17 October 2011

Why (and how) science is incompatible with religion

Over at The Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini explains why science and religion are oil and water, despite the intellectual acrobatics of theologians, religious scientists and ‘faithists’ (non-believers who nonetheless believe in the value of belief) defending accommodationism. Baggini’s article is a more eloquent version of my own arguments against the Gouldian concept of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, or NOMA. I used the analogy of science and religion (supposedly) occupying two separate rooms but religion constantly intrudes into science’s room. Baggini expands on this illustration by showing how religion intrudes into the room it apparently has no business in entering, if the accommodationists are to be believed.

Accommodationists maintain that science is purely concerned with the ‘how’ questions, while religion deals with the ‘why’ questions. Both are compatible with each other so long as they stick to their respective spheres of expertise. But Baggini demonstrates that such claims are incorrect, even dishonest:

It sounds like a clear enough distinction, but maintaining it proves to be very difficult indeed. Many "why" questions are really "how" questions in disguise. For instance, if you ask: "Why does water boil at 100C?" what you are really asking is: "What are the processes that explain it has this boiling point?" – which is a question of how.

Critically, however, scientific "why" questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, "why" is usually what I call "agency-why": it's an explanation involving causation with intention.

So not only do the hows and whys get mixed up, religion can end up smuggling in a non-scientific agency-why where it doesn't belong.

That’s the nub of this whole affair: religion assumes the necessity of agency, so all scientific ‘why’ questions that are agency-free will run afoul of religion, which sees itself as the only institution permitted to handle ‘why’ questions, questions that, from a religious perspective, inevitably have answers involving agency i.e. God. And by insisting on the ‘agency-why’ nature of agency-free questions, religion ends up trespassing into the domain of science, because ‘agency-why’ questions often turn into ‘how’ questions, which accommodationists assure us are the sole preserve of science. As Baggini points out:

This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and puts God in the answer, they are almost inevitably going to make an at least implicit claim about the how: God has set things up in some way, or intervened in some way, to make sure that purpose is achieved or meaning realised. The neat division between scientific "how" and religious "why" questions therefore turns out to be unsustainable.

Baggini exposes the falsehood of accommodationism’s premises: contrary to the NOMA ‘law’, religion keeps meddling in scientific matters because the strict separation that accommodationists believe exists actually doesn’t. Consequently, the myth of compatibility between science and religion is debunked; conflict between evidence-based understanding and faith is basically guaranteed when faith continually challenges the processes and findings of science.

So religion, by its inherent propensity for seeing agency in everything, including agency-free phenomena, cannot avoid interfering in the scientific enterprise because for religion, all ‘how’ questions are also ‘why’ questions. And the thing is, science also sees it that way, if in reverse – many ‘why’ questions are really ‘how’ questions. The key difference is that science doesn’t require agency to come up with answers. Religion always does.

Here’s an elegant graphic showing another way in which science and religion differ in their approach to finding answers to questions (click on the image to enlarge).

HT: Jerry Coyne


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