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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); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, May 03, 2009

NAS on the compatibility of science and religion

Here is the NAS statement on the compatibility of science and religion. Sorry, but I'm not buying it. I understand the concerns behind it, and I'm not suggesting that it is realistic to change it. It could be a lot worse.

I just don't think it's true:

Compatibility of Science and Religion
Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding. But science is a way of knowing that differs from other ways in its dependence on empirical evidence and testable explanations. Because biological evolution accounts for events that are also central concerns of religion — including the origins of biological diversity and especially the origins of humans — evolution has been a contentious idea within society since it was first articulated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858.

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

I do agree that the methods that are distinctive to science are not the only ones used for obtaining knowledge and understanding. For example, I can gain knowledge by investigating historical records in a way that may be quite rigorous but not distinctively scientific. However, it's not true that science is unique in its reliance on empirical evidence. We seek knowledge based on empirical evidence all the time, without doing anything distinctively scientific. It's true, though, that our methods of investigation start to look more distinctively scientific when they use replicable experiments. Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is not unique to science, but science makes distinctive use of it, combined with replicable experiments to test hypotheses. But there are other features as well, such as the use of instruments that expand the capacities of the human senses, the use of mathematical models, and doubtless others.

Science is continuous with other kinds of inquiry that may use some of these techniques. It can also draw on knowledge gained from inquiries that don't especially utilise these distinctive techniques, such as ordinary sensory observation, testimony, historical records, our learned ability to interpret human behaviour and language, and so on. Thus, there's no clear boundary between the sciences and the humanities, such as history.

It is not so much that there is more than one way of knowing. Rather, there are different techniques for investigating different aspects or parts of reality. Not all aspects lend themselves to investigation through distinctively scientific techniques, and some lend themselves to investigation through other techniques (examining historical records, etc.). Still, we expect that knowledge and understanding obtained through different techniques will be consistent. Where lines of evidence obtained from different techniques show a convergence, we can be confident that we're getting at the truth.

Science has been especially useful for examining phenomena that are very small, very large, very distant in space or time, or indiscernible by our senses. By proceeding step by step, testing conjectures (by looking for other phenomena that conjectured entities, forces, etc., predict), using precise mathematics, adopting potentially consilient lines of inquiry, and so on, science is often able to reach robust, very well-evidenced conclusions about things that no one has ever seen with their unaugmented senses (such as the moons of Jupiter, long-extinct animals, and microscopic entities). In other cases, science's conclusions are more tentative, or problems are left with no plausibly-acceptable conclusions in sight. Because the evidence for scientific claims is typically circumstantial, and highly theory-laden, sometimes with very long chains of inference, those claims are always considered provisional, but some are so robust that they are unlikely ever to be overturned. E.g. it's inconceivable that the geocentric picture of our solar system will ever be restored. There is too much evidence from too many lines of inquiry. (And we should not forget that many ordinary, not-especially-scientific claims are also quite heavily theory-laden.)

Still, the picture of the world emerging from science is always incomplete.

On this view, there are methods of rational investigation that are not distinctively scientific, but there are no "other ways of knowing" that somehow compete with rational investigation itself. There is plenty of room for science (and, indeed, the humanities) to falsify various religious claims or render them implausible. For example, science has decisively falsified the religious claim that the Earth is 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Historical investigation has made it quite implausible that there was ever an Egyptian captivity of the Jews or a culture hero such as Moses. Some religionists may not give up such claims in the face of empirical evidence, but that doesn't mean that religion is fundamentally compatible with science; it means that some religious positions are (clearly) incompatible with it.

As for the inability of science to investigate the supernatural, this is either trivially (and unhelpfully) true or false. Unfortunately, the NAS statement doesn't nail down what is involved here beyond saying that religious faith typically involves "supernatural forces or entities". It is trivially and unhelpfully true that science cannot investigate such forces or entities if "supernatural" is defined to mean "that which science cannot investigate" (or in some other way that amounts to the same thing).

But it is false if it means that science is, in principle, unable to investigate claims about such paradigmatically "supernatural" things as ancestor spirits, water nymphs, fire demons, magic dragons, or astrological influences. If these things exist and behave in fairly regular ways - like lions, elephants, kangaroos, crocodiles, and the flow of water - then science can investigate them. Of course, if they did exist we might come to think of them as part of "nature", but that's just the point. There is no clear and meaningful line between "natural" and "supernatural", such that science cannot investigate beyond that line. It is simply that certain kinds of things, notably disembodied intelligences, don't actually seem to exist; in any event, hypotheses involving these things have had a lousy track record over centuries. It is usually good practice for scientists to avoid those kinds of hypotheses if they can (this is the grain of truth in "methodological naturalism").

