatural stop invoking that term.Report

            • Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:

              again i’m not invoking any supernatural. if anything my understanding of consciousness would be termed intranatural. Or maybe internatural. It’s simply the within whose without is the materiality we see. It’s not beyond nature, it’s within it. If you want to experience consciousness you go within yourself not beyond yourself or beyond your body. It’s a not a separate substance (a la Cartesian Dualism) but rather simply a different perspective on the same occasion (a la Whitehead). That’s all.Report

  7. conradg says:

    The notion that there is some unbridgeable gap between religion and science is supported only by atheists who want no part of religion. It’s not an actual fact, it’s a claim that atheists make, in order to bolster the case for atheism. The idea is, if we can make this into an either/or dichotomy, and we can show that science is true, it means that religion is false. Well, this is a false logic. Both can be true, and yet make contradictory claims that have to be ironed out through investigation.

    I’m reminded of a great saying by Heisenberg: “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.” I’d suggest that religion and science are two great truths that are in some respects the opposite of one another, but that only makes them more true, and greater, and not that one must be true and the other false.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to conradg says:

      well said conradg. the heisenberg quotation is right on.Report

    • Francis in reply to conradg says:

      There exist some religions, and some practitioners of religion, which make no false scientific claims. That is a very small group.

      Look at CD’s comment above. “I … think that consciousness is inherent from the beginning”

      First, what does that even mean? That consciousness is a fundamental force, like gravity?

      Second, it appears that CD is making a scientific claim. That’s great; let’s test it.

      People believe all kinds of utterly irrational things; my boss, a great lawyer, goes to an astrologer. The problem arises when people assert that their irrational beliefs are to be afforded respect because the belief is based on a religion.

      To be blunt, it is a proveable fact that there is a tremendous and unbridgeable gap between the way that millions of people practice their religion and science.Report

      • Chris Dierkes in reply to Francis says:

        The Consciousness claim is more philosophical I would say than scientific. (At least as science is typically understood). Natural Science assumes material causation, which again I think is valid so long as it’s aware of its built-in limitations. When someone moves from realizing they are taking a position for the purposes of a scientific endeavor to assuming that the world is a (totally) material process, that’s a philosophical (ontological, metaphysical) move. It might be right, might not be, but it can’t be decided by natural science.

        We need different methodologies to get at the question of consciousness. So relative to religion we could talk about mystical or contemplative-meditative practices. It’s a kind of phenomenology. They undertake a practice, an experience arises (data in William James’ understanding), and then they interpret it and confirm/disconfirm the experience with the community of the adept.

        If we had a broader notion of science (or perhaps better learning) that consisted of those steps, then I think that typically religious process would qualify. Although of course people can do meditation without being religious. The two can also go together.

        I don’t think people deserve respect because of their religious beliefs. I’m not looking for respect or whatever.Report

  8. conradg says:

    I would happen to agree with CD’s way of looking at things, that consciousness is prior to form. However, I disagree with Francis that this is a scientific statement. It’s a metaphysical statement, whereas science can only resolve physical statements.

    Francis ought to know the traditions behind such statements, being as they are central to the religious view – even of religions that don’t explicitly say such things. Religion is, by its very nature, founded in the subjective dimension, which science is not able to study, since we are, as subjective observers of the universe, consciousness, and the scientific method does not allow one to study the very awareness that is aware of the universe, regardless of what neurology claims. Religion generally speaks of a mystical reality that precedes the experience of the senses, the mind, thought, etc., and from which they arise. To study that scientifically would be like trying to study what came before the Big Bang. It can’t be done objectively.

    The general method of argument of scientific atheists these days is to try to reduce all questions and issues, no matter how philosophically or metaphysically subtle, to physical scence. And to do so dogmatically, insistently, relentless, and without quarter. If others do not agree to this reduction, they are considered illogical and hopeless. But all it boils down to is a fruitless exercise in abstraction and reduction, which is both the great discipline of science, and its limit. It’s a great discipline when applied to the physical facts of the universe, but taken beyond that limit, it has increasingly little value, and can only make dogmatic assertions about the nature of reality. Unsurprisingly, the main assertion it makes is that of materialism, that there is nothing to reality but objective physical form and forces. Such that, it wonders if our own consciousness is just a physical event or force that somehow mysteriously arises from physical matter. Yet it can’t actually describe consciousness as a material process and event, because we are the very consciousness that observes all material events..Report

    • Francis in reply to conradg says:

      you’re both ducking. Either consciousness is capable of scientific analysis, in which case the actions of a large number of scientists who are studying it are not a waste of time, or it isn’t, in which case it is the first provably supernatural event recorded in our planet’s history (and, oddly enough, one that everyone experiences every day, as they wake up).

      The enjoyment of consciousness is, I agree, a metaphysical idea. But the comparison of a human’s state of consciousness to that of, say, a whale, is at the beginning a purely scientific endeavor.Report

      • Chris Dierkes in reply to Francis says:

        Consciousness studied scientifically becomes information processing and brain state mapping. I don’t think that’s a useless endeavor but I don’t think that is the whole of the subject matter either.

        Because it doesn’t get at the felt-sense of awareness and self-consciousness. If you assume off the bat that everything is determined by the brain then sure it’s easy enough to dismiss consciousness as brain state. Then you end up with the brain as computer metaphor and everything becomes a question of how to run the software of information processing in the hardware of our brain.

