Ep. 55 - Are Science and Religion Incompatible? | Dr. Peter Harrison

Ep. 55 – Are Science and Religion Incompatible? | Dr. Peter Harrison



how fundamental is the conflict between science and religion is it true that the history of the church is a history of anti-intellectualism and the suppression of scientific inquiry is the cause of the tension between science and religion because of religious fundamentalism and are there any rational truths in the domain of religion that science cannot answer these are the questions I'm trying to answer on the 55th episode of Patterson in pursuit hello my friends and enemies and welcome to episode 55 I'm speaking to you from Thailand right now though the interview you're about to listen to was conducted in Brisbane Australia and boy is it a controversial subject if you've been following the show for a while you know that my default position on everything is a rabid skepticism but in the modern world skepticism has turned to a click instead of being an approach to knowledge it's now a set of conclusions people who identifies skeptics have to believe in accordance with a certain set of beliefs atheism materialism empiricism and the universal irrationality of any type of religious belief in my opinion this is not very skeptical and if you investigate these topics with an open mind I think you'll discover that there is truth to be found in religion you just have to take a lot of the claims in a non literal way this is part of the discussion that I had with my guest this week dr. Peter Harrison who teaches at the University of Queensland he is the director for the Center for the history of European discourses dr. Harrison has many professional accolades not only is he a practicing historian author but he's the former professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford where he was also awarded a Doctor of Letters which is a higher doctoral degree that is given to exceptional academics his most recent books are the territories of science and religion and wrestling with nature from omens to science so this topic is write up dr. Harrison Ali the sponsor for this episode is the company praxis my friend the world has already changed the job market has changed industries have changed academia and the credentialing system have changed the old legacy systems are thankfully dying out and they are being replaced by companies like praxis if you were like me and you're somebody who has ambition you have high standards you're highly motivated to make an impact on the world on your terms then I urge you to rethink the conventional wisdom surrounding getting a formal education in a university and start looking at alternatives college is way too expensive you don't learn practical skills you don't learn correct theories about the world but the vast majority of people all you do is burn through a hundred grand and waste four precious Years of your time all the while having bad ideas pumped into your head but until recently there just wasn't a very viable alternative and that's where praxis comes in they train you for three months about how to be a competent working professional and achieve your goals and that's followed by six months they paid apprenticeship usually at a startup you don't need to burn the hundred grand you don't need to waste your time you can go straight into the real world so that sounds interesting head over to Steve – Patterson comm slash praxis PRA X is and get more information so I hope you guys enjoy my conversation about the tension between science and religion with dr. Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland so first of all I want to thank you very much for sitting down and speaking with me today that's a pleasure Steve I've got a few questions for you that I know this is kind of your area of expertise from my background when I'm talking to philosophers and I talk to people who are interested in science a lot of them are very skeptical when you mention religion you can say the word religion and they assume you're talking about some kind of superstition that has been historically very anti intellectual I think the church has this history of suppressing individual rational inquiry and I'm let's say I'm skeptical of their skepticism and especially when they start talking about history so is there's a there's kind of a simplistic story I've got a lot of people here which is the Catholic Church let's say in the West actively for you know a thousand years or more suppressed scientific inquiry and it was only after the the shackles were loosened did we see modern science emerge and then there was objective investigation the natural world before that it was just it was pure superstition is that an accurate way of thinking about the history of that this relationship between science and religion you know would know and and for a number of reasons and I think if you talk to historians generally speaking you'll get a very different view I think there there are a number of components to to you know what we would regard us the true story but one of the one of the issues I think is to do with how in the past history has been divided up into into into into various periods and and there was a long-standing view that there are nice Anse was a genuine rebirth of learning and what came before that was was the dark' that's where nothing where there's no intellectual activity what we know of is that there was considerable vibrant intellectual activity in in the Middle Ages that we we have the foundations of the first universities they're set up in the Middle Ages they sponsored by by the Catholic Church and there's serious intellectual activity going on there let me get to the next phase when sort of modernity Dawn's from the Renaissance Reformation Scientific Revolution again there's a kind of myth that the modern age is brought about precisely as you said when thinkers start to release themselves from the shackles of religion but what we actually find in relation to science if it's something like the contrary is the case that in the medieval university science and theology were separate faculties and to some extent they have a considerable degree of Independence and in the 17th century what we see is science and religion actually coming together as a kind of more cooperative collaborative mixed-up enterprise and the category sometimes called physico theology which is literally a kind of mix of physics or natural philosophy and theology that never would have happened in the Middle Ages where they'll kept quite distinct so there are number of problematic problematic elements to a story that that looks at the West is progressing away from religion towards science in a kind of linear fashion and so one of the questions we're interested in it as historians is well where did this kind of overarching we've come from right and it came from people in the 19th century essentially although of course the periodization of Middle Ages Renaissance goes back earlier but here