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Science and Religion
« on: 2002-09-03 16:21:13 »
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Personal Gods, Deism, & the Limits of Skepticism

by Massimo Pigliucci
Skeptic Magazine, vol. 8 #2

The following article is copyright 2000 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.


"The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind."
--H.L. Menken

The relationship between science and religion (S&R), and even the one between skepticism and religion, is warming up. At least, that is the feeling one gets from a cursory look at recent happenings, from the publication of books and articles in popular magazines about science "finding" God, to the frantic activities of the Templeton Foundation "for the furthering of religion." Two scientists--Paul Davies, and most recently Freeman Dyson--received the one-million dollar Templeton Prize for "progress in religion," the single largest cash prize in history. S&R is not just warm, it's hot!

Thus, the time is ripe for a skeptical analysis of the subject, which, to me, seems muddled by two basic sources of confusion: 1) we need to separate logical/philosophical arguments from those that are either pragmatic or concern freedom of speech; 2) we have to acknowledge that possible positions on the S&R question are many more than usually considered, and that a thorough understanding of the whole gamut is necessary in order to make some sort of progress. This article presents an analysis of both these sources of confusion and presents an attempt at a classification scheme of the available positions. Since there is no such thing as truly objective reporting,{1} I will advocate my own position as well.

What the Discussion is and is Not About

Lest I be accused once again of being a "rabid atheist"{2} let me make my position clear: I am an atheist in the sense of someone who does not think there is any good reason to believe in a supernatural entity that created and somehow supervises the universe. I do not know that such an entity is non existent, but until extraordinary evidence is provided to substantiate such an extraordinary claim, I relegate God to the same realm as Santa Claus.

Rabid I am not, if by that one means an attitude of unreasonable adherence to a doctrine more accepted than carefully considered. My interest in religion comes out of a personal journey about finding out how things really are; since I am an educator who believes that helping people think critically will result in a better society, I also must defend against other people's attempt to curtail my freedom of thought and speech.

Let us briefly examine the three components of the science and religion debate and attempt to separate them as clearly as possible.

1. The relationship between science and religion is a legitimate area of philosophical inquiry which must be informed by both religion (theology) and science.

2. S&R discussions, especially in the United States, carry practical consequences that do not affect science and religion in an equal manner.

3. Discussing S&R has repercussions on the cherished value of freedom of speech for scientists, skeptics, and religionists.

Point 1 is the only point that really should be up for discussion, because it is the only one in which one can seriously engage in free inquiry and reach general conclusions (regardless of whether such conclusions will be shared by a majority). Unfortunately it is often confused with Points 2 and 3 by both believers and nonbelievers.

Point 2 boils down to the fact that attacks on religion are considered politically incorrect--witness the remarks by Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura that resulted in an overnight drop of 28 points in a poll of his popularity.

Scientists are especially aware of the fact that their funding depends almost entirely on public financing through various federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Since federal funding is controlled by politicians, who in turn have a very undemocratic tendency to respond to every nuance of their constituency as gauged by the latest poll (Jesse Ventura being the exception), it follows that no matter what your opinion as a scientist on matters of the spirit, it is wiser to stick to your job and avoid upsetting your prince and benefactor.

This is all the more so because of two other things that we know about scientists: the overwhelming majority of them do not believe in a personal God (about 60 percent of general scientists and a staggering 93 percent of top scientists),{3} and the reason they become scientists is to pursue questions for which science is a particularly good tool. Most of these questions are rather more mundane than the existence of God.

The result of this odd mix is that most prominent scientists do not believe in a personal God because of their understanding of science and of its implications, but come out in public with conciliatory statements to the effect that there is no possible contradiction between the two.{4}

The resolution to Point 2 is that there is a philosophical, if not scientific, contradiction between science and religion (see below), but it is not in scientists' interest to start an unholy war that they would lose (given the religious and political climate of the United States). Therefore, if asked, one could answer with the universally convenient "no comment" and live at peace with one's conscience.

