Identifying the conflict between religion and science — Part I

sciencereligionby David Kyle Johnson

Many, both theists and atheists, acknowledge the conflict between religion and science. This includes New Atheists like Richard Dawkins [1] and also academic philosophers such as John Worall, who argue that one cannot be both purely scientifically minded and religious [2]. Others disagree. Stephen Jay Gould, an agnostic, famously defended the NOMA thesis — that science and religion cannot be in conflict because they are about non-overlapping magesteria [3]. His sentiments have been echoed by some academic philosophers, such as Del Ratzsch, who argues that the conflict between science and religion is greatly exaggerated [4]. Most recently this thesis was reiterated by Alvin Plantinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism. [5] If there is a conflict, it is supposedly only about minor ideas that are usually found in small movements — like creationism, which is (they say) only popular in certain Christian fundamentalist segments of America [6].

I disagree. Contrary to Gould, Ratzsch and Plantinga’s arguments, religion conflicts with science, especially regarding religious issues, doctrines, beliefs and thought processes of major significance. I will demonstrate why. For brevity, I will concentrate on a few specific Christian doctrines that enjoy near universal agreement and show that each is monumentally unscientific. I will do so by analogy, explicating a classic case of unscientific thinking, and then showing how religious thinking parallels the example precisely. (However, it should also become clear how one could apply such analogies to the doctrines of other religions.) But first, to understand why they conflict, we have to understand what science and religion are.

Science and Religion 

What is religion? Articulating and defending an all encompassing definition is beyond the scope of this essay, but we can at least identify what religion is not. Gould suggests that religion is a system of beliefs concerned only with ethics and meaning [7]. If this were true, it would seem that there could be no conflict between religion and science. But clearly this is not the case. Gould himself acknowledges that Christians make claims about the existence of the soul, and the  existence of God — both of which are metaphysical and ontological claims, not claims about ethics or meaning. In addition, Christians make claims about the past and present occurrence of physical events, including healing miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, etc. — all clearly about the occurrence of events and the status of objects in the natural world.

Science is similarly misunderstood. The purview of science is not restricted to the lab. Observation and prediction are used but, as Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper taught us, science is an exercise in abduction — inference to the best explanation [8].  Scientific progress is made by sifting through competing hypotheses and identifying the best one. The criteria for abduction have found their best and clearest articulation in Schick and Vaughn’s How to Think about Weird Things: testability, fruitfulness, scope, simplicity and conservatism — the criteria of adequacy [9]. 

Testability: If a hypothesis makes no observable or novel predictions beyond what the hypothesis was originally introduced to explain, then it is unscientific.

Fruitfulness: If it makes wrong predictions, it is unfruitful, and to accept it is unscientific. To make ad hoc (non-testable) excuses to save the theory from the fact that it has made wrong predictions, is also unscientific [10].

Scope: The more it explains, the better; a good scientific theory must increase our understanding, not raise more questions than it answers.

Simplicity: If a theory requires more entities than other theories (that have the same merits) then it is not simple. To accept a theory over such simpler competitors is unscientific.

Conservatism: If it conflicts with itself (i.e., it is logically inconsistent) or conflicts with much of what we already know is true, then it is non-conservative and unscientific.

The theory that best fits these criteria is said to be “the most adequate,” and the most unscientific move of all is to reject a more adequate theory for a less adequate one. Once a theory has been well-established as the most adequate, scientists often base their experimentation and observations on it and no longer question it [11]. But as anomalies that conflict with the theory pile up, even it can be subjected to the above criteria once again; and if it becomes clear that another hypothesis is more adequate, it will be completely abandoned. This fuels scientific revolutions, like when Einstein’s relativity replaced Newtonian mechanics.

Scientific reasoning also understands and avoids logical fallacies. Take, for example, appealing to ignorance — concluding that an inability to prove something false is reason to think it is true, or an inability to prove something true is reason to think it is false. This is fallacious reasoning because, contrary to popular understanding, science does not prove or disprove anything. Everything in science is a theory that is confirmed to some greater or lesser degree; nothing in science is certain because no theory can ever be completely disconfirmed. To save a theory from falsification, one can always challenge assumptions in our background theories — i.e., one can always make excuses [12]. (To do so is usually not scientific, but it can always be done.) Science can and does show where the preponderance of evidence lies, and in so doing can render belief in other theories irrational — but it can disprove nothing. Thus, to believe something is true because it can’t be proven false, or to believe something is false because it can’t be proven true, is wholly unscientific. The latter occurs when one commits what I like to call the “Mysterium ergo magus” (“Mystery therefore Magic”) fallacy — it is to believe that an inability to think of a natural explanation is a good reason to appeal to a supernatural one. It is not [13].

