Ruse, religion and science

by Neil Rickert

Michael Ruse wrote a rather strange post: “From a Curriculum Standpoint, Is Science Religion?”  It was actually a response to an earlier post by David Barash: “NOMA? No Thanks!”  There have since been blog posts on the Rush article Jerry Coyne’s site and at the Panda’s thumb site.  So I am adding my two cents.

Science as metaphor

Strangely, Ruse suggested that science is metaphor:

Basically, I argue that science is inherently metaphorical, that today’s science has at its core the metaphor of a machine, that metaphors rule certain questions out of court—not wrong, just not asked—and that it is legitimate for religious people to try to provide answers.

That seems a rather odd idea.  One does not appeal to metaphor to predict eclipses.  Perhaps Ruse is merely chose a poor term.  It is true that science often idealizes, as Nancy Cartwright has discussed in “How the laws of physics lie.”  But I don’t think that was what Ruse was referring to, because he specifically referred to “the metaphor of a machine.”  It is true that many scientific theories are mechanistic in form, but surely that’s because that form of theory is particularly useful.  Unlike Ruse, I don’t see science limited by mechanistic assumptions.  Rather, I see it directed at that which leaves empirical evidence, whether or not mechanistic.


NOMA, or the idea of non-overlapping magisteria, was Gould’s way of looking at science.  And Ruse was defending that view against the criticism of Barash.  I can see both sides of this issue.  From one point of view, NOMA is a useful stance to try to set science apart from the issues of religion.  And I think that was Ruse’s aim.  However, looking at it more realistically, disagreement between science and religion seems unavoidable.

Science and the constitution

Ruse argued that without something like NOMA, science itself becomes religion and is therefore subject to the establishment clause of the first amendment to the US constitution:

If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim?  And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

I don’t see that NOMA is needed to avoid that problem.  Science does not imply that God does not exist.  Rather, science is silent on that question, for there is no empirical evidence that could settle the issue.

Based on the comments to the post at Jerry Coyne’s site, it seems that some people disagree with me about that.  However, we need to distinguish between what science says, and what scientists say.  Science does not say that Bigfoot does not exist.  At most, science says that there is no credible evidence of Bigfoot.  Many individual scientists, on the other hand, do conclude that Bigfoot does not exist, except as a mythical character.

We need to distinguish that from cases such as phlogiston or the luminiferous aether.  Both of those were hypothesized by science as part of tentative scientific explanations.  When new science showed that these hypothetical substances were not needed in explanations, the hypothesizing ceased and we can reasonably say that science concludes that they do not exist.  The difference here is that the idea of phlogiston and of the aether originated in science.  That’s rather different from the case of bigfoot, where the idea comes from folklore.

Similarly, science has nothing to say on whether God exists.  It need only say that there is no credible empirical evidence for God, and that God plays no role in scientific explanation.

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