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Competition Winner

Entries for the competition closed on 30 September, and I said I’d announce winners shortly after, so here goes. You will remember there were two categories:

1. Sokal-type Essay
Write an essay of an experience that led to a “personal” epiphany of the “undeniable” link between religion and science.

2. Anti-Accommodationist Essay
Write an essay expressing clear and concise arguments to use in opposition to the proposition that religion and science are compatible.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy coverIn the end, there were no entries for the Sokal-type essay. My line is that atheists are just too honest to go down that path, but I’m sure others will see it as a lack of imagination. Of course, since that lack of imagination may be the reason we haven’t tripped down the path to the bottom of the garden and seen fairies, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. And since atheists still managed to write things like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we do okay.

There were a couple of people who wrote short statements relating to anti-accommodationism. These are they:

Ben Goren
Religious faith is the highly-touted virtue which provides the foundation upon which all faith traditions are laid. In science, faith is the one-and-only unforgivable sin. The two approaches to understanding reality are no more mutually compatible than haruspicy and an insurance company’s actuarial tables.
…all else is commentary….

Coel
Feynman on science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The apostle “John” on faith: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Competition Winner
The best short essay I received was from Luke Bristow. Congratulations Luke! Very well done! Here is Luke’s entry for your enjoyment:


Why Science and Religion are Incompatible
by Luke Bristow

Science and religion are incompatible because they describe two completely different and mutually exclusive universes. Religions, at least mainstream Abrahamic religions, describe a universe governed by a supernatural being who intervenes in the world in a supernatural way. He* performs miracles. He answers prayers. Metaphorically, he reaches down from heaven and changes things.

In contrast, science, at least on the macroscopic level, describes a universe that is ultimately knowable, because it follows rules. It has laws. It obeys cause and effect. It conserves momentum. And it never strays from these constraints.

In the scientific worldview, you can throw a tennis ball into the air and know with 100% certainty that the arc it carves through the air will follow Newton’s Laws of Motion. And it doesn’t matter how many times you throw the ball – whatever angles, speeds or degrees of force. It will always follow Newton’s Laws of Motion. And it will do so precisely. In fact, it will do so with such precision that the outcome of events can even be predicted. If you know the required details about the ball’s motion upon leaving your hand you can predict how far the ball will go, how high it will go, the period of time it will spend in the air and even where it will land.

But you can’t say that about a universe governed by a supernatural being. Because in such a universe the being, for whatever reason, could choose to intervene in the event. Metaphorically, he could reach down from heaven and nudge the ball.

Such a universe isn’t knowable. It doesn’t obey cause and effect. It doesn’t conserve momentum. Ordinarily it does, but every now and then something inexplicable will occur. And that will be the point at which the supernatural being intervened. It will also be the point at which the scientific worldview was contradicted.

You could dedicate your whole career to studying material science. And you could use your expertise to develop the most resilient materials possible from which to make planes. You could enforce the strictest quality controls during manufacture, and you could devise the most rigorous safety inspections imaginable to identify when those materials have become compromised. But all this would be for nothing if God one day decided to just drop all the planes out the sky (maybe he was angry about gay people or something).

You could scour the globe diligently collecting all the flight recorders. You could retrieve every scrap of every downed plane. You could carefully piece them together and you would still never be able to figure out why those planes crashed. Because cause and effect was not obeyed. Momentum was not conserved. Newton’s Laws of Motion were suspended, and the scientific worldview was contradicted.

That is why the universes described by science and mainstream religion are incompatible.

*Or she!


One of the really good things about this competition, which I didn’t envisage, is that it’s been over two weeks since I’ve felt up to posting anything, and now I’ve got some good stuff to post without making any effort myself! So if anyone else wants to see their name on the internet, get in touch.

 

 

30 Responses to “Competition Winner”

  1. Diane G. says:

    Nice job, Luke!

  2. Mark R. says:

    Great essay Luke…concise, erudite and well reasoned.

    I also enjoyed Ben’s and Coel’s short comments.

    Heather, I’ve been waiting for an analysis of the first debate. I really value your political insights. 🙂 I enjoyed reading the responses on WEIT to discuss the debate, but you have a penchant for digging deep.