        But that’s all still materialistic, even if in a qualified sense. The way you experience consciousness is by undertaking practices that reveal consciousness. Science isn’t built to do that. That’s only a problem for the person who thinks science is the ultimate explanation of all reality. I don’t hold that view, so I’m not bothered by science having limitations. I think all methods/disciplines have limitations.

        My guess Francis is when you say the comparison of a human state of consciousness with a whale’s you really mean the brain states and therefore are already showing the underlying assumption. If I’m wrong on that guess, then what does state of consciousness signify for you?Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

          Maybe not purely brain states, but certainly exclusively materialistic interactions, in theory describable by science. Ultimately this is unresolvable, as each side proceeds from nearly question-begging assumptions, yours being that consciousness is not purely material. Part of the problem seems semantic, as you seem to be saying not that there is a fact of the matter that consciousness either does or does not have a non-material component, and that you believe it does, but rather that anything that does not have a non-material component cannot by definition be consciousness.Report

  9. conradg says:

    Neurologists study the brain and nervous system. They don’t study “consciousness”. I’m all in favor of such studies, but let’s not pretend that they are actually directly investigating this subjective dimension of witnessing experience that we all are grounded in. Abstracting our experience as a brain phenomena doesn’t account for the fact that we have experience at all. It’s an overreaching beyond the limits of scientific inquiry.

    What religion and mysticism are concerned with is this actual experience we have of being conscious, being aware, having a “soul” so to speak, that actually experiences this body, mind, brain, life, etc. When we say that consciousness is primary, it means just that – our actual experience is primarily that of being consciousness, being awareness, and any objects to our awareness are secondary. Thus, even the body and brain, being vehicles of our awareness, are secondary to awareness itself, at least experientially. And this is the fundamental basis for believing that consciousness survives death, and is, at its root, a greater reality than the world of physical objects, from which even they spring. In that sense, everything is consciousness, everything is “spirit”, and the various statements of the world’s religions begin to make sense in a greater context than can be found in science. It is this greater context that makes religious statements, even ones that might seem “wrong” on the bare facts, to be true. When Thales declared that “everything is water”, for example, he wasn’t talking about H2O, he was using the traditional metaphor that equates water with consciousness. Likewise, most religious language speaks from a perspective in which consciousness is the primary medium, but understood in a universalist manner. It is concerned with out actual experience of being conscious, of being connected to a living awareness that is greater than our mere bodily life, but which is limited to that while we are alive in the body.

    So it’s not just the mode of science, but the very direction of attention that makes it impossible for science to directly study consciousness, as mystics do. Scientists want to objectify what is subjective, and they end up studying the brain, rather than using their own awareness to directly study their actual experience of awareness. That limits severely how far they can go with it.Report

  10. Will Wilson says:

    Apologies for jumping into the middle of your comments-war here, but I just read Coyne’s article myself, and two glaring errors that any scientist should be ashamed of jumped out at me:

    1) Highly selective application of the anthropic principle. Coyne uses the AP as an explanation of cosmological fine-tuning, but then won’t apply it to the observed fact of human evolution in his earlier discussion of that. If I were more suspicious, I would even suspect that he ordered his argument in this way so that readers wouldn’t be expecting the AP to show up again when he’s rebutting Giberson and Miller’s claims.

    2) Understanding of physical laws as proscriptive rather than descriptive.

    Both are a little confusing, and a little disappointing.Report

  11. Michael Drew says:

    I’ve been mulling this post over, and haven’t been able to decide where I come down. There is every good reason to call for intellectual rigor in understanding and addressing the positions of one’s interlocutors. At the same time, it’s probably unrealistic to expect folks outside a field to reach a level of mastery of its content that would allow them to engage on near-equal terms with real practitioners.

    The more I think about it, though, the more I feel that what is gained by having high barriers to entry to the debate in terms of detailed understanding of each worldview does not outweigh the resulting narrowing of the range of participants. I fear that restricting the debate to only those who have high-relief understanding of various theologies as well as scientific processes and areas of knowledge will result in a carefully calibrated, highly technical accord that ultimately says very little of interest, and means next to nothing to anyone without the dual expertise of those who crafted it (much like a diplomatic communique following a closely watched but unproductive summit meeting).

    We would expect such a document as that to reflect the intellectual inclinations and proclivities of those who (for lack of a better term) negotiated it, and my guess would be that if those participants were all possessed of considerable knowledge or expertise in both some area(s) of science and one or more religion, there would likely be a homogeneity among their outlooks that would not serve the purpose of a full debate between removed, but we hope reconcilable, viewpoints. Isn’t the point of debate to bring adherents of opposing positions together? How is that furthered by narrowing the range of views represented?

    It seems to me that one example you give is mistaken — I’m not at all sure that a group of scientists who had gathered for the express purpose of engaging members of religious communities on the topic of the relation of science to religion would dismiss one of their opposite number for making an incorrect scientific claim, as long as it was a mistake made in good faith and they didn’t sense that it was in some way laying a misleading predicate for later argumentation. I’d rather have more people involved in the debate, even if that means more time is spent clearing up misconceptions and misconstruals. There is mainly upside in the extra time spent that way in my view — greater mutual understanding at least of others’ views, if not actual reconciliation, among more people. And as for those who will not accept being corrected in an area outside their expertise, we should trust that arguments built on misrepresentations of the views being critiqued will justly not find success in the marketplace of ideas.Report