The fundamental conflict between Science and Religion July 10, 2014 | 05:29 pm

First off, an apology for my long silence on this blog. Life intervened (and I don’t even have the excuse Robert has, not having spawned a subprocess). But I’d like to take the opportunity to address a topic that’s been bothering me for a while.

There is a widespread belief, especially among the more liberal theists, that religion and science can somehow be reconciled. Simplifying to the point of near-insult, this belief holds that science only applies to sciency things, like gravity or sucrose consumption by the mitocrondria, or things like that. While religion only applies to religousy things, like the meaning of life or whose outies get to go in whose innies, and so on. Or, to use bigger words, that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria, and thus are not in conflict (unless one or the other is stepping out of bounds).

Or, to put it another way, theologians are demanding rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.

The problem I have is just this: religion’s right to define what the meaning of life is, and whose outies go into whose innies, is predicated on having a communications to channel to the creator of all. And the existance of this communication channel is itself subject to scientific proof- or disproof. And the evidence says that the communication channel doesn’t exist.

Before I go on, two comments I’m going to need to make. First of all, there is no proof so strong, so irrefutable, that someone can’t go “nuh uh!” The existence of people who disbelieve in evolution, or global warming, or even the round earth, proves this. So simply because you refuse to accept the proof doesn’t mean the proof isn’t valid.

Second, yes, abscence of evidence doesn’t qualify as evidence of absence. But evidence of absence *does*. There is a difference between not having looked for something (absence of evidence), and having looked for it and not found it (evidence of absence). There are accepted scientific proofs tha something doesn’t exist. A classic example of this is the luninous ether. Basic logic said it had to exist- water waves don’t exist without water, and sound waves don’t exist without air, so if light was a wave, then it had to be a wave in something. Unfortunately, the Michaelson-Morley experiments (which were repeated multiple times in differing circumstances) failed to find any evidence for the ether. Conclusion: it didn’t exist. We had evidence of absence.

So, with those points in mind, I present my argument. Let’s engage in a thought experiment. Lets us assume I suddenly announce that I am in contact with an alien species. For long, irrelevent reasons, I can only communicate with this species, I’m not in physical contact (so I can’t pocket a alien artifact, as Neil deGrasse Tyson advises). And they won’t communicate with you, only with me. And let us furthr assume you’re willing to at least entertain the possibility that I’m telling the truth and not just a crank- it’s a thought experiment, work with me here.

Even under those constraints, it is still possible to determine, with a very high degree of certainity, whether I’m telling the truth or not- whether my aliens are real, or just a figure of my imagination. You could ask for an explanation of how to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics, say, or a proof of the Goldbach conjecture, or whether P=NP (and a proof of whichever), and so on. These are things we humans are likely to figure out ourselves in the next century or two- any alien civilization advanced enough to be comunicating with other start systems is almost certainly will have the answer to those questions.

So, if you ask me to ask my alien friends these questions, and I come back later with pages of mathematics that cause the experts in those fields to get all exicited, that counts as pretty strong evidence that the aliens are real. On the other hand, if I come back with mealy-mouthed excuses (“those are problems humans are supposed to solve for themselves”), that’s pretty strong evidence that the aliens are simply figments of my imagination. I may still enthusiastically insist that my aliens are really real, but it’s hard for any rational person to take my claim seriously.

And something to note: my aliens are every bit as mortal, every bit as limited, every bit as physical, as humans are. They’re just in sixth grade while humans are still in first grade. They’re just a little bit more knowledgable, a little bit more technologically advanced, than we humans are. They don’t violate the fundamental laws of physics (well, except possibly relativity’s ban on information travelling faster than light, but even that I can get around by positing worm holes). They don’t cause logical paradoxes. Given the approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
stars in the visible universe, even hardened skeptics would be surprised if aliens didn’t exist- the only surprising thing is my claim that I’m in contact with them. It is just insane to hold religions to a lower standad of evidence than we hold my aliens to.

This is, at the end, just a thought experiment (no, I’m not really in contact with aliens). But it demonstates the fundamental problem religion has, and why it runs into fundamental conflict with religion.

Science has shown us huge things. Provable things. Things the all-knowing creator of all *has* to know. Why didn’t God say something? “Dude- it’s *round*. I know it doesn’t look like it to you, but trust me! From up here, you can’t mistake it’s round. Yep. A sphere. OK, oblate spheroid, if you want to get technical. Anyways, here’s how you prevent smallpox, and save billions of lives over the next couple of millenia…” In fact, there’s no religious book I know of that contains demonstable information that wasn’t known to well read people at the time they are written.

Yes, I know that God doesn’t work that way. God requires faith for reasons. Just like my hypothetical aliens who didn’t provide a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture, God acts in ways that are mysteriously indistinguishable from being a fiction.

Note that this is a challenge that still holds. Next time God communicates with you, I’ve got some questions to ask him. This is the challenge that science poses for religion. Not (just) that we have figured things out since holy scripture was written, but that we are still, today, finding new things out. Things God could have communicated, but strangely didn’t.

And without this pipeline to he is who is, religion loses all claim to it’s magisteria. No, science can’t speak to whether gay marriage is moral or not- but neither can religion. Religion can not be used as a basis for morality- because it’s basis for morality (communication with the supreme being) doesn’t exist. Science may not be able to disprove god- but it can (and has) disproven your god, a god who communicates.

A religion which does not want to confront this dilemna has no basis to influence anything. They are not unlike Emperor Norton, who declared himself Emperor of United States and Protector of Mexico. Just because you claim dominion, doesn’t mean you have dominion.

If anything, the biblical literalists, the fundamentalists, are more honest in their faith. Their position is that God did tell the biblical writers the real truth, in plain language and with no mealy mouthed excuses about poetry and limited understanding, and it’s science who has it wrong. Of course, their problem is that the science refuses to go away (evolution isn’t science any more, it’s technology).

They’re wrong, but no more wrong than those who hold that science and religion are not in unavoidable conflict.

  • tony w