OHPT: Science and Religion (Chapter 3)

For a running list of all my reviews on the articles in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, visit here.

I really, really enjoyed this chapter and what it got me to think and articulate. You can tell by the WALL OF WORDS I wrote about it.

This article is entitled “Science and Religion” and was written by Dr. Del Ratzsch. Dr. Ratzsch earned his PhD in philosophy at the University of Massachusetts and is professor emeritus in philosophy at Calvin University. Much of his writing has focused on the Creation vs. Evolution debate. In this article, he argues that too strict a separation of science and religion “inevitably do[es] violence to one or the other–e.g. reducing religion to subjective value and morality, or reducing science close to a sterile positivism” (58).

Ratzsch starts by showing how many scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries were also Christians. Early scientists initially tried to keep their faith and their science united in one pursuit, but by the 18th century, a clear divide has emerged with science assuming authority over matters of nature and religion retaining authority over spiritual matters and, though decreasingly so, moral matters. He seems to insinuate that this means religion and science can overlap and work together, but I struggle to see how that follows. It just means early scientists tried to do that; it doesn’t mean it made the science or the religion better. It’s just an historical fact about the development of religion and science.

Unfortunately, because this colors the entire chapter, I don’t like how Ratzsch defines science (or doesn’t, really) or understands what science aims to do. He says that it’s hard to define science and religion, and kind of resists making any sort of statement, other than to say which has been given authority over what areas. I wonder if he’s trying too hard to define these fields by what their realm of authority is, rather than the method by which they do what they do. Religion takes a truth and then tries to find arguments for it. Science tests hypotheses and waits to make its claim of what “is” based on what is demonstrated to be consistent. Religion assumes the end; science starts by questioning the nature of the end as its North Star, and asks the question many, many times before accepting the matter as settled (not proven or immovable, but settled until we learn something new).

Personally, I also like to think of science as dealing with the realm of what is observable and testable, and religion with what is not — mostly, because this separation takes seriously what each field does best. Science is the best way humans have developed to understand the natural, religion the best to understand (or talk about) the supernatural. My distinction is definitely not Ratzsch-approved (too distinct!), so I’ll need to be careful how I critique his arguments.

Ratzsch makes some strongly anthropomorphic claims about God, saying that science “de facto takes the cosmos to be in relevant respects like a creation — uniform, orderly, intelligible, predictable, and even beautiful” (57). This struck me as an odd sort of defense of science as recognizing a truth (“uniformity” and “predictability”) that is, according to this sentence, “owned” by religion. Science does take “predictable” to be characteristic of the macro world (because we have consistently observed it to be so), but a). that doesn’t hold for the quantum realm, and b). that doesn’t necessarily mean science is assuming something that requires a Creator, or assuming a truth about the world that only and could only come out of religious claims. Also, why can’t something created be non-uniform, disordered, unintelligible, unpredictable, or ugly? Isn’t quantum mechanics, presumably part of “creation”, decidedly unpredictable? This short sentence is indicating a lot of assumptions about the nature of a supernatural Creator and Her creation. Perhaps I’m missing his point here.

One other point: he wants to point the causal connection of the qualitative concepts of the natural world as going from religion to science, not the other way around. Aka, he suggests that science is borrowing or taking those concepts from religion. It seems more (or at least equally) likely that pre-scientific empirical observations of the consistent patterns of the universe informed the attributes religion uses to define “creation” (aka, “uniform, orderly, intelligible, predictable”, etc.). Which informed which?

I assume if religion came to these truths first, it must have been through revelation to qualify as strictly a “religious” truth. If people came to those truths through empirical observation, well, that’s just pre-science! Is religion pre-science, or a kind of proto-science? I’m actually inclined to this view, to be honest. If that is the way Ratzsch intends that passage to be read, then yes, the two would agree on certain basic claims about the natural world. But I’m not convinced that’s what he’s actually doing, so I fear I’m wandering away from Ratzsch… time to rein this pony back in.

