Defeating Sean Carroll’s Argument About Science and Religion, Part 2

Sean Carroll lays out his core argument for the “incompatibility” of science and religion:

The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

So there you go?

Let’s begin with the first sentence: The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions.

Assuming this is true, we’re left wondering why this reasoning is arbitrarily restricted to religion. For example, in the real world, politics and science also reach incompatible conclusions. Yet oddly enough, the New Atheists never seem interested in exploring that, probabably because so many of them cling to their political approach to life. And this is a very serious problem. People like Carroll want to make the incompatibility argument and then they just…..stop. End of story. Time to move on. But a truly scientific approach would not stop so arbitrarily. If Carroll’s logic leads us to conclude science and religion are incompatible (but, so what?), a good scientist would ask, “Applying Carroll’s logic, what other forms of human expression are incompatible with science?” That the New Atheists interest in this argument is specific solely to science and religion is evidence this line of reasoning is born of rhetorical posturing, not critical thinking.

But we don’t need to assume Carroll’s assertion is true. We need to explore the supposed “incompatible conclusions.”


It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look.

I am a fair-minded person who cares to look. And his “incompatibility” assertions are not “perfectly evident.” What is evident to me so far is a) Carroll does not define “incompatibility,” b) Carroll does not explain why the whole argument is even important and c) Carroll only seems interested in the “incompatibility argument” when it comes to religion and science. It’s thus worth noting that Carroll may not be coming to this issue as a “fair-minded” person.

It’s now time to consider the argument:

Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

While Carroll may say this, does science say this? If so, where? Let’s take the claim that “Jesus died and was resurrected.” If science says, “this is not true,” I need to see how science came to this conclusion. Carroll will later describe science:

What science does is put forward hypotheses, and use them to make predictions, and test those predictions against empirical evidence. Then the scientists make judgments about which hypotheses are more likely, given the data.

Good. Concerning the resurrection of Jesus, where are the predictions? Where are the experiments? Where are the results? Where are the peer-reviewed journal articles showcasing the “judgments” being made in light of these data?

They don’t exist. Carroll himself has never lifted a pinky to actually test the resurrection claim and publish his findings. In this sense, he is just like all of the New Atheists.

If you are going to tell me that science has reached the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus is not true, you are obligated to provide the studies that set out to test the hypothesis of Jesus’s resurrection and generated results that led to the conclusion. If you have no such studies, you have no such scientific conclusion. It would mean science has NOT reached any such conclusion. And it hasn’t for the simple reason that such a claim is beyond the reach of science.

Summary: Sean Carroll’s argument asserts that science has reached the conlcusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Science has not studied or researched this issue, thus no such conclusion exists. So there you go, Carroll’s argument is defeated.

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8 Responses to Defeating Sean Carroll’s Argument About Science and Religion, Part 2

  1. TFBW says:

    Well, that deals with three out of four of his far-too-casual examples. (You only address one directly, but the same objection applies in equal force to two more.) Let me play New Atheists’ advocate for a change, though, and say that the first example still stands — or at least has not been addressed by your counter-argument. That is, the claim, “God made the universe in six days” is one that is incompatible with current mainstream science. (I qualify that remark because it wasn’t always so. Six-day young-earth creationism used to be the respectable position in scientific circles, albeit more than a century ago now.)

  2. nolo says:

    This just seems to be a rehash of the “miracles are incompatible with science!” claim.

    But (as Alvin Plantinga succinctly put it), science only requires sufficient regularity of the laws of nature, not absolute regularity.

  3. Michael says:

    In that case, I would remind the New Atheist of his assertion – “Religion and Science are Incompatible.” This is an absolute claim. If only 1/4 chosen examples applies, then the New Atheist claim needs to be modified as follows: “Religion and Science are Sometimes Incompatible.” But of course, New Atheists would have none of that, as their “Incompatibility Argument” is meant to serve their propagandistic ends, not scholarly research. As Sam Harris insists, “Science must DESTROY religion,” not hit the target 25% of the time.

    As for the example, does it truly show “science and religion are incompatible?” Is science really addressing a God-claim? I think not. I see a claim about the universe which is incompatible with what science has discovered about the universe. In other words, science is not determining whether God made the universe in six days; science is determining whether the world came into existence over a period of six days.

    The point of dispute here is not the religious claim. The point of dispute is the age of the universe. We can see this from two perspectives:

    1. If I said, “God made the universe,” this is a metaphysical claim science cannot test. But if I said, “God made the universe in six days, six thousand years ago,” science can address this claim because science has something to say about the age of the universe.

    2. If I said, “God made the universe in six says, six thousand years ago,” science can address this claim in exactly the same way when we remove the religious dimension and claim, “the universe came into existence in six days, six thousand years ago.”