for the first time I think you get progressive esta counts of history and one of the famous ones is the positivist philosopher Auguste Comte he comes up with three stages of history where history moves through these stages away from religious through the metaphysical to the scientific or positivist stage this became a very all pervasive powerful way of thinking about history and it tends it tends to lead people from the 19th century on to retrospectively construct history in this progressive is fashion where progress is understood as moving away from religion towards something like a non-religious scientific present now part of what underpins that I think is undoubtedly secularization has taken place the influence of religion in the West has declined but the question is whether this is a kind of universal historical pattern and I think what we see in the 21st century is it clearly that's not the case that for better or worse religion is here to stay and that there's not an obvious correlation between the advance of science and technology and the decline of religion so when you were saying before they used to be this split disciplines and then it kind of came together and we saw the emergence maybe of the Renaissance when I think about the modern division there's definitely a strong division between Natural Sciences and any type of religious thinking but now we do we don't it seems like there's high productivity in the Natural Sciences even with that split so can you give you some more historical context for for how it was and then how things changed – yeah so I think you're quite right if we look at the contemporary Natural Sciences they're they're highly they're highly specialized and this is this is a bigger market modernity the high differentiation we get across the board so it doesn't just happen in science it happens in virtually every area of intellectual environment so you get this high degree of specialization so some some separation between science and religion is a is a kind of specific case of that general degree of differentiation but if we look at when modern science is undergoing its formative moments and I'm speaking here of the 17th century and traditionally this period has been regarded as the period of the Scientific Revolution which you know why I guess kicks off with Copernicus or after him Galileo and then we have Descartes and Newton and Kepler these key key figures if you look at what these guys are doing there they're actually the the religious committed there's no doubt about the sincerity of their religious commitments so clearly for them scientific activity is not something that is necessarily at odds with their with their religious convictions and it's not just that they have private religious convictions and the kind of and and science goes on independently of those what we see and I'll give you give you a specific example what we see is that religion plays a key role in motivating their scientific endeavors in providing religious presuppositions for the kinds of things they're involved in to some extent in in particular cases providing the content of the scientific their scientific theories also in underpinning scientific Authority and even in underpinning specific methods of inquiry and so the motivation one is easy they say things like I'm motivated to study nature because I can see evidence of God's wisdom and power and they're not dissembling when they say that we it's pretty clear they're being sincere about that so that goes to the motivation it doesn't say anything about the content if you look at the question of presuppositions and a Descartes is quite explicit about this one of the distinctive things about modern Western science as it begins in the 17th century is a conception of the regularities of nature understood as laws of nature that's very different from a medieval period where Aristotelian science talked about the internal powers and qualities of things so so things derive their capacity to move and do stuff for Aristotle in the medieval period as a consequence of internal properties in the early modern period they are dispensed with when we get this corpuscular or atomic matter theory that says the particles of matter are inert where does the motion come from in essence it comes from God and how is that motion understood it's understood in terms of laws that God directly imposes on matter and so when Descartes first formulates the IDE the law of nature and ideas of laws of nature in this mathematical sense is a modern idea that replaces this older conception it's clearly a theological notion and Descartes is explicit about God instantiates laws of nature and in in the u.s. we would say the experimental or empiricist tradition in England they have precisely the same conception of laws of nature so for Newton gravity you've got this conception of gravity universal laws of gravity why are the laws universal because God's activity is universal why are these laws immutable because God is immutable in his nature Descartes says this Newton will say something like it too so that God instantiates laws of nature he could have chosen law a or law B in order to find out what he has chosen we need to investigate nature empirically but you also get a move away from causal explanation which was the old Aristotelian view to explanation in terms of laws so we don't really know what gravity is it's not some internal property of matter and in essence I think for Newton and certainly for Newtonian thinkers who came after him the motive force in the universe was divine action and understood in terms of laws of nature and this conception of laws of nature system essentially until the 19th century it's able to read ascribe to be read in terms of laws intrinsic to nature and that's essentially what we see happen in the nineteenth century where we start to get this clear divorce between science and religion for the first time it's interesting you say that because one of the areas that I've investigated a little bit is modern physics quantum physics that sometimes gets thrown around to say really remarkable things about how the world works but it's especially interesting the question why would it be the case that there are discoverable laws of nature it's something that is a presupposition that you're doing empirical inquiry I think everybody assumes that there are these laws out there but why is that the case and that's interesting that it seems like that was that was a religious presuppositions maybe originally and I don't know I don't really have a good to answer to why it would be the case that there are discoverable laws of nature to humans what's especially interesting is I know that there's a very modern movement that says there are no such laws it's all made up it's all in it because everything is chaotic and word is kind of making them fun yes well I think the other move we see in philosophers like Nancy Cartwright who had a famous book that went something like why do the laws of