What’s So Bad about Science?

Karl Giberson, science-and-religion scholar

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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.

Giberson writes,

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.

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6 Responses to “What’s So Bad about Science?”

  1. Tom Henry Says:

    The thing science miscalculates is the relationship of life and language. For language, and so narrative, are so intwined in our human lives that there’s no question of truth without them. Science seems to treat all narrative as pure fiction, but the narratives in which we live (not just on the macro level, like who we are, and what we’re doing with our lives – but the micro as well – like this emotional reaction to meeting this person who fits in this place in our lives, or the existance in the world of works of conceptual art) cannot be understood as that. If science could accept that language and narrative are real, but are not comprehensible to reductive science, then they’d be more forgiving of religion.

    • Jim Says:

      I guess I have a few questions. First, what exactly is the miscalculation of “the relationship of life and language” that is necessitated by the method of science? Next, do you think that the method of science and language are somehow opposed? Also, do you think that the method of science necessitates a denial of “emotional reactions” or “the existence of the world of works of conceptual art”? Next, what reason do you have to think that language and narrative are, in principle, not comprehensible within the structure of scientific method? And, lastly, why would an acceptance of the kind you describe, if not already in place, result in “them” being more forgiving of religion? That is, what insight do you think is available via religion that is withheld from science, and what is the justification for believing such?

      • Tom Henry Says:

        ok 1) That life is incomprehensible outside of language in use, as it is in communication, thought, feeling, perception, etc. 2) Language is irreducible in the sense that a word is not the chemistry of ink nor the physics of aircompression – so reductive science that thinks only things that can be explained reductively are real. 3) Science denies emotional reactions by reducing them to something else, ie chemical states, which they obviously are, but only in the sense that a word is ink on paper 4) Stories don’t have an explaination, they can only be described, understood etc. That’s not what science does. 5) Because we all live within some form of narrative, none of which is “real” in the sense scientists use the word. Insights? I’m not talking about discovering stuff, just how to live the best life. I’m not religious at all, but I can understand why you’d want to live a life like that. The suspension of factual thinking doesn’t matter as much as the story in which you live your life.

        I’m obviously way off a rational argument, sorry. I’ll try and think it through propperly.

        • Jim Says:

          I guess I don’t know what you mean by “life is incomprehensible outside of language in use, as it is in communication, thought, feeling, perception, etc.” If you meant something like we need some kind of language to have comprehension at all, that some kind of syntax, semantics, and lexicon are necessary for the building of conceptual frameworks, such being necessary for what we mean by “comprehension,” I might go with you. Maybe. Or not. But we could have that talk. But I don’t think that’s what you mean, though. In which case, I don’t know what you mean at all.
          It would seem apparent that language is reducible to it’s components, but what is important about language is the content, and that’s obviously reducible to brain states without worry. I mean, clearly some brain state instantiates the content expressed by the word ‘apple’, right? So I don’t see the problem there.
          Science no more denies emotions by reducing them to brain states than it denies water by reducing it to dihydrogen monoxide. It just turns out that emotions are brain states, just like it turns out that lightning is electricity. Nothing is lost. I don’t get your complaint.
          Stories don’t have explanations? What?
          Scientists have no problem accepting narratives are “real” in exactly the same way you mean. Where did you get the idea that it was otherwise?

          • Tom Henry Says:

            Yeah, no, I see that i’m not arguing rationally. It’s complex, I’m sure we can agree on that.

            I think the fundamental question is – what is reality?

            We could use reality to talk about the behaviour of matter, and the behaviour of matter, and that certainly does include everything that exists.

            But on the other hand, we could instead chose to talk about life – ie the inter-subjective lives that we all lead in this shared world. Metaphorically like virtual reality in that it includes all sorts of conceptual and narrative data (ie the duck-rabbit – http://is.gd/duo7E), but a virtual reality in which we all live, which takes place in the actual material world and which is programmed in large part from within the virtual reality – ie, we learn language, and with it how to percieve the the world, from other people also living in the shared world.

            Granted, the brain is the processor of the virtual reality, so theoretically you can read what people think and know from the arrangements of neurons, but that information is the same – ie not superior – as being able to understand what people do in the first place. So it isn’t a reduction, but rather a translation – most of the time a translation of something we know already from talking to people.

            If you are able to understand what a person thinks by looking at their neurons, or what they feel from a chemical test on their blood, then you have successfully translated that data into language – you havn’t got a better explaination of what they think or feel.

            It is a strange thing to say that the world is really taking place in our heads, that thoughts are really neurons firing and feelings really a chemical soup. The “really” here seems to signify a denial of what our lives are actually like, make it all into a vapid dream. No, I would say that life is real, and that language is real and irriducible (all be it translatable into neuron firing code) and that the primary data is what people say, think, feel, and the narratives in which their lives take place, and which are woven through our collective, shared world.

            I will grant you that it sounds like pseudo science junk, or in some way mystical. I assure you it is not. All i am saying is that some things can’t be explained, or that explaination does not get you closer to the truth. Some things can only be described, and science does not seem to me able to be descriptive in this way.

            Sorry for the long comment.

  2. Joey Frantz Says:

    Why would it be bad if science could discover everything?

    Because then, you couldn’t slip into a Buddha position and discover profound truths through meditation.

    Because then everything could be understood in a systematic way, rather than in a fluffy, mystical, not-quite-so-exact way.

    Because then statements like “you just have to feel it to know it” would have no value.

    Because then, being smarter would undoubtedly correlate with your ability to understand ultimate reality.

    Because then, all of the religious and spiritual traditions that have been developed up till now would be at least mostly wrong.

    Because then we couldn’t think that reality itself is centered around human concerns, emotions, and values.


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