Are Religious Scientists Being Inconsistent?

Continuing the discussion from

I’ve seen the following objection a lot from atheists:

My answer is: I do indeed approach science and theology with different methodologies. But that is not an example of inconsistency. Rather, it is an example of choosing the right tool for the job. You can’t find a plastic button with a metal detector. It is useless to try to answer philosophical questions with merely science alone. In fact, science, by virtue of having such a strict methodology, is ill-equipped to answer certain questions, such as morality, metaphysics, consciousness, even politics (to some extent). If you use science alone, you will necessarily miss out on many viable philosophical options.

In my worldview, science is ultimately subsumed into a larger epistemological framework that has more “tools” at its disposal to “detect” entities not detectable in science (such as God). Rather than compartmentalization, I would describe it as integration.

It would be interesting to hear from Christian scientists here on how they personally would respond to this, especially those who have not spoken as much here lately. @swamidass, @Jordan, @PdotdQ, @glipsnort, @stlyankeefan, @Troendle, @pevaquark any thoughts?


I would be interested in knowing what those right tools are. My claim is that some theological questions are plastic buttons and some are metal buttons, and some are a bit of both. You can use a metal detector on the metal buttons, there is no way to find the plastic buttons, and the buttons that are a bit of both are where the analogy breaks down. Nevertheless, I will drive it into the ground: what you can do is make assumptions about how different sorts of plastic would affect the metal parts and then test the metal parts, and thus constrain the nature of hte plastic parts.


I think both posts are reasonable. Makes sense to me.


You won’t hear that from me. I often phrase it as using different rules for baseball and basketball. You aren’t being inconsistent if you play both sports.

As long as you follow the rules of science when you say something is scientific you are being consistent.


I agree with this too.


I don’t see anything wrong with compartmentalization. It’s a good descriptive term on how we organize our lives. The way that I engage in mathematics is quite different from the way that I engage in family life (to give just one example). And compartmentalization need not imply total isolation.


I agree completely. @dga471, is that substantial enough for you?

An example of noncompartmentalization is using experimental behavioral psychology in (early) family life. It becomes less effective as the family ages, however.


I agree with @nwrickert in that compartmentalization is similar to how we normally live out our lives. My preference to use a different term is more because often “compartmentalization” has the connotation of tension, conflict, or contradiction, which was the feel that I got from @John_Harshman when he used that term. (Again, maybe I’m reading him wrongly.)

Secondly, compartmentalization also seems to point towards an unwillingness to wade in the waters where religious and scientific methodology do seem to be in tension, such miracle claims or whether God answers our prayers and how God acts in the world.

Finally, from a Christian perspective, I also find compartmentalization personally inadequate to live out 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” How do we do science for the glory of God? (Of course assuming, in my case, that I’m not sympathetic to ID or creationism or the like.) It seems harder to understand how this is to work if religion and science are separated off from each other.

For me, resolving the two is really important. It’s certainly a work in progress for me, not something that I have all the answers to right now.


I’d say the opposite. The waters are where the doubts are. Merely asserting that those miracles must be true is avoiding those waters, in my view.

How is trying to alleviate human suffering by doing biomedical science not doing science for the glory of God?


What would be the form of not avoiding those waters for you with regards to miracles? Explaining them in natural terms, yet still affirming them as having some theological significance?

Note that in my reply, I didn’t presume any stance towards the truth or falsity of miracles. Compartmentalization suggests that one avoids thinking at all whether they are true or not, or behaving in contradictory ways - for example, affirming that they are true in church, but then not daring to say the same when talking about faith with a fellow scientist.

Well, not all research is as straightforwardly connected to alleviating human suffering. My research certainly has no immediate medical or economic benefit. It is more similar to doing pure mathematics.

That’s a good point. This doesn’t even need to involve religion. I think my mom is the greatest mom in the world, and I don’t need empirical data to support it. Does that make me a bad scientist? Am I being inconsistent? If so, then I don’t mind being a bad and inconsistent scientist.


Rather than “compartmentalization” I’d prefer “encapsulation”. I think my understanding from a Christian point of view makes sense of what I do and see in science.

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Doing science for the glory of God has to do with your motivation. Compartmentalization has to do with the content of the science. Those need not be in conflict.


Not avoiding the deep water would entail avoiding using them as shibboleths, as most appear to do here.

Kindly note that I attributed no stance to you.

Well, then you appear to be practicing far more compartmentalization than I practice. :wink:

The compartmentalization thing is about how we approach matters of fact, or truth if you prefer, in both fields. How do we determine that X is true? Are there really different equally valid “ways of knowing”? One would never use intuition, revelation, or faith to determine truth in science. Should we do that in religion? Should we expect it to work?


OK, but what then? How do you reconcile science and religion, being a religious scientist? I don’t mind if you say that you doubt that miracles happen, or anything like that. I’m more interested in what you think rather than talking about what kinds of answers are “allowed”.

As @swamidass mentioned, “encapsulation” could be a more helpful term to denote the relation of theological to scientific ways of knowing. Theology seeks to explain all of reality - God, humans, angels, nature, and heaven. Science only seeks to explain a certain subset of that - namely the parts of nature that exhibit regular and predictable behavior. Thus, it is not surprising that theology uses more tools than science does.

Secondly, while faith and revelation does play a role in theology, many people overstate the differences between ways of knowing in theology with science. It’s not that in theology, intuition and faith can allow you to believe anything. Rather, theology uses more data points than science - for example, the Bible. Even the Bible can’t be twisted as much as you want - there are principles that you must use to interpret it. In fact, the similarities between theology and science is such that Nancey Murphy wrote a book about it (Theology in an Age of Scientific Reasoning).

But why do people then disagree a lot more about the Bible than about science? It’s because the subject nature is different such that the methods of knowing in theology are less precise. I’d say that there is no more disagreement in theology than there is other humanistic fields of knowledge such as philosophy, sociology, literature, cultural studies or gender studies. You brought up the example of theologians who thought the Bible justified slavery. Today, almost nobody holds to that view, similar to the fact that no physicist believes in the existence of aether. So there is some sort of “progress” in theology just as in science.


Except all these things are centrally important to science. Intuition is indispensable to our work, revelation understood as “reports of what other scientists have seen” is how knowledge progresses, and faith understood as “trust in trustworthy scientist’s reports and assessments” is also indispensable. Science cannot proceed without constant reliance on intuition, revelation, and faith.


Sure. The question is whether it can actually do that. And the question here is about method, not subject.

That’s a non sequitur. Again, the question is whether any of these other tools actually work.

That’s revelation. Is revelation actually a way of knowing? Is it really data?

How long have you been reading comments on this web site? It appears that the bible can indeed be twisted as much as you want. That’s how people fit Genesis into earth history.

I’d say that the progress is in society, and theology is just following along as best it can and at some distance.

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You have forgotten the last part of my claim, “…to determine truth”. Intuition is at best a guide to what hypotheses to examine, never a guide to truth. For the other two, you are just distorting the definitions. That’s not what revelation means, and that’s not what faith means.

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