Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Scientific American interchange

The debate between non-theistic and theistic beliefs shows no sign of dying down. A couple of letters in this month's SciAm worthy of comment. Here's the first:
You are too generous to religion. Science disproves fundamental tenets of every major religious system, from creation stories to miracles to visions of the afterlife, and after throwing these out there is nothing left beyond a nebulous "religious feeling" and some moral principles, which are largely common sense to begin with.

If this counts as "religion", then perhaps it can coexist with science, but those who profess faith both in science and in one of the established religions make a mockery of both.

Will Nelson, Tucson AZ
This letter is sloppily worded. Science doesn't "disprove" miracles. Perhaps Nelson means that, under controlled conditions, miracles aren't observed to happen. But this doesn't prove that they haven't happened.

Perhaps, instead, he means that miracles are incompatible with philosophical naturalism - PN is unable to accommodate an event that is not explicable by naturalistic processes. But then it is not valid to simply equate philosophical naturalism with science - as has been pointed out many times, modern science was established by people who didn't have a philosophically naturalistic worldview, and yet this didn't invalidate their science. This line of argument would be more credible if a proof for the soundness of philosophical naturalism could be presented - but all we are really offered is a utilitarian, "It seems to work". Since there are other worldviews that are just as sound as philosophical naturalism which don't rule out the possibility of miracles, and within which science can just as well be carried out, the bald assertion that "science disproves ... miracles" is simply false.

If there were nothing left beyond "religious feelings" then I would be happy to agree with what Nelson says - but this has not been demonstrated. Incidentally, you would be right to conclude from this that I am not happy with faith being a kind of post-modern "upper-story" (see Schaeffer - here's a good place to start) phenomenon.

Nelson's use of the phrase "faith ... in science" is telling. It is a "worldviewish" term - one which suggests that Nelson is really talking about philosophical naturalism ("scientism") rather than the scientific method. Also, he sets "faith in science" and "faith in established religion" against each other - which highlights the fact that, if he thinks that belief in established religion is a fundamentally irrational act, then he thinks the same of belief in science.