Does science clash with religion?

Short answer: it depends on your religion.

I suppose it would be wise to describe what science is.
Definition (from my computer’s dictionary): the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
This isn’t very illuminating – it leaves unsaid what the scientific method is, namely: to create hypotheses of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world and test them through observation and experiment.

After a bit of thought, one should realize the following details: the only scientific facts are the results of observations and experiments, an explanation of some event in the universe that fails to permit a testable prediction is scientifically useless, and true scientists are folks that are always trying to disprove current theories about the world.

How does this relate to religion? The most important relation with religion involves the requirement that an explanation makes testable predictions. If your religion of choice includes the conviction that “the world is controlled, at least in part, by some supreme entity”, then nothing can be predicted, because everything depends on the whim of said supreme entity.

Thus, if your religion has such a conviction, then your religion asserts that science is ultimately pointless. Now technically, that doesn’t clash with science, but who wants to be told that their outlook on life is pointless? And the flip side? The scientific method, in requiring that an explanation make testable predictions, essentially declares that a religion with the above conviction is useless. Also, not technically clashing.

So, if you presume that people don’t like wasting their time with useless or pointless endeavors, you arrive at the long answer: science clashes with those religions which assert the ongoing action of a supreme entity.

About twio

In accepting Doubt, I find Certainty
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12 Responses to Does science clash with religion?

  1. Matthew says:

    Science assumes the consistency principle, that if you do something 1000 times and it always gives the same result, it will continue to do so the 1001st time. Of course sometimes this isn’t the case, because there is something different about the 1001st time – so you come up with a new theory. The point is, miraculous intervention by supernatural beings (“miracles”) are by definition outside of this scope.

    That does not make science pointless from the point of view of religion, because most religious people accept that miracles are unusual – most of the time, the world follows the ordinary laws of nature, and science can be very useful in understanding them.

    From a scientific viewpoint, religion is incomprehensible (not necessarily the same thing as pointless), because it appears to be impossible to conduct experiments to falsify a working hypothesis including God. This is because God will not be coerced into miraculous action on demand, unlike e.g. an elementary particle or a caged animal.

    It is interesting to compare this to observational sciences such as astronomy: Generally speaking you can’t bash two stars together to see what happens, but you can create a hypothesis based on what you’ve seen, and then gather new data to try to either support it or falsify it. Either way, you are constantly comparing it to other theories, and if it is falsified you can either adapt the theory (and then search for more evidence) or choose another theory. Evidence turns up, somebody comes up with an explanation, more evidence turns up which seems to conflict with the explanation, and so the theories either get refined or replaced to deal with the new evidence. It is important to note that a theory that is so vague that it doesn’t predict anything, or which doesn’t tell you why, isn’t much use even if it isn’t falsified. For example, look at the theory of inflation – it explains the evidence but gives us no clear idea of why.

    Can religion be analysed via a similar method? Where would you find evidence for which a theory including God would be a good fit?

    God does not perform miracles on demand: There has been at least one unsuccessful study of churches praying for people vs not praying for others, and this is to be expected from the bible anyway. So the best bet is to look at supposed miracles which occurred in the past.

    That brings you into the realms of history – particularly the events occurring in Israel in the first century AD. Is there enough evidence here to apply the scientific process to? And is there any chance of new evidence coming to light? There is evidence in scripture, archaeology, secondary texts and so on. Theories can be constructed based on this evidence, and can be compared on the basis of how closely they match the evidence and their predictive power. However new observations are relatively unusual, mostly it’s going to be a matter of new analysis. And as always in history, very little can be mathematically quantified. But you can try to be rigorous. Just as with science you will find people promoting every possible or impossible theory (see e.g. climate change!), often with vested interests – and you can either go with the majority view (in which case you have to decide who is qualified), pick an expert, or examine the evidence yourself (which practically speaking probably involves listening to lots of experts). Given what is at stake, the last option is probably the best bet, but time may be a problem…

  2. twio says:

    The consistency principle is still an assumption that is at odds with the occurrence of miracles. Logically, the two notions contradict. It is unsatisfactory, from the point of view as a rigorous scientist, to have a theory that’s only right most of the time and declare that the exceptions are miracles. How can one ever deduce what “the ordinary laws of nature” are if you can always end your justification of them by saying, “…and what doesn’t fit my theory is a miracle.”?

    Also, you confuse pointless with useless. Religion is useless from the scientific viewpoint because, since “God will not be coerced into miraculous action”, it follows that one can’t ever predict the outcome of an experiment. However, I will not argue that religion is pointless. My post’s point is not that some religions must be useless or science must be pointless, but instead that the two are in conflict. I make no value judgement about that conflict.

