Are Religion and Science Compatible?

My thesis: the answer is “yes, but who cares?”

But first, let me give a few definitions. In this context, “religion” will be defined as any kind of belief in an uncreated intelligence (“God”). Since most people are not explicit about the probabilities they assign to beliefs, and because often — especially when it comes to religious beliefs — they descend into belief in belief — it is hard to quantify it, and there will certainly be cases of “religious” people who do not qualify. It is for this reason that I am explicitly stating a definition in this post.

So let’s try again:

Are beliefs in an uncreated intelligence (with high probability, and accounting for belief-in-belief) compatible with science?

That will serve as unpacking the first part. Now we unpack the second part. Science is defined as using the scientific method to understand the universe:

  • Devise a theory
  • Generate predictions (hypothesis) from the theory
  • Design experiments to test those predictions
  • Accept theories which are “elegant” and conform to the experiments

There are many nuances here — experiments must be carefully designed, and confounding factors must be accounted for. This is to be expected — if learning how to be a scientist was as simple as reading four lines in a blog post, we would not need PhD programs.

So let’s try again:

Are beliefs in uncreated intelligence (caveats included) compatible with using the scientific method to explain the world?

Well, sure they are. After all, dab a little bit of rationalization on the belief, and you can make it compatible with anything. But wait — where does the intuition that there is a conflict come from? Well, at first rate, the scientific method seems like a ritual. You follow the ritual, the social convention, and science comes out. Science turns out to be useful in manufacturing technology.  The world seems to behave in the following way:

Science allows us to have power to manipulate the world to our liking

This is a fact, as far as we can see. Can we turn the method of science on itself? Can we generate predictions, and test them? Classically, the philosophy of science was a distinct tradition of science apologetics, distinct from science. That is, the conclusion was forgone — science is good — and arguments in favor of science were sought. Popper’s falsificationism and Kuhn’s paradigm are both of that ilk — they’re not science!

Properly understanding science requires several more auxiliary facts:

  • We know humans find it hard to change their minds
  • Human beings are not Bayesian reasoners
  • Reality seems to not care what we think about it

So here is a theory: science is a set of social conventions to allow imperfect human beings to approximate, collectively, Bayesian reasoning about the world. Of course, that Bayesian reasoning has to start from some priors. Science has always espoused Occam’s Razor — which sounds suspiciously like an a-priori way to distinguish between theories. Can we formalize Occam’s Razor into a prior? It turns out we can! It’s called Minimum message length and has its own wikipedia page.

Let’s restate the theory again:

Science is a set of social conventions to allow imperfect human beings to approximate, collectively, Bayesian reasoning with MML priors about the world

Here is a concrete prediction:

Other philosophies of science will justify approximations to Bayesian/MML reasoning

Well, do they?

  • Falsificationism — if P(theory is true|current knowledge) is close to 1, experiments that confirm it can help very little. On the other hand, if an experiment “falsifies” it, meaning P(theory is true|current knowledge+experiment)<<1, then that’s “enough” to drop it. Contrariwise, a theory that cannot be falsified, meaning P(theory|experiment succeeds)=P(theory|experiment fails) means, P(experiment succeeds|theory)=P(experiment fails|theory), so the theory says nothing about any experiment. A theory with no predictions is longer than the MML “anything can happen”, and so with a lower probability and no positive evidence, it is not accepted.
  • Paradigm shift — if P(theory is true|current knowledge+experiment)<<1, but it’s just one experiment, a message that corresponds to “theory is true except in that one experiment” is not much longer, so it’s likely that P(theory modified with accounting for that one experiment) will be close to 1. This grows worse and worse the more exceptions are added, until a “paradigm shift” occurs, and a new theory is selected for. Given that in Falsificationism there’s no positive response except “back to the drawing board”, it is only to be expected that a bounded intelligence will prefer searching for close-by messages if we can find ones with P(message) close to 1.

Now, let’s assume we accept that theory. We have

Science is a social approximation implemented on human beings to Bayesian/MML reasoning

It is perfectly possible to do science without understanding that. But a scientist who reflects on the scientific method is likely to come to similar conclusions, and then ask themselves the obvious question: “If Bayes/MML turns out to be good at explaining the world, why not apply it everywhere?”

That’s where the problem with religion comes in. The MML for “God” seems, on the face of it, to be really really long. Adding insult to injury, “God” has poor predictive strength. The two of those combine to make sure that P(“God”|what we know), as far as we can roughly approximate it, is close to 0. This is what people who are aware of Bayesian reasoning mean when they say “The statement ‘God exists’, as far as I can see, is false.”

In conclusion: Science is compatible with religion — but only so long as we do not reflect on science. As soon as we reflect on science, and apply it to itself, the distance from there to rejecting religion is short.

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4 Responses to Are Religion and Science Compatible?

  1. You raise some interesting issues here, Moshe!

    I’d probably answer “no, but mostly it doesn’t matter” to your question. Religion is fundamentally not compatible with science. It only mostly doesn’t matter though; there are times when it really does.

