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Author Topic: Huff Post, Ken Miller, and Michael Shermer on the Compatibility of Science and Religion
Posts: 65
Post Huff Post, Ken Miller, and Michael Shermer on the Compatibility of Science and Religion
on: March 13, 2012, 22:43

Huffington Post has a great piece featuring side-by-side articles by Ken Miller (the biology professor, author of the standard textbooks on biology, opponent to Intelligent Design, and eloquent spokesman for science) and Michael Sherman, the most reasonable New Atheist. Its at

Miller presents a classically good defense of the compatibility of science and range. Here is his argument:

The deeper issue, the only one that really matters in this debate, is whether there is a genuine incompatibility between science and the concept of God. What science surely tells us is that the origins of our universe and the creatures within it are found in natural processes that can be observed and studied. In other words, that our own existence is woven into the very fabric of the natural world. Seen in this light, the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of our universe. To a theist, God is nothing less than the source of the profound rationality of nature. Naturally, a non-believer seeks another reason for that rationality. Yet despite these differences, both can embrace the systematic study of nature in the project we call science. That is the ultimate source of compatibility between science and religion.

Shermer is walking a tightrope in his argument - and it seems to me that he is slipping. On one hand, he claims that there is no such thing as "the supernatural" (which he seems to want us to believe is equivalent to the "paranormal,"). On the other hand, he doesn't offer us much more than bald assertions that this is just the way it is to persuade us of his view. He is preaching to the converted. Here is what he says:

Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to state that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as "supernatural" and "paranormal" just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural and normal causes ...

So, all things will be brought to light by science? The purpose of life? Why I love my wife? Why I can think? Why I love spring? Why I have consciousness? How the laws of nature were brought into being? I have serious doubts that these will be answered before I die, and I'm not really interested in the answer after then

Religion - Shermer believes - is a pre-scientific attempt to explain things:

To our bronze-age ancestors who created the great monotheistic religions many millennia before the rise of science, an invisible intentional agent in the form of a god was the best explanation they could think of to explain the world. Today we can explain much (but not yet all) of the workings of the natural world, such that the realm of the unexplained requiring gods is shrinking as the sphere of science expands into the great unknown.

This is not very strong stuff. But, then he offers something substantive:

Now, one may postulate a supernatural God who exists outside of space and time and is not knowable to science because He is not part of the natural world, thus obviating my expanding sphere of knowledge metaphor. But if that is so, then how are we to know whether or not this God exists? What is the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God? As corporeal beings who form beliefs about the world based on percepts (from our senses) and concepts (from our minds), how can we possibly know a being who by definition lies outside of both our percepts and our concepts? At some point doesn't God need to step into our spacetime to make himself known in some manner -- say through prayer, providence, or miracles? And if so, why can't science measure such divine action?

THIS is worth debating and thinking about. So, some comments. Basically, he saying is that God doesn't exist if we can't measure God. Certain types of evidence doesn't count, in his view as for example, the underlying unity of sciences where simple principles have extraordinary creative powers. He wants low-level physical evidence - mechanical material maybe, evidence that apparently he can read on a meter (a God meter?).

Now, I'm guessing about this, of course. Lets just say that he wants scientific evidence for the existence of God, but he is not interested in big-picture evidence, only little-picture evidence.

Next, in my opinion, he loses his grip on the tightrope. Because religion "has no empirical claim ... that science can address, then there is little more to be said on the matter". Then he says that science is "our best hope for survival."

I say he has lost grip on the tightrope because this simply doesn't address the compatibility of science and religion. He says - without any scientific evidence to back him up - that science is the best solution.

Lets accept that (even though it is clear that any "science" solution is a priestly one - not a lot of us are scientists and we are going to have to place our morals and ethics in the hands of the people who gave us atom bombs, Social Darwinism, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments). Does it at all follow that believers in the God he doesn't believe in can't do good science? Given that most of the world's greatest scientists have been religious, that conclusion would be belied by the evidence.

So, for his argument to stay on tightrope - to make sense - he would have to argue that believing in God makes scientists do bad science. But of course, he can't make that argument because he knows its not true.

Am I missing something here?

As far as I can tell he is making a classic us vs. them argument. They don't believe something we believe, that's bad, so they are wrong. He ignores the fact that people who are religious are as equally proficient at doing science as those who aren't.

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