The Sciences

Responding to Sean Carroll: What If There Had Been a Camera at the Resurrection?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 24, 2009 7:28 PM

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Sean Carroll has an eminently thoughtful post about science and religion that is deservedly getting lots of attention. He notes importantly that semantics are critical here, and if you want to know whether two things are compatible, you first need to know what meaning you're using for each of them. I follow Sean until right about this point:

 The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

This isn't the end of Sean's argument, but I think it's helpful to pause here and ask, is a claim like "Jesus died and was resurrected" really falsifiable by science in the same way that a claim like "The Earth is 10,000 years old" is falsifiable? I'd submit that at least as held by some sophisticated believers, it isn't. In fact, I wonder if Sean has seen what Georgetown theologian John Haught has said about the Resurrection. It was in an interview with Salon.com:

What do you make of the miracles in the Bible -- most importantly, the Resurrection? Do you think that happened in the literal sense?I don't think theology is being responsible if it ever takes anything with completely literal understanding. What we have in the New Testament is a story that's trying to awaken us to trust that our lives make sense, that in the end, everything works out for the best. In a pre-scientific age, this is done in a way in which unlettered and scientifically illiterate people can be challenged by this Resurrection. But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I'm not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness -- all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community's belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.

So, Sean: It really does depend what you mean by "religion." If we're talking about the kind of religion that compels a person to reject evolution, to question the age of the Earth, then that religion is most emphatically not compatible with science. But if we're talking about Haught's kind of religion, where there's no belief that science can refute--just a kind of supernaturalism that, like it or not, is inherently defined as being beyond science's ability to measure--then I think compatibilism becomes much more possible and real. Now, would I believe that an event actually happened if it couldn't be caught on camera? No way. But if that's a person's view, and that person accepts the body of modern science, then I simply draw back and say, this guy is my ally on everything that really matters, this is not somebody I ought to be fighting with--he can go about believing what he wants and let's make common cause in the defense of science. (I chose Haught as an example in significant part because he testified for the evolution side in the Dover trial.) And when Sean says, "We know more about the natural world now than we did two millennia ago, and we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead," I say--I agree, but science also can't refute the idea that they come back in the sense that John Haught means, so why bother? Similarly, I wonder what Sean would say to this quotation from the Dalai Lama, provided helpfully in a comment on this blog by Michael Tobis:

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

That's compatibilism. By all means fight the fundamentalists, but let's also embrace the Haughts and Dalai Lamas wherever we find them.

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