Is There a Conflict Between Religion and Science?

According to Dr. David Kyle Johnson, yes. But why? The issue boils down to methodologies in reasoning.

Defining Science

According to Dr. Johnson, the purview of science is not restricted to the lab. Observation and prediction are of course used but science is fundamentally an exercise in abduction—inference to the best explanation. Scientific progress is made by sifting through competing hypotheses and identifying the best one. Perhaps the clearest articulation

of the criteria for abduction is found in Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn’s book, How to Think about Weird Things:

  • Testability: A hypothesis is testable if it makes novel observable predictions. If a hypothesis makes no observable or novel predictions beyond what the hypothesis was originally introduced to explain, then it is untestable and most likely unscientific.

  • Fruitfulness: A hypothesis is fruitful if its predictions are correct. If a hypothesis makes incorrect predictions, it is unfruitful. If the hypothesis is already well-established, one might be able to rationally make testable alterations to the hypothesis to align it with the evidence. But it is unscientific to make ad hoc (non-testable) rationalizations to save a theory from the fact that it has made incorrect predictions.

  • Scope: A hypothesis’ scope is equivalent to its explanatory power. The more a hypothesis explains and unifies our knowledge, the better; a good scientific theory must increase our understanding, not raise more questions than it answers. Similarly, it should not invoke the inexplicable to explain the unexplained.

  • Simplicity (or Parsimony): If a theory requires more entities or makes more assumption than other theories (that have the same merits), then it is not simple. To accept a theory over such simpler competitors, without adequate reasons, is unscientific.

  • Conservatism: A theory is conservative if it aligns with what is already well established. If it conflicts with itself (i.e. it is logically inconsistent) or conflicts with what we already have good reason to think is true, then it is non-conservative and likely unscientific.

The theory that best fits these criteria is “the most adequate,” and the most unscientific move is to reject a more adequate theory for a less adequate one. Once a theory has been well-established as the most adequate, scientists often base their experimentation and observations on it and no longer question it without due cause. If numerous anomalies begin to conflict with the theory, it should be noted, it can then be subjected to the same criteria again, and potentially give way to a more adequate theory. This fuels scientific revolutions, such as when Albert Einstein’s relativity replaced Newtonian mechanics. But such extreme exceptions aside, the scientifically minded person should always accept the most adequate explanation.

"Mystery therefore Magic" Fallacy

Scientific reasoning also understands and avoids logical fallacies. Take, for example, appealing to ignorance—concluding that an inability to prove something false is reason to think it is true, or an inability to prove something true is reason to think it is false. This is fallacious reasoning because, contrary to popular understanding, science does not prove or disprove anything. Every theory in science is confirmed to some greater or lesser degree; nothing in science is certain because no theory can ever be completely disconfirmed.

To save a theory from falsification, one can always challenge assumptions in our background theories (i.e. one can always make excuses). Science can and does show where the preponderance of evidence lies and can, therefore, render other theories irrational—but it can disprove nothing. Thus, to believe something is true because it cannot be proven false, or to believe something is false because it cannot be proven true, is wholly unscientific. The latter occurs when one commits the “Mystery therefore Magic” fallacy—when one believes that an inability to think of a natural explanation is a good enough reason to appeal to a supernatural one.

Magic and Miracles

Celebrity illusionists, Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller, perform a “bullet catch” magic trick, where each appears to catch a fired gun bullet in their mouth. Some of the best magicians in the world cannot duplicate this feat. If a person, however, concludes from this that Penn and Teller use supernatural powers to make the bullet disappear from the barrel of the gun and then reappear in between their teeth (after all, physically catching a fired bullet with your teeth is impossible), that person is being wholly unscientific. One is (again) committing the “mystery therefore magic” fallacy.

