[asa] Debate about science and religion continues (Physics Today,February 2007 issue)

From: Alexanian, Moorad <alexanian@uncw.edu>
Date: Tue Feb 06 2007 - 10:51:37 EST


Debate about science and religion continues

I commend Murray Peshkin for his personal involvement in educating the
public about science (PHYSICS TODAY, July 2006, page 46). Arming
nonscientists with even the most basic scientific reasoning goes a long
way in dispelling much of the misinformation propagated by religious
fundamentalists. However, I think Peshkin's explanation of boundaries
between science and religion is wrong, and even though his education of
nonscientists is amiable, his message to the religious among them is

Peshkin's presentation to religious nonscientists is conciliatory
through the claim that science need not overlap with their beliefs, and
that they can be safe from scientific scrutiny because science and
religion have "different rules of inference, and different definitions
of truth or reality." The statement comes without explanation and seems
like it is intended to be accepted without question by a receptive
audience. Then he writes, "Science is based entirely on experiment,"
which emphasizes a narrow scope of science and implies ample room for
religious belief. This second statement is wrong because it disregards
the role of observation, something responsible for astronomy and much of
evolutionary biology, to name just two areas. By neglecting to mention
observation in this context, he leaves out the essence of science most
directly responsible for unease with religion. Specifically, observation
means that many religiously motivated claims about nature can be subject
to scientific scrutiny even if they are not experimentally accessible;
the origins of the universe and of humans are prime examples. Science
has cornered religious assertions about the natural world, and the
tension arises not when scientists step over some imaginary line into
religion but when religion trespasses by trying to explain the natural
world. Any supernatural cause that has an effect in the natural world is
subject to validation or refutation by science.

Peshkin does give two examples where science cannot tread: "The world
was created three hours ago with all our memories and everything else in
place," and "No observational evidence can disprove some subtle
supernatural intervention." But those statements are just specific
examples of the general rules; we can't know the unknowable, and we
can't disprove the existence of something. Peshkin seems to imply that
these kind of fantastical ideas are a refuge for the religious, without
enlightening them to how extremely small a perimeter it leaves them to
roam. He does not show, for example, how this fence surrounding religion
means the effectiveness of prayer, existence of the soul, and
interaction between a deity and the natural world are subject to
scientific scrutiny. Instead, his misrepresentation of science appears
deliberately designed to comfort those with beliefs in the supernatural.

My charges present a dilemma for Peshkin and for all of us who want to
have an honest debate about science education, health care, medical
research, and other avenues in which science and religion have rubbed
elbows. Either we run the risk of alienating religious people by
explaining how little room science leaves for mysticism, or we treat
them like children by sugarcoating our empiricism so they can feel
comfortable in their beliefs; the latter stance is often mistaken as
respect for religion. Perhaps Peshkin's middle ground is good diplomacy,
but it is not completely forthright.

Michael Matthews
Austin, Texas

There is much wisdom in the example Murray Peshkin sets and in the
specific topics he mentions. However, as someone who has moved in my
career from physics to planetary science to astrobiology, I am sensitive
to two areas in which Peshkin's approach risks sending the wrong

The meaning of the word "theory" has evolved over the past century to
the point where no one outside of a few academic oases uses its original
scientific meaning. Such establishment bastions as the New York Times
and National Public Radio, and even many scientists in ordinary
conversation, use theory to mean an idea, suggestion, or hypothesis.
Common are such phrases as "in theory, such-and-such is true, but in
practice . . ." or "in the absence of evidence, several theories were
suggested." It is certainly possible to explain to a captive audience
that the scientific meaning of this word is almost the exact opposite of
its colloquial usage. Much better, however, is to talk about
gravitation, relativity, plate tectonics, or evolution without the word
"theory." We are likely to communicate more effectively if we do not
demand that a lay audience unlearn the familiar meaning of this word.

My second concern is the description of science as based entirely on
experiment. We must broaden the definition to include observation and
inference about things that have happened in the past or are happening
in the universe beyond Earth, since those are the topics that generate
the most controversy between science and religion.

David Morrison
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, California

The ongoing national debate about the teaching of evolution in our
public schools is best served by clearly distinguishing the experimental
sciences from the historical sciences like Darwin's theory of evolution.
The historical sciences invariably bring into play the totality of the
human experience and thus the debate.

Scientists, philosophers, and theologians accumulate knowledge when
analyzing different aspects of reality and search for particular
hypotheses or models to fit their respective subject matters. Of course,
a main goal is to integrate these kinds of knowledge into an
all-encompassing worldview.

