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Is science and religion incompatible?

By Paul So ~
I remember when I had a discussion with a Christian friend of mine who tried to explain his argument that science and religion are not necessarily incompatible. He adamantly opposes this public attitude that somehow science and religion are incompatible, but later on he revealed that he believes that evolution is unscientific because it derives from confirmation bias in which science make the evidence fit their theories. At first I was a little too surprise and taken back to be able to provide a response to demonstrate that this is not the case.

From watching several lectures about evolution from YouTube, documentaries of evolution, including arguments that demonstrates the scientific tenability of evolution on internet; it seems so evident that evolutionary theory is the rightful byproduct of legitimate scientific investigation and inquiry. The fact that evolutionary scientists predicted the kind of transitional fossil they would find that would fit the gap between a fish-like species and species with limbs, and then being able to find the fossil that fits their prediction and description, is one out of many examples of why evolution is accepted by science.

Evolution is accepted by science because it has a strong predictive power in which the possible evidences are predicted by the theory, and the evidences are eventually discovered according to the prediction. Additionally, contrary to many creationists opinion, Evolution was not easily accepted theory. It went through over a hundred of years being falsified by scientists, and eventually it was accepted because it passed so many attempts of falsification. The prediction that evolutionary theory makes has been consistently successful that it becomes irrational to simply refuse to believe it. If you watch the documentary “What Darwin’s dangerous ideas” and “What Darwin didn’t kow” the neo-Darwinian synthesis of genetics and evolution has successfully improved the Darwinian Theory by predicting what kind of evidences we would find within the genes themselves that would support evolution. One example, from the documentary, is the fact that all creatures that posses legs share the same corresponding genes that contains information about legs. This evidence supports the proposition of common ancestry that we all derive our traits from our respective ancestors, and these traits are construed as genetic traits. To be able to find a gene that shows that all creatures have the “leg-gene” demonstrates the tenability of common ancestry, because common ancestor explains that we all got these genes from our common ancestor. Now, remember, the last example I gave is the transitional fossil between species with fins/gills as opposed to species with limbs, is basically that common ancestor that is partially responsible for this.

For science, authority derives from a theory that [...] has been able to survive the “skeptical phase” of falsification in which the theory has been tested against but has produced affirmative outcomes. However for religion, authority derives from the scriptural text, church, and tradition, none of which have been tested, but simply believed in for variety of reasons from mere subjective feelings to status quo.Now, while I tried to explain why evolution is considered to be a scientific theory (or fact), the whole point of doing this is to show how science really works. The theory of atoms, electromagnetism, general relativity, black holes, cells, and all other scientific theories accepted by scientists are all accepted because science consistently conducted itself according to overall principle(s) of hypothetico-deductive method, predictability, simplicity, falsification, evidentialism, and re-experimentation. I know that there is more to science than what I listed, but these are the fundamental basics that constitutes the principles of science that dictates how scientific investigation is suppose to be conducted in order to maximize the likelihood of producing tenable theories. If none of these principles are followed, then what you will get is simply bad pseudo-scientific theories; If we reject evidentialism (need for evidence) then what we will get are theories without evidence, which we cannot know for certain are true.

I won’t go over each of these principle to explain exactly how science works, but I will try to condense it in a few sentence. Science is basically critical skepticism for the sake of producing theories that are likely to be true. This is very ironic because we are inclined to think that skepticism entails undermining knowledge, but in science it’s the exact opposite. In science skepticism is simply critically examining and re-examining the theory and the evidences that support the theory, and try as hard as possible to find detrimental flaws. The purpose behind this is to make sure that theories that have low scientific quality (e.g. little evidence, little measurement, ambiguous prediction, etc.) are to be eliminated (or improved) so that people can avoid endorsing bad scientific theories. This is done through falsification in which the theory is being attacked over and over again to see how long it stands over a period of time. When the theory is proven to be able to resist skepticism, then it becomes a scientific theory (theory, in science, means that a group of propositions that are supported by evidence, not speculation).

Theories or hypothesis are experimented over again and again. Scientists will do peer-reviews in which they will read the reports about the experiment or research from another scientist, and will reproduce the same experiments to make sure that the outcome of the experiments is the same. This is done many times over and over again until, the outcomes are fairly consistent with little error. But it is precisely because of this that many hypothesis, that could be scientific theories, have been debunked because of the lack of evidence. If you watch the documentary “Homeopathy: The Test” it shows an example similar to the point I am trying to make. In this documentary a scientist thought he has proven homeopathy, and he almost won publicity among his scientific peers. However one scientist decided to send other scientists to investigate the experiments, and found out that the outcome of the experiment has not been consistent (if you watch the documentary, you’ll get my meaning).

Basically the principle behind science demands that in order for a hypothesis to be accepted even the person who created the hypothesis must test against it as rigorously as possible, taking all things into account, until the experiment or research produces the similar outcome. When he writes a report about the experiment and its outcome on peer-review, other scientists investigate it to make sure that the experiments was conducted well. Does that mean that science is perfect? No, but it means that science reduces the errors that ordinary humans make every day, because science is an overall self-correcting system.

Now what does this have to do with the debate on science vs. religion? The point on explaining how science works is to show the discrepancy between science and religion (mainly, monotheistic religions) such that science and religion are really incompatible. For science, authority derives from a theory that has necessary and sufficient evidences, and has been able to survive the “skeptical phase” of falsification in which the theory has been tested against but has produced affirmative outcomes. However for religion, authority derives from the scriptural text, church, and tradition, none of which have been tested, but simply believed in for variety of reasons from mere subjective feelings to status quo. For religion you can never test against your own doctrines, creeds, or dogmas, you must simply accept them. For religion, doctrines, dogmas, creeds, and the belief system as a whole, is not a hypothesis, but something you just have to believe in. For religion, being biased according to the endorsed belief-system is always encouraged, while in science being biased compromises the rigor of making sure that theories are accepted on objective grounds.

Simply put: science has the authority that is based on merits; we accept it because it WORKS consistently. Religion, on the other hand, has an authority not based on merits but merely because of tradition, status quo, personal biases, upbringings, culture, and “religious experience”, none of which are reliable guidance to finding out the truth. So when the creationist argue that they are not anti-scientific because they accept electromagnetism, atoms, blackholes, but not evolution or bigbang, this only demonstrates personal bias and unwarranted presumption which is something that is contrary to the principles of science. Perhaps the creationist maybe friendly towards many scientific theory, but the very principles that helped produced these theories in the long run is something that creationists (and conservative religions) are against since for them there is not room for the kind of doubt that undermines one belief in favor of the more tenable kind. So in a sense, creationists are self-denying anti-scientist who act anti-scientifically.

So my conclusion is that in the most fundamental and essential grounds, science is incompatible with religion because science itself is based on the principle that is contrary to religion. While religion is based on “faith” (which is really a fancy term for unwarranted presumption or pretentious authority) science is based on evidence-seeking and critical skepticism that strives to build a self-correcting/self-evaluating system that minimizes epistemic and cognitive errors; religion only exacerbates those errors.