Point 3 is rarely raised directly within the S&R debate, but it clearly lurks behind some of the responses one gets when talking or writing about it. Let me make it as clear as possible: no self-respecting scientist or educator--believer or nonbeliever--would want to limit the freedom of speech or expression of any party, including religionists or creationists. There is a fundamental, if rarely fully appreciated, distinction between openly criticizing a position, which is part of the very idea of free speech, and attempting to coerce people into believing what you think is true, or limiting their ability to believe and practice what you think is not true. While religious fundamentalists often do not respect this distinction, most religious progressivists, agnostics and atheists, do. It should therefore be clear that discussions about science and religion, or evolution and creationism, deal with free inquiry and education, and in no sense are meant to limit anybody's free speech. Asking to limit what is taught in a science classroom to what is pertinent to that science is sound educational policy, not censorship.

The Many Facets of Science and Religion

In order to continue our discussion of the legitimate philosophical, scientific, and religious aspects of the science and religion quagmire we need a frame of reference to guide us. What I present here is an elaboration on a classification scheme proposed by Michael Shermer.{5} Shermer suggests that there are three worldviews, or "models," that people can adopt when thinking about science and religion. According to the same worlds model there is only one reality and science and religion are two different ways of looking at it. Eventually both will converge on the same final answers, within the limited capabilities of human beings to actually pursue such fundamental questions. The conflicting worlds model asserts that there is only one reality (as the same world scenario also acknowledges) but that science and religion collide head on when it comes to the shape that reality takes. Either one or the other is correct, but not both (or possibly neither, as Immanuel Kant might have argued). In the separate worlds model science and religion are not only different kinds of human activities, but they pursue entirely separate goals. Asking about the similarities and differences between science and religion is the philosophical equivalent of comparing apples and oranges. "These are two such different things," Shermer told Sharon Begley in Newsweek's cover story "Science Finds God," "it would be like using baseball stats to prove a point in football."{6}

Using Shermer's model as a starting point for thinking about S&R, I realized that something is missing. One cannot reasonably talk about the conflict between science and religion unless one also specifies what is meant by religion or God (usually there is less controversy on what is meant by science, though some philosophers and social scientists would surely disagree). So what makes Shermer's picture incomplete is the very important fact that different people have different Gods. I am not referring to the relatively minor variations of the idea of God among the major monotheistic religions, but to the fact that God can be one of many radically different things, and that unless we specify which God we are talking about, we will not make any further progress.{7}

My tentative solution to the problem is therefore presented in Figure 1. Here the panoply of positions concerning the S&R debate is arranged along two axes: on the abscissa we have the level of contrast between science and religion, which goes from none (same worlds model) to moderate (separate worlds) to high (conflicting worlds). On the ordinate is the "fuzziness" of the concept of God, which ranges from a personal God who intervenes in everyday human affairs to the concept of a Naturalistic God who acts only through the laws of physics, to the most esoteric position of deism characterized by a God who created the universe but did not interfere with it ever since.

I will keep an updated version of this scheme, including the best positions of individuals, on my web site at http://fp.bio.utk.edu/skeptic/essays.htm.

These conceptions of God may take many forms. However, the common denominator to the belief in a personal God is the idea that (S)He intervenes in individual lives, performs miracles, or otherwise shows direct concern for us mortals. A naturalistic God, on the other hand, is a bit more detached: if (S)He intervenes at all it is through the tortuous ways of the natural laws that (S)He himself designed for this universe. Finally, the God of deism does not interfere, even indirectly, in human affairs, but simply answers the fundamental question of why there is something instead of nothing.

Big Bangs, Anthropic Principles, and Christian Apologetics

Figure 1 shows what personalities as diverse as physicists Paul Davies and Frank Tipler, conservative Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga, and science-religion crusader John Templeton have in common, as well as where they differ. Sir John Templeton is a British citizen native of Tennessee, and he has invested $800 million of his personal fortune into furthering a better understanding of religion through the science. The Templeton Foundation has sponsored a panoply of activities resulting in articles, books, and conferences whose goal is to "discover spiritual information."{8}

According to Sir John, science has made incredible progress in discovering truths about the natural world. Ergo, its powerful methods should be useful to religion in order to augment our knowledge of God and matters spiritual. And Templeton is putting his money where his mouth is by funding several scientific projects (at the rate of hundreds of thousands of dollars each) as well as by awarding the Templeton Prize, which is financially heftier than the Nobel.

