Science and Religion Debate (St Paul’s Cathedral)

I attended the debate titled ‘The Battle for Truth? The Science-Religion Debate’ at St Paul’s Cathedral on 7 Oct 2008 and rather enjoyed my evening. The panel consisted of four high-profile guests who discussed for 90 minutes the relationship between science and religion. The speakers were (straight from the site):
– Nancy Cartwright FBA is Professor of Philosophy at the London School Economics and the University of California, San Diego. Her books include How the Laws of Physics Lie and The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science.
– Nicholas Lash was for twenty years Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. His publications include The Beginning and End of ‘Religion’ and ‘Where Does The God Delusion Come From?’
– John Milbank is Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at Nottingham University. A leading figure in the Radical Orthodoxy movement and author of the highly influential and controversial Theology and Social Theory.
– Roger Trigg is Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Theology at Oxford University and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Warwick University. Among his many publications are Rationality and Science: Can Science Explain Everything?

I heard it mumbled near the beginning that the debate was funded by the Templeton Foundation hence I approached the entire event with a certain degree of scepticism; nevertheless, here are my thoughts on the debate. I can’t remember which panellist said what, so forgive my vagueness. I’m also fairly sleep deprived as I write this so please forgive excessively blunt and/or blatantly wrong points that my fingers might have unwisely typed.

They began with a discussion on the definition of Science, a sensible starting point I thought. Unfortunately most of the propositions for a definition didn’t work in my opinion. Someone suggested the definition of a science as a discipline in which predictions are made very precisely and empirically, to a high degree of precision. However one might consider the Quantum side of things in which according to Werner Heisenberg, it is actually a law of nature that velocity and position of a particle cannot both be measured exactly; all you get is a probability distribution, or the wave function. This means the prediction of where a photon will be in t seconds’ time ends up as a probability distribution rather than a coordinate, and while one can argue that this model does make very precise predictions – things like the shapes of interference patterns can be calculated exactly, the whole idea of discoveries in Physics actually proving it impossible to give precise predictions is unsatisfactory given the very criterion of precise predictions. Another idea put forward was that of falsifyability – the definition of a science is one which yields falsifyable results. This definition was less usable – my view on this is that theories in experimental sciences are only as good as the data. Newton had a good theory which was blown out of the window by the arrival of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The famous constant (whose name I have forgotten) whose value has changed continually over the years through changes in calculations using Feynman’s Sum over Histories approach is key to what I think is a closer definition of an experimental science: a discipline which yields predictions based on models which are improved over time as more and better data is collected. It sounds terrible and it probably is, but it’s my best attempt at midnight.

The next thing they moved on to talking about really upset me. The panel members took it upon themselves to contemplate the limitations of the utility of science to make predictions in context of a ‘real life’ situation. One even had the cheek to argue that since experiments are often conducted in situations very different from real life (at 3 Kelvin or 500 atm for example) the results is useless. Experiments are always performed under strictly controlled conditions which are recorded along with the results of the experiment. It’s true a single one of such experiments alone are useless: the result may be spurious, and context is different from real life. So that’s why scientists take repeats, and conduct the same experiment, changing only one condition at a time, to get results which can be extrapolated, effectively a model, which can be applied to real life situations. Experiments conducted in unrealistic conditions are far from useless. And I haven’t even mentioned ‘thought experiments’ and other more exotic practicals. A panellist later questioned the logic of science, and pointed out that it is based on experiment therefore isn’t logical. As I have already argued, science is about building better and better models of reality based on data, and doing so in a highly rigorous fashion; there is nothing illogical about taking data and formulating a theory from it.

The focus then shifted to God. Dawkins argues in his book, The God Delusion, that there is no evidence for God. One of the panellists rejected this argument on the grounds that if this is taken to be true there would be no conceivable evidence which would prove the existence of God. Clearly the panellist never finished Dawkin’s book as this is covered in exquisite detail which I refuse to reproduce here owing to time pressure, sleep deprivation and copyright issues.

A panellist then quoted (I think it was a quotation at least), ‘everything is not like things’ and made a point about it which I can’t remember. The audience then posed a question about ‘militant rationalists’ and the unconditional rejection of creationism. I’d actually say there is good enough reason for anyone to believe in creationism of some form or other, particularly the computer simulation version (covered in the New Scientist in enormous detail about five years ago when I was in prep school), so I agree with the panel on this one, that the education system should remain open-minded about ‘unconventional’ ideas.

A question was then raised about the place of uncertainty in religion and science. A panellist made a case (without much explanation come to think of it) for religion bringing people more into contact with reality than avoidance thereof and quickly changed the subject to science treating all objects as ‘things’ without reverence for significance, another thing I had issues with.

