Magazine article Free Inquiry

Two Kinds of Materialism: Keeping Them Separate Makes Faith and Science Compatible

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Two Kinds of Materialism: Keeping Them Separate Makes Faith and Science Compatible

Article excerpt

Are religion and science compatible? To some humanists, this question must be answered with a resounding "No." To me and to many other humanists familiar with the creation and evolution issue, the answer is a perhaps surprising "Yes."

It is easy to see how science and religion can be incompatible. Right from the start, the two ways of looking at the world differ in the questions asked and the methods used to answer them. Scientists try to answer questions about the natural world, using natural explanations. Clergy ask questions about the relationship of mortals to the supernatural.

Ironically, some have concluded that, because so many differences between science and religion exist, they need not conflict. Science and religion can be viewed as different windows on the same universe, as different ways of knowing about different kinds of things. Science and religion don't conflict so long as religion doesn't try to explain the natural world. History shows that, for theological as well as practical reasons, Christianity has indeed gradually ceased trying to explain the natural world through revelation.

Others insist upon a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion, whether literalist or mainline. Cornell University historian William Provine argues that modern science has disproved religion. The results of scientific inquiry show no "purposive principles in nature," and "the universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life"; and, in fact, any scientist who goes to church has to "check his brains" at the door. Provine recognizes that science operates to explain the natural world by using matter, energy, and their interactions. This is what philosophers of science call "methodological materialism," and it has made modern science very successful. Provine believes that, not only can we explain the natural world using natural processes, but that this success demonstrates that there is no supernatural. This is philosophical materialism, sometimes called "scientism." Antievolutionist Phillip Johnson, author of the best-selling Darwin on Trial, fully agrees with Provine. The only difference is that Provine promotes and Johnson opposes scientism.

I am as much a philosophical materialist as Provine (and do not dissemble about my philosophical views when addressing the public on these issues), but confusing the two kinds of materialism makes empirical, philosophical, and strategic errors. Empirically, it is demonstrable that many scientists are religious. …

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