Science, metaphysical underdetermination, and religion

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.


6 Responses to Science, metaphysical underdetermination, and religion

  1. Mark says:

    Regarding what you see as Carroll’s division of religion, in the final sentence of that paragraph he shows that he wasn’t suggesting a true division but rather showing that he was addressing a particular aspect of religion: “When religion, or anything else, makes claims about things that happen in the world, those claims can in principle be judged by the methods of science. That’s all.”

    He also acknowledges the philosophical component of the argument in his previous post on the topic (about halfway down, where he quotes Gould). While he only mentions moral philosophy there it’s reasonable to expect that the same comments would apply to metaphysics; when people talk about religion they don’t tend to make a distinction between philosophy and claims about the world. Some do, but Carroll wasn’t addressing them. Science is incompatible with religion where religion makes metaphysical claims which are at odds with what science leads us to conclude, not where it is informed by science.

  2. tom w says:

    Yes, I also read Carroll as addressing an aspect of religion, rather than classifying whole religions into this or that category. The above post was written mainly because I don’t think the view put forth in Carroll’s post is the same view as most people would read into the words “science and religion are incompatible”. Carroll makes a compelling argument that some aspects of religion can and often are incompatible with science, but I’d be surprised if non-fundamentalist believers are uncompromising about revising those aspect. It seems to me the metaphysical and moral beliefs are the actual core of religious belief.

    It’s possible Carroll allows for more compatibility of religious metaphysics and science than my post would indicate—then our agreement would closer still. I think it’s fair to say, however, that most who’ve come down on the side of incompatibility have ignored the metaphysical aspects.

  3. What you’re forgetting is that it was the faitheists who began the fashion of saying, bluntly, “science and religion are compatible”. This was then explained as “it is psychologically possible to be both a good scientist and a religious believer, e.g. look at Ken Miller”.

    Those of us who don’t go along with this have not just been saying, bluntly, “science and religion are incompatible”. We’ve been spelling out all along why it is wrong to make straightforward claims of “compatibility”, and explaining why that is so misleading – and spelling out the senses in which it is more accurate to speak of an incompatibility. See any of the longer posts by Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, Ophelia Benson, Jason Rosenhouse, and myself. We’ve been trying to explain a fairly nuanced position (or perhaps a group of related fairly nuanced positions, since we may not all be saying exactly the same thing). Our posts should really speak for themselves rather than being criticised on the basis of “Why not just say what you really mean?” That’s what we’ve all been doing, quite carefully, in response to the situation we were confronted with.

    Surely anyone who has been following the debate closely should be able to see that it is the “compatibilists” who are making the dogmatic, unnuanced (and politically-motivated) claim that religion and science just are “compatible”. We’re the ones who are now saying, “Hang on a minute! That’s too simple!”

  4. I do, however, agree with the second half of your last para, before the update. It reflects much of what I’ve been saying throughout the debate, and it is well expressed. The natural/supernatural distinction creates all sorts of difficulties, but science has increasingly rendered all sorts of explanations in terms of powerful unseen intelligences, such as demons and gods, highly implausible. If you say, bluntly, “Science and religion are compatible”, you leave that out.

  5. tom w says:

    Russell, I don’t think there’s any way to escape this dilemma:

    (i) If the claimed incompatibility concerns only empirically testable matters, then it is such a small part of religion in general that it is misleading and invites misunderstandings to talk about an “incompatibility”. The core of religious beliefs seem to be metaphysical and moral philosophical views. Everyone already agrees that some religions are incompatible with science, so a claim of incompatibility that is presented in opposition to the accomodationist should say something more. (Sean Carroll seem to belong in this horn of the dilemma, since his defense of the incompatibility claim was restricted to empirical matters.)

    (ii) If, on the other hand, the claimed incompatibility concerns more than empirically testable matters, then it is a very unconvincing claim. There’s nothing in religious metaphysics and moral philosophy that sets apart with regard to compatibility with science from non-religious metaphysics/moral philosophy. Religion is mainly a particular kind of (and not so convincing) philosophy. The price of dismissing religion as incompatible with science is then to also dismiss non-religious philosophy at the same, which is untenable.

    As for your comments on what the community of non-accomodationist bloggers have said, I’ll note first my post comments specifically on Carroll’s post. Secondly, I think your summary is biased. Those bloggers who choose the first horn of the dilemma are in fact very close to the accomodationist view—that this has gone unnoticed is, I think, a sign that arguments could have been analyzed more clearly on both sides. Those bloggers (if any) who prefer the second horn of the dilemma need a much stronger argument than Carroll’s.

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