Overlapping Magisteria

30 05 2010

Those who say science and religion are mutually exclusive are working from the philosophical premise that there can be something outside of nature.

Those who claim that religion can be scientifically investigated, come from the philosophical premise that there is nothing outside of nature.

As neither position is superior one cannot use logic to assign greater truth.

However, the claim that there is anything beyond nature (i.e. supernatural) is the more extraordinary claim, and thus carries with it the onus to justify and explain how to reach this conclusion.

The futility of being outside of nature:

If religion is truly outside of nature it can have no measurable effect on it. If it has no measurable effect then, even if existant, it would be fair to say it couldn’t be detected by science – but then neither could it be detected by the clergy.

Thus in a non-overlapping model, the benefits of a benevolent God, such as good crops, good weather, good luck, healing or charity are impossible, as they are generally detectable.

I guess you could argue that God goes to the trouble to disguise the causes for His blessings, but why is he so afraid to show it was the result of your good faith? This argument gets a little stretched once the solutions to that are proposed. It is similar to the argument that God planted the fossils in the order of their evolutionary development to fool us into thinking that life evolved…




4 responses

14 07 2013

With all due respect, I do not know much about science and, therefore, leave the vast majority of what I do not know to the scientists (people like you). That said, science and philosophy are two different things, so it is dangerous to assume proficiency in one through proficiency in the other.

Neither of the theories of religion you have stated hold very much water and, as far as what most people have believed for the most amount of time in recorded history, they have not been upheld.

It is not true that if one believes that a Deity (I assume that is what you mean by “religion,” since religion is a relationship, not a being) exists beyond nature science and religion (relationship with said Deity) are incompatible. The Medieval Scholastics (who believed there was a Deity outside of nature) held the view that God wrote two books, Scripture and Nature and they were both valid paths of study toward a closer relationship with God (commonly known as natural Theology and Theology Proper). Indeed, there have been great scientists who were not only religious, but clerics (let’s just mention the Catholic Church for the moment), such as Copernicus, Mendel, and Lemaître. It simply does not follow that if a Deity is outside nature, the study of nature and the seeking of a relationship with that Deity contradict.

That said, quite the opposite is true. Plato argues that only if Platonism is true (i.e. if the Forms exist and we can truly know them) is science possible, since all science assumes the Principle of Intelligibility, i.e. that what’s going on in the world can be explained (you are assuming the Principle of Intelligibility right now, while reading these words, unless you think a pile of pebbles being dropped on a computer keyboard posted this comment). The same argument can be made for God. Of course, as I think any good and honest person should accept, the First Cause Argument (which, by the way, was taken by Aquinas from Aristotle, let’s get that one right) is sound and that the conclusion ensues that there must have been an uncaused cause (or an unmoved mover) who caused the Universe.

After assessing two very unorthodox views about religion and philosophy of religion, you jump onto the issue of causation, which is quite another story (though admittedly I jumped there, too, in the last paragraph). It is simply not true that a transcendent being is necessarily non-immanent. Most people would quote Aristotle as defending the view I negate (Plato, of course, is wholly on the both transcendent and immanent view), but the whole idea of the “Cosmic Dance” comes directly from him, so I hold that view insufficiently informed on Aristotle. I leave you to ponder why it is that a transcendent God is necessarily precluded from being immanent as well.

If by what you say you mean whether God ever does, in fact, interfere with nature, I’d say that that issue is one that’s not easily explained in a comment (or a blog post). I could point you to some (in my opinion) good books that deal with the issue, such as C. S. Lewis’ Miracles, John Henry Newman’s Essays on Miracles and, as always, G. K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. That said, the First Cause Argument (I believe C. S. Lewis argues this) shows the first “miracle,” i.e. the first time God interferes with nature.

14 07 2013

Dear ModernPlatonist,

Please be aware that I write from the perspective of strong scientific naturalism, that is the whole point…

And yes, you are free to dismiss this, but we all have our own history of learning which leads us to different angles of attack. Indeed a strongly suggest you do dismiss me and move on, I fear we are too far apart to commune.

It does not help that naturalism diminishes the importance of both religion and philosophy and that should be provocative to you. Rest assured though, I personally do not think philosophical thinking is a waste of time, but to say that in my model philosophical arguments must be integrated with scientific ones, not be separate from or above them. Much value can be extracted from this type of ‘grounded’ philosophy, for example the concept of the social contract which is now fully assimilated.

It is this fairly mild and totally unoriginal approach that leads me to my ‘unorthodox’ views on deities/religion that have not been ‘upheld’ through the ages (sounds like an ‘appeal to antiquity’ fallacy) – they may not satisfy you, but unless you can use logical principles to dismantle them rather than a slew of famous names, I cannot change my opinion (sorry I am a sucker that way). It’s a corollary to that saying “you cannot reason someone out of an opinion they didn’t reason themselves into”.

I personally do not accept the first cause argument, as I have had the good fortune to study physics and understand that there is no need to have a first cause, there is no need for a ‘time before time’. Indeed if you studied a little relativity you would know that there is indeed no separation between the past and the future either. Philosophers who disregard the recent advances in physics do so at their peril.