Lastly, it must be noted that scientific experimentation is set up to avoid the known inaccuracies and biases of human perception. Although our senses, memory, introspection and reason are often reliable, they are fallible, and can often lead us to faulty conclusions. This is why scientific tests have to be highly controlled and repeatable; science is designed to circumvent and thus avoid the influence of human bias, especially biases that are the result of our fallible senses.

Before continuing, it is important to note that being unscientific is not the same as being non-scientific. To be unscientific is to believe something despite scientific evidence to the contrary. But to be non-scientific is to simply believe something without scientific evidence. This is not necessarily bad. In fact, since science does not exhaust all of rationality and is not applicable to everything, non-scientific beliefs seem unavoidable. My beliefs that, say, it is wrong to torture babies for fun or that freedom is a fundamental human right, do not have scientific evidence [14]. In fact, science itself must rest on certain assumptions that cannot have scientific evidence, such as the reliability of induction and the truth of non-contradiction. Technically such beliefs are non-scientific.

Many theists claim that religious beliefs are merely non-scientific, not unscientific. If so, there is no conflict between science and religion. But, as we will now see, many religious beliefs are patently, and undeniably, unscientific — not merely non-scientific.

Anecdotal Evidence and Petitionary Prayer 

The variable nature of illness, the placebo effect, and a host of other factors make anecdotal evidence worthless in medicine. If a single person is sick, takes something (not already known to be an effective treatment), and then subsequently gets better — contrary to what the person will likely conclude — this is not good evidence that what they took made them better, and thinking otherwise is unscientific. What made them better could have been something else they took or did without realizing it. They could be benefiting from the placebo effect. It could be that they were already on the mend. And this is true, no matter how severe the illness is, or whether you can think of a natural explanation for why they got better. Only multiple, independent, double blind studies can establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular action or treatment has a causal effect on an illness.

Yet religious people use such anecdotal reasoning every time they declare that their petitionary prayers are responsible for real world affects, for example healing someone of an illness or injury. The fact that someone got better after you prayed for them is not good evidence that it was the prayer that made them better, any more than it would be if you had given them vitamin C — even if you can’t figure out why they did get better. Yet such evidence is an important element of what the Vatican of the Catholic Church uses for canonization. Upon the report that someone was sick, prayed to a deceased Pope, and then got better, if no natural explanation for the recovery is forthcoming, they will conclude that it was the deceased Pope that was the cause of the recovery [15]. This is a classic example of unscientific thinking — the same used by people who promote quack cures for diseases. Not only is it anecdotal, but the “Pope explanation” is not simple (it has extra entities), does not increase our understanding (how did he do it?), does not have wide scope (explains nothing but that particular case), and is not conservative (it conflicts with both biological knowledge and theological assumptions). Additionally, because it jumps to a supernatural conclusion in the absence of a natural explanation, it commits the “mystery therefore magic” fallacy. Christian belief in the effectiveness of petitionary prayer (and specifically the healing power of prayer) is wholly unscientific.

Magic and Miracles 

Penn & Teller’s “bullet catch” is remarkable. Not even the best magicians in the world can figure it out. If you, however, conclude from this that they use supernatural powers to make the bullets disappear from the barrels of their guns and into their teeth (after all, actually catching bullets in your teeth is physically impossible) you are being wholly unscientific. Again, you are committing the “mystery therefore magic” fallacy.

Yet religious people employ the same reasoning all the time. When someone’s cancer spontaneously goes into remission, it is truly remarkable. Although it is known that such things do happen, most often not even doctors know why. Yet even when no prayers have been issued for the person, the religious will claim that the cause of the event is supernatural in origin — that it is a miracle. God made the disease go away. In doing so, they are engaging in the same sort of fallacious thinking that you would if you concluded that Penn & Teller really have supernatural “magic” powers because no one can explain how they catch bullets in their teeth. Once again, the religious are engaged in classic unscientific thinking. Just like with Penn & Teller’s bullet catch, there is a natural explanation — it’s just currently outside our grasp.

