The scientific method is not indebted to religion

Over at Why Evolution is True (which I read religiously!), Jerry Coyne has tackled an article aimed at him on BioLogos…again. I generally agree with the perspective on science and religion espoused by Coyne, and this post was not an exception.  What I want to address is a point made in the BioLogos article Coyne quotes, written by Robert C. Bishop:

Finally, Coyne completely misunderstands the force of the historical examples I gave of science/faith engagement (the Scientific Revolution and 20th century debates about steady state cosmology). They aren’t just points about the religious faith of some scientists in the past. Rather, the scientific methods these scientists created and used were intimately tied up with and motivated by their faith.

He goes on from there, explicating the old canard about how since many early scientists were religiously motivated, therefore the methods of science themselves were motivated by religion.  For example:

Galileo, Boyle and Newton among others developed methods for studying created things on their own terms in such a way that their natures could be revealed to investigators as accurately as possible. This means that they didn’t treat created things as divine or as fronts for the real activity of God, or as shadows behind which genuine reality is working. Instead, they treated pendula, animals, planets and stars as having genuine natures and properties, as responding to and contributing to order, and sought to put themselves in the best methodological and epistemological position to receive all that created things had to teach about themselves.

This all sounds good enough, I suppose.  It is generally true that scientists of the age used terms like “created things” and so forth, and viewed the universe as having a discoverable order, usually attributed to some intelligent force, AKA God.  But watch were Bishop goes next, after the claim that western intellectual culture is dominated by concepts of hierarchical levels of order in reality.

…biblical revelation stands unique historically in recognizing only one distinction and no hierarchy in nature: There is only the Creator and what is created. Everything that is created is of the same ontological order of being. In other words, the being of everything created–terrestrial and celestial–is homogenous in being.

This sounds almost Spinoza-esque in flavor (perhaps with a dash of Leibniz), as if the universe is simply all one thing, including its creator and intelligent force.  If the creator is separate, does that not imply hierarchy? Perhaps I’m splitting hairs.  What makes this more interesting is that Coyne, in his post, is addressing is the fact that the scientific method, specifically concerning evolution, makes the proposition of the supernatural unnecessary towards explaining anything. If there is no hierarchy, and all the universe is subject to the same laws, then why the perpetual appeal to an intelligent designer by BioLogos’ articles, including this one?

But I’m being led away from my point.

In any case, Bishop’s assertion of this unique “ontological homogeneity” derived from Biblical theology (which is not unique to the Bible nor even really actually Biblical, in my opinion) implies that

once the likes of Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Descartes and Newton grasped hold of ontological homogeneity, the exploration of nature was never the same. The doctrine provided the seeds motivating Galileo, Kepler and the other scientific revolutionaries to see celestial and terrestrial regions as of the same order of being: finite, composed of the same material, operating by the same laws and secondary causes.

The assertion that this ontological worldview was derived from Biblical revelation and theology needs to be justified.  But even if it were true, the implication that the Christian worldview in which these scientists grew was the cause of the scientific method they employed is still dubious.  This is because the scientific method, especially as it is used now, is not based upon the need for revelation, gods, or any creators.  The method is simply the intellectual continuation of the proto-scientific methods that existed before Christian revelation, and was in fact put on hold by Christian history (Library of Alexandria, anyone?).  The fact that these scientists held onto the linguistic conventions of creators, universal order, etc is no more to the point than today’s scientists, even secular or overtly atheist ones, use metaphors from the Christian worldview the West is still mired in. Kepler, Newton, and the rest did hold onto religious belief to some extent, but they also were not subject to the facts that Darwin brought about which tossed away the need for much of what a creator offered to them.  Paley’s argument  still held sway for them because they had not lived at a time when science, and its method, had swept away enough of the theological riff-raff to make them useless.  That is not so anymore, and it has not been for some time.

Imagine some time in the future, say a few hundred years or so from now, where this issue is being discussed.  Imagine some debate between future intellectuals about this era and its scientific community concerning religious belief.  I could imagine some individual quoting Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, or PZ Myers (who will, at that time, be remembered at the first man to get tentacle implants in an attempt to take over the world) where they use Biblical imagery, metaphors, or even quote some scripture directly because the verse happens to make a point they agree with.  In a world which has moved on from religion as we know it today, where Biblical language has disappeared from common use, this would look like religion to them.  In the same way that Newton’s reference to a creator (or Thomas Jefferson’s for that matter) sounds like a religious reference today, the use of religious metaphors in the future will be strange and sound antiquated (in one possible future, of course).