Unfortunately, many religious people regularly employ the same reasoning. When someone’s cancer spontaneously goes into remission, it is truly remarkable. Although it is known that such things do happen, most often not even doctors know why. Yet, even when no prayers have been said (that we know of), some religious persons will claim that the cause of the event is supernatural in origin. God made the cancer disappear. This conclusion is scientifically no different than concluding that Penn and Teller have real supernatural “magic” powers. This is simply a specific application of the mystery therefore magic fallacy—what we might call the “Mystery therefore God” (or the god-of-the-gaps) fallacy. It is, thus, wholly unscientific.

Lizard Aliens and Skeptical Theism

Some people believe that super-intelligent extraterrestrials are secretly controlling every aspect of the world. David Icke has written multiple books on the topic. He professes evidence and knowledge of their existence, as well as knowledge of what they are like—they are lizards. Of course, they do not want us to know they exist, so they masquerade as human beings. But they are running the world, nonetheless. Skeptics of this theory point out that the world does not seem to be run by super-intelligent extraterrestrials. There is a noticeable lack of empirical evidence. But, of course, despite the fact that he has written multiple books on the subject, Icke simply claims we cannot fully understand the reasoning and rationale of our alien overlords. They are beyond our comprehension! Who knows what they want the world to look like, or what their ultimate goals are. So, the fact that it seems to us that the world is not run by lizard aliens is no reason to think it is not. A world run by lizard extraterrestrials is, Icke argues, indistinguishable from one run by humans, so he is justified in believing that it is run by lizard aliens.

Of course, such thinking is wholly unscientific. Not only is it disingenuous—if the aliens are so incomprehensible, how is Icke able to write so many books about them? But, like all conspiracy theories, it is untestable and unfalsifiable. Aliens run the world to make it look like it is run by humans, so if the theory is true, the world would look exactly like it would if the theory was false. And anything that did seem to be evidence against the theory would just be touted as evidence planted by the extraterrestrials to throw us off track, and thus claimed as evidence for the theory. As such, the theory is unfalsifiable. It is not merely that one can always make ad hoc rationalizations to save the theory (which one can do with any theory); the ad hoc excuses are built into the theory before one can even go out and look for evidence. The theory makes evidence irrelevant. It is, thus, unscientific.

Theists, of course, do not believe that lizard aliens are running the world. But many (if not most) theists believe that a superhuman agent is currently controlling the world, and that this deity is perfectly loving and powerful. And to do so, they have to make the same kind of unscientific assumptions as David Icke—like the doctrine of “divine hiddenness.” God does not want humanity to know that he exists with any certainty, so he hides himself. Atheists, of course, point to evil in the world as good evidence that there is no deity running the universe. This is not the kind of universe a perfectly loving and powerful being would create or would allow to remain unhindered. But one popular religious retort (also known as skeptical theism) is also similar to Icke’s reasoning: God works in mysterious ways. He is completely incomprehensible. One cannot understand his motivations or reasons or know what he really wants the world to look like. God is beyond us. And, thus, we are justified in believing that he exists and runs the world.

It is worth making explicit exactly what is wrong with such reasoning. First, just like Icke’s response, it is disingenuous. Countless tomes have been dedicated to describing what God wants and is like. It is a bit too convenient that, upon consideration of the problem of evil, God is suddenly too complicated to understand. Second, this line of reasoning is tortured: the fact that it does not look like God runs the world is no reason to think that he is not. By this logic, a world run by no one is indistinguishable from one that is run by God. This is wholly unscientific because, just like conspiracy theories, it is untestable and unfalsifiable. If God hides himself and runs the world in a way that is indistinguishable from a world run by no one, then no observation could ever be made to confirm the theory that he existed. In fact, anything—including the most horrendous evil (like the entire world being destroyed)—could be rationalized away with appeals to God’s incomprehensibility. As such, skeptical theism makes theism unfalsifiable in the same way that conspiracy theories make their own beliefs unfalsifiable. It has ad hoc rationalizations built into the belief system. The theory makes evidence irrelevant and is, thus, unscientific, which in turn makes appealing to God’s sovereignty unscientific.

You can read the rest of Dr. Johnson's discussion on the subject for free as part of the Global Center for Religious Research's commitment to providing you with affordable scholastic resources.

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