    • Thanks Mark. I’ve been in a lot of pain for the last few weeks and I’ve been trying to make myself rest so I get over it quicker. I feel like everyone else has covered the first debate by now, but I hope to get back into it soon. I’m about to try writing another post to see how I go, and it will be about the US presidential election.

      • j.a.m. says:

        Sorry to hear, get better soon.

      • Mark R. says:

        I hope you feel better soon Heather. Last May 24th, I got in an ATV accident and broke 12 bones: clavicle, sternum, 6 ribs, and my T1 through T4 all had compression fractures. Pain is so terribly debilitating both in body and mind. Thanks always for what you do. I know you, like Jerry, will do your best. Get well and good wishes.

      • Diane G. says:

        Feel better soon, Heather! I hope your physical problems aren’t worsening.

        Mark R.–you too–how awful!

  3. j.a.m. says:

    Religion doesn’t seek to describe the physical universe in the way that science does. Rather, religion is a means to explore the universe within, to engage the truth about oneself. Yes, these universes are “different”, but by no means are they mutually exclusive. Both are real and necessary.

    • Mark R. says:

      WTF? Religion tries explicitly to describe the physical universe and the “universe within” (whatever that means). The ancient people who wrote the bible myths wrote the myths to describe the physical universe and answer the ineffable (at the time) ‘why’ questions. Religion is not a way to “explore” anything, it’s an authoritarian device to tell you stupid stuff you should have faith in. My advice would be to work on shirking the shackles of supernatural, superficial doctrine.

      • j.a.m. says:

        @MarkR: You make a claim that can be empirically tested: We can analyze many centuries worth of data in the form of religious discourse (creeds, confessions, catechisms, councils, encyclicals, exegeses, theological and spiritual writing, and so on). We can ask: Of the whole, what percentage is fundamentally concerned with questions that are proper to science? (Hint: Precious little.)

        Moreover, the original question was about religion as such, not about a particular religion.

        I’m not sure what point the rest of your reply is trying to make.

    • Luke Bristow says:

      “Religion doesn’t seek to describe the physical universe…”

      Genesis – The Beginning

      1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

      3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

      The rest of the book carries on a lot like that to be honest. Not sure which religion you’re from j.a.m, but there are certainly some around that seek to describe the physical universe.

      • j.a.m. says:

        @Luke: As indicated above, your claim is testable. By what empirical methodology did you establish, given the totality of extant evidence, that all major religions inherently are (or any one major religion is) principally concerned with questions that belong in a science lab?

        I’m sure you as a diligent and unbiased empiricist left no stone unturned in search of disconfirming evidence. But since there are countless religions in the universe (millions?), you may want to double-check your math.

  4. Jenny Haniver says:

    “Great essay Luke…concise, erudite and well reasoned. I also enjoyed Ben’s and Coel’s short comments.” I agree with Mark R., and am going to bookmark it precisely because it is concise and will come in handy.

    And I agree with Mark R. re J.A.M. My first response to the comments was also WTF?! and that’s my response to the follow-up remarks. J.A.M. would undoubtedly say that my lack of Faith (with a capital F) occludes my understanding of what to me is gobbledygook,be it about the supernatural or J.A.M.’s comments here. But it’s not my lack of Faith that prevents me from understanding what J.A.M. is saying, whether or not I’d agree with it;I can understand plenty of theological discourse without agreeing with it but I can’t even figure out what J.A.M is saying, period. When one’s head is in the clouds, one comes up with cloudy, airy-fairy exhalations.

    And I, too, hope that you will feel better soon.

  5. Luke Bristow says:

    Thanks Heather!Really glad you appreciated my essay.

    That argument has been rolling around my skull for a while now. Your competition gave me a reason to finally write it down, so thanks for that.

    And thanks to all the compliments people have paid.

    • No worries Luke. You deserved it! Great essay. What you’ve said in your other comment reminded me of something I’ve said to people about the Bible a few times: it gets it wrong from the first sentence, lies throughout the first chapter, and generally heads downhill from there.