Problems with Probability and Divine Intervention 

Suppose that you are thinking of a friend at a particular moment, and then that friend calls you on the telephone moments later. “What are the chances of that?” you might think. “I must be psychic. What else could explain it?” If so, you are being wholly unscientific. Not only are you jumping to a supernatural conclusion, but you are misunderstanding basic probability. The chances that your friend would call at that moment are slim, but the chances that, at some point in your life, a friend will call while you are thinking of them is very likely. In fact, given the number of people thought about nationwide, and the number of phone calls made daily nationwide, this actually happens many times a day [16]. The chance that it would happen to a particular person is slim; but that it would happen to someone is nearly guaranteed. The chance that it would happen to you at a particular time is slim; but that it will happen to you during your lifetime is nearly guaranteed.

Why is such thinking unscientific? There is no need to invoke supernatural psychic explanations for such phenomena any more than there is to invoke such explanations when someone wins the lottery. Although the probability that any one particular person will win is slim, the probability that someone will win is quite high. And when someone does, no supernatural explanation is needed. Eventually, someone was going to win. In fact, only if no one ever won the lottery would we have reason to think something fishy was going on; only then might someone have reason to invoke some kind of “outside” explanation (e.g., the game is rigged). In the same way, although it is unlikely that a particular instance of you thinking about a friend will be followed by that friend calling you, the likelihood of such a thing eventually happening is high. And nothing is more unscientific than to invoke a supernatural explanation, when in fact none is needed because a natural explanation is already available.

Healing miracles are not the only miracles religious people believe in. Just about any time something “unlikely” happens, the religious chalk it up to divine intervention. As a prime example, consider the website, “Where was God on 911,” where the following stories are mentioned as evidence of God’s miraculous work on 9/11:

As you might know, the head of one company survived 9/11 because he took his son to kindergarten.

Another fellow is alive because it was his turn to bring donuts.

Another lady was late because her alarm clock didn’t go off on time.

One was late as a result of being stuck on the NJ Turnpike because of an auto accident.

One more survivor missed his bus.

One spilled food on her clothes and had to take time to change.

One’s car wouldn’t start.

One went back to answer the telephone.

One had a child that dawdled and didn’t get ready as soon as he should have.

One couldn’t get a taxi.

The one that struck me was the man who put on a new pair of shoes that morning,
went to work by his usual way but before he got there, he developed a blister on his foot.
So he stopped at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid. That is why he is alive today [17].

I have heard countless religious people echo the reasoning of this website; such stories are “proof of God’s intervention.” This is typical religious reasoning. I have no idea whether these stories are true, but I have no reason to doubt them. Given the number of people who worked in the twin towers, things like this — transportation hang-ups, dawdling children, and pre-work errands and phone calls — happened to people who worked there every day. And that is the point. None of these require any kind of miraculous explanation; in fact, none of them are even unlikely. On the contrary, such things would have happened to make people late for work every day, including on 9/11. Such events need a supernatural explanation no more than someone winning the lottery. Perhaps the probability of them happening to a specific person is low, but the probability that someone would have car trouble, that someone would get a blister, that someone’s child would dawdle is a near guarantee. (After all, it had to have been someone’s turn to pick up donuts.) In fact, only if such things didn’t happen to anyone on that day might one have reason to be tempted to invoke an “outside” (e.g., supernatural) explanation.

Yet such examples are indicative of Christian reasoning about most miracles. When something that is unlikely to happen to a specific person at a specific time occurs (perhaps they survived a car wreck, perhaps they threw for exactly 316 yards against the Steelers), they chalk it up to divine intervention. If they were thinking scientifically, however, they would realize that the occurrence of such an event is actually quite likely indeed. Inevitably, it was going to happen to someone. Christian belief in miracles is wholly unscientific.


David Kyle Johnson is an Associate Professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania. He has done extensive work using popular culture to explain and illustrate philosophical ideas and arguments. He has written articles on everything from South Park to The HobbitDoctor Who to The Onion, and Quentin Tarantino to Christmas. He edited a book on Heroes and on Inception. He also co-edited Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House with William Irwin.

[1] See, for example, his article “You can’t have it both ways; Irreconcilable Differences,” Skeptical Inquirer, 23 No. 4, July/August 1999.

[2] John Worall, “Science Discredits Religion,” in Michael Peterson and Raymond Vanarragon (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion. Blackwell, 2005.

[3] “Non Overlapping Magiseria,” Skeptical Inquirer, 23 No. 4, July/August 1999.

