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When Scientists Argue About Religion and Science


God the GeometerIn his July 2006 Addressing the public about science and religion opinion piece for Physics Today, Murray Peshkin - a theoretical physicist at Argonne national Lab - argues passionately about the benefits of scientists addressing the boundary between religion and science in a public forum. Peshkin describes how his public appearances have led to some interesting give-and-take - learning experiences for him and his audiences.

Peshkin’s position is summarized by the title and opening line of an essay published in the Chicago Tribune magazine:

SCIENCE AND RELIGION: CAN THEY LEARN TO LIVE WITH EACH OTHER? The answer is that they can and they must, or we will all suffer the consequences.

Given the nature of the polarized debates surrounding Intelligent Design, and particularly the Dover court case, it’s clear that two topics need a good deal of elaboration: describing how a scientist uses the word theory, and the need for a theory to be falsifiable in order to count as science.

Peshkin uses an interesting, and effective hypothetical situation to drive home the falsifiable idea, which leads to his main point about the inherent differences between a scientific and religious world view:

Science is based entirely on experiment. To illustrate what that means, I raise the possibility that the world was created three hours ago with all our memories and everything else in place, and I encourage discussion of that possibility. Science cannot refute it. That leads into the notion that a proposition is not a scientific theory at all unless it's falsifiable in principle. Absent a possible experiment, science does not even know the meaning of the proposition. Nobody is surprised when I confess that I'm really not thinking of three hours ago, but of a few thousand years. Science and religion have different assumptions, different rules of inference, and different definitions of truth or reality. The fence that surrounds science is the test by experiment. That fence is both the greatest strength and the most fundamental limitation of science, and it needs to be respected from both sides. Scientists may have opinions about religion, but they cannot honestly invoke the authority of science when they try to apply the logic of science on the other side of the fence. Similarly, creationists and advocates of intelligent design should not pretend to be conducting a scientific argument.

Peskin’s appearances are positive steps towards reconciling the deep chasm between science and religion that exists in the vacuity of our media, and his account of these efforts in the public sphere is illuminating.

Just as illuminating has been the response to Peshkin’s article. In the recent issue of Physics Today (Feb. 2007), a number of scientists have written letters to the editor of Physics Today protesting Peshkin’s arguments and methods. While disappointing, this response is not surprising given the unimaginably entrenched feelings - of faith, reason, and scientific "turf" that color so many of our beliefs and interactions with others.

The letters, and Peshkin’s response are themselves important documents in the creation of the dialogue that Peshkin is calling for.

Click here to read these letters and Peshkin’s response. A visit to Peshkin’s Religion and Science resources Page is also recommended, as it contains links to mainstream religious sources that stress that evolution and religious belief are not mutually exclusive.