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In Conversation: A Philosopher On the Science vs. Religion Debate

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Do you think that science and faith can “get along?” Why or why not?

Let me preface my answer by saying that my own views on this issue are in no way representative of the book as a whole. In fact, my own views are not even presented in the book. The book includes a diversity of different perspectives and traditions, and I went out of my way to be as inclusive as possible, including representatives of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and atheism. That said, my own position is that it depends on what you mean by “faith,” “religion,” and “getting along.” To keep things focused, I’ll talk in terms of religion and science, rather than faith and science.

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Philosopher Gregg Caruso thinking.

I should begin by noting that the term “religion” is not a clearly defined concept or an uncontested one; it can mean different things to different people. One approach, the approach that appears to have been favored by the late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, is to define religion in a limited way, as primarily concerned with questions of ultimate meaning and moral values. Gould maintained that since the domain of science extends over the empirical realm—e.g., what the universe is made of and why it works as it does—and the domain of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral values, the two do not conflict.

Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

I agree that on this conception of religion, science and religion can “get along.” The problem, however, is that this conception of religion is a neutered one. Critics have pointed out that religion is more than just a form of moral philosophy—which is essentially what religion becomes on Gould’s conception. Gould seems to overlook the fact that most religions include cosmogonies, creation myths, and metaphysical claims about the nature of the self, including claims about the existence of souls, life after death, reincarnation, free will, and the like. Such claims clearly extend beyond the domain of morals and values.

Another possibility is to think of religion as a route to knowledge that is distinct from science—one based on revelation and contemplation rather than on empirical investigation. My own personal view is that this conception of religion more directly conflicts with science. I see no reason to think that religion provides us with a reliable epistemic method for acquiring knowledge and justifying beliefs about the world. In fact, the track record of the major theistic religions for providing us with true beliefs about the nature and structure of the universe, the origin of species, and the like, is pretty abysmal.

This criticism, however, is probably unfair since most reasonable believers do not view religion as a revival to science on these matters. Genesis, for example, is not a science textbook but rather a book of faith.

This brings me to my final conception of religion. The sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized religion’s sociological origin, holding that religious ideas result from personal interpretations of social feelings or sentiments that in turn connect us to social entities that provide the basis of moral obligations. On such a view, religion is not really about cosmic forces or metaphysical realities; rather it arises out of society’s need for individuals to comply with rules and to experience social cohesion. Although religion engages in metaphysical speculation, the usefulness of religion does not depend on any given metaphysical structure. Religions are better understood in non-realist terms, as providing pragmatic benefit and serving a sociological function. On this conception, then, religion is a natural, not supernatural, phenomenon, created by and for humans, and properly must be studied as a social discipline.

How does that conception of religion “get along” with science?

I see no reason why this last conception of religion cannot get along with science. Many religionists will likely resist it, since it denies that religious beliefs and statements are about real unobservable entities, properties, or events, but it’s the conception of religion that I’m most interested in. It allows religion to be studied scientifically while still acknowledging its sociological function.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim.

I would like to double back, however, to your idea of “getting along,” since that is how you phrased the question. I see no reason why people of differing viewpoints cannot get along in the sense of respecting each other. I respect each and every one of the thirty-three contributors to the book, even if I disagree strongly with several of them. As a philosopher, I welcome the healthy exchange of ideas and think that it’s the only way progress can be made.

Are people truly free to choose their ideas about science and religion?

I knew you were going to ask me about free will! The short answer to your question is “no,” people are not free to choose their own beliefs in any ultimate sense. As a free will skeptic, I maintain that what we do, and the way we are, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense—the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise.

Now, many people are going to reject my position on pragmatic grounds alone, fearing that disbelief in free will would negatively affect our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law. I believe, however, that these fears are misguided. I have argued elsewhere that life without free will and (desert-based) moral responsibility would not be as destructive as many people believe. Derk Pereboom has probably made the strongest case for this position, but like him I maintain that prospects of finding meaning in life or of sustaining good interpersonal relationships would not be threatened. In fact, relinquishing our belief in free will might well improve our well-being and our relationships to others since it would tend to eradicate an often destructive form of “moral anger.”

Now, a different objection I hear a lot—one I find ridiculous, but since I hear it often enough it’s worth mentioning—goes something like this: If you don’t believe in free will, why do you think people are free to change their minds? Why debate free will at all if people are already determined to either believe in it or not? Perhaps this concern is even implicit in your question, since if there is no free will—if no one freely chooses his or her beliefs about science and religion—what good does a book like mine serve?

As I said, I find these questions rather silly for reasons that should be obvious. Free will skepticism in no way denies that people change their minds or that the exchange of reasons and arguments affect peoples’ beliefs. In fact, the whole purpose of exchanging reasons is to function as a causal influence on one’s doxastic states.

Part 4: What’s next for science and religion?