Scientific method and religion

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Some controversies exist over the relationship of scientific method to religion. For example, some[who?] dispute to what degree scientific method had its origins in Christian theism, or to what degree the scientific method as understood in the 21st century is compatible with religion.

In the 18th century, the birth of the scientific method was largely credited[by whom?] to the work of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke. Modern history suggests that much earlier figures such as Roger Bacon and Islamic scientists also played an important role in shaping the experimental method. Thomas Jefferson wrote "Bacon, Locke and Newton... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences".[1] All three of these men were Christian theists who nonetheless rejected medieval Scholasticism with its synthesis of Aristotelianism and theology. Furthermore, Locke and Newton both espoused Unitarianism—disbelieving in the divinity of Christ. Some[quantify] historians[which?] speculate[original research?] that Francis Bacon dabbled in esoteric beliefs such as Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry. Newton saw God as a masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of creation.[2]

In his 1925 book Science and the Modern World Alfred North Whitehead argued strongly for the idea that Christianity gave the modern scientific method a boost. Whitehead also writes: "faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology".[3] On the other hand, Bertrand Russell in his 1931 book The Scientific Outlook portrayed scientific method and theology as in conflict from the beginning, arguing that science introduced induction and therefore reasoning about the past into Western thought, and that because Galileo "questioned both Aristotle and the Scriptures, [he] thereby destroyed the whole edifice of medieval knowledge."[4] A similar contrast of views appears in more recent publications. Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote in Miracles in 1947:

Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared—the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age.[5]

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has echoed[citation needed] Whitehead in writing "It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has this origin in Christian theism".[6] Plantinga has argued that belief in God is a "properly basic belief". Christian philosopher William Lane Craig argues that scientific inquiry presupposes belief in God—required to explain why the universe is intelligible or lawful.

On the other hand, philosophers such as Quentin Smith have defended the idea that the intelligibility of the universe does not need God to be explained, a position known[by whom?] as philosophical naturalism.[7] Philosopher Kai Nielsen (largely quoting Sidney Hook) states that what unites philosophers who call themselves "naturalists" is that they agree that the scientific method is the proper way of fixing beliefs, that it is the only reliable method of arriving at truth, given its dependence on public verifiability of its finding. The scientific method does not need to presuppose any transcendent reality (sometimes called "skyhooks") to validate itself. It is justified by the expectations set by its known successes. Nielsen says that "metaphysics" can be left to "spirit-seers and other crazies".[8] Skeptic philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued in his 2006 book Breaking the Spell that a full extension of the scientific method to all knowledge leads ultimately to a naturalistic understanding of the origins of religion,[9] echoing Bertrand Russell's dictum "what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know". C. S. Lewis' friend and fellow science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke viewed religion as antithetical to the scientific method, because religion consists of premature conclusions concerning the ultimate truth, thus substituting faith for knowledge.[10] Sidney Hook (the philosopher quoted by Nielsen) did not limit knowable truth to what is found in the laboratory. However, he regarded science as providing a general paradigm for all rational inquiry,[11][12] and regarded religion as metaphysical speculation. Science provided a model of verifiability and "critical intelligence" that was in some ways generalizable to other areas of inquiry, including (up to a point) public-policy issues. However, for Hook, asserting the primacy of scientific method required no foundational metaphysical beliefs, but was justified by its empirical success.[13]

Recently, biologist Jerry Coyne (1949– ) has emerged as a strong advocate of the view that science and religion cannot be reconciled because they have conflicting methodologies of what constitutes evidence. He describes religion as the most "venerable superstition", which is honored simply for its power and influence. Coyne has listed three ways that science and religion are not compatible:[14]

  1. only science has a reliable way to settle truth claims
  2. scientific investigation often produces outcomes contrary to religion, and they have different philosophical bases
  3. religion venerates faith as a virtue, while science no longer has the need for God as a hypothesis to explain anything

