Are there limits to the use of the scientific method? Are there questions science cannot investigate? Should some questions be left to religion? Do science and religion have different non-overlapping domains? Does there need to be a conflict between science and religion? There appears to be a lot of interest in these questions.
Neil deGrasse Tyson in his book Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution describes four reactions people have to science:
- Ignore it, not interested;
- Embrace it, the best way of understanding nature, no other methods required;
- Disagree with it because it assaults your cherished beliefs. Attempt to disprove scientific results (generally using pseudo-scientific methods or appeal to scriptures);
- Accept the scientific approach to nature but maintain a belief in supernatural entities which cannot be understood using the scientific approach.
The fourth approach appears to work for many. In principle it removes the need for conflict and there are many religious working scientists who think this way. In effect, they keep these two parts of their lives separate, not allowing interference. They maintain that science and religion have separate, non-overlapping domains.
Origins of the conflict
The conflict comes from the third group. Obvious examples are the creationism/intelligent design proponents. However, I think that many religious people who consider themselves in the fourth group do have some attraction to the third approach. This may be because of the very success of the scientific method. It has enabled humanity to understand a vast amount about reality. In the process it has shown previously held beliefs derived from the religious approach to be wrong. Consequently religion has been forced to retreat from its previous position explaining the universe. This has been obvious with concepts such as a geocentric universe, origins of life and the universe, evolution, etc. Also, the old explanations of natural phenomena as the actions of spirits and gods have been shown to be false (although, surprisingly, some religious adherents will still make use of these – see, for example Solution to climate change?).
Although some religious people have been able to accommodate to a new theology which doesn’t include a divine role in the natural world, I think many religious people are unhappy about this retreat. They may still have more traditional beliefs, often they believe in a personal god. They are happy to accept scientific knowledge in their day-to day lives, but they would dearly love to see some scientific confirmation for their supernatural beliefs. They are unhappy that this is not forthcoming and hence feel attracted to the arguments of those attacking scientific knowledge.
This attack also comes from other supernaturalists – the groups that Richard Dawkins investigates in his new TV series The Enemies of Reason. Of course, some of these people are doing it for the money. But, there are many people who want to believe in communication with the dead, alien abduction, out-of-body experiences, etc. They will reject scientific findings and even go so far as to claim a scientific conspiracy, a cover-up. Sometimes this develops into an outright hostility to science.
There doesn’t need to be a conflict
But, there doesn’t need to be a conflict. Even people with supernatural beliefs should be happy to accept the scientific method, and its findings, because the method does not investigate the supernatural realm. Implicit in the scientific method is the acceptance of an objectively existing natural, material reality. This has its own order and ability to interact and therefore it is, in essence, knowable.The supernatural is, surely, not natural or material. It is unknowable, impossible to investigate, outside the domain of science. Science may investigate “supernatural” claims by investigating real, existing, testable phenomena but it surely can’t investigate the untestable, the unknowable.
So people who have supernatural beliefs should be happy for these to coexist with scientific knowledge. But coexistence is breached when these beliefs are used to make claims about the natural world. These claims are testable, they can be investigated using the scientific method and, by definition they then come into the realm of science. If the findings conflict with pre-conceived beliefs it is those beliefs, not reality, that need to change.
Attempts to undermine the scientific method
Some religious believers will attempt to undermine scientific methodology by making claims about the natural world which they then define as being beyond scientific investigation. For instance, claims on the origins of the universe or of life. Currently this sort of claim is also made about consciousness or the mind. This is a “science stopper,” an attempt to prevent investigation before it begins, or because it is too hard. It is the lazy way out. In the end, humanity is interested in understanding reality and does not accept that investigation be stopped in this manner.
Another attempt to erode scientific methodology is by inclusion of supernatural explanations into the realm of science. Proponents of intelligent design do this. They openly attack the naturalism inherent in the scientific method. I think this approach gets some appeal by using the “bogey” word materialism. For example, in some recent discussions this has been declared as ” I’m simply trying to un-bind the word ‘science’ from only referring to ‘material.'” (This is essentially the same as the call by intelligent design guru Phillip E. Johnson for The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism).
They are objecting to the declared methodological materialism, or methodological naturalism of science. In effect, they want a science that includes the supernatural. But why do this? Why not be happy with the concept that science and religion have their own separate, non-overlapping, domains?
The stamp of “scientific authority”
I think the answer is the authority that modern science has in today’s world. There is no doubt the scientific method has been very successful in understanding and explaining reality. It is surely the most credible way we have of further investigating things we do not understand today. If the definition of science could be widened to include the supernatural it would not enable investigation of supernatural claims, but these claims could be given the stamp of “scientific authority.”
In the process, however, science would be asked to give up its methodological materialism, its naturalism, at least in some areas. Without this it would not longer have the credibility resulting from reliance on empirical evidence, testability and confirmation, and peer review of resulting theories. This would be a return to the pre-enlightenment times, an abandonment of modern science. After all, if we don’t maintain the modern naturalist approach we, in effect, revert to the “evidence” of authority, relying on scripture and its interpretation.
Humanity has too much to lose to return to these methods.
Questions science cannot answer?
Debating science and religion
Solution to climate change?
Putting Dawkins in his place
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Can science enrich faith?
Miracles and the supernatural?
Should we teach creationism?
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion – science conflict
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript