Previous posts in this series covered the nature of scientific knowledge , the issue of scientific credibility and the religious agenda of intelligent design (ID). This final one deals with the religion/science conflict inherent in ID.
Modern science doesn’t encompass supernatural phenomena – it is naturalist. Science is based on observation of, and experiment with, reality. Therefore, explanations based on non-observable (supernatural?) phenomena (if such exist) cannot be part of science. A scientific theory cannot be built on something that is not observable, not testable and cannot be confirmed.
What about miracles?
Of course there are things we can’t currently observe but we infer exist, such as “dark matter.” We assume, with time, our knowledge of such things will improve, improvements in technology will enable us to detect them, measure them, discover their internal order and consequently build scientific theories about them. We don’t write them off, call them supernatural and leave it at that. It’s the same with the so-called “miracles.” If we can verify their existence we can then go on to investigate them, make measurements, get confirmation, collect evidence, hypothesise on the underlying causes and build a scientific theory for discussion and modification by others working in that field. “Miracles”, if they describe an event that truly happened, are nothing more than natural phenomena we do not (yet) understand. Three centuries ago, Cicero (De Divinatione), expressed it this way:
“For nothing can happen without cause; nothing happens that cannot happen, and when what was capable of happening has happened, it may not be interpreted as a miracle. Consequently there are no miracles. We therefore draw this conclusion: what was incapable of happening never happened and what was capable of happening is not a miracle.”
So supernatural explanations which, by their nature cannot be based on empirical evidence, are just not part of science. “Explaining” unsolved problems in our understanding of nature by using supernatural phenomena that lie outside the natural world provides answers which cannot be tested. This takes away any reason to continue normal scientific investigation. The supernatural explanation is a “science stopper.”
This is why the proponents of ID have been unable to propose any research to validate their theory. What work they have proposed deals only with perceived problems “gaps” or unsolved problems in scientific evolutionary theory. And, of course such work is valuable and the normal process in science.
Use of religious “authority”
What happens when the supernatural is incorporated into a scientific theory, as is the case with ID (and “intelligent designer”)? There is no way to test such a theory, no way to repeat any finding, no way of independently reaching confirmation. A “science stopper.” So how do supporters justify such a theory when the scientific method can’t be use? All they can rely on is authority! So religious myths and scriptures, or more specifically interpretation of these made by religious leaders, are the evidence for such theories. The founder of the Institute for Creation Research, Henry Morris, expressed religious authority this way:
“It is precisely because Biblical revelation is absolutely authoritative and perspicuous that the scientific facts, rightly interpreted, will give the same testimony as that of Scripture. There is not the slightest possibility that the facts of science can contradict the Bible” (Scientific Creationism, 1974).
That is how things worked in the distant past and we know where that leads. Such methods have no role in modern science. (However, there are still occasional attempts to replace science with the supernatural approach – see for example Solution to climate change?)
Attempts to use religious authority instead of empirical evidence are not limited to ID. They are common with many issues in society. Take the attitude towards gender identity. Religious authority (quoting scripture) tells us same-sex preference is “sinful.” On the other hand science investigates. Measures the distribution of different preferences amongst humans and other animals, identifies underlying aspects of brain morphology and chemistry, investigates the influence of gestation chemistry and events, and develops theories which help us understand how gender identity forms. Appeal to authority doesn’t produce understanding – it produces a judgement!
Does there have to be a conflict?
Attempts like ID to impose supernatural explanations inevitably produce conflict – humanity has too much to lose to give up on naturalistic science now. I guess we can see more conflicts in areas where the more fundamentalist religions feel threatened. Research into consciousness (a relatively new field) comes to mind.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Adherents of a more modern religious attitude are often happy to enthusiastically accept science. Many religious scientists have no problem accommodating their faith with their science. They can compartmentalise their beliefs, maybe because their religion provides them with an emotional satisfaction rather than a way of understanding the world. Such an attitude removes the need to interfere in science, to impose supernatural assumptions. This avoids the conflict.