Science and religion dialogue in Austin

Posted on April 9, 2015


I’m in Austin, Texas, to give a talk in a workshop organised by Cristine Legare – Breaking New Ground in the Science-Religion Dialogue Workshop. Looking forward to it.

I have written a draft version of some the things I plan to say during the presentation:

Philosophers have a very particular set of skills. Skills they have acquired over very long careers. Skills that make them a nightmare for people at parties. They will examine your reasoning, identify your premises and point out the weaknesses in your arguments. And there’s never an end to it.

Kind of like the science and religion dialogue.

So, you will forgive if I do not resolve it here and now. Instead, I will simply seek to clarify why the dialogue has been as difficult as it has been and what philosophers can do about it.

When I finished my master’s degree I went to visit my brother. I had spent my time at university training my ability to put together rational arguments and to evaluate those of others, learning the conceptual tools necessary to express my thoughts in a precise, logical manner. It had become second-nature for me to find the faults in the reasoning I came across: intellectual sparring being something of a sport among philosophers. After a few days, I realised that I was using my skills on my brother’s eleven-year-old step-daughter, taking apart every single thing she said to me. And although she was taking my behaviour in good stead I suddenly realised that I was being an intellectual bully.

Hopefully, this experience has given me an awareness of the differing requirements of various forms of intellectual intercourse. Certainly, I was pleased to see that this meeting aims to contribute to the science and religion dialogue, rather than the more typically named science and religion debate. Debates are fun. Kind of like cage fights. Outside of the academic contexts in which their rules are well-defined and their aims clearly set out, they are rarely constructive, however. Kind of like cage fights. Let me give you an example. There is a fascinating study which shows that a mixed group of people provided with additional arguments for two sides of an issue upon which they hold varying views will not approach a consensus, but will instead grow more polarised in their views. This is explained in terms of confirmation bias: the tendency to look for evidence favourable to our views and to minimise the significance of the counterevidence. This bias is just one of the limitations of adversarial intercourse.

That scientists do manage to regularly reach a consensus on often highly-charged topics is interesting evidence for the special status of science. In part, this success may be due to the fact that just as much as a competitive enterprise, science is a cooperative one. Scientists routinely depend upon each other’s work in their efforts to understand some aspect of reality and are rewarded by the scientific community for research that is useful to others, so that the competition is to be more useful to the community. So, I would argue that the cooperative approach suggested by talk of a dialogue is more likely to be constructive than an exchange framed in terms of a debate.

To some ears this might suggest something like a feel-good chat session whose ultimate conclusion will be no more than a tepid “You like to believe in evolution and I like to believe in angels and that’s just fine”. Let me reassure those ears that I am far from claiming that. A cooperative dialogue needn’t shy away from the reasoned evaluation of the positions in question. Indeed, cooperative dialogue mustn’t shy away from reasoned evaluation if it is to avoid treating people as children to be humoured, or forced into compliance. Talk of respecting people’s beliefs all too often implies not respecting the people, themselves. Indeed, cooperative dialogue can not shy away from reasoned evaluation as people automatically evaluate the views they come across. The only question being how well they do it.

My brother’s step-daughter was bright and curious and, once I stopped treating her as an adversary to be bested, we gained quite lot from talking to each other. The intellectual machinery I had learnt was still very much useful, but in so far as it helped me to understand and explain to the both of us some of the issues we talked about.

In truth the intercourse between science and religion can not be a competition between them. The old idea that, if science bests religion in intellectual combat, people will forsake religion has been found, by scientists themselves, to be quite false. Individual beliefs might be destabilised by rational critique but the underlying religiosity remains unaffected. Secularisation is not driven by intellectual forces but by economic and social ones. No, the point of the exchange, carried out as it is by members of a society that have varying and partly conflicting commitments, is to find ways for their society to reconcile and keep reconciling those commitments on an on-going fashion. As such, the dialogue can no more be won by any one party than an argument between a husband and wife. And just like an argument within a marriage, it can not end so long as both science and religion continue to play important roles in society and in the lives of its members.

Having said all this I should add that the dialogue regarding science and religion is a particularly hard one and should like to use the rest of my time to explain why.

Much of the focus in the dialogue has been upon what are seen as competing claims regarding the fundamental nature of reality that science and religion are thought to make. And I have no proposal how to make that divide any less significant. Rather, I should like to consider why it is that science and religion present such very different views of the world. Which is altogether typical of what philosophers do – merely explain how serious a problem is without actually solving it. As is starting the explanation by making some points that might appear totally unrelated.

Imagine if you will a group of hunters out in the forest. To catch the big game they must cooperate, which they might do for a number of reasons. One thing that could motivate them to work together would be the knowledge that upon their return to their camp a vengeful chieftain would punish those who failed to pull their weight during the hunt. Vitally, it is not the future punishment that would motivate the cooperation but their expectation of it. Whether they were punished could only affect their expectations during future hunts. During the current hunt it would not matter if their belief in the punishment was inaccurate. All that would matter is that they do believe in it.

A variety of functions have been proposed for religion, from giving meaning to individual lives to helping to motivate prosocial behaviour. What they generally share is that for those functions it is irrelevant whether the religious beliefs are true. All that matters is that they be believed in. Just like the vengeful chieftain.

This is very unusual. How useful most beliefs are depends closely upon how accurate they are. If I tell you the next Lotto Texas numbers, the value of my prediction is significantly lower if I also tell you that my prediction is not accurate. The knowledge that science provides us with is much the same. It has to be accurate to be useful – try putting a satellite into a geostationary orbit at 20 feet above ground, for example. Of course, it may be useful by coincidence even if it isn’t accurate – I could get the lotto numbers right accidentally. But in the case of religious beliefs, it is a coincidence if they are both true and useful.

But there’s a problem. Once the hunters realise their chieftain will not punish them, fear of his punishment will no longer motivate them. Or, to put it another way, religious beliefs must maintain their plausibility even if not true. In part they do this by being ‘natural’, in the sense that Bob McCauley uses. This is why religions, just like human reasoning, focus on interactions with other agents. However, they need to do more. They need to avoid being undermined by potential counterevidence. A belief that motivates prosocial behaviour by promising reward and punishment after death is going to be quite good at that. As is a belief which is deemed to be so sacred that any criticism of it would be taboo. And religious beliefs are typically considered sacred.

Religion and science do not just present fundamentally divergent views of reality. They also rely upon very different attitudes regarding how we should treat our views of reality. And those different attitudes are necessary for science and religion to function well. For beliefs whose function is not connected to their truth it makes no more sense to select them on their accuracy than it does on the basis of whether they sound good in iambic pentameter.

The problem is that retaining the social attitudes necessary to maintain the stability of religious beliefs runs counter to the attitudes necessary to have an open dialogue. This can be seen in the way that it is particularly common for theists to interpret attempts to criticise the role of religion in society as a personal attack upon their identity and values. This isn’t because religious people are particularly thin-skinned or consciously seeking to use social scruples to shut down critical examination. It is simply how successful religious belief systems protect themselves. Social phenomena are rarely to be explained in terms of individual traits.

So what can philosophers do to help? One of the most valuable things I learned when I was taught philosophy was that the first step to evaluating any position, any set of claims – before rolling out the analytical machinery we were trained to make use of – was to understand them. Unfortunately, in our love of argument, this is a point that we philosophers forget all too often – as I myself did for a day or two with my brother’s daughter-in-law. Yet, together with our appreciation for careful argumentation, it is this focus upon making sure that we understand the position of those we are engaging in discussion with that is sure to be helpful in the science and religion dialogue. We should not deny that science and religion are making claims that are in conflict with each other. That does not mean that people with scientific and religious commitments need to be in conflict. There have always been people with conflicting commitments in any society. We should aim to understand the basis for those commitments and work together to find way to structure society in ways that account for them.

It is a simple point. Obvious, even. The difficulty is in the execution. Philosophers can help with that.

Posted in: Konrad's talks