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Clarifying the issue of incompatibility

by Mano Singham Story Source July 7, 2012

A recent post about accommodationists and new atheists revolved around the question of whether science and religion were incompatible and if so, what one should do about it. The question of what constitutes religion and incompatibility perhaps needs to be clarified a bit.

It used to be the case that in the Christian world until roughly the period we know as the Renaissance, the Bible was taken as a book whose truth was largely unquestioned. It was simply a given and scientists saw their role as finding out how their god carried out his plan as revealed in the Bible. Hence there could be no incompatibility, because scientific findings were interpreted in ways that made them consistent with the Bible. Many of the early scientists were often priests or monks (Nicholas Steno, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaitre) or otherwise quite religious (Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin) and they seemed to have no personal difficulty reconciling the two areas of their thought. Compatibilism in the early days involved largely taking the religious version as a given and interpreting scientific discoveries and advances in ways that were compatible with it.

For example, the very early days of modern geology in the 17th century involved developing theories such as catastrophism (in which the major geological features of the Earth were thought to be the products of major cataclysms and upheavals that threw up mountains and created ravines and so on) to try and explain how the Earth in its present form could have come about in just the few thousand years or so that the Bible said it had existed. This way of thinking was also evident in the early archaeological work done in the Middle East where discoveries were interpreted to conform to the Biblical versions of events.

But beginning with the 18th century, modern science became less and less tethered to the Biblical version of events and started going where the evidence led it, without too much concern as to whether it contradicted religious beliefs or not. They were aided in pursuing this new freedom because the political power of religious institutions had waned and there were no longer punishments for heresy, at least among the elites who were the ones who pursued science.

As a result, new scientific findings began to emerge that contradicted the Bible. So for example, when in 1778 the Comte de Buffon published his estimate for the age of the Earth as 75,000 years, the theologians at the powerful Sorbonne created a huge fuss and demanded that he publish an apology for publishing results that contradicted the biblical chronology but he was able to withstand their pressure and did not recant.

As time went by and the power and utility of science grew, the Bible and religious dogma became increasingly marginalized and irrelevant and scientists became more comfortable saying, for example, that there is little or no evidence from archeology for almost all of the events in the Old Testament, such as the captivity in Egypt, the exodus, the stories about the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the like.

As a result of these developments, we now have a complete reversal among compatibilists. Nowadays those believers who view science and religion as compatible take science as the given and interpret all religious beliefs to make them seem compatible with the latest science. In doing so, they inevitably end up committing the ‘no true Scotsman’ logical fallacy. In that fallacy, one can make the universal claim that no true Scotsman would commit a particular wrong by defining a true Scotsman as one who would never do such a thing. Any new exception to the rule can be finessed by redefining a true Scotsman as someone who would not do the new thing as well. As long as a ‘true Scotsman’ remains undefined a priori, this can go on indefinitely

In the case of religion, it can always be argued that science and ‘true religion’ are compatible by excluding from religious beliefs all the things that science contradicts. The most popular way to deal with it is to re-label beliefs that were formerly thought of as factual events as now being metaphors and to claim that religion explains those things that science does not. Since it is in the nature of science to always have open questions, one can always define ‘true religion’ is such a way that it exists in those nooks and crannies of knowledge that science has not yet reached and thus salvage compatibility. In the early days it used to be things like the eye that were considered inexplicable but those things have long been satisfactorily explained. Currently the popular areas are the origin of our universe, the origin of life, and consciousness.

During the heyday of the so-called ‘intelligent design’ movement about a decade ago, there used to be an advocate of that view whom I would meet at various venues where the issue was being debated. It used to be exasperating talking with him because he would be extremely cagey, even in private conversations, about what he actually believed. He would refuse to directly answer any question that I put to him if it involved anything that committed him to anything specific about his beliefs, and instead would dance around the question.

At that time, I didn’t understand why he was being so evasive. After all, he proudly claimed to be a Christian. Why not say what you believe? I now realize that he was using the ‘no true Scotsman’ strategy. By keeping his specific beliefs vague, if confronted with contradictory evidence for any of the beliefs of his religion, he could always claim that his own ‘true religion’ did not involve that particular belief.