I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Science vs. Religion: Teaching the Controversy

Scientific American has just published “a new column that examines the intersection between science and society,” an essay by my fellow physicist Lawrence Krauss that argues that science is fundamentally inconsistent with traditional religion. As Krauss’s conclusion states:
Until we are willing to accept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence argues against, without myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more important, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.
So, what does all this have to do with homeschooling? Like most scientists, I disagree with so-called "young earth creationists” as well as the more subtle creationism of “Intelligent Design.” But, on one point, I think the creationists are absolutely right: the “tolerant,” “moderate” position that holds that of course religion and mainstream, established science are compatible, and that, if they aren’t, at least we should be quiet about it, leads to an educational disaster.

Religion has been of crucial importance in human history; it is still extremely important to a large number of Americans.

Whether religion and mainstream science are compatible is not just a sophomoric question that can and should be quietly ignored by mature people. It is a question that is central to our understanding of ourselves, our civilization, and our future.

Krauss points out, quite correctly, that science does not disprove the existence of “a God that does not directly intervene in the daily operations of the cosmos.”

However, science does have a perspective and orientation that differs quite radically from traditional, organized religion.

The central ethic of science is that scientists should actively work to undermine existing theories, to find little details that do not fit into accepted theories and that push us onwards to new and better theories.

I know of none of the major religions that similarly urges its practitioners to do their best to undermine the beliefs of that religion!

Furthermore, science as it now exists is based on a mechanistic perspective that is antithetical to both common sense and to religious sensibilities.

Common sense thinks of flowers as striving to grow upwards towards the air and sun. Modern science thinks of a flower as a strange, squishy little machine, “designed” only by the long process of evolution, in which the banging about of atoms, the pushing and pulling due to the quantum electronic interactions of molecules, is all that is happening. To modern science, there is no real purpose, no real goals, exhibited by a growing plant – just the large-scale result of all those atoms banging into each other.

Similarly, common sense thinks of the difference between a peach and a zucchini as consisting of all the properties that a peach has that a zucchini lacks and vice versa: a peach has the property of being reddish orange, sweet, and so on; zucchinis have contrasting properties.

To a scientist, peaches and zucchinis are simply slightly different ways of arranging carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms (with a smattering of other atoms): all the apparent differences between peaches and zucchinis are due to how these different arrangements of atoms reflect light, interact with various molecules in our taste buds, etc.

Just atoms (and photons) banging into each other – the peachiness and zucchininess have no separate existence.

I think it is hard for most non-scientists to grasp how certain scientists are of the correctness of this perspective: the shining of the sun, the eruption of a volcano, the growing of a rosebush, the internal operation of our own nervous system – nothing but tiny particles of matter (and force fields) pushing and pulling on each other.

I hope it is obvious how radically this view conflicts not only with common sense and traditional philosophy but also with traditional religion.

This conflict is central to contemporary human civilization. Science cannot simply be ignored – its stunning successes not only in creating material comforts and clever gadgets but also in explaining everything from the interior of a neutron star to the functioning of our own genes makes science an overwhelming intellectual and cultural force.

Any education that ignores this conflict between science and the traditional perspectives embodied in religion and philosophy (and “common sense”) is failing horribly either to teach about traditional religion, or about the full scope of the current scientific viewpoint, or both.

So, as a scientist, am I claiming that the scientific perspective is the final word, and everyone must meekly surrender to it?

Well… the perspective of science has been stunningly successful in understanding nature, and I think that needs to be acknowledged.

But, in the interests of full disclosure, let me present here the three little clouds on the horizon that suggest that maybe science as we know it has not grasped all aspects of reality.

First, in physics, we do not know how to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity). For a long time, it was thought that this was merely a technical, mathematical difficulty that we would soon overcome (superstring theory has promised to do this, for example). But, in recent decades, an increasing number of physicists have come to wonder if maybe this is a sign that we are missing something more fundamental than we realize.

The second cloud on the horizon is quantum mechanics itself. Anyone who has learned anything about quantum mechanics, even from really bad popular books (and there are lots of those!), knows that quantum mechanics is really weird. In a nutshell, quantum mechanics seems to say that everything that could have happened affects the future, not just those things that actually did happen.

There are various ways of trying to escape this ghostly effect of unrealized possibilities. None has yet convinced the majority of physicists.

The third cloud is the problem of consciousness. Physics has nothing to say about what it feels like to be an electron. But we all know that it does feel like something to be a human being. How can electrons, protons, and neutrons, whirling around inside our head become aware of themselves?

Lots of suggestions have been made: they all ignore the fact that electrons, protons, and neutrons are a part of physics, and that the idea of an “internal perspective” is utterly alien to physics.

Quite a few philosophers and physicists have mulled over this problem: an increasing number have the humility to admit that we cannot see what an answer could even look like (for one of my favorite discussions, see the philosopher Colin McGinn’s readable and informed book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World).

So, how will these disturbing clouds be resolved? What will the angry dance among science, religion, and philosophy look like a hundred years from now?

I don’t know. But I am confident that it is one of the great questions of the twenty-first century.

An education that tries to sweep such questions under the rug, that ignores how radically the modern scientific view of reality differs both from common sense and from traditional religion, is really no education at all.


  1. I thinking about this and I think I agree - in a way. Science and religion aren't compatible when we're attempting to apply them both to the same question.