  6. Coel says:

    Hi Heather and Luke,
    Sorry, but I’m going to entirely disagree with the winning essay.

    Let’s suppose that a supernatural God were indeed intervening in the universe. That would be detectable to science as unexplained changes in the motion of things. There is nothing to stop science then detecting such effects, describing them, and thence developing ideas about what caused them.

    Maybe there are patterns in how God intervenes? If so, science could detect and describe the patterns. But, one might object, God’s interventions might be highly capricious and changeable according to his whim. Agreed, but so might be the behaviour of a chimpanzee; and there is nothing to stop science studying chimpanzees.

    Or, one might object, the interventions might be random, showing no discernible pattern. But, science can cope with apparent randomness, as it does in things like radioactive decay.

    Thus, I argue that an interventionist God is a “scientific hypothesis”. The interventions could be detected and studied just like anything else can be. The only thing that could not be studied is a non-interventionist God hypothesized as having no effect on anything at all.

    I argue this further in: “Science can deal with the supernatural“.

    The line of argument in Luke’s essay (commonly called “metaphysical naturalism”) opens atheists up to a powerful counter-argument.

    Theists can reply: Yes of course you see no evidence for God, you’ve deliberately limited yourself to tools such as science that, as you’ve just told us, must reject any such possibility a priori. The lack of God in your world-view is simple self-blinkering! There is a whole dimension out there that, by your own admission, your science cannot deal with. Take off your blinkers, open your eyes, view the wider world, and see the glory of God!

    • The problem with that is that scripture describes the world, and it’s wrong. It tells us how the world was made etc and if things happen as in your example, that means God is lying to His followers. He’s supposedly a god of peace, but he’s setting up a situation for them to be at war.

      I could also say that if you have a better answer, you could have entered the competition yourself.

    • Luke Bristow says:

      Hi Coel,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Although it probably won’t surprise you that I completely disagree with your conclusions! 🙂

      Yes, if a supernatural God intervened in the universe then science could detect the intervention (I mentioned God nudging a tennis ball). But, despite your claim, science couldn’t develop ideas about what caused the intervention because the intervention would act outside of science’s basic tenets. The act would contradict fundamental principles like cause and effect, conservation of momentum etc. It would just be a case that suddenly a donkey inexplicably developed the power of speech or a horse the ability to fly (pick whichever miracle you like).

      I’m not really sure why you suggested God’s behaviour might have patterns. The behaviour would obviously be capricious in nature as it would be subject to God’s whims. I’m also not sure what point you were trying to make about chimpanzees. However a chimpanzee behaves, it still obeys the laws of physics. A supernatural God doesn’t. That’s the nub.

      Again, I’m not really sure what point you’re trying to make about radioactivity. Ignoring the fact that radioactivity isn’t random (granted, we can’t predict when an individual atom might decay, but we can certainly predict the rate of decay. After all, we use radioactivity as a clock to date rocks etc.) Either way, radioactivity still obeys the laws of physics. A supernatural being doesn’t.

      I agree that a non-interventionist God could not be studied, but, again, that doesn’t address the issue because most mainstream religions don’t believe in a non-interventionist God. That’s why they promote praying.

      Also, I don’t think it’s accurate to characterise my argument as metaphysical naturalism. I’m not arguing that the supernatural doesn’t exist. I’m arguing that if it did it would contradict the scientific worldview, and that’s what makes the two worldviews incompatible. Your ‘powerful argument’ centres around whether evidence for God can be found, but that wasn’t the point of the essay. The point was whether science and religion are compatible. I wasn’t arguing that evidence for God can’t be found. In fact, I argued the opposite because my argument provides room for evidence of God’s existence. It would be the occasions when the scientific worldview is contradicted. That could serve as evidence of the supernatural, and the source of that supernatural could potentially be a god.

      In regards to your second comment, I really don’t understand how you can interpret this as a Noma issue. The example I gave was God nudging a tennis ball causing its trajectory to contradict Newton’s Laws of Motion. That, by definition, is an intervention that science can detect, but would be incapable of explaining. So clearly it’s not an example of non-overlapping.

