Sean Carroll, one of the sharpest guys out there, says that science and religion are not compatible. I happen to think he’s using an idiosyncratic (but not necessarily wrong) definition to reach that conclusion:
are science and religion actually compatible? Clearly one’s stance on that issue will affect one’s feelings about accomodationism. So I’d like to put my own feelings down in one place.
Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible.
This is the logic behind Peter Hess’s objection that asking someone to choose science or religion is like asking them to decide whether a grapefruit is yellow or spherical. Yellowness and sphericity are complementary in some sense, though we’ll see that this is an imperfect analogy.
Carroll illustrates his view of compatibility:
An airplane is different from a car, and indeed if you want to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco you would take either an airplane or a car, not both at once. But if you take a car and your friend takes a plane, as long as you both end up in San Francisco your journeys were perfectly compatible.
This is a pretty reasonable definition of compatibility in some broad sense, but I don’t think it’s what anyone means when they discuss science/religion compatibility. Here’s an analogy that better matches at least my sense of the term’s meaning. A car can transport you to San Francisco, and a book can transport you to San Francisco. Reading and driving are not incompatible, as reading the book does not preclude driving to the Bay area. Indeed, one can read in the car, and reading about SF before you arrive will enhance your experience. This holds even if you are reading about fictional events in SF, or science fiction accounts of Star Fleet cadets wandering the 23rd century streets of San Francisco. Conflict between reading and driving is possible of course; one shouldn’t drive and read at the same time. But it would be wrong to take the odd car crash as evidence of incompatibility between literacy and driving.
Furthermore, some people can’t read, or can’t drive. Others can, but don’t, do either. They aren’t necessarily worse off as a result, but a case might be made that experience of driving would be enhanced by reading, and that the experience of reading something like On the Road would be heightened by having driven long distances. Similarly, religious scientists say that their scientific work is deepened and inspired by their religious practices, and that their religious worship is more profound because of the experience gained from their scientific studies.
In general, I find the analogy between religion and literature intriguing, though I’m sure that both theists and atheists would find reasons to object to it. Leave a comment either way!
I’ll grant that this is not how we tend to use the term “compatible.” It’s closer to “orthogonal,” though again, not quite. Conflict and mutual enhancement are both possible, but the two are often orthogonal. Compatibility usually refers to the ability to interoperate in some way, as with finding the right lightbulb for a socket, or software that runs on your computer. Under that definition, any evidence of conflict would be evidence of incompatibility, and proof of widespread enhancement would be necessary to claim compatibility. Carroll is to be applauded for applying a more consistent definition of compatibility to science/religion, but I think it makes it harder to apply the rest of what he says to what anyone else says. In this conflict, I feel like no one is stating that religion always enhances science and vice versa, though people do argue that their particular religion (or some theoretical religion that they wish existed) enhances and is enhanced by science. And lots of people argue that science and religion can be (if they are not already) non-interfering, which some would say constitutes neither compatibility nor incompatibility.
This all leads Carroll to an interesting view on science and religion, but one which I think misstates how people approach the matter:
Likewise, it’s not hard to imagine an alternative universe in which science and religion were compatible — one in which religious claims about the functioning of the world were regularly verified by scientific practice. We can easily conceive of a world in which the best scientific techniques of evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing left us with an understanding of the workings of Nature which included the existence of God and/or other supernatural phenomena.…
Again, this assumes a definition of “compatibility” that no one else is using. Which is fine as an intellectual exercise, but limits the applicability of the analysis in any other context.
The incompatibility between science and religion also doesn’t mean that a person can’t be religious and be a good scientist.
This is what many people claim it means. And in this context, the analogy to software actually supports my reading over Carroll’s. If the brain is like computer, we could envision “religion” and “science” as programs running on it. If the two software systems are compatible, neither writes to the other’s memory, or locks files the other needs, or is such a resource hog that the other crashes or is unusable. If they can keep to their own domain (at least mostly, even good programmers have memory leaks!), then the two are compatible. No requirement that they enhance one another or interoperate, beyond that they can work freely on the same mental substrate.
