Questionable Motives

April 22, 2010

Are scientific and supernatural claims compatible?

Over at ButterfliesandWheels, Ophelia Benson has posted her argument why the supposed wall of separation between science and the supernatural that allows them to be compatible is a “crock of shit.” She writes:

(T)here’s no such thing as “the supernatural.” Nobody cares about some general thing called “the supernatural.” People care about particular things that could be put under the heading “supernatural” but are not “the supernatural” themselves. And many or most of the things that people care about and that can be put under the heading “supernatural” are not really supernatural in a sense that would make science unable to say anything about them. And that includes “God” – except when the deist god is meant, which in fact it almost never is.

“The supernatural” is just the name of a category, but what’s really in dispute is not a category, but a person, an agent. The supernatural is one thing, and “God” is another, and it’s a distraction to pretend that by walling off “the supernatural” from science it is possible to get science to agree that God is beyond dispute.

Now consider astronomer Dave Chernoff’s response on “Ask an astronomer” about whether or not astronomers believe in astrology:

“No, astronomers do not believe in astrology. It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science, “one does not need a reason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

Clear, concise, and definitive: The burden of proof for people who claim that astrology is true lies on those who make that claim. Yet when it comes to claims that the supernatural is true under the heading of religious belief, let’s watch the wheels fall of this skeptical bus. Chernoff tells us that modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of god and that people who believe in god can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating contradictions. After giving a couple of examples of how this might be possible – the Big Bang does not contradict a Genesis equivalent (whatever that means) – Chernoff concludes that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of god and religious belief doesn’t, and shouldn’t have anything to do with scientific reasoning. (Tip to commentator #4 Kenneth.Pidcock)

So what happened to skepticism as the default position – a very useful and beneficial guideline for examining any and all truth claims – when the truth claim fell under the category of religion? How can reasonable people like Chernoff suddenly have their reasoning faculties shut down and allow themselves to pile up banal excuses on behalf of favouring religious claims to be exempt from legitimate skepticism? Some may claim that god works in mysterious ways, but so too does the mind of religious apologists… very mysterious indeed.

I agree with Benson that this skeptical exemption for religious claims about the supernatural, which is necessary for the claim of compatibility with science to remain true, is a crock of shit. And it’s full of shit because the skeptical constraints are changed. That’s not compatibility: that’s an abdication of fair play, a failure to keep the rules of inquiry the same for both categories, resulting in an intellectual capitulation by those who merely want to believe that science and the supernatural are compatible when an honest investigation is subverted right from the start.

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2 Comments »

  1. Tut – not “full of shit” – a “crock of shit.” “Full of shit” would be frightfully rude. I wouldn’t dream of being that rude.

    Comment by Ophelia Benson — April 22, 2010 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

    • I stand corrected full of heartfelt apologies for my blunder.

      Comment by tildeb — April 22, 2010 @ 1:19 pm | Reply


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