  4. Ilíon says:

    Science!‘ fetishists don’t really object to events which (allegedly) “break the Laws of Nature” … Hell! they even deny that there *are* any “Laws of Nature” in the first place. What they object to is the intentionality of purported miracles.

    WordPress seems to hate links to Blogger, so I can’t sully this as a clickable link: in my blogpost titled ‘How ‘Science!’ works!’ (http:/ /iliocentrism. blogspot. com/2015/03/how-science-works.html [remove the spaces in the previous]), I compare a few Biblical miracles to some assertions by ‘Science!‘ fetishists … and thereby show the utter intellectual hypocrisy of the whole anti-miracle pose.

  5. Ilíon says:

    “sully this” ???? lol (“supply this”)

  6. TFBW says:

    If only 1/4 chosen examples applies, then the New Atheist claim needs to be modified as follows: “Religion and Science are Sometimes Incompatible.”

    I see. Carroll was arguing for a fairly weak kind of incompatibility in the first place, and if his examples are anything to go by, the incompatibility is actually about one-quarter the strength of his watered-down version anyhow. I think I’d have to concede that point.

    As for the example, does it truly show “science and religion are incompatible?” Is science really addressing a God-claim? I think not.

    I suppose not. Paraphrasing what you say, the claim, “God created the universe in six days” can be broken down into a conjunction of separate claims: (a) “God created the universe”, and (b) “the universe came into being over the course of six days”. To the extent that science currently has an evidence-based case against this, it’s against (b) only, not (a), and (b) is not a specifically religious claim — it’s just commonly associated with a particular religious standpoint. So we really need to further qualify Carroll’s already-weak incompatibility claim along the lines of, “certain widely-accepted scientific claims are incompatible with certain claims about the universe commonly put forward by people associated with a particular religious standpoint.”

    If that’s what Carroll really means in relation to his “incompatibility” argument, then I’d have to agree with him. It’s a far cry indeed from the extreme incompatibilism of Jerry Coyne, but it’s not a completely vacuous claim either. Still, to the extent that it states anything at all, it states the obvious (or “perfectly evident” in Carroll’s words), and the “so what?” response still seems entirely appropriate.

    Clearly Carroll thinks he’s established more than this, however, because he presented three flatly invalid examples as evidence for his case. At this point, I must refer back to the primary source, just to be sure that your representation of his argument is fair, and not omitting anything. Based on that reading, it seems that his failure to recognise the invalidity of his examples stems from a naive view of science, as in, “the progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect.” A naive view of religion also contributes, since he follows this with, “we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead,” as though it were a claim of (any) religion that people coming back from the dead is the sort of thing we can expect to encounter as a matter of course. This is backwards: the fact that people don’t come back from the dead is what makes resurrection count as evidence of divine intervention.

    The second-last paragraph contains the meat of his conclusions. First, he claims that the existence of God is untenable as a scientific hypothesis due to such factors as lack of well-definedness and lack of necessity. Whether this is true or not, it has no bearing on whether God actually exists, however: Silicon Valley is neither necessary nor well-defined, and yet it exists independently of any hypothesising about it, scientific or otherwise. So, true or false, the claim lacks existential implications, but this is precisely what the argument needs to support his following assertion that people are simply wrong about the existence of God. If God’s existence never was a scientific hypothesis in the first place (which it never was in any religion that I know of), then it can never be an outmoded scientific hypothesis in the way that Steady State Theory is.

    I tend to agree with nolo’s assessment that this comes down to a “miracles are incompatible with science” argument. Although Carroll mentions one example where a specific religious viewpoint and a specific field of science do make genuinely conflicting claims, the bulk of his argument rests on the idea that religion incorporates the miraculous and/or supernatural to some extent, and — the seriously fallacious part — that science has demonstrated (or necessarily requires) these to be non-existent. Add to that a dash of “God of the gaps”, because Carroll claims, “the God hypothesis could have fit the data better than the alternatives,” but never gives the details of the shortcomings and their possible resolutions. This is hardly surprising, given that he accused the hypothesis of being too ill-defined to be scientific at all just before that.

    Basically, Carroll is playing a shell game: half of what he says accuses the God hypothesis of not being a scientific hypothesis at all (as though that in itself made God’s existence less plausible in some way), and the other half of what he says relies on it being a real scientific hypothesis which properly conflicts with empirical data. These positions are clearly incompatible, and yet he blends them together, switching from one position to the other quite fluidly. Small wonder he reaches the conclusion that he does, when his argument is based on two mutually incompatible premises.

  7. Michael says:

    TFBW,

    Nicely done.

  8. Ilíon says:

    In fact, the “So what?” response is appropriate to *any* normative assertion made by those who deny that moral duties and expectations are real (or “objective” as people like to say), transcendent and universally binding.

    For a fuller discussion of the above, see — http:/ /iliocentrism. blogspot. com/2015/03/so-what.html [ignore the spaces]

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