The role of religion and science

Greg Fish has a pretty interesting article on the religious victim complex. The comments sparked a good discussion on the roles of religion and science.

In particular, the proposition was made that "S*cience answers ‘How?’; religion answers ‘Why?’".*I took contention with this statement, proposing that science is perfectly adequate at answering 'why' questions. Below is a response to that assertion by Bruce Coulson, my reply got quite verbose so I thought it deserved its own blog entry. I'll walk through the main points one by one.

"Religion provides meaning. Science doesn’t."

I take umbrage at this. The natural conclusion would be that those who do not have religion have no meaning in their lives. This is demonstrably false. All the atheists I know, including myself, have very clearly defined concepts of the "meaning" of their lives. I also know many a religious person who is extremely conflicted over what the meaning of their lives are. Now, that's purely anecdotal (most of the atheists I know are academic or business professionals and very goal oriented) and not meant to reflect the normal population as a whole. But if I just produce a single atheist that has meaning, that negates the assertion that it can _only_ be found through religion or spirituality.

It does not answer, and cannot answer, ‘Why?’ If you counter with, ‘well, evolution is the function of natural laws’ then the counter is ‘Why do the natural laws work this way?’ Ultimately, your answer (from a scientific point of view) boils down to “Because they do!” Which is perfectly valid and correct, scientifically. But unsatisfying from a faith point of view, because it’s not an answer.

I'm not sure what's being implied here. When a child asks "Why do oranges fall to the ground?" replying "Gravity" is a perfectly valid response.

Pointing out that science is not infinite in its ability to answer the "Why" questions is not a nail in its coffin. Also, "Because they do." is never, ever a valid answer from the perspective of science. However, "We don't know." is. This is a key difference between Religion and science. Religion insists that when traversing the ladder of Why's there must be turtles all the way down. Science does not require that every observed phenomena have a definitive answer. Though lack of an answer is certainly an indication that there is still interesting work to do.

Science views unanswered questions as areas to be investigated, not areas resolved arbitrarily by a god which need no further investigation. Not only is it ok to say "I don't know." in science, it's a requirement before you can even begin to embark on a scientific inquiry. It is religion that is perfectly fine with show stopping answers to why such as "Because god made it that way."

To delve a little deeper into this issue and get at what I think the core contention is in this "Why" analogy, there are some questions which are unanswerable. They are posited in such a way that they are untestable. For example, if you define "spirit" as an entity that does not exist on this plane of reality and is therefore undetectable by anything in this reality. Or the framing of morality in a way that does not entail any sort of claimed effect on our lives. The problem with these sorts of questions is that the moment you remove a proposed "thing" from our reality, it no longer impacts this reality (by definition). The "answer" to an untestable question can be any one of an infinite set of arbitrary "solutions". Since they are all equally untestable, they are all equally valid (or invalid) with maybe a loose requirement of logical consistency. I say "loose" because except in the works of the most academic of religious philosophers such as Plantinga, Alston, and others this requirement is never followed. In fact, the biggest issue that rigorous modern philosophers of religion have is trying to shoe horn religion into some sort of logically consistent, rational framework with varying degrees of success depending on whether you're speaking to a religiously affiliated philosopher or not.

To drive this home, claiming that X is moral means nothing if there is no proposed positive or negative effect of doing X. It simply doesn't impact our lives at all. As soon as you make some claim, such as "If people X, then it improves Y" or even something as vague as "If people X, they will feel better." you've thrown yourself into the realm of science as we can certainly devise a means of testing that hypothesis.

To claim that religion is only concerned with those questions that are unanswerable not by some limitation of our instruments, but by the inherent nature of the question, is to assert that religion is only concerned with those questions which do not impact our lives. I think this is a proposition that even the most academic of religious philosophers would reject.

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