The unsolvable tension: faith, science, or faith in evidence?

A couple of weeks ago, a puzzling piece appeared on The Conversation: the title “Restoring science’s place in society will help us resolve the big debates” naturally caught my eye, and I started reading it expecting to find some hints on how to surpass the common attitude that grants the same weight to opinion and evidence. Reading it, however, quickly became puzzling and made me experience a sort of dissonance discomfort. As a result, I posted the link on Reddit, with a very short and critical disclaimer (further explained in a subsequent comment), and then tweeted my disappointment directly to The Conversation.
To my surprise, Tom McLeish, the author of the original article replied to my rather blunt tweet (it’s official, Twitter is fine for praise, but it really doesn’t work for criticism, constructive or not), and we engaged on a short and very civilised exchange. As a result, I promised to articulate my discomfort in full, this post is my attempt to fulfil my promise, and you may want to check back on it as prof. McLeish is likely to reply.
I am openly in favour of voicing and addressing disagreements, as I believe that external criticism it’s the only way to overcome our own biases; I am therefore happy to try my luck here, but I am also very much aware that the subject is a minefield, so I’m a little worried that I may be unable to frame my thoughts in a constructive way, without watering them down. Please bear with me, and we’ll see together how it goes.

The author of the original article is Tom McLeish (see also @mcleish_t), Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University and an Anglican Reader. It shouldn’t go without saying that his willingness to engage with the first nobody criticising him on Twitter (me) is rare and highly appreciated. To explain my concerns, I will shortly summarise my own reading of the original article: make no mistake, I know that I don’t fully understand its intended meaning, so please do read it in full. Better still, you may want to go the extra mile and read McLeish’s book, on which the article is based: Faith and Wisdom in Science. I haven’t read the book, so my comments are on the short article alone. Nevertheless, the following paragraphs are a necessary premise: without explaining what I think the article says, I can’t possibly describe my objections.

McLeish piece begins in a very agreeable way, it expresses a justified concern on the position that scientific knowledge occupies in our present society: the starting point (that I fully agree with) is that trust in science is low, and may be decreasing, especially because of the rhetoric employed by the political right (in Europe, but even more forcefully in the US). McLeish also points out that the polarisation of the debate leads to bad (policy) decisions and to confrontations that make none the wiser. Science is increasingly perceived as an isolated enterprise, not as part of the common cultural background, and of course, I agree that this trend is deeply worrying and we should all try to reverse it. In other words, as far as explicit premises go, McLeish and I are in complete agreement. Of course, however, I started to feel uncomfortable as soon as I reached the following passage:

To unearth a narrative of purpose beneath science, we cannot avoid drawing on religious heritage for at least anthropological and historical reasons. To restore faith in science, we cannot bypass the understanding of the relationship of faith with science. Here we are not helped by the current oppositional framing of the “science and religion” question, where the discussion seems to be dominated by the loudest voices rather than the most pressing questions.

At this point McLeish just lost me, I genuinely can’t claim that I fully understand what his proposed solution might be, but I have strong reasons to believe that it won’t please me at all. On one side, McLeish tells us that Science can and should teach us a better way to relate with the natural world (agreed!) but then the article ends with a paragraph that truly troubles me (emphasis is mine):

American author George Steiner once wrote, “Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter.” Perhaps science can do that, too. If it can, it would mean that science, far from irreconcilable with religion, is a profoundly religious activity itself.

What are we discussing here? The common aim is how to drag scientific discourse (and with it, what evidence can teach us) out of its current ghetto and back into the cultural mainstream. And to me, it seems that McLeish is saying two fundamental things:

  1. The confrontational stance of prominent atheists (New Atheists, in common parlance) such as Dawkins is helping to produce a progressively larger divide between the scientific elite and the common feeling. This divide may soon become unbridgeable and therefore the trend urgently needs to be reversed.
  2. The way to reverse this trend is foster a new understanding, based on the recognition that science aims to allow us to gain the most profound knowledge of Nature. [From here I am imaginatively filling the gaps: I will be glad to stand corrected!] Therefore, from the perspective of a religious person, science aims to better understand God’s creation, and may or should be considered as a Theological effort.