      I also don’t understand how you can consider it anything close to a pro-accommodationist position. My whole argument was predicated on the idea that a supernatural being interacting with the universe in a supernatural way contradicts the basic tenets of science. That’s clearly anti-accommodationism.

      It was an interesting comment, and I’ve no doubt flaws can be found in my argument (after all, it’s only ~500 words), but I don’t think your points serve as a solid rebuttal to be honest.

      • Coel says:

        Hi Luke,

        … science couldn’t develop ideas about what caused the intervention because the intervention would act outside of science’s basic tenets. The act would contradict fundamental principles like cause and effect, conservation of momentum etc.

        Science’s basic job and basic tenets are to describe the universe as it is, not to impose prior ideas about what science will accept. Thus conservation of momentum is a basic principle because that is what is *observed*. If we observed occasions when momentum was not conserved then “conservation of momentum” would no longer be a basic principle of science.

        As a comparison “CP symmetry” was considered to be a basic principle of physics; then CP violation was observed in kaon decay, and so it no longer is.

        Thus I disagree with you that science must limit itself to certain “basic tenets” ways of thinking and must rule out possibilities outside those tenets.

        I’m not really sure why you suggested God’s behaviour might have patterns.

        It’s simply that, if there were such patterns, then science could report and study them. Thus if, for example, God’s detectable interventions tended to occur after the Pope had made a public prayer, then scientists could note that.

        I’m also not sure what point you were trying to make about chimpanzees.

        That science can cope with studying willful and capricious entities.

        However a chimpanzee behaves, it still obeys the laws of physics. A supernatural God doesn’t. That’s the nub.

        “Laws of physics” means “how the universe behaves” (seriously, that’s all it means; it’s science’s job to describe the universe, however that is). Thus, if a supernatural god were making interventions in the world, for example violating conservation of momentum, then “conservation of momentum” would cease to be a “law of physics” and we’d invent new laws of physics that described the universe as it actually was, including the interventions of this supernatural god.

        Again, I’m not really sure what point you’re trying to make about radioactivity.

        There are two possibilities about these interventions by a supernatural god. Either we can discern patterns in them (as above), or we cannot and they appear random. The point aobut the apparent randomness of radioactivity is that science can cope with either possibility.

        Either way, radioactivity still obeys the laws of physics. A supernatural being doesn’t.

        Again, you’re misunderstanding what “laws of physics” are. They are descriptions. Your first sentence is effectively: “radioactivity behaves in accordance with descriptions of how radioactivity behaves”. Which is true. But your second sentence is false. If there were supernatural interventions causing visible effects then the observation of what happens in the universe and thus the “laws of physics” would necessarily include those interventions. Therefore the supernatural interventions would indeed be in accordance with the “laws of physics” in that universe.

        … evidence of God’s existence … would be the occasions when the scientific worldview is contradicted.

        So let’s take the situation in physics when CP symmetry was considered to hold. Then observational evidence of CP violation came along. That was an occasion when “the scientific worldview was contradicted”, if by “scientific worldview” one means the current understanding of science.

        So what do you then do? Do you say: well these observations are outside the scientific worldview, so they must be supernatural and we must ignore them? Or do you say, ok, we got it wrong, CP symmetry does not always hold, and then update your scientific worldview accordingly?

        I really don’t understand how you can interpret this as a Noma issue. The example I gave was God nudging a tennis ball causing its trajectory to contradict Newton’s Laws of Motion. That, by definition, is an intervention that science can detect, but would be incapable of explaining.

        Right there, the “science would be incapable of explaining” is where you adopt NOMA. You limit science to certain effects, and by fiat declare god out of bounds. Why can’t science then incorporate a god into its worldview, rather than handing over such interventions to another magesterium?

        My whole argument was predicated on the idea that a supernatural being interacting with the universe in a supernatural way contradicts the basic tenets of science. That’s clearly anti-accommodationism.

        No, your whole argument only works by an artifical limiting of science. You’re prescribing “basic tenets” that science must hold to, and saying that it cannot deal with effects outside of those. It is that that opens up the possibility of a magesterium that science cannot address, and that is the line of argument adopted by many accommodationists.

