Smoke & Mirrors



Bryan Farha Published: March 11, 2013

  Invited Post by John Nail, Ph.D.

One of the ongoing conflicts in our sharply divided nation is that between religion and science. Extremists on one side argue that science is attempting to supplant God and religion. Extremists on the other side argue that science ‘has proven that God doesn’t exist’. The battleground for this supposed science vs. religion conflict involves Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (Evolution). The problem isn’t that science and religion inherently conflict, the problem is that the antagonists fail to understand science and religion.

Science is knowledge of the natural – everything that behaves according to the ‘laws of nature’. We should note that the laws of nature are generalizations based upon observations of nature. Possibly the most famous law of nature is gravity – items fall when dropped. Note that the Law of Gravity is not a theory – it does not explain why items fall when they drop, only that they do. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was the first real theory (explanation) of gravity.

Religion deals with the supernatural, as in ‘outside the laws of nature’. Science cannot determine if God does or doesn’t exist as God wouldn’t be bound by the laws of nature. To illustrate the difference between the natural and the supernatural, we can answer the question ‘how many bacterial colonies are on the head of a pin’, but we cannot answer the question ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’. We can scientifically study bacterial colonies; we can’t scientifically study angels. One obeys the laws of nature and the other doesn’t.

Pseudoscience are non-scientific beliefs that claim to be science. The most objective test for determining if something is science or not science is Karl Popper’s concept of falsification – every scientific theory makes predictions that can be tested. If the prediction is verified, the theory survives; if the prediction is not verified, if nature does something different from what the theory predicts, the theory must be modified or discarded. Note that the falsification concept does not mean that the scientific theory (explanation) is wrong – only that the theory is proven to be wrong if it makes wrong predictions.

As an example of the falsification concept, the theory of Evolution predicts that bacteria that survives exposure to an antibiotic will become resistant to that antibiotic. If, however, the bacteria became more susceptible (less resistant) to the antibiotic, this result would falsify (disprove) Evolution. As most of us know, bacteria do become more resistant (not less resistant) to antibiotics. The problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria is a serious issue in medicine.

Clearly, theories involving the supernatural do not make testable (verifiable) predictions. The inability to test supernatural explanations makes them not falsifiable and thus, not scientific.

Magisteria is a term for ‘teaching authority’. Almost two decades ago, Stephen Jay Gould argued that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion as science’s magisteria is the natural world, religion’s magisteria is the supernatural world and there is no overlap, and therefore, no conflict between the two. To put this in different terms, everything that follows the laws of nature can be studied by science; everything that does not follow the laws of nature cannot be studied by science. Science cannot study the supernatural and the supernatural has no place in science.

Creationism (even when it calls itself ‘scientific creationism’) is clearly not science as it 1) invokes a supernatural creator, 2) is not falsifiable as it does not make testable predictions, and 3) as per the writings of the creationism supporters, the act of creation cannot be studied. Clearly this is religion not science.

The theory of Natural Selection does not inherently conflict with religion unless one truly believes that the Earth is 6000 years old, as calculated by Bishop Ussher via a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Note that this ‘young Earth creationism’ argument is an example of religion improperly getting out of its magisteria.

While the following is not a scientific statement, one can view Evolution (Natural Selection) as ‘the invisible hand of God working through nature’. As a scientist, I don’t find this objectionable, as long as it isn’t confused with science.

DR. NAIL is Chair of the Chemistry Department at Oklahoma City University

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