Examples of the science-to-religion connection that Templeton envisions are illuminating. His Foundation has given hard cash to Pietro Pietrini of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study "Imaging brain activity in forgiving people" ($125,000); Lee Dugatkin of the University of Louisville was awarded $62,757 for research on "Evolutionary and Judaic approaches to forgiving behavior." Herbert Benson of Harvard was aided in answering the question "Does intercessory prayer help sick people?," while Frans de Waal of Emory University was given funds for studying "forgiveness" among primates.

Templeton's efforts (but not necessarily those of all the researchers who are receiving his money) fall into what can be termed scientific theism, that is, the idea that one can scientifically investigate the mind of God. This particular position within the science and religion universe is actually a very old and revered one, having its roots in classical Christian Apologetics a la St. Thomas Aquinas and continuing today through the efforts of individuals like Plantinga and William Craig.

If, however, one believes in a more remote kind of God but wishes to retain the concept of science and religion uncovering the same truth, the choice is not limited to scientific theism. Two other positions are possible, depending on whether one subscribes to a naturalistic or to a deistic God, the Strong Anthropic Principle and Weak Anthropic Principle, the latter also known as the "God of the Big Bang." Of course, throughout this discussion the actual position of individuals within my framework may be different from what I suggest here, either because the boundaries between categories are fuzzy rather than well delineated, or because I may have misunderstood particular individuals' positions based on their writings.

The Weak Anthropic Principle says that there is very little variation in the known constants and laws of physics that could be tolerated if the universe were to be a place friendly to life as we know it.{9} As is, this is a rather trivial observation, but if one wants to read philosophical implications into it, then it is a small leap of faith to claim that the universe was created because life had to exist. From here, there is another small logical gap to the Strong Anthropic Principle, which infers an intelligent designer with a purpose behind the whole shebang.{10} Several physicists and cosmologists have played with different versions of the Anthropic Principle, including Frank Tipler (one of the original proponents of the principle) and Paul Davies, whose exact position on the matter is a bit more difficult to ascertain, but whose awkward combination of a connection with the Templeton Foundation and very careful speculative writings on cosmology put him squarely in the upper left corner of my diagram.{11}

The anthropic principle is difficult to counter on purely philosophical grounds (see Ruse this issue), other than it seems to be begging the question and somehow reverses the direction of causality (a general cause is inferred from the observation of a particular result of that cause). Furthermore, it is not useful as a scientific hypothesis, since all it says is that we are here because we are here. The Principle has, however, been effectively attacked on positive scientific grounds by showing that many more possible universes could support some sort of life, an attack that has weakened the "improbable" argument on which the Principle is based.{12} A more fatal blow might come in the near future from superstring theory, the current working hypothesis for the reconciliation of the theories of relativity and of quantum mechanics.{13}

While all these positions are compatible with Shermer's "same worlds" scenario, it is clear that a scientist feels more and more comfortable the more one moves toward the upper end of the ordinate in my diagram, that is, the more fuzzy and distant the concept of God becomes (notice that one can adopt a Strong Anthropic Principle scenario and slip toward a personal God at the same time, as indicated by the arrow in the figure). This observation in and of itself, I think, points toward a fundamental degree of discomfort between science and religion.

Gould, the Pope, and Houston Smith

When we examine the portion of the graph in Figure 1 that falls in the area identified by Shermer as the domain of the "separate worlds" model, we deal with a range of characters that go from agnostic evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard) and nontheist Eugenie Scott (National Center for Science Education) to the Pope himself, passing through the ambiguous position of the charismatic Houston Smith, the acclaimed author of The World's Religions).{14} Let's see how this variation is again accounted for by the different concepts of God these positions reflect.

Several scientists, philosophers, and skeptics, including Shermer,{15} Scott,{16} Mayr,{17} Pazameta,{18} and Michael Ruse (see his essay this issue) loosely fall into the position outlined by Gould as NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria{19} (although Ruse is mildly critical of some aspects of this position). NOMA says that science deals with facts, religion with morality; the first focuses on what is, the latter on what ought to be. Citing what in philosophy is known as the "naturalistic fallacy"{20}--one cannot derive what ought to be from what is--Gould concludes that science and religion are forever separate.