[4] “The Alleged Demise of Religion: Greatly Exaggerated Reports from the Science/Religion ‘Wars,’” in Michael Peterson and Raymond Vanarragon (eds), Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion. Blackwell, 2005.

[5] Oxford University Press, 2011.

[6] Unfortunately, they are wrong about this. Most American Christians believe in Creationism or Intelligent Design  (we are just ahead of Turkey when it comes to acceptance of evolution) and Creationism is also taking a foothold in Islam. See Islam’s Darwin Problem, by Drake Bennett, Oct. 25, 2009.

[7] “The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from the lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise — science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” Gould (1999), p. 193.

[8] See Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions University Of Chicago Press, 3rd edition, 1996; and Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Rutledge, 2 edition, 2002.

[9] See Theodore Schick’s and Lewis Vaughn’s How to Think about Weird Things, McGraw Hill, 6th edition, 2010, Ch 6.

[10] It’s worth noting, however, that trying to save an already established theory from falsification by making testable “excuses” is perfectly acceptable. Scientists did this when what Newton’s theories said about planetary motion were put in danger by Uranus’ wobbly orbit. Instead of giving up on Newton, they hypothesized another planet that was gravitationally affecting Uranus. This was not ad-hoc, because it was testable — and that is how we found Neptune.

[11] Although it may be tweaked, as time goes on — like when the heliocentric view of the solar system was tweaked to include elliptical, instead of perfectly circular, orbits for the planets.

[12] The is mainly because of the Duhem–Quine problem, which tells us that a hypothesis can never really be tested in isolation because it always relies on some set of background assumptions. If you make a prediction based on a hypothesis, but the prediction fails, to save the hypothesis you can always frame it within a different set of background assumptions that alters what it predicts. For example, Flat Earthers can challenge assumptions about the way light travels to defend the flat earth theory. Perhaps light bends in certain ways and that is why a ship’s stern disappears first as it sails over the horizon — not because the earth is round. This is one reason that falsifiability is often challenged as a criterion for determining what counts as a scientific hypothesis. Technically, nothing is falsifiable. This is why it is important to realize that making ad-hoc (non-testable) excuses to save your theory (as it were, capitalizing on the non-falsifiablity of a theory to save it) is unscientific.

[13] Having no proof that there is a natural explanation is no good reason to think that it is false that there is a natural one. Why? For one, we have made this mistake in the past — declaring, “nothing else can explain this but the supernatural,” only to find an embarrassingly obvious natural explanation latter. But mainly such reasoning is fallacious because it is more likely that the reason you can’t find a natural explanation is because you can’t think of one — not because there isn’t one.

[14] Even Sam Harris, who argues that science can be used in ethical reasoning, admits that certain philosophical assumptions (namely, that some version of utilitarianism is true) must be made before such endeavors are undertaken. See Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, Free Press, 2010.

[15] For a rundown of miracles that are being claimed to be the result of prayers to Pope John Paul II, see “Vatican announces May 1 beatification for John Paul II,” by Manya A. Bracher.

[16] For more on this phenomena, and the fallacies discussed, see Schick and Vaughn (2010), ch 5.

[17] Ahl, Dave. “Where was God on 9/11?

92 thoughts on “Identifying the conflict between religion and science — Part I

  1. The ancient Hebrews of both the Abrahamic and Sinaic covenants were not Jews and their practices do not comprise “classical Judaism.” Judaism is born of the Rabbinical tradition, which has its roots in one strain of Hellenistic Judaism, the Pharisaic strain. The people you are speaking of, then, are our religious and “national” ancestors.

    With respect to whether Judaism is monotheistic or not, the view actually changes over the course of the Hebrew Bible. What you describe is true of the earlier forms but not the mid- to later forms.

    Finally, with respect to Jews being an outlier on the subject at hand, I did say that I believe that what I have said about Reform and Reconstructionist Jews could also be said of many liberal and progressive Protestant denominations.


  2. Hi Aravis,

    1. That’s a very good point and I can certainly see where you are coming from. I can see how it makes sense to call non-supernatural reform Judaism a religion in this sense. I would also say that sometimes concepts do have defining characteristics, even post-Wittgenstein, e.g. for something to be a “cup” it must be capable of holding liquid. I think it’s important to recognise that people have different interpretations of what terms mean, and the author clearly intends religion to connote supernaturalism, a view I find quite reasonable. This doesn’t mean he is ignorant of people like you, but rather that your religion is not a religion in the author’s language. You are simply not the target of the piece.

    2. I’m not particularly familiar with Judaism as there are not many Jews in my country.

    “You don’t really think these people are all creationists do you?”

    Of course not, nor did I say they were. But I would think most of these people believe in God, which is in itself a supernatural belief. This belief is unscientific, though a person who believes so may be scientific in all other respects. The person doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist creationist for the points in the article to apply, albeit to a limited extent.

    3. Yes, I understand what you mean, but I don’t agree. Non-overlapping-magisteria is popular enough to make it clear that the conclusion is not trivial. Many people feel that they can be scientific about the natural world in general while also believing that miracles happen in exceptional cases They think that science is the study of the natural and that religion is the domain of the supernatural. Just as there is no conflict between biology and meteorology, it is not obvious to everyone that there needs to be a conflict between “naturology” and “supernaturology”.


  3. Hi Devin,
    I don’t agree that one needs to assume induction in order to justify induction. For example the following argument doesn’t.

    We observe that there are strings of repetitions in the world. These strings could of course come to an end. But, pick a string where the number of repetitions is already known to be large compared to the number of end points (at most two). We don’t know where we are on this string, the end-point could be in 5 mins time. However, since the number of middle points greatly exceeds the number of end points, the likelihood is that the next point will be a “middle” point and not an “end” point. Thus induction is justified probabilistically.


  4. Hi Devin,
    All of the “normative statements that regulate scientific practice” are indeed themselves scientific, in that they are not a priori assumptions, but have been worked out from seeing what works. The “scientific method” is thus itself a product of trying to match the empirical world, and the method is validated by the fact that it works (= produces match to the empirical world).

    For example, “seek the simplest explanation that explains all the facts” (= Occam’s razor) is justified as follows: The number of possible statements vastly exceeds the number of statements that are actually true about our world. Thus you are unlikely to hit on a true statement at random, and need to be guided to them by empirical evidence. Thus discard statements not so supported.

    You ask “useful by what standard?”, the standard here is producing a match to empirical reality. And yes, we can verify scientifically (= checking match to empirical reality) whether these things give a good match to empirical reality.


  5. Hi John,

    a belief in dark matter (an hypothesis necessitated by a theory, with no confirming observational evidence)

    First, in physics “theories” are not separate from evidence, “theories” are accounts of and explanations of evidence. Second, “dark matter” was indeed postulated because of observational evidence. Applying gravity to observations of galaxies gave the wrong answer unless either (1) there is a lot more matter than we observe (= dark matter), or (2) the theory of gravity is wrong. Astronomers have pursued both possibilities (e.g. “MOND” is a modified theory of gravity developed as an alternative to adding dark matter).

    As things have played out the “dark matter” hypothesis has been shown to have much more predictive power, be more parsimonious, and fit much better with the rest of cosmology. MOND, on the other hand, has needed to be re-jigged in an ad hoc way every time better observations comes along. Thus, nowadays, cosmologists prefer the dark-matter explanation. Of course this is open to revision if anyone comes up with an even better explanation that doesn’t include dark matter.

    All of the above is observationally driven, and at each stage astronomers have been doing their best to test and/or falsify the theories. That’s the big difference between dark matter and belief in gods.


  6. Here’s an example of where science vs. religion is subordinate to politics: Should the government fund Planned Parenthood? A libertarian scientific atheist might side with the conservative religious theist to vote ‘no’: The first based on the principle of limited government; the second because of their religious beliefs. But the progressive religious theist might side with the liberal scientific atheist and vote ‘yes’: The second based on scientific and pragmatic reasons; the first because of their religious beliefs.

    The end result is that it’s the politics that matters.


  7. You are absolutely right on the historical issues.

    The rest – it comes down to a matter of definition. To me, “religion” posits the direct intervention of the Being in our material world. If this intervention drifts into myth, the the term “religion” fades aways, like an old warrior.


  8. You can’t do science without reason and logic, so I don’t see the problem with including both in your definition of science. As Huxley said, ““Science is simply common sense at its best, that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.”


  9. I don’t think it is as straight forward as you think that nihilism about ethics is the best scientific theory. You don’t necessarily need abstract objects for moral truths so nihilism isn’t necessarily simpler,and nihilism certainly isn’t conservative, since it doesn’t give with what most people think they know–like murder is wrong.


  10. You are right, I probably should have said “many” or “most” religious people chalk it up. In my experience, that is true. And I will deal with scientists who claim to be religious in the last post.


