Friday, May 11, 2007

True Science and True Religion

As you may know, several candidates for president were recently asked if they believed in evolution. In elaborating on his response after the debate, one candidate offered the following:

He told his interviewers that he did not believe there was a “conflict between true science and true religion.”

“True science and true religion are on exactly the same page,” he said. “they may come from different angles, but they reach the same conclusion. I’ve never found a conflict between the science of evolution and the belief that God created the universe. He uses scientific tools to do His work.”

Interesting. Putting aside my curiosity of what he actually means by 'true' science and 'true' religion are, I wonder if we will ever hear language like this come from a Democratic candidate... I kind-of wish we would sometime. It might bring the conversation about faith, science and politics toward a discussion, rather than a shouting match.

You get extra points for correctly guessing which candidate this was.


golob said...

One way to logically interpret "true science and true religion are on exactly the same page" is:
1. Religion has capitol-T Truth.
2. Some science conflicts with religious Truth
3. This science is therefore false.


1. Science is objectively true.
2. Some scientific theories conflicts with religious ideas.
3. These religious ideas are therefore wrong.

#1 in both of these is left up to the listener’s biases. I clearly have mine. I don’t see how this helps resolve conflicts between (contemporary) religious thought and current scientific consensus.

The conditional nature of the statement (true this, true that) makes it either meaningless or corrosive double-talk. Beautiful political sophistry, however. But, I am quite a cynic.

Hasn't Obama said things quite similar to this?

thomas said...

Thanks for your comment! You are right to identify that the business about truth is really at the foundation of this statement.

I would wager, however, that our (still anonymous) candidate would not accept your series of statements, particularly the conditional aspects of them. You say that individual bias factors into givens #1, but I think there is much more bias involved with points #2.

There are a couple of other approaches to getting at the meaning of this statement. One extreme way is to consider Stephen J. Gould's non-overlapping magisteria thesis. He writes in Rock of Ages that:

"the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

Gould's ideas may have motivated our candidate's beliefs - namely that he views science and religion as equally legitimate tools to answer different questions about existence. I would bet, however that he probably was just searching for a way to address a so-called conflict between being religious and accepting scientific thought. Gould himself would probably not concede that the two are on the same page; to him, they're not even in the same book.

I don't quite agree with SJG that religion and science do not overlap, but I would argue that a logical syllogism is inadequate to prove the validity of either science or religion. If I had made this statement, I would focus my emphasis on the "on the same page" part of the quote.

People are "on the same page" when they look at a problem or a situation in the same way and agree on a course of action. As for me, I try to access scientific thought and elements of my personal faith both when I internalize my own course of action. I would agree that Obama would be the Democratic candidate most willing to say something like this. I am not aware of him addressing science and religion together.

golob said...

So, I looked up whose quote this is using Google.

Two observations:

1. Search the quote and your blog is the top hit, above the New York Times' blog, Andrew Sullivan and many others!

2. The candidate and I both went to the same high school. ;p

Now my counter-quote:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” -- Carl Sagan

Perhaps another layer of confusion here is between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is far more fluid and inherently less contradictory to scientifically observed phenomenon, whereas religions come with specific statements of belief and fact (such as creation stories) that are, in general, directly contradictory to what we've observed empirically about our universe. Reconciling those differences requires either taking religious teachings as allegorical OR ignoring what we observe in our world.

thomas said...

Thank you for your follow-up. It leaves me with a better understanding of where you are coming from!

As for the differences between the meanings of religion, faith and spirituality, I agree that there are significant differences between them. You are right that it is particularly important to understand the extent to which stories are interpreted literally.

In my opinion, it is unfortunate that certain groups of religious people adopt literal readings of religious texts as more important than the central tenants of the religions that those texts support.

thomas said...

golob has figured out who it is, but declined posting the answer. Anyone else want to guess?