• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Flip
  • Tanedo
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • CERN
  • Geneva
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • Laura
  • Gladstone
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Richard
  • Ruiz
  • Univ. of Pittsburgh
  • U.S.A.

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Michael
  • DuVernois
  • Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Jim
  • Rohlf
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Emily
  • Thompson
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Ken
  • Bloom
  • USA

Latest Posts

Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Science and Religion: Competing Paradigms?

The contentious relation between science and religion is the topic of this, the penultimate[1] post in the current series.  Ever since science has gone mainstream, there have been futile attempts to erect a firewall between science and religion. Galileo got in trouble with the Catholic Church, not so much for saying the earth moved as for suggesting the church steer clear of scientific controversies.  More recently, we have methodological naturalism (discussed in a previous post), a misidentification of why the supernatural is absent from science. Then there is the: science cannot answer the why question—but it can when it helps make better models (also discussed in a previous post). For example, why do beavers build dams? This can be answered by science. And there is the ever popular non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) of Stephen J. Gould (1941 – 2002).  NOMA claims that “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: … The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

The empirical realm covers not just what can be directly observed but what can be implied from what is observed. For example, quarks, and even something as well-known as electrons, are not directly observed but are implied to exist. That would also be true for citizens of the spirit or netherworld. If they exist, they presumably have observable effects. If they have no observable effect, does it matter if they exist or not? Similarly, a religion with no empirical content would be quite sterile, i.e. would prayer be meaningful if it had absolutely no observable effects?

Moral issues cannot be assigned purely to the religious sphere. The study of brain function impacts questions of free will and moral responsibility. Disease and brain injury can have very specific effects on behaviour, for example, a brain injury led to excessive swearing in one person. What about homosexuality? Is it biological or a lifestyle choice? Recent research has indicated a genetic component in homosexuality, thus mixing science with what some regard as a moral issue. Finally, what about when life begins and ends? Who decides who is dead and who is alive? And by what criteria?  Scientific or religious? This has huge implications for when to remove life support. The bigger fight is over abortion and the question of when independent life begins. Is it when the sperm fertilizes the egg? That is a scientific concept developed with the use of the microscope. That simple definition has problems when there are identical twins where the proto-fetus splits in two much later than at conception. In the other direction, both the sperm and the egg can be considered independent life. After all, the sperm has the ability to leave the donor’s body and survive for a period of time. The arguments one hears regarding when independent life begins are frequently an ungodly combination of scientific and theological arguments.

In the end, there is only one reality, however we choose to study or approach it.  Thus, any attempt to put a firewall between different approaches to reality will ultimately fail, be they based on science, religion, or philosophy.  At least the various religious fundamentalists recognize this, but their solution would take us back to the dark ages by subjugating science to particular religious dogmas. However, it does not follow that religion and science have to be in conflict. Since there is so much variation in religions, some are and some are not in conflict with any particular model developed by science. Still, it should be a major concern for theology that something like religion has not arisen naturally from scientific investigations.  While there are places God can hide in the models science produces, there is no place where He is made manifest. And it is not because He is excluded by fiat either (see the essay on methodological naturalism referenced above).

One should not make the same mistake as Andrew Dickson White (1832 –1918) in setting science and religion in perpetual hostility. He was a co-founder of Cornell University and its first president. He was also embittered by the opposition from the church to the establishment of Cornell as a secular institute. The result was the book: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896); a polemic against Christianity masquerading as a scholarly publication. This book, along with History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by John William Draper (1811 – 1882), introduced the conflict thesis regarding the relation between science and religion and said it is perpetual hostility. Against that, we note Newton, Galileo, and Kepler were all very religious and much science was done by clergymen in nineteenth century England. White’s book, in particular, has many problems. One is that the very opposition to change is cast as science versus religion rather than recognizing a lot of it as simple resistance to change. Even science is not immune to that—witness the fifty year delay in the acceptance of continental drift. The historical interplay between science and religion is now recognized to be very complex with them sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord, and most commonly, indifferent.