That would be a silly claim to make, and if someone pretends that it must be what is meant by “science and religion are incompatible” you can be sure they are setting up straw men. There is no problem at all with individual scientists holding all sorts of incorrect beliefs, including about science. There are scientists who believe in the Steady State model of cosmology, or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, or that sunspots are the primary agent of climate change. The mere fact that such positions are held by some scientists doesn’t make them good scientific positions. We should be interested in what is correct and incorrect, and the arguments for either side, not the particular beliefs of certain individuals. (Likewise, if science and religion were compatible, the existence of thousands of irreligious scientists wouldn’t matter either.)
The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.
I don’t think science quite says “none of that is true.” Science cannot test any claim about dead souls. They cannot be shown to exist, but neither can their existence be disproven. Claims about souls are irrelevant to science, but they are not at odds with science.
Furthermore, lots of religious people and religious leaders argue that stories about the Exodus, the Resurrection, or the Creation are not to be read as history, but as literary technique. They are allegories and fables.
Again, an analogy to literature. A Tale of Two Cities is not meant as history. Events in the real French Revolution did not unfold in all their details exactly as described in the book. By Carroll’s lights, this makes Dickens (and perhaps literature in general) incompatible with history. But the goal of reading Dickens is hardly to get an accurate account of daily events in the French Revolution. You read Dickens to get the feel of events, perhaps, but more importantly, to derive deeper truths about human nature by seeing how those truths play out against a familiar backdrop.
Similarly, the supposedly literal reading of the Bible yields a decidedly unliterary understanding, and thereby costs the document its moral and emotional heft. Slacktivist has illustrated this with a different Bible story than what Carroll chooses, but I think the points stand:
One of my favorite origin stories is nominally the answer to the question “Where do rainbows come from?”
The answer the story gives has nothing to do with the refraction of light, because the story isn’t really about where rainbows come from. The story, of course, is that of Noah’s ark, as famously told in chapters 6–9 of the book of Genesis and side one of Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right!
The structure of that story is, in part, something like this:
Q: Where do rainbows come from?
A: Selfishness is destructive — to you and to every living creature. Remember that every time you see a rainbow.
Again, the answer isn’t directly related to the apparent question because the apparent question isn’t really what the story is about. This may seem complicated, but if you read these stories it’s quite obvious. They’re not subtle about it. Their message is not some hidden meaning that needs to be decoded. It would be very difficult, in fact, to read or hear such stories without taking away the meaning they are meant to convey.
The story of the Red Sea crossing is not important as an historical claim, it’s part of a story about how the Jewish people became the Jewish people. Out of adversity and danger, we rode to freedom, surviving by the skin of our teeth. When we retell this story on Passover, the message is not about meteorology or oceanography of the Red Sea, it’s about generosity to those in need, about social justice, and about the essence of freedom. Anyone who reads Exodus and feels like the only appropriate next step is to dredge the Red Sea for chariot parts has missed the point, and rather dramatically. Just so, if someone reads Into the Wild and later dies alone in Alaska, we don’t blame that death on literature, on Jon Krakauer, or even on the book. If anyone outside the victim is to blame, it’s his literature teacher, who should have helped that student see past the words on the page to the meaning they are meant to capture.
There are certain meanings that science helps us capture because science lets us read between the lines of the natural world. Religions give people certain insights into the world around them, also. Those are generally not insights of the same sort as scientific insights. Children who ask why the sky is blue are not necessarily asking about Raleigh scattering, after all. They’re asking a question that they can’t fully articular, a question about whether everything in the world has deeper meaning, and if so, what those meanings are. They are asking if the sky is blue for the same reason robin’s eggs are blue, and the ocean is blue. They wonder if people with blue eyes are more connected to the sky. To the extent science offers answers, they aren’t answers children can grasp, and the deeper questions are not questions science can answer.
We can surely show that oceans are blue because they reflect skylight, and that there is a link there. And we can show that eyes and blue jay feathers and clear skies are all blue for different physical reasons. But as philosophers since Aristotle have observed, there are different levels on which causation operates. The particular way in which light plays off of different surfaces to produce color is one level of causation, but the jay or the eye are blue because of independent selection processes as well, which provide a different level of explanation; a level different from explanations rooted only in the developmental process which yields a blue eye or a jay’s feather. There are other explanations which are not amenable to scientific testing at all. “God likes the color blue” would be such an explanation, and it would explain why those other explanations hold, but it is not empirically testable. It is a question of a different sort.