If my reading is correct (a big “if”), I applaud the intention, but violently disagree with the feasibility of such an attempt. And I do so on the basis that I believe there is an unbridgeable methodological gap between Science and Theology (intended here as the study of God, not the academic study of religion as a human construct). The gap is plain obvious: at the first level of approximation, religion values ungrounded belief, science values generalised doubt. Where believing in unverifiable ‘truths’ is considered a virtue on the religious camp, it is the most terrible mistake for a scientist. The common objection to this view is that it is an oversimplification (and a typical example of how scientists are prone to over-reduce everything), and I am somewhat sympathetic with this claim: I know that doubt is not banned from the religious camp, and more so, I know that doubt is indeed the distinguishing trait of at least some of the most noteworthy theologians (St. Augustine springs to mind, here). However, I would find it disingenuous not to acknowledge that faith in the real world is practised in ways that are specifically well suited for eradicating or marginalising doubt.

On the second level of approximation, science knows no authority: in principle, it doesn’t matter who produced an argument, the only arbiter is empirical verification, and without that, no claim is considered trustworthy. Once again, religion goes in the opposite direction: depending on the specifics, Authority is granted to selected individuals and/or specific texts. And it is Authority with a capital ‘A’: in one way or the other it derives its force from God itself (or some supernatural source).

Finally, religion has an ever-repeating tendency to associate with political power, and, in the process, generate or support one of the greatest sources of suffering known to humanity: normative societies. On the other hand, science, when it does not degenerate into pseudo-science, can’t form a solid and long-lasting alliance with vested-interests, that’s the direct consequence of its reliance on doubt and in its impossibility of recognising any a-priori source of authority. [Of course, individual scientists, science-currents and technological experts can and do associate themselves with power, but science as a whole can never do the same.]

The consequence of this methodological gap is that I simply can’t fully agree with the first statement above (1.): we should start by granting the due credits to New Atheists, albeit I agree that the polarisation they are contributing to is worrying and unfortunate. First, New Atheism has, at least in the West, achieved, in a hopefully irreversible manner, an extraordinary goal: in our present society, it is finally perfectly normal to be god-less, the claim that atheists are by necessity somewhat immoral  (or less-moral) is now almost universally recognised for what it is, an odious, ungrounded and indefensible posture.
Second, New Atheism has successfully showed that challenging ideas is a worthy effort in itself and that it does not, in any way or form, imply any form of disrespect for whoever may hold the challenged belief. Personally, I would go even further, and claim that respecting someone requires to challenge their beliefs. I can however agree with the claim that New Atheism is currently fostering a confrontational, adversarial discourse, and that this is unfortunate or somewhat counter-productive. This may be true, but is the direct consequence of intellectual honesty: the gap is there and denying its existence can only be done by wilfully ignoring the evidence of its existence, something that would be self-defeating (analogous to creating a vast state-funded controlling infrastructure to defend our freedom, a true oxymoron). The question therefore becomes: how do we bridge the gap, without pretending that it is not there? I don’t have a strong answer, but I know that we ought to try (after all, it’s what I’m trying here!), and I also know that McLeish’s attempt looks to me as going in the wrong direction: if he is not trying to negate the gap, then I completely misunderstood his main argument (quite possible, of course).

In the end, this should be enough to explain my violent reaction: I do see that McLeish is trying to defend the importance of science (and with it, the role of evidence), I also recognise that the problem he identifies is real and supported by evidence. This is why I claim to understand why he sees his attempt as “profoundly pro-evidence”. However, I can only reject what I think is the proposed solution: to my eyes, it requires to wilfully turn a blind eye, and ignore the existence of a possibly unbridgeable gap, and therefore it’s self-defeating attempt, and one that, by definition is not pro-evidence at all. My disappointment stems (along with another argument, see below) from recognising the common aim, and nevertheless, violently disagreeing on the way forward.

If you take my position as solid, there is another subsequent reason to be worried: McLeish receives funds from the Templeton Foundation, a private funding agency that apparently has very deep pockets and a known history of supporting the idea that science and religion are compatible. The aim may be worthwhile (and you may have guessed that I personally don’t think it’s viable), but it is extremely dangerous: as it is done by funding science (not by trying to influence religion!), it will always tend to favour self-defeating approaches similar to the one that I’m discussing here (again, if I understood it correctly). In the current state of our society, this is doubly dangerous, because research is being progressively denied public funding, therefore enhancing the relative weight of Templeton-funded research: the final effect is that it’s becoming easier to make the catastrophic error of “bridging the gap” by allowing science to be blind to some inconvenient evidence. This would make science a little more like religion, and a lot less scientific.

