Science & Religion: Are They Really At Odds? (Pt. 3)
This is probably the most difficult of the three parts of this series and so I appreciate if you get through it all and let me know what you think. I cherish it very much.
Previous two posts:
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…
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…
Please read in order to understand the context of my arguments. In this blog post, we will address belief and knowledge, confirmation bias, and claims against macroevolution.
Belief and Knowledge:
Cognitive scientists have been attempting to understand and explain this phenomenon for the past century, if not longer. It is simply a matter of fact that we rarely question the scientific studies that we come across.
Biologists have empirically observed that blue whales are the largest mammals on earth to which few of us object since we have no apparent reason to doubt this study. We accept this claim despite having not personally observed all the mammals on earth.
David Hume infamously argues that this is the underlying Problem of Induction, also known as the Problem of the Uniformity of Nature. Scientists, on the other hand, see the Problem of Induction as the glory of science since it implies that both refutations and errors are what expand our current scientific knowledge. Blue whales are perhaps not the largest mammals on earth as much of the ocean remains unexplored.
This does not mean that we should be skeptical of all objective scientific knowledge.
Most do not understand this important distinction and accept claims readily even when they are obviously false. If we are to accept the claim of Nazis, for example, that Jews are inferior to the Aryan race, then it would matter what evidence is presented in support of that claim. And even then, if it was found that certain races hold higher Intellectual prowess over others, it would still not suggest that one race is superior to another.
Widely held scientific claims, such as heliocentrism, or natural selection, however, are not only accepted by the scientific community but have strong evidence in support of their claims, which are available to the public. We have still not addressed why intellectuals continue to hold claims based on insufficient evidence.
French cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier attempt to explain why this is the case and published their findings in their widely cited study, Why Do Humans Reason? They conclude that our reasoning faculties evolved to provide support for views we already hold and not to be objective about every piece of knowledge we come across.
Karl Popper, the notorious philosopher of science, originally argued that this sort of reasoning will inevitably lead to confirming a belief we already hold. To Popper, for instance, Freud is an exemplary case of confirmation bias since his method of experimentation sets out to confirm beliefs rather than disprove them. To come back to the previously discussed case of the Resurrection and for the reason why Professor Wright and Professor Behrman are at opposing ends of the spectrum, Popper would argue, that if we are to look for evidence that Jesus Christ was the son of God then we are likely to find them, both from history and literature.
If we are to prevent bias we should seek contradictory evidence — not remain satisfied with that which confirms our hypothesis. If the findings are overwhelmingly in support with our hypothesis, then it is safe to assume that the premises are true.
Most religious belief, however, is not based on a reliable method of distinguishing between valid premises and invalid premises. The cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist, Bruce M. Hood of The University of Bristol explains in his book The Science of the Superstitious that,
“[T]he number one reason people believe in the supernatural is that of their own personal experience. No amount of scientific explanation seems to shake the foundations of such belief” (43).
The already mentioned professor Lennox firmly disagrees stating in a debate with the Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer that his worldview is rational and evidence-based. As we have mentioned above, most religious belief is based on insufficient evidence, some of it based on bias, and the rest is held because of not looking at all the data presented. Lennox would be in the last category since he holds that biologists are too quick to confirm evolution and that the theory has holes that need further explanation, namely what he sees as the mathematical “impossibility” of the evolution of the human eye since the origin of species.
Lennox quotes Colin Patterson, who presents a deductive argument stating that natural selection is not a scientific theory, by definition, but a truism:
- (1) All organisms must reproduce.
- (2) All organisms exhibit hereditary variations.
- (3) Hereditary variations differ in their effect on reproduction.
- Therefore, variations with favourable effects on reproduction will succeed, those with unfavourable effects will fail, and organisms will change.
Patterson thus observes:
“this shows that natural selection must occur but it does not say that natural selection is the only cause of evolution, and when natural selection is generalized to be the explanation of all evolutionary change or of every feature of every organism, it becomes so all-embracing that it is in much the same class as Freudian psychology and astrology” (104)
In quoting Patterson, Lennox attempts to persuade his readers that chance does not cause any action and thus can not be the explanatory force of the Universe. Natural selection, however, is a law-like biological system that has been established out of pure necessity not out of chance.
Traits and genes are adopted because they are the most likely to promote survival. Lennox and Patterson, however, do not see this necessity. Lennox writes that “[Natural selection] helps preserve any beneficial mutation. . . . But [it] does not cause the mutation. That occurs by chance” (105).
Lennox is not the only mathematician that has voiced their opposition to evolution.
The most notable of which is perhaps the exchange that occurred at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia in the year 1966 between mathematician Stanley Ulam and biologists Sir Peter Medawar and the chairman of the conference, C. H. Waddington. Ulam argued that it was highly improbable for the eye to have evolved by mutational changes due to there simply not being enough time (Kaplan and Moorhead 29–30).