physics lie now what Nancy carbide argues is that is that partly because laws of nature have theological origins if we no longer buy into the theological presuppositions we have no reason to think that there are laws of nature so that's one of her arguments but she wants to suggest and there are others like her wants to return to something like the old Aristotelian view that talks about the inherent powers of things and for Nancy Cartwright it's a very interesting view there are no universal laws of nature what we see are patterns of order and that the order that we see in the natural world that we're able to investigate it is a function of the internal properties that things have and not some imposed law universe or a law like nature stuff so she has an interesting paper called no God no laws if you don't by the field logical presupposition don't buy into the notion that there are universal laws of nature and she's writing this from a standpoint a non-religious Stampler just me those are precisely right because I could see that kind of argument be made by somebody with religious year the musicians to argue for why you should believe in community that's interesting that that would be the claim from somebody saying we shouldn't believe in God therefore no laws but when you were talking about the history there you mentioned Galileo Galileo is caught up in this story this narrative of the demonstration of the anti intellectualism in dogma of the church yeah that everybody knows that Galileo had this theory that the earth revolved around the Sun the church didn't like that they said it's heresy and so they jailed and because that yeah and then that's kind of that this is near the foundations of the modern scientific lien is that story correct again in a word no okay so what but you're right to say that it's a key narrative in this story about the idea there's a perennial opposition between science and religion so we go through the facts Copernicus comes up with a heliocentric view it's relatively uncontroversial for 50-plus years that is always interesting it's really the uncontroversial it's only when Galileo starts to come up with some telescopic evidence that looks like it might support the theory that's part of the reason it becomes problematic the other part I think is to do with the Protestant Reformation but I won't go into that in detail so Galileo is cautioned in 1616 and told not to support the Copernican hypothesis that is that sun-centered hypothesis he publishes a book of dialogue on the cheap world systems it looks like it might be subtly supporting it Said's placed on trial in 1632 and 1633 he's found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy and then teaching as a system that's absurd philosophically which is I'll come back to and he's placed under house arrest and that's that's their defects and okay is this a kind of classic instance of a conflict between science and religion and I'd say no for two reasons first of all this was completely atypical of how the Catholic Church operated the Catholic Church was the chief sponsor of astronomical research fees for this period and indeed for centuries before and for centuries after so this is not a typical thing for the Catholic Church to do and as I kind of hinted to you part of the context is the religious upheavals that are going on in Europe at the time and the fact of the Catholic Church and Catholic authorities under threat from Protestants okay and that's why the biblical passages are going to play a role so it's not typical of Catholicism it's so therefore it doesn't the Peter Mize overall approach is it a conflict between science and religion it's not really it is in part but the key conflict was between two competing or actually three competing scientific theories so it's important to understand that at this time a the scientific consensus is not with Galileo be the evidence in favor of the Copernican system is not good in fact the weight of evidence is in favor of the earth not being in motion so scientifically Galileo is in is in a kind of minority position and a position that it's hard to support and I'll give you some of the scientific evidence in a in a second but the other thing that Galileo leaves out is a third competing hypothesis that has anastasia nary earth but the planets revolving around a sum that internet evolves around the earth and that third option was with the option of Tycho Brahe hey the Danish astronomer so you've got three hypotheses the old Ptolemaic earth centered model which with crystalline spheres and so on a Copernican model that has the Sun at the center and all of the planets revolving around the Sun and then a compromise model which has the planets going around the Sun and the Sun going around the earth now empirically these last two were more or less equivalent but iconic model would give you pretty much all of the observations of the Copernican Galilean mother phases of Venus and so on when consistent with the satellites of Jupiter but it had the whatever timeless or the virtue of the earth not being in motion now this evidence against the earth not moving and that evidence is evidence of parallax that is to say the relative positions of the fixed stars don't seem to move if the earth was in motion they should if they're a long long way away it might be possible at the earth in motion and parallax could not be detected now in fact that is the story parallax was eventually detected in the 19th century when we had instruments that were sophisticated enough to pick it up but at the time because telescopes made stars look bigger than they actually look it was thought that they were closer than in fact they are and this was very one example very very strong empirical evidence against the motion of the earth so the Catholic Church actually backs what looks like a fairly respectable scientific position at the time in that case it doesn't look like a conflict between science and religion what it looks like is a conflict between competing scientific models with Catholicism or the Catholic authorities perhaps unwisely buying into the argument and putting the awake behind the view that at the time actually had more scientific support than the position that Galileo was advocating I think through the rents that gets thrown into it especially is the heresy charges because it's one thing to say this is an inferior scientific theory but then the religious claims gee being brought into the next one we are talking about heresy correct so that's right and and here the issue of the interpretation of key biblical passages becomes becomes important and what Galileo does quite quite cunningly I think he wrote a famous a book or the letter to the Duchess Kristina where he amassed the biblical arguments and showed that you could actually use the Bible to support his own view and and it's pretty clear that Galileo was getting a lot of help from it had numerous friends within the Catholic hierarchy they were feeding him the