Ratzsch makes a great point, that the proposition “T is the best theory consistent with philosophical naturalism” is not interchangeable with “T is the best theory” (58). (Philosophical naturalism is the stance that all that exists is the natural realm; there is no supernatural.) This is true, he says, unless, of course, we are assuming philosophical naturalism is the context for science. Science would say those two propositions are interchangeable, but religion would not. Science as a practice assumes premises religion does not. I’m not sure whether or not I agree with him that those two statements can never be interchangeable, because those pesky assumptions make such a huge difference. Also, I incline towards a view that religion must defer to science in terms of explaining the natural world (even as those natural elements are part of a discussion about the supernatural), so of course I agree that those two propositions are interchangeable whenever we are talking about the natural world. But I think I need to think about this some more.

One of the best points Ratzsch made about the fallibility of science (besides its inherent humanness, and thus the influence of biases that need to be corrected) is this:

But if a belief-production mechanism having some governing aim and purpose other than truth means that the resultant beliefs are not rational legitimate, then exactly the same principle poses problems for scientific beliefs and for anti-religious arguments produced, as they must be if Darwin is correct, by the cognitive faculties developed via Darwinian processes ultimately pointed toward enhancing reproductive fitness–not truth.

Ratzsch, 63

I think this is something atheists and scientists need to take seriously. I do still think there is an answer to it, however. Science is not just a belief-producing process; it is a belief-testing process. There are many intuitive beliefs we hold that science has demonstrated to be false. The belief that the sun, moon, and stars revolve around the Earth, for instance. The belief that “leeching” is the best treatment for infections. The belief that every rustle in the grass is a predator. But through the practice and methods of science, we have been and are able to demonstrate that some intuitive beliefs are false and we have replaced those false beliefs with truer beliefs. So while it is certainly possible (and probable) that we evolved a belief formation system which promotes biological reproduction rather than true belief production, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that we could have eventually come to see the world more clearly and devised methods to arrive at truth more reliably than through pure observation and intuition alone. It just means we can’t wholly trust our untested beliefs.

Another good passage:

… it should be recognized that the logic of the gap views is impeccable–if there is no other viable explanation, then divine action must be the answer. Furthermore, science has a long track record of overturning its own positions, but that doesn’t make those who held the earlier, overturned scientific views look foolish, lose their trust of science, or anything of the sort. Thus, the mere fact of exhibiting a history of having views overturned by science is not alone necessarily problematic for some doxastic region–religion as well as science.

Ratzsch, 64

I agree with this view, both aspects. If there is an explanatory gap that science cannot (not does not, but cannot) explain, then the logical explanation must be a supernatural one. Where it gets tricky is when we jump too soon to the supernatural explanation when there are still possibilities for science to be able to answer the question. A good example is claiming string theory as the unifying theory between the micro and macro levels of physical laws. Currently, science has no way of determining whether string theory is true — it works mathematically (and is quite elegant), but our instrumentation does not allow for such a fine-grained look into the workings of the universe to say whether or not string theory is true. (Or even likely to be true.) In fact, based on the limits of light (and the Planck constant), there may be a hard limit on what we can ever observe with instrumentation. What we would need to observe to make a proclamation on string theory may be beyond that limit. From all that we know right now, it is not a falsifiable theory. (And, it should be noted, science can never prove anything perfectly, but it can disprove like a mofo.)

This demonstrates the trickiness of the idea of “cannot”, because “cannot” works on two levels here: mechanically and logically. Let’s assume the hard limits that make our observations of string theory elements impossible. That means science cannot answer the question. However, it’s not a logical impossibility. It’s a mechanical one. If we had better instrumentation, or if the limits of the universe were different, science could answer the question. Is this an appropriate place for a “God of the gaps” explanation, for us to say that God provides the unifying theory of the universe, or is the unifying theory of the universe? I don’t think so. It’s not necessary to assume there is no natural answer to that question; only that we may have no natural ways of determining the truth of a proposed answer.

Perhaps we should ask the cats.

But perhaps a better example would be the assumed-but-not-yet-verified existence of the graviton. In quantum field theory, particles are what “carry”, or give rise to forces between objects. There is one kind of particle for every force. Gravity is the only force for which we haven’t either discovered a particle, or for which assuming/positing an associated particle brings in mathematical difficulties (for string theory, particularly, as a matter of fact!). This could be a place where religion might want to assert the “God of the gaps”: God is what is enables and carries gravity, not the “mythical” or “hypothetical” graviton.