Nonetheless, there is no reason, in principle, why science cannot investigate claims about, say, ancestor spirits as long as the spirits in question are alleged to behave in ways that are reasonably regular and affect things that can be detected by our senses (possibly via scientific instruments).

The kinds of hypotheses that are most difficult to test by distinctively scientific means - apart from those involving interpretation of texts, artworks, and so on; or alleging one-off, small-scale historical events - are not necessarily "supernatural" ones. They are any that: (a) are framed so vaguely that it is difficult to know what to look for out there in the world; or (b) are systematically protected by ad hoc modifications.

However, we don't have to falsify a conjecture together with all possible auxilliaries before we reject it; a conjecture that is preserved only by ad hoc modifications should also be rejected. Thus, if someone seeks to preserve the conjecture that the Earth is only 6,000 years old by postulating that an all-powerful being created the Earth in an "aged" form, we have good reason to reject that hypothesis. The auxilliary claim is too ad hoc.

In short, the relationship between science and religion/the supernatural is more complex than the NAS acknowledges, and it doesn't make religion as immune to scientific investigation as the NAS implies.

Once again, though, it doesn't follow that the statement should be changed at this late stage, or that it is not doing any social good. Nothing in this posts suggests that the policy implications of my discussion are clear. My best suggestion is that the current NAS statement be reviewed at some future time when the organisation is conducting a larger review of its communications strategy. At that stage, points such as I've made above can be taken into account.


mace said...

This text seems to be a well -meaning but confused attempt at reconciliation betweem two mutually exclusive world views.Of course it's not true, science and religion are incompatible,science is the only way of knowing, precisely because of its reliance on empirical evidence and testable explanations.I'm puzzled as to why this organization found it necessary to produce such a banal statement,no amount of repetition will make it true,it appears to be an example of the dysfunctions of the PC approach to academic enquiry.

John Pieret said...

However, we don't have to falsify a conjecture together with all possible auxilliaries before we reject it; a conjecture that is preserved only by ad hoc modifications should also be rejected. Thus, if someone seeks to preserve the conjecture that the Earth is only 6,000 years old by postulating that an all-powerful being created the Earth in an "aged" form, we have good reason to reject that hypothesis. The auxilliary claim is too ad hoc.The first question here is whether rejection of an explanation that someone deems to be ad hoc a scientific result or simply a rule of thumb as to what is worth investigating? If the former, I think you'll have to do a better job in defining it. How do we separate impermissible ad hoc explanations from the constant modifications to our scientific theories that often "rescue" them from seeming disconfirmation?

It seems to me that rejecting ad hoc explanations is more in the nature of the latter. There is no scientific result showing that Omphalos is wrong because there couldn't be one, so it is profitless to address it scientifically.

This then goes back to the definition of "compatible" that I floated at Larry's place: If someone accepts the methodological assumption of naturalism applied by science, along with the actual results of science using that methodology, that person is acting in ways "compatible" with science. Does "compatible" only mean "coextensive with" and/or "identical to" science? In which case, you are simply defining religion as incompatible to science and no further discussion is needed.

In short, the relationship between science and religion/the supernatural is more complex than the NAS acknowledges, and it doesn't make religion as immune to scientific investigation as the NAS implies.Does anyone expect an explanation of 313 words to capture the full relationship between science and religion/the supernatural? This is a species of Terry Pratchett's "lying to children" (and other unsophisticates). Entire books could be written on the subject (and left unread by most people) but that relationship is still less complex than evolution and the evidence for it that the NAS pamphlet was also trying to summarize. Your criticism is just as valid, if not more so, about its treatment of evolution as it is of its treatment of science/religion compatibility. Is the only valid way to educate to force feed the victim ... I mean student ... with the whole of the subject at once and only if we expect them to complete the work?

Russell Blackford said...

On your last point, John, not really. Not unless there is something positively misleading about evolution.

John Pieret said...

I didn't have the sense that you were claiming that the NAS was being "positively misleading" about the science/religion relationship, merely that it wasn't as nuanced as you think it should be (if it takes up the subject at all). But I'm sure I could find something in its treatment of evolution that some scientists would declare positively misleading (Larry Moran's dislike of adaptationism would be a good candidate for an example).

In any case, "lying to children" does involve "positively misleading" them is some sense of the term and cannot be avoided. If we take our hobby-horses out for rides on every such occasion they'll soon break down. ;-)

Luke Vogel said...