Religious concepts and beliefs are based on the notion of divinity, so
one must posit the existence of the supernatural, which transcends
nature but may contain all or part of it. The overwhelming majority of
Americans subscribe to the existence of such a realm.

A first, reasonable, and useful definition of science is the study of
the physical aspect of nature, and its subject matter is data that can
be collected, in principle, by purely physical devices. Therefore, the
laws of experimental science are generalizations of historical
propositions-that is, experimental data. Note that consciousness and
rationality are purely nonphysical, since purely physical devices cannot
detect them. In addition, life cannot be reduced to the purely physical,
so living beings are both physical and nonphysical.

Human rationality develops formal logic and creates mathematics to
summarize data into laws of nature that lead to theoretical models
covering a wide range of phenomena. However, scientists deal with
secondary causes. First causes involve metaphysical (ontological)
questions, which regulate science. Without the ontological, neither the
generalizations nor the historical propositions of the experimental
sciences would be possible.

An extreme form of reductionism supposes that all that exists is purely
physical and that the nonphysical aspect of reality follows from the
purely physical and the laws governing their interactions.
Unfortunately, this is often what is in the mind of the public when
discussing evolution. For that reason, one must spell out what prior
information is assumed in evolutionary theory; otherwise, people would
associate Darwin's evolution with a particular worldview, for instance,
atheism. In addition, it ought to be emphasized that advances in
medicine and other practical applications of biology are based
essentially on the results of laboratory experiments and not the history
of the evolution of life on Earth.

The public should be made aware that the laws of experimental science
are quite consistent with most theological presuppositions. It is in the
study of unique historical events-say, in cosmological or biological
evolution-where the conflict between science and religion may arise. For
instance, the Christian faith is based solely on the historicity of
Jesus of Nazareth, his death, and his resurrection. Absent those
historical events, there would be no Christian faith. Experimental
science has nothing to say regarding any particular historical event.

Isaac Newton's mechanics and James Clerk Maxwell's electrodynamics are
excellent prototypes of scientific theories. No designer or theological
considerations are needed in the theories themselves except when
considering the nature of the humans who created the mathematical
schemes. Therefore, the consideration of humans in any theory must be
based on the integration of science with other kinds of
knowledge-theology, for example.

The question of origins, especially the origin of man, poses a most
difficult problem-in particular, the emergence of life from the purely
physical. Surely, the results of experiment are used to analyze all
extant data in the historical sciences; nevertheless, the fundamental
problem of origins is more a historical rather than a scientific

Finally, Peshkin indicates, "a proposition is not a scientific theory at
all unless it's falsifiable in principle." Of course, if one is to apply
Karl Popper's principle of falsifiability, a theory must make
unambiguous predictions. In weather forecasting, the physics underlying
the dynamics is well known, and given the initial conditions, long-range
forecasting is very limited indeed. Surely, the evolution of life on
Earth is a much more complex system, so the claims made by those
advocating evolutionary theory can never really be falsified.

Moorad Alexanian
University of North Carolina Wilmington

The issues of scientific validity and science versus pseudoscience were
never addressed in any courses I took as an undergraduate science major,
and I observe the same situation in today's university introductory
science courses. How are undergraduates-or graduate students, for that
matter-supposed to learn these things? Murray Peshkin is correct when he
says, "We need to do better."

For about the past five years, I have begun my introductory astronomy
courses with a detailed interactive talk on the nature of science and
critical thinking. I incorporate a study of logical fallacies, another
item missing from most science courses. I use actual letters to the
editor of the local newspaper as debunking fodder. This introduction to
critical thinking takes about two weeks, but by the end of the semester,
my students know how to tell science from pseudoscience and belief, and
they know how to gauge the scientific validity of a claim. Instructors
who leave this material out of their courses are doing a great injustice
to students and to science in general. The presentation I use in my
classes is available on my website http://www.sticksandshadows.com)
along with a small but growing collection of custom applications of
critical thinking to astronomy.

All introductory science courses should be built around critical
thinking, with examples from the various scientific disciplines
providing applications. If students never understand the nature of
science, they will never truly understand how and why we know about
exotic entities like black holes.

My experience has been that students welcome discussion on the
differences between science and religion, a necessary topic when it
comes to critical thinking. In a recent semester, three students told me
they were planning to become ministers, and they appreciated the
opportunity to develop critical-thinking skills. One of these students
told me that elders in his church warned him to avoid science classes
because they would be a waste of time and would not help him become a
better minister. How much clearer does the need have to be before we do
something about it?