Another way to look at NOMA has been articulated by Eugenie Scott when she made the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism.{21} According to Scott, science adopts naturalism as a convenient tool for conducting research, in a methodological sense. In order to deny the existence of God, however, one has to be a naturalist in the philosophical sense of the term, that is, one has to conclude that the physical world is all there is. Ergo, science cannot inform us as to the existence of God, because naturalism is not a scientific conclusion, but an assumption of the scientific method. If science does not have anything to say about God (and obviously, says Scott, religion is incapable of informing science about the natural world), then NOMA logically follows.

Scott's reasoning is more sophisticated than Gould's, though they share several points. The main commonality is the fact that NOMA defenders are really using the concept of a rather distant God detached from the everyday functioning of nature, since even Gould (and certainly Scott, who makes a living out of valiantly battling creationism) admits that a personal God is in direct contradiction with the scientific evidence. A naturalistic God is marginally compatible with NOMA, but both Gould and Scott seem to be rather uncomfortable with that notion.

I have criticized Gould's position in detail elsewhere{22} and I will therefore only summarize my objections to NOMA here and then briefly turn to Scott's argument. As far as I can see there are at least three points where NOMA fails: 1) NOMA applies to the very special concept of God that a deist would feel comfortable with, not to what most people think of as "God." Hence, NOMA cannot heal the current schism in our society between religionists and secularists, contrary to what Gould claims. 2) The naturalistic fallacy can be challenged. For one thing, why shouldn't we use "what is" as at least a rough guide to what "ought to be"? At the very least we should treat this as an open question. Also, science can certainly inform us about the consequences of "what is" so that we can better determine what ought to be to further our own happiness, and science does a much better job at it than religion, whose conclusions are derived from ancient authorities with little knowledge of nature and of human psychology and sociology.{23} 3) It is certainly not true that morality (or, more properly, ethics) is the sole domain of religion, since ethical philosophy has also been providing us with a rational way of discussing our behaviors and their social impact.

Scott's distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism is certainly more valid than Gould's Solomonic separation between science and religion. A full critique of her position is available online,{24} but the gist of the counterargument has been clearly articulated by Will Provine.{25} Essentially, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Methodological naturalism is not independent, but derived from philosophical naturalism. Therefore, naturalism is an essential component of science not just as a practical device, but because it is part of the very fabric of the scientific method. For example, when scientists apply either Occam's razor (a preference for explanations that make use of a minimum number of necessary theoretical constructs) or Hume's dictum (a preference for less "miraculous" explanations), they are practicing a particular philosophy. Science cannot be divested of such philosophy without losing its nature. This point is seized upon by creationists such as Phillip Johnson,{26} who accuse science of being a religion. Provine's very reasonable rejoinder is that science does indeed make a leap of faith, but that such leap is infinitesimal compared to the leap made by religionists. Furthermore, science's leap--unlike religion's--has produced tangible miracles, such as the laptop computer and a doubled lifespan.

Moving down the God axis in Figure I we come to what I have termed "theistic science" (as opposed to scientific theism). It is not exactly clear how well Smith fits into this category, but his position is the closest I could find to represent the land between NOMA and the Pope (notice the diagonal arrow bridging theistic science and scientific theism, which could represent two sides of the same coin). Smith argues against scientism, an idea that can be defined in different ways. I would argue that scientism is the concept that science can and will resolve every question or problem in any realm if given enough time and resources. I don't think that even the most grant-hungry professional researchers readily subscribe to it, but I know of individuals who seem to.{27}

Smith, however, thinks of scientism (for example in a lecture delivered at Oak Ridge, TN in 1998) as the idea that the scientific method is the best way to investigate reality. According to Smith there are other ways, including intuition and religious revelation. The important point is that these alternatives are not available within science, thereby excluding certain aspects of "reality" from scientific investigation. Smith is joined by Alvin Plantinga in the scientific theism corner, particularly evident in his request that the National Association of Biology Teachers modify their definition of evolution by dropping such philosophically (and politically) loaded words as "impersonal" and "unguided" when referring to the process of natural selection.{28}

While the area occupied by theistic science is borderline and intermixed with different degrees of scientific theism and NOMA (and I do not know which specific mix Smith would prefer), the general idea is that according to theistic science it is perfectly sensible to say that there is a God as well as a physical universe. The distinctive point of theistic science is that the God behind the universe works in very subtle ways and entirely through natural laws, so that it is impossible (or at least very difficult) to infer his presence (unlike the case of the Anthropic Principle, where an intelligent designer is the only possible conclusion).

As the reader can see, then, the center of the diagram in Figure 1 is a rather gray area from which one can easily move to almost any other position by introducing one or more qualifiers. If applied to evolution in particular, theistic science translates into theistic evolution, where evolutionary theory is by and large correct (therefore science is on solid ground), but it includes the added twist that evolution is the (rather inefficient and clumsy) way God works. This is what Barry Lynn (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) may have meant when he concluded the 1997 PBS Firing Line" debate for the evolution side by suggesting that the Word (God) in the beginning may simply have been "Evolve!"

The Pope's position assumes the personal God of Catholics but it includes an element of fuzziness as well, and it is accompanied by an arrow pointing left in Figure 1 because one could think of it as a variation of the same worlds model that does not go quite as far as scientific theism a la Templeton. Pope John Paul II has expressed himself twice in the last few years on the relationship between science and religion. In a letter written to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,{29} he first declared that Christians should not reject the findings of modern science, including evolutionary theory. This is because, in his words, "Truth cannot contradict Truth" (which is why this position could be construed as leaning toward the left side of the diagram).

However, the Pope drew a line at the origin of the human soul, which of course had to be injected directly by God. This creates a rather abrupt discontinuity because it introduces an arbitrary dualism within the process of human evolution, a stratagem with which science does not sit very well, as Richard Dawkins pointed out.{30} John Paul II's more recently published "Fides et Ratio"{31} argues for the fact that science and faith can be used to uncover parallel realities for which each is best equipped, similar to what Gould states as the foundations of NOMA. It is because of this position and the implied dualism that I situated the Pope toward the center of the diagram.

Within the separate (or almost separate) worlds, therefore, one can go from essentially no conflict between science and religion if a deistic God is considered, to a position that is logically possible but increasingly inconsistent with both Occam's razor and Hume's dictum. Depending on how much importance one accords to the philosophical foundations of science, this area of the Science-Religion space can be more or less comfortably inhabited by moderate scientists or moderate religionists.

The Many Faces of Creationism

The lower right corner of Figure I is inhabited by two positions whose exponents have a lot in common but who despise each other almost as much as they are opposed to everything else that populates the R&S conceptual space. I am referring to "classical" creationism as embodied, for example, by Duane Gish and his colleagues at the Institute for Creation Research,{32} and to the "neo-creationism" movement well represented by Michael Behe{33} (1996), William Dembski{34} (1998), Phillip Johnson{35} (1997) and other associates of the "Discovery Institute."{36}

No matter what kind of creationist you are, you are very likely to believe in a personal God and in a fundamental conflict between science and religion (or at least, so it seems from the array of publications within both the classical and neo-creationist camps). The main difference between Gish's group and Johnson's ensemble is that the latter is more sophisticated philosophically and makes a more slick use of scientific terminology and pseudoscientific concepts. They are also much more politically savvy, though they do not enjoy the grassroots support of classical creationists because they ironically tend to be seen by most people as "too intellectual."

Essentially, most neo-creationists (among whom there is quite a bit of variation) do not believe in a young Earth, accept micro-evolution (though recently so do some classical creationists), don't believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and don't even call themselves creationists--the preferred term for their version of things is "intelligent design" (some even go so far as to avoid stating just who this intelligent designer might be).

While debunking classical creationism is nowadays not too trying of an intellectual exercise,{37} neocreationists are quite something else. Behe's book on "irreducible complexity" makes the point that the molecular machinery of living organisms is so complex and necessitates all of its parts working in synchrony that it must have been designed. A good rebuttal has to span from David Hume's devastating critique of the generalized version of the argument from design{38} to modern findings on the evolution of specific biochemical pathways.{39} Dembski's reasoning that intelligent design can be inferred by excluding all other alternative hypotheses on probabilistic reasoning entirely misses the more parsimonious explanation of unintelligent design (i.e., natural selection) to account for biological history and diversity.{40} Finally, Johnson's main thrust that science is really a philosophical enterprise with no better claim to reality than religion can be dealt with by using Provine's argument about philosophical naturalism discussed above.

