Thursday, February 18, 2010

The "Conflict" Between Science and Religion

On a previous post Stan left a comment about the "anti-science undercurrent in our society". In a broader sense this observation of the "anti-science undercurrent" is related to what many people know as the "Conflict" between science and religion. But the very real and important questions here are, "Where did this conflict come from?" and "Does this conflict represent a fundamental disagreement between science and religion that can never be reconciled?"

In terms of the second question this is a rather important point because the implication is that if there is a fundamental disagreement between science and religion then the obvious conclusion must be that one or the other must ultimately be rejected as false. This is of course assuming that the two can never be reconciled, which is itself an assumption about the nature and relation of science and religion. But we cannot deny that there exists, at least on some level a disparity between the world views of science and religion, which results in a real, or at least a perceived, conflict between the two. Which leads us back to our first question, "Where did this conflict come from?"

A common accusation leveled against religion, and especially the Christian religion, is that it is inherently anti-scientific. While this may be sufficient for some people to prove the irrationality of Christianity, it is not a very good argument, nor does it address the issue of why it is (or perceived to be) anti-scientific. The counter argument most commonly used against this approach is to point out the inherent short-comings of science that any scientist would readily acknowledge and embrace and an integral part of science. Essentially this argument boils down to "Scientists don't know everything, so therefore there may be something you don't know about and that thing that you don't know about is the mystery of God."

These arguments can and do continue ad nauseum, but will not bring us any close to understanding the nature or the source of the conflict. So again we approach the question, "Where did this conflict come from?"

To start out let me introduce a line from an editorial piece that I read in The Daily Tar Heel. In addressing the conflict between Atheists and Theists the author offered this piece of advice to the Theists, "Theological honesty is needed. Admit that there are some aspects to Christianity that cannot be proven or even explained and must be taken on faith." (The author also had words of advice for Atheists as well, so it was not a one sided argument.) I found this line rather interesting because I felt that it is directly contrary to how I relate to my Religion. I put emphasis on my Religion, because obviously this statement must apply to someone's religion or it would never have been included in the editorial piece. But here in this statement we have potentially uncovered the root cause, or at least something that will lead us to the root cause, of the conflict between science and religion.

So let us consider this statement. First off it states that in Christianity there are things "that cannot be proven or even explained", and it is these unproven, unexplained, or even unknown, things that form the foundation of "faith". This way of thinking leads to a belief or an understanding of a God that is wholly other, unapproachable, unknowable and is outside the realm of science. Which leads directly to the conclusion that religion deals with things that cannot fall under the purview of science. With this understanding it is easy to see where this can result in conflict. If religion deals with things that are not or cannot be covered by science, then if science expands and attempts to explain the former "mysteries of God", such as creation, then those who hold to this understanding of God will naturally feel that science is impinging on "God's territory". They will view it as a kind of turf war and will view it "as if it were a threat to [their] beliefs!"

So how did we get to this point where most religious (and non-religious) people view the Christian God as having exclusive rights to, or even in the extreme case is based solely in, the realm of the Unknown, and science as pertaining to the realm of the known (and provable)?

That very important question I will leave as an exercise for the interested reader, but not to leave you with no answers (like most philosophers), so I will offer this observation by way of insight, but I will present it without proof (again an exercise for the interested reader).

In learning about this topic I have noticed that those who generally hold to the view of Christianity expressed above, where the basis of faith is something unknowable (that's unknowable as opposed to unknown), have as the basis of their world view a Platonic Philosophy. It is this group of people, both religious and non-religious alike, that consider there to be an inherent conflict between science and religion. The Platonic world view is not the exclusive domain of the non-scientific but it is a view held by the scientific an non-scientific alike. But even though the same world-view is held by both groups, different conclusions are reached, and thus results in the conflict that we know of as the conflict between science and religion.

But there is a way out of this irreconcilable debate, and again I have noticed that those who find no inherent conflict between science and religion hold to an Aristotelian world view. This means that there is a fundamental difference in the way that some people approach the world, and how they view and gain knowledge and understanding about the world. In the case of the Platonic world view there are certain assumptions about knowledge (epistemology) that affect how we view and/or know God, which results in the conflict. But the Aristotelian world view does not make the same assumptions about how we know and approach the world, and this subtle difference means that those who hold to this world view do not see an inherent conflict between science and religion.