Joe Heafner
Catawba Valley Community College
Hickory, North Carolina

The debate about the teaching of evolution in public schools is unique
to the US among Western countries.1 Murray Peshkin's admonition to the
scientific establishment to engage in mature discussions of the issues
involved must be taken seriously. But such endeavors need careful

First, several facts should be taken into account explicitly. Most
religions are focused on the human being, with the universe-prime target
of the physicist's professional dedication-relegated to playing a
supporting role. In religion, spatial and temporal dimensions are those
familiar to human experience, information about the universe is that
which can be acquired through our senses, and relevant causal
interconnections between events are those whose consequences directly
affect us. It is then quite natural that phenomena extending over a few
hundred human lifetimes and images like the Earth orbiting around the
Sun-which we never actually see happening-were met with resistance for a
long time. Even today, the scientifically uninformed public has little
comprehension of astronomical and geological scales; everything that
invokes them is perceived as "just a theory." The same applies to the
fact that order can emerge out of chaos and purposeful behavior out of
random events without any outside intervention except for some available
energy and the action of a few universal physical laws. Scientifically
uninformed people sense, based on subjective experience, that purposeful
complexity cannot just emerge but must be designed-without being aware
that self-organization occurs in so many everyday phenomena.

Second, we should recognize that coexistence, even cooperation, between
faith and science is possible, though it does require some compromises.
People of religious faith should recognize that one cannot challenge
scientific facts with ideas alone and that many more unforeseen natural
phenomena revolutionizing previously held worldviews may still be
discovered. Scientists, in turn, should recognize that some
people-including some scientists-will always need religion for spiritual
guidance and comfort and will always have questions concerning the "why
of things" to which the scientific method cannot provide answers.
Religion should turn away from a literal interpretation of its sacred
scriptures by recognizing when they were written, by whom, for whom, and
for what purpose. Science should turn away from the easy way out offered
by the anthropic principle and recognize that natural points of contact
between science and religion do exist. Those points include some
questions concerning the values of the universal constants; the actual
form of physical laws; and the key fluctuations that gave rise to the
Big Bang, the appearance of the first living organisms, and the
emergence of self-consciousness.

Third, we should be aware of what some influential personalities have
declared about the matter. Pope John Paul II stated, "Science can purify
religion from error and superstition, and religion can purify science
from idolatry and false absolutes," and "The Bible itself speaks to us
of the origin of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us
with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct
relationships of man with God and with the universe."2 And Werner
Heisenberg wrote,

Science deals with the objective, material world. . . . Religion, on the
other hand, deals with the world of values. It considers what ought to
be or what we ought to do, not what is. In science we are concerned to
discover what is true or false; in religion with what is good or evil,
noble or base. Science is the basis of technology, religion the basis of

As a physicist, I like to view scientific thought and religious faith as
"basis states" of the human brain: They are mutually orthogonal, but at
any given time the actual state of the brain can be a superposition of
the two without violating the principles of either. Any attempts to
force a collapse into one or the other, like the so-called scientific
creationists and some agnostics would wish to do, go counter to the very
nature of human brain function. In fact, predisposition for religious
beliefs and the search for scientific knowledge may even have a common
evolutionary origin:4 the human brain's conception of time, its unique
capability of creating images of the future and making long-term
predictions, the innate urge to do so, and a feeling of satisfaction
when it is done.

1. A. Lazcano, Science 310, 787 (2005) [MEDLINE].
2. R. J. Russell, W. R. Stoeger, G. V. Coyne, eds., Physics, Philosophy,
and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, Vatican Observatory,
Vatican City (1988), pp. 14, 29.
3. W. Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, A.
J. Pomerans, trans., Harper & Row, New York (1971), p. 82.
4. J. G. Roederer, Information and Its Role in Nature, Springer, New
York (2005), pp. 163, 220.
Juan G. Roederer
Geophysical Institute
University of Alaska Fairbanks

As a chemical physicist I have followed both chemistry and physics for
more than 40 years. In recent years, I have noticed a gradual change in
the language of physics. Physicists now are more willing to accept that
our knowledge may be limited and to admit that we will probably never be
able to answer the major questions of existence that also fall in the
realm of religion. In fact, some modern physics theories are beginning
to require a certain belief system of their own and could be criticized
as to whether they remain science (Burton Richter discusses this in his
Reference Frame in PHYSICS TODAY, October 2006, page 8). This change has
been noteworthy and has provided for a healthier self-analysis by many
physicists. However, I was a little shocked by the Opinion piece by
Murray Peshkin, a theoretical physicist. It indicated, unfortunately,
that the old arrogance of physics is still very much alive. It appears
that a theoretical physicist is needed to present both Darwin's theory
of evolution and religion to the general public to help resolve any
conflict and emphasize that the theory is supported by extensive
experimentation. Peshkin apparently has never read Fred Hoyle's book
Mathematics of Evolution (Acorn Enterprises, 1999), which severely
criticized the theory and outlined its limitations. Many chemists and
physicists have great trouble with Darwin's theory, especially if one
tries to extrapolate it to higher life forms or modify it from an
evolutionary concept to one of creation. If scientists cannot agree no
wonder the general public is confused. I am still amused that even NASA
justifies some of its programs in the belief that creation of life forms
is some simple mechanism and with luck will be easily found somewhere

