Answering 5 Questions: the Relation Between Science and Religion

The work of another, even a work unread, can suggest new blog material. On Twitter, one philosopher I know called attention to another, Dr. Gregg Caruso, whose primary interest appears to be arguing against the reality of libertarian (or contra-causal) will.

I have not read Dr. Caruso’s books, but titles like: “Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will” (2012) or “Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility” (2015) imply a position contra-free will. I have written about what I take to be the self-defeating absurdity of the position in  essays on this blog and in my books (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”).

Dr. Caruso has also written “Science & Religion: 5 Questions” (2014) in which he asks questions of some 50 scientists and religionists. I have not read this book either, but its description on Amazon does list what I take to be the thrust of the questions, providing me with an opportunity to explain my own views on this subject.

1. “Are Science and Religion compatible for understanding cosmology, biology (including the origin of life), ethics, and mind (brains, souls, and free will)?” And “do Science and religion occupy non overlapping magisteria?” I lump these two together as they appear to be different approaches to the same question.

2. Is Intelligent Design a scientific theory?

3. How do various faiths view the relation between science and religion?

4. What are the limits of scientific explanation?

5. What are the most important open questions, problems, challenges, confronting the relation between science and religion?

The questions as phrased are over-broad. Look at question #1 which includes everything from cosmology to mind-entangled disciplines like ethics and references to souls. Questions like this seem set up to make one side or the other look foolish. The literature is rife with confusion on this subject (see “What is ‘The Soul'”). Nor do any of the questions hint at any distinction between religion as it pertains to the individual and religious institutions. The dictionary is not helpful here. In modern terms, an individual’s religion is nothing more than an institution into which they are born or join later in life. The word ‘faiths’ in question #3 seems clearly to mean institutions, but questions #1 and #5 are ambiguous on this distinction.

There is definition of religion going back to the Greeks. Your religion is your relationship to God however you conceive it. This definition implies a distinction between “religion as such” and “religious institutions” (if any) to which you happen to belong. If there happens to be a personal (Abrahamic style) God, then we, being persons, each have some individual relationship to him whether we recognize it or not. This relationship is personal and except for ethics (via morality) has little direct connection to any of Dr. Caruso’s questions. Of course an individual’s intellectual interpretation of that relationship (even that it doesn’t exist) is another matter.

By contrast, religious institutions are social (interpersonal) and physical things like banks, schools, and offices. They have documents, buildings (see Searle below and Maurizio Ferraris), leaders, and members (customers). Religious institutions differ from the others only in that they purport to be about God. (there are exceptions. Buddhism in its original form denies the reality of anything like a God with whom one can have a relationship and yet remains a “religious institution”).

There is only an accidental relation between the teachings of the institution and the individual’s relationship to God. By-in-large, the individual accepts for her own belief system the teachings of the institution. Such intellectual acquiescence impacts the comprehension of the individual’s relationship to God, what they take to be their “personal religion”. But it does not actually alter the relationship as it is (or would be) from God’s viewpoint.

These two meanings (institution versus relationship) of ‘religion’ are literal. A further, metaphorical meaning, might or might not refer to God, but to whatever one takes to be a “founding world view”. This metaphor is captured in utterances like “science is my religion” meaning that science (what the individual takes it to be) is the foundation, the set of propositions on which every other belief (consistently or not) rests. There are many of these metaphorical religions. Almost anything over which human beings can obsess can become one. I will not be concerned with these metaphors here, but I note that if the individual’s intellectual foundation is a God-concept then the metaphor becomes a literal personal religion.

Besides being ambiguous about religion, question #1 is vague about science. Are we speaking of physics, chemistry, and biology, or psychology and “social science”? Are these all ‘sciences’ in the same sense of that term? I suspect not. In fact, what separates the hard from the soft sciences is the latter are in one manner or other entangled with the doings of minded beings while the former are not. The hard sciences are strictly about the material world and discoveries are (or would be) valid even should no minds exist in the universe. But if mind did not exist, there would be no psychology nor any other of the “social sciences”. It is this intrinsic mind-entanglement that makes them problematic, quasi-sciences.