  11. I will deal with this objection in the last post–part III. I know that there are people who claim to be religious that don’t believe in the supernatural. If you don’t, then my arguments don’t apply to you–but the fact that they don’t apply to you doesn’t mean they don’t apply to others. And that is what I am trying to do–I am not proclaiming that all religion is unscientific. I am clarifying the conflict–making it clear where it lies. So if this leads one to realize–“ah, this applies to evangelicals, but not to reformed Jews”–then I have accomplished my goal. I have clarified where the conflict lies.

    But I am not strawmanning–you have to realize, you are in the vast minority–just look up the statistics about religion and supernatural belief. Most religious people believe the things I am criticizing here.


  12. I deal with such objections is Part III. The fact that my arguments don’t apply to you doesn’t mean that they don’t apply to anyone or that they don’t need to be made. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that all Christians are the same–the you must realize that many of the beliefs I am criticizing are held by a vast number of Christians.


  13. I do not stipulate that at all. I say specifically that I am dealing with Christian beliefs (that is what I am most familiar with) and suggest that the same arguments could easily be made for the beliefs of other religions. But I do mean to suggest that all Christians share this belief–but many of them do and yet they think they are scientific. But I am not saying that science and religion are completely in conflict–I am clarifying where the conflict lies. The fact that some religious people, like you, don’t believe the things I am criticizing doesn’t mean that the ones who do are being scientific.


  14. This is why I didn’t just use that one example. This is a view that many hold, but not that everyone holds. But given the wide range of important religious doctrines I criticize in all three parts,, one would be hard pressed to find a religious person (even a “non-fundy”) that doesn’t endorse at least one of them.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that I am just picking on “fundies” when I am also attacking so many other views also held by non-fundies.


  15. Christians tend to attribute miracles as they want. Why not? They don’t view the world as physically determined, where all events have some sort of cause. Visible, tangible things happen but the universe is like their own view of themselves: free. Every event can be caused by itself, just as a thought they have seems to spontaneously arise. They are willing mental events. Analogously physical events can be willed. And just as the self can recreate its world in dreams, so too can the personality behind the world itself recreate it at will. I think in practice, interpreting the world as a narrative in which you are the star of a cosmic drama of salvation can be immensely rewarding.

    In the scientific view, everything that happens has a cause. But causes in this view is not an act of will. Causes may be predictably mechanical, reducible to objects pushing on each other. Or they may be random, where individual instances differ unpredictably but nonetheless the fall into a determinate distribution. Or they may be contingent, intelligible only as a history where causes and their events happen only once. In this world view, sharing a common ancestry with apes is not flattering.

    At least that’s the basic underlying views I can see. I’m not sure the OP is making a case for science that refutes the Christian view as I perceive it.

    “Testability: If a hypothesis makes no observable or novel predictions beyond what the hypothesis was originally introduced to explain, then it is unscientific.” It’s one thing to want to redefine science to exclude the study of society. Unfortunately, the claim that history can’t be science also covers the historical sciences, which are not about predictions. I would even argue that trying to make predictions from evolutionary theory is pathological science.

    “Fruitfulness: If it makes wrong predictions, it is unfruitful, and to accept it is unscientific. To make ad hoc (non-testable) excuses to save the theory from the fact that it has made wrong predictions, is also unscientific [10].” This is actually the same as testability, except that it restricts ad hoc modifications. As the post notes, supplementary hypotheses are a practical necessity (the Duhem-Quine [correct, I think] objection to Popperian falsifiability.) The definition of ad hoc given here, though, is non-testable. I think there is a better criterion for restricting supplementary hypotheses, which is to say that supplementary hypotheses must be material causes, following the ordinary laws of nature as known thus far, for which there is empirical evidence of existence.

    “Scope: The more it explains, the better; a good scientific theory must increase our understanding, not raise more questions than it answers.” Sounds good, but it’s not true. If more facts are contained within a new theory, it’s good science. And the more precise the facts contained, the better. And the more the theory can find new facts (finally, this is where predictions do come in!), it’s the best.

    “Simplicity: If a theory requires more entities than other theories (that have the same merits) then it is not simple. To accept a theory over such simpler competitors is unscientific.” I think this is too vague. The desired simplicity is not a logical or mathematical or verbal simplicity which is identified with the facility it can be stated. Like Occam’s Razor I think the desired simplicity is ontological. The fewer physical concepts used, the better. The heart of the problem is that physical concepts are justified by empirical evidence, both direct and indirect. But when fundamental physical concepts are treated as metaphysical hypotheses, in a context where the existence of reality must be justified by a priori necessity? There is no simplicity to be had.