To extrapolate from nothing to the incredibly complex DNA-replicating
molecule takes an even greater leap of faith than any religion. If I
give a talk to a general audience, I emphasize the severe limitations of
science and our lack of true understanding. We have good models and
theories and have made great advances, but we still confuse data and the
accumulation of knowledge with true understanding. Moreover, because of
our apparently superior knowledge, some people now accept science as
their religion.

The older I get, the more I recognize the great commonality between the
sciences and the arts. In reality, science is no more than the technical
branch of the arts. For example, who was more talented: Albert Einstein,
Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, or William Shakespeare? Each
discipline requires ingenuity, creativity, and insight. One would hope
also some wisdom but that is an area that still needs more emphasis and
is not taught or easily acquired.

Keith Schofield
University of California
Santa Barbara

Being a PhD geneticist and a creationist, I was disappointed that Murray
Peshkin did not give references for the statement "Hundreds of Darwin's
predicted missing links have been found." I find quite the opposite. The
scientific turmoil behind whether birds are descendants of dinosaurs is
but one example of how the popular press does not accurately reflect the
disagreements in the scientific community. As Storrs Olson, curator of
birds for the Smithsonian Institution, stated in a 1999 letter to
National Geographic,

The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is
being actively promulgated by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in
concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who
themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the
faith. Truth and careful scientific weighing of evidence have been among
the first casualties in their program, which is now fast becoming one of
the grander scientific hoaxes of our age-the paleontological equivalent
of cold fusion.

If Peshkin could provide some solid references, it would add credibility
to his opinion.

Also, equating Charles Darwin's and Gregor Mendel's theories does not
work for me. Mendel observed inheritance patterns and developed a theory
of Mendelian genetics, which is verifiable in simple reproducible
experiments. His theory of genetic inheritance provides the mechanism
for natural selection, which is observable. Darwin, on the other hand,
postulated that natural selection would extend to species changes and
therefore provide the mechanism for macroevolution. I have never found
that to be observable. As traits are favored through selection, genetic
information is reduced, not increased. Man's very behavior exhibited
through gene conservation activities is evidence that genetic
information is not gained, as required for macroevolution to occur, but
is actually lost.

Michael Todhunter
Bristol, Connecticut

Peshkin replies: We scientists need to teach the nonscientist public
what science is about: what an established theory is and how we know
when it's right; how the requirement of falsifiability serves as a fence
between science and nonscience, defining the limitations of science and
insulating it from attacks based on pseudoscience; and especially why
science, correctly understood, does not threaten most people's religious

Michael Matthews says that the approach I advocate is condescending to
the religious. It has not been so perceived by the several dozen people
who have approached me after my public lectures or in response to my
writings for the public. A majority of the many who identified
themselves as people of religious faith, from high-school students to
the former president of a theological seminary, started the conversation
by saying that they appreciated my respect for religion. Nevertheless,
Matthews's warning should be heeded. People can be hypersensitive to
unintended slights about their religion, especially slights from
scientists. If you do not have respect for people's religion, you should
not be conducting such discussions; if you do have that respect, you
should make it obvious from the outset. You don't have to pretend to
share your audience's religious beliefs; you only have to respect them.
Otherwise, people will tune you out.

Matthews misrepresents the fence I described. It surrounds-and is
defined by the demands of-science, not religion. Nobody can reasonably
deny religion its own perspectives regarding natural phenomena as well
as religious beliefs. Science's fence is violated only if a pretense is
made that such a discussion is science when it is not. That point of
violation is the reason for the conflict, and that is where we have to
guard against attempts to substitute pseudoscience for science in our
schools. Explaining the conflict to the public has not been made easier
by recent contemptuous attacks on religion by atheists who are
scientists but who abuse science when they claim falsely that it
disproves religion. I explicitly disown such attacks and advise others
to do the same.

