Michael Ruse on Religion and Science

Michael Ruse has a new book out: The Evolution-Creation Struggle. He has written a number of articles and reviews and given a few interviews on related subjects in the past year or two.

There was for instance this review of Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain in December 2003. In it he took strong issue with Dawkins, despite, as he says, their friendship: ‘Richard Dawkins once called me a “creep.” He did so very publicly but meant no personal offense, and I took none: We were, and still are, friends.’ He disagreed (and disagrees still) with Dawkins’ criticism of religion, which he calls a ‘crusade of nonbelief’. It is his view (at least in some of his recent articles and interviews) that the two ought simply to separate, in fact to segregate: to acknowledge that each has its own area where the other has no business, has nothing relevant to say, and that that rule should operate in both directions: that religion cannot gainsay science in science’s area, and that science cannot gainsay religion in religion’s area.

The problem with this is that religions, especially the monotheistic religions which are mostly the ones at issue here, make truth-claims about the actual existing physical world, and it’s very difficult to see how or why such claims could or should be off-limits to scientific questioning or criticism. The segregation approach seems unworkable and unreasonable unless religion is re-defined into something that never makes any truth-claims about the world at all. Religion would have to be a matter of pure spirit, which by definition can have no connection with the physical world and can make nothing happen there.

Susan Haack makes this point in Defending Science – Within Reason:

The commitment to naturalism is not merely the expression of a kind of scientific imperialism; for supernatural explanations are as alien to detective work and history or to our everyday explanations of spoiled food or delayed buses as they are to physics or biology. And the reason is not that supernatural explanations are alien to science; not that they appeal to the intentions of an agent; not that they rely on unobservable causes. The fundamental difficulty (familiar from the central mystery of Cartesian dualism, how mental substance could interact with physical substance) is rather that by appealing to the intentions of an agent which, being immaterial, cannot put its intentions into action by any physical means, they fail to explain at all.

And the reality is that that is decidedly not what most people mean by religion – and it’s certainly not what the Intelligent Design movement means by Intelligent Design, since there the whole point is decisive putting its intentions into action by physical means.’

This problem seems insoluble – so rhetoric steps in to bridge the gap. Ruse put it this way in the Devil’s Chaplain review:

People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other.

There are several dificulties with that passage, and with the tactic it proposes (the same tactic Stephen Jay Gould urged in his equally rhetorical, equally unconvincing book Rocks of Ages). One is that, as we’ve just noted, the dichotomy it asserts is in fact, frankly, bogus. That ‘Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it’ implies that those are complete and exclusive characterizations: science tries to tell us about the physical world and does nothing else. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and does nothing else. But it is simply not true that religion does not try to tell us anything about the physical world. It (certainly in its theist instantiations) tells us there is an omnipotent and omniscient deity who created this physical world, who heeds and sometimes answers prayers, who knows and cares all about us. A god who created the physical world can’t very well be radically separate from it. Saying otherwise is merely a kind of escape clause.

There are other problems with the passage. There is the fact that religion is far from the only system of ideas that aims at giving a meaning to the world: people do that in a variety of ways, including science: many people get meaning precisely from the wonder, excitement, interest, joy of discovery and inquiry. There is the parallel fact that religion is far from the only system of ideas that asks ultimate questions, and many other systems of ideas do a much better job of it, because they accept that there is no answer. In fact there is some evasion, again, in that formula: religion does do more than ask questions, it also answers them, with (unwarranted) certainty and finality. But the answers it gives are wrong. They are based on inaccurate truth-claims about the world, so their certainty and finality rest on false premises. (Though they do in a sense ‘work’ for many people, in that they are consoling, which may be part of the reason Ruse offers these rhetorical formulations.)

What Ruse has been arguing lately is somewhat controversial, so it is worth gathering up the controversy. Here it is.

Internal Resources

‘Aims To’

Religion Aims, Again


Let’s Not Debate Intelligent Design

A Subtle Ruse, But It Won’t Do

Who’s Insisting?

Muddy Waters

Page Missing

Dodgy Ruse

Haack v Ruse

Up is not Down

External Resources

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