A tree still makes a sound

trees by noahg.
What Questions Can Science Answer?:
[Via Cosmic Variance]

One frustrating aspect of our discussion about the compatibility of science and religion was the amount of effort expended arguing about definitions, rather than substance. When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world – for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless, where usefulness is judged by the clarity of one’s attempts at communication. Personally, I think using “religion” in that way is not very clear. Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, or that God did not create the universe. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose job it is to judge whether a candidate for canonization has really performed the required number of miracles and so forth, would probably not agree that miracles don’t occur. Francis Collins, recently nominated to direct the NIH, argues that some sort of God hypothesis helps explain the values of the fundamental constants of nature, just like a good Grand Unified Theory would. These views are by no means outliers, even without delving into the more extreme varieties of Biblical literalism.

[More]

This is a nice discussion about religion and science. Religion is not incompatible with science per se. However, science can constrain what sort of religious beliefs are prevalent and, particularly, constrain religious dogma.

Because the way science is really constructed, how it is used to explain the world around us, it definitely can make comments about certain events that are not compatible with certain religious beliefs.

Here are some of the critical paragraphs from this post:


Here is my favorite example question. Alpha Centauri A is a G-type star a little over four light years away. Now pick some very particular moment one billion years ago, and zoom in to the precise center of the star. Protons and electrons are colliding with each other all the time. Consider the collision of two electrons nearest to that exact time and that precise point in space. Now let’s ask: was momentum conserved in that collision? Or, to make it slightly more empirical, was the magnitude of the total momentum after the collision within one percent of the magnitude of the total momentum after the collision?

This isn’t supposed to be a trick question; I don’t have any special knowledge or theories about the interior of Alpha Centauri that you don’t have. The scientific answer to this question is: of course, the momentum was conserved. Conservation of momentum is a principle of science that has been tested to very high accuracy by all sorts of experiments, we have every reason to believe it held true in that particular collision, and absolutely no reason to doubt it; therefore, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that momentum was conserved.

A stickler might argue, well, you shouldn’t be so sure. You didn’t observe that particular event, after all, and more importantly there’s no conceivable way that you could collect data at the present time that would answer the question one way or the other. Science is an empirical endeavor, and should remain silent about things for which no empirical adjudication is possible.

But that’s completely crazy. That’s not how science works. Of course we can say that momentum was conserved. Indeed, if anyone were to take the logic of the previous paragraph seriously, science would be a completely worthless endeavor, because we could never make any statements about the future. Predictions would be impossible, because they haven’t happened yet, so we don’t have any data about them, so science would have to be silent.

All that is completely mixed-up, because science does not proceed phenomenon by phenomenon. Science constructs theories, and then compares them to empirically-collected data, and decides which theories provide better fits to the data. The definition of “better” is notoriously slippery in this case, but one thing is clear: if two theories make the same kinds of predictions for observable phenomena, but one is much simpler, we’re always going to prefer the simpler one. The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.


Science uses logical principles to help us understand the world and to predict what will happen. We know that momentum is conserved, without having to record EVERY single instance of it. Because the world described by that knowledge fits everything we have ever seen in the world around us. A world where the conservation of momentum could not be conserved would not fit what we can empirically record. It would have consequences. Consequences we have never observed.

Science is fundamentally designed to be able to deal with instances where there is no one there to ‘see’ the event. Does a tree falling in a forest make a sound?

To a scientist the answer is yes. There is no need to have someone there to record it. Because a world where sounds only exist if someone records them would have ramifications that could be examined and measured.

Science must be allowed to draw conclusions about events it does not see, since the opposite (we can only discuss things we have directly observed) does absolutely no good. We can never see everything so science loses any predictive power at all if there is the requirement for absolute observation before any conclusions are met.

This ability to predict, to draw conclusions based on empirical observations, is the real power of science and why we have been as successful using it.

Thus, science can make conclusions about things it does not have to see. In fact, it HAS to in order to be useful.

And this is where the collision with religion occurs and why there can be no real resolution. Take the virgin birth.


There is some historical evidence that, about two thousand years ago in Galilee, a person named Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, and later grew up to be a messianic leader and was eventually crucified by the Romans. (Unruly bloke, by the way — tended to be pretty doctrinaire about the number of paths to salvation, and prone to throwing moneychangers out of temples. Not very “accommodating,” if you will.) The question is: how did Mary get pregnant?

One approach would be to say: we just don’t know. We weren’t there, don’t have any reliable data, etc. Should just be quiet.