If God is real, then the personal relationship is real even if one denies it. One can say “I have no father” suggesting various possible metaphorical meanings, but they remain only metaphors. If you are a living vertebrate, you must literally have a biological father. The failure to make this distinction between different meanings of ‘religion’ muddies questions 1 and 4 which are otherwise different ways of asking more or less the same question. I will keep this distinction in mind throughout the essay.

Question #1. To the first part, The short answer is NO, To the second, YES. Science (hard science) is about the material world. Religion is about the relation between human beings as subjective entities and God. Religion (personal or institutional) has no business saying anything about physical mechanisms other than that God is ultimately their source.

The greatest and most important insight of hard science is that physical mechanisms are free of teleological encumbrance; they are purposeless! This does not mean the existence of the physical as such is purposeless. God (if he exists) might have a purpose for a physical universe of purposeless mechanism (see “Why Free Will”). Religion has no business making pronouncements about any detail of physical mechanism, while science has no business declaring God’s non-existence based solely on its evaluation of physical mechanism whose [possible] overall purpose science is not qualified to evaluate.

Mind, whatever it is, complicates this picture because science is done in mind by minded entities. Clearly mind of the individual variety with which we are familiar is a part of the universe. There are minds in the physical universe. But whether mind itself is physical, or takes origin solely from the physical is problematic. The methods of science so well adapted to explicating purposeless mechanism are ill suited to evaluating purposeful mind. Purpose enters the universe through mind.

If God is real, then substance dualism is possible and not problematic except for the infamous “interaction problem” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”) which science is not qualified to resolve other than to say the interaction must take place in brains whose material mechanisms are within its scope. Nor is there any reason to believe that religion (or philosophy) is qualified to explicate the interaction. My relationship to God does not require that I understand how mind is evoked from (or evokes) events in my brain. There are several related interaction problems. I will not concerned myself with their details here (see essay linked just above).

The first question throws together so much it is impossible to answer it straightforwardly. For example libertarian free will (or the illusion of it) is something that only appears, like purpose, in association with minds. Science (meaning the “hard sciences”) by itself suggests that such a thing is impossible, but then again as John Searle says (“MIND” 2005, “Making the Social World” 2011, and “The Construction of Social Reality” 1997) nothing about human experience makes sense unless libertarian free will is genuine (Searle being an atheist admits that he cannot resolve this riddle). Indeed, accepting that a contra-causal (meaning that, as Sean Carroll puts it, “mind causes physics”, something Carroll denies — see  “The Big Picture” 2017) free will must be genuine is among the strong philosophical reasons to believe there must be [something like] God.

Ethics (also lumped into question #1) only makes sense in a free will context and resides in mind where decisions of moral import originate. Ethics is a social reflection of morality. It entangles the physical world only after some free willed choice made in mind. There is nothing for science to do here other than to illuminate the limits of what is possible given the bodies our minds control are physical. This includes, for example, the discovery that certain disease states of the brain might make ethical evaluation impossible by the consciousness evoked in such brains.

The contemporary notion that we can derive an ethics scientifically is ridiculous. Ethics, being about the interactions of the bodies of minded persons can be described by [soft] science and [soft] science can help to determine the reason-ability of various ethical ideas,  but ethics cannot be logically derived from science in any normative sense.

Question #2. Intelligent design is a hypothesis but not scientific because it implies purpose-directed (i.e. not purposeless) mechanism underlying certain observed physical phenomena. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to contribute to the debate. Intelligent Design is not Creationism!

Dr. Caruso’s book includes William Dembski (“No Free Lunch” 2001 and “The Design Inference” 2006) as a contributor. Dembski concedes his belief in an Abrahamic God, but his work does not commit him to this detail. Dembski’s point is that an accidental origin of life and its evolution (on Earth) to its present state is highly unlikely.  Dembski’s hypothesis is a statistical argument from empirical data — life’s extraordinary information content! It looks to Dembski like intelligence is involved in the process, but he is strictly committed only to the unlikeliness of its being an accident.

