The relationship between science and religion has always been a tumultuous one. Science, through its birth in ancient Greece, its childhood in the Islamic Golden Age and its adolescence in renaissance Europe, has always had religion as a sort of big brother figure. Older, not so adventurous and not much liking change. Religion never left home, but when Darwin came along, science thought “screw this! I’m getting my own place.”
Both science and religion have the same parents – the human mind. As Christopher Hitchens said “Religion is our first, and worst, attempt at the truth”. This attempt simply wasn’t good enough for some people. The first free thinkers.
To be clear, I’m not talking about individuals here (although it’s individuals that do the arguing). The religious can be scientific and scientists can be religious. Indeed, until Darwin this was the default position.
So, let’s imagine some conversations which reflect a few of the usual arguments taking place between ‘Scientia’ (a female physicist) and her older brother ‘Religio’ (a theologian). They also have a young brother, ‘Ethico’…….
Scenario 1: Religion claiming to be the inspiration for science and critical thinking…..
Religio (R): “Of course, you wouldn’t have got your degree and discovered quantum mechanics had it not been for me guiding you when you were younger and telling you to reflect, contemplate and critique everything (accept for God, obvs).”
Scientia (S): “Are you saying that because you told me ‘to think’, you get some credit for my discovery of quantum mechanics? You don’t think it was down to me, standing on the shoulders of previous scientists and being lucky enough to have a safe environment in which I had time to experiment, hypothesise and get help from my friends without the fear of any persecution and hunger? You also told me being gay was sinful, and I had to ignore you!”
R: “I’m sure I didn’t….. but anyway, it WAS my guidance. And what’s more, everything you’ve discovered, my faith has accepted. How’s that for open-minded?”
S: “Mmmm. As I remember, when I discovered Heliocentricity you tried to have Mum & Dad cut my grant money, kick me out of the house and write me out of the will!”
R: “That was unfortunate, yes. But I changed my mind in the end when I reread the scriptures and it did indeed definitely say what you were proposing (even if, to a non-theologian, it looked like it said the opposite).”
Scenario 2: Religion refusing to accept the scientific consensus when the evidence is overwhelming…..
R: “I don’t care what you say, I didn’t evolve from a monkey!”
S: “That’s good, because that’s not what I’m saying.”
R: “Well then, I just don’t understand what you ARE saying. It doesn’t make any sense. All this perfect design, and why are there still monkeys?”
S: “Have you listened to anything I’ve said and read the (perfectly comprehensible) books on Evolution I bought you for Christmas?”
R: “No need. I have a book that explains life’s origins in some detail already. And I see you’re still celebrating Christmas…..”
S: “Oh, grow up!”
Scenario 3: Science is naturalistic. What about the supernatural?
R: “What you just don’t understand is that you’re a physicist and I’m a meta-physicist. I have super deductive arguments for god. He created the universe and left the physical laws there for you to find. Also, science has found the wrong answers, a lot. It’s not always true.”
S: “The scientific process is inductive. It eliminates the impossible and creates a theory of what’s most probable. Further evidence can prove anything wrong. We’re never 100% sure of the truth.”
R: “Never sure? I’m a theologian. I know with surety.”
S: “Look, I agree that science is naturalistic. It’s all we have any evidence for. If there was a supernatural realm and it interacted with the natural realm, science would be able to measure it. In the meantime, if there’s no evidence for it, isn’t the intellectually honest position to be sceptical? My friend Occam told me that. Anyway, you said you had a deductive argument?”
R: “You’re just soooo close minded. The evidence for God is everywhere, but the logical proof is this:
Premise: Everything that begins to exist has a cause;
Premise: The universe began to exist;
Conclusion: The universe has a cause.
And that cause is the God I believe in. Not another God that someone else believes in.”
S: “Aah. A logical syllogism. You are aware that for the conclusion to be sound, the premises must be true?”
S: “Well, how do you know they’re true?”
R: “It’s supported by current science, that’s how.”
S: “But you said “science has found the wrong answers, a lot”!”
R: “Obviously not in this case….”
Scenario 4: Religion, not science, is necessary for morality
R: “Ethico is coming over later, and I need to speak to him about his behaviour. It’s best that you’re not around because this really isn’t your thing.”
S: “How are you going to tell him to behave?”
R: “According to the Book, obviously. Of course, I’ve amended the interpretations slightly to cope with the pressures of the modern world, but the fundamentals are all there.”
S: “Surely we should be telling him to act in a way that produces the best outcomes for him and his fellow sentient beings?”
R: “That’s what I said.”
S: “No you didn’t!”
R: “Look, you bring nothing to the table here. You’re a lot of ‘is’ and not a lot of ‘ought’. Leave this to me.”
S: “I can at least provide evidence of beneficial outcomes and bring this to a reasoned debate….”
R: “We’ve been here before and look what it got us! Hitler, Stalin & Mao! Need I say more? Leave it to me.”
Ethico (E) arrives and sits down with Religio……..
E: “I’m concerned I might have AIDS.”
R: “Probably because there are so many gay people, God might be angry. Whatever you do, don’t anger him further by wearing condoms!”
Scenario 5: Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA)
R: “I’ve been thinking and, because we argue all the time, I think it’s best that I leave the science to you, and I’ll just look after the non-scientific things.”
S: “Sounds fine to me. You’re aware that as science pushes more boundaries and discovers new things, your ‘patch’ is going to get smaller and smaller until it’s just a ‘gap’?
R: “So, I’ll maintain God in that ‘gap’.”
S: “Now, that you ARE good at.”
This conversational style was inspired by Stephen Law’s book – The Philosophy Gym, which I highly recommend.
For a full discussion around the Kalam Cosmological Argument, go here.