        • I don’t think that’s what he’s doing at all. I feel like you’re making Luke’s essay make claims it actually doesn’t. The point is that physical laws are standard. Yes, we change them when we discover new stuff, but they always follow a pattern. There is no evidence that from time to time a supernatural being disrupts that pattern.

          You bring up prayer, but I’m sure you know there have been plenty of studies on whether it works and they’ve all come up negative. And you know perfectly well that if there was any scientific evidence of God, the religious would be singing it from every roof top. Organisations like the Templeton Foundation spend millions every year trying to find that evidence and they’ve never succeeded. I guess it could be that God doesn’t want to be found, but the best explanation is that he doesn’t exist.

          • Coel says:

            Hi Heather,

            There is no evidence that from time to time a supernatural being disrupts that pattern.

            Agreed. And that’s the point. Science could in-principle search for such evidence. It could conceivably be that there was indeed a supernatural god intervening in the world, and if so science could detect those interventions and study them. It is then the absence of any evidence for such that leads us to reject theism.

            That is not what Luke is saying. Luke is going further and saying that science could not cope with such evidence. He says that “Such a universe isn’t knowable”. He says that such interventions would mean that “the scientific worldview was contradicted” (and thus that the scientific worldview must a priori exclude such possibilities).

            That is a very different stance than saying that science *could* detect and study gods, and rejects gods because there is no evidence for them. In the same way, science could detect and study unicorns, and rejects the existence of such because there is no evidence for them.

          • Now I’m going to have to go back and read everything you’ve both written again closely, and I’m not sure I have the time now. I’ll get back to you if/when I do.

        • j.a.m. says:

          The purview of science is nature, not being. Science describes and explains what is observed, but has nothing to say about what is real. Nothing that matters (love, wisdom, grace) is observable or measurable. And science is quite flummoxed by questions that matter (Who am I? So what? Now what?).

          On the great playground of truth, science occupies a little sandbox with its own toys and rules. It’s marvelous fun to play in the sandbox, but we ought never mistake it for the whole playground.

          • Coel says:

            Nothing that matters (love, wisdom, grace) is observable or measurable.

            Have you really never observed those things in the world around you?

            And science is quite flummoxed by questions that matter (Who am I? So what? Now what?).

            Not at all, science can give far better answers to those than the pretend answers that religion gives. It’s just that you prefer the pretend answers.

          • j.a.m. says:

            >Have you really never observed those things in the world around you?

            Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? Naturalism says those things aren’t real, but we know they are, and we know it rationally, not empirically.

            >science can give far better answers

            And in what sense is that statement itself anything but an opinion or a preference?

          • Naturalism doesn’t say those things aren’t real at all!

            Atheists fall in love too mate, we appreciate and are wowed by things like the beauty of nature. Personally, the more I understand about evolution, for example, the more amazing I find the world around me. It’s even meant I can find beauty in things I never did before.

            There is though a mathematical explanation why we find some art, music, plants, animals etc more beautiful than others. I don’t think that takes anything away from enjoying them.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Heather: I believe your reply makes my point. Ontological naturalism does indeed hold that nothing is real except atoms. But as your reply acknowledges, we all know that is not really the case.

          • Imagination is real. That doesn’t mean that the things you imagine are necessarily real.

          • Coel says:

            Ontological naturalism does indeed hold that nothing is real except atoms.

            And the things formed out of patterns of atoms — things like the love, wisdom and grace that you refer to — are also real in the naturalistic worldview.

  7. Coel says:

    Hi again, sorry, I forgot to add:

    I don’t think that the winning essay is anti-accommodationist, if anything it is pro-accommodationist.

    By limiting science — by definition — to a natural domain, it allows for a whole other distinct and separate “non-overlapping magesterium” of the supernatural where religion has exclusive competence. This is exactly the line that many accommodationists do take.

    It is easy for such a person to argue that any interventions are simply below the level at which science can detect them. After all, if God were changing the trajectory of a handful of electrons in your brain, we’d have no way of telling with our current primitive brain scanners.

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