Religion & Science
April 22, 1997
by Robert L. Greenwood, Ph.D.
The Harbinger, in its last edition, printed excerpts of the symposium it sponsored on the topic of "Religion and Science: The Best of Enemies-The Worst of Friends." This week the editors have invited me to critique the symposium. Sheldon Gottlieb addressed the topic, "What is Science?" and Richard Sneed addressed , "What is Religion?" With respect to Gottlieb's presentation, I must confess some reservations about his discussions of certain key terms. I have decided that this is probably not the time to discuss these matters because of the possibility of confusing the issues. I shall, however, touch upon the issue at a later point in the discussion. For the most part, I believe that Gottlieb's discussion of science was excellent as was his indictment of fundamentalist religion. Consequently, I shall address the major part of my remarks to Sneed's presentation.
Sneed begins with what appears to be an even-handed approach to the question of the relationship between religion and science. "I will suggest that religion is an ancient and respectable explanation for the world and our place in it, but that it is not the only one. " What could be more fair? "I will suggest that religion does not have all the answers because it is by no means clear that it has asked all the questions, and asked them properly." In other words, Sneed is going to forego the traditional dogmatism of religion for the sake of the argument. One is left to wonder exactly what Sneed has in mind by noting that religion may not have asked all the questions. What questions? No matter what the question, the only answers religion can offer must be based, either on some sacred text which is not to be questioned, or some inference from that text. How weak a reed this is, can be shown by pointing to all the differing answers given to questions by religionists. Since the vast majority of those who read this are familiar with Christianity, that religion will do as a source of examples. "I will suggest that the dispute between religion and science is very much like a sibling rivalry, and that the two are very similar in many ways." To bolster this claim, Sneed points out that what we now call science was once called natural philosophy. Before that, he tells us, it was a branch of theology. Sneed fails to mention, however, that natural philosophy began centuries before Christian academic institutions came into existence. Thales of Miletus (c. 640-546 B.C.) started things off by asking whether there might be some fundamental stuff out of which all else was made. Of course, religion has been around a lot longer than that. If religion and science are indeed siblings, then one is clearly retarded.
Sneed claims that religion is "a science in a sense, as it is a speculative enterprise. It has rules, procedures, methodologies. " This same description fits astrology to perfection, but surely no one in his right mind would sincerely suggest that astrology is a science. Sneed claims that "in some ways science is a kind of religion. It has saints such as Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein." What can it possibly mean to call these men saints? I know what it means to call Peter, Paul, and Mary saints. It means they have been canonized by the ecclesiastical authority of the Church. Aristotle died long centuries before Jesus was born. Galileo was condemned by the Church. Newton had some decidedly non orthodox views about religion. Einstein was a Jew. I know, I know, Sneed is using metaphor, a little poetic license. What could be the harm in that? Precisely that we are meant to take the metaphor as more than mere metaphor so that Sneed can make his point. Sneed continues with a new comparison, senior scientists are likened to the priesthood. I would very much like to see this one unpacked. Nobel laureates are likened to doctrinal authorities. I thought it was at the very heart of science that it contained no such authorities. It is true that Newton, for example, came close to this status. When he was dethroned by relativity and quantum physics, the realization dawned that science is not in the business of producing absolute truths. The next comparison is baffling; Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison are "prophets." In what possible sense? Sneed does not like the idea of transplanting monkey heads, I suspect, for he labels as a heretic "the person who transplanted monkey heads." A heretic is a dissenter from established (church) dogma. What established dogma was dissented from in the monkey experiment?
Sneed wants to claim that science has sacred texts. What are they? What makes them sacred? We can only speculate, for Sneed does not enlighten us on the matter. Further comparisons: science "has rites and rituals: study, research, internships." One sense of "rite," "The general or usual custom, habit, or practice of a country, people, class of persons, etc." (Oxford English Dictionary) seems to work, especially the "etc." part. Sneed continues, "Both have fundamentalists, literalists, evangelicals, and mainstreams." I am at a loss to understand who would count as a fundamentalist scientist or what his fundamentalism would consist in. In the non metaphorical sense, a fundamentalist is one who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, usually, if not always, the King James version. Would a fundamentalist biologist be one who believed in the literal truth of Darwin's Origin of Species or Descent of Man? Is there really such a person? Gottlieb might consent to the label "evangelical" in one of its senses, to wit, "crusading." At least I hope he would. Well, no doubt there are "mainstream" scientists. But then, there are mainstream astrologers, UFO buffs, alternative medicine practitioners, and so on. So what?
Sneed claims the reason that encounters between scientists and religionists cause so much fire to fly is because they are so much alike. I think that Sneed has failed rather dismally in establishing any important, or even interesting, let alone correct, sense in which religion and science are alike, unless it is that they sometimes give rival accounts of how the world is. But in all such cases, science has a truly spectacular success rate whereas religion falls flat. In accounting for nature, science defeated religion decisively in the modern era. The only holdouts are those ignorant of science; and this is precisely the reason why fundamentalists hate education, unless it is the broken-backed education of their church related schools.
Sneed correctly points out that a "fundamental tenet of science is that acceptance of some claim must be properly tied to the evidence. If accepting the truth of the evidence is distinct from the actual truth, then science is a belief system, and an imperfect one at that." Here is where I must part company with Gottlieb and side with Sneed. Gottlieb's discussion of fact and related concepts was clearly designed to head off this conclusion. But isn't this to concede everything to Sneed? Hardly. From the fact that science cannot deliver assured knock-down drag-out truths it does not follow that science is no better than religion. I have noticed in my reading about the sciences relatively few instances of dogmatic pronouncements. The writings of the best scientists, "best" as judged by their work, are always tempered with an understanding of the fallibility of the scientific method. Sneed put his finger on this fallibility. Let me give another example. If a scientist were to argue, "If my hypothesis is true then my predictions will be accurate. But, as a matter of fact, my predictions have been satisfied. Ergo, my hypothesis is true!" he would be guilty of the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Here is an exactly similar argument, but one which shows the fallacy: "If an animal is a dog then it has four legs. This animal has four legs. Clearly, it must be a dog." It is because of this logic of the scientific method that so much care must be taken. It is the reason why an experiment must be repeatable. Any future test could fail and falsify the hypothesis. This is as far as I propose to trench upon the philosophy of science at this point. It is a vast enterprise and my account is over simplified. To do otherwise would be to write a book. Instead, I invite the reader to take a look at the field for him or herself.
We now see the onus behind Sneed's failed attempt to show some similarity between religion and science. If both religion and science are fallible (only science admits it, however) and they are really very much alike, then, don't you see? religion is just as respectable as science. Sneed concluded his talk in the same even-handed tone with which he began, asking that both parties listen and learn from each other. He contends that it "is a mistake for religion to scorn science; it is equally a mistake for science to scorn religion. I do not believe that religion scorns science. Certainly the Roman Catholic Church seems to have learned some important lessons since the Seventeenth Century. It is the Protestant fundamentalists who scorn science. Although I have been critical of Sneed's remarks, he was given a thankless task. If he is to be successful in getting the fundamentalists to listen he must be even-handed. But, I think, that is an impossible task. Fundamentalists are not going to listen, now or ever, to anything rational people have to say. It is better to confront them, even with all their power and ability to hurt one. To appease them is to capitulate to them.