Saturday, February 07, 2009

Sam Harris: On the Incompatibility of Science and Faith

The incompatibility of science and religion (or science and theism, or science and faith) has been a recent popular topic of discussion in the intersections blogosphere. The catalyst was an article arguing for incompatibility written by scientist Jerry Coyne, which elicited a series of responses by people on both sides of the fence. You can read all about it here.

One of the responses generating the most excitement was from well-known "new" atheist author Sam Harris. That's the response I will discuss. Eventually. I promise.

First I'll tell you my position.

Incompatible is a strong word. According to, the first five definitions are:
  1. not compatible; unable to exist together in harmony.
  2. contrary or opposed in character.
  3. that cannot coexist or be conjoined.
  4. Logic. a. (of two or more propositions) unable to be true simultaneously.b. (of two or more attributes of an object) unable to belong to the object simultaneously; inconsistent.
  5. (of positions, functions, ranks, etc.) unable to be held simultaneously by one person.
In order to argue that science and religion are incompatible, you must exclude the stronger definitions: 1, possibly 3, 4b, and 5. The existence of highly esteemed believing scientists with international reputations manifestly disproves incompatibility in those cases. Obviously religion and science coexist harmoniously in the likes of Francis Collins.

So the argument, for it not to be over before it begins, must be based on the weaker definitions: 2 or 4a. (Weaker only in the sense that the meaning they give of incompatibility is toned down--not that it is "worse".)

So we recognize from the start that those arguing for incompatibility must, although I don't think they ever say it explicitly, exclude the stronger definitions. But they do admit it indirectly. When faced with nearly inexhaustible examples of productive believing scientists they will say: Well of course we are not denying that believers can do good science. That is a tacit admission of this: Well of course we are not using the stronger definitions of incompatibility.

So the argument boils down to: how do you demonstrate that science and religion are incompatible in the weaker sense?

My position is different from most. My position is that even the weaker definition of incompatibility should, if it means anything, have a measurable effect. I approach this quantitatively and scientifically. The stronger definition leads to a prediction: You can't be a believing scientist. This has been tested, and the theory has been falsified. The weaker definition should still make a prediction, albeit a weaker one. The one I propose is: You can detect the adverse effects of a person's religion on their science. Given that theory, I proposed a falsification experiment: I'll provide the experimenter with ten peer-reviewed papers from first rate science journals. Five from from believers, five from atheists. The experiment is try to determine, based on content alone, which papers came from believers. To date, no one has signed on for that experiment. I'm open to other suggestions.

This is not the way incompatibility is argued by Sam Harris and others. They don't argue it scientifically, but social-scientifically. That is, they are writing editorials. Like all editorials, including the one you are reading, the direction of your head motion will largely depend on whether or not you were already predisposed to agree or disagree before you started reading.

To summarize to this point, the arguments on the incompatibility of science and faith:
  1. Use the weaker definitions for incompatibility.
  2. Are based on fuzzy, opinion-laden, unfalsifiable social-science, not on science.
In arguing incompatibility I see the same bad arguments made over and over, viz.,

BA1: Sloganizing. Believers can be good scientists, but they must compartmentalize.

BA2: Begging the Question. Religion argues for the supernatural, for example Jesus walking on water. Science has demonstrated that a person cannot walk on water. Therefore science and religion are incompatible.

BA3: Biased Sample. This believer (pick a random YEC creation-scientist or well-known ID proponent) abuses science in pursuit of religion. Therefore science and religion are incompatible.

BA4: Red Herring. Whose religion is right?

BA5: Slippery Slope. Once you accept that Jesus walked on water--well then, the supernatural can explain anything, so why do science?

BA6: Correlation is not causation. Only 7% of the members of the elite National Academy of Sciences (NAS) profess faith. That is much lower than the national average.

BA7: Appeal to Ridicule. This is the argument that science and faith are incompatible, because it makes God look bad.

Let me discuss these, briefly, in turn.

BA1: Sloganizing

As for BA1, compartmentalization, alas, is ill defined. It can mean virtually anything from: believers can't be scientists 24/7 (maybe yes, maybe no, but who would want to be?) to they use different parts of their brains for each activity, an argument which makes art and music incompatible with science. Compartmentalization explains nothing and everything.

UPDATE: Another form of sloganizing is to unleash the term cognitive dissonance, as in: "theistic scientists suffer from cognitive dissonance." This, like compartmentalization, explains nothing. In some sense it is worse, because the term is actually misused. Cognitive dissonance describes a person affirming beliefs that he acknowledges are in conflict, not beliefs that someone else finds conflicting. It almost has to be confessed--since you can't read other peoples minds, you cannot say whether they find their own views to be in conflict.

BA2: Begging the Question

BA2 is used often. And if BA2 is correct, then it hardly is worth writing thousands of words. I stated it above in less than thirty. Unless, of course, the thousands of words are just meant to obfuscate the fact that you are begging the question. However, it is worthwhile to say how my side argues that the belief in the supernatural is not incompatible with science.

Without taking pages, I would summarize it this way:

Believing scientists affirm the supernatural which, by its very definition, cannot be explained by science. Thus we say: there is no guarantee that science can explain everything.

That said, as scientists we explicitly and implicitly agree to do science just like our atheist colleagues. In particular, we never, ever, ever invoke the supernatural to explain experimental data. In the unlikely even we encountered the supernatural in the lab, we would simply die trying to find a scientific explanation, as would our atheist colleagues.

The age of the earth is the paradigm. It demonstrates this perfectly.