    Finally, don’t get me started talking about people promoting “scientific theories” for their own selfish ends. I don’t see a reason to dignify those conmen by equating them with scientists.

  3. Matthew says:

    You can predict the outcome of an experiment based on your current working model, which satisfies the available data from previous experiments. You simply assume the consistency principle, which implies:
    1) no miracles preventing you from finding the right answer (what would the point be? the claimed miracles were, if real, of enormous human significance, nobody is claiming God does miracles just to annoy us),
    2) no wierd quantum effects preventing you from finding the right answer (almost anything is possible but very unlikely, right?), and
    3) no international conspiracy preventing you from finding the right answer.

    The third problem – sabotage from rival scientists – is by far the most common violation of the consistency principle! There are serious scientists who also believe in God, there are very few of them nowadays, but it is not utterly irreconcilable.

  4. twio says:

    You write: “You simply assume the consistency principle, which implies: 1) no miracles…”. That could be taken as an exceptionally short summary of my point.

  5. Let me begin with a point of agreement. Neither the Christian faith nor life as we know it would make any sense whatsoever, if the laws that govern the behaviour of matter were generally subject to unpredictable exceptions and variations. Forty years ago, a young man threw a rock at me, and it left me blind. If he had had no way to estimate its trajectory, nor the consequences of its impact with my head, neither man nor God could reasonably hold him accountable for his actions. Nor would there be any point in man or God forgiving him, for there would be nothing to forgive. Life would be chaotic and meaningless.

    Nevertheless, I believe in a God who is sovereign over the entire universe – a God who set in place the laws of physics, and who holds us accountable for our actions as rational beings. Science enables us to better understand the consequences of our actions, and we can and do use that knowledge both for good and for evil. I also believe in a God who has a grand plan for humanity, some of which He has executed.

    Now I am sure that you will agree that, despite the orderly nature of the universe, the long-term consequences of the smallest action will sometimes (if not always) become for us unfathomably complex (‘the butterfly effect’). However, I believe that God is also omniscient – he sees everything, and is able to predict the entire course of the universe. So, from the moment of the Big Bang, God could foresee in complete detail the evolution of the Milky Way, the solar system, and life on earth. I have no difficulty in believing that, on certain occasions, he has intervened in the ‘natural’ processes, that his grand plan required such interventions. We will never be able to model in complete detail the evolution of galaxies, star systems, or life on earth. We will never be in a position to say that, beginning with the Big Bang, science has explained in every last detail how we come to be having this conversation, that the hypothesis of God is not required. Perhaps the natural processes would have produced something resembling human life, without God taking any action beyond the command, ‘Let there be light!’ But the life that we know, the history that is behind us and the future that lies ahead, that would not be what it is – God’s grand plan would not have been executed.

    There is a difficult issue that I feel I should address now, at least briefly. If one accepts that God does exist, that he has the power to intervene in our lives, then many people feel driven to conclude that he cannot be good – that at best, he cares nothing for us. A beautiful young woman once stopped me in the street and offered me a ride home; we had never met, but she knew who I was. She wanted an answer to a terrible question: ‘Why did God let my baby die?’ At that time I could not give her an answer. Now, I believe that the only answer is that such an intervention was not, could not be, part of his grand plan. The problem was the butterfly effect. Such an action would have had far reaching consequences, it would have changed radically the path of history. God’s grand plan does involve certain interventions; I believe that he does sometimes intervene to save lives. But his interventions are pre-planned, they are all necessary components of his grand plan. God’s own greater purposes prevent him from intervening as frequently as we (perhaps also he) would like.

    Perhaps these thoughts lead to many questions. If they do, I will be happy to write more. But for today, I think I have said enough.

    • twio says:

      I’m not entirely sure of the central point you’re making here. It seems to me that you are, in extreme summary, stating that god would act in situations in which our observations and our ability to deduce what must have been, is limited. I would then suppose this would permit god to act without violating the consistency principle. But then god’s actions can’t be miracles, because miracles are defined to be events that go against all natural explanations.

      Now, my premise was that any action by god would violate the consistency principle, not that any miracles performed would violate it – a technical but important difference. I would still conclude that my premise was valid, but only by making the technical point that even the slightest allowed exception is enough to be unable to conclude a proof – in other words, in practice, my original premise would be flawed.

      I forget where I saw this: “The difference between theory and practice in practice is much more than the difference between theory and practice in theory.”

  6. Matthew says:

    Your original point:

    If your religion of choice includes the conviction that “the world is controlled, at least in part, by some supreme entity”, then nothing can be predicted, because everything depends on the whim of said supreme entity.

