Tuesday, January 25, 2011

'The conflict of science and religion' - a critique

bulldog Huxley

For nearly a century, the notion of mutual hostility [the Draper-White thesis] has been routinely employed in popular science writing, by the media, and in a few older histories of science. Deeply embedded in the culture of the West, it has proven extremely hard to dislodge. Only in the last thirty years of the twentieth century did historians of science mount a sustained attack on the thesis, and only gradually has a wider public begun to recognise its deficiencies.
Colin Russell 'The conflict of science and religion'

Colin Russell's contribution to the book of essays I've been reading was a dismal one, as I will show. His bias struck me as so clear and manifest that I had to check out his bio. He's very much an elder, born in 1928, and he's been admirably prolific in the promotion of science and its history, especially in chemistry, his chosen field. However, as I suspected, he was at one time president of Christians in Science, and vice-president of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. Always useful to have these things out in the open.

From the quotation above, taken from early in the essay, one might expect a laying out of the deficiencies of the conflict thesis, but it doesn't happen - apart from the usual stuff about the religiosity of Boyle, Newton, Pascal, Gassendi, Faraday and so on, none of which is dwelt on in any detail. It might've been useful for example, to be made aware that Blaise Pascal, a mathematical wunderkind, gave up doing mathematics because he believed the severe migraines he suffered from were his god's punishment for indulging in such a frivolous pastime. We now know, though, that Pascal's sufferings were due to a deformed skull, probably resulting from a forceps delivery. If only Pascal had been armed with such scientific knowledge, instead of the religious 'knowledge' he thought he had direct from his god, his own personal history would have been much altered.

Russell tries to be systematic in his undermining of the conflict thesis, giving six 'problems' with it, which I'll summarize.
1. The conflict thesis hinders the recognition of other relationships between science and religion.
2. It ignores the many documented examples of science and religion operating in close alliance.
3. It enshrines a flawed view of history in which 'progress' or [in this case] 'victory' has been portrayed as inevitable.
4. It obscures the rich diversity of ideas in both science and religion.
5. It engenders a distorted view of disputes resulting from causes other than those of religion versus science.
6. It exalts minor squabbles, or even differences of opinion, to the status of major conflicts.

So let's look at these problems. As to [1], what about these other relationships? It's true that, in earlier times, much scientific work, and science-talk, was conducted within a religious framework. The writings of Francis Bacon provide a good example. Nowadays, though, science and religion have little to say to each other, and I don't see any harmonious relations in the offing. Again, Russell avoids looking at science and religion as 'ways of knowing' [he doesn't ever attempt a definition of either], he just talks about relations between scientists and believers, which is an entirely different matter. The same goes for [2], he really means scientists and believers operating in close alliance, by avoiding all the issues.
Problem 3 is of course familiar, and more or less identical to what Marilynne Robinson says in her talk, in which she accuses 'new atheists' of having a defunct enlightenment view of science, in which mystery after mystery will fall like so many dominoes before the winds of scientific explanation. Exactly how flawed is this view, though? The scientific explanatory framework does seem to be cumulative. The mystery of lightning gets explained by theories which gradually become more comprehensive, covering electricity, magnetism, the behaviour of matter inside stars and so forth. Scientific analysis has also proved fruitful in categorising the kinds of supernatural concepts that are found to be viable for religious practice, and in detecting patterns in religious thinking. I don't think victory over religious modes of thought and practice is inevitable, but I do think it is desirable, because religious ways of thinking profoundly interfere with a comprehensive understanding of how the world works - precisely because it provides an alternative, competing view, which is inadequate and stunting, but highly appealing to some.
Problem 4 speaks of diversity, but scientific diversity is necessarily circumscribed by the need for hypotheses to pass certain crucial and stringent tests. Religious or theological diversity has no such tests - which is precisely why heresies are dealt with so harshly. Orthodoxy can only maintain itself through repression, and through the gaining of popular support [often through a kind of demagoguery that whips up a frenzy of opposition to 'heretics']. Russell, though, is again largely speaking of personal approaches to religion. He does claim that it was only the Catholic Church, and then not uniformly, that sought to condemn Galileo, while the Protestants had no problem with heliocentrism. This may well be so - and after all, accepting heliocentrism doesn't really concede much, for scriptures really have little to say about the relationship between the earth and the sun, but the problem really is whether scriptures are acceptable as a way of knowing how the world works. It's the methodologies being developed by Galileo and other pioneers that were the real challenge to the religious, and this was a challenge perhaps barely recognized at the time. Russell uses much the same argument regarding the response to Darwin [though without the sharp division between Catholic and Protestant], but he has nothing whatever to say about the challenge to human 'in God's image' specialness that Darwin's theory represented. It's hard to understand how so central a point could be so completely overlooked.
Problem number 5 is one well-recognized, I think, by many observers. The rise of anti-scientific fundamentalism, particularly in the US in recent decades, cannot be attributed wholly to religious belief, few of us are unaware of this. The causes are complex and multi-faceted, and have much to do with a new-found 'tradition' of insularity, and the indoctrination of children. However, religion has always provided a haven for this kind of inward-looking community spirit, which is why cults are perennially attractive to the culturally alienated.
Problem number 6 is perhaps a matter of opinion. Russell it seems wants to minimise the issues involved because he wants to see a harmonious relationship between religion and science, something that he has perhaps managed in his own life. However, I suspect that he has achieved this by ignoring much that looms large in those with a different perspective. I cannot say more as I don't have any idea what Russell is left with in his religion if he accepts the findings of biology, genetics, cosmology and the methodologically rigorous analysis of texts presumed to be sacred.
In his conclusion, Russell presumes that he has proven the 'warfare model' to be manifestly inadequate, and he gives the example of Thomas Huxley as an explanation for its continued success:
By establishing the conflict thesis, [Huxley and his friends] could perpetuate a myth as part of their strategy to enhance the public appreciation of science. Thus, Huxley could write, with a fine disregard for what history records: 'Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that wherever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain'.
This is surely the shout of science triumphant, and I'm pretty sure that Russell quotes it with a sneaking admiration in spite of his criticism. And the question of whether Huxley really did disregard history, in its broad sweep, is far from decided.


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