I agree there’s a difference between science and scientism. Often when scientists speak off-the-cuff about religion, they don’t acknowledge that they’re no longer speaking as scientists, but as philosophers. The question of how science relates to religion is largely philosophical, although there are also obvious implications of science that conflict with certain aspects of religion, such as with the more fundamentalist theologies. The biologist Jerry Coyne is notorious for dismissing both philosophy and religion, and thus for engaging in self-refuting scientism.

There’s a split in the science and philosophical communities as to whether reason or science is incompatible with faith or religion. Stephen Jay Gould said the two form “non-overlapping magisteria.” Coyne says that the opposite is the case and that both the content of scientific theories and the methods of scientific inquiry conflict with the contents and methods of religion. His critics say he’s focusing too much on the low-hanging fruit of literalistic, fundamentalist religion, not enough on sophisticated theology. Coyne replies that he focuses on the religion that’s actually practiced by the masses, and that the “sophisticated” theology is an incoherent smokescreen. Dawkins agrees the two are in conflict, that you can’t be a religious scientist like Francis Collins without committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty. In general, the new atheists said the two are in conflict.

However, both new atheism and the conflict thesis are somewhat out of fashion. This is largely for reasons of political correctness, so those scientists and philosophers who want to climb the corporate ladder or appeal to a broad audience will say there’s no such conflict, since science and religion address different questions. (It’s another case of postmodern relativism.)

My view is that sometimes there’s a conflict and sometimes there’s not. It depends on the religion. In general, the more concrete and exoteric the religion is, the greater the conflict. The more mystical and philosophical the religion, the less its claims will conflict with science, but only because that religion is more about experience and practice than theology.

The real question here is about the nature of authentic religion. The religions that conflict the most with science are those that grew up more recently to compensate for the success of science. So-called natural theology was an attempt to show that scientific reason is no threat to Christian faith, since God can be proved empirically. Of course, that turns God into a mere object, which vitiates the science-based religion.

Eastern religions focus on experience and practice, while the monotheistic religions focus on beliefs. Thus the latter are more likely to conflict with science. In any case, again, philosophy rather than science proper seems to be the arbiter.

Take, for example, your claim that, “If the universe is creative, which implies intelligence, then its evolution is not guided by natural selection, if by that is meant blind, undirected processes.”

Who says creativity has to imply intelligence? In any event, the analysis of the concept of “creativity” would be philosophical. If you could interpret nature’s creativity as entailing theism or pantheism, that wouldn’t yet make for a conflict with science, because a mere philosophical interpretation can be ignored. Once the interpretation becomes a testable hypothesis, the philosopher or theologian is playing the scientist’s game. The scientist cares about empirical evidence, not about philosophical speculations. So what’s the evidence that we need to appeal to intelligent design to explain biological complexity and the origin of species? Again, we can have a wishy-washy notion of creativity which allows us to see God’s handiwork everywhere, but that kind of interpretation won’t conflict with science because it’s private and subjective. Only when an interpretation has public consequences does it have empirical merit, in which case it becomes a hypothesis that has either strong or weak support from the evidence.

Lots of religious fundamentalist claims (about prayer, prophecy, miracles, and so on) are in fact empirical and they have only weak evidentiary support, which means they do conflict with science and have been falsified. None that I know of conflicts with a scientific theory and has instead cast doubt on that theory, by being better supported by the evidence.

Whether the existence of consciousness (qualia) shows that science is limited and necessarily incomplete is an interesting question. Are there meaningful questions about the subjective aspect of consciousness that are impossible to answer by scientific objectification? There does seem to be an inherent contradiction there. Dennett said there’s not, since once all the mechanistic “how” questions are answered (about how the brain works and so on), there will be no more meaningful questions about what it’s like to be in a certain conscious state.

I’m inclined to think there is an anomaly here that will call for a rethinking of science and nature. The big picture of the evolution of intelligence and of a godlike species is also pretty strange and seems only incompletely recognized by science. What we need is a worthy new religion or grand fiction to make sense of the philosophical questions leftover by science, which rules out the likes of Christianity and Islam in my view. The hypermodern faith would begin with something like existentialism and cosmicism.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store