This is not to say that Newton was not religious, only that relative to his time, his worldview and methods for finding truth were more secular and skeptical (even if he did believe in silly things like astrology).  I might go as far as to say that  Galileo might be on the atheist speaking tour if he were alive today (perhaps the same for Jefferson or Paine).  But what is essential here is that he methods that scientists used by these people were an improvement of methods of finding truth.  They were a step up towards a more perfect method that allows us to see, today, that ideas such as natural selection do not need a god to explain the state of life on Earth.  Even if some of the concepts that allowed this method to develop came from Western religious traditions, this does not imply that those methods are congruent with the worldview that preceded the method’s application to the natural world.

In a sense, that would be tantamount to claiming that because the logical and rational methods used by atheists in debates with theists, atheism owes its existence to Christian revelation and tehology.  When in fact atheism is the recognition that this theology is essentially nonsense, even if the  tools we use to show this was originally developed by people trying to apologize for theology in the past.  It’s an accidental relationship, one that demonstrates a growing up, transcending even, of our species’ adolescent eras.

The tools of rational thought, utilized by theology, are not enough in themselves.  When built upon the foundations of empirical and skeptical methods, they can help us achieve greater insights into the workings of the universe towards a more efficient and powerful understanding of our world.  But when they are used only in conjunction with speculation (AKA revelation) the conclusions are likely to be dubious.  And where those conclusions are occasionally true they will be so only accidentally, as even Paley’s watch, when broken, is rights twice a day.   Where theology helped developed to create the rules of logic, which is to say when it has worked to shape and sharpen the tools scientists use, it wasn’t until these tools reached the hands of people dedicated to testing their hypotheses against the world that we actually saw real progress towards the better understanding of the universe which we have today.  And the longer people like Robert C. Bishop attempt to tie this method to parochial anachronisms of theology, the slower we can reach that future when religion is relegated to linguistic devices and imagery to be used for literary effect by future scientists.



5 thoughts on “The scientific method is not indebted to religion

  1. Evolution is just a true myth theory
    & in history nobody has admitted his/her parent were apes let alone orangutans

    you can’t compares man made helicopter with ALLAH’s creations

    helicopter will be falling
    down then hit scientist’s head if helicopter stands still above the air for too long

    but look at that all seen/unseen creations & creatures of ALLAH under skies

    even moon must took a month revolves earth
    as we saw moon phases
    above our heads

    & that the moon under sun no required to visit gas station in your town to keep that moon going around above earth

    because moon is always obey ALLAH LAWS as described in AL’QURAN there are 12 months in a year with 7 days in a week with 29 days up to 30 days in a month based on moon phases

    & that’s a facts not theory

  2. I find the post helpful and thought provoking. On one matter however I am less convinced. Having read autobiographies of those like Newton, it seems to me that it is the perceptions that those people had at the time about their own motivations (which in Newton’s case were clearly biased towards the religious and mystical) rather than what we think should have been the case when with the wisdom of hindsight we look back from further down the track. It reminds me a little of the wise historians who list all the reasons why World War one broke out – whereas in fact it is really only the dominant ideas that those who made the final decisions had in mind at the time which really count. Religion was important to many of those first scientists because it was part of their education and psyche. The discoveries in science have of course altered the total world view – but in the same way that Einstein refused to support atheism on the ground that atheists tend not to hear the music of the spheres, the concept that there are mysterious and for now unknowable forces behind the universe – and the notion that enlightened individuals can help us grapple with such ideas and interpret them for our time and society seems positive and helpful.

  3. @Peddiebill

    Well taken. I think that time and the later voices of atheism have shown Einstein to be wrong in that respect. I think the voice of Carl Sagan is perhaps the best example of this.

    I guess part of my point was that the discoveries of men like Newton, who did have religious environments and perspectives, created an (unintended?) legacy which changed how subsequent scientists saw the world. The more we became exposed to through the scientific method, the less religious scientists tended to be. I think this trend will continue, with the minor annoyance of compatibilist poistions such as from PuffHo and BioLogos holding on pretty tight to religious influences.


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