Defeating Sean Carroll’s Argument about Science and Religion, Part1

Given that Sam Harris’s attempt to establish the incompatibility of science and religion has failed, let’s next turn to Sean Carroll’s attempt. Since Carroll is more of a scientist (a physicist at Caltec) than Harris, maybe we’ll get something more solid.

Carroll begins by writing

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible. (Here I am deviating somewhat from Coyne’s take, as I understand it.)

Very good. He starts off by undermining one of Coyne’s central assumptions. It is crucial to note that different does not mean incompatible.

Carroll continues:

The incompatibility between science and religion also doesn’t mean that a person can’t be religious and be a good scientist. That would be a silly claim to make, and if someone pretends that it must be what is meant by “science and religion are incompatible” you can be sure they are setting up straw men.

Here Carroll is wrong. The response is perfectly appropriate and valid given the definition of “incompatible.” Let’s define incompatible, shall we? Type the word into Google and this definition pops up:

(of two things) so opposed in character as to be incapable of existing together.

Yep, that is how I would define it. And clearly, since a person can be religious and be a good scientist, their religion and science are NOT so opposed in character as to be incapable of existing together.
This brings us to a core problem with the New Atheist assertion – they never define “incompatible.” If Carroll doesn’t like people pointing out that a person can be religious and be a good scientist, then he needs to make it clear he is defining “incompatible” is some esoteric manner and then spell out his definition for all to see.

What’s more, if a person can be religious and be a good scientist, what exactly is the point of the incompatibility argument? It would appear you could defeat it with two words:

Carroll: Science and Religion are Not Compatible
Response: So what?

Carroll seems to think it very important that Science and Religion are Not Compatible, yet he never explains WHY it is supposed to be important.

Ran outta time, so let’s turn to his core argument next.

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8 Responses to Defeating Sean Carroll’s Argument about Science and Religion, Part1

  1. TFBW says:

    Well, I haven’t heard of Sean Carroll before, as best I can recall. Having glanced at his argument, however, I anticipate that your next post will consist of a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun. You shoot first — I’ll have a go if there’s anything left to aim at when you’re done.

  2. Kevin says:

    Sort of weird. He says that science and religion can coexist on both the societal level and the individual level. So…

  3. Larry Olson says:

    “The incompatibility between science and religion also doesn’t mean that a person can’t be religious and be a good scientist. ” –Sean Carroll

    An example is the Creationist who invented the Gene Gun. You can be a good scientist, but waste a lot of your time spreading creationist propaganda in hotel ball room basements (see the youtube videos of the creationist). Atheism has a similar problem: instead of studying the stars, Krauss, Neil De Grasse Tyson, waste a lot of their time debating religion instead of doing astronomy or astrophysics or cosmology. People like Dawkins spend a lot of time fighting religion instead of working on biology. Someone needs to fight the fight, even if it’s a waste of time (like right now, me posting to this site)

  4. Kevin says:

    What fight is that?

  5. The Thinker says:

    Of course there are many great living scientists who are believers in god: Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, Don Page, physicist and cosmologist, Francisco Ayala, evolutionary biologist and philosopher. But if you look at the many reasons why contemporary scientists and thinkers believe in god, it rarely, if ever, is inspired by their scientific views. It is usually based on some emotional epiphany or the popular notion that god is required to have morality. In Francis Collins’s case for example, he was hiking in the Cascade mountains when he saw a frozen waterfall split in three and upon seeing this, dropped to his knees and accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

    Yeah.

    Furthermore, we humans are very good are compartmentalizing beliefs. We can hold contradictory beliefs quite easily. So just because a scientist is a Christian, a Muslim, or another religion, it doesn’t mean science is compatible with those religions.

  6. Michael says:

    But if you look at the many reasons why contemporary scientists and thinkers believe in god, it rarely, if ever, is inspired by their scientific views.

    Oh, but the same holds true for atheist scientists. Most of them were atheists long before becoming a scientist. Jerry Coyne, for example, became an atheist after listening to the Beatles while on LSD. Dawkins became an atheist while still a child. What you need are examples of people who were theists while becoming scientists, and then, in the process of practicing science, found it incompatible and rejected their faith (or left science).

    Look, I’m tired now, so I went back to read my essay from 2 1/2 years ago. And what I found is that you are tap-dancing around my points:

    Does Carroll actually define “incompatible”? If so, how is it defined?

    Say someone buys into the nonsense about science and religion being incompatible. So what? Is something supposed to follow from accepting that belief? If so, what is supposed to happen if “science and religion are incompatible?”

  7. Michael says:

    In Francis Collins’s case for example, he was hiking in the Cascade mountains when he saw a frozen waterfall split in three and upon seeing this, dropped to his knees and accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

    Is that all there was to it? I have not read Collins’s book, but I know Harris (an unreliable source) quotes this account. I’ve often wondered if this is a classic quote-mine. Did you get this from Collins’s book or Harris’s attack article?

  8. Dhay says:

    The Thinker > But if you look at the many reasons why contemporary scientists and thinkers believe in god, it rarely, if ever, is inspired by their scientific views. It is usually based on some emotional epiphany or the popular notion that god is required to have morality. In Francis Collins’s case for example

    With lack of time I’ll just quote a previous post of mine, which quotes a small part of a much fuller description of Francis Collins’ quite extended conversion process:

    Contrast Jerry Coyne’s conversion with that of Francis Collins. Michael Shermer, in his “The Believing Brain”, Chapter 2, reports that Collins’ …

    “…journey from atheist to theist, which at first was a halting intellectual process filled with the internal debates scientists typically have with themselves when working on new ideas.”

    “The internal debates scientists typically have with themselves when working on new ideas” are rational, evidential and scientific, are they not. Shermer here confirms that Collins’ “waterfall” conversion experience was the final intuitive working-out of a long process of rational enquiry. Shermer’s jibe at Collins, that “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons”, arguably misses the mark where Collins is concerned.

    But it looks to be bang on the mark where Coyne is concerned.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/jerry-coynes-conversion-to-atheism-had-nothing-to-do-with-science/#comment-5991

    Or you can read Shermer for yourself.

    So your claim fails for Collins, whose conversion was primarily intellectual, over a long period, and who was apparently following a process typical when developing new scientific ideas. You say, “rarely” and “usually”, so presumably you have many better examples than Collins to give us, please do so.

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