Science/Religion Compatibility: Academic Discipline vs Worldview …

So, reading around the Internet today, I started thinking about the age-old question of whether science and religion are or can be made to be incompatible. And it seems to me that there’s a massive confusion happening in the debates, and that debate is over whether science as an academic discipline is compatible with religion or whether science as a worldview is compatible with religion. And I also think that this confusion also drives the “narrow/broad” debate over the definition of science, and also drive a large part of the scientism debate. So I think I’ll try to unpack some of that here in this post.

When I — and I submit, most people — think of science, we think of it as the academic discipline, and thus as what you’d find in a university faculty of science or even what you’d generally expect taught in a general science class. This is, paradigmatically, things like physics, chemistry and biology, which are also known — with some other fields — as the “hard sciences”. When we hear someone talking about the success of science, we automatically think of the great success these fields have had in increasing our knowledge, and when we think of the scientific method we tend to think of that as being the method that scientists in the “hard sciences” tend to use to get such results.

If, then, you ask us if science and religion are compatible, our answer is going to be, under this definition, that they are compatible precisely in the sense of whether or not someone could be a good scientist while still being religious. We understand that the academic field of science doesn’t necessarily include — or, we hope, preclude — religion, but ask if someone could be, in general, religious and yet still do science. And there are obviously ways that someone who is religious can still do at least religiously neutral science, if in no other way than parking their specific religious beliefs at the door when doing it, and not favouring scientifically solutions that align with their religion, or disfavouring solutions that contradict or risk contradicting their religious beliefs. Sure, they might end up finding scientifically facts that contradict their religion, but that doesn’t mean that religion in general is incompatible in any real sense with the academic discipline of science. After all, people doing science might find scientific facts that challenge any number of non-religious beliefs, but that wouldn’t make science incompatible with having those sorts of beliefs. For example, doing science might discover facts that invalidate any number of philosophical beliefs, but that wouldn’t make the academic discipline of science incompatible with philosophy.

What we can see, then, is that the academic discipline’s interaction with religion is, in fact, simply to produce facts, true statements about the world. As such, it isn’t the place of science to decide what a new fact it discovers means for a non-scientific theory or claim. Or, to put it better, it isn’t the job of the academic discipline of science to determine what the facts it discovers means for any particular worldview. The academic discipline of science just presents and evaluates facts — meaning physical facts — not worldviews. So it’s up to fields that do work with worldviews to determine what they mean for that. Philosophy, which studies absolutely everything studyable, can do that. For a specifically religious worldview, theology also can do that because that is indeed part of their job. And note that both can indeed conclude that the scientific facts can indeed make that specific worldview untenable; it’s just not as easy as if they were scientific theories, because worldviews are not, in fact, scientific theories.

Which leads to the second point. Many of the anti-accomodationist atheists insist that they are incompatible because they rely on different methods: science on the scientific method, religion on faith. This, they argue, those who claim they’re compatible have to reconcile the two methods, and make it so that they the methods themselves can accomodate each other. To them, this means that you have to have the scientific method accept the methodology of faith, and the methodology of faith accept the scientific method internally, so that the scientific method can give answers based on faith just as well as the methodology of faith can accept the scientific method. Otherwise, you’d have two completely different ways of coming to truths that are incompatible in your worldview, and that’s not possible. So, the argument goes, since the scientific method has no room for faith, you can’t have both. And if you have to choose one, you should choose the one that has been so massively successful, and that’s science.

Treating science as an academic discipline — the narrow definition — the argument doesn’t make sense. It would essentially be saying that unless we could find a method by which all academic disciplines could study their fields, then you couldn’t have a worldview that incorporated, say, science and philosophy. Which is absurd. The only way, then, to make this claim make any sense is to not think of science as an academic discipline, but instead to think of a scientific worldview. Essentially, an idea that one should live one’s at least epistemic life based on the scientific method espoused by the academic discipline of science. Hence, since there is no room in the scientific method for faith, then there is no room in the scientific worldview for faith. Also, hence the push to expand the definition of science beyond that of the academic discipline of science, because if you’re going to have a scientific worldview you’re going to have to deal with far more than the “hard sciences” deal with now, and so we’re going to have to know things that you couldn’t know with the formal scientific method, which is why it tends to get expanded to “empirical data and reasoning”, since it can be argued that that is fundamental to the scietnific method, even if the scientific method, in the academic discipline of science, entails more than that.

But there are a couple of issues with this move:

1) If they are advocating for a scientific worldview, they really need to suss out more of what that worldview itself is before anyone ought to be convinced to hold it, and so before anyone ought to be convinced that science and religion are incompatible according to its main principles.

2) Advocates of this worldview can’t use the success of the scientific method in the academic discipline of science to argue for the success of this worldview. The scientific method had better work for the academic discipline of science — or else, it would be irrational for it to use it — but that doesn’t mean that using it or even their expanded version is going to work as a worldview. There may be major components of human activity that just aren’t amenable to any form of the scientific method. Which is also why you have to clear about what the worldview entails and also why they keep trying to expand the definition of science to cover all human endeavours.

Note that the restrictiveness of the scientific worldview would, in fact, be part of the scientific worldview itself, and not of worldviews in general. It is easy to come up with a worldview that allows for different and incompatible methodologies, applied to the areas where they make the most sense and work. All things being equal, most human experience has taught us that we generally do need different approaches for different problems, which is probably why the scientific method in the scientific worldview keeps adding methods to it and becoming more and more general; they’re added as need arises to make their worldview make sense in the world. But that is obviously cheating.

Treated as an academic discipline, there is no interesting philosophical incompatibility between science in general and religion in general. Treated as a worldview, there is … but then we need a justification for why we should adopt that worldview. The debates on accomodationism, it seems to me, confuse those two usages, leading to very bad debates. And very bad philosophy about the question.

One Response to “Science/Religion Compatibility: Academic Discipline vs Worldview …”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    Is it possible to form a cosmogony and it’s consequent philosophical worldview out of pure positivism?

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