The scientific approach is very different. We have two theories. One theory is that Mary was a virgin; she had never had sex before becoming pregnant, or encountered sperm in any way. Her pregnancy was a miraculous event, carried out through the intervention of the Holy Ghost, a spiritual manifestation of a triune God. The other theory is that Mary got pregnant through relatively conventional channels, with the help of (one presumes) her husband. According to this theory, claims to the contrary in early (although not contemporary) literature are, simply, erroneous.

There’s no question that these two theories can be judged scientifically. One is conceptually very simple; all it requires is that some ancient texts be mistaken, which we know happens all the time, even with texts that are considerably less ancient and considerably better corroborated. The other is conceptually horrible; it posits an isolated and unpredictable deviation from otherwise universal rules, and invokes a set of vaguely-defined spiritual categories along the way. By all of the standards that scientists have used for hundreds of years, the answer is clear: the sex-and-lies theory is enormously more compelling than the virgin-birth theory.

There is no ambiguity. Science has to say that the virgin birth did not happen. There is simply no way to reconcile what science has to conclude and what religious dogma demands.

This has nothing to do with ideas of faith. By this definition, one that I agree with, science simply can do nothing else but say that Mary conceived by normal means. We live in a world where women give birth by very defined processes, involving the fusion of egg and sperm. Today, no one would believe the words of a teenager who said she had become pregnant as a virgin. That is because science has informed us that there is only one way. Such a claim today would only result in a harder round of questioning to find the father.

So, when a scientist argues that point and says there was no virgin birth it is not strictly an attempt to denigrate the other’s faith. It arises from this definition of science.

Now a scientist can make a leap of faith and believe in the Virgin Birth but they are no longer acting as a scientist and can no longer make scientific arguments, at least ones with a shred of evidence or predictive abilities. Science, by its very nature, does not recognize one-off miracles. Today, there is no predictive strength in such theories, where natural laws can be changed without any prior knowledge.

I think much of the controversy between religion and science comes from the two hats that must often be worn by scientists of faith. Wearing the scientist hat, they have to say that Mary bore Jesus the same way as everyone else, just like the teenager above. We are talking about the basic world view that most scientist use every day to do their research.

To believe in the Virgin Birth, scientists must change their viewpoint, to one that is in direct contradiction to the view they use every day in their daily lives. to one that permits the natural world to adopt a chaotic, unpredictable conclusion. In such a world, scientific endeavor actually has no meaning. Without the ability to work with predictive theories, science simply can not work. This is the dogma hat.

So, the grinding weariness of having to change hats, of having to change between two substantially different and contradictory world views, usually causes scientists to move away from dogma, such as the virgin birth. It is much easier to wear two hats by moving the faith side to a view where there is little or no overt interactions between the two views, where God started everything going billions of years ago and has watched since. And where there is really less battle between dogmatic views of religion and scientific realism.

Much less internal conflict. Just human nature and a view of faith that is actually matched by many, many people.

And, finally, some scientists decide to only wear one hat, the science one, forsaking the dogma one altogether and becoming what are called atheists.

Of course, this is in direct opposition to those who believe that the bible is absolutely literal. This is where the real squabbles seem to come from. The literalists only have to wear one hat. Many scientists try to wear two, which is much harder because there are always many more things in the bible that just do not fit a scientific world. And the scientists who wear only one hat will be in conflict not only with the literalists but also with the two-hat wearing scientists. There will necessarily be a conflict as long as each views Biblical ‘facts’ differently.

A scientist who takes the Bible literally really has a hard time doing science. They occupy a world where any event, where any law can be subverted at any time; where every event must be recorded because unless it is, it may not have happened. They occupy a world where a tree falling in the woods with no one around may or may not have made a sound; no one can know for sure. This is not a scientific world.

Scientists, to live in the world they work in daily, simply can not view things like the virgin birth as factual. Because that is simply not scientific, by definition. But to fundamentalists, anyone who does not take dogma such as the virgin birth literally is an apostate and must be saved.

Thus, while I see no conflict between science and religion on issues of faith, there are direct conflicts between the practice of science and that of dogmatists. And, not surprising, biblical literalists argue most vociferously on issues of dogma, not on faith.

The conflicts do not come from most of the religious bodies in the world. Catholics and Jews, for instance, have very little conflict with most scientific teachings. The majority of conflicts between religion and science come from those literalists who believe their religious text is absolutely truthful in all aspects.

It is almost always about dogma and not faith.

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