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The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue?

December 7th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue? Edited by Harold W. Attridge

The Religion and Science Debate

The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue? edited by Harold W. Attridge (Yale 2009).

This volume, like the Gifford Lectures, is part of a series.  According, as found in the introduction of this volume, to the deed of Dwight Harrington Terry, the object of the the Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy is that,

a series of lectures be given by men eminent in their respective departments, on ethics, the history of civilization and religion, biblical research, all sciences and branches of knowledge which have an important bearing on the subject, all the great laws of nature, especially of evolution . . . to the end that the Christian spirit may be nurtured in the fullest light of the world’s knowledge and that mankind maly be helped to attain its highest possible welfare and happiness upon this earth.

A number of notable titles have come out of the Terry Lectures, including Pail Tillich’s The Courage to Be, John Dewey’s, A Common Faith, Erich Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion, Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy, and John Polkinghorne’s Belief in God in an Age of Science (among a number of others). The Religion and Science Debate is from the one-hundredth such lecture, which was structured not as a single speaker giving a series of lectures from which a tome might arise, but rather a series of panel discussions with a resulting anthology of articles.  Because it has taken the form of an anthology, this debate may not rise to the heights of the very best from the Terry Series, but it is a timely volume that may be with us all for some time.

When one brings up the topic of what is supposed to be a conflict between science and religion, one does not look first at method (although one might wish to look at Descartes Bones) but at the peculiar controversy over evolution. By in large, the contributors to this volume focus on the later to illustrate the former.  All the contributors are veterans of this debate, and a some (Ronald Numbers and Alvin Plantinga) have been highlighted in this blog before.  Let us simply look at each essay in its turn.

Ronald Numbers, a historian of science, leads off with an essay which tone and substance is very similar to the introduction he provided to Galileo Goes to Jail, though without the breath found in Galileo.  Numbers does not so much go into what caused the conflict or why evolution should be so central.  He is content here to look at the players and to see how the partisans seem to be feeding off of each other.

Kenneth Miller’s starts by looking at the Dover decision, which basically classed intelligent design as a variant of creationism, that if taught in public schools, would amount to an establishment of religion. As Miller was a primary witness for the plaintiff, it is little wonder that the essay is constructed to present a case against intelligent design.  Miller then turns around to argue that just as there is no scientific basis to assert intelligent design, neither is there a scientific case to be made against theism.  To some degree, however, theism is not what is on trial here, but a very specific sort of theism.  If Christianity requires that Genesis be interpreted in a way consistent with a young earth, then either our current state of knowledge is incorrect or Christianity is false (note the double conditional here). Moreover Miller does not provide a scientific reason to accept religious belief or a non-scientific reason that antitheological partisan would accept.

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has long had grave reservations about evolution and has been a proponent of intelligent design.  He has also criticized what is sometimes called methodological naturalism–the insistence that a scientific explanation be free of anything akin to personal agency or one that would invoke a mental event.  These misgivings are mostly muted here.   Instead, Plantinga contents himself with the more modest project arguing that proceeding in a scientific manner does not logically lead to a secular point of view–that is a point of view that excludes religion.

Perhaps the weakest contribution was made by Lawrence Krauss (which is a shame, because his Physics of Star Trek is so good).  It is not that it so much bad, but it just seems as if it has no connection with any other essay.  On the historical end he proceeds as if he had not read (or listened to) Numbers at all and then takes a rhetorical swipe at the phrase methodological naturalism as if it were equivalent to the scientific method (in fairness, “methodological naturalism” is used differently in epistemology than the philosophy of science, but in neither case is such an equivalence made).  He also ties the notion of design too closely to that of William Paley.  There is an over all a lack of depth.  The one criticism of Intelligent Design that is a genuine contribution is that Krauss notes that advocates of Intelligent Design just haven’t put the work in.  One starts with a proposal or hypothesis and attempts to have it published, studied, refined, tested and eventually–maybe–accepted.  Only then is an idea presented in text books as the current state of knowledge.  Here Krauss is quite correct.  There brilliant ideas that have powerful explanatory power that come out all the time that never find their way into science text-books.  Why? because somewhere along the line they are found to be just plain wrong.  Intelligent design is an idea which never got to the point of even being found to be wrong in scientific circles.

Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist and takes what must be the most original approach.  Instead of looking at the controversy, he focuses on the fact that many Americans find nothing controversial at all.  What he is after is the strategies we employ generally in holding conflicting views and how it applies to the matter of science and religion specifically.  What he comes up with is that we live in a culture where “all reasonable possibilities can be easily reconciled.”  Wuthnow finds this disturbing because what is reasonable can vary depending on what one accepts as given.  As such, real and profound differences can simply be papered over until a rift is no longer an intellectual game but a societal crisis.  Creating a straw figure of an opposing position (as Dawkins and Dennett are often accused) is bad enough, it may be worse to recreate such a figure as a friendly counterpart. His advice is that the controversy should continue so that none of us settle for easy answers.

Summing up: A solid work from noted figures whose backgrounds and positions vary.  For the most part the issue of the relationship between science and religion is taken with care and intelligence.  It was enough to make wish I’d been in the audience.  Recommended for anyone willing to take a critical look at the issue.