The recent (or current) debate throughout the intertubes that has involved contributions from Keith Ward, Jerry Coyne, Jim P. Houston, Ophelia Benson, Jean Kazez, and the gods alone know who else, actually began with an article by Julian Baggini in “Comment is free” – The Guardian‘s online op.ed. site. Given how confusing (at least to me) the debate has become, with issues continually ramifying, I thought it might be worthwhile to go back to Baggini’s original contribution, and try to work out what view he was actually putting … and what sort of view he was opposing.
Baggini’s piece is headed, “Religion’s truce with science can’t hold” – but I don’t know whether that heading was his or a sub-editor’s. Baggini begins by identifying the sort of claim that he will be disputing:
that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a category mistake of the worst kind. So we should just leave science and religion to get on with their different jobs free from mutual molestation.
As an example, he cites Stephen Jay Gould’s argument that science aims to find empirical truths or answer “how” questions, while religion aims to find out the answers to “why” questions, such as whether there may be a meaning or purpose behind what is happening. He then cites some other examples. Baggini’s general target seems to be the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, conceived of as the idea that there is one area of teaching authority related to the observable world and its functioning, and another relating to meaning or purpose.
I’ve had a fair bit to say about NOMA myself, not least here. I doubt that there are two non-overlapping “magisteria”; there may be many of these so-called “magisteria”, in which case, however, there is much continuity and overlap.
In any event, Baggini’s response is to challenge the separation of “why” and “how” questions. He points out that often when we ask “why” a particular phenomenon is observed we are really asking what processes explain it – e.g. “Why does water boil 100 degrees Celsius?” It is natural enough to say that science does, indeed, answer “why” questions. It answers such questions by revealing facts about the mechanisms and processes involved.
Conversely, there is a sense in which religion answers “how” questions. If someone asks “Why does the universe have certain properties that are conducive to the development of life and intelligence?” religious thinkers may tell us something about how the universe came to be as it is, namely by a process of divine will and activity. Often, a body of religious doctrine will include quite specific claims about just how a super-agency intervened in the order of things.
Baggini accepts that some forms of religion do not make claims that of that kind. However, he thinks that, “any religious belief that involves an activist, really-existing God and claims that religion has something to say about why things happen, must also be encroaching on questions of how they happen, too.” Once that happens, he thinks, such a religious belief starts to compete with the explanations given by science and rational inquiry more generally.
All this may be slightly too strong. I could imagine that someone who believes in an activist, really-existing God might nonetheless avoid competing with scientific/rational explanations – perhaps by making only very vague and abstract claims about how God goes about intervening or has intervened in the past. If the doctrinal claims are sufficiently vague and abstract, they may be unfalsifiable, and they do not really compete with other claims. Still, Baggini is correct that religion very often does make claims that can and do compete with those of scientists and scholars.
Baggini concludes with a fundamental point:
What really counts, what should really make the difference between assent and rejection of an empirical claim, is not whether it is compatible with science, but whether an evidence-led, rational examination of a view supports it better than competing alternatives.
Thus, Baggini is not so much concerned about whether religion makes claims that are simply inconsistent with science, especially if it is narrowly conceived. The issue is whether some kinds of religion make claims that compete with, yet are better than, scientific and humanistic alternatives (when all the claims are subjected to evidence-led, rational examination).
Clearly, he thinks that religion of the kind he is discussing does end up making claims that are not well supported once examined. He does not spell this out with examples, so I’m not entirely sure what sorts of claims he has in mind. A claim that the fossil record is best explained by a massive divinely-caused flood several thousand years ago might be one example. Here, the claim that God caused the fossil record to be in the form we see by means (i.e. this is how he did it) of creating a huge flood is less than compelling when compared with claims made by modern sciences that describe the age and history of the Earth, the evolution of life over millions of years, the means by which some creatures came to be fossilised, and so on.
An example from outside the natural sciences might relate to the Tower of Babel. If we explain the diversity of human languages as being caused by God by means of making our ancestors suddenly speak many mutually incomprehensible languages several thousand years ago, then this explanation will compete with the explanations given by scholars who study the development of languages. The religious explanation of how it happened is, once again, less than convincing.
Baggini seems to think that these sorts of religious explanations – explanations that describe how a supernatural agency brought about a result – will always lose out, once subjected to evidence-led, rational examination, with due consideration of the serious alternatives. Once there’s outright competition between science and religion, “science always wins, hands down”.
Baggini does not claim that this is the complete picture – he foreshadows more pieces on related aspects or topics. Some of his claims may be slightly too strong. After all, as mentioned above, religious explanations can be very vague, so much so as not to be genuine competitors with other explanations. But surely that is also a problem for religion, at least potentially – it can become too “thin” to be attractive. I do, moreover, think he is correct that there’s always been a tendency for religion to offer explanations that can, as we learn more about the world, come into competition with reason-based explanations. Not all theological systems make these claims, but many do. When they do so, furthermore, the claims tend not to fare well.
The debate has moved forward a long way since Baggini’s piece, and Baggini himself might want to qualify or clarify some of his argument in the light of the debate. Certainly, my own understanding of his views may be flawed in some way. But anyway, this is where the current round of disputation started. Best at least to be clear about that much. Like Baggini, I plan to say more about the issues.