    You've described for instance, what a flower is when looked at from a the perspective of a scientist. But humans inevitably ask questions like, "Is it good?" or "Is it pretty?" I think those are the questions religion and philosophy answer.

    I guess I'd think of the matter in terms of colour filters. Viewing life through the filter of science gives you a certain view that may be incompatible with the others in a sense(What you see through a red filter is not what you see through a yellow one) but add in religion and/or philosophy and the scene becomes richer and more familiar.

    Don't know if that makes sense.

    And thanks for visiting my blog! It led me to your blog which looks excellent!

  2. Just to let you know, I posted a response to your comments on Krauss' article in Scientific American. I plan to post some thoughts specifically about your blog soon, but I've got to get back to teaching now!

    Dr. Hudd

  3. Matt,

    Thanks for the heads-up and for dropping by. I replied to your SciAm post over on their site (and I do not know why my post appeared twice there!).

    Feel free to comment here on my blog post: I do not want to get into an interminable debate about, say, the historicity of the Virgin Birth – not that I’m uninterested in that, but it is too far off the purpose of this blog. However, people are welcome to explain why they think my post is mistaken.


  4. Dawn wrote to me:
    > You've described for instance, what a flower is when looked at from a the perspective of a scientist. But humans inevitably ask questions like, "Is it good?" or "Is it pretty?" I think those are the questions religion and philosophy answer.

    Well… that would mean that philosophy and religion books would be awfully thin!

    I like primroses and pansies. Perhaps you like roses and orchids.

    So, my book will say, “Primroses and pansies are pretty. THE END.” Yours might say, “Roses and orchids are pretty. THE END.”

    Gustibus non disputandum est.

    Historically, both theologians and philosophers thought they had a lot more to say about the real world than that. Plato and Aristotle both thought they had figured out the basic structure of reality: both of their views fail to hold up in the light of modern science, but at least their views do not simply express their personal preferences. Both men thought their views were *true.*

    Similarly, both Aquinas and Paul of Tarsus thought they actually knew very significant truths about the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. I think they were mistaken, but whether they were right or wrong does make a difference.

    There are still modern theologians who say things that try to relate to the real world: for example, I’ve read some of Richard Swinburne and Germain Grisez, both of whom are comprehensible, although, in my judgment, mistaken.

    On the other hand, I recently, out of curiosity, took a book out of the library titled “Modern Theology” by James P. Mackey. Here’s a typical sentence from the book (p.12):

    “For There-being is adamant that in describing the circle of understanding which describes his unique mode of existence, he is not just looking into consciousness or mind, into a subject as distinct from an object, such that he might be thought to be describing subjective states and imposing these upon some alien reality.”

    One could charitably interpret this as just some really, really bad poetry, in which case I can only say that most people prefer to read Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson.

    However, I do not really think Mackey believes that he is simply writing bad poetry.

    I suspect (and some theologians have admitted as much) that now that science has pretty much destroyed traditional theology, some guys like Mackey are emotionally unable to let go. So, they continue spewing out words such as I have quoted above, in the futile hope that their meaningless words can somehow magically save “religion” and “theology,” even though they in fact know that theology and religion as traditionally conceived, and still conceived by the average woman sitting on the pew on Sunday morning, are dead.

    You can’t argue with these guys – their mode of thinking has long since left rational argument (or speech) behind.

    But you can study them as an interesting historical phenomena, rather like the handful of folks in the old Soviet Union who kept mouthing the old Marxist platitudes long after everyone knew they were false.

    That’s one of the points of my original post: science has wrecked the old modes of thinking typical of philosophy and religion.

    I’m not sure the story is over, yet. Perhaps, God does exist (though I doubt it). Perhaps there is innate purpose or meaning to the universe (though I doubt that too). Perhaps science is missing some very significant and important aspects of reality (that seems very likely to me – i.e., the nature of consciousness).

    But, in any case, science has dramatically changed the intellectual situation humans find themselves in, and this is historically and educationally important.

    The old traditional religions and philosophies are no longer credible to educated human beings. Some try to hold on to the old beliefs, anyway. Some, like Mackey, engage in desperate behavior to hide their lack of belief. And, some of us are simply willing to say that the old beliefs have been disproven, just as science has disproven so many false beliefs about reality.

    All the best,


  5. nice comment on my piece.


    Lawrence Krauss

  6. This writer misses the point. Is it nearly as important to wax philosophical about the ultimate knowledge science can or cannot provide as it is to put our feet down and say unequivocally that religion has absolutely no place in the science class? I say no way. Religion has its place, and it is certainly up for debate whether or not we should entertain religious ideas. However, what is not up for debate is religious teachings in science class. There is a religious organization called Apologia that is teaching millions of our children religious nonsense and calling it a "science curriculum". About half of the people in the United States claim that evolution doesn't happen, which says a lot about how stupid we are as a nation, and the fact that this church gets away with being completely unchallenged as they teach the opposite of science disguised as science to our children, is something that I find mind-bogglingly frightening. Any real scientist worth his or her education would feel the same. As I said, whether religion has a valuable place in our society is something that is up for discussion. Whether that religion has a place in our science classes is NOT. You can call it whatever you choose to, but if the subject matter is ID, creation "science" or anything of the sort, than that class ceases to be a science class. PERIOD.