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Unholy War

I have read a few commentaries recently on what seems to be a trending topic: is there a war between science and religion? (sometimes called the “unholy war”) Alternatively there is the related topic of whether science and religion are compatible or whether they can co-exist or even whether religion can be proved by science.

Like a lot of subjects of this sort it does partly depend on how you define your terms. When we say science do we include philosophy or non-empirical social science, and how much support is necessary before it can be claimed as real support? There are several well known scientists who claim to have relatively bizarre religious beliefs but few of those actually use science to support them. Also there will always be a few crazies in every group, even amongst scientists.

And when we say religion do we mean a specific religion, such as Christianity (which is often what people are implying) or are we talking about a more generic concept of religion? Must the religion encompass the supernatural or is it reasonable to resort to vague (and in my opinion meaningless) concepts like “the Universe is God”?

If we take the most general case all we are saying is that some people involved in some moderately well recognised areas of study think there is some reason to believe in phenomenon which they describe in a vague way as “spiritual”.

If we take the most specific case then it is well accepted that physics, chemistry and biology fully support the literal meaning of the Old Testament.

The first case is ridiculous because it’s so non-specific that it is totally meaningless. It’s like a pithy quote I heard recently: make god into everything and he becomes nothing. But it’s impossible to accept the second case as well because only the truly nutty lunatic fringe would even pretend that real hard science supports a literal interpretation of Christian mythology.

So if the idea of compatibility or support has any meaning at all then the best interpretation must lie somewhere between these two extremes. Does that make sense?

I don’t think so. The basic methodology of the two subjects seems incompatible to me. Science proceeds on extreme skepticism and by using the absolute minimum number of pre-conditions possible. Religion is quite the opposite: it has the pre-condition that certain facts are true: a certain god does exist for example.

I know it’s impossible to not have some premises in any formal system of knowledge but it seems to me that science uses far fewer and more logical premises than religion does. And even if you want to debate that then the two are still different enough that they can’t be compatible.

This dichotomy is reinforced every time I see someone try to use science to support religion. It doesn’t matter how intelligent the person is, the end result is universally pathetic. The person not only lacks logic and facts to an extent that they would be laughed at if they tried to publish their thesis in a scientific journal, they often lack credibility to the extent that even an untrained person can see how ridiculous their assertions are.

Sometimes the most effective technique is to try to misuse complex scientific terms in an attempt to confuse the listener. Quantum theory is a favourite subject for this. Many people will hear a complex argument using uncertainty, wave particle duality and other difficult to understand physics concepts and assume the speaker knows what they are talking about. But even someone with a fairly informal knowledge of the area (like myself) can see it is pure nonsense.

I have blogged before (in an entry titled “Brilliant Stupidity” on 2009-09-22) about Francis Collins, who has done brilliant work in the past yet makes himself look like a fool when he starts trying to justify his religious beliefs. More recently I have read similarly silly stuff from Dinesh D’Souza and Gerald Schroeder (a physicist and Biblical scholar who teaches at the College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem).

I’m not saying it’s not worth listening to anyone who thinks they can support religion through science. Who knows, maybe one day they will genuinely come up with something new which has some actual validity. But so far I have been disappointed every time.

It’s not that I go out of my way to ridicule the idea. I genuinely find it fascinating when science indicates that something new and mysterious might be happening that we don’t understand. I have discussed the fine-tuned universe and the anthropic principle in this blog before and I find these genuinely intriguing but I don’t think they prove a god exists and they certainly don’t have the least impact om the argument over the existence of the Christians’ god – he really is irrelevant to the subject.

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