In a recent column The questions science cannot answer Alister McGrath (pictured right) comes out guns blazing in an emotional attack in Richard Dawkins. McGrath does seem to have a problem with Dawkins, particularly with his book The God Delusion and his championing of atheism. Several of McGraths own books even include Dawkins in their titles (Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life;The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine). Of course, Dawkins is more than capable of dealing with these attacks and a more sensible exchange can be seen in the video of his interview of McGrath for the “Root of all Evil?” documentary (see below*). However, I think McGrath opens up a wider issue by implying that science is intruding into areas it should stay away from.
What should science avoid?
What are the questions science should avoid? McGrath offers only “Why are we here?” and “What is life all about?” I think these would need to be expressed more specifically before they could be investigated. However, McGrath asks “Might God be part of the answer? Clearly his answer is yes but he doesn’t say why.
From its very beginning humanity has had questions about the world and its place in it. How has it attempted to answer these questions? Inevitably, the early attempts relied on superstition. But many questions were about day-to-day issues and the answers needed to be tested in practice. Supernatural myths may have described the seasons and the stars but these were modified by the practical experience of agriculture and navigation.
As human society evolved the two approaches separated – supernatural explanations developed into religions and the body of knowledge tested in practice became more rational and more capable of providing solutions, it became science. We may not be able to answer, or even investigate, a specific question using the scientific method – but, if we can’t, there is now way that superstition can meaningfully do this.
What should we limit?
McGrath seems to want to put some limits on scientific investigation – “not to criticise science, but simply to calibrate its capabilities.” But is there any evidence that humanity needs to limit its use of the scientific method? Are we using this method when we shouldn’t? What is the evidence for that claim? McGrath doesn’t provide any.
I say that we need to turn these claims around and ask these questions of superstition and religion. Don’t we have attempts by religion to impose religious mythology (creationism) on science education? Don’t we have religious leaders declaring social activities as a source of our climate problems (see Solution to climate change?)? And don’t we have religions justifying the murder of innocent people in ethnic cleansings, wars and terrorist bombings?
Isn’t it about time we talked about “calibrating” religious capabilities?