I do not assume universal intelligibility either. I rely on it, yes, but as a working model, not as an axiom of reality. That is how science works, it is not philosophy! It has worked so pretty well so far, bringing us nuclear power and the internet.

And a point on style; if you think someone is wrong, it’s more polite to say “I think you are wrong”, or “what about this issue with your thinking” rather than state as fact that their proposals “don’t hold water”. I admit I came very close to ignoring your comment on this basis but felt the better angel of my nature convinced me to try to help you with your approach and your understanding of mine.

To end, I must also admit this whole discussion does seem to support another theory of mine: that we all vastly overestimate the importance of what transpires inside the grey matter within the skulls of tiny creatures living on a little regarded rock on one of the outer arms of the Milky Way…

Cheers, and happy philosophising 😉 The Provincial Scientist

15 07 2013

Dear Jarod,

There is much to respond to, so I will put my responses in numbered order for ease of reference.

1) “Scientific naturalism” is another name for new-age materialism, so I hope you will not mind if I reference it as such. It is a philosophical view, not a scientific view. The statement that there are no truths outside of those that are scientifically verifiable is a statement that is itself not scientifically verifiable, so it must come under the judgement of logic. That said, the scientific method itself is not scientifically verifiable (there is no experiment you can stage to prove that the scientific method is true), so it also is a philosophical attitude. Therefore, it is not simply that philosophy cannot be separated from science, but that science, also, cannot be separated from philosophy. Just like neurology cannot discount the study of the liver, because that organ stands outside of the purview of neurology, neither can science disprove philosophy, since philosophy (beginning with metaphysics) stands outside of the purview of science (though science and philosophy are in harmony, or need to be in harmony).

2) Materialism cannot and need not diminish neither Philosophy nor Theology (as opposed to religion, which is a relationship as opposed to a theory). Science is very useful in understanding how matter works, however, it cannot prove that there is nothing besides matter. That job is a purely philosophical job, which is why it is important to have knowledge of philosophy in order to pursue it. Because of this, it is insufficient to cite science alone as requiring all philosophical argument to be integrated with it. Atheism (and materialism) are interesting topics and worthy of debate, but it is much more fruitful to carry out that debate under true philosophy. Thomas Nagel and David Lewis are two atheist philosophers for whom I have deep respect and whose works have much to say on this matter, however, if you choose to espouse the amateur philosophy of Dawkins et al, in the words of Nagel himself, that is a waste of time.

3) The social contract did not come out of scientific or new age materialism. At best, Hobbes (most people would point to him as starting the whole ordeal on the matter) is a metaphysical-reductionist, who ascribed to a different set of beliefs that can be classified as materialist. However, his underlying reasoning comes under serious doubt, since he asserted rather than proved his theory of the state of nature (which, if you think about it, could not exist). His only concrete evidence on the matter is the alleged non-structural way of life of the Native Americans, which has long since been disproven.

4) Appealing to antiquity is not a fallacy unless the appeal itself is untrue or revisionary in nature (“in the good old days…”). In fact, to say that all appeals to prior time are fallacious comes under the genetic fallacy (i.e. telling truth by the clock). Be that as it may, I merely am asking for you to consider all the data, if your goal is to show the underlying illogicality of “religion” as such, as opposed to Christianity or, to be more exact, fundamental, creationist, Protestant theories that became popular in the twentieth century and have sadly stuck around to today. I mentioned the formal formulation of the theory that science and Theology are in balance by both the Medieval Scholastic tradition and the Cappadocian Fathers and the concrete carrying out of that principle from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, which points to the fact that your account of Theology is insufficient in showing that all religion falls short of logic. Even with those examples considered, you still have much to do in analysing all Theology, across time. If your goal is to show that all Theology is inconsistent, it should be a critique fitting all religion. If your goal is to show that the previously mentioned Protestant theories are inconsistent, I can do nothing but tip my hat to your work, because I very much agree with it.

5) The First Cause Argument does not rely itself on a “time before time.” Lemaître clearly points out that the Universe was created an instant before time started (in the physical sense), since, in the physical sense, there cannot be time before change and there cannot be change before matter. However, in the metaphysical sense, the substantial change necessary to have that first particle needs a cause in itself. Lemaître himself was the one that convinced Einstein of the validity of the Big Bang, so I do not think that, between the two of them, relativity was set aside for the moment. “Time before time” is a logical impossibility and both Aristotle and Aquinas point that out, though it is useful to analogically speak of “time before time” (without actually believing in the metaphysical reality of such a thing) to render into common human language what otherwise can only be expressed through logical symbols.

