Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance has added his view on the compatibility of science and religion. In the past few days, many bloggers (PZ Myers at Pharyngula, Chris Mooney at The Intersection, Jerry Coyne at Whyevolutionistrue, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, …) have expressed views about the extent to which science and religion are compatible. See Coyne’s Accommodationism: onward and downward for a brief review of the issue with links to other blog posts.
Carroll makes a very clear argument for his view. I agree with much of the substance in Carroll’s blog post, though I find the terminology that is defended unfortunate. What is defended is much weaker than the claim that science and religion are incompatible. If, as suggested, the correct interpretation of talk of incompatibility “what’s really meant by my claim that science and religion are incompatible” then it is simply misleading to say that science and religion are incompatible. Why not just say what you really mean?
I also think Carroll’s division of religious beliefs into those that fit the Congregation-for-the-Causes-of-the-Saints interpretation and those that fit the it’s-all-in-our-hearts interpretation is a bit inadequate. Large parts of religious worldviews concern metaphysics and moral philosophy, and though I am not religious myself, I would think that these parts are what many believers would consider the central parts. Science only evaluates theories based on how accurately and economically they describe observed facts and how good predictive tools they are. While the fact that a scientific theory is fantastically successful arguably tells us something about metaphysics, metaphysics is to a large degree underdetermined by science. Filling in the underdetermined metaphysics is a philosophical task that goes beyond science. For example, (i) despite the great scientific success of quantum mechanics, it is still unclear which interpretation of quantum mechanics is the correct one, (ii) gauge invariance in physical theories opens up for different metaphysical views on which degrees of freedoms are real/fictional (some views more appealing than others), and (iii) after much progress in neurobiology it is still unclear which animal species are capable of experiencing pain and suffering as well as to what extent self-consciousness requires a “wet” biological brain (can a “Chinese room” a la Searle be self-conscious?), leaving space for Philosophy of Mind to go beyond science. Basically, in these areas and others, philosophy imports scientific knowledge and adds additional non-scientific philosophical content to scientific theories. Nothing prevents religious believers from adopting this approach, and there are surely those who do (many believers have no problem at all with science).
Carroll also says that “views that step outside the boundaries of strictly natural explanation come up short. By ‘natural’ I simply mean the view in which everything that happens can be explained in terms of a physical world obeying unambiguous rules, never disturbed by whimsical supernatural interventions from outside nature itself.” I don’t think that works, since many biological and psychological phenomena have yet to be characterized by unambiguous rules. If this seems like nitpicking, let me add that the natural-supernatural distinction is a red herring. We don’t need it. What has come up short is just anthropomorphism in explanatory models of observed events (demons causing disease, gods controlling the weather in response to people’s sacrifices and religious devotions, …). As science has progressed, every single such anthropomorphism has failed as a candidate for a scientifically useful theory and has been relegated to live on (if at all) within the space that is underdetermined by more adequate scientific theories.
Update: According to the latest terminological developments at Coyne’s blog, atheists who are too soft on the incompatibility issue are henceforth placatheists, betraytheists or faitheists. The term faitheist was announced as winner, though I would prefer accomodatheists.