Matthews, joined by David Morrison and Moorad Alexanian, also objects to
my use of experiment as the sole criterion for defining science; they
say observation is also part of science. They are right. Henceforth I
will say "experiment and observation," but that alone does not address
the substance of their complaint. The subtleties of the difference
between experiment and observation and their interaction with predictive
power and falsifiability may be suitable for advanced students, but they
cannot usefully be addressed in a typical one-hour general-interest
lecture, at least not by me. Each person who gives such talks has to use
an approach with which he or she is comfortable. I am comfortable with
describing the discovery of the cosmic microwave background as a
make-or-break experiment that could have falsified the Big Bang theory.
Big Bang cosmology was on a back burner until the CMB was predicted and
subsequently discovered. Was that an experiment or an observation? I
don't think it matters. An example from geology is the speculation that
the K-T extinction was caused by a meteor impact. That idea became
generally accepted when its prediction of a global iridium-rich layer at
the right depth was confirmed experimentally-or was it observationally?
Absent that widespread iridium, the theory would have been falsified.
That's what made it science.

Testing the theory is more difficult in biology. Biologists can tout
simple individual experiments and observations that test evolution, but
biologists are also dependent on the overall success of the big picture,
the observation of which must agree with their theories. I defer to the
biologists for an authoritative description of all that. My point is
that what is science and what is not remains the same.

Morrison also suggests that we drop the word "theory" because it has
diverse meanings. Particle physicists and astrophysicists often do just
that, speaking instead of "the standard model." I see no useful answer
to the argument that evolution is "just a theory" other than to explain
what an established scientific theory is and why it must be respected
despite our near certainty that future research will find its
applicability limited.

Alexanian says that experiments to test evolution's description of the
origin of the earliest life forms are not possible. We can never prove
that any theory is true; we can only challenge it with tests. The famous
Miller-Urey experiment and its successors, in which amino acids were
created from hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, and water in a process
that credibly mimics nature, constitute such a test.

Joe Heafner serves his students well by discussing the nature of
evidence and related questions. I hear anecdotally that others are
beginning to do the same. I hope they will all emphasize the limitations
of science and why science and religion, reasonably understood, do not
threaten each other.

Juan Roederer addresses issues that go beyond the conflict we currently
face in our schools and our courts. He seeks a generalization of science
and religion into a philosophy that not only includes both but creates a
unified system in which the two are non-trivially entangled and which
satisfies the core needs of both. The clarity with which Roederer
describes that ambitious quest in a short letter is remarkable. However,
its success is uncertain, as is the time scale on which we will learn
whether it succeeds. Protecting the teaching of good science in our
public schools cannot wait. We must defend the science we have, which is
distinct from religion, and we must do it now.

I note that Roederer enjoins science to "turn away from the easy way out
offered by the anthropic principle." But observations of atomic spectra
in distant quasars hint at a slight shift in the fine structure
constant. If that result is confirmed, the improbability of finding
conditions right for life somewhere at some time becomes at least a
semi-quantitative question that needs to be investigated by the methods
of science.

Keith Schofield makes three substantive points: that his experience as a
chemical physicist leads him to believe that DNA cannot have arisen in a
natural process, that physicists should butt out and leave the
discussion to biologists, and that scientists have a faith of their own.
The first is asserted without explanation and the second seems curious
in light of the first. Schofield's third point is interesting. I think
most scientists take on faith that there is some understandable pattern
to the things we can observe, that we are on the right track in
investigating that pattern by the methods of science, and that we are
closing in on something that corresponds to our intuitive idea of
reality. That belief is a matter of our metascience, or perhaps of our
psychology, not part of the science itself, which deals only with the
observable world. The important thing for the present discussion is that
this belief neither confirms nor contradicts religion.

Michael Todhunter asks to debate the evidence for evolution in the
fossil record. Books have been written on that subject-I cited two in my
Opinion piece. The practical political issue is this: What should our
public schools teach when confronted with disagreements they are not
themselves able to resolve? The answer is easy. Almost all the most
respected biologists are saying that evolution is the theory that works
and that it is the central organizing principle of modern biology. If
the school boards have any sense, that is what their schools will teach
despite a few dissenters, some of whom offer genuine scientific
challenges to the theory and most of whom have other agendas. The
schools should be teaching their students that all theories have
wrinkles that remain to be ironed out. They should be teaching that all
theories are tentative and our understanding is always incomplete, but
that science progresses by building on what we know best.
Well-established theories such as evolution work too well not to have
mostly permanent truth in them, even though the theories will evolve in
response to new evidence. We should be helping the school boards by
educating their constituents.

Contrary to Schofield's advice, all kinds of scientists should be
explaining to the public what science is about and emphasizing its
strengths and its limitations, because the public and not the courts
will decide where this country will go in the 21st century.

Murray Peshkin
Argonne, Illinois

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