A Professor of Mathematics from Paris and Member of the French Academy of Sciences, Marcel-Paul Schutzenberger, agreed with Ulam’s calculations, concluding that biologists too readily agree with macroevolution. Sir Fred Hoyle, astrophysicist and mathematician, encapsulates these conclusions by writing,
“When ideas are based on observations, as the Darwinian theory certainly was, it is usual for them to be valid at least within the range of the observations. It is when extrapolations are made outside the range of observations that troubles may arise. So the issue that presented itself was to determine just how far the theory was valid and exactly why beyond a certain point it became invalid” (7).
To Hoyle, then, the mathematical probability of rabbits evolving from primeval soup is not only unlikely but mathematically impossible.
The Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, molecular biologist, and author on science and religion, Denis Alexander, strongly disagrees with Lennox’s portrayal of macroevolution. He writes that Chapter 7 of Lennox’s book “presents a smorgasbord of misrepresentations and straightforward error.”
Lennox compares natural selection to an unfalsifiable theory, stating that it fails Popper’s Demarcation Question and subsequently by quoting Patterson compares it to Freudian psychology and astrology (102), to which Alexander says that comparing the two is deceptive and that macroevolution is in fact “a theory with real explanatory power.”
He then points out that Lennox misrepresents the fossil record and says that the data is “far more impressive than [Lennox] seems aware” of. Alexander writes:
“[T]he inheritance of ‘fossil’ genetic sequences in our genomes in the form of pseudogenes, retroviral insertion and transposons, together demonstrate our own common ancestry with the apes beyond any reasonable doubt” (Alexander).
It is notable that Lennox mentions among other things that the fossil record is insufficient evidence. This is most likely due to him searching for confirmation of his already existing hypotheses or biases. If he were to listen to Popper’s “Test of Falsifiability,” which he is obviously familiar with, he would seek contradictory evidence instead of settling with evidence that has already been contradicted.
It is mentionable that Alexander is an Evangelical that has been vocal throughout his career about his belief and its compatibility with science. Francis Collins similarly generates abundant research in his field and has been an outspoken fundamentalist Christian for most of his academic life. As was mentioned earlier, he was a major part of the Human Genome Project and has publicly confirmed his acceptance of evolution. Collins does not see his Christian belief and his work in genetics as mutually exclusive.
In his book Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief he writes that not even Darwin could have hoped for the sort of strong evidence that him and his team have come across in studying genetics. Mutations in DNA, he writes, are estimated to occur 1 in every 100 million base pairs per generation. The majority of these mutations occur in parts of the genome that are not important and do not result in serious damage.
If a mutation occurs in the more essential parts of the genome, they tend to be extracted out of the population due to relative fitness. Sometimes a mutation occurs that offers an advantage over other organisms. These favorable characteristics are passed down and over a wide period of time result in significant changes in species. These findings help us understand why pathogens are created in bacteria to cope with antibiotics. Collins concludes that,
“Truly it can be said that not only biology but medicine would be impossible to understand without the theory of evolution” (133).
It is clear from the literature that scientists can hold religious belief and also contribute to their respective scientific fields.
- Science and Religion are not at odds with one another.
- The Scientific method is, however, different from belief.
- Belief is necessary for communicating in today’s world and for obtaining knowledge. Without believing authorities in their field we would have to doubt almost every piece of objective knowledge we come across (including blue whales being the largest mammals on earth).
- Skepticism towards belief is still prevalent as we have discussed above the scientific method has thus far been gaining traction and publicity among Religious thinkers as well.
- Thus, it would not be surprising to see superstitious beliefs slowly dismantled as more Christians encounter evidence on a daily basis, decide to abandon their bias and make sure that they don’t base their conclusions on insufficient evidence.
I hope you enjoyed this series (three posts).
Let me know if you have any comments. I realize I chewed on quite a bit when I decided to write about this but it is beneficial to have an opinion on some of these issues and these posts are (I believe) a nice start.
Before you go…
I’d love if you’d share the article on Facebook/TWITTER if you want your friends to benefit from it in some way at all.
I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,
Collins, Francis S., and Jonathan Davis. The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Howes — Clipper, 2008.
Dixon, Thomas. Science and Religion: a Very Short Introduction. International Society for Science and Religion, 2009.
Hood, Bruce MacFarlane. The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs. HarperCollins, 2010.
Hoyle, Fred. Mathematics of Evolution. Acorn Enterprises LLC, 1999.
Lennox, John Carson. God and Stephen Hawking Whose Design Is It Anyway? Lion Hudson, 2011.
– — –. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Lion, 2009.
McKenzie, Ross H. “Soli Deo Gloria.” A Critical Review of John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker, 1 Jan. 1970, revelation4–11.blogspot.com/2014/09/a-critical-review-of-john-lennoxs-gods.html.
Mercier, Hugo, and Dan Sperber. “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 34, no. 02, 2011, pp. 57–74., doi:10.1017/s0140525x10000968.
Moorhead P.S., and Kaplan, M. M. Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution, Philadelphia, Wistar Institute Press, 1967 pp, 29,30.
“Peter Singer vs John Lennox: Is There a God?” YouTube, uploaded by antipiano, 8 August 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA7qBtNMayQ.
Pigliucci, Massimo, and Maarten Boudry. Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. The University of Chicago Press, 2013.