Science and Religion
Does science discredit religion? In general we have the sense that, historically speaking, it does — but only because so much of the historical conflict between science and religion has hinged upon the way in which scientific advances have disproved factual claims that were advanced by religion, or (as Worrall phrases it) where religion is “directly inconsistent with well-accredited scientific theories…the erstwhile religious claim…must, from a rational point-of-view, give way” (2004, Science, 63). So for example Martin Luther famously rejected the claim by Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun because the Old Testament story of Joshua depicts the Biblical hero commanding the sun and the moon to stand still in the sky — because Luther accepted the Bible as literally true, Luther would not accept the scientific theory that showed it was not factually true. This is the way in which many have approached the conflict between science and religion, but it is important to note that not all religion is as obviously arrogant as Protestant fundamentalist Biblical literalism, and not all science is as obviously factual and verifiable as Copernican heliocentrism. This is not to claim that the simple version of the conflict is not still present — the recent 2014 public debate over Darwinian evolution between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was, in fact, a reflection of the most simplistic way in which the conflict can be stated, and therefore made religion look worse than it really is. The majority of the world’s Christians are, after all, Roman Catholics whose church fully endorses Darwin’s theory of evolution. And moreover, it was possible to be on the side of science and feel like the debate was a disaster for science: as Michael Schulson argued in The Daily Beast, “Ham won this debate months ago, when Nye agreed to participate” (Schulson, 2014).
Indeed it is clear, as Ratzsch argues, that “making the case that science destabilizes fundamental religious belief is not so easy as some claims would make it seem” (2004, Demise, 87). In part this is what Schulson is arguing: by giving Ham the opportunity to perform his public auto-da-fe, Nye already has lost the debate for science. Yet it is worth considering what the possible claims that religion can make are, beyond the coarse caricature of faith-for-spite presented by Ham. Plantinga and Dennett in their 2010 published exchange essentially remove the debate from conflicts between religious scripture and observable reality — the debate has become epistemological. Plantinga is eager to liken atheism to solipsism, in order to show that the existence of God might be considered as part of the larger philosophical “problem of other minds” (2010). This leads Plantinga into the dubious position of advancing what he calls the “sensus divinitatis,” an inborn propensity to understand the world as something which would have a creator. But his point about the problem of other minds is, in fact, valid: Dennett has no reason to believe automatically that Plantinga has an internal thought process to which Dennett has no access, there is only the evidence of Plantinga’s words on the page to suggest the existence of Plantinga’s mind. The same issue is handled differently by Ratzsch and Worrall. Worrall in his “Reply” notes that Ratzsch’s handling of the epistemological question is “confused” because from the standpoint of science the existence of other minds is not proven but can be considered among “well-confirmed hypotheses” (2004, 90). This is to say, it remains potentially falsifiable. But Ratzsch in his “Reply to Worrall” does have the last word: if Worrall must concede the epistemological point, and he must, then why “should science epistemologically rule all?” (2004, 93). The only answer to this is to rely on Worrall’s distinction between proof and hypothesis, and in essence to argue that science’s superiority is its codification of doubt or potential falsifiability. But this does not exactly remove the question of what to do with belief: in some sense, it reduces science to a matter of belief precisely like religion, and then claiming that the preference hinges upon capacity for prediction.
It becomes clear, therefore, on the most basic philosophic level that science cannot discredit religion totally. Room always remains for things which are philosophically unprovable, like the problem of other minds, or the problem of proving the existence of something that is supposedly everywhere present but nowhere visible (like God). The status of proof therefore comes uppermost in the debate between science and religion, but the claim is made that religion too often relies upon stiff dogma while science remains supple by always insisting its hypotheses are open to revision in light of new available evidence. Worrall comes across as rhetorically stronger — indeed he has the kind of certainty which one would associate with a religious believer — but he cannot ultimately solve an insoluble philosophical problem, and it is noteworthy that defenders of religion like Plantinga and Ratzsch think the problem summarizes the cognitive space that religious belief potentially occupies. But in this entire debate there is, after all, a distinction between what is literally proveable or not, and how human beings actually behave. One might note that the philosophical objection to inductive reasoning has been available to all since David Hume: just because the sun rises every morning is no certain proof that it will rise tomorrow morning. Science can offer us a series of criteria whereby we might be able to predict the events required in order for it not to rise the next morning, but this does not necessarily invalidate the objection to inductive reasoning. However, it is unlikely that we will ever find a human being who operates in daily life without a reliance on inductive reasoning. Maybe this is the “sensus divinitatis.”
Plantinga, A. And Dennett, D. (2010). Science and religion: Are they compatible? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ratzsch, D. (2004). Reply to Worrall. In Peterson, M. And Vanarragon, R. (eds.) Contemporary debates in philosophy of religion. London: Blackwell.
Ratzsch, D. (2004). The demise of religion: Greatly exaggerated reports from the science/religion “wars.” In Peterson, M. And Vanarragon, R. (eds.) Contemporary debates in philosophy of religion. London: Blackwell.
Schulson, M. (2014, Feb 5). The Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate was a nightmare for science. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/05/the-bill-nye-ken-ham-debate-was-a-nightmare-for-science.html
Worrall, J. (2004). Reply to Ratzsch. In Peterson, M. And Vanarragon, R. (eds.) Contemporary debates in philosophy of religion. London: Blackwell.
Worrall, J. (2004). Science discredits religion. In Peterson, M. And Vanarragon, R. (eds.) Contemporary debates in philosophy of religion. London: Blackwell.