Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 4

| By Karl Giberson

This is the fourth installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.

The third straw man I want to examine is the claim about philosophical consistency, which is used repeatedly to argue that science and religion are incompatible. Accommodationists like myself and my colleagues at BioLogos claim that a scientist can be religious. Francis Collins can go to church without having a logic-induced seizure or needing to put his fingers in his ears and singing “La La La La” while the sermon is being preached. But,according to Coyne, he can do this only by being philosophically inconsistent, and that is automatically bad.

A rather dreadful analogy circulates on this point, comparing a religious scientist to a priest who is a pedophile. New Atheists argue that just as we know that the existence of pedophiliac priests does not establish a philosophical compatibility between Catholicism and pedophilia, so too the existence of religious scientists does not establish that religion and science are philosophically compatible. I did my best to demolish that malignant analogy in a recent piece on The Huffington Post.

What I want to look at here is the question of philosophical consistency and exactly how high a pedestal it should be placed on. Is it the case that people or ideas that are philosophically inconsistent have no credibility?

There are two things to note here: 1) science is itself plagued by some deep internal philosophical inconsistencies so the black pot of science should exercise caution in noting the color of other people’s kettles; and 2) philosophical consistency is an ambiguous virtue at best.

For centuries, philosophers have tried to establish a philosophical foundation for science. Science, from its inception, was impressively adept at acquiring knowledge and, in contrast to warring religious factions, seemed fully capable of achieving agreement among its practitioners. Interest in how science worked ran high, both for its own sake, and to illuminate the dark corridors of other fields. A companion discipline called the “philosophy of science” sprang up with the goal to figure out the rules of science—the scientific method—and perhaps create a prescription that could be used by anyone seeking knowledge.

All of the earliest scientists—Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Descartes—addressed questions of scientific method, explaining to their generation how nature should be investigated. One of the more articulate discussions was that of Francis Bacon, who argued that science was an inductive enterprise. Scientists should free their minds of preconceptions and bow humbly before the facts of the world, which will assemble themselves on the blank slates of their minds into generalizations, uncontaminated by the prejudices of the scientist.

Bacon’s scientific method had a certain appealing purity, but everybody knew that science just didn’t work that way. Scientists simply could not pursue facts in isolation from some idea guiding the selection of those facts. (Imagine going into a town where everyone was sick from a mysterious illness and gathering information with no preconceptions about what sorts of things that cause illnesses. You would record birthdays, favorite songs, shopping patterns, vacation schedules and recent eating habits with no idea which of those disconnected facts were more likely to be relevant.) Subsequent efforts to improve on Bacon failed to produce a satisfactory philosophy of science. Perhaps the most interesting of these failures was that of Karl Popper, who argued almost the exact opposite of Bacon.

Popper advanced the idea that scientists should creatively conjure whatever imaginative explanation suited their fancy and then try to falsify it. Any conjecture that could, in principle, be falsified met Popper’s criterion for being a scientific claim. Popper was quite influential and, in a 1982 court ruling in Little Rock, Arkansas, Judge Overton ruled that creation science was not scientific because it could not be falsified. (He also had other critiques.)

Philosophers of science were critical of Overton’s decision and produced arguments why Popper’s falsification was inadequate. In fact, Popper should have known better for there were ample historical examples making this clear. Newton’s theory of gravity was, in fact, “falsified” by observations that ran counter to it—Saturn’s orbit didn’t follow the law of gravity. But he and his fellow “Newtonians” stubbornly refused to surrender and soon the falsifying observations were shown to have been misinterpreted—unknown planet Uranus was occasionally disrupting Neptune’s orbit. The chief objection to falsification is that there exists no simple way to isolate a particular idea from its larger context to in order to try and falsify it all by itself. Most scientific ideas are embedded in a network of supporting ideas and, if the idea “fails,” it is hard to specify exactly where the failure occurred.

Most philosophers of science have now abandoned arguments trying to specify the rules of science. Thus there is no specified philosophical framework for science to be juxtaposed against another set of ideas. (Anticipating wild cheering from constructivists, I hasten to point out that this does not imply that “anything goes.” What it does imply is that the “boundary” that separates science from non-science is not well defined. Ideas far from that boundary can be labeled science or non-science without ambiguity.)

Things get even worse when we look more closely at particular scientific ideas in light of each other. There is a widely known contradiction in physics between General Relativity—the science of the very large—and Quantum Mechanics—the science of the very small. In certain circumstances, like black holes, they contradict each other by predicting incompatible things. To believe in the truth of things that contradict each other is the very definition of philosophical inconsistency.

Coyne is certainly free to disparage religious believers for being philosophically inconsistent but he needs to know that every physicist in the scientific community, in embracing both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, is also forced to be philosophically inconsistent. The physics of the 20th century turned out to be riddled with these sorts of problems. Neils Bohr noted this famously when he said: “There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”1

I don’t want to over emphasize this point and end up creating my own straw man argument. Coyne is right that there are important and profound tensions between the scientific and religious ways of understanding the world—tensions that do not simply go away by noting that science has been unable to articulate its own rules so that they can be applied in all investigations without ambiguity. It would be an egregious straw man argument to leap from this argument to the conclusion that scientific and religious truth claims are comparably problematic. Religious claims are much more challenging.

However, I think it is fair to say that there is no simple a priori argument that scientific and religious ways of thinking are incompatible. If you look at the reasons why some cosmologists endorse the existence of multiple universes, they bear a faint resemblance to the reasons why some believers endorse the existence of God.

1. Editor's note: Bohr was saying, in a paradoxical way, that contradictory things can both be true.


About the Author

Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.