    “Conservatism: If it conflicts with itself (i.e., it is logically inconsistent) or conflicts with much of what we already know is true, then it is non-conservative and unscientific.” Dark matter. Dark engergy. Quantum mechanics versus general relativity. Physics is logically inconsistent and everything else has physics going on too.


  16. How can we scientifically verify that science leads to descriptions that match empirical reality without circularity?
    As far as the normative imperatives go, even if we grant that they lead to an accurate description of empirical reality, what is the nature of the imperative “try to get an accurate description of empirical reality”?


  17. I would maintain that you have turned “religion” into a theoretical term and are thus making an argument by stipulation (just as the author does).

    The natural language term ‘religion’ has a common use that is at odds with yours. It includes, within its extension, any number of liberal and progressive faiths and denominations, the overwhelming number of adherents to which do not hold the science-breaking supernatural beliefs that you stipulate.


  18. Science is figuring out what matches empirical reality. In order to verify what matches empirical reality (= do science) you figure out what matches empirical reality (use science).

    That isn’t “circular” (though it may be tautological) and doesn’t require any prior assumptions.

    what is the nature of the imperative “try to get an accurate description of empirical reality”?

    That imperative comes from human desire. In order to motivate doing science you do indeed need a human desire to figure out empirical reality.


  19. I must admit to still being quite puzzled. It seems to me like there’s no there, there.

    If the claim is “religions full of supernaturalist claims are in conflict with science” that strikes me as trivially true, since being scientific and supernaturalism are logically exclusive.

    As for your other point, it may be the case that worldwide, the overwhelming number of religiously affiliated people believe all sorts of supernaturalist stuff, I would suggest that this is *not* true of the industrialize, “first-world.” Certainly not Western Europe and i would argue, not in the US, either. Certainly, *many* do, but it is not as if the liberal denominations of Protestantism do not have millions of adherents in the “first world.”

    In sum, the true claim that you make seems trivially so, and the more substantive claim that I *thought* you were making, re: religion as a whole, is untrue.


  20. Physics is logically inconsistent …

    I don’t think it is accurate to say that physics is logically inconsistent, it’s more that it is incomplete — there are situations for which we don’t know the physics and know that we don’t know. In many areas of reality, though, physics gives an entirely consistent account.


  21. I don’t think you can assume that an incomplete system is logically consistent. I’m not even sure it correct to say that an incomplete system qualifies as a logical system at all. My objection is the OP’s criterion of conservatism should not include “with itself (i.e., it is logically inconsistent).” To me, it smacks far too much of the notion that only a priori logical necessity counts as true knowledge. This apparently is the true philosophy but I think science is what has been empirically verified as true, along with the best explanations of these facts, as explained in the framework of principles generalized from experience.

    I think many Christians who bother to think about reality and science share this philosophical emphasis on science as a logically coherent set of postulates used to model reality (and share the disinterest in dumb facts.) That’s why they see science as arbitrary choice, not a justified true belief. (To be fair, I believe that notion is deeply controversial amongst philosophers.) There is a deep divide between philosophers who do favor logical coherence as truth, and the many other Christians who reject rationalism as yet another arbitrary choice. They see the philosophers’ regard for reason as an act of faith, except that it is one that does not address their personal experience of God.


  22. Absolutely. I raised this exact same point on /r/Christianity and they were really bothered by that question. Looks like they hadn’t thought about this a lot before they accepted evolution. I’ve been accused in the past of pushing people into religious fundamentalism, but honestly, I have more respect for religious fundamentalists than for these other people who don’t take ideas seriously.


  23. If he is reporting his own judgment (“I judge it bad”) then that is a scientific claim, not a “non-scientific” claim. His opinions are facts about the world in the same way that him stating “I like chocolate” is a claim within the compass of science.

    If, though, he is saying “I think that this would rate bad on an objective supra-human bad-ness scale” then that is an unscientific claim (not a non-scientific one) since the idea of such an objective supra-human scale is unevidenced.


  24. You have more respect for fundamentalist, who, by their civic and political behavior, cause real harm to real people, around the world, than you do for adherents of progressive and liberal religions who harm no one and who look to religion primarily for community, meaning, and values? I’d love to hear the argument for that one.


  25. @Coel,
    I can’t express my frustration here because Massimo clearly expects a higher standard here than at RS. But know that I’m frustrated.