Dembski can easily get what he wants in a Darwinian context. His work only requires that not all genetic mutations are random! If I drop 1000 coins onto a floor and then deliberately flip 10 of them, will any statistician (looking only at the result) dare to say that the distribution of heads and tails is not random? If over 3 or 4 billion years 99% of mutations were random, but 1% were not, how would we from our present perspective ever tell the difference?

The origin of life (like the origin of the big bang and the value of the cosmological settings) is a special case. Physics entails that a contingent origin of life must be possible. Dembski concedes this. His claim is that such a beginning is unlikely and he makes a well argued case for that view. He does not insist that therefore an Abrahamic God must be responsible for it. Dembski exposes the unreasonableness of the near universal belief of science that life originated and evolved to its present state entirely by accident. That no one has come up with an alternative between accident and intelligent design is not really Dembski’s problem.

Question #3. The problem here (“faiths” referring to “religious institutions”) is that all the [major] faiths are based on “holy books”, the writings of their founders usually (but not always) taken to be divinely authored in some direct or indirect manner. The people (and leaders) of these faiths have, by in large, absorbed the idea that their textual sources are infallible. Not every religious institution on Earth believes this basic falsehood but to one extent or another, they hold the value of all parts of these texts to be roughly equal.

In these texts, statements consistent with a first principles theology (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”) are admixed with others that plainly contradict them. Moreover, these books (in particular the Bible) purport to tell not only the history of the faith, but of the world beginning with its origin and all of history between then and their writing. Some of this exposition concerns mechanisms of the physical world. They are all pre-scientific and should not today be taken seriously, other than as [possibly] great literature! I return to this in my answer to question #5.

Question #4. This question is implicitly answered above in my reply to question #1. To be brief, the scope of the sciences is the purposeless mechanism of subsystems of the physical world. Strictly speaking scientific method (methodological naturalism) cannot be applied (experimentally) to the universe as a whole. It cannot be applied, for example, to discover if the physical cosmos has a purpose in the mind of some god.

Because the mechanisms (events) of subsets of the physical are purposeless they behave always in the same way under the same relevant conditions. It is this consistency that enables mind (in which and by which the scientific method is deployed) to explicate the mechanisms themselves through observation and, where possible, experimental tuning of conditions. None of this has to do with the question of whether a god has brought all of this cosmos about or how that god might relate to minded observers arising within its physical context.

Once science turns its method on mind itself ambiguities necessarily appear. Mind isn’t [apparently] material for one, but it is unambiguously purposeful. There is nothing preventing a purposeful mind from starting different causal chains under identical material conditions. Science can address the material roots of mind, but applying itself to mind as such can never complete its explanations. This doesn’t mean it cannot help to narrow mysteries about the nature of mind’s relation to brains, but it cannot remove them as it can with regard to the behavior of the macroscopic physical world.

Question #5. This question is the most equivocal between the two literal definitions of ‘religion’, personal versus institutional. Conflict between “the faiths” and science will not end until the institutions (and by extension their leaders and members) give up the false claim that their texts are the work of God (see “Misquoting Jesus” Bart Ehrman 2009). There is a ready substitute (at least philosophically) in a “first principles theology” (see Prolegomena linked above).

Once institutions identify in their texts that which is consistent with first principles (legitimately discovered by human beings; there are a few qualities we can infer about God) the rest is free to be interpreted as literature. Literature has value, culturally and otherwise, but as science, as a description of the mechanisms of the physical world, it is only speculative fiction. Indeed, and for the same reason, “the faiths” have as much conflict with one another as they do with science. Different holy books contradict one another as much as they contradict themselves. The real God, like the real physical universe, must be free of intrinsic contradictions!

Science has, in the end, the easier job here. It must merely give up the claim to any authority on the question of God’s reality leaving all the rest of science unchanged. Because they are automatic, the purposeless mechanisms of the physical world can be explicated without reference to God (see “The Blind Watchmaker” Richard Dawkins 2006). But this truth has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether the cosmos as a whole is the product of a design having a purpose for purposeless mechanism observable and manipulable by purposeful mind!