A pretty depressing situation. But is there some hope? Well, maybe. For me, there are two promising endeavours, that at least are not self-defeating, and are both alive and kicking (if not alive and well). The first one is almost taken for granted: education. And in particular, the effort of teaching critical thinking in schools. Parallel to this, is the praiseworthy battle against faith-schools, an effort closely associated with New Atheism and the Humanist movement (of course, this is another highly charged controversy, I will not discuss it here, but you may want to check out this old comment of mine).
The second effort is on the cultural and communication side: the Internet is allowing the flourishing of a new kind of culture, or, as John Brockman calls it, the Third Culture. In short, it is the effort of generating and communicating a view of the world that is firmly grounded on scientific knowledge, and that it is neither drier nor less engaging than the traditional humanities disciplines. There are plenty of examples, including of course Edge.org, The Conversation itself, Aeon Magazine, Mosaic, Science Seeker and many, many more (not to mention the individual efforts of fellow bloggers, some very prominent indeed). The richness and diversity of opinion that is made available via these initiatives (with apologies to the ones I’ve left out!) is nothing less than mind-blowing, so much so, that simply being a regular reader may generate the illusion that science culture is not an isolated silos any more. Unfortunately, I do agree with McLeish on this: scientific culture is nowhere near becoming mainstream, but there are signs of hope, and I personally will try to do my bit by concentrating on them.

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Posted in New Atheism, Religion, Science
5 comments on “The unsolvable tension: faith, science, or faith in evidence?
  1. tcbmcleish says:

    I was very interested, as the author of the initial post, to read this heartfelt and thoughtful blog. Perhaps some responses would be helpful to readers of this blog (and I will also post them on my own “Faith and Wisdom in Science” blog for those readers).

    First, I am aware that for many if not most people ‘science’ and ‘theology’ don’t seem to mix – but I have found that this is because of assumptions made through unfamiliarity ‘from the inside’ of both. This is particulary true of perceived methodologies. Of course the methodologies of two different aprroaches to the world dont have to be the same, BUT – it just isn’t true to say that religious belief is “ungrounded”- nor is (as Popper showed long ago) that science can be “verified”. So we need a much more nuanced and informed approach.

    That is why I’ve written a whole book about it. The conversation piece was really just a flag to that and suffers from the universal difficulty of restating a 1000000 word message in 800. So anyone who really needs to get a grip on this does (I know this sounds like a commercial – it really isn’t- I’m not going to make a profit on the book!) needs to read Faith and Wisdom in Science http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198702610.do (I don’t have any copies to give away though you certainly deserve one – but I can give you a 30% discount code to use on the OUP website: AAFLY6).

    But this might help. “Theology” is not “the study of God” as I use the term. It’s “the study of everything in the light of God”. This is a standard usage actually. But perhaps that helps explain why I think that to ask “are science and theology compatible?” is a category-error before the question is out of your mouth. Theology is the intellectual exploration of an entire world view, so encompasses everything – including science and why we do it. Hence the idea of a “theology of science”.

    Minor aside: this will worry you if you think that theology is all about doctrine and authority structures. But it isn’t. That’s religious power-bases and I want nothing to do with that (any more that scientific power -bases which is a corruption that also exists). True theology works within our current frame as “authoritative” in the sense of “paradigmatic” but openly and flexibly.

    Here’s the rub – science also needs to talk about everything. So there can and should be a ‘science of theology’ or ‘science of religion’. Indeed Daniel Dennett has called for more of this, and rightly so.

    I am therefore saying NOT that “science and theology are compatible” NOR that they are in conflict (both are category errors), but that in our narrative world they are “of each other”. Sounds like the logical equivalent of an M C Escher picture? So be it. We need better catogories of the relation between them. Our language gives us the wrong geometry of discussion – Graziosi talks several times of “bridging the gap” between theology and science (and says that it is not possible to do it), but what if they nested inside each other? What if theology could help resource for us the culutral reason to do science? I spend a long time in Faith and Wisdom in Science pointing out the desperate need for a narrative that ties science deeper into our human communities of purpose. Theology is really good at purpose. Scinece doesnt really “do” it.

    As I say in the book and hint at in the TC piece, the other way to approach this is historically, where the (often explicitly) theological discourse of the purpose of science becomes very clear (Francis Bacon is a prime example). So Graziosi is also historically wrong in claiming that the “New atheism” has delivered our modern, permissive, society. Actually this has its roots in the enlightenment, and that (contrary to much popular belief) is rooted not in a rise of secularism that somehow occluded religious obfuscation, but in the clearest of christian theological motivations for understanding nature. Not only Bacon, but Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Wren, the list goes on… all had explicit theologies for the science they were doinig.

