Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Science and Religion

There was a good opinion piece by Kevin Shapiro in last Friday's Wall Street Journal. Shapiro is a researcher in neuroscience at Harvard University, but I don't mention that merely by way of credentialism. Instead, I find it interesting that he is a serious scientist who agrees with Stephen Jay Gould's proposal that we treat science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria". Too many scientists these days appear to think that materialist empiricism is the only magisterium in town, and that those who don't subscribe to it are hopelessly benighted. Shapiro makes the important point that materialist empiricism is the magisterium within the confines of scientific enquiry, but those confines are, well, most definitively confined. Science is a partiular domain of discourse, within which a certain attitude is proper a priori. Outside of that domain of discourse, however, we have no non a priori reason to adopt one attitude rather than another, but you would never know that to hear some people talk.

It is a commonly accepted attitude--not only among scientists and other academics, but also among many lay pundits--that rational discourse requires a kind of healthy skepticism, and skepticism, on this view, must go hand in hand with empiricism. The attitude is often put in terms of the Doubting Thomas slogan: until I put my fingers in the nail holes and my hand in his side, I will not believe it. People who shun this "Show Me" attitude are labelled "Magical Thinkers" or worse.

Personally I, too, endorse a healthy skepticism, but I suppose what I regard as "healthy" and what "pathological" is quite different from the distinctions drawn by others. When it comes to the demarcation battles, however, I am firmly on the side of Shapiro. Stephen Barr, a physicist and writer for First Things, represents a religious version of Shapiro's attitude. It is not shared by everyone among conservatives, but one hopes that it is growing in popularity.

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