Both critics of philosophical naturalism and champions of scientific method often decry positions like this as "scientism", a frequent target of C.S. Lewis, especially in his book The Abolition of Man (1943), often[quantify] cited by Christian apologists today[when?].[15] Lewis regards the position of scientism as dehumanizing and reductionistic. Scientism has been similarly criticized by William Lane Craig,[16][17] who regards it as self-refuting in the sense that the validity of science cannot itself be proven scientifically. Even non-religious evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr (a frequent critic of New Atheist writers) has commended Stephen Jay Gould for opposing the view that "all truths are ultimately scientific". Orr writes "The world is not all science and there are places where science cannot and even should not go. But this lesson has come surprisingly hard to many philosophers and scientists... Scientism is naive and it is hubristic."[18]

In response to such criticisms, Daniel Dennett has said that "when someone puts forward a scientific theory that [religious critics] really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'",[19] while his fellow skeptic Michael Shermer has embraced the label on the grounds that cosmology and evolutionary theory now answer the questions once posed by theology.[20]

Also disputed is the extent of the contribution of ancient non-Christian civilizations (especially medieval Islam) to the growth of scientific method. The oldest natural science is astronomy,[citation needed] developed independently by Chinese, Indians, Mayans, Egyptians, Greeks, and Arabs.[21][need quotation to verify] Science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has noted that during medieval times, Muslims made great strides in astronomy and algebra while scientific development in the Christian West languished.[22] Robert Briffault, in The Making of Humanity, asserted that the very existence of science, as it is understood in the modern sense, is rooted in the scientific thought and knowledge that emerged in Islamic civilizations during this time.[23] Physicist and priest Stanley Jaki has argued that the source of the Arab difficulty in getting beyond Aristotle lay in the Islamic worldview, which often saw natural phenomenon as a direct product of the unpredictable will of Allah[24] in conjunction with the belief that nature was alive and divine[25][26] as reflected in their pursuit of astrology and adherence to folk traditions. However, other historians have argued that the approach of Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen, c. 965 – c. 1040) to testing and experimentation was a critical contribution to scientific method. Robert Briffault, in The Making of Humanity, asserts that the very existence of science, as it is understood in the modern sense, is rooted in the scientific thought and knowledge that emerged in Islamic civilizations during the medieval era.[23] According to Matthias Schramm, Alhazen:

was the first to make a systematic use of the method of varying the experimental conditions in a constant and uniform manner, in an experiment showing that the intensity of the light-spot formed by the projection of the moonlight through two small apertures onto a screen diminishes constantly as one of the apertures is gradually blocked up.[27]

G. J. Toomer has expressed skepticism regarding this view, arguing that caution is needed to avoid reading anachronistically particular passages in Alhazen's work, and while acknowledging Alhazen's importance in developing experimental techniques, argued that he should not be considered in isolation from other Islamic and ancient thinkers.[28]

Alhazen viewed all men as prone to error, and only God was not; therefore

I constantly sought knowledge and truth, and it became my belief that for gaining access to the effulgence and closeness to God, there is no better way than that of searching for truth and knowledge.[29]

