Conversations: Intellectual Integrity

We can argue that it is now a moral necessity for scientists to speak honestly about the conflict between science and religion, but even the National Academy of Sciences has declared the conflict illusory:

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. Religious and scientific ways of knowing have played, and will continue to play, significant roles in human history…. Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.

This statement is stunning for its lack of candor. Of course, scientists live in perpetual fear of losing public funds, so the NAS may have merely been expressing raw terror of the taxpaying mob. The truth, however, is that the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable.

Indeed! The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science. Our religions do not simply talk about “a purpose for human existence.” Like science, every religion makes specific claims about the way the world is. These claims purport to be about facts—the creator of the universe can hear (and will occasionally answer) your prayers; the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception; if you do not believe the right things about God, you will suffer terribly after death. Such claims are intrinsically in conflict with the claims of science, because they are claims made on terrible evidence, if any.

In the broadest sense, “science” (from the Latin scire, “to know”) represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world. We need not distinguish between “hard” and “soft” science here, or between science and a branch of the humanities like history. It is a historical fact, for instance, that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Consequently, this fact forms part of the worldview of scientific rationality. Given the evidence that attests to this fact, anyone believing that it happened on another date, or that the Egyptians really dropped those bombs, has a lot of explaining to do.

As do many other people who make questionable claims about the world we live in. Remember, the core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty. It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 21)

See other: Philosophical Conversations

1 thought on “Conversations: Intellectual Integrity

  1. It is a pity there isn’t a religion completely compatible with scientific thinking. The two should not, actually, be in different spheres where never the twain shall meet.

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