Thursday, October 19, 2017

Science v. Science+

I am being asked to speak about the reconciliation between science and faith, so here are a few stream of consciousness  thoughts, many of which I've written down before.

When people talk about the incompatibility of science and faith, they are not talking about science. They are talking about science plus something. Let's call it Science+ ("Science Plus"). More on that anon.

Science itself is simply a method for studying the world. It has rules, commonly called the scientific method. There are many formal definitions of the scientific method. I'll give two working definitions:

Form 1:

1. Design an experiment; document the experimental procedure
2. Faithfully record the raw data
3. Analyze the data; document the analysis procedure
4. Disseminate the experimental results (whether you like them or not)
(Note: Steps 5&6 below are often done by others)
5. Derive a hypothesis (theory) from the results; Compare theory and experiment
6. Disseminate the results of the experimental-theory comparison

Form 2:

1. Make or adopt a hypothesis (theory)
(Note step 1, above, is often based on work done by others)
2. Design an experiment; document the experimental procedure
3. Faithfully record the data
4. Analyze the data; Compare theory and experiment; document the analysis procedure
5. Disseminate the experimental results and the comparison to theory

What goes unstated I will make explicit: You are not allowed to invoke the supernatural as part of your hypothesis. That is outside the domain of science. You can investigate supernatural processes (if they exist and you're lucky enough to be near one) but you'll never explain them. If Jesus came down and announced that he was going to take a stroll across Lake Erie, you could record it. You might be able to detect pressure variations as he trundles by. But you'll never explain it, because you aren't allowed to insert the famous "then a miracle occurs" step into your theory.

That's it. Science is a process (methodological naturalism). It is completely agnostic about the practitioner. It doesn't care if the scientist is:
  • Atheist or theist
  • Man or woman (or any linear combination thereof)
  • Black, brown, yellow, or white
  • Saint or Sinner
  • Straight or Gay (or any linear combination thereof)
  • Motivated by good, motivated by evil, motivated by $, or motivated by grades
Furthermore, it doesn't care if you like science or even if you "believe" in science.

I know professional scientists who don't like science. It has become a job. But the best illustration is to go into a student lab. There you will easily find students who absolutely hate science (the pre-meds are a good pool) yet who do first-rate science. They follow the scientific method to a T. And all the while they absolutely hate what they are doing. They just want a good grade. If you look at their beautiful lab report, you see good science. You cannot detect that they loathed every minute in the lab.

How about believing in science? What does that even mean? And whatever it means, isn't that a minimum requirement?

No. The process says nothing about you affirming the validity of the process. I have a common hypothetical (but plausible) example that sort of illustrates the point. Suppose I hate String Theory and think it is so bad that it is "not even wrong." I don't believe it for a minute. I could be passing time reading the String Theory literature, perhaps looking for more ways to denigrate String Theory, when I come across an unsolved mathematical problem that is holding back the field. Suppose, being a good mathematical (I'm not) I solve the problem and publish the solution. I become a hero in the String Theory community. I have done great String Theory science. And yet I still think it is "not even wrong."

The alleged incompatibility between science and faith should have, via science, a measurable effect. According to science, as a corollary of the method, if you can't measure it there is no point talking about it--at least not scientifically. So scientifically, at least, science and faith are not incompatible--unless you devise a way to measure/detect the incompatibility. I have proposed two experiments:

1. I'll give you ten papers from teir-1 peer-reviewed journals. Five from atheists, five from theists, with the names redacted. Detect the incompatibility and accurately separate the papers into the two groups.

2. Design an experiment that can be done by an atheistic scientist and not a theistic scientist.

Science+ is an attempt to redefine science to make it more than what it has been. It takes many convenient forms. It might add "love" to the requirements. Real scientists love science. (One would hope so, but it is not demanded.) Real scientists "believe" in science. Real scientists work for the good of humanity. Real scientists hold no superstitions. Real scientists don't work on defense. Real scientists don't experiment on live animals.

Science is not incompatible with faith, because it is not incompatible with anything as long as the method is respected. Science is the most compatible endeavor in the world. Follow this simple method, and you are doing science--just as well as anybody else.

Science+ can be made trivially incompatible with anything, by the appropriate definition of what a Real Scientist is.

If someone tells you that science and faith are incompatible, they are talking about Science+.


  1. Ohtobide7:36 AM

    When people talk about 'the incompatibility of science and faith' I think they usually mean that the scientific method has arrived at truths that contradict revealed doctrines. I know that some people have said that believers cannot be good scientists but I don't think that view is common.

    An example would be the claim that there were once only two human beings on earth. Some religious believers think that and some scientists have said that science has shown that to be untrue. The scientists who have shown it to be untrue might perhaps be religious believers themselves; it is the result that is incompatible with religious teaching, not the scientists.

    1. I have no problem with the manifestly true claim that certain religious beliefs are incompatible with science. The belief in a young earth is utterly incompatible with science. The issue is the claim, made by many, that science and religion--just generic religion-- (or science and faith) are incompatible. That claim cannot be demonstrated.

  2. Great to see you blogging again, old friend. I've always enjoyed your posts and appreciate your perspective.

    1. Hey Brent, good to hear from you. Sorry about the Gnats. They do know that the regular season doesn't mean anything, right? And the Capitals, they know that too, right? (If not they can talk to the Pens.)

      That ribbing is entirely due to your accurate but unspeakable reference to me as "old."