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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, November 24, 2006

Gould on science and religion

With all the current controversy about Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, and the relationship between science and religion, I went back to my article on Stephen Jay Gould's book on the subject, Rocks of Ages, to remind myself what I said in the past.

Entitled "Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion", the article was first published in Quadrant magazine in 2000, and a copy of it now sits happily on my website (it has also been anthologised, and it can probably be found on Quadrant's site as well). I can't really improve on what I wrote then. I still think that Gould was wrong in his claim that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" that can never properly contradict each other; I'm still convinced that the problem was that he wanted to impose a narrow view of the proper scope of religion, confining it to a sphere of values (though allowing it to eat up the entire field of ethics). This is not tenable. Religions have always made claims that are open to rational investigation by science. This is their prerogative - they are encyclopedic explanations of the world and the human situation - but also a potential weakness if they make claims that later seem untenable when empirical evidence is gathered.

Some religious thinkers may, indeed, retreat to making only claims that seem immune to any sort of empirical investigation, but this is not religion's essence. Such a retreat is a very recent and culturally confined phenomenon, and it leaves religious worldviews eviscerated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alan Sokal's formulation was as follows:

Even most liberals and agnostics take a dim view of blunt talk about religion, except to denounce the excesses of fundamentalism. After all, the battles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between the Church and the secular liberals were largely resolved in favor of the latter; religion in the West has largely abandoned its pretensions as a political influence, except on matters of sexual morality and (in areas of the United States where fundamentalists are strong) education. As a consequence, nonbelievers have reached a modus vivendi with organized religion: you agree to stay out of politics (more or less); we, in return, will refrain from publicly questioning your theology and from attacking the remnants of your temporal privileges (e.g. state subsidies in Europe, tax exemptions in the United States). Why bother criticizing ideas that are so inoffensive? Indeed, the liberal churches do much social good (e.g. in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the United States, and liberation theology in Latin America) and serve as an ethical counterweight to the untrammeled power of money.

A similar modus vivendi has been reached between the scientific community and the non-fundamentalist churches. The modern scientific worldview, if one is to be honest about it, leads naturally to atheism — or at least to an innocuous deism or pan-spiritualism that is incompatible with the tenets of all the traditional religions — but few scientists dare to say so publicly. Rather, it is the religious fundamentalists who make this (valid) accusation about "atheistic science"; scientists, by contrast, generally take pains to reassure the public that science and religion, properly understood, need not come into conflict. This is no doubt shrewd politics, especially in the United States, where the majority of people take their religion quite seriously; some scientists have labored to convince themselves (and the rest of us) that it is intellectually honest as well. But the arguments do not hold water.

This quotation comes from pp. 66–7 of Sokal's essay "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers" (PDF link).

On a largely unrelated note, see Warren Ellis's "Second Life Sketches" of 22 November for a pessimistic SL prospectus.