If we take a step back from the results of science and its relation to particular religious dogmas, and look instead at the relation between the scientific method and theology, we see a different picture. Like science and western philosophy, science and theology represent competing paradigms for the nature of knowledge.   Science is based on observation and observationally constrained models; Western philosophy on rational arguments; while theology is based more on spirituality, divine revelation, and spiritual insight. This is, in many ways, a more serious conflict than between scientific results and particular religions. Particular religions can change, and frequently have changed, in response to new scientific orthodoxy, but it is much more difficult to change one’s conceptual framework or paradigm. Also, as Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) and Paul Feyerabend (1924 – 1994) pointed out, different paradigms tend to be incommensurate. They provide different frameworks that make communication difficult. They also have conflicting methods for deciding questions, making cross-paradigm conflict resolution difficult, if not impossible. Hence, there will be tension between science and theology forever, with neither dominating.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] NLP in the notation of effective field theorists.


Tags: , ,

13 Responses to “Science and Religion: Competing Paradigms?”

  1. Cibele says:

    Very good!!! I like your posts :)

  2. Bob Anderson says:

    Hi Byron,

    I always enjoy your posts. Its great to take a step back with you from the everyday application of science to look at underlying assumptions and it will be a shame when your posts finish.

    I am very confused by your footnote however. What has NLP ( neuro-linguistic programming ) got to do with “field theories”? Presumably NLP is an achronym for something else in this case – but what?

  3. christophe nicolas says:

    very good text, as always. I can do to misinterpretation because of the translation, sorry.

    Philosophies, sciences and religions are not competitors. They light up and question each other. Gradually, rationality incorporates areas unexplained. But ultimately, it will never explain everything. I think in the end, science will justify religion. Kuhn is good, but Feyerabend says, “the only approach that does not harm the progress is anything goes.” This is false. Progress is not an end but a necessity for every generation that is not a slave to the one before. Progress allows a permanent change, and each generation reinvents itself. If humanity is stuck on earth, it destroys itself. It is neither the methods nor the systems that are considered, but men. Take the example of neutrinos: if scientists wanted some ideas, it was enough to make an open letter to the community. Judah is useful in the history of Jesus but Judah is blamed because it accepts the villain of his own likings. Nobody honors Judah, nobody believes in Judah. It is Jesus who triumphs. For neutrinos, this is not the same, the intention is not bad but the method is clumsy. The method is to blame, especially for those who want convaincrent others to adopt it.
    Me one day, I was spied on, many networks have spied me: politics, scientififique, secret, professional, friendly, family, religious, anonymous. Do you know what I did: I told the truth because I had nothing to repprocher me and I was not aware of that but I was feeling the effects. Now they know they are being spied on each other, is silly. It’s silly because the method is silly. It is silly because to succeed, the trapped person must be a liar. Otherwise, the method turns against those who conceived. This is a method that expects failure. This is a method to trap, to prove that the truth does not exist to prove that “the law of the jungle is the best” or “the end justifies the means”. This is “make the bed” of Judah.

    Feyerabend is right when he says “too much method kills creativity”. However, for research, creativity is very important.
    I do not believe in anarchy in practice, except perhaps in a very long time. But a cognitive perspective, anarchy is a necessary ingredient of the creative process.
    See causality as a sequence in linear time is reductive. Believe this makes the materialistic science and tyrannical because it is false. There will always be many branches in the tree of knowledge, but one day we will know why. Science will never replace religion. Too bad for those who believed him. Besides, who cares! What is important, it is men. Philosophies, sciences and religions are lights. They support the unmistakable light of the human heart that is too often forgotten. But sometimes the error slips in philosophy, science or religion and can ettoufer his heart. Therefore, it is important to expose the error, it is a collective work is being done gradually.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

      I don’t think creationists should comment on science. It is especially hilarious when known non-historical persons from religious mythical texts (“Judah”, “Jesus”) are used as illustrations.

      The religious claim of “different ways to knowledge” doesn’t work, there is no evidence for that. Rather, I would argue that science directly reject religion since about the 70′s.

      The reason is because science works, and predicts why it works so well.

      Any kind of magic would impose new state configurations on a system without input of energy. Energy is a measure of the state space, the configurations a system can return to. (Hence energy can be conserved over time.) In fact, you can hook up a magical being to act as a perpetual motion machine of the first kind, doing work without energy input, “Goren’s Angel” after the inventor of the gedanken experiment.

      So magic breaks thermodynamics and energy isn’t conserved in local systems that can be isolated. Science could still work where that didn’t happen, but not as efficiently. In other words, the principle of absence of magic works the same as a principle of uniformity. We no more have different objects acting by different physics (absence of magic) than we have different locales acting by different laws (uniformity).