biblical passages and indeed the views of the great church father Augustine who Galileo cunningly uses in this book but it was a kind of misstep because what Galileo does in claiming to be able to interpret the Bible for himself starts to present a position that's essentially a Protestant position and the promise the Protestant position was we retain the right to interpret Scripture for ourselves we don't want the church dictating to us the meaning of Scripture so there's a key principle that came up with the Council of Trent about who gets to interpret Scripture so Galileo fell foul of the Catholic Church on this point about who gets to interpret Scripture you're quite right to say it wasn't just that that the view he was defending was found to be absurd in philosophy it was found to be heretical and that certainly does look like a question of religion but let me just say this this one thing if we look at the arguments that are mounted against Copernicanism and these were interestingly compiled by a Jesuit that a guy called Richie ollie it puts together this this book that's got all of the arguments in favor of Copernicanism all of the arguments against it and the wait and end and a number of the arguments of wacky in favor of the tie conic model which I mentioned there are only three religious arguments I think against it considerably fewer than the natural philosophical arguments and and together the weight of this relatively small proportion of religious arguments with the great bulk of scientific arguments and was significantly more than the interesting number of arguments that were in favor of the Copernicanism so Richie Olaf book the new a majestic kind of represents I think pretty well the position about scientific orthodoxy at the time there were religious arguments against that the bulk of arguments were scientific and there were a few scientific arguments in favor and on balance it's scientifically not respectable so are there any other examples of kind of popular cases of the church versus religion that have the same that are oversimplified in the popular understanding sure look I think I think there's a feud when Darwinism would be an obvious one I think that down ISM so clearly still today kind of problematic we could probably identify a few others one was in 1266 going way back when the Bishop of Paris issued two hundred and condemnation of 219 propositions of essentially Aristotelian science so that you could say well that looks a bit like it's more it's more religion too philosophy in that context but again paradoxically some historians have argued that this event way back in 1212 77 actually was a spur to scientific thinking because it it it pushed people to think caliphs actually and thinking caliphs actually is really a key part of modern science for example nothing we observe in the terrestrial environment keeps moving everything stops and I think of Newton's laws of motion things will continue with either remain at rest or they will continue in motion we don't ever see that in nature but we can think counterfactually of situations where that might obtain and this ability to think counterfactually becomes a key part key part of modern science so some people argue that below on the face of it that the 1277 condemnations look like anti science and they might have been they were never universal across europe and they might have had actually had the consequence of being a spur to science so that's one Giordano Bruno is often brought up and because Gianna Giordano Bruno is martyred burned at the stake but he's burned at the and he has heterodox religious views that multiplicity of worlds was the big one but really he wasn't executed for holding heterodox scientific views he was executed now I'm saying this is a great thing but he was executed for having heterodox religious views so he wasn't a martyr for science so that that would be another another one now were those religious views with Bruno so when you say he was persecuted for the religious views were those religious he was derived from his scientific views though well look again probably not but here again here this raises a whole other question of at this time what counts as science and what counts as religion doubt right and really you know I'd say the categories the categories in 19th century ones and and what you're dealing with here is not not science as we would not but natural philosophy including the boundary and clearly with you there's a lot we could say about this cat natural philosophy but short thing we can say is it's not science it's significantly different from science and one of the things that makes it different from science is its relation to theological conceptions and it's the the boundaries between natural philosophy and science were more porous than they are so for example God was actually one of the topics of natural philosophy in a way that is not clearly for modern science and so to go back to your question about Bruno it's somewhat artificial to make a hard and fast distinction between what's going to be a scientific view and what's going to be a foot theological view but insofar as we can kind of make a rough-and-ready distinction it seems that his views the key things that they got him on with theological and not scientific insofar as we can make that distinction okay so let's return to Darwin you we went from Galileo touched on Darwin for a second back to Bruno what about Darwin that is a probably the most controversial figure at least that I can think of in terms of the science religious debate that is at with us at present yeah all right so interestingly in the galileo case there wasn't much religiously at stake with it with a sun-centered cosmos on Earth centered one so some people argue that there's a kind of demotion of human beings from the center of the cosmos that that's just not the case the center of the cosmos was the last place he wanted to be because it was farthest from the heavens so that's why you know and you can think about Dante's Inferno Hill is actually located quite in the very center of the cosmos so there's nothing much religiously at stake and don't buy the idea that there's demotion of human beings in the Galileo story but Darwin actually there's a lot at stake the veg asleep but you know if you if you buy into a literal sense of Genesis and historically in the Christian tradition not that most people have but if you do clearly there's a human origins if you but the literal story of Genesis seems to contradict the Darwinian account then you've got the questions about where does human morality come from human beings distinctive in any way if there's just a gradation in in that created order it looks like we're not special which seems to be a key part of of Christian teaching that human beings are created in the image of God what about traditional Christian doctrine like the fall that says we originally created perfect and we fell away from that so again even if you don't accept a literal