Wednesday, December 17, 2008

reason science faith

all god's critters

I watched some of last weekend's repeat of Qanda with some interest and amusement, formulating my own responses as I watched, but only after talking to a friend who was outraged at Angela Shanahan's contribution did I think of putting down some of my responses here, because they were probably mostly responses to Shanahan. I didn't bother before because it has all been said, time and time again, and Shanahan offers such a soft and limp target as to be hardly worth typing over. 

One of the questions was something along the line of do you think faith is compatible with reason/science?, to which Shanahan responded with the feeble response that a lot of scientists are believers, ergo... My response to that would be that this is an example of compartmentalisation, which we all engage in. The real question isn't whether a person can hold incompatible beliefs - they can, they always have and probably always will. The question is whether scientific explanation is compatible with religious explanation. There have been various attempts to argue for compatibility, from the scientific perspective and from the religious perspective. Stephen Jay Gould tried to argue that science and religion dealt with separate and non-overlapping spheres of thought and being, but you don't have to read chapter 2 of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion to recognise the inadequacy, indeed the absurdity, of that argument. If Gould's argument for non-overlapping magisteria [the high-falutin terminology here should make us wary straight away] is correct, then the established churches were simply wrong to harrass Galileo and to object to the idea that we're closely related to chimps. They didn't realize, apparently, that the heliocentric theory and the theory of evolution by natural selection had not the slightest relation to their religious views about God as the creator of the universe, and about humanity as central to his divine plan. 
This is absurd, of course. The church knew exactly what was at stake when it went after Galileo. It knew that it was directly in competition with the emergent sciences, that these two 'spheres of influence' offered clearly alternative, and incompatible, explanations of our place in the universe and on earth.
Science is a product of rigorous reason harnessed to technique, to put things simplistically. As such, it has been the most spectacularly successful human phenomenon by any measure over the past few centuries. Established churches have, in the west, been rather blown away by this success. One of the main reasons for this, I think, is that churches, in becoming established, have had to enshrine rules and statutes, organising principles and the like. The establishment of churches requires this kind of order and reason, which by its nature invites scrutiny. When you start issuing decrees about the nature of the soul, or the trinity, or the relationship of the priesthood to the laity [and the deity], you are trying to transform something essentially metaphysical, and perhaps non-existent, into something practical and measurable and agreed-upon, but unfortunately religious matters don't fit very well into that regimen, unlike scientific matters. This is why the religious authority of established churches tends to be punitive, because the authority they derogate to themselves is so weak, when tested by reason. Science, on the other hand, has passed the test of rigorous reason with flying colours, and has therefore been one of the chief generators of cultural evolution in the west.



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