      Minimizing magic means maximizing efficiency of science. Moreover, we can take the tested facts and theories that obeys local energy conservation and test them. I estimate that~ 6 years science paper production after ~ 1970 would suffice to make a binomial test of a hypothesis that nature is a monism on the 3 sigma level. (At least ~ 600 000 papers/year; assuming ~ 10 % had some form of tested observation or theory.)

      Hence science not only dominates religion, it can reject it because it works and it has observably worked so well. It is the hypothesis of monism that can predict what we observe on science efficiency. I don’t know of any competing hypothesis.

      As I noted in another comment, which is currently held in moderation, theist or deist gods are neither necessary nor very likely to create universes or laws any longer. But we can add that dualism can be rejected wholesale, no form of religious magic (say, miracles) seems supportable in a direct comparison.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    As expected by a longer series of philosophic postings this too ends up in arguing for accommodationism and a deification of theology (“God”, “He”).

    I don’t think it works in practice even now, see Templeton, The Clergy Letter Project & BioLogos problems vs Dawkins’ Converts’ Corners success, but I expect that it will eventually become a recognized failure.

    Templeton etc cetera problem is that most deist gods seem to be hands on when it comes to choosing physical laws.

    - Theist gods are now known to be neither necessary nor very likely to create universes. Universes appear spontaneously out of known physical laws. (E.g: Hawking, Krauss.)

    In the same manner deist gods are neither necessary nor very likely to create physical laws.

    - Physical laws appear spontaneously out of known physical theories such as anthropic selection on eternal inflation multiverses or post-selection of universes. (E.g: Susskind, Hawking.)

    I suspect that eventually deism, as theist creationism already has, will fall as an intellectually acceptable alternative. With the disappearance for an acceptable gap to push gods into, accommodationism will also be finished as an intellectually acceptable alternative.

    It will continue to fly of course, but as an ex-parrot. So the theological claim that “neither [will be] dominating” doesn’t seem to fit the current evidence.

    • Byron says:

      I might note, I said science and theology are competing paradigms cot complementary ones.
      Hence science has not vanquished religion. The Enlightenment thinkers predicted reason would lead to the end of religion. It did not because religion is not based on reason.

  5. Mike Will says:

    I like spend my Sunday morning with a big cup of cappuccino reading several blog posts, including this one, one of my favourites. Here’s how it went:

    “Galileo got in trouble…for suggesting the church steer clear of scientific controversies”

    “This can be answered by science”

    “…not directly observed but are implied to exist”
    [ahhh, yes]

    “would prayer be meaningful if it had absolutely no observable effects?”

    “In the end, there is only one reality”

    “there will be tension between science and theology forever, with neither dominating”
    [cough...sputter...burnt tongue...]

    Thanks for harshing my mellow, Byron.

  6. Leon James says:

    Regarding this claim: “For example, why do beavers build dams? This can be answered by science.” I don’t think that’s correct. Science can explain HOW beavers build dams, but not why. Science only has correlations to observe when it is not considering the spiritual cause of each correlation. Causes are in the spiritual realm, while their effects is in the natural realm. For example, what is the cause of my car accelerating when I drive? My students reply: more fuel entering the combustion chamber. But this is only a correlation. The cause of more fuel in the engine is mental (or spiritual): namely, my desire to go faster. Similarly the causes of earthquakes are mental or spiritual upheavals. For further elaboration of this approach see E. Swedenborg’s book Divine Love and Wisdom: http://sacred-texts.com/swd/dlw/index.htm


    Leon James
    author: theistic Psychology and the Positive Bias in Science: http://e-swedenborg.com/tp/

  7. [...] Science and Religion: Competing Paradigms? (quantumdiaries.org) [...]

  8. socratus says:

    People believe about the ‘God Particle’
    The Higgs Boson walks into a Catholic Church.
    Priest says “What are you doing here?”
    The God -particle says: “You can’t have mass without me.”
    / Christian Esmeria. /

  9. socratus says:

    Relation between science and religion
    God: maybe metaphysical, maybe scientific point of view.
    “It might even give us some ground to speculate that
    the vacuum itself (and hence the universe) is “conscious”.
    / Book “The quantum self ” page 208. by Danah Zohar. /
    “If we were looking for something that we could conceive
    of as God within the universe of the new physics, this ground
    state, coherent quantum vacuum might be a good place to start.”
    / Book “The quantum self ” page 208, by Danah Zohar. /

Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy