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The debate over the compatibility of science and religion is something about which I’ve written frequently on here. In particular, I have repeatedly addressed the arguments from the accommodationists, those who think religion and science are perfectly compatible. As such, and as they keep saying the same thing over and over, I don’t particularly feel like repeating myself today. However, Karl Giberson of BioLogos has recently written a piece over at HuffPo addressing this issue, and in it he expresses a concern that I don’t particularly understand.
Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today’s website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?
My answer to this question is "yes, of course," for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.
I want to address this issue of “scientism” and the kind of caricature that is painted by the term when it is used to describe the position of the non-accommodationists. First, I’m not aware of anyone saying they are in favor of a position that “denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.” In that sense, the position presented seems to apply to almost no one. There might be all sorts of things that science cannot know that are, in fact, true. This is obvious in practice as there are literally innumerable things that we don’t currently know, and it seems very, very likely that there will always be things we don’t know. There are possibly even things we cannot know in principle via science, though it seems wise to avoid specifying what those might be as science seems to have a way of constantly closing the gaps we have imagined to be forever uncrossable. Still, it is absolutely possible that there are things for which the method of science is simply ill-suited, hence things which are, in principle, shut off forever from scientific inquiry. And, again, all the big names on the side of the non-accommodationists have said things of that very nature. In this way, the worry of “scientism” is simply a strawman.
Now would be a good time to talk about how this is irrelevant to the science/religion compatibility discussion at all for numerous reasons, one big one being that the fact that science cannot reach something does not in any way mean that religion can, and, indeed, I keep meaning to write something on that subject. But that’s not what I want to address, either. No, what I want to hit is the concern that if it did turn out to be the case that all things can be known by science, this would, in some sense, be bad. But for the life of me I cannot see the worry here. What if it were true that science could know everything and there were no place for religion? So what?
Presumably, religious folk, and non-religious folk who are sympathetic to the religious in the sense that they are accommodationists, are interested in the way things are. Let’s say they are interested in truth. If that’s their concern, and if it were true that science was a way to know about everything, I cannot see how this would cause anyone to be unhappy. That would mean we would have a way to get just what they wanted, namely the truth. That would seem to be a good thing.
Now, I do understand that most, if not all, of those expressing such concern do so because they think that there are things science cannot know which religion can. But there is typically something more than that to their worry. It is that something would be lost, that it would be a bad thing, if there were nothing other than wholly natural processes of the type that science describes going on in the world. And that’s what I don’t get; that’s what leaves me puzzled. I just cannot see what would be lost. In fact, it would look like something amazing would be gained. Specifically, this means of acquiring knowledge that has been so massively successful would be the same way we could acquire all knowledge. Yay! Good for us! At least, that’s the way it looks to me, and I will readily admit that I don’t understand the urge to pooh-pooh the knowledge we get from science as somehow less important than some other kind of knowledge. If you’re interested in something like the truth, it seems cool that you get it however you can. If you’re not interested in the truth, then I’ll admit that I’m not really clear on what your concern is. Whatever it is, I would appreciate it if it were made clear so I would know how to address it.
I get thinking that something like scientism is wrong, but I don’t get the desire for it to be wrong. If that’s all there is, then that’s all there is, and I don’t see what’s so bad about it. I don’t get what is lost. And, so far, no one has been able to explain that one to me at all.