Since I've responded to this post by Russell on Jerry's blog, I'll just go ahead and copy/paste to here. I am directing towards Jerry in many places, but I think you'll be able to make the distinctions ok (if anyone ever reads it). -----

It’s so strange to see in these discussions where I primarily agree with the atheistic view that such astounding idiotic things are being forwarded by the atheist.

Jerry, you’re guilty of this and so is Dawkins. You guys have really mucked up the works and its spilled over into bizarre defenses like we see with Russell above.

Russell says: “As for the inability of science to investigate the supernatural, this is either trivially (and unhelpfully) true or false.”

It is simply a mistake to think that science studies the “supernatural”. It’s insane that it’s often put in ways where it’s either obvious that science does study the supernatural in some way, as in your statement of: “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science” or put out with the idea it’s trivially true or false. Of course, Russell is simply back to describing what are potentially mysteries found in nature (what there is is nature and the mysteries of nature – would be better if atheistic scientist would just state the fact instead of playing into the same game as the creationist). What we are dealing with as far as the supernatural is belief systems. Of course, there is concern, that you seem to have, that we can’t hold that “supernatural phenomena” do not exist a priori, but then argue that if some claim to nature is held to be true that was thought to be “supernatural” it is then within nature (your example of scientist convinced of God and saying their Hosanna’s is simply ridiculous – a scientist convinced does not automatically mean their belief is a true reflection of reality – you are making a distinct philosophical mistake to think science is studying the “supernatural” – you are just contributing to the confusion, and in the imaginary “war between naturalism and “supernaturalism” where it seems playing this game provides some kind of adherence to the arguments and there’s any “any means possible” attitude – it is to me just dishonest and meaningless).

This crap just adds to the problem because you continuously reinforce the idea that we are testing more than the claims regarding nature. The claims about nature made by the “believers” are said to have “supernatural” causation or acts of a “supernatural force”, but that idea is not being tested, it can’t be tested by science (hence why creationism in all of its guises is not a scientific theory, science makes no use of a “supernatural” – gods – hypothesis). Playing this game as you have – (for no better reason than to argue strangely against noma, which you appear to not fully understand, since many of your actions support the fundamental framework,you have turned it in to a scapegoat to use as a dirty word in a false correlation to arguments about accomodationism) – you have essentially made false claims regarding the nature of science.

Russell said: “There is no clear and meaningful line between “natural” and “supernatural”, such that science cannot investigate beyond that line.”

Science does not study the “supernatural”, and yes the definition of the supernatural is not very clear, it is fairly meaningless because it is not reality, you can not make the “supernatural” into the natural, which he is nearly attempting to do. Of course this is the attempt to say that science can somehow refute, falsify and test the “superantural”. It is simply a false claim about the nature of science. We would be better to accept that what science can tell us about “supernaturalism” is within the scope of belief and belief systems. By playing this mindless game we only delay the appropriate approaches and methods to understanding and possibly changing irrational beliefs about the “supernatural”.

Again, this all may be useful for imaginary wars and arguments against noma, but they are more meaningless than even how Russell attempts to portray it. He is doing what you and Richard have, which is to cross into the fuzzy zone of crazy metaphor and silly argument to make a meaningless claim about science.

You [Jerry] and Dawkins have influenced people to make false claims about the nature of science (mainly Richard on this). I support your attempts to get religion out of science, including your decision on the Festival (and I hope you stay above board and not play a game of labeling and feeding into name calling while raising unnecessary suspicion towards some good scientist).

In Russell’s last sentence he is just saying we are testing the aspects that science can and does test, which is naturalistic, but we are not scientifically testing a “spirit” that is said to exist outside of nature while influencing nature (or already said to not be explainable by natural means - and yes we realize by refuting the claim to nature we may change the beliefs). Again, we are dealing with belief systems. You may say that scientist do not have a philosophical commitment with regards to materialistic explanations of nature, but stop making the philosophical mistake of claiming “supernatural phenomena” are within the realm of science (thereby testable – the final sentence in the quote by Darwin in your 'seeing' essay should be stamped on your head when you do that: “But, this is childish writing”).

I mean, in his response to the other statement (which I feel like giving a good drubbing also), look how ridiculous Russell sounds, how he is twisting himself in knots to say that science concerns itself with natural phenomena.

