Science & Religion: Are They Really At Odds? (Pt.2)
This is the second of three parts to my take on whether Science & Religion are truly at odds. I recommend reading them in order because each post expands on the last one and so some of the material may seem ill-defended if taken out of context.
Here’s a link to my first post, if you haven’t read it yet:
Science & Religion: Are They Really At Odds? (Pt.1)
There has been a lot of talk over the past century that the scientific method is fundamentally different to the…
The Reasons for Rejecting Natural Selection:
It would be easy to say that the primary reason Darwin is vastly rejected by almost half of the individuals polled is due to their Religious inclinations. This sort of reasoning is unfortunately almost certainly false. Many Christians readily accept Darwinism and teach it in classrooms. The lack of acceptance of natural selection is more likely due to the great political divide between the secular left and the religious right (Dixon 10).
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, explains that the mass rejection of evolution could be the due to how counterintuitive it is.
We do not have the experience of living multiple lifetimes and so it is impossible for us to personally observe traits and characteristics being obtained and passed down by species in order to adapt to their environments. Theists find this characteristic to be a fault and discredit its validity. That is, however, exactly what constitutes the scientific method.
The mass rejection of evolution could be due to how counterintuitive it is.
Thomas Dixon, in his book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction writes that this question tends to arise from not understanding how scientists conduct their research:
“[O]nly the tiniest fraction of what you know is based directly on your own observations. And even then, those observations only make sense within a complex framework of existing facts and theories which have been accumulated and developed through many centuries” (7).
The scientific community conducts the science, understands it, and relies heavily on peer-critique to weigh the evidence. It is important to mention that after being confirmed by peers in the field, science is still open to refutation and correction. Until additional evidence is revealed the general public is safe to believe the evidence and consider the theory reliable. Otherwise almost every piece of objective knowledge could be considered false.
There is also a difference between the way the public accepts theories that are tied to commonly held religious skepticism, such as natural selection, and beliefs that are tied to biology. For example, regular scientific theories such as the movement of bats in the dark are not put into question. The theories that are questioned tend to be connected to the larger skepticism towards corrupt institutions and governments.
In the year 1790, Lazzaro Spallanzani determined that bats use their ears to navigate in the dark. Before it was not explained as to how bats are able to move around at night since it was known that bats were blind. Through Spallanzani’s research scientists were later able to conclude that bats use echolocation also called biosonar to maneuver without sight. There is no reason for the general public to doubt Spallanzani’s findings due to the fact that the scientific community has confirmed the theory.
The question then is what piece of evidence is sufficient in proving a scientific theory and instituting a well-rounded science. Shermer helpfully distinguishes what these categories of science and non-science are but first, it would be important to discuss the tension between religion and science and whether they are incompatible as Shermer proposes.
My aim is not to provide an answer to this question, it is more to stress that if we are to formulate a conclusion, it should be based on accurate arguments and not on statistics and polling. It would be easy to brush off most theists as wishful thinkers, but it is not responsible critical thinking.
One need not be reminded that most early contributions to science were from theologians — in some cases contributing to theology more than to science as is the case for Newton, by most considered to be the father of modern science. Other theist scientists include:
- Galileo Galilei
- Francis Bacon
- Blaise Pascal
- Robert Boyle, and
- Johannes Kepler
Christian scientists are not only restricted to the period where most of the population believed in a deity. Contemporary scientists such as:
- the already mentioned mathematician John C. Lennox;
- the former director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins;
- Nobel Prize-winner in Physics, William Phillips; and
- the 2002 Templeton Prize-winner and former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, John Polkinghorne, all regularly publish works on Christian apologetics.
It is clear that scientists can hold religious beliefs and still conduct responsible science.
It would be easy to brush off most theists as wishful thinkers, but it is not responsible critical thinking.
The Three Categories of Science:
Shermer writes that most scientific claims can be put broadly into the following three categories: normal science, borderlands science, and pseudoscience. He writes that
“membership in these categories is provisional” and may be frequently revisited upon further investigation of the data (206).
includes heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, the neurophysiology of brain functions, and others. These are accepted by the mainstream scientific community.
includes creationism, holocaust revisionism, reincarnation, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and extrasensory perception (ESP), among others.
includes theories that do not yet have enough confirming data to prove that they are normal science. Among these are inflationary cosmology, theories of consciousness, String theory, hypnosis, acupuncture, and chiropractic. There are many different methods of distinguishing these theories from one another and Shermer expands on them in repetitive and extensive detail.
In this essay, I will simply provide one that I found most important and that is the method that scientists call the “Hypothetico-Deductive Model”. They apply it in order to define science and thus differentiate science from non-science.
This method includes:
(1) formulating a hypothesis,
(2) making a prediction based on the hypothesis, and
(3) testing whether it is accurate (208).
Science is therefore about the “past or present” and “open to rejection or confirmation” in the words of Shermer (208). Noticeably this is a very simple way of defining science and does not address the key issue that is at the heart of the demarcation question, namely what evidence is sufficient in proving a conclusion. Shermer, therefore, elaborates on this point further writing that in order to demarcate extensive claims. He considers the following five factors:
(1) the proponent of the claim,
(2) the methodology,
(3) the history of the claim,
(4) attempts to test it, and finally
(5) the coherence of the theories with other theories (208).
This method of demarcating between science and pseudoscience can be particularly useful when addressing beliefs that rely on historical documents and tangible data such as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ or Ufology.
The Resurrection is more convoluted than UFO sightings and is accepted by almost half of the planet’s inhabitants and so we will put more focus on it.
The English New Testament scholar N. T. Wright is perhaps most responsible for popularizing the widely accepted notion among Christian academics and apologists that the resurrection aligns with historical accounts. Bart D. Ehrman, a leading American New Testament scholar, on the contrary, insists that there is not enough evidence for accepting the Resurrection. Two contradictory accounts of the data must be the result of some underlying bias, motives, or preferential acceptance of evidence.
It is important to acknowledge that conflicting accounts can be present not only among the unscientific but among academics as well. If we are to apply Shermer’s five points to demarcate science from pseudoscience we need to first acknowledge that distinguished and even tenured professors are susceptible to making invalid conclusions based on preconceived notions or insufficient evidence. Ufology, creationism, Bigfoot sightings, supernatural interactions, and Holocaust revisionism all rely on an inappropriate historical appeal to authority in order to be justified.
With respect to the Resurrection in particular Christian scholars point out that eyewitness testimonies are enough to confirm that Jesus rose from the dead, stating that Mary Magdalene, doubting Thomas, and the rest of the twelve disciples personally witnessed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and could not possibly fabricate the truth since that would mean that they would put the lives of all the disciples in jeopardy.
Secular scholars, however, argue what any court accepts to be true today; that eyewitness testimony is unreliable for the obvious reason: everyone is open to bias and fabrication. Thus the debate is not simply about whether the person or supernatural being existed, but rather what historical evidence is sufficient and reliable.
The question then is why people, even academics, accept ideas on insufficient evidence. The answer is once again convoluted. I will elaborate on that in the third and last part of the series on this question. Link is here:
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Before you go…
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,