6) To rely on a principle without believing it to be real can either be defined as insanity or as dishonesty, whichever you prefer. Imagine how awkward it would be if I, as a Platonist, argued that I base my metaphysics (and therefore my ethics) on the Form of the Good, but I actually do not believe that such a Form of the Good exists. At best I should see myself as making an “underhand” argument, more fit for sophistry rather than philosophy. Of course, Hume is the first one to align himself to such hypocrisy (arguing that causation is not real, but believing that it is real when he is playing pool), but just because some famous person has embraced such a doubtful premise, it does not make it reasonable to walk in his steps. As either Descartes or Pascal said, there is no philosophical theory so wayward that a philosopher has not seriously taught it. (Also consider the arguments of D. Lewis et al against the modern Modal Fictionalism)

7) I hope that we can engage in tough-nosed debate without having to rely on the niceties of our culture. After all, we can unleash our clashing ideologies in full battle against one another with the understanding that it is our ideologies, not our persons that we are attacking. To say, “I do not think this is right…” is to undermine philosophical debate and turn it into a subjectivist quest (which, devoid of objective meaning, is meaningless outside of the author’s mind). Please, if anything I saw seems false by your standard of judgment, say that it is false, not that you think it is false, since only objective facts can be logically debated. (Imagine a debate that goes something along the lines of “I think vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream.” “No, I think chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream.” Neither statement reveals any true point of contention outside of the author’s mind. The only logically consistent response to either statement is “Good for you.”)

8) I believe on of Einstein’s professors said something remarkably similar to him. Einstein’s response was something akin to, “Yes, however, that being is also the astronomer who has discovered all those facts.” Small and insignificant a creature as we may be in the great mass of matter that we call the Universe, we have been endowed with the unique ability (so far as we know) to analyze that great mass of information which floats around us. To remind ourselves as to how small we are in comparison to the Universe is important, but we should take care to not reduce our own cognitive abilities that have shown us the vastness of the Universe by that very knowledge.

That said, I must admit that I am very much enjoying this discussion and I hope that you will be gracious and excuse my crassness (if I come off as crass) in favour of allowing both of us to write and think more on the subject.

15 07 2013

Dear ModernPlatonist,

Thank you for your response, I found it excellently argued, but more importantly not at all ‘crass’. I am the last person to say you should water down a belief or argument; my comment about saying ‘I think…’ was not about the strength of your conviction, but about simple art of not appearing arrogant which gets in the way of people actually paying attention to the content of your argument.

Now to the fray….

I first need to address your understanding of my understanding of what science is…

You use the term ‘scientifically verifiable’. This is a very common phrase but does not relate to the formal structure behind the scientific method. The scientific method does not ‘verify’. Verifications and proofs are the domain of maths and formal logic, not science.

Proper science works by *disproof*.

All we have at our disposal is a collection of observations and a working model of how they relate. Sure, logic has a role, but without axioms no models are ever truly safe.

So, we have hypotheses and they stand until they make a formal contradiction. Indeed many stick around even after they make contradictions because no better proposal is available.

This system extends the power of science a little further than you seem to realise.

To start, it means for example that you can use theories you don’t fully trust (believe). Indeed you never need believe or trust anything! Like walking on thin ice, it is perfectly possible, however, you run the risk of embarrassment later on down the line.

For you to say this approach is insane or dishonest implies that you feel it essential to believe things. I disagree. Am I insane or dishonest? You decide.


The next magic trick of the scientific method is that is can address the knotty question of ‘why’. Many people think science is about mechanisms and therefore the how, but has nothing to say about the why.

However it says everything about why, by saying nothing. By saying nothing, it says there is no ‘why’.

Of course it does not ‘prove’ there is no ‘why’, because it does not prove anything, but it raises the idea that there is no why and waits patiently for ‘philosophy’ to prove it wrong.


Now on to some specific topics….

I did not understand how your argument in 5) supports First Cause. It remains a plain contradiction, and the most sensible escape from that loop is to say the universe is itself the uncausable cause and not invoke any extra complexity, Occam-style.

I need not believe I’m right in this, I only need suspect it, and use it as my basis, and wait to be disproven.


On 4), the issue is not that appealing to antiquity is bad, it’s fine, it just doesn’t prove anything. History (and reputation) are very useful in allowing us to make logical shortcuts by resting on the learnings (and laurels) of others.

My issue was on a different tack. Your original words were not chosen to logically dismantle my theories, but to simply denigrate them as already popularly dismantled, ages ago, over and over; this is a combo of the appeal to antiquity and the appeal to popularity. These are not really fallacies but ‘fallacious arguments’, i.e. not arguments at all.

I personally don’t think those particular positions in my OP can be dismantled, and that is where we get to my point.

My point is that the area of philosophy that is outside of the reach of science, though still ‘real’, is just not interesting to me. Angels on the head of a pin, as they say. Yes you can use metaphysical arguments to say my science oriented arguments are simplistic and naive, but as they are metaphysical arguments, its like swearing in a foreign language, not at all offensive.

If you can use scientific arguments to dismantle my positions, then we are really talking.


I guess it sounds like I am wimping out, and in a sense I am. I am very happy it opens doors for others, but my path is to assume that metaphysics is largely navel gazing and more fruit can be found within strict naturalism (and I don’t mind it being called materialism, but I do mind the ‘new-age!).


Let me end by saying that the ‘niceties’ of our culture are in the social contract. Touche Mr Hobbes 😉 Being rude and direct are not the same, but extremely similar and if you care about the difference, sign on the dotted line…

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