To add; I want to address an issue my comment may elicit. I do agree that testing the claims about nature may change minds regarding beliefs in Gods etc. (many of the claims to nature made by "believers" to support their beliefs are usually wrong). I fully support this effort, I am a skeptic/atheist/humanist and have supported skeptical inquiry for over 15 years. I also fully realize that science education can translate into less belief in Gods etc., that's a great thing too I believe (it appears to be even be more true for biology). My concern is this idiotic gamesmanship that does not serve science or skeptical inquiry (many of these types of arguments were dealt with long ago), and I think why it is done is for the reasons I state, to give a false sense that science can study (thereby falsify) "superantural forces".

Russell Blackford said...

In response to "Luke", who wrote as "Dave" on Jerry Coyne's blog, I said as follows:

It’s tiresome when I write something careful, and as clear as I can make it, on a conceptually difficult topic, and someone responds by flinging about words such as “idiotic”, “insane”, “crap”, “childish”, etc. I’m not sure why that is expected to be impressive. It merely suggests that we are dealing with someone so emotionally invested as to be unwilling to think carefully about what the other side is actually saying.

Sometimes it’s good to express outrage or disgust, or whatever, but it’s not helpful when you’re dealing with an ally trying to get to the bottom of a difficult problem.

Dave’s language is such that I don’t see any point in trying to persuade him. It suggests that he’s not open to changing his mind. He’d rather burn bridges than build them.

But I’d better say something brief here for the benefit of other readers. I’ll say more about the issue over at my own blog, rather than posting a very long comment here.

So, I should emphasise that there is much misunderstanding (in the whole debate, not just in Dave’s comment) of the crucial point that the word “supernatural” is commonly used in more than one sense, and sometimes in vague senses, and that the equivocation and vagueness cause confusion. Dave has, as he’d put it, mucked things up yet again by failing to show a consistent understanding of that point. I’d love the world to be such that the terms “natural” and “supernatural” have a single clear meaning, but they don’t – as Dave notices in passing but then seems to forget – so we are left to wrestle with the different meanings, in order to try think about this whole issue clearly.

Thus, there are senses in which it’s ridiculous to say that science can study supernatural phenomena. But there are other senses in which it’s not ridiculous at all. We need to know, at each point, which sense of the word “supernatural” is being employed.

Unfortunately, the NAS statement, which was what my original post was about, throws the words around with no definitions attached. That’s a very dangerous thing to do.

Russell Blackford said...

In response to John's more recent comment, yes my whole point is that the NAS statement is so clumsy, wrong, etc., as to be positively misleading. There may be something misleading about the discussion of evolution, but one hopes not. It's not really fair to respond to what I said by speculating about that. If there's anything of that kind, then find it and criticise it, if it's something non-trivial.

My whole point is that the NAS put up a quite misleading attempt to reconcile science and religion, using unhelpful concepts such as "other ways of knowing" and an undefined distinction between "natural" and "supernatural".

As for John's point that the omphalos theory (that God created the Earth in a pre-aged state) is not/may not be ad hoc, I must say I'm astounded that John would want to argue the toss about this. It's pretty much a paradigm example of an ad hoc claim. The claim isn't advanced with the idea that it may lead to new predictions that are testable. Rather, it's a situation where the claim that the Earth is 6000 years old has been decisively refuted by all the evidence. There's no scientific reason to want to hold onto it. The claim that the Earth really is 6000 years old but was created by God to look billions of years old is specifically tailored to protect the original claim, in the face of all the evidence. That's an ad hoc move.

Sure, if there was some other motivation and/or some way was proposed to test the 6000-year old pre-aged Earth hypothesis we could take it seriously and go and test it. But this is a paradigm example of an auxilliary claim being added to an exploded claim merely to make the original, exploded claim untestable and to be able to say that it's not proved false. It's an example of trying to hang on to something that's been shown to be untrue by all the evidence, but which you want to be true.

Science, along with commonsense, really does reject claims like that, or at least does not take them seriously. No one who is not already psychologically invested in the idea of a young earth should take the omphalos theory seriously - and in fact no one does.

But not all claims about "supernatural" phenomena need be like that. Some phenomena that are supernatural by some definitions may well be open to empirical investigation.

Luke Vogel said...

I posted this response on Jerry Coyne's blog and am just copy/pasting here (I'm "Dave" on Jerry's blog). I am responding to Russell's remarks made on Jerry's blog. I notice other remarks made here, I'll get to those later. --

Russell Blackford,

I am outraged!(that's the point - and for good reason) Your response is more of the same. Science study’s natural phenomena. This is well understood today and it is in fact you who is confusing a fairly simple fact. You have and are continuing to muck up a clear understanding of science that is essential to communicate, you don’t get away with playing the games of; Oh, but “natural” is defined so vaguely. That’s a cop-out of the worst kind in communicating science and reason and further to letting it be clearly understood that “supernatural” is not reality (no matter how vague you want to say it is – if it is defined out of nature we are dealing with a belief system). You can not make the natural into the supernatural, only in your game of vague definition is that possible, but its still never happened from even the common understanding of the term “supernatural”. What has happened is claims that concerned nature, even if thought to be supernatural in some way, were either shown to exist in reality or not. What was studied is the natural, the claims are only that, you are only confusing claims that something is supernatural with what in fact science does test and show (nature). This is well understood.