    The issue isn’t whether “DM judges killing babies is bad” is a fact or not. It is a fact and can be empirically determined. The issue is whether the process that he uses to come at that conclusion is a scientific one. Did he come up with multiple hypotheses, test them and eliminate all but one of them? No. So clearly it’s not a scientific process.

    Do you think it wasn’t obvious to countless philosophers over the centuries that the truth of the statement “DM judges X is bad” can be empirically determined? What we’re interested in is the process. Suppose “DM makes a song”. The fact that he made a song can be empirically verified. But is the song itself scientific the same of the dissipative chaos theory is scientific?


  26. Just for fun…

    Once you’ve got them musing about A&E, raise the next, and more fundamental, issue (I got this idea from AGAMBEN).

    Christians believe in the Trinity. Which means that the Godhead was trine and une as well. This is dogma.

    Now, The Father created the world. No role for the Son (let along the Holy Ghost) in this (neither gets even a cameo appearance, or credits)

    So what’s the role of the Son? Easy! comes the answer: Redemption.

    Fine, but this means that the essence of God from time out of time depended on the contingent behavior of His creature. You get a vicious paradox.

    I have this view of Jesus in the Garden of Eden, pushing Eve on: “Go, eat that apple, or I won’t have anything to justify myself.. (I’m mischievously blasphemous)


  27. Hi brainoil:

    The issue isn’t whether “DM judges killing babies is bad” is a fact or not. It is a fact and can be empirically determined. The issue is whether the process that he uses to come at that conclusion is a scientific one.

    Well no, that wasn’t the issue that I was commenting on. I agree with you that DM arrives at his opinion “I, DM, think that killing babies is bad” by a non-scientific process (not an unscientific one).

    But my original comment was about DM’s phrase “The hypothesis that killing babies is bad …”. That, seemed to me to pointing at a suggestion that “killing babies is bad” in a way that wasn’t just DM’s opinion (or anyone else’s opinion). It was specifically that that I was calling “unscientific”.


  28. @Brainoil, @Coel,

    I’m just using “killing babies is objectively bad” as an example of a claim I think is not testable and not unscientific.

    But it’s not a belief I hold. I don’t personally believe in objective morality.

    I do think killing babies is bad, but to me that means that I personally find it distasteful. It’s a claim only about my own emotional reaction to the idea.


  29. You write: “I’m just using “killing babies is objectively bad” as an example of a claim I think is not testable and not unscientific.”

    I shan’t try to explore what the double negative is supposed to mean.

    It seems to me, that “killing babies in bad” should not be tested for “objectivity” (what for?), but as a social convention. In most social groups it is forbidden (though one may happily smite those that are not part of the group). True, it is a convention, but in the social system it has deontological value – hence an objectivity of sorts.


  30. DI,

    all these elaborations, in my view, ignore the existence of society (or group if you wish) and the fact that we are both autonomous and situational within the group. This mostly gives rise to conventions – the process of self-domestication that has started one billion years ago (oh yes, bactaria have social life, and may even have forms of reciprocity or even altruism), and has picked up speed with the primates.

    Conventions are social constructs by fiat of the group, continuously updated in function of experience. They are real enough for the individual as member of the group. The (religious) problem starts when part of the group wants to anchor the rule (which happens to favor them) metaphysically by postulating transcendental religion. Flannery – Marcus show quite nicely the slow path from meeting houses to temples as the “big men” become “kings” by divine fiat.

    From the point of view of the autonomous individual no moral rule is “objective”. But the “autonomous individual” is itself a subjective Western construct – the enthymeme which is in current use, but should be questioned.

    Why bother to enter this kind of thicket?


  31. Aldo,

    My views are the same as yours in this respect. I’m not entering this thicket, I’m only using the question of moral realism as an example of a question I consider to be untestable and nonscientific. I’m not asking the question, I’m mentioning it.


  32. DM,
    I still think that the claim “killing babies is objectively bad” is *un*scientific, since it postulates facts about the universe (objective morality) for which there is no good evidence. It’s thus unscientific in the same way that claiming “unicorns exist” is unscientific.


  33. @Coel

    Thanks for that clarification. However, I think you’re equating science with rationality. You’re dismissing something because it doesn’t have a lot of evidence to support it. DM seems to be using the word science in the sense that it’s the process of coming up with hypotheses and testing them. What he’s proposing is really not a testable hypothesis.


Comments are closed.