By Mathew Goldstein
Peter Harrison, a former Professor of Science and Religion, has published many books on the history of science and is editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. An article by Peter Harrison titled "DOES SCIENCE MAKE BELIEF IN GOD OBSOLETE?", published by Australian Broadcasting Company, tries to argue that religious beliefs are beyond the reach of, and therefore impervious to, challenge by empirical evidence.
Peter Harrison begins by pointing out that early scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton, were Christians. In those days the concept of galaxies was unknown and the germ theory of disease had not yet been formulated. What people believed in the 17th century is anything but a compelling argument that religious beliefs are consistent with modern knowledge given how much of modern knowledge was unavailable four centuries ago.
Peter Harrison then argues that the "difficulties for some Christian beliefs ... are not insurmountable" by citing "the religious support for "Darwin's views", both "in the nineteenth century and in the present". However, people are capable of supporting incompatible beliefs. The mere fact that people hold two sets of beliefs does not demonstrate that by reconciling themselves to both beliefs such people have established that such a reconciliation is properly justified. Indeed, Darwin himself characterized citing "the judgment of many able men who have fully believed in God" as an argument for theism this way: "I see how poor an argument this is."
Peter Harrison quotes Darwin as saying that someone can be a theist and an evolutionist. People can be astrologers and evolutionists. So what? It should be noted here that in the 1800s (and for hundreds of years before that), publicly speaking for atheism was illegal under the British Blasphemy laws. Peter Harrison must know this, yet when citing what Darwin said he omits acknowledging that Darwin had good reason to consider himself obliged to publicly counter any efforts by his critics to associate his views with atheism due to widespread intolerance against atheism.
Peter Harrison claims that Darwin lost his faith because "of suffering in the world", not because of "his theories". Yet Darwin did directly attribute his lack of Christian belief to "the habit of scientific research" in this quote: "Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation". He also attributed his loss of faith to the conflicts between evidence and the stories in the Hebrew bible: "But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament; from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian." In other words, contrary to what Peter Harrison claims, suffering in the world was one of several different evidences, no doubt including the evidences for evolution by natural selection as the agent for generating humans and all other varieties of life, that contributed to Darwin losing his Christian beliefs. Nor is this a mutually exclusive, either or choice, as Peter Harrison is claiming, since evolution is built on a foundation of a history of millions of years of suffering by animals that experienced pain in their struggles to live.
Peter Harrison argues "it would be a gross overgeneralization to conclude from this single episode that science and religion inevitably compete for the same explanatory territory. In any case, such a view rests on a conflation of two different kinds of explanation." That first remark misses the point, which is that religion, and ideology more generally, has no capability at all beyond that of fictions to distinguish what is true from what is false. Only logic together with evidence, the methods that undergird the natural sciences but that are utilized by everyone more generally, have the capability to increase knowledge. Religions self-assert that they offer another, similarly non-fictional basis for acquiring explanatory insight, and each religion claims it is better than the others in revealing the most important truths. Such assertions have no merit.
He then draws the distinction between atoms, molecules, neurons and brain states on the one hand versus personal interests, intentions, and concerns to illustrate his concept of two kinds of explanation. He claims that only the first kind of explanation is the scientific one and "if your reasons for thinking about these important questions boil down to nothing more than physics, why bother?" Well, I suppose all atheists could just starve ourselves to death since nothing ultimately matters, but somehow that sounds more like a childish and silly attitude that has nothing to do with determining if a theistic god exists. Peter Harrison's question about motivation is irrelevant to demonstrating that there is a non-empirical alternative for grounding explanation, let alone for demonstrating his claim that religion qualifies as such an alternative.
Peter Harrison then discusses a question asked by Socrates: "Why I am here?" He says that the empirical explanation cites the disposition of bones and sinews while the allegedly non-empirical explanation cites purpose in life, divine mission, and quest for truth. The latter explanation is characterized as being of greater consequence for having ultimate import to human beings. The implicit assumption here is that the latter explanations, unlike the former explanations, constitute independent, non-material phenomena. Without that assumption there is no need to associate purpose, mission, and quest with divinity, although Peter Harrison tries to sneak in divinity by pre-declaring mission to be divine. The problem here is that this independent and non-materialistic phenomena assumption is counter-evidenced. All of the evidences we have are that purpose, mission, and quest are emergent properties, that are attributed to minds, that reside in brains, which are part of living bodies. The living bodies consist entirely of matter and energy (mostly in the form of water) embedded in space and time.
Peter Harrison argues "While there is no doubt that science can offer powerful explanations in its own sphere, it seems premature to insist that the only questions worth posing are ones that science can answer." Of course, if we define science narrowly as the peer reviewed results published in scientific journals then that is correct, but what does this have to do with determining whether or not theism is properly justified? Theism is not a question, it is an answer, and answers that are contrary to the direction of the overall evidence are unjustified. Period.
Obviously, the natural sciences answer some questions, not all questions. Some evidences are forever beyond our capability to obtain, but it doesn't follow that therefore God exists. Peter Harrison sidesteps the real issue here, which again is the overall evidences being in contradiction to theism. The gaps in our knowledge do not justify beliefs beyond the "we don't know" conclusions. Furthermore, it is the overall evidences, and what those evidences logically infer, that is the basis for justifying our beliefs, not just the much smaller subset of conclusions that have been directly demonstrated by reproduceable laboratory experiments. Those experimentally demonstrated conclusions, where available, cannot be disregarded, nor are they the only conclusions that we can properly reach from the overall available evidences.
Peter Harrison then says "For all their differences, most philosophers in the Western tradition, and indeed most of the world's religious traditions, have held that a satisfactory account of the things of greatest concern to human beings requires reference to some transcendent reality." But the only transcendent reality supported by the available evidences is the laws of physics, not a creator God. Again, our empirical evidences, including evolution by natural selection, and going beyond that to also including empirical evidences from many academic areas, favors the conclusion that all religions are human created fictions.
Peter Harrison is claiming that the laws of physics are "unsatisfactory" explanations, but the opposite is true. The laws of physics as the ultimate explanations have no viable competition. No alternative "explanations" are as well-evidenced or as complete as the laws of physics. Relative to the laws of physics, theism has nothing. It isn't even clear that theism qualifies as an explanation by any proper measure. People who cite God as a catch-all "explanation" are really saying that they have no explanation. Theism has never produced any knowledge. Nothing of substance that Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton learned which contributed to modern knowledge was provided to them by a God, it was all obtained by their own pursuit of the empirical evidences.
Peter Harrison concludes that "God provides one possible answer ... to the problems of life." One possible answer to the problems of drought is a rain dance. There are many such "possible" and mistaken answers. Peter Harrison completely fails to show that the theistic God hypothesis, unlike empirically based theories such as evolution by natural selection, uniquely provides any correct and additional answers to any knowledge questions whatsoever.