Monday, November 22, 2010

Holy War?

Every Monday, the last page (The Forum) of USA Today's front (blue) section runs an opinion piece that focuses on religious issues. Here is the lead in they use to describe that column:
On Religion :: Faith. Religion. Spirituality. Meaning.
In our ever-shrinking world, the tentacles of religion touch everything from governmental policy to individual morality to our basic social constructs. It affects the lives of people of great faith — or no faith at all. This series of weekly columns — launched in 2005 — seeks to illuminate the national conversation.

If you have ever considered starting a blog about religious/worldview topics, you could keep yourself very busy responding to the nonsense that appears in this weekly column. Though there are occasionally some decent, thoughtful editorials presented here, a vast majority of the time this is not the case.

I have read, and commented on, several of these columns but I do not believe I have ever seen a more arrogant, vacuous, or poorly-presented "argument" than the example that appeared recently about the supposed "war" between science and religion, "Science and Religion Aren't Friends".

There is nothing new or unique in this piece. The attitude of the author is a little worse than most -- he doesn't even pretend to try to do the topic justice or offer a thoughtful analysis. But, I guess that's what you should expect when the credentials of the one chosen to engage the unwashed masses in a "conversation" about religion and science is: "a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago (Jerry A. Coyne), whose latest book is titled: Why Evolution is True."

Sounds like he'd be evenhanded, doesn't it?

That brings me to the first point I'd like to make:

Most scientists are incapable of addressing
the relationship between science and religion.

To be fair, so are most theologians. The reason for this is that the relationship between science and religion is neither scientific, nor theological. The point of contention is the relationship between the two ... and that is a philosophical point.

Case in point: Coyne tells us that "Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth." And how does Coyne tell us this works? By the scientific method, of course. "The methods of science," he says, "help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true."

To Coyne, the only way to find truth is by utilizing the scientific method of inquiry. So let's apply his claim to his own statement. How would we determine whether or not his claim that -- "the methods of science ... distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true," -- is true or false? What scientific experiment could we devise to test that claim?

Answer: None.

This is not tricky or elusive. It is just a plain fact. Coyne's claim cannot be tested by the scientific method because it is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. In fact, it appears to be a claim that Coyne "only wants to be true."

If you are going to run an "illuminating conversation" about the relationship between faith and science, you need to have some kind of philosopher writing it -- someone like say, a philosopher of science. If you can't have that, the least you could do is have whoever it is writing the piece actually try to address the philosophical issues that are in debate. You certainly shouldn't have a scientist (or a theologian) pontificating about why only their discipline has the only right answers.

There is plenty more to address in this article and I plan to do so in some follow-on posts. But, before getting to those, we have to understand that the main thrust of Coyne's assertion is self-refuting. Science cannot, even in principle, be the only source of truth because, as Frank Turek often puts it, "science doesn't say anything, scientists do." Scientists, like everybody else, are biased in their own perception of what the scientific data is telling them by their own philosophical presuppositions.

Science is the child of philosophy. More on that next time ...

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