The Twin Souls of Skepticism

Last, but not least, let's consider the two main versions of modern skeptic ism, which have produced a lively debate within the skeptic community and which represent the forefront of rational thinking about science and religion.{41} I am referring to what in Figure 1 are labeled "scientific skepticism" and "scientific rationalism," positions associated with people such as Carl Sagan, Will Provine, and Richard Dawkins (the fact that my name falls in one of those fields merely reflects the influence that these people have had on my thinking).{42}

First, notice that both skeptical positions are rather unusual, in that they span more than one quadrant, diagonally in the case of scientific skepticism, vertically for scientific rationalism. Scientific skepticism is the position that skepticism is possible only in regard to questions and claims that can be investigated empirically (i.e., scientifically). For example, Novella and Bloomberg state that "Claims that are not testable are simply outside the realm of science."{43} However, scientific skepticism immediately embarks on a slippery slope that the same authors acknowledge in their article. They admit that "Testable religious claims, such as those of creationists, faith healers, and miracle men are amenable to scientific skepticism," so that religion is not entirely out of the scope of skeptical inquiry.

Furthermore, they acknowledge that there is no distinction in principle between religion and any other kind of nonsense believed by all sorts of people: "There is no distinction between believing in leprechauns, alien abductions, ESP, reincarnation, or the existence of God--each equally lacks objective evidence. From this perspective, separating out the latter two beliefs and labeling them as religion--thereby exempting them from critical analysis--is intellectually dishonest." That is, scientific skepticism converges toward scientific rationalism (see below) when one considers personal gods that intervene in everyday life, but moves toward a NOMA-like position if God is defined in a distant and incomprehensible fashion.

One of the most convincing arguments adduced by scientific skeptics to keep religion out of skeptical inquiry is that a believer can always come up with unfalsifiable ad hoc explanations of any inconsistency in a religious belief. While this is certainly true, is this not an equally valid critique of, say, skeptical inquiry into paranormal phenomena? After all, how many times have we heard the "true believers" saying that the reason a medium failed a controlled test is because of the negative vibrations produced by the skeptic? Nicholas Humphrey, in his excellent Leaps of Faith,{44} even reports that paranormalists have come up with a negative theory of ESP that "predicts" that the frequency of genuine paranormal phenomena is inversely proportional to attempts at empirically investigating them! This sounds like religious believers" attempts to save their cherished mythology.

As much as one might question scientific skepticism on the basis of more or less subtle philosophical points, there is of course another, more practical side to this position, which also makes for a convergence toward NOMA. As Novella and Bloomberg honestly admit, it is a matter of resources: "This single issue, which is not central to our purpose, could potentially drain our resources, monopolize our public image, and alienate many potential skeptics."{45} This is, unfortunately, very true. It is also true that the skeptic community cannot and should not require any article of faith (such as unbelief in God) from any of its members. However, we do require that there are no sacred cows. Anything and everything must be the subject of free inquiry and skeptical investigation. To allow otherwise, for practical or any other kind of reasons, is an intellectual travesty. On the other hand, what can and should be admitted is that God and religion truly do represent only one facet of the universe of interest to skeptics, and that skeptical analyses of the God question may or may not be fruitful. Therefore, let us proceed with caution, but proceed nevertheless.

Within the framework of scientific rationalism one arrives at the belief in the nonexistence of God, not because of certain knowledge, but because of a sliding scale of methods. At one extreme, we can confidently rebut the personal Gods of creationists on firm empirical grounds: science is sufficient to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that there never was a worldwide flood and that the evolutionary sequence of the Cosmos does not follow either of the two versions of Genesis.{46} The more we move toward a deistic and fuzzily defined God, however, the more scientific rationalism reaches into its toolbox and shifts from empirical science to logical philosophy informed by science. Ultimately, the most convincing arguments against a deistic God are Hume's dictum and Occam's razor. These are philosophical arguments, but they also constitute the bedrock of all of science, and cannot therefore be dismissed as non-scientific. The reason we put our trust in these two principles is because their application in the empirical sciences has led to such spectacular successes throughout the last three centuries.