The YEC view of the creation of the earth can be broken down into two points:
  1. God spoke the cosmos into existence supernaturally.
  2. He did it six thousand years ago.
All theists accept 1, otherwise what is theistic about them? If the incompatibility comes in at step 1, then we are back to BA2. Religion affirms the supernatural, therefore religion is incompatible with science. Point number 1 is not scientific--it cannot be proved or disproved. However, point 1, when combined with the YEC exegesis, creates point 2. That is a scientific statement. That can be put to the test. It has, and it has failed the test miserably.

This is the model for dealing with the supernatural, not that it will ever come up, but just for completeness. The way in which the magisteria of science and religion do overlap is that supernatural incursions can in principle create natural effects. The effects are subject to test (if you can devise one, as for the age of the earth) but the underlying supernatural event is not.

That is sort of a take-it-or-leave-it stance. If arguing incompatibility and you reject this position: fine. But do not use thousands of words to hide the fact that you are really just making argument BA2.

BA3: Biased Sample

When BA3 is used there is no subtlety involved. It is the some theists behave badly, some even murderously, therefore religion and science are incompatible argument. It is very easy to use sarcastically.

There is no acknowledgment by the incompatibility proponents that BA3 is a horribly blunt instrument, and one that can be ripped from the assailants hands and used against him: Bill Maher is an atheist. Bill Maher is an anti-science nut who doesn’t believe in the germ theory of disease and is anti-vaccine. It Bill Maher had his way, diseases like polio (just to name one) would return with a vengeance. People would die. Lots of them. Therefore atheism and science are incompatible.

BA4: Red Herring

BA4 Is a really, really bad argument. Sometimes is comes like this: If we have to accept Jesus walked on water, why not Mohammed's flying horse? The answer of course is that you don't have to accept Jesus walked on water, and as far as science is concerned there is no difference between the two examples. They only prove incompatibility by BA2. Their inconsistency with each other is the red herring.

BA5: Slippery Slope

BA5 presupposes that believing scientist are ready to abandon the scientific method at any moment in favor of the supernatural. No explanation for the peak in the data? What's to stop us from invoking the name of Jesus! A fine argument apart from being absurd. Nobody does that.

BA6: Correlation is not causation

This is perhaps my personal favorite, because it is one of those cases where the person making the argument typically has enough savvy to launch a preemptive strike. He makes an admission that the argument that follows is fallacious in the hope that you'll accept it anyway. He makes a but argument: Yes correlation is not causation but: (then goes on to use it as such.)

The correlation is always the NAS survey where only 7% of NAS members self-identify as believers. We could argue what might be causing such a skew, but let's assume the most advantageous interpretation for our opponents. Suppose believers are, statistically speaking, less intelligent than unbelievers. Does that prove an incompatibility? No, it would suggest, on average, an incapability, but that's a different matter. What about those 7%? These are elite scientists. What is the effect of the incompatibility on their work? To this question the same answer is always given: BA1. Those 7% can compartmentalize, the be-all and end-all explanation.

BA7: Appeal to Ridicule

It is hard not to smile when faced with BA7, given that it comes from atheists. More sophisticated forms are of this variety: theistic evolution is not viable, because it exacerbates the theodicy problem. Less sophisticated versions are: Yeah sure, a loving God made Malaria. Now the theodicy problem is very real and exceedingly difficult, but it has nothing at all to do with the compatibility question. In that sense this is also a red herring.

Now for a little ad hominem.

When you read Harris’s thoughts on the compatibility of religion and science be sure to turn off all irony meters within a ten block radius. This is a man into Eastern Mysticism who in his best seller The End of Faith wrote:

Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reason for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical.

This is also a man who looks favorably on xenoglossy. Clearly a more accurate title for his book is: The End of Other People’s Faiths.

Harris's essay is well-done sarcasm. Again you can find it in the collection
here. Below I am just going to extract some of Harris's points and argue that they are examples of the bad arguments enumerated above.

From Harris:

SH: Specifically, is there a conflict between believing that epilepsy is a result of abnormal neural activity and believing that it is a sign of demonic possession?

Here we have an admixture of BA3 and BA5. Tribal witch doctors are not representative of theists in the sciences. And theists in the sciences do not invoke demonic possession. As mentioned earlier there are plenty of atheist pseudo-science nuts hawking eastern mysticism (that would be you, Sam), anti-vaccine, crystal-power, homeopathy, etc.

SH: Can a biologist harbor any educated doubts about the Virgin birth of Jesus? No—because human parthenogenesis has nothing whatsoever to do with biology. Can a physicist form an educated opinion about the likelihood of the Ascension? How could he? Bodily trans location into the sky does not require any interaction with the forces of nature.

This is textbook BA2, the question begging argument stopper. Religion is simply defined as incompatible with science.

SH: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school.

This is BA3 at its very best. Some theists are monsters, therefore, ipso facto, theism and religion are incompatible.

SH: Let us say a cardiac surgeon believes that automobile accidents are caused, not by human inattention, brake failure, and the like, but by the Evil Eye.

SH: What may appear like a contradiction at one level of physics or biology is always resolved at higher vibrational energies—or perhaps, as Miller points out, by "miracles."

Here are two fine examples of unbridled BA5 (the first with some BA3 tossed in for spice.) Because theists believe in the supernatural, believing scientists are always on the lookout for a chance to unleash it as an explanation. The fact that they don't is overlooked. They might. That's enough. It might even slip pass peer review. Then where would we be? See Sammy slide the slippery slope.

SH: For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation.
Here is classic BA7 of the unsophisticated variety. This is Harris the concern-troll, pointing out that God who makes smallpox would not be a very nice God, doesn't that give us cause for concern? Maybe it does, but it has nothing to do with the question at hand.

Truly, I don't think Harris makes any argument that doesn't fit one of these Bad Argument types. But as mentioned, he is a fan of xenoglossy. Maybe his essay read better in the original Reformed Egyptian.

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