Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Should Philosophers of Science Engage in the Science/Religion Debate?

One thing that the earlier post on general philosophy of science showed me is that many philosophers of science are interested in general philosophical issues, but that they also feel that many traditional topics like realism and explanation are beyond saving. At the Central APA there was a fairly remarkable session with Plantinga and Dennett (I summarize the Plantinga part here, somebody who wants to remain anonymous summarizes it from a more theistic perspective here). What impressed me was the number of people attending and the interest in philosophers of many kinds. So, this naturally raises the question of whether or not philosophers of science themselves should engage more often in this science/religion debate, e.g. are the findings of science consistent with theism?

My vague impression is that most philosophers of science do not really want to get involved in this debate. This is certainly my own preference, but I am not sure exactly why. Part of the problem is that it does not really concern science on its own, and because I lack much experience with religious belief and philosophy of religion, I don't feel especially qualified or interested in weighing in. Perhaps a less philosophical reason is that these debates tend to get quite personal, and I would rather not have philosophical arguments devolve into personal attacks.


  1. It seems to me that the philosophy of science would not only be an interesting way to explore the issues concerning science and religion, but offer a crucial perspective where there seems to me more speaking around one another than actual communication.

    In fact, a few years ago when I was dipping into Popper's LSD and Kuhn's Structure, the Dover trial was all over the news. I even read some of the court transcripts released to the public as the trial went on. I found it hard to NOT view that whole thing from a "philosophy of science" perspective - what I understand it to be, anyway (I only hold and undergraduate degree). For example, if a person has an emotional attachment to a belief that directly conflicts with a certain scientific enterprise, how should they be included in the discussion of what constitutes "good enough" evidence? I ask this with the understanding that the intelligent design movement is now advocating a "teach the controversy" approach to evolution. It seems to me the question "what constitutes a controversy?" falls squarely in the realm of philosophy of science. And "who gets to decide?" is a question that political philosophers and philosophers of science both might have a say in.

    Out of curiosity, aside from the "personal attack" risks, what would be the technical or professional reasons for philosophers of science to "stay out" of science/religion issues?

  2. While I am in complete agreement with Brandon, I know exactly how you feel, Chris. Me too, I just lack the interest in the science/religion issues, it just doesn't keep me up at night unlike, say, the nature of scientific models! It almost seems like a temperament issue...

    I teach a portion on ID in my phil sci class just because it is my duty as a philosopher of science to debunk it as a purported scientific project. But I carefully stay away from substantive issues in philosophy of religion. (I certainly don't think I have any duties to engage with that).

    I don't write on the relationship between science and religion, not for any intellectual reasons or sociological, but just because I love other topics much more. Of course, I am glad that there are philosophers of science who do write on that.

  3. I actually think that this is about to become a hot topic. Elliott Sober has been arguing that theism is compatible with evolutionary theory; a number of others (Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins) have been arguing the opposite. A few months ago, Tom Nagel wrote a challenging, but fundamentally misguided, defence of teaching intelligent design theory in the high schools. (See my discussion, "Famous Philosopher Comes Out for Intelligent Design" at http://mohan-theblogofsmallthings.blogspot.com/. You would need to do a search for the title on that site, as it was written a few months ago.) There is quite a bit of action in the God question right now.

  4. Given Quine-Duhem (I would love to include Neurath in this), theism can be made trivially compatible with evolutionary theory.
    As an undergraduate, I first heard about Larry Laudan because he criticized the use of philosophy of science by an Arkansas Judge (Overton) in a creationism case. [See: McLean v Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255 (E.D. Ark. 1982).] The judge had tried to demarcate creationism from science. (As an aside, at the time I was much impressed by Overton and less by Laudan; I would have to re-read their arguments to see how I would judge things today.)
    According to this website, http://www.antievolution.org/projects/mclean/new_site/index.htm, Michael Ruse and Stephen Jay Gould were among the anti-creationist witnesses. So philosophers have been part of the action for some time now.
    The problem is that these debates are so politicized that nuance (and maybe truth) gets lost in the cross fire. So, I am happy to sit out these debates.

  5. I agree with the first commentor that philosophers of science have the most to contribute in this debate, especially given the naive understanding and presentation of meta-issues by scientists (e.g: Sokal, Dawkins). If anything, those contesting the inroads being made by ID/theism into public education will need assistance from PoS to often counter the somewhat arbitrary, often ad hominem, and simplistic arguments offered by many of the "New Atheists".

  6. Hi there, your blog is excellent. Keep the good work!.

    In support of the idea that "Perhaps a less philosophical reason is that these debates tend to get quite personal, and I would rather not have philosophical arguments devolve into personal attacks", see the following post (and the discussion in the comments section, where philosopher A.C. Grayling and philosopher Edward Feser engaged in a little bit debate) in this blog: