Science and Religion

I am a big fan of The Teaching Company that has hundreds of courses available on a broad range of topics from some of the top professors in the world. I credit them for helping me develop my interest in philosophy with their massive Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition series, which was very helpful to me in understanding how the Western mind tends to think. Another good series is on argumentation , which greatly helped me learn how to think more clearly.

Recently I got the lectures on the relationship between Science and Religion which was taught by Lawrence M. Principe from Johns Hopkins University. I’m only through the first lecture, but I found it facinating that he made a lot of claims I would not have expected him to make. For example, he states that atheists have just as much as a commitment to faith as a theist, only theirs is a belief in the negative: there is no God. Most atheistic thinkers would deny this as they describe their beliefs as “being without belief” or “absent of faith” in God. They would readily admit that they cannot prove the non-existence of God, but that they do not have sufficient reason to believe that he exists. We might call this “soft-atheism” and contrast it with “hard atheism” that asserts one can demonstrate the non-existence of God from logical proofs.

The soft atheist is comparable to one who does not believe in unicorns. She would not be able to prove unicorns do not exist since she is neither able to 1) do an infinite search of all reality, or 2) demonstrate that unicorns are incoherent (such as a square circle), yet she still sees no good reason to believe in them since no one has ever seen one. Like unicorns, God is in the same category. He is a mythical construction for some social purpose that is believed in and revered. Yet, there is a problem with this comparison: lots of people believe in God, think they have experienced God, heard from God, and have communicated with God. Very few, if any, believe in unicorns.

This fact seems to show that atheism turns out to have more of a commitment to non-belief than we might suppose. Science, done under atheistic premises, would not be motivated to discover order within creation so as to better understand the mind of God. It would be done for other reasons, say for example, to show that there is chaos in the natural world that refutes the existence of God. The point is that when we do empirical research we are motivated and guided by our assumptions.

Principe wants us to understand that faith is not entirely opposed to reason. St. Augustine thought the same when he argued that faith seeks understanding. It will be interesting to see where he ends up on some of the hot topics like intelligent design, but so far he finds the “conflict model” of understanding science and religion as adversaries to be superficial and misleading.


4 thoughts on “Science and Religion

  1. Your faith seeking understanding quote is used in the title of one of their recent courses. It was very well done, as the lecturer was very clear and accessible in his presentation on medieval philosophy.

    Dr. Principe is especially interesting since his expertise is actually in organic chemistry, I believe at Johns Hopkins. He seems so knowledgeable in his Teaching Company courses on other subjects, one wonders just how good a course relating directly to his field of study would be.

    You may find my Teaching Company user form helpful, where I review all lectures in their recent courses:

    My review of the Medieval philosophy course is here:

    I hope you enjoy it,

    Doug van Orsow

  2. Samuel Skinner says:

    I have no assumptions. Seriously, it is possible to aim for that. Could be wrong, but I doubt it will affect my conclusions significantly.

    Atheists research for a variety of reasons: knowledge is power, curiosity, wonder and awe, technology and of course comprehension.

    Choas doesn’t refute the existance of God- order does. The more complicated a system the harder it is to believe it was designed. The global economy and the internet are the most complicated and orderly systems ever born by humanity and they were not designed.

    The conflict model is correct- Whenever religion makes a statement about reality (god exists, etc), science will eventually show it is right… or wrong. The second is the most likely. The alternative is to aim for unfalsible statements- basically nonsense.

  3. Skinner, thanks for commenting. I would argue that try as you might you do have assumptions. You believe in the external world, other minds, the uniformity of nature, that nature is intelligible to our minds, and that everything can be explained with natural explanations. Furthermore, you assume unfalsifiable statements are basically nonsense. Of course I am not sure how that could be. The Pythagorean Theorem is not falsifiable and it is meaningful.

    Also I would say you have a strange way of dismissing design on the basis of complexity. Of course the Internet is designed–it certainly didn’t evolve from material processes naturally. True, it was not designed in one fell swoop, but it modifications through time are the products of design. People took specific intentions and applied them to precise standards of definition to meet the necessary conditions of how the Internet could work.

    The conflict model is too simple and too easy to describe the relationship between science and religion. The history of science doesn’t give it the prestige it claims.

  4. To Skinner, your assertions also assume that religion does not speak to relaity…that there is a hard dualistic line drawn between Rational thought and non-rational faith. In this model, niether can communicate across the divide. This is classic empiracal philosphy…that nothing exists which cannot be sensed.

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