Thursday, March 5, 2009

On the incompatibility of science and faith

An old voice teacher of mine, a brilliant friend named Marvin Murphree, linked me to this article the other day which suggests that science and faith are compatible. I think otherwise.

Non-overlapping Magisteria

The author of the aforementioned article went the route of saying that science and religion address different questions, with religion tackling the who and why and science explaining the what and how. However, I take issue with his use of the word "explain."

Religion just makes stuff up that is false by any sane definition of the word. That is not how science operates.

What's more, he bases religion's magisteria on implied truths that have no evidence supporting them. While we know there is a what and how to the operation of the universe, who says that there must be a who and why? I submit that there is no reason to assume there is a who or a why to the functionality of the universe, and most certainly not an omniscient, perfect intelligence. A look at the universe reveals it to be the work of a fairly incompetent engineer at best, as it took billions of years of trial and painful error to reach its current state. A perfect designer would not require such a system. It is also still riddled with a host of simple errors that are just what we would expect to see in a universe that operates on a series of mindless rules, but that are just bizarre if a god created anything. These are things like the existence of the appendix, babies heads being bigger than the birth canal, and the clunky nature of DNA.

Furthermore, everything that we have explained has been found to have a natural rather than a supernatural explanation. Everything. You may respond that surely some intelligence put into place those natural explanations, but how do you know this? Before answering, be sure to have a good explanation for why your reasoning doesn't apply to the creator you're suggesting as well.

The questions that religion purports to answer here are superfluous before any evidence is provided to show that they are legitimate.

Religion is based on scientific just gets the answers wrong

The author of the article says:

No amount of logic must deduce they oppose each other. They're asking different questions, which lead to different answers, but not necessarily contradictory answers.Religion errs when it seeks to dictate the range of answers science can discover.

But the question "Did a man rise from the dead 2000 years ago?" is a question of Biology. And the question "Did Jesus walk on water or transmute water into wine?" is a question about Physics. The Christian faith makes a magnificent glory of how these propositions fly in the face of science, which is why they're called "miracles". But science has the (obvious) answer to both of these questions, and religions have no sound evidence for why the natural order was abrogated in the ways they claim. The entire Christian religion is based on the truth of Jesus' resurrection, which could not conflict with science more.

Differences in Method

The very nature of making a truth claim implies some degree of testable prediction about the future. A simple example would be the statement "I own a chess set." The implication here is that if you sift through every possession I own, amongst them you would find a chess set. Science makes testable predictions in this vein;
  • If we add wings and the right type of engine, this vessel will fly.
  • If we use the proper type of filament and apply electricity, it will produce light.
  • If we replace a particular organ, this patient will live.
  • If we apply our hand to the knob and turn, the door will open.
Religion does no such thing, but the fact that religion attempts to make such claims is the reason that science has been a one-way erosion of religion from the get go. Don't believe me? Try this simple, two-question test:
  1. Think of one thing for which we once had a religious answer, but for which we now have a scientific answer (this one should not be difficult).
  2. Think of one thing for which we had a scientific answer, but for which we now have a religious answer (don't waste too much of your time).
The notion of faith is used, without evidence, to force assertions into areas we have not explained (argument from ignorance) and even into subjects we have explained. The idea that you can believe anything without evidence or good reasoning is anti-scientific, and this isolation of thought is why schoolboards everywhere are having to combat religious wackos who want to dilute science at best, but more often purge the parts of it that conflict with their faith. The fact that some scientists believe in a god or that some believers accept Evolution has everything to do with the partitionable nature of the human mind, and nothing at all to do with the idea that the two schools of thought are compatible. Scientific reasoning will lead you to conclude that men do not rise from the dead, and that they do not walk on water. It would be a terrible scientist that would accept either claim without evidence.

So the truth claims made by religions do not meet the criteria for being a legitimate truth claim by any sane standard. Science thrives on such things.

Also, science places a very high premium on overturning truth claims upon the discovery of new evidence. This is why if you were to revive a very well-educated man from the fourteenth century, his understanding of math, science, history, and any academic discipline would embarrass a modern five year-old. But his understanding about scripture would be spectacular, easily exceeding most religious people nowadays. Why is this? There are only two real possibilities:
  1. That we reached the zenith of our understanding of god at a time when our understanding of every other subject was completely inchoate. (not likely) or...
  2. Religion, and the faith that supports it, is the mere maintenance of dogma, and does not admit of change - even in the face of academic advance.
Religion does not overturn its claims because its truth claims are not falsifiable. The presumably liberal theologian who penned the article says theistic Evolution is compatible with his faith, but I'd be curious to know if there is any fact of the world that would not be compatible with his faith? That is not because his faith is strong, but because it is built on an idea that is not falsifiable (the way scientific ideas must be). Self-fulfilling prophesies are worthless as a means of explanation.

Moreover, even theistic scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller compartmentalize their scientific mindset by failing to hold their religious beliefs to the same standards they hold their science. If you are asking if an idea is merely possible given your presumptions, you will almost never be disappointed (my belief that pixies authored the universe and put all the natural mechanisms in place remains strong, as every new discovery confirms and strengthens my belief by revealing a mechanism of the universe, which I know was put there by pixies). Instead, if we are using scientific reasoning, we must ask if the best explanation for a universe that is pitiless and indifferent in its execution and laden with all manner of engineering flaws, is a loving, omniscient god (or pixies). Clearly, it's not.

Why this guy's outro was made of fail

This part made me want to claw my eyes out:

Sometimes, atheistic evolutionists annoy me. They overstep their bounds, confident that because they feel they have good answers for the what and how of creation, they do not need a Who or why.

The universe does not need a who or a why - it appears to be chugging along just fine with it's mindless processes and inanimate objects. We probably get annoyed with you because you insist it does need a who or a why without providing any evidence. That is not "overstepping our bounds," it is simply making a rational appraisal. Do you have some manner of evidence that the universe has an ultimate purpose or was blasted into being by a god? Show us. But in science it is never noble to pretend to know things you do not (it's even less noble to say we are overstepping our bounds by calling you on it).

He goes on:

But more than annoy me, they make me sad. For when they close their minds to the possibilities outside their sphere, they also close their hearts to a relationship with the God of love, Who has transformed my life and filled it with meaning and purpose. I feel sorry for them.

Ah, the old implications that atheists are forlorn people who are close-minded to their salvation. What crap. My mind is open to god the same way it's open to unicorns. If you take me out behind your house and show me that you have a unicorn tied up (and I can actually use its blood to heal my wounds), I will change my mind so fast it would make your head spin. The same is true with a god. My mind isn't closed, there's just no evidence. What there is, is an entire demographic of religious people who use crummy arguments to support a conclusion that is not bound by reason, even as they claim their faith is reasonable.

Don't feel sorry for us. The univere is a wonderous place full of unimaginable surprises. We are capable of seeing it for the magnificence it possesses in full, rather than through the blurry lens of fantasy. Furthermore, we don't have to deal with the cognitive dissonance, n00bs!

Ultimately, it all boils down to evidence and good reasoning. Science emobies them, and religion thrives on finding ways to avoid their constraints. This leaves about as much room for compromise as a coin toss.

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