Recently in Science and religion Category

I received an e-mail from Michael Zimmerman of Butler University and The Clergy Letter Project earlier today. Here's the news he had to report:

I am thrilled to report that The United Methodist Church, at its General Convention just concluded, endorsed The Clergy Letter Project.  The resolution that was overwhelmingly passed at the General Convention, which meets once every four years, adds a statement to the Book of Resolution that reads as follows:  "The United Methodist Church endorses The Clergy Letter Project and its reconciliatory programs between religion and science, and urges United Methodist clergy participation."  You can read the resolution and see how it reads in context here:  http://calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=990.


The General Convention also adopted two other resolutions that are very supportive of evolution.  The first explicitly adds the acceptance of evolution to the Methodist's Book of Discipline.  In part, the resolution states that "We find that science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology."  You can read the full resolution here:  http://calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=50.

The final resolution adds a new statement to the Methodist's Book of Resolution dealing with creationism and intelligent design.  The wording reads as follows, "Therefore be it resolved that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church go on record as opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools."  The specific information is available here:  http://calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=839.

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On Thursday the National Academy of Sciences and the Instituteof Medicine released Science, Evolution, and Creationism, “a book designed to give the public a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the current scientific understanding of evolution and its importance in the science classroom” (from the press release).

The committee that produced the book was chaired by Francisco Ayala, and it included fourteen other scientists. In addition to chapters on evolution and the nature of science, the evidence for biological evolution, and creationist perspectives, the book also includes a list of frequently asked questions. Here are the first three questions answered in the FAQ:

  • Aren't evoution and religion opposing ideas?1
  • Isn't belief in evolution also a matter of faith?2
  • How can random biological changes lead to more adapted organisms?

It is, as P.Z. Myers, puts it “is a genuinely excellent piece of work.”

Epistemology

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Timothy Sandefur and Ed Brayton have long posts on an article published in the law review of the Chapman University law school:

Trask, S. W. 2006. Evolution, science, and ideology: why the establishment clause requires neutrality in science classes. Chapman Law Review 10:359.

The article isn't available on line, and I haven't seen a hard copy, so you'll have to refer to the posts above for a detailed analysis. I just want to point out that Sandefur gets the title of his post right, “All epistemologies are not created equal.” It's right because, as Sandefur notes, the scientific method has proven itself unequaled as a method of learning about the observable world. And it's right because Sandefur correctly locates the argument about the status of revelation, religious belief, and other ways of knowing as an argument about epistemology, i.e., an argument in philosophy, not science.

In that sense, Sandefur's argument goes even further than is necessary. He argues that science and reason are the only legitimate source of knowledge about the world. But to show that creationism doesn't belong in science classes we don't need to deny the legitimacy of religious belief, and we don't need to claim that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge about the world. We only need to show that creationism doesn't follow the norms and practices of science, a task that's been repeated innumerable times.

I don't get it

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Several days ago P.Z. Myers offended a lot of people when he posted a map showing what he called the density of “ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States” As he described later, it's a map of the percentage of religious beleivers in the United States.1 Yesterday Sheri Kirshenbaum posted a short piece offhandedly comparing P.Z. to Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh and referring to atheists as fundamentalists. P.Z. complains that Sheri “she ... fails to explain anything about how religion and science are supposed to interact.”

I'm more than a little mystified that these debates become so heated. To me several points are self-evident.

  • Science is a process that uses empirical observation and experiment to construct empirically testable generalizations about the observable world.2

  • To gain knowledge of the observable world we use the methods and principles of empirical science.

  • If God exists, (s)he exists outside the observable world.

  • To gain knowledge3 of God, if (s)he exists, we depend on religious faith.

Given these (to me) self-evident postulates, it's obvious that science can't say anything about whether or not God exists. Science deals entirely with phenomena in the observable realm, and God if (s)he exists is outside that realm. Dawkins, P.Z., and others go on to conclude that therefore God does not exist. That may be a reasonable conclusion, but it's not a scientific conclusion. It doesn't follow, and can't follow, from any empirical evidence. It is a philosophical conclusion.

It may also be reasonable to argue that any knowledge we have of God isn't really “knowledge,” i.e., justified belief. Again though, the question of whether it is “knowledge” depends on what is necessary to justify belief. We all agree that the methods of science produce justifiable belief about the observable world. It's for philosophers and theologians (not scientists) to argue about whether belief derived from religious faith is justifiable.

So where does this leave us on the question of “how religion and science are supposed to interact”?

Well, as a practicing scientist, I don't change the way I do my day job. If there's an observable phenomenon I want to understand, I construct testable hypotheses, make observations, do experiments, collect data, and see whether the data are consistent with my hypothesis. I publish the results of my work in peer-reviewed journals and try to convince my fellow scientists that I've understood something that hasn't been understood before (or that the understanding they thought they had is wrong). Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins approach understanding the observable world in the same way. Believers and non-believers (I'm one of the latter) live in the same observable world. If we want to understand and control it, the methods and principles of empirical science are the best way.

But what does it all mean? Well, this is where religion come in. For some, like Dawkins, P.Z. and me, “knowledge” based on religious faith doesn't seem like knowledge, but I know many reasonable people who accept the primacy of empirical science for understanding the observable world and accept religious faith as a way of justifying beliefs about God and the domain of the unobservable. Religious faith provides a way of understanding life and providing meaning, an alternative to the “grandeur in this view of life” of which Darwin wrote. I do not find that way of understanding compelling, but I am not prepared to argue that it is unreasonable.

With one important exception: Religious faith cannot substitute for empirical evidence in understanding the observable world. For believers, faith may explain why the observable world is understandable, but it does not explain how the observable world works.


1Interesting that someone who doesn't like framing does it so well.

2If there happen to be any philosophers in the audience, I'm using “observable” to refer to anything that can be connected to “ordinary” observation, even if that connection involves a long train of intervening hypotheses and theories. In that sense, even quarks are observable.

3Patience grasshopper. I'll point out in a moment that religious knowledge may not be knowledge. For now it's sufficient that it's a different kind of knowledge, having a different basis of justification.