account of Genesis there's some kind of story that seems to account for why the world is not as perfect as we might otherwise think now I think all of those are at stake in a Darwinian account of evolution by natural selection all right so is it then when Don publishes Origin of Species in 1858 does this precipitate a conflict between science and religion in part yes it does there's a religious reaction against it and for some of the reasons that I that I talked about but the part of story you don't hear is how Darwin had significant religious supporters and one of them in one of the most prominent was a SAG ray who was the professor of botany at Harvard Presbyterian but a very strong supporter of Darwinian evolutionary thinking and in a sense darwin's representative in america so quite a fan of Darwinian thought so Darwin has key religious supporters as well as religious opponents and it's probably worth saying he also has scientific opponents as well just let simply think back to the Galileo case so there's also a science versus science issue here too so it's a little bit more complicated but it's it's probably a better example if you if you're scratching around for an example of the science religion conflict but I think as in all of these cases what what what you can't say is that there's some sort of global relation between science and religion that gives us the key to understanding history that we can understand all of history in terms of kind of this conflict so you pick the gal that you pick the Darwin case apart what you find is that there is conflict there but it's much more complicated than the kind of global story about the forces of religion being opposed by the forces of science young Earth Creationism which we're familiar with it when you've referred to as the kind of contemporary manifestation of this conflict actually turns out to date not from the 19th century when Darwin published origin but from the in part the early 20th century but really from that from the 1950s on young Earth Creationism becomes a thing so it's not as if there is a long-standing tradition going going right back to the first days of Christianity that wants to believe in a literal six-day creation and if it's only 6,000 years old in fact you know one of the one of the early Christian fathers origin that Xena famously said well who's going to be silly enough to believe that God in this kind of anthropomorphic way you know creates like a farm ease it creates the world in six days nobody believes that so there it's there are the long been allegorical readings of Genesis many religious thinkers believed accepted the geological story about the age of the earth which were long predated Darwin's theory of natural selection incidentally so to a large degree the sorts of conflicts we see today around evolutionary thinking and it's optic opposition by religious fundamentalists is it's relatively recent and the other thing we can we can ask about this is whether it's genuinely a science religion conflict and I think it clearly is in part but what what fundamentalist Christians find most problematic I think about evolutionary thinking is that they regard it as part of a kind of secular package and that has a set of associated moral values that in their view D values human life and human purpose so for them it's not it's not so much that they object to the science in fact insofar as they generate their alternative science they have a high view of what science can do and that's why they invest their own religious views with the scientific status but what they find the objectionable about evolution with a capital e is they see it as the bearer of secular values and an heir to humanistic values so that for them it's a moral problem as much as it is a kind of issue to do with science do you think it's fair to maybe view things more clearly this way that we say if we can speak in very broad brushstrokes religion religious ideas themselves it's understood in a non fundamentalist way or in taken as more allegorical or do not pose any kind of tension with scientific inquiry what I seek is my background it might grew up in a Christian evangelical fundamentalist household have lots of experiences with people who would be young earth creationists the trouble is when there's a conflict between the scientific claims the naturalist claims about the nature of the world with the biblical literalist claims they do side strongly on the biblical side and then they cite scripture to give their evidence and that kind of fact yeah I think that I think that's right and so here if you wouldn't want to deny there's there is conflict right but again I would say science religion conflict if the claim is made you always have to look at the specific context and and here I think there's a clear case where you've got something that looks like conflict and you've got individuals who believe it who hear it not only from their own Christian circles but when you get when you get advocates for science or advocates for scientism and I'm thinking here people like Richard Dawkins or the new atheists who also want to say evolutionary thinking you not compatible with religions you've got a disjunction that these people are facing that they themselves believe they hear it from the other side and when forced to make a choice they choose what's most important to them and that's their religious convictions and at some degree you can see why they would why they would make that that choice not that I'm not that I'm advocating right I'm I am suggesting we need to understand what motivates it yes I think so based on my conversations then with the the other side many aggressively I would say anti religious people and they base their hostility towards their understanding of religion which is exclusively as a fundamentalist religion they think what religious ideas are it is something like a biblical literalism and you see it also like with Islam Islamic fundamentalists also have an issue with emotion I think that's also an error on that end because there's this whole that this is an area of thought that I'm discovering time is in real time after moving past the upbringing that I had and kind of saying this is a bunch of nonsense now I'm discovering there's this there's a lot of truth to be found in allegorical understandings of religion that in no way is incompatible whatsoever with scientific inquiry and in fact is harmonized very nicely if you think if the world is operating according to universal law that type of it yes so so to put this another way it's possible to tell some story about science and religion being in conflict if you define what counts as religion narrowly enough and you define what count societally enough you can make that you can make that work but if you actually examine the phenomena themselves and that's what historians do really well I think they actually look at how this stuff functions on the ground you get a very different and much more nuanced picture now you