Hard Science Meets Soft Religion

Over at HuffPo Religion, Dr. Rustum Roy — a geochemist — accuses the media of criminal conduct in its reporting of the non-existent war between science and religion.  In the course of doing so, Roy tilts at several windmills and claims special authority for “hard” or “classical” science.

Roy begins by touting his credentials as a “real” scientist who produces “facts” rather than opinions:  “As a practicing scientist for 60 years known worldwide for my science, I produce data, hard facts (not my opinions) to make my contributions to science, industry, and posterity.”  If you don’t believe him, he proudly says, just try googling his name.

His authority thus established, he provides a singular definition of science that is crimped and cramped:  “First emblazon on your mind that science must have experimentally verifiable facts as its data.”  This is of course one way of doing science, but science is larger than experiment and result.  By Roy’s definition, Darwin was not doing science and neither is Richard Dawkins.  This definition has also been used to exclude paleontology from the lab and beaker realm of “real” science.

So who can speak for science, asks Roy?  He answers:

Surely not the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Sam Harris? Not one of whom qualifies as any kind of (hard) scientist. Stephen Weinberg or Stephen Hawkins, whom I respect enormously as brilliant experts in their fields, are distinguished enough in “science,” but astronomy and cosmology are not classical science.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and while much of his work is synthetic and interpretive, this does not exclude it from the realm of science.  Daniel Dennett does not claim to be a scientist, but is a philosopher who deals with science.  Christopher Hitchens is a cultural essayist and journalist, and has never claimed to be a scientist.  Although Sam Harris writes on social and theological matters, his scientific credentials are perfectly adequate (even if he is producing dubious imaging studies that purport to deal with religion).

Roy singles out Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris because they are vocal atheists and anti-religious.  But Roy doesn’t stop there — he makes the ridiculous claim that Stephen Weinberg and Stephen Hawkins are merely distinguished in “science” (note the denigrating quotes), and what they study (astronomy, cosmology, and physics) does not constitute “classical science.”

At this point, Roy is beginning to sound like a doddering and cranky fool.  Either do science my way or you are not a scientist.  Roy’s view of science is largely instrumental — if you can’t design a light bulb or synthesize a useful industrial compound, you really aren’t a scientist.

This is not simply my reading of Roy, he will brashly tell you himself:  “To represent science, let’s use the real, useful hard science from the last 200 years that the public at large accepts as good and valuable. Experiments on stuff you can touch and feel, “results you can measure and repeat a dozen times.” Where the experiments of friends and competitors confirm or deny your work. Mainly — yes, mainly — on something of value to society.”

Roy sounds like the perfect guy to be considering important scientific questions such as:  What is religion? Where does it come from?  What are its origins?  What causes it to change?  Although I doubt that the “public at large would consider answers to be good and useful,” this is not and should never be the guiding criterion for scientific investigation.   Moreover, I looked at Roy’s long list of publications and do not see a single one in which he has generated a precious, experimental, verifiable, repeatable “fact” that bears on any of these questions.

Roy concludes by noting there is some science, given his narrow definition, that bears on the interrogation of religion:

How come the “deniers” are never confronted by facts and investigated by a reporter who has carefully gathered information from senior scientific authorities (for example, Prof. Larry Dossey’s data on the huge percentage of doctors who pray with or for patients, and on their “belief” in miracles)? Why is the hard data for pure scientific and spiritual healing by the shamans of Hawaii by Jeanne Achterberg never mentioned? All are recorded on MRI scans. Or the three decades of research and data collected by Professors Ian Stephenson and Jim Turner at the University of Virginia on reincarnation here and now, worldwide? Remember, in science, one white crow destroys your theory of “all crows are black.”

Prayer has been studied, multiple times, and the results show no difference in outcomes.  Shamanic healing has been much studied, and its efficacy has been recorded.  I recently wrote about it in my post on Placebo Effects and Shamanic Healing.  These studies aside, there are many researchers — all of whom are scientists of one kind or another — engaged in the study of religion.  These include Jesse Bering, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, Ara Norenzayan, Justin Barrett, Richard Sosis, Harvey Whitehouse, Joseph Bulbulia, David Sloan Wilson, David Lewis-Williams, Michael Inzlicht, and others.  Roy probably has not read their work, or does not consider it valuable, because it is not “hard, classical science.”

These researchers do not design light bulbs or synthesize chemicals; instead, they ponder much deeper and more difficult questions regarding the brain-mind, and how it interacts with the social environment and larger culture.  They also work in an evolutionary context that is historical by definition.  This is harder science than lab work, which when boiled to its essentials is fairly simple.  Roy and others like him have never been forced to consider anything that happened in the past.  If it didn’t happen in the lab, it must not have happened.

As I noted in an earlier post, religion and science are not “at war.”  Science, conceived in a broad sense, is however investigating religion:

We should begin with the recognition that “science” — in the strict sense of performing experiments, gathering data, and testing hypotheses using statistics — is but one strand in the larger enterprise of what might loosely be called positivism.  Science, stricto sensu, can make only limited — but important — contributions to the search for truth.

It is the larger enterprise of positivism, which includes contributions from history, philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology, neurobiology, anthropology, etc. — that can and should investigate the supernatural-religious.  Simply erecting a wall around religion and declaring it off limits to rational inquiry does nothing to advance our understanding and forecloses the possibility of approaching something approximating truth.

If Roy wants to enter this debate, he needs to get over his lab-based view of science and faith in “facts.”  Because geochemistry has little or nothing to say about supernaturalism or religion (other than to disprove the creationist fantasy that the earth is 6,000 years old), Roy will need to do a great deal of reading to catch up with the current investigations into religion, which is not represented by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or Harris.  Facts, standing alone, say nothing and mean nothing.  Given that Roy only produces facts and not opinions about those facts, I am left wondering what, if anything, he has to say or contribute to the investigation.

As Nietzsche aptly put it, “There are no facts — only interpretations of facts.”

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