Mind itself, its subjective qualities, is the evidence, albeit not scientific evidence, there is something more to reality than science can legitimately address. Because this evidence, experience itself, is not scientific the individual scientist is free (though ironically we might ask how so?) to reject, intellectually, the conclusion that there must therefore be something more than physics. But such a rejection is philosophical and not scientific. Speaking as a scientist, one should stop asserting there is not or (in some claims) cannot be, anything more than physics.

There is no question #6 but one comes neatly to mind. “What, if anything, can religion say about the purposeless mechanisms of the physical universe”? In “The Goldilocks Enigma” (2008) Paul Davies, speaking of “fine-tuning” from the cosmological settings to the geophysical evolution of the Earth, notes that “if God is real, none of this would be surprising”. This is what religion in its institutional form can say about physical mechanisms. Their existence as such is not mysterious; there is an over-all purpose to their being just the way they are, a  purpose to physical purposelessness!

What purpose, or what range of purposes? Religion can address these questions (see “Why Free Will” linked above), but doing so takes us immediately away from physical mechanism into mind and mind’s sensitivity to values, our only (and strictly mental; subjective) contact with spirit; the character of God. It should not be surprising that we must account for purposeless mechanism, purposeful mind, and mind’s sensitivity to values, in any inference towards an answer to such questions.

Institutional religion however does disservice to its flock if it claims absolute authority to specify every detail of what it can reasonably infer of God’s purposes. This is the same disservice done by scientists who claim that science as such rejects God’s reality. Religion must face its own limitations. It is it not qualified to make pronouncements regarding physical mechanisms, and it can never declare its interpretations, inferences, and conclusions about the relation between persons and God final! Philosophically it faces the same insurmountable “interaction problem” as does physics, though unlike some physicists (see “The Beginning of Infinity” David Deutsch 2012), it does not assert that mind must in the end be able to resolve every such question.

I would like to add one note tying this subject to what I take to be Dr. Caruso’s view that contra-causal and libertarian (not the same concept but always found together) will is physically impossible. None of the answers given above make sense if a robust libertarian freedom, at least for human mind, is not presupposed. Yes philosophers have constructed a conundrum called “theological fatalism” in which libertarian freedom is rendered impossible by the very infinity (omniscience) of God claimed by religionists (see “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”). Here I note only that the matter is resolved by observing that human freedom is limited both as to conceiving and to acting in time while God’s foreknowledge is not. The outcome of this from our perspectival viewpoint is that God’s knowledge is not a cause of our choice. God’s knowledge also includes all possibilities from which our choice might be made. It is because we have real freedom from our perspective within mind that any choice, and in particular moral choice (the only domain in which our freedom is absolute) has any real meaning.

So following Searle, I have to say that nothing about the human experience, including all of its social history (including religion in both senses distinguished here), makes sense unless the robust reality of a libertarian free will is presupposed! I differ from Searle however. I do not automatically also suppose that this cannot be right because of the philosophical claim that this is impossible as no evidence of contra-causal cause has ever been found by physics.

It is my contention that the manifest freedom I exercise in dozens of choices made every day (most trivial, some of import) is that evidence! I concede that this is not scientific. This evidence, should it be evidence, exists in, and is only available to, subjective mind. Freedom is the quintessential manifestation of my agency, the central quality of my experience (noted ironically by Schopenhauer “The World as Will and Representation” 1844). There is in effect only one example of it in the universe, the connection between subjective consciousness and brains. But while brains can be studied by science, the experience they effect cannot except by report which is physical and can not evoke experience as such!

If then I take my experience of free will to be real then its [seeming] physical impossibility must mean that there is something else going on in the universe, something that must in some sense be independent of physics! If such considerations ultimately point to the conclusion that something like God must exist, then so be it. My aim is philosophical rigor based on experience, not rejection of possibility based on illegitimate philosophical induction on the part of physicists.

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