It may be simultaneously true both that Christian thinking played an important role in the rise of modern science (given theology's commitment to an intelligible universe—as Alfred Whitehead and Alvin Plantinga have argued), while at the same time Christians have periodically been repelled by the actual findings of science—in part causing[citation needed] the modern scientific community to abandon whatever Christian roots early modern science had.[original research?] Studies have shown that in the United States of America scientists are less likely to believe in God than the rest of the population. Precise statistics vary, but generally about 1/3 of scientists are atheists, 1/3 agnostic, and 1/3 have some belief in God (although some might be deistic, for example).[30][31][32][need quotation to verify] This contrasts with the more than roughly 3/4 of the general population that believe in some God in the United States.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jefferson called Bacon, Newton, and Locke, who had so indelibly shaped his ideas, "my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced"". Explorer. Monticello. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  2. ^ Compare: Webb, R. K. (1996). "The emergence of Rational Dissent". In Haakonssen, Knud. Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Ideas in Context. 41. Cambridge University Press. p. 19. ISBN 9780521560603. Retrieved 2015-09-19. [...] it was the surpassing accomplishment of Sir Isaac Newton that was turned to again and again to demonstrate the grandeur of nature, the power and beneficence of its Creator, and the elegance of natural law. 
  3. ^ Whitehead, Alfred North (1925). Science and the Modern World. p. 19. 
  4. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1931). The Scientific Outlook. Routledge. p. 19. ISBN 978-0415249966. 
  5. ^ Lewis, C.S. (1947). Miracles : a preliminary study. London: Collins. p. 110. OCLC 692296780. 
  6. ^ Plantinga, Alvin (2011). Where the Conflict Really Lies. Oxford. p. 276. OCLC 5105636417. 
  7. ^ Quentin Smith (2001). "The Metaphysical Necessity of Natural Law". Philosophica. 67 (1): 31–55. 
  8. ^ Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Prometheus Books. pp. 145–49. ISBN 9781615927579. 
  9. ^ Dennett, Daniel (2007). Breaking the Spell. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780143038337. 
  10. ^ McAleer, Neil. "5". Sir Arthur C. Clarke: Odyssey of a Visionary: The Biography. RosettaBooks. ISBN 9780984811809. 
  11. ^ Cotter, Matthew (2004). Sidney Hook Reconsidered. Prometheus Books. p. 27. ISBN 9781616140823. ISBN 1616140828. 
  12. ^ Hook, Sidney (1995). Letters of Sidney Hook: Democracy, Communism, and the Cold War. M.E. Sharpe. p. 230. ISBN 9781563244872. ISBN 156324487X. 
  13. ^ Sidorsky, David (May 8, 2008). "Sidney Hook". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Retrieved 26 December 2013. 
  14. ^ Coyne, Jerry (March 2014). "Another Vapid Effort to Claim that Science and Religion Can Get Along". The New Republic. Retrieved April 16, 2014. 
  15. ^ See for example Aeschliman, Michael (1983). The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism. Wm. B. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802819505. 
  16. ^ Craig & J.P. Moreland, William Lane. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. InterVarsity Press. p. 357. ISBN 9780830826940. 
  17. ^ Craig, William Lane. Naturalism: A Critical Analysis. Routledge. p. 13. ISBN 9780203186138. 
  18. ^ Orr, H. Allen (November 1999). "Review of Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life". Boston Review. Boston, MA. 
  19. ^ Byrnes, Sholto (10 April 2006). "When it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town". New Statesman. .
  20. ^ Michael Shermer (June 2002). "The Shamans of Scientism". Scientific American. 
  21. ^ Pedersen, Olaf (1993). Early Physics and Astronomy: A Historical Introduction (revised ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521408998. 
  22. ^ Clarke, Arthur C. "Science, God and Delution". Retrieved 19 November 2013.  Reprinted from interview in Free Inquiry 19(2) 1999
  23. ^ a b Robert Briffault (1919). The Making of Humanity. G. Allen & Unwin. pp. 190–202. OL 4465714W. 
  24. ^ Jaki, Science and Creation, pp. 204–05.
  25. ^ Glick, Thomas F. "George Sarton and the Spanish Arabists." 1985, p. 497.
  26. ^ See "The Study of Astrology" section in "Astronomy and Astrology in the Medieval Islamic World". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved July 2013.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  27. ^ (Toomer 1964, pp. 463–64)
  28. ^ (Toomer 1964, p. 465)
  29. ^ Plott, C. (2000), Global History of Philosophy: The Period of Scholasticism, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 8120805518  Pt. II, p. 465
  30. ^ Gregg Easterbrook (15 August 1997). "Scientific Community: Science and God: A Warming Trend?". Science. 277 (5328): 890–93. doi:10.1126/science.277.5328.890. 
  31. ^ Larson, E. J.; Witham, L. (1997). "Scientists are still keeping the faith". Nature. 386: 435–36. doi:10.1038/386435a0. 
  32. ^ Wuthnow, Robert (2005-05-21). "Essay Forum on the Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates". Retrieved 2013-06-16.