    A few final points on the Templeton funding. FIrst, as an academic and additioanlly as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of a research intensive university, I would never approve or accept funding from any organisation that inflected, filtered, biassed or controlled in any way the findings of a research project they funded. All funders have a declared sphere of interest – resaerch questions they will fund and things that they wont – and Templeton is no exception. But they do not determine the answers. People might also want to check winners of the Templeton prize – many are self-declared atheists or agnostics. Many colleagues also funded by them (including some in the same funded teams as me, are atheist).

    We have lost a social grasp of what science is FOR. That’s what I want to recapture. And as far as I read either history or current cultural discourse on a global canvas, any hope of a purely secular answer to this urgent question is a no-hoper!

  2. […] was very interested, as the author of the initial post, to read a heartfelt and thoughtful blog, here, be Sergio Graziosi  in response to the short piece on TheConversationUK about Faith and Wisdom […]

  3. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Tom, thank you very much for taking the time to engage! You are giving a precious and very rare chance to explore one of the most difficult issues that I know of, and I really hope I’ll manage not to waste it.
    I don’t think what I will write below will be news to you, but I do hope your replies will be informative to me, as you seem to be the perfect person to explain me something that I am clearly unable to figure out on my own. But first, I’ll start with the (vaguely unpleasant) asides:
    For example, I wasn’t trying to say “that ‘New atheism’ has delivered our modern, permissive, society” I was merely stating that it has contributed to it…

    On the Templeton issue, I’m sure you are aware of the latest debate between Dennett, Alfred Mele and others, but some of our readers may not be: a good place to learn about it is here. I have two things to say on this matter:
    First, I tend to agree with Dennett, accepting funds from the Templeton Foundation is guaranteed to generate some thorny issues.
    Second, this doesn’t apply to Templeton alone, in general it applies to any source of funding (typically private) that may or may not have its own hidden and/or opaque agenda. For example, here you’ll find my doubts on relying too much on private initiatives (including Google Scholar – see the full discussion) when it comes to improving how science is published, reviewed and indexed.
    The general idea is that non-public organisations will have their own reasons to spend money, and yes, they will need to look (almost) squeaky clean, but this is no guarantee that they really are (actually: the more their efforts to present themselves as truly impartial are visible, the more I tend to think “they clearly have something to hide”). That’s to say that I’m not criticising the Templeton Foundation as such, I’m highly suspicious of the whole model (give us 100% public funding whenever possible!).

    Now the main issue, where the interesting stuff is.
    As far as I can see, your key points are:

    “Theology” is not “the study of God” as I use the term. It’s “the study of everything in the light of God”.

    therefore

    Theology is the intellectual exploration of an entire world view, so encompasses everything – including science and why we do it.

    the reverse is also true, and thus:

    in our narrative world they [Theology and Science] are “of each other”.

    For you, this means that the very representation of the conflict is therefore a conceptual error, while for me, this means that Science and Theology form the basis of alternative and incompatible world views.
    From the scientific point of view, observing that Theology is the study of everything in the light of God, directly leads to the obvious question: how can we trust our knowledge about God? And naturally, one then has to acknowledge that there are thousands alternative accounts of what God is, does, wants, whether it does want anything, whether it intervenes in the tangible world, and so forth. A scientist, when trying to interpret reality in the light of God needs to find a convincing, seemingly objective reason to pick one light and dismiss all the other ones. And of course, nobody found such a reason.
    The result is that from a scientific perspective the study of everything in the light of God becomes a pseudo-scientic attempt to explore reality, based not on solid evidence, but on arbitrary and unjustifiable assumptions that are the result of historical accidents.
    This is where I am – I am completely unable to understand how can a scientist be also religious: the moment I accept one form of scientific epistemology I am automatically dismissing all religions as unsubstantiated world-views.

    On the other hand, if I assume a religious world view, and for example, accept the existence of a biblical God who occasionally decides to intervene and make miracles happen, I must conclude that all the laws of nature are provisional and subject to God’s arbitrariness: should he see fit, any Natural law may be disobeyed at any time. This sort of undermines the whole scientific enterprise as it tells us that yes, we can find out how the world works, but it may change at any time. The really interesting question therefore becomes “the study of God” as in: understanding His will (if any) and when/how He may be inclined to destroy all our hard-won understanding of the natural world.

    In short: from both views of the world, I find a conflict. Also: the fact that both views of the world seek to include (and explain?) the other, doesn’t help me to make the conflict less relevant. To me it means that both are claiming their superiority.

