Thursday, June 14, 2018

Battle Of Science vs. Religion Resumes In 'Physics Today': My Published Response To A Religionist

   First, some preliminaries.

 Physics Today - which celebrated its 70th anniversary last month - is the first interdisciplinary journal of the American Institute of Physics. It was conceived as a "bold experiment - a magazine that would help unify an increasingly balkanized discipline".    But calling PT a "magazine" doesn't do it service. It was in fact more a generic answer to increasing subject specialization in physics. In other words, a publication where physicists from all physics disciplines could go to share their sundry insights and discoveries. Indeed, as described in the article commemorating the founding ('The Origins Of Physics Today', May, p. 32) we learn:

"In a groundbreaking move, the AIP leadership proposed the institute launch its own publication rather than merely acquire journals from its member societies"

In other words, it was the AIP's own journal, directed to the goal of fostering unity among physicists and their societies.

 In many ways this has been accomplished, with only a few major divergences in the community, such as during the Reagan 'Star Wars' (SDI) era in the 80s when many of us wanted no part of promoting a military boondoggle we knew couldn't work. See e.g.

As noted therein (quoting physicist Wolfgang Panofsky):

"There exists at this time no technical basis that justifies expanding research and technology programs in ballistic missile defense beyond a program of limited experimentation ...and studies of an objective rather than promotional manner."

But other conflicts in the physics community have sometimes occurred when one or more religionists send in missives or commentaries to suggest science and religion need to work more closely together, or be more accommodating to each other (usually framed that science isn't accommodating enough to religion).   By "religionists" here I mean anyone who promotes such accommodation - not necessarily that he himself is a religiously inclined person or indeed, worships a deity at all.

Such was the case when a religionist named Tom McLeish, based at Durham University in the UK, tried to make a case that science and religion are not really in conflict and that we should really emphasize the "surprisingly deep and constructive mutual engagement of science and religious belief."  For many physicists  (nearly 90 percent of whom accept no deity) this was the equivalent of an invader to a dinner party dropping a turd into a punch bowl. No lie.

His full commentary ('Thinking Differently About Science and Religion") can be read at this link:

This was published in the January issue of the magazine, and among the first responses to appear publicly was from a fellow physicist, Jerry Coyne, e.g.


"The author of this accommodationist screed is Tom McLeish, professor of physics at Durham University, whose work is supported by Templeton). We’ve met him before—when I criticized his Conversation essay on exactly the same topic. Templeton is sure getting its money’s worth out of the guy! His arguments are the same as before, so I needn’t reprise them in detail."

"Templeton" here refers to the John Templeton Foundation now doing its level best to co-opt many scientists into writing specious tracts to support religious accommodation. Fortunately, most hard science practitioners are like me, and have no use for this nonsense. See e.g.  cosmologist Sean Carroll's take here:

My own reply to McLeish was published in the June issue of  Physics Today (p. 12) and follows below. In Part II I will address his retorts to my letter, and why and how he is off base:


As I see it, the most fundamental split—an irreparable one—between science and religion is that religion embraces a supernatural order and genuine science, as opposed to pseudoscience, does not.

From a scientific and objective standpoint, there is simply no way that any purportedly supernatural entity or order can be demonstrated or proven. No scientific methodologies for such exist, nor any credible instruments or measuring techniques. The rejoinder that those things can't be measured merely reinforces the argument that they are no more fit for scientific inquiry than the astrologer’s claim of “malefic” influences of Mars at an infant’s birth.

Because a supernatural domain cannot be approached in any scientific or objective way, then by my reckoning it doesn't exist. One need not even deny its existence because to all intents the supernatural entity becomes logically unnecessary or redundant. It doesn't help us make scientific predictions or explain natural phenomena—say, coronal mass ejections or auroral substorms. Any doubt about the possibility of knowing something must be vastly multiplied for the supernatural domain.

Pope Francis, while he acknowledges Darwinian evolution, is still not prepared to accept the wholly naturalistic process dependent on natural selection—mutation. Instead we read, “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve,” and “He [God] created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws [emphasis added] that He gave to each one so they would ready fulfillment.1 However, if the role of random evolutionary forces is neglected and the creation of “souls” is given prominence, then the door of inquiry is left open to supernatural agents.

To a genuine scientist—whether biologist, chemist, or physicist—that ought to be totally, emphatically unacceptable because it basically thumbs its nose at true scientific inquiry.

In my article “The God factor” in the March 1990 issue of Astronomy magazine, I point out that science selectively excludes problems for which no practical method of inquiry exists. The supernatural falls into that category: It is neither measurable nor verifiable. Such an entity is regarded as an “uncaused cause,” but as mathematician John Allen Paulos noted, “If everything has a cause, then God must too, and there is no first cause.”   Eliminating a first cause—that is, supernatural cause—eliminates the need to posit a realm populated by supernatural beings that can supposedly interact with our world.

What McLeish asks us to do is to look the other way as we embrace a faith-based system, which may occasionally be correct about one scientific discovery or another but nonetheless accepts superstition at its core. Worse, a faith-based system beckons us to give a pass as it upholds a domain for which there isn’t a scintilla of evidence, and in which agents and dogmas can be invoked in detrimental ways anytime a religion decides—for example, in condemning artificial birth control or outlawing abortion.

Is it possible for religion and science to coexist? Possibly, but only if religion is diluted to the point that it’s devoid of all supernatural memes, agents, and explanations. Otherwise, all bets are off and we are left with embracing glorified superstition, and a deleterious form at that, able to use its fantasy agents to subvert objective human inquiry.
                                                                                                                   Philip A. Stahl
                                                                                        American Astronomical Society


1. N. Squires, “Pope Francis says Big Bang theory and evolution 'compatible with divine Creator’ ” Telegraph, 28 October 2014.

2. J. A. Paulos, Irreligion, Hill & Wang Books, 2008, p. 43.

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