    What Paul was saying is that even for a religious person, things can be predicted scientifically. Sometimes – in extremely rare cases – those predictions turn out to be false because of divine intervention. This does not mean the predictions aren’t useful. And scientific predictions do turn out to be false in practice for many other reasons, such as misunderstanding what it is you are modelling, unexpected human interference and so on.

    Basically, there is no need to choose between the *validity* of religion and the *usefulness* of science, in general, from the point of view of a religious person. If you throw a brick at somebody, normally it will hit them. It could be blocked by a truck or a person running in the way, by the target ducking at the right moment, somebody could shoot it mid-flight, there are many possible outcomes. But the most likely outcome is it will hit its target and do them permanent damage. Miracles don’t change any of this, any more than unlikely earthly interference does: the prediction is still valid, and you are still responsible for your action, knowing the likeliest outcome.

    • twio says:

      Matthew, thank you for continuing to comment.

      I have some difficulties in absorbing your comment.
      Firstly, you write, “…things can be predicted scientifically. Sometimes – in extremely rare cases…“. I have difficulty interpreting that juxtaposition as anything other than “I have faith that god will allow science to be valid, except in cases where he intervenes” which just throws a monkey wrench into my desire for a logical result.
      Secondly, you write, “Basically, there is no need to choose between the “validity” of religion and the “usefulness” of science, in general, from the point of view of a religious person.” While I don’t disagree with that statement, it is specific to a religious point of view. I was trying to reason from a general point of view. How might you make your point also valid for someone not using a religious point of view?

  7. Matthew says:

    The second first: My concern was the argument that a religious person is necessarily incapable of thinking scientifically, that we’re all young-earth climate-denying creationists etc. This is clearly not the case. Which brings me to the first point: As a human being attempting to behave scientifically you have to assume that the universe will behave consistently – that when something odd happens it is either a statistical fluke or a pointer to a higher truth that you have not yet grasped. This is absolutely no different for a religious person! The only difference is that my worldview allows for occasional divine intervention. The leap of faith here is not that I expect the world to be consistent – everyone expects that – it is that I allow for the occasional, exceptional, far from arbitrary, miracle. Logically this is a reasonable consequence of living in the world while having faith.

    From a general point of view, I dispute your original statement that science is useless to religion and religion is useless to science: Science is clearly useful to religious people. The second part: Is religion useless to scientifically minded people? This is equivalent IMHO to “Is it possible to analyse the claims of a religion scientifically?” The answer here is less clear. Carl Sagan’s “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (originally this idea comes from David Hume) allows you to set the bar arbitrarily high such that any amount of evidence would never convince you of what are clearly extraordinary claims. Yet remarkable things can and do happen. Even in the last few years, things have happened that would have been outrageous and unbelievable fiction a few years prior. We must have some way of dealing with them or we will be forever in denial, living in a fantasy land where the financial system didn’t collapse, the banks weren’t nationalised, Obama didn’t get into the white house, terrorists didn’t blow up the Twin Towers, life wasn’t transformed by energy, transport, telecommunications, 250,000 people weren’t killed by nuclear weapons, fascists didn’t rise to power in a relatively modern democracy, etc. In hard sciences, look at some of the crazy stuff that scientists believe nowadays, often on fairly indirect evidence – but I’ve done the double slits experiment in school, which is a clear demonstration of the utterly absurd reality approximated by quantum physics!

    None of these things matches the earth-shattering significance of the events claimed to have happened around 30 AD, and arguably the evidence is much more readily accessible. But we do need to have a process for dealing with remarkable claims, and IMHO summarily ignoring them is not the best approach.

  8. twio says:

    You write, “The second first: My concern was the argument that a religious person is necessarily incapable of thinking scientifically, that we’re all young-earth climate-denying creationists etc. This is clearly not the case.” I certainly never meant imply any deficiency in reasoning ability. My intention with my second detail in my previous comment was to point out that your basic conclusion logically required a religious POV. I wondered what reasoning you might make that would permit your same result without using your assumption of a religious POV.

    As to the meat of your first paragraph…
    Which brings me to the first point: As a human being attempting to behave scientifically you have to assume that the universe will behave consistently – that when something odd happens it is either a statistical fluke or a pointer to a higher truth that you have not yet grasped. This is absolutely no different for a religious person! The only difference is that my worldview allows for occasional divine intervention. The leap of faith here is not that I expect the world to be consistent – everyone expects that – it is that I allow for the occasional, exceptional, far from arbitrary, miracle. Logically this is a reasonable consequence of living in the world while having faith.

