I recently finished the book Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion. This book, written by Karl Giberson and the late Mariano Artigas, was introduced to me when Dr. Giberson gave a talk about it at Westmont in November 2007. I picked up a copy but didn’t have make much time to read it until this summer. I’m glad I found the time. A very interesting and thoughtful read, I would highly recommend this book not only to anyone seeking information on some of the leading science popularizers of our time and analysis on their positions, but also for anyone looking for a jumping-off point to the study of philosophy of science in general. Here’s the product description from the jacket:

Biologists Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Edward O. Wilson, and physicists Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Steven Weinberg have become public intellectuals, articulating a much larger vision for science and what role it should play in the modern worldview. The scientific prestige and literary eloquence of each of these great thinkers combine to transform them into what can only be called oracles of science. Curiously, the leading “oracles of science” are predominantly secular in ways that don’t reflect the distribution of religious beliefs within the scientific community. Many of them are even hostile to religion, creating a false impression that science as a whole is incompatible with religion. Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas offer an informed analysis of the views of these six scientists, carefully distinguishing science from philosophy and religion in the writings of the oracles.

The book focuses on these six “Oracles”, who are indeed rather prolific scientists and have contributed great things to their respective fields. In addition, their ability to communicate with the masses through their literary works has enabled them to become popularizers of science, which is also impressive. However, as the authors point out, these scientists make “oracular” proclamations regarding science and religion – their relationship, their purposes, their ability (or inability) to coexist – that are not scientific; yet because of the vocation and writing ability of the Oracles, the arguments are made to seem as though they were grounded in science. The authors go through some of the key arguments of each scientist, pointing out the disconnects.

Many of the positions held by these Oracles, whether in claiming that science reveals a pointlessness to the universe, or that science needs to supercede religion in some form of ontological naturalism, or others, show a crossover between the realms of science and religion. Interestingly, the authors, who are both scienctists and both men of faith themselves, argue that there are similarities between these men and the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Both sides present philosophical arguments masquerading as “scientific” about theological claims, apparently unaware that science is not equipped nor intended to answer questions about the supernatural. This book did a great deal to convince me of the ability of these two “magisteria” (to borrow Gould’s term), to coexist and should be helpful to anyone looking to more rigorously define his or her position and beliefs regarding the false “conflict” between science and religion.

Oracles of Science provides in its chapters on the aforementioned scientists as well as in its introduction and conclusion a smattering of snippets of arguments of scientific philosophy. One can tell that both Dr. Giberson and Dr. Artigas did both very thorough and very detailed study of the subject, and I found these brief glimpses at philosophy to be the most interesting part of the book. Particularly interesting was the inclusion of a short example by Sir Arthur Eddington from his book The Philosophy of Physical Science, used to illustrate the limitations of scientific methodological naturalism. I am currently trying to find this book, and if and hopefully when I am successful and have read it (and hopefully understood it) I will attempt a review. In the meantime, I have excerpted the passage at the bottom of this article, hoping that I am not violating copyright in the process.

In closing, I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an accessible, interesting and thorough examination of all three sides of the science/religion controversy.

Excerpt:

There is a general agreement that science concentrates on aspects of the world that can be studied through theories that can be tested by doing experiments. Those aspects relate to spatiotemporal patterns in nature, for this is what makes experiments possible. If other dimensions of reality exist, they simply cannot be studied using the methods of the empirical sciences. The Royal Astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) used an image that can help us here:

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systemize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:

  1. No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
  2. All sea-creatures have gills.

These are both true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that they will remain true however often he repeats it.

In applying this analogy, the catch satands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observation; for knowledge which has not been or could not be obtained by observation is not admitted into physical science.

An onlooker may object that the first generalisation is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge, and is not part of the kingdom of fishes which has been defined as the theme of ichthyological knowledge. In short, what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.” Or – to translate the anology – “If you are not simply guessing, you are claiming a knowledge of the phyiscal universe discovered in some other way than by the methods of physical science, and admittedly unverifiable by such methods. You are a metaphysician. Bah! (13)

Thge same mistake is made when naturalism is presented as a consequence of the progress of science.  There is a world of difference between the “methodological naturalism” used in the sciences (seeking natural explanations) and an “ontological naturalism” htat denies the reality of anything outside the reach of science.  While methodological naturalism has no problems, except for creationists and the advocates of Intelligent Design, scientific naturalism is self-defeating.  The claim that nothing exists aside from what can be studied by the scientific method is a philosophical position.  If you want to determine what science is and how far its reach extends, you must place yourself outside science, taking a philosophical perspective.  But if there is no territory outside science, how are we going to stand there?

K. Giberson and M. Antigas, Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion (2007 Oxford University Press, Inc.), 233,234; quoting (13, their citation) Arthur S. Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science (1939; reprint, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974), 16