The question was raised about the separation of science and religion and the effect of that on each. According to a panellist, religion and blind faith is engrained in human nature therefore should not be ignored or marginalised. Agreed: it should be incorporated into social models of irrationality.

There was then some discussion about the famous ‘spooky action at a distance’ quirk with quantum entanglement being incompatible with the panellists ideas of first principles of science and the possibility that Quantum Physics has raised more mystery than solution. I’d argue that it’s experimentally well demonstrated that photons and electrons and indeed other tiny particles can act as both waves and particles, and that the theoretical Schrodinger’s cats (WordPress is not on talking terms with umlauts) would both decide their ‘death status’ at the exact same time. However uncomfortable one might be with these results, they are unfortunately reality, and Physics cannot be blamed for discovering such inconvenient truths. The same panellist also rejected relativity for its warping of time. The prediction of time warping is not intuitive, but from all the evidence we have gathered, is true (to a greater extent). String theory was also heavily criticised, and I suspect the panellist would have liked to call it ‘fantasy’ but instead opted for a more long-winded description of his grievances. This was fortunately rebutted by Nancy Cartwright who argued that the logic and maths behind string theory satisfy criteria for ‘good theology’ (yes, the panellist who had grievances is a theologian), and hinted at the presence of some hypocrisy. The response to that rebuttal was something vague about the definition of ‘truth’ and a clearly desperate argument that the uncertainty in quantum mechanics leaves space for God.

Overall, Cartwright was the panellist I thought made the most sense. Her ideas were clearly put forward and were the most ‘scientific’ in my opinion. Milbank can also be accredited with the most nonsensical arguments of the day, with his accusations of Science being illogical owing to its data coming from reality and rant about science being useless because experiments are often taken out of context. I’m sure he had great points made up in his mind, but linking lack of logic to basing theories on reality confirmed my scepticism of theologians’ logical abilities.

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5 Responses to Science and Religion Debate (St Paul’s Cathedral)

  1. I don’t agree with the idea that the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle can be viewed as a proof that physics cannot predict things. The Heisenberg principle allows, for example, the prediction of the “natural” linewidth of a spectral line in the solar spectrum with a quite precise prediction.

    But where were the scientists in this meeting, there isn’t one representing the scientific community, even not Cartwright who confuses physics with sociology and economiv science, and whose views are viewed as nonsensical by most scientists. Discussing things with theologians is useless since theology is not a science, just like astrology is not a science.

  2. Sorry, the second sentense in my comment should read: The Heisenberg principle allows, for eample, the prediction of the “natural” linewidth of a spectral line in the solar spectrum with a quite high precision.

  3. vpjayant says:

    I wish I knew about events like these before they actually happen so that I can go to them. Sounds like something I would have found interesting. Science of course has some weaknesses, string theory being one of them, but compared to religion, science is absolute fact.

  4. Spyros says:

    Allow me to make some comments on your writings.

    1. Science can be defined as a falsificable system of principles, methods and empirical data organized in a consistent way that must be able to explain and predict the results of empirical phenomena. Precision has nothing to do with science. It is logical that a correct scientific theory must be able to produce results with some acceptable precision. However precision is not what defines science.

    2. Einstein did not overthrow Newton, he just generalized his theories. In fact true physical theories never get overthrown. New theories have just a larger domain of validity than older theories.

    3. Falsicability is central in science. For example the proposition that a fairy sits on top of Mount Everest cannot be classified as science, since there is no possible way that we can falsify it by means of an experiment.

    4. Science and philosophy (a branch of which is religion – idealist philosophy) are both indispensable for a complete understanding of nature. However the questions that they address do not overlap. For instance the question of the existence of God (or non-existence) or any other spirit cannot be addressed (and hence proved or disproved) by science. It is a philosophical question.

    5. The relation of science and philosophy (not religion but philosophy in general) is a dialectical one. Science and philosophy cannot be separated, since this separation would lead to the identification of science with the truth and to the discarding of philosophy. On the other hand, we cannot say that philosophy and science are the same thing, since in this way, philosophy would gain the right to intervene to scientific matters.

    6. All scientific theories bear the philosophical interpretations that their creators give them (usually it is the one corresponding to the dominant ideology). These sometimes change with the advent of new data or the evolution of our understanding of the physical world.

    7. Faith and religion in general in not engrained in human nature. Primates for example did not have religions. It is a social phenomenon and as such it must be studies by sociology and history.

    8. Uncertainty in Quantum Mechanics demonstrates that the theory is not complete. And i will repeat that neither this nor any other scientific fact can provide evidence for the existence of God.

  5. George says:

    Like the write up Bryant. It was Cartwright who was referring to science as “predictions… made very precisely and empirically, to a high degree of precision.” I do believe her predecessor as LSE was Karl Popper himself who came up with the idea of falsifiability.

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