It seems completely fine to me that scientists would resist this explanation and would instead assume a natural explanation that has yet to be demonstrated or discovered. That’s because science (proper science [though Ratzsch would scold me for that term], not scientific philosophy) is only concerned with the natural world. It’s a field that looks only for natural explanations; that’s its definition and practice. Rightly done, science only makes proclamations about that which has been demonstrated, could be demonstrated, or we think might be able to be demonstrated. For science to seek or assume a supernatural explanation would be… well, unscientific.

But for a non-scientist, for a person just trying to understand the world as it is? I can see why the “God of the gaps” argument might be worth holding onto here. We don’t always move through the world scientifically. We don’t understand the world, on a personal level, only scientifically. So while a supernatural explanation would be an inappropriate assumption for scientists looking at the question from a scientific perspective, I don’t think it’s an inappropriate assumption for someone who is not looking at the question scientifically.

However, I also think science is the best way we have come to provide and discover answers about the natural world. So since it is a question about the natural world, perhaps we also need to shun the God of the gaps thinking, even in matters where we may have come upon some hard limits on what science can demonstrate (mechanically, not logically or definitionally). More of this in my conclusion…

Ultimately, I think Ratzsch wants to keep the boundaries of science and religion fuzzier than I do. It seems like he wants science to concern itself with the supernatural or untestable world (many worlds theory, etc.) so that he can have religion say something about the natural world. I, on the other hand, think of both those scenarios as overreach.

Ratzsch goes on to outline several ways of relating science and religion, but I won’t go there. (Though I did make up some GREAT hand signals as my mnemonic device for remembering them! YOU ARE MISSING OUT.) The explanations are helpful as a way to more deeply understand the larger field of the debate, to contextualize arguments concerning how the two fields can/do relate to one another. I’ve already outlined my main points of contention (and agreement!) with how Ratzsch is characterizing science and religion, and those points carry through a lot of his criticism of the limitations and potential overreach of science. I completely agree that anytime science makes any statements about what is beyond our observable universe it is no longer pure science. It might be informed by scientific notions and methods, but it is operating in the field of mathematics or philosophy at that point. Maybe even religion.

My view on the overreach of religion is a bit different. I agree with Ratzsch that there is no reason to think that science and religion can’t come to harmonious explanations of the world via different angles. But science is simply the best way humans have developed (and yes, religion is a development) to ascertain truth. It is not perfect, and it frequently improves upon itself (sometimes undoing its prior self). But it is the method that matters, and the method of observing, questioning, researching, hypothesizing, testing, and re-testing is simply the best we have found to reliably discover what is true. Religion may absolutely bring unique, important truths to the table; we just have no way of demonstrating them with the same level of confidence and consistency as those truths discovered by science, seeing as how religion is mostly concerned with the supernatural, that which is beyond what we even can test and retest (a limit set by my definition, not Ratzsch’s). So any religious claims about the natural world that conflict with accepted science should be held in lower regard than the scientific claims. And the truths claimed by religion should be held with a healthy understanding that those claims are not infallible, are not certain in the same way we hold scientific claims to be certain (even though nothing is ever forever PROVED in science). The certainties — and, by extension, beliefs — should be felt and considered differently, and that’s important.

Overall assessment: I really liked this article. I appreciated Ratzsch’s healthy respect for science, even while disagreeing with how he characterized the activity and scope of it. This could come down to a disagreement on definition, and I’m just not inclined to defer to Ratzsch’s expertise for the simple reason that he is clearly looking at science through the lens of religion and with a clear intent to make religion relevant to natural truths. That bias must be acknowledged. Still, this was a very informative and thought-provoking article, from a very careful and intelligent mind, and I appreciated how it forced me to articulate my views on science and religion (a VERY important topic to me) in more detail.

Favorite quote:

Rigor, objectivity, and warrant may be less than absolute and less than often wished and claimed, and science may have human fingerprints and human DNA traces all over it, but science can still give us rational reason to accept various scientific theories as true or probably true. A tempered or ‘critical’ realism (the position that science attempts and sometimes succeeds in uncovering genuine theoretical truth, and that critically vetted scientific results are rationally warranted) is still defensible.

Ratzsch, 56

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