Most of philosophy accepts the fact that when we are speaking about science, we are talking about naturalism (the rest is most likely theology in some way or religion in general). By you putting out the idea, constantly, that the terms are to vague to just state the fact that science concerns itself with the natural only, you are contributing to an old tiresome problem that has been dealt with. What’s happening now is the recurrence of these meaningless debates and they almost always have to do with religion.

What you have put up is very close to Darwin’s line, in fact you could have fit it perfectly well at the end of your original essay; “But, this is childish writing.” Perhaps you can continue to play the same game as the creationist and redefine science to fit your vague meanings, but why should the rest of stand by and let it happened?

Russell said: “Thus, there are senses in which it’s ridiculous to say that science can study supernatural phenomena. But there are other senses in which it’s not ridiculous at all. We need to know, at each point, which sense of the word “supernatural” is being employed.” —

This is exactly why I’m angry and trust me, I’m not the only one noticing this. It is always ridiculous to say the science can study the “supernatural”, always. If it is being define another way to were it is testable by science, it is NOT “supernatural”, this is so painfully obvious and all you are showing is that you bought into a sale of goods in a supposed “war between naturalism and “supernaturalism.” In a scientific sense, that doesn’t mean anything really. All you have done above is to say that the “supernatural” can be defined as natural, that is incoherent and should not be accepted today, it is a logical contradiction. What you are doing is silly and ridiculous.

The NAS statement, which I would criticize certainly, does not need to go about defining naturalism, if you want to dispute it, then you define naturalism, you can tell us what is considered natural and reality. By getting this basic fact straight about the nature of science (and don’t play the game that I’m somehow tying sciences hand and something can convince a scientist of the existence of God), we can move more directly and targeted in understanding and finding the best ways of dealing with irrational belief systems (and the behaviors that are directed by them). There are sciences looking closely at beliefs, and we would be wise to learn from what they are telling us.

Luke Vogel said...

I want to fix a sentence from my last post. ---

It is always ridiculous to say that science can study the “supernatural”, always. If it is being defined another way to where it is testable by science, it is NOT “supernatural” (it is natural), this is so painfully obvious. All you are showing is that you bought into a sale of goods in a supposed “war between naturalism and “supernaturalism.”

I will add to that to say only that a way to study the "supernatural" is to study the beliefs in some way and many of the sciences are doing just that.

Richard Wein said...

Well said, Russell. It's nice to find a blogger who shares my opinions but expresses them so much better than I'm able to do. ;)

Having said that, I've recently started to think that, contrary to my prior position and to your assertion above, there is indeed an "other way of knowing" that "competes with rational investigation itself". What I have in mind is intuition. I'm not proposing that intuition is anything magical, anything other than subconscious mental processes. But I am proposing that those subconscious mental processes are different from rational thinking and that they are also capable of producing knowledge, that is of leading to beliefs that have a decent chance of being correct. And while intuition is generally less reliable than rational thinking, there are occasions where it does a better job in practice, because our rational thinking is often flawed or because we don't have time for rational thinking.

I'm not suggesting that as a society we should substitute intuition for rational thinking. A consensus of knowledgeable experienced rational thinkers should be far superior to raw intuition. But we should recognise that intuition does play a part in the formation of our beliefs as individuals, and that that part is not an entirely useless one.

Anonymous said...


When religionists make a claim about the natural world, their merely labeling said claim "supernatural" does not, by itself, remove that claim from the purview of science. That's all Mr. Blackford is saying.


Anonymous said...


I completely agree that "intuition does play a part in the formation of our beliefs as individuals", but I also think that our intuitions are sometimes worse than "useless". Examples of such intuitions include "there's so much water in the world, we'll never run out" and "when bad things happen to us, there must necessarily be a causal agent behind it".


Anonymous said...

"The ultimate point of morality, as opposed to the historical origin of morality, is something we decide rather than something we discover, and neither religion nor science can tell us authoritatively what we should decide."

So I might decide that the point of morality is the advancement of me and mine, and there's nothing to be discovered to the contrary?