said historically this more literalist religion was not as popular that this is kind of a recent phenomena I've never heard this before I'm totally ignorant donnas topics so is it the case that for a large part of let's say church history they were they did treat the Genesis story let's say as allegorical and not literal claims about how the earth came into existence it looked the the from from the early Christian period right up to the Reformation in the 16th century the main way of interpreting the Bible was allegorical in fact there was that there was a what was called a four fold method of interpretation and the first sense was the literal sense and the others we don't need to bother with a drop illogical anagogical and allegorical right but but the last three were all non non literal now having said that the literal sense was really important because you needed to understand what the words meant but you need to understand what they meant in order to construct the high levels of interpretation on top of those so so allegoric reading was was was kind of standard reading throughout throughout the Middle Ages now interestingly the Protestant Reformation they're an ace on to the Protestant Reformation lead to a much greater focus on the literal sense of the Bible and the intention of the author and then we get the development of historical biblical criticism which which looks at you know the historical context and attempts to understand the meaning so you get a kind of scientific account of the meaning of Scripture whereas the medieval sense was much more a kind of literally spiritual reading where you're not interested it's a kind of devotional exercise in part so it's not just that you engage in allegorical interpretation but the Bible functions in quite a different way and Protestantism makes a key difference because after Protestantism to some extent the Bible becomes a source of information and that actually sets up the potential for a conflict between the kind of information that you might find in the Bible and the kind of information that science is going to generate now all of that said scientific creationism emerges as a movement in the US seventh-day Adventism and that begins to happen around the beginning of the 20th century and then there's a busy famous book published called Claude job about flood geology in the middle of the century that then becomes a kind of foundation document for scientific creationism so when you said that this is a really interesting way of putting it that some of the ideas and Protestant into Protestantism could generate conflict as we take the Bible as something that is telling us information about the natural world that if you take that you're going to have conflict generation so let me ask you them going back to where we started this conversation does it make sense then to say insofar as we understand religion it must be taken allegorical and it must be taken non-physical so that we have the split between science and religions so that the final say in naturalistic matters about the material world is the science well you could say that you could say that look I would again nuance this slightly differently and and I'd say two things one about science and one about religion religion is not primarily I don't think historically across its various manifestations it's not primarily a proposition generating exercise that's attempting to generate propositions that give us a true reflection on the nation' that's not what it aims for now there are implications that might have the might have implications for what the natural world should be like but that's not the main game so the point here is that science or these are not competing to do the same kind of work right now some advocates a number of advocates of science religion conflict constructed in precisely that way so religion just becomes a poor version of science and that that if you set it up that way you know you're going to you're going to get the result you want so that that's what I'd say about religion let's not think about religion as this and that an attempt to generate a scientific view of a poor attempt to generate a scientific view of the world okay sighs do we give science the last word on on nature well I'm inclined to think for the most part yes but let's remember this science is a moving target and if we and again if we look at the history of sight is very very clear that successive scientific theories about the world are not consistent with each other they're not actually converging on some truth so so when Newton takes over from Aristotle he's not refining Aristotle he's throwing it out completely and starting again with and again if you look at an Einsteinian conception of the universe it might look like to incorporate Newtonian ism within it and it does in terms of how you might calculate do Newtonian calculations but in terms of what Einstein postulated that was really there it's a very different set of realities to Newtonian conceptions of mass and force okay you've got you've got space being walked by mass and so so successive scientific theories don't look like they're converging on some ultimate truth about how things are out there they're giving us a better purchase they enable us to do more stuff but the realities they postulate differ systematically so I'm quite happy for scientists to have the last word with that proviso that we understand that science is a work in progress and in a way if you're wanting to have a tight reconciliation between science and religion it's a mistake to make that too tight because science is on the move I very much like that point because from my perspective is not that fundamentally theological it's not fun ability scientific its philosophical it's logical it's kind of theoretic as one step prior to the empirical analysis I think you have to have a theory and prior to even examining the world to make sense of it and very essential to this way of thinking is avoiding dogmatism which my critics my criticisms of the fundamentalist religion is that it is absolutely dogmatic when they have a conflict with scientific data instead of engaging it in a philosophic way it's just well this is Dogma but you also see this with these this crude science is the science of scientism yeah they say well these claims couldn't possibly be right because this is the modern orthodox advanced way of understanding of the world I find that equally as dogmatic except that one comes with the veneer of being intellectually sophisticated because you repeating the orthodoxy of the modern expert Thanks exactly exactly so in a way you've got a kind of fundamentalism on both sides earth gives rides gives rise to this conceptual situation yeah so last question I want to ask you them is about a way that we can think of religious claims not being claims about the natural world but still having truth value to them so interest in your own worldview do you see you don't really see tension between science and