There a tiny storm in my corner of the interwebs. Bob Wright wrote a book – The Evolution of God – and Jerry Coyne wrote a review trashing it. Then Coyne and Jim Manzi got into a blogs ‘n’ handbags fight over it.
From what I can gather, the gist of the argument is Coyne claimed that the fact of evolution debunks religion’s claim of intelligent design. Manzi said “no it doesn’t”. Coyne said “yes it does” etc before they spiralled off into a discussion of what the word ‘random’ means.
Anyway, the whole tedious debate was worth it to read the round-up in The American Scene. It turns out that the whole thing turns on whether religion is making factual claims or hermeneutical claims (yep. new one for me too).
We have to distinguish between factual and hermeneutical claims. Factual claims are claims about the nature and operation of reality: “how” things work, not “why”. Darwin’s theory, which is the basis of all modern biology, makes factual claims: that the various forms of life we observe on earth today came to be via the operation of natural selection on populations of organisms that experience random variation. The question, “does life have a purpose” or “are we put here for a reason” is not really a factual question; it’s a hermeneutical one, an interpretive one. The same factual claims could, potentially, sustain different hermeneutical claims. Scientists do, sometimes, noodle about with hermeneutical claims because they turn out to have factual claims buried in them, in which case they may be investigated scientifically. But if there are no such claims buried in them, then the questions aren’t really scientific.
So, if I understood that right, if religion makes factual claims, they can be debunked by science. But religion’s hermeneutical claims can only be debunked if they are in conflict with science’s claims. The claim the universe is designed is a hermeneutical claim and cannot be debunked by science. Any particular claim that attempts to describe how the universe was designed is a factual claim and collides with science.
Stephen Gould coined a phrase for this.
Because science and religion answer different questions, there can be no conflict.