This observation would be nothing more than an interesting philosophical footnote, if it were not for the fact that in Western societies approximately 80% of the people hold to a Platonic world view. This overwhelming majority of people that operate with the Platonic world view creates ample opportunity for conflict and for the collection of people into groups of similar beliefs and conclusions about the world. Hence you have people dividing into groups of Theists and Atheists, that perpetually seem at odds with each other. It also leads to a division of knowledge (epistemology) into the realms of the known (dominated by science, and indirectly by Atheists) and the unknowable (dominated by religion). Thus for those who hold to one side or the other, when they are presented with anything that they associate with the other side they react to it as a direct assault on their beliefs.

This makes things difficult for those of us who do not have a Platonic world view, as we are constantly finding ourselves on both sides of the debate and we are constantly asked "Which side are you on?" or "How do you reconcile you faith with what you study?" But for those who have an Aristotelian world view, or something very similar, then these types of questions make no sense and we are left confused and wondering why they are even asking those questions.

Now we can finally come to the most important question, "Now that we have this understanding, how do we share this with others so that they too can understand it and not be bogged down with the "conflict" between science and religion?" That is the hard question, and the real question that we must answer, and in a way, I think that is the purpose of The Eternal Universe.


  1. Wow, Quantumleap42, you have thought about this is such a deeper way than I ever have. I'm impressed.

    I think it is healthy to recognize people are wired psychologically and philosophically different.

    I would like to see a little less conflict in the world and a little more team work. (It's a utopian hope but I can still hope.)

    I know, I know... but the other guy/girl is wrong about issue X and therefore harmful to society...

    But let's be realistic, most of us share a lot more in common that the converse. Let's try a little harder to work together.

  2. I'm nearly done reading "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts" by Carol Tavris On my new Nook! btw. It's about Cognitive Dissonance and how we self justify our actions to the point of absurdity to avoid viewing ourselves negatively. It explains how, when people have their views challenged, they become even more entrenched in those beliefs though rationalization and self justification. It's totally subconscious and even the smartest of people fall victim unless they are vigilant. It's built into our brains and as humans it is unavoidable. Fortunately those trained to recognize this inherent weakness can take steps to minimize its effect. Fortunately the scientific method is designed at its core to do so. Unfortunately many religious traditions, and you can easily recognize them by how polarized they are in this "conflict", encourage just the opposite.

    I hope you guys study up on cog-dis theory as it cuts to the core of human objectivity, which I'm sure you have some interest in. =:)

  3. Stan, that's really interesting. I'm sure there is a lot of truth to the idea that we often go to absurd lengths to try to justify ourselves and that much of this is wired into human psychology.

  4. A good book in order to understand that science and religion can go together is the “Theologico-Political Treatise” by Spinoza.

  5. Like most of you here, this issue is near and dear to my heart. Like Quantum I find myself puzzling over why so many are in conflict when I see the two in fundamental harmony. From a Mormon perspective, the best articulation of this I have found is in two books:
    1. Mormon Scientist - The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring
    2. Faith of a Scientist by Henry Eyring
    The first book is his biography as written by his grandson, and the 2nd is his own treatise on the supposed "conflict."

    My own view is shaped as follows: I view religion and science as tools in a toolbox. I use those tools for different things. The scientific method is undoubtedly the best human device for discovering truth about our observable world. Religion is designed to help me grow spiritually. If one, or the other, ceases to be useful in its intended goals, I would discard it. Fortunately, despite some Mormon cultural idiosyncrasies I find that, for me, Mormonism helps me grow spiritually (perhaps as direct result of my upbringing) and hence I hold on to it. I look for those things in my religion to help me grow spiritually, and draw nearer to God. I look to science to help me understand the world I live in.

    Great article (although I wish you would have described what you meant by Platonic and Aristotelian world views since I don't find many clear cut clean definitions online).

  6. To jmb275, it is clear that in some religions like yours there is a way in order to go closer to God but in Buddhism for example there is no God ; the aim is especially moral I think. And in science God is an important thing in order to understand the rest of things ; so God seems to be something in order to help understand morality or science, but is not a religious fact :

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