When French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace presented Napoleon with a book of his work, circa 1800, Napoleon asked him why it didn’t mention god. Laplace purportedly replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”
Physicist Victor Stenger marks this event as the start of the modern break between science and religion. Stenger talked about the chasm between the two during my podcast published on Monday, June 4. We discussed Stenger’s new book, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Religion and Science, in which Stenger presents historical, philosophical and scientific reasons for the disharmony. Stenger is a retired elementary particle physicist and author of eleven books, including the 2007 New York Times bestseller, God: The Failed Hypothesis, How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Stenger believes the modern separation starts here because,
Galileo and Copernicus and Newton were all religious. In fact, except for Galileo, those early leaders of the scientific revolution didn’t really make a distinction between religion and science. Galileo was the only one who really did that. … It was really in the French enlightenment that you begin to have atheists like Laplace and Diderot, for the first time being able to speak up and profess non-belief.
While dissent became a little easier after the time of Laplace and Diderot, it was still dangerous. Work was published anonymously. Keep in mind, the Dominican monk Giordano Bruno was ruthlessly burned at the stake by the Catholic church in 1600 because, in part, he believed the cosmos was eternal.
The vicious execution of Bruno occurred prior to the so-called Galileo affair. In his book, Stenger cites historian Thomas Dixon who says that the Galileo affair,
. . . was not a clash between science and religion, as it is usually remembered, but rather a dispute about who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge. Galileo’s claim that a sole individual could arrive at knowledge by his own observations and reasoning was considered presumptuous and a direct threat to the authority of the church.
Also, Galileo promoted a philosophical view called scientific realism, a view that Stenger does not adopt. Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science is a true and accurate glimpse of reality, as it is, independent of what we believe it to be. In his book, Stenger contrasts this view with instrumentalism, which is the view that science is just a useful instrument to understand the world. An effective concept or theory explains observations, predicts phenomena, and fits the data, as opposed to accurately describing true reality. According to Stenger,
It’s the question of whether these objects of science, like particles, like fields, and so on, are real, are really part of reality. That scientists, when they make observations are really uncovering reality. And that’s certainly a wide belief among scientists, especially physicists. They really do think that the stuff they’re looking at is real, is part of reality. And I claim that all we’re doing in science is making observations, and building models, and then we use those models to describe other observations and predict observations, and so on. And it’s only those observations that we know anything about. There’s no way that we can really say that there isn’t some other reality out there that happens to give us this set of observations.
Religions claim to describe true reality through revelation, scripture and religious experiences. This claim is hollow, Stenger says. Stenger has even suggested methods of testing religious claims. Many supposedly atheistic Buddhists, who claim knowledge of objective reality from using just their minds, could be tested. A Buddhist – or any religious person, for that matter – could provide data that could be later confirmed, or make a prediction that couldn’t possibly be known in advance. This hasn’t happened, yet. There is no basis for this type of knowledge, Stenger said.
Stenger went on to discuss whether or not science could say anything about the supernatural, and mentioned common scientific errors made by Christian apologists. I’ll write about Stenger’s opinions on these subjects during my next post.