religion is just kind of two other two areas of thought what are those what are the questions that you think can be meaningfully answered and talked about in a intellectually respectable and reasonable way that just aren't naturalist in nature or in parts aren't material in nature sure look I think all of the interesting questions actually fall into that category and those you could see questions are questions of that value but I think we also have to ask what is it that makes science possible what is it that makes mathematical reasoning possible what is it what is it that underpins our values and it seems to me that the science cannot answer the question that relates to its own success what is it about human minds that has a capacity to to get to the nature of things insofar as it can and what's interesting I think is that evolutionary theory actually is totally unhelpful in answering that question because it suggests that there's no reason we should think that's the case at all so so I think that most of the interesting questions about meaning and value and about the success of our scientists endeavours are themselves non-scientific questions and if we don't acknowledge that the possibility of asking those questions and at least attempting to provide some answer to them then then really the scientific enterprise itself I think sits on very fragile foundations now when you're investigating those questions that also seems like an interesting area of just pure philosophy so if it's not just pure philosophic inquiry why look at the religious religious willette any religious arguments well I think some religious arguments are already philosophical for a start but I would say but more than that any line of questioning that that's looking at that evidence must come to a stop somewhere and then we get back to the question of you know as someone like Alvin plan you can say what beliefs are properly basic and that I think ultimately is not it's not a scientific question is partly a philosophical question I think it's also partly partly a religious question so I'd say that I think the other thing that as a historian what I see in in the religious traditions is is a long tradition of kind of congealed wisdoms that that I don't subscribe to the view that people in the past were stupid but that there was somehow less intelligent enough or that that the ideas they came up with and necessarily going to be inferior to ours and I think this is a good attitude for historians to take because it's very easy to misunderstand the past if we treat it with condescension and so I think part of my attitude to religious ideas and religious traditions would fall into that category of attempting to respect the views of other people and the views that the vast monistic this includes philosophy as well the vast majority of people in history are being religious they've held strong religious views and this applies to the philosophical tradition in the West as well now unless these people are complete idiots it seems to me there going to be something in in these ideas that's worth exploring and with the ceiling mm-hm I think that's especially true if you split how what areas of thought you're talking about so it's also the case that most people throughout history held bad ideas about how the world works true and that will probably be in the lot in in the fullness of time big trig of our period as well perfect that's definitely the case when you when you were saying just a moment ago that I'd be in in in closing here what's really fascinating in my own pursuit is that I'm I'm investigated what I have dubbed irrationalism that's what I call there's a there's a philosophic scientific cultural movement which says reality is unknowable there are logical contradictions and paradoxes all around us human reason is fundamentally flawed and what's interesting is how many of those people think that is the height of scientific and rational inquiry is to realize that your mind is this hunk of meat and inside the skull of a mammal that more evolutionary reasons we have no reason to believe has any access to truth I think you can discover truth about the world and you discover some very limited set of certain truths about the nature of the room it's actually really hard for me to import that into my into my metaphysics because then I now have to give an explanation okay what does that say about the nature of the mind if it's true that I can know some limited things it's a really weird thing to try to grapple with yeah no absolutely I mean to but to get to go back to your point about skip you know skepticism based on evolutionary thinking it's again paradoxically self-defeating because our whole evolutionary way of thinking is itself based on and evolution say it gets it's the it's the old periodic skepticism versus academic skepticism there the thoroughgoing skepticism ultimately undermines itself this is why I think this that they have often been interesting interesting partnerships between versions of skepticism and Christian faith and I think to some extent we see this in Pierre Bayle to some extent I think we see this in in Kiev Igor I'm not recommending it but I'm saying it's not it might seem streets away but actually those those views about ultimate skepticism can be quite close to certain religious Christian views then say in light of this the only way out of the circle is some kind of faith or some kind of revelation so you can get to that point through philosophical reasoning well I like that I really appreciate the conversation this is been great good thank you Steve good to talk to you all right that was my conversation with dr. Peter Harrison from the University of Queensland I hope you found that insightful and engaging I've got much to say on this topic I'm really looking forward to breaking down this interview I think with controversial subjects like this there's so much misinformation there's so much dogma there's so much emotion that's running through people who find themselves on both sides of this issue that the rational middle ground I think can be really hard to find so that's what I'm trying to do that's what I've tried to do not just about this topic but in all these areas of thoughts that I'm investigating I'm trying to cut through all the crap and really get down to the truth so if you value this project you want to listen to more interviews like this then you can help support the show at patreon.com slash Steve Patterson you can sign up join the more than 85 other patrons of the show who contribute just a dollar to whenever a new episode or article is released plus if you become a patron you also get some neat perks including free copies of the two books that I've written so far if you want this message to reach more people you can also leave a rating and review on iTunes and stitcher that will help the ranking of the show which will get these ideas out to more people so thanks everybody for listening and I'll talk to you next week

