Are science and religion really in conflict? The Unthinkable debate

Unthinkable took to the road this month for a debate, “Are science and religion really in conflict?”

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(Left to right: William Reville, Siobhán Garrigan, Joe Humphreys, Cathy Barry, Kevin Mitchell. Pics: Alan Betson/IrishTimes)

Who won? Was there a knock-down argument to resolve this vexed question?

Judge for yourself. It’s remixed here as a three-minute Socratic dialogue (with apologies to Plato):

The Republic of Unthinkable

I went down to the Science Gallery in Dublin with William Reville (WR), emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC; Dr Siobhán Garrigan (SG), chair of Catholic theology, TCD; Dr Kevin Mitchell (KM), neuroscientist and blogger at wiringthebrain.com; and Cathy Barry (CB), philosophy graduate and blogger at irishphilosophy.com, to talk about gods.

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WR: “I am a scientist and I accept everything that science has discovered and will discover, but I am also a Christian. It is my belief that science and religion occupy separate domains and there is no necessary conflict between science and religion once each remains in its own domain.” 

KM: “From my perspective, a supernatural explanation is not an explanation at all. It is just a label for something we don’t understand.

As religions retreat more and more from particular factual claims, their claims tend to become more abstract, more vague, even actually incomprehensible, and I think that is selected for.

“Part of the reason certain religions may have gone out of existence is because they are too precise; their claims are too specific and they are too obviously refuted by science. So the reason children stop believing in Santa Claus is because it’s too precise: ‘He comes down the chimney? How does he get down the chimney?’ It’s not vague enough. ‘How do reindeer generate thrust and lift? It’s ridiculous’.”

SG: “I think positing fixity as a necessary condition of religion is unwise and unevidenced.

“When we come to Christianity, I think there’s a flaw in the idea that it is fixed and you have to cede something or lose something or be diminished in some way [by accepting science]. Any Christian who thinks they are going to get certainty by adherence to that faith is going to be bitterly disappointed after a few decades of trying to practise it.”

KM: “That sounds like a very academic definition of religion. Some aspect of belief seems to be a defining requirement for religion.”

SG: “I want to go back to your comment about vagueness. If I were to ask you to tell me what is the love that you have between yourself and your partner, could you do it?

“That brings back to me the idea that at the heart of Christianity is a relationship. If you asked me about relationships in my lives, I would find it awfully hard [to describe], and that’s the analogy.”

WR: “Science doesn’t deal with concepts such as value, purpose, ethics, beauty and so on, but these vitally important areas are what give meaning and flavour and joy in life to most people.

John Polkinghorne, the mathematical physicist and Anglican theologian, illustrates how different explanations expand our understanding and illuminate the bigger picture:

“Consider a kettle of water boiling on a gas ring. Why is the water boiling? The scientific explanation is that the energy of the gas flame is absorbed by the water, causing the water molecules to move about so fast that they can overcome the attraction they have for each other in the water phase, and jump up into the gas phase as steam.

“And the other explanation is that I want to have a cup of tea.

“Now, both explanations – one describing the process, the other describing the agency – are correct and compatible with each other. But in order to understand the whole picture you need both explanations.

“In the general, bigger picture of the world, God is the agent; and the evolving natural world described by science, and the evolving social, culture and religious world, is the process.”

KM: “I think some of the speakers have touched on a point where science does fail at a certain point. Science in some traditions has got reductivist: ‘Why?’ questions have been ruled out as unscientific in our traditions. I don’t think that has to be the case.

Why is the kettle boiling? It’s a perfectly valid, scientific explanation to say the water is boiling because you want a cup of tea.”

CB: “I can see how we might say that through reason, but I’m not sure how it’s a scientific statement?”

KM: “You can ask perfectly scientific questions about his intentions, his goals, his beliefs, his desires, in a scientific fashion. You can interrogate the subject and ask, ‘What were they thinking about?’, and you can define a hypothesis.

“So my hypothesis might be ‘he wanted a cup of tea because he was thirsty’, and maybe he was or maybe he wasn’t.”

CB: “People talk about science creep, but I think if I’m asking William why he put the kettle on and he says he wants a cup of tea and we’re calling that science, is that not expanding the word ‘science’ to include everything?”

KM: “Well, the method can be applied to any question you like if it’s defined in a scientific way. ‘Why did he want a cup of tea?’ is not a scientific question. The hypothesis that ‘He wanted a cup of tea because he is thirsty’ is a scientific question.”

CB: “I don’t think you have to say, ‘I’m a scientist therefore I’m going to think scientifically about things all the time’. There has to be other ways of looking at the world. Religion is one of them but there are plenty of others.

“The only danger with these conversations is that we start to look at these two things as if there are only two sources [of understanding].”

A whistle rising in pitch ends the discussion. So that’s why the kettle was boiling.

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