Admittedly, the scientific rationalist is on less firm ground the more she moves vertically up in Figure 1. But this is not a fatal blow because no reasonable skeptic asserts her positions as definitive truths. All we are saying is "show us." The main reason I prefer scientific rationalism to scientific skepticism (which is more akin to the philosophical position known as empiricism and espoused by many English philosophers between the 17th and 19th centuries) comes down to a matter of which trade-offs one is more willing to accept. Scientific skepticism trades off the breadth of its inquiry (which is limited) for the power of its methods (which, being based on empirical science, are the most powerful devised thus far). Scientific rationalism, on the other hand, retains as much of the power of science as possible, but uses other instruments--such as philosophy and logic--to expand the scope of its inquiry. As a scientist I have been trained within scientific skepticism; as a somewhat rational human being, I yearn for the wide horizons of scientific rationalism.

Different Beliefs for Different Folks

It should be obvious from this survey that there are many ways to slice the science-religion question, certainly more than I have discussed or can even think of. As mentioned at the onset, the point is not to censure any particular position, but rather to explore their differences from a logical as well as a psychological perspective. In fact, it is almost as interesting to debate the question as it is to wonder why some people subscribe to one point of view or to another (which is the main point of Shermer's 1999 book).
I have already stated my personal preference for scientific rationalism on the grounds that it is highly compatible with the empirical evidence and makes very reasonable assumptions where the evidence is lacking. However, scientific skepticism, NOMA, and even some very weak forms of the anthropic principle are certainly difficult to definitely exclude, and enough intelligent people adopt them to provide some pause for reflection. The more we move from the upper right to the lower left corner of Figure 1, however, the more difficult one's position becomes to defend empirically or rationally, all the way down to the innumerable absurdities embedded in Christian apologetics.

The two axes of Figure 1 define the degree of personality of the god one believes in and the conflict one feels between that concept of god and the world as science uncovers it. As such, this diagram defines a series of fuzzy, slowly intergrading areas of thinking that can help us both understand the relationship between science and religion and the human protagonists of this debate. Where you see yourself and others in Figure 1 is bound to shape your life trajectory in this world and your interactions with other people. What happens beyond this world is anybody's guess, but mine is: nothing.