    Now, the reason I find your position fascinating is that my own epistemological quest (roughly this whole blog!) is bringing me in an awkward place. I find myself compelled to admit that:
    – No single view of the world will ever be error-free, let alone complete and coherent.
    – In order to keep learning, we need different and seemingly incompatible views to (constructively) confront one-another.
    – Therefore, we need to recognise disagreements as a source of richness, even if, in order to ripe the benefits, one needs to try reconciling the opposing ideas.

    In your case, my best understanding is that you are trying to keep and reconcile two opposing ideas/epistemologies within your own overarching point of view. And to me, this attempt looks both hopelessly incoherent and, at the same time (!), very interesting. In other words, I find myself in conflict, because I (still) can’t see how and if you avoid the conflict yourself.

    Conclusion: you say that talking about conflict is a category error, because the two world views both contain one-another. I say that since both world-views claim to contain one-another (that’s the same reason!) they both claim to have the epistemological upper hand, and therefore are in conflict. Does this sum-up the conundrum a little better?

    • tcbmcleish says:

      Sergio Graziosi speaks for many when he articulates his bemusement that I continue in maintaining that the ‘conflict thesis’ represents a category error. He says that they are two ‘world views’ that cannot coexist. But science is not, of itself, a ‘world view’. It is, as he rightly says, an evidence-based methodology by which the thinking and acting emergent blobs of person-forming matter called humans reconstruct and understand the material workings and structures of the universe. The two competing world views are not ‘religion’ and ‘science’, they are ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’ – together with the multiple branchings of narrative that belong below both headings.

      Whether one’s world view is theistic or atheistic (or agnostic) does not affect in broad terms what science is and how we do it. In either case what we now call science is the current chapter in a long long human story of curiosity and exploration of the material world. It is true that the information arising from science can inform one’s worldview. An example of a change in the light of such evidence is philosopher Anthony Flew’s change from an atheist to theist worldview, largely in the light of new evidence from modern physics (and some latterly perceived weaknesses in arguments for atheism).

      What science is not able to do is provide its own narrative of purpose. What I argue in Faith and Wisdom in Science is that we urgently need to discover a teleological story for science – what is it really for in human terms. The commonly enshrined statements by governments, that we do science (and so fund it) purely for economic benefit just won’t do. This is also why I want to situate science together with music, art, literature (only in the sense that these are all activities deeply at the heart of what it means to be human, not that they all provide evidence for worldviews in the same way, or that they share methodologies).

      Theology is is one human activity very well suited to discussions of purpose – the ‘what are we here for’ sort of questions. Such a discussion naturally feeds into choices about ethical decisions in science and technology. Of course the outcomes of a discussion on what is science for, in the light of a thestic worldview, might well contradict those from an atheist one, but they cannot possibly contradict science itself, as Graziosi claims, as science doesn’t discuss its own purpose at all, any more than music discusses why we make music.

      The question of consistency of natural law is, of course, an issue of faith in any world view. Yes we believe as scientists that the laws of physics as far as we know them apply at all times and places, but they might not. Evidence might grow, for example, that the gravitational constant, well.., isn’t. In the early universe we know (we believe…) that ‘the laws of physics break down’ and we have no idea what replaces them at the Plank scale. So there is plenty of precedent within science for a discussion of how ‘regular’ laws of physics are. Nor, on the other hand, does a theistic worldview necessarily hang on a capricious deity that suspends law at will. But there is, of course, a long history of discussion about the way that the very existence of comprehensible physical law points to the existence of a mind behind that law, and the universe itself. Again, whether God changes the laws of physics in ‘miracles’ or not is a discussion within a theological community of different views. It is not an ‘incompatibility’ between science and religion.

      Finally, it isn’t true to say that there are no methodological links between religion and science. My own approach to Christian belief, for example, has been a decision to explore the ‘hypothesis of living life in the light of God’ in the light of evidence. Of course there is no knock-down proof of either the existence, or the non-existence of God. But then not being able to prove things is a very familiar predicament for a scientist! This is not the time or place to expand on this approach to belief, but if I did I would identify three strands of evidence: (1) The connection of the Judeo-Christian story with the human experience of evil; (2) The historical events around Jesus; (3) The experience of transformation in quiet humble lives that I witness all the time. Note I am not saying that this is a scientific methodology, but that in following it I do not think that I am being inconsistent as a scientist in my approach to a wider framing of where persons, purpose, hurt, healing and hope come from.

  4. tcbmcleish says:

    Reblogged this on Faith and Wisdom in Science and commented:
    Here is a really clear articulation of one of the difficulties some people have with my view that the ‘conflict narrative’ for science and religion is a category error (but for subtle reasons not to do with non–overlapping magisteria). Answer to follow anon …

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