General · Language · Media · Site

Garbage in, garbage out

I watched some online video interviews recently which discussed the question of dialog between science and religion. Do science and religion need to speak to each other? From a practical perspective, I was puzzled at first. There’s always been an interplay. Has the character of that dialectic changed in the last 50 – 100 years?

Science remains a relatively new way of thinking about the world, seeing and studying the world (as it is), discovering and modeling useful patterns.

In ancient times the two roles were almost one and the same. Essentially one cosmology. Earth-centered, static. Religion set the framework for any “scientific” inquiry. Religion was the primary arbiter of truth about the world and man. The (transcendent) heavenly canvas was an eternal, set backdrop which remained inscrutable except in moments of kairos and through occasional revelations.

But all that changed. A familiar story. Scientific revolution and all. As for religion, as the song goes, the “river” doesn’t stop at that door anymore — religion was “just a little too free” with truth [1]. As I’ve noted in another post (No God, no gaps), in the early 1970’s the theologians that I studied were outright apologists. Theology aimed to be consistent with science — with the (physical) cosmic canvas discovered by science. A prima facie shared cosmology.

So, it looks like religion needs to talk with science; otherwise, more “garbage in, garbage out.” Does science need to talk with religion? Does the advance of science (physics) depend on religion per se? [2]

The answer is tricky, eh. For example, Sean Carroll’s answer in a “Closer To Truth”  interview on the topic “Should science even talk to religion?” [3] — a topic which explores the degree of asymmetry in the debate, whether each side yields authority to the other in some way (or for certain domains).

… I’m saying over and over again science does not create meaning and purpose. Science tells us that out there in the world [physics] there is no meaning or purpose to be found. But logically that does not mean there is no meaning or purpose. It means that it’s not out there in the world … if there is to be meaning and purpose, it is to come from inside us  — not from science … It’s a fundamentally creative act — it’s not an act of discovery … The creation of meaning and purpose is more like telling a story or painting a picture than doing a science experiment.

My takeaway is that viewing science and religion as two “sides of an equation” is not useful. While religion (theology) gets credit for addressing the big “why” questions or ethics & morality (“ought” vs. “is”), we need not cede those “hard problems” to religion — to a religious understanding. Science can help frame the proper questions to ask — without bygone baggage; and pare our vocabulary — clarify the narrative for those inquiries [4]. Answers remain a creative human endeavor.

[1] The song “The Right Thing To Do” by Carly Simon.

[2] Everyday life and politics remain practical matters in that context. And, of course, some scientists are theists and some are not; some are members of religions besides those that originated within Western culture. The context of the discussion is that both religion and secular reasoning have both, in a sense, “fumbled the ball” in dealing with the “hard problems.” But “punting the ball” back & forth is not the only choice.

[3] One of 8 interviews with distinguished people on this question (circa 2015).

[4] In other words, the universe does not need a proxy (“hidden variable”) to address these matters. A framework based on science can avoid the naturalistic fallacy and utilitarianism. Carroll likes to use the metaphor of two canvases: religion is painting by the numbers — a guided process; science is painting a great work of art on a blank canvas — an emergent creative process.

One thought on “Garbage in, garbage out

  1. The Center for Process Studies [] is an example of contemporary discussion between science and religion. “CPS seeks to promote the common good by means of the relational approach found in process thought. Process thought helps to harmonize moral, aesthetic, and religious intuitions with scientific insights, and grounds discussion between Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions.”

Comments are closed.