Appeasing Religionists and Cramping Science

Over at HuffPo Religion, the evolutionary biologist Michael Zimmerman has posted an article titled “Religion and Science: Respecting the Differences.”  Zimmerman argues that science has its domain and boundaries and that religion has its domain and boundaries, and that science should stick to science and religion should stick to religion.

It all sounds measured and reasonable — ecumenical if you will, but it seems much more like appeasement.  I took issue with this overly tolerant (or intellectually dishonest) approach in a previous post, Science and Religion: Never Shall the Twain Meet?  Because the issue keeps popping up, I thought I would take another whack at the mole.

To advance his argument, Zimmerman must carefully and artificially define boundaries.  He begins by stating he believes “that science is an incredibly powerful way of understanding the natural world.”  So it is.  But notice that Zimmerman has confined science to the “natural” world.  Is there some world other than the natural one?  I suppose there are such worlds and we have a word for them: imaginary.

Zimmerman’s next move is to provide a cramped definition of science:

Scientific investigation is a process that depends upon hypothesis testing and demands that scientific claims be offered in a manner that permits them to be falsified. Simply put, if you can’t phrase your hypothesis in a falsifiable manner, it falls outside the bounds of science. Science is, therefore, one of the few fields of human endeavor that has opted to limit its own scope — and it’s that limitation that makes it so useful.

While I realize there are those who think that “science” has specific boundaries and can be pursued in only one way (hypothesis-test-falsify), science is part of a larger enterprise in which we evaluate truth claims using multiple methods, including the gathering of data-evidence, and then fitting that data-evidence into frameworks or narratives that are logically constructed.  This is precisely how Darwin went about his scientific business.  It is also how historians go about theirs.

We then evaluate these frameworks or narratives against what is known or can be known.  Some narratives are far more persuasive and likely than others.  They cohere better and are more likely to command consensus from all kinds of people, regardless of their spiritual or religious beliefs.  In many cases and ideally, these kinds of frameworks bring us closer to truth.  I know of nothing — including religions — that cannot be evaluated this way.  Nothing — least of all something as pervasive and powerful as religions — should be exempt from this type of scrutiny.

Given Zimmerman’s cramped definition of science, however, there are things — such as aesthetics and religion (and presumably “morals”) — which fall outside its scope.  This is, as I heard Scott Turow say the other day in a different context, “pure hokum.”

To complete his argument, Zimmerman asks the logical next question: “Where does that leave religion?”  Here again, Zimmerman offers a constrained definition that suits his appeasing purposes:

Well, it depends what you mean by religion. When religion (or more likely its fundamentalist adherents) begins to make claims in the complete absence of evidence and in a manner that is not falsifiable, and when those claims are passed off as scientific, the record must be set straight.

All religions make claims in the absence of evidence and in ways that are not falsifiable.  The issue is not, however, whether those claims “are passed off as scientific.”  It is whether those claims are passed off as truth.

To set the record straight regarding the truth or untruth of claims made by religionists requires a multi-faceted approach that includes data-evidence and evaluation from all positivist disciplines, including (but not limited to) biology, anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, economics, and psychology.

What is at stake here goes far beyond the creationism/intelligent design and evolution conflict, which is what prompted Zimmerman to plead for an intellectual detente that marks religion off as something special and beyond investigation.  What is at stake is truth, and when it comes to this issue Zimmerman’s accomodationist stance gets us nowhere.

Did you like this? Share it:

One thought on “Appeasing Religionists and Cramping Science

Leave a Reply