This is part 2 of a series I'm writing about my thoughts on religion and science. The first entry is here.
Here’s another idea about the whole religion-science thing that I’d like to explore. I got this from Dr. PZ Myers of the wonderful blog, Pharyngula. I’ve spent the past half hour searching through his archive to find where I read this but alas, with no success. You’ll just have to take my word that I read this insight there.
Anyway, his thought, and it’s a fairly simple one, is this. If supernatural events take place in the world, they enter the realm of nature and become as available for scientific research as any other natural events. They stop being supernatural and become simply another element within nature.
Science explores everything that happens in the world, the things that can be seen, touched, sensed. It runs on measurements and repeatability. That’s called methodological naturalism. We use methodological naturalism all the time in our everyday lives. When our car breaks down, we don’t sit and pray until it somehow fixes itself. We call a mechanic to come fix it. That’s because we’ve learned that a car will sit broken for a very long time without being repaired supernaturally. If we want to really get it fixed, we go out and get it done.
But what if there really are supernatural effects happening in the world right now. Maybe they’re not happening to our brokedown cars, but they’re happening sometimes and some places. Is that possibility outside of science?
I would say “No.” The moment that supernatural activities start happening in the world, then we can start measuring them. And by measuring them, we can start understanding them just as we understand other natural causes and effects in life. By entering the natural world, these miracles stop being miracles and become just more grist for the scientific mill.
Take the car example. Say that every so often, we didn’t need to call a mechanic but instead could pray and have the car start up again. We could then study under what conditions that happens. Let’s say we saw a wire reattach itself with no hand touching it. That would be a clear supernatural event. And we could study the hell out of that.
I know that sounds impossible, wires wouldn’t move like that. And that’s right, we’ve never seen god fix a car like that. Instead, if the car fixes itself with no intervention, it’s probably that something was a just little broken, like a part that needed to cool down for the car to start again. Nothing supernatural there.
This harkens back to my last blog, with the big chart comparing what science can explain versus what religion can explain. A corollary of that chart is that the better able scientific instruments have become to measure what happens in the world, the fewer miracles religion has brought forward to be measured. It used to be that lightning was caused by gods, plagues were caused by gods, burning bushes were caused by gods. But just when we get electric meters, double blind medical tests, epidemiological study methods, automatically triggered video cameras (for the burning bushes), those things stop happening. Or when they do happen, we now understand the natural reasons for them. What we need are some of those old testament miracles happening today where we can really scrutinize them carefully.