    At their core, the words “religion” and “science” refer to an ontological root: do you believe that “truth” is determined by taking data from your sensory inputs (and, by proxy, from instruments which measure the world and convey their measurements to your senses) and applying your reasoning to it, or do you believe that truth is revealed to you exclusively by spirits (which may communicate in part by providing you with sensory stimuli)?

    If you believe in ghosts, elves, “uncreated intelligence”, aliens, nirvana, luminiferous aether, gods, fairies, the loch ness monster or bigfoot, but you are open to being convinced that there are other explanations for your observations when confronted with sufficient evidence, you may be gullible or eccentric or wrong, but you are not religious.

    You can only tell if someone is religious by testing their faith in some way. If you can confront someone with an obviously conflicting fact, something which clearly indicates to them that their belief is wrong, but they choose (unconsciously or not) to rationalize it or apply some apologetic methodology to it rather than accept it and change their theories.

    Creationism is the easiest sort of religiousness to spot, because it is so blatantly in conflict with huge mounds of evidence about how the world came to be the way it is. It’s also the most troubling kind, because it wastes so much human productivity: it causes creationist authors to produce mountains of easily identifiable cognitive trash, full of shibboleths and newspeak, designed to provide a plausible reconciliation of obvious facts about the world and their own virtuous belief-in-belief. The producers waste their time producing it and the consumers waste their time consuming it, but it’s a necessary exercise to remain religious because it’s too hard to simply walk around eating food engineered using theories about evolutionary biology and using fuels located by archaeology and geology without having some reason that all these predictions work and yet their belief can still be maintained. That level of cognitive dissonance would drive anybody crazy.

    But religiousness is readily identifiable in other places; people believe you can take pictures of ghosts, that aliens routinely visit earth to abduct people and perform experiments on them, and that they are reincarnated dragons.

    As you put it, an extremely reductive religion – deism, basically – is compatible with all science except the meta-science that reflects on itself. But the real religions that people practice today have specific beliefs which modern scientific technology can inspect and falsify, and internal inconsistencies and self-contradictions which logic and mathematics can expose. In order to cope with real religion, you need to discard certain important predictions. Society at large can live with this as long as most people mostly aren’t religious about important things, or aren’t aware of the implications of their religious beliefs. America’s scientific community, for example, can easily sustain a large creationist population because most people don’t have the time to acquire a technical understanding of how modern medicine works and appreciate the depth of the contradiction that it represents, or the even wider chasm between belief and fact revealed by geologic models of the world. But we couldn’t support a religion that demonized semiconductor physics in the same way, because most people do have some understanding that electrons flow through the devices which they interact with every day of their lives.

    • moshez says:

      Those are interesting thoughts — but I have a problem squaring them with the evidence. 🙂

      Specifically, in a world where orthodox Jews win Nobel prizes in Physics and Catholics are influential biologists, it seems that you can be a successful scientist and “believe” in religion.

      Now, the orthodox Jews who win Physics Nobel prizes surely understand that all matter is made out of quantum-mechanical atoms, and the Catholic biologists understand that humans have evolved from eukaryotes — probably better (each at their own field) than most “atheists” understand those things. The beliefs are not compatible with applying the “scientific method” outside the lab, but they seem to be compatible with the treating science as a ritual whose authority is limited to their “professional” lives (much like someone can wear a suit&tie to the office, but relax at home with jeans and a t-shirt).

      • I agree with what you’re saying, mostly. A religious person can do perfectly good science. They just can’t do science that conflicts with their religion. Of course a Catholic can do science that conflicts with the formal definition of Catholicism, but that’s basically like writing “Red” on a blue index card.

        That means that a modern Catholic scientist is considerably less religious than a 19th century Catholic scientist, because modern science displaces a good deal more of 19th century catholicism than 19th century science did. That doesn’t mean that Gregor Mendel’s contributions to his field were insignificant either, though!

  2. Ken Whitesell says:

    I know I’m jumping into a morass here, but I feel compelled to comment on a couple of the latter comments, particularly as they relate to Catholicism.

    Disclaimer: I am an orthodox Roman Catholic, who chooses to believe what the Catholic Church teaches. While I have very little formal training in theology, I do read a great deal, and believe my knowledge extends a bit farther than a typical Catholic. (Having a brother who is an ordained Deacon in the Church has a lot to do with that.)

    With that all being said, there is no conflict between Catholic theology and science. Unlike many Christian denominations, Catholics do not believe in a literal, “scientific” interpretation of the bible. It is not a history textbook. It is a collection of inspired writings designed to teach and inspire us.

    God is not limited by the universe that we can observe and measure. He created it and exists beyond it. He is responsible for all the rules and principles we have identified that guide its operation. Those working in science are merely discovering those facts – identifying, labeling, and classifying them, allowing us to make more sense of the world in which we live.

    No, I find no conflict between science and my faith. On the simplest level, our universe is Plato’s Cave – we are observing and measuring what our senses are capable of telling us. Everything is internally consistent because we are chained to the existence provided. Yet, there is something more. And the belief in that something more is faith.

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