1. Kitty, A. 1998. "Objectivity in Journalism: Should We be Skeptical?" Skeptic 6(1), 54-61.
2. Letter to Skeptic, 6(4), 28.
3. Larson, E.J. and L. Witham. 1997. "Scientists are Still Keeping the Faith." Nature 386:435-436; Larson, E.J. and L. Witham. 1998. "Leading Scientists Still Reject God." Nature 394:313.
4. Provine, W. 1988. "Scientists, Face It! Science and Religion are Incompatible." The Scientist 9(5), 10.
5. Shermer, M. 1999. How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W. H. Freeman.
6. Begley, S. 1998. "Science Finds God." Newsweek, July 20, 46-52.
7. Pigliucci, M. 1998. "A Case Against God: Science and the Falsifiability Question in Theology." Skeptic 6(2), 66-73.
8. Holden, C. 1999. "Subjecting Belief to the Scientific Method." Science 284, 1257-1259.
9. Casti, J. L. 1989. Paradigms Lost. New York: Avon Books.
10. Tipler, F. J. 1995. The Physics of Immortality. New York: Doubleday.
11. Davies, P. 1993. The Mind of God. New York: Simon and Schuster.
12. Stenger, V. J. 1996. "Cosmythology: Was the Universe Designed to Produce Us?" Skeptic 4(2):36-41; Leikind, B.J. 1997. "Do Recent Discoveries in Science Offer Evidence for the Existence of God?" Skeptic 5(2):66-69.
13. Greene, B. 1999. The Elegant Universe. New York: W. W. Norton.
14. Smith, H. 1991. The World's Religions. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
15. Shermer, M. 1998. "Is God Dead?" Skeptic 6(3), 80-87.
16. Scott, E.C. 1999. "The 'Science and Religion Movement'." Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 29-31.
17. Mayr, E. 1999. "The Concerns of Science." Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 65.
18. Pazameta, Z. 1999. "Science vs. Religion." Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 37-39.
19. Gould, S. J. 1997. "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." Natural History, March, 16-22; Gould, S.J. 1999. Rocks of Ages. New York: Ballantine.
20. Moore, G. E. 1903. Principia Ethical. Cambridge University Press.
21. Scott, 1999.
22. Pigliucci, M. 1999. "Gould's Separate 'Magisteria': Two Views." A review of Rocks of Ages by S.J. Gould. Skeptical Inquirer 23(6), 53-56.
23. As I argued in Skeptic 6(2), this cannot be a blanket statement, but requires a specification of which particular set of religious beliefs one is talking about. Unless otherwise stated, however, I am referring here to the kind of personal god of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition.
24. http://fp.bio.utk.edu/skeptic/Essays/provine scott.htm
25. Provine, 1988.
26. Johnson, P. 1997. Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
27. Wilson, E.O. 1998. Consilience. New York: Knopf.
28. Smith, H. 1993 The Common Vision of the World's Religions Forgotten Truth. Harper, San Francisco.
29. Palevitz, B.A. and R. Lewis. 1999. "Short Shrift to Evolution?" The Scientist 2/1, 11.
30. John-Paul-II 1997. "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences." Reprinted in Quarterly Review of Biology 72: 381-383.
31. Dawkins, R. 1999. "You Can't Have it Both Ways: Irreconcilable Differences?" Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 62-64.
32. http://www.cin.org/jp2/fides.html
33. Gish, D.T. 1995. Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No! North Santee, CA: Institute for Creation Research.; http://www.icr.org/
34. Behe, M.J. 1996. Darwin's Black Box. New York: Free Press.
35. Dembski, W.A. 1998. The Design Inference. Cambridge University Press.
36. Johnson, P. 1997.
37. http://www.discovery.org
38. Trott, R. 1994. "Debating the ICR's Duane Gish." talk.origins (accessed: 1/16/98), web page, www.talkorigins.org/faqs/debating/gish.html; McIver, T. 1996. "A Walk Through Earth History: All Eight Thousand Years." Skeptic 4(1), 32-41; Shermer, M. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W. H. Freeman.
39. Hume, D. 1779. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Edinburgh: Gilbert Elliot.
40. Shanks, N. and K. H. Joplin. 1999. "Redundant Complexity: A Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design in Biochemistry." Philosophy of Science 66:268-282; see also Kenneth Miller at http://biomed.brown.edu/faculty/M/Miller/Behe.html
41. Pigliucci, M. (in press). "Chance, Necessity, and the New Holy War Against Science." A review of W.A. Dembski's The Design Inference. BioScience.
42. Dawkins, 1999; Kurtz, P. 1999. "Should Skeptical Inquiry be Applied to Religion?" Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 24-28; Novella, S. and Bloomberg, D. 1999. "Scientific Skepticism, CSICOP, and the Local Groups." Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 44-46; Pazameta, Z. 1999. "Science vs. Religion." Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 37-39; Scott, 1999.
43. Allen, S. 1999. "Two Mind-Sets." Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 47-49; Palevitz, B.A. 1999. "Science and the Versus of Religion." Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 32-36; Pinker, S. 1999. "Whence Religious Belief?" Skeptical Inquirer 23(4), 53-54; Raymo, C. 1998. Skeptics and True Believers. New York: Walker and Co.
44. Novella and Bloomberg, 1999.
45. Humphrey, N. 1996. Leaps of Faith. New York: Basic Books.
46. Novella and Bloomberg, 1999.
47. Ledo, M. 1997. Bible Bloopers: Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Too! A Skeptic Answers Josh McDowell. Atlanta: AFS.

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Re:Science and Religion
« Reply #1 on: 2002-10-25 12:56:11 »
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You can find the above and many more interesting essays on Atheism/Religion here:

Massimo's Skeptic & Humanist Web


A refutation of Pascal's wager: why skeptics should be non-theists

Is religion good for you? 

A case against god: science and the falsifiability question in theology

Personal gods, deism, and the limits of skepticism (includes the "taxonomy of skepticism" map)

The White Knight of Christianity: an evening with William Lane Craig 

In search of a rational ethics for secular humanists

Science and religion as fuzzy Wittgenstenian concepts

Neuro-theology: a rather skeptical perspective

On death--Thoughts of an optimistic atheist

Besides religion, there are also sections for Creation/Evolution, Philosophy, and Science Methods/Education/Criticism.

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