    I must disagree with your opening statement. The consistency principle makes no room for statistical flukes – something odd happening implies a higher truth which then can be determined, or at least theorized, by making repeated experiments until the odd event becomes happenstance. If some miracle happens, the application of the consistency principle causes the miracle to become an everyday occurrence. As best I understand, said miracle would then cease to be so.

    Small detail, I’ve met people who don’t expect the world to be consistent. Also, I behave as if the consistency principle were valid, I can’t help it, but I know that actually expecting the consistency principle is itself a leap of faith.

    If the consistency principle allowed room for statistical flukes, or the occasional, unrepeatable, odd result, then I would agree with your conclusion. Unfortunately, it’s not the consistency principle making such allowances, but human imperfection.

    You write, “From a general point of view, I dispute your original statement that science is useless to religion and religion is useless to science: Science is clearly useful to religious people.

    I must again correct you here. My conclusion is that science is ultimately pointless from a religious POV, I agree that science is useful to religious people.

    You write, “This is equivalent IMHO to “Is it possible to analyse the claims of a religion scientifically?”

    Rather than get into a discussion of how to interpret my comment about religion being useless, allow me to rephrase/clarify: For religion to be useful to a scientist, religion would have to make testable predictions about the universe. Extraordinary claims, as we agree above, point to some higher truth that is, as yet, ungrasped.

    You conclude with, “None of these things matches the earth-shattering significance of the events claimed to have happened around 30 AD, and arguably the evidence is much more readily accessible. But we do need to have a process for dealing with remarkable claims, and IMHO summarily ignoring them is not the best approach.

    I have not disputed such claims, nor do I intend to.

    I wish to clarify the conclusion of my initial blog entry. The logical result of a faith in the consistency principle together with a faith in divine intervention results in an inherent contradiction. As yet, I know of no way to resolve that contradiction.

  9. Matthew says:

    The consistency principle does allow for occasional odd results. Quantum mechanics for example allows almost anything to happen, so you have to take enough observations to rule out bizarre but rare effects that you aren’t interested in. Human imperfections are not the only cause of experimental noise: some randomness comes from nature itself, at least if you don’t believe the universe is full of hidden variables.

    It is true to a degree that the miraculous can fit inside the consistency principle: As I said, God isn’t arbitrary, so hopefully when a miracle happens you may be able to understand why. This isn’t always the case – but they are rare enough as to not be a problem in terms of doing statistics on experimental data – which you have to do anyway because one result is not an empirical observation, it’s an anecdote.

    I have explained in detail why as a religious person I find science is highly useful. What is highly useful is not pointless. A computer will not get me into heaven, but it may help me in all manner of ways while I am on Earth. Thus science is neither useless nor pointless.

    The consistency principle is an assumption that most people make. It is hardwired into our brains and it makes it possible to live life. There is no contradiction because the consistency principle is statistical in nature – empirical research must be rigorous and almost always involves taking many readings and aggregating them. From a religious point of view there is no contradiction because God is not arbitrary (although not having the big picture, his reasons may not always be clear, just as even scientists often don’t understand things that happen to them outside their expertise).

    PS I have linked you from my blog/flog.

    • twio says:

      Quantum Mechanics makes probabilistic predictions, which simply confuses the notion of what a repeatable experiment is – any experiment subject to quantum effects actually requires the same step to be run hundred, if not thousands of times to allow for the inherent randomness. I endeavor to not confuse a random outcome with “almost anything can happen”, e.g. rolling a single die marked from 1 to 6 doesn’t allow a 7 outcome.

      That said, I must question what your definition of the consistency principle is. I have two working definitions. The simpler definition, which ignores quantum effects, is that the consistency principle says that an experiment with identical starting conditions will always produce the same result. The more complex definition, which takes quantum effects into account, is that the consistency principle says that previous outcomes to a given set of starting conditions are an accurate indicator of future outcomes. I completely fail to see how either reading allows “the occasional odd result”.

      I hope we can come to some agreement on what the consistency principle is, ’cause if we can’t, then we’ll never achieve any insight here.

      Some comments about my rhetoric. I don’t assume god isn’t arbitrary. I make no presumption about whether or not hidden variables affect reality. I make no claims about how we need, or don’t need, the consistency principle to conduct our lives. I strive my utmost to apply only the assumptions already stated, and whatever logical methods are available.

      The application of the consistency principle, just like the application of the law of conservation of mass/energy or the application of the uncertainty principle, is statistical in nature. Not the principle itself. I have the impression that you confuse the two notions.

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