Alvin Plantinga’s new book is about religion and science – which (predictably enough) he finds to be perfectly compatible, harmonious, etc., at least if we rely on this piece in the New York Times. Plantinga definitely seems committed to refuting any the idea that science (or perhaps its success, or its specific findings?) supports a naturalistic view of the world.
Another new book is The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad S. Gregory. If we are to believe the Amazon book description, this argues, among other things, that there is now a false notion abroad “that modern science – as the source of all truth – necessarily undermines religious belief.”
Thus, continued intellectual effort is going in from scholars who oppose the idea that science somehow undermines – or puts pressure on – religion. I expect that we’ll many see more books of this kind over the next few years, and we are certainly seeing plenty of online discussion of the subject. In earlier posts at Talking Philosophy, I referred to recent debates involving, among others, Julian Baggini and Keith Ward. The debates go on.
Ward’s piece on The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” site, a few ago now, attempts to show that religion answers factual questions that cannot be answered by science. To his credit, Ward does not claim that religion and science never come into conflict. Moreover, he concedes that Stephen Jay Gould’s principle of non-overlapping magisteria is false: as Ward says, it is not correct that religion deals only “with value and meaning”. Rather, religions make factual claims.
Ward does, however, think that religion typically makes factual claims which science cannot dispute. Alas, here is where he gets into trouble. For a start, bear in mind that religious systems tend to be quite tightly integrated, and that many believers are not prepared to abandon doctrines piecemeal. The position could well be that entire systems, including popular ones, will lose their initial plausibility for many believers if certain factual claims came under pressure from contrary scientific findings.
Still, it might be thought that more moderate kinds of Christianity, at least, are pretty much protected from that kind of pressure. These sorts of Christianity may present a small target for science-based criticism. The sorts of factual claims that they do make may be difficult for science to refute. Or so it might be argued.
There is something in this, I think, and in fact I’d actually go further. Even more “fundamentalist” or literal kinds of religion have resources to avoid decisive scientific (or other) refutation. As I argue in my own new book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State , religious apologists can find many ways to avoid embarrassment if empirical reality doesn’t turn out as they might have expected: “If, for example, a god or spirit fails to answer prayers as advertised, it might be explained that this is a capricious god, a god with mysterious reasons, or a god that refuses to be tested.”
In practice, therefore, even religious claims that seem highly implausible to those of us who contemplate them from the outside may prove very resistant to falsification. Indeed, even if some apparently decisive argument could be brought against a particular religious doctrine of some significance to the religion’s adherents, a percentage of the adherents would probably be unmoved – they would be more committed to their cherished doctrine than to whatever canons of reason the rest of us might rely on.
Accordingly, things can look different to those inside a religion from how they seem to those of us on the outside. A religious adherent can, in the end, bite all bullets and even deny such things as the relevance of evidence, the partial reliability of memory and the senses, and the usefulness of logical rules such as modus ponens.
On an earlier thread, Jim P. Houston asked me for an argument as to why I “think Ward is wrong to think it is reasonable *for him* to believe certain ‘facts’ [about] Jesus (despite biblical errancy), given that those claims are (supposedly) not falsifiable by ’science’.” But there’s a sense, at least, in which I don’t claim to be able to do that. I doubt that there is any claim, let alone any religious claim, that cannot be preserved by someone who is prepared to bite enough bullets. Furthermore, the same applies to claims of the form, “It is reasonable to believe that …” One of the practical lessons from history is that at least some believers will resist any and all arguments by denying canons of reasonableness that might go against their positions. At that point, there’s not much more we can say to them. We can’t show such a person that he is unreasonable by his own lights.
But he might be unreasonable by ours, or by those of third parties taking in the conversation. Surely the sorts of claims that Ward mentions, such as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead and the claim that the universe was created by God, are not totally isolated from empirical investigation.
Recall that the rise of science did not subtract from our pre-existing resources for investigating the world. Rather, it added to them; and the old pragmatic and scholarly methods and the new, distinctively scientific, ones can always be used together in any given case. We need to know whether such claims as that Jesus rose from the dead and that the universe was created by God are plausible when set against what we know overall about how the world works, both through methods that we could have employed anyway and through the distinctive methods developed by science.
When the question is framed like that, surely we don’t think that these claims come under no pressure at all from our best empirical investigations of the world? For a start, doesn’t textual-historical investigation of the New Testament texts make it rather unlikely that they speak reliably on Jesus’ alleged resurrection? If so, what is the motivation for going on believing in the resurrection? And what about the scientific study of life and intelligence on earth? Doesn’t this make the existence, before the universe began, of a disembodied intelligence with no evolutionary history behind it seem like an unsatisfactory explanation for any observable features of the universe?
We could go deeper into these arguments, but for now it’s enough to say that it seems unlikely that religious claims such as those mentiond by Ward are insulated from our empirically-based knowledge.
Ward might be prepared to bite the bullet and reject our standards of what it is reasonable and rational to believe. But even if he does so, will all believers join him? Some might find that their confidence in certain basic epistemic standards is stronger than that in, say, what they were told by authority figues when they children … or in their interpretation of certain emotional and other experiences as the presence of God. In the end, they may find that their initial claims have become unbelievable.
Someone who starts out neutral on the substantive questions (“Did Jesus rise from the dead?” “Was the universe created by God?”) will be in a different situation again, because she will probably not be neutral on what standards to use. Why should she be? If she uses ordinary standards, rather than specifically religious ones – and why wouldn’t she? – she may well find that the empirical findings of scientists, historians and others push her decisively in a sceptical direction.
In theory, there might have been a pre-ordained harmony between religion and science (after all, the claims of some religion or other might have all turned out to be true; science might simply have confirmed them and added detail). In practice, though, pressure on religion does come from empirical inquiry generally. There is no viable way of insulating religion from empirical inquiry to ensure this can’t happen, and religion’s record to date is not good if we were hoping that empirical inquiry would confirm and elaborate its claims.
There is much more to say, but this is not a situation that is well described by talk of religion/science compatibility. That kind of glib language is quite misleading. Empirical inquiry, including whatever components of it you refer to as “science”, really does put pressure on religion to change rather radically, or simply collapse. That’s the situation, and I think we should be open about saying as much.