5 thoughts on “Ep. 55 – Are Science and Religion Incompatible? | Dr. Peter Harrison

  1. no they are not science is all about understanding the universe through the lens of reason and logic. Religion is all about understanding the world through faith. Neither can disprove the other. But they can work in tandem with each other.

  2. Sounds like non-overlapping magisteria, which I was always fond of. I'd like to hear more on this no-god-no-laws idea. Makes sense to me that there are no external influences.

  3. I believe Steve is asking rightful and difficult questions that most Christians aren't adequately prepared for and I admire his calm and collected skepticism through a long journey, literally! The caveat is that he maybe asking the wrong people and it amazes me that such a well educated person such as Dr. Harrison fails and/or avoids discussing that Christianity is NOT a dichotomy when it comes to science and the Bible. Yes, Young Earth Creationism is currently the dominance, but again it's not the only credible interpretation and it's unfortunate that some of the Christian organizations impress on the public that it has to be a strict dichotomy and that there's only one way of interpreting it especially Genesis 1.

    In context of this interview, here's the three largest credible Christian organizations that I am aware of.

    Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism – [My personal stance]
    Reasons To Believe – http://www.reasons.org/
    (An extensive overview of this interpretation can be found in this YouTube video below)
    https://youtu.be/iTX0N9RqHqY?t=1s
    (Less extensive)
    https://youtu.be/iIohXcdxrNM?t=1s
    (Evolution – extensive)
    https://youtu.be/TR4WjxvCT6s?t=1s
    Also a shout-out to General Han Solo for providing complete and thorough content. 😉

    Young Earth Creationism
    Answers In Genesis – https://answersingenesis.org/
    You're probably aware of their positions. So no need in explaining.

    Evolutionary Creationism
    BioLogos – http://biologos.org/
    This organization interprets the Bible in an Anti-Concordist view and holds science and the Bible are separate, basically what Steve asked in minute 42.

    For possible scientific evidence of a Creator:

    Read first – https://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0208013.pdf
    Read second – https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2011/advanced-physicsprize2011.pdf
    Read third – https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/222321D5D4B5A4D68A3A97BBE46AEE45/S1323358000001491a.pdf/div-class-title-the-fine-tuning-of-the-universe-for-intelligent-life-div.pdf
    Response – Skip to minute 18 – http://www.reasons.org/podcasts/i-didnt-know-that/sinkholes-old-earth-creationism-on-trial-murphy-s-law-in-the-multiverse

    Thank you Steve for boldly searching and documenting your journey. I honestly hope you find truth, maybe not from me or Christianity but here's a providing hand in a feeble attempt.

  4. Great interview. These two aspects of human experience should have never been pitted against one another. After all, who said we were supposed to have an 'accurate' conception of reality. A tree, my guess, has equal insight.

  5. This is a podcast worth subscribing to.

    The short answer on the science vs religion debate is that religious texts like the Bible are not meant to be scientific, because they were not written by scientists.

    This does not mean these authors were merely ignorant peasants. They had the same capacity for intelligence you and I have, they just didn't have libraries, the written word, or the access to information we have.

    This, however, does not make their findings, and what they reveal about humanity any less true. Hell, just look around at culture, and they appear to be more true than ever.

    The central problem the Bible works to solve is that of human suffering and all of its terrible outcomes.

    The conclusion the Christians came to is this: in order to change the world and make it a better place, one must begin with himself. Bottom line.

    This is also what the Buddhists discovered about 500 years earlier, that the path which surmounts human suffering is that of the enlightenment of the individual, that there is no other way.

    Just my opinion on the matter.

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