Ayala wins Templeton Prize

The Templeton Prize was recently awarded to Dr. Francisco J. Ayala, a professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at UC Irvine. Congratulations to him, I guess. I’ve been conflicted about the Templeton Prize for as long as I’ve known about it, and the coverage of Ayala’s work and stance makes me uneasy as well.

If you don’t know what the Templeton Foundation is all about, start reading here. Generally speaking, they fund research into “the big questions” (their term, basically encompassing science and philosophy and their intersection with religion). I think this paragraph from their funding overview page really says it all:

A number of topics–including creativity, freedom, gratitude, love, and purpose–can be found under more than one Core Funding Area. The Foundation welcomes proposals that bring together these overlapping elements, especially by combining the tools and approaches of different disciplines.

Uh… what does that even mean? Interdisciplinary research proposals I understand, but you’re pretty far outside the box when you start talking about overlapping research in the fields of both “love” and “gratitude.” I mean, miles away from the box. Maybe not in the same time zone as the box. I’m all for answering “the big questions,” but this does not sound like an effective way to go about it.

Ayala’s work as a scientist seems pretty solid. I’m not an expert in what he does, but I’ve heard his name before, probably through his public criticism of creation and intelligent design. Science aside, though, he said some things at the Templeton press conference that I really disagree with.

In a statement prepared for the news conference, Ayala forcefully denied that science contradicts religion. “If they are properly understood,” he said, “they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding.” Referring to Picasso’s Guernica, he noted that while science can assess the painting’s massive dimensions and pigments, only a spiritual view imparts the horror of the subject matter. Together, he explained, these two separate analyses reveal the totality of the masterpiece.

Quick first reaction: it’s insulting to be told that only a religious person can understand the horror and tragedy of war. Dr. Ayala, don’t be silly. What you’re talking about here is emotions, not religion. Nonreligious people are in fact capable of feeling emotions, so you haven’t actually proven that science and religion are both necessary to appreciate things in their totality. But, to reply to the point more generally….

Over and over again I hear about how science and religion can be reconciled because they answer separate types of questions, and they don’t have to contradict each other. It’s a nice, happy, hippy-dippy sort of picture. Science and religion certainly don’t have to contradict each other. In fact, it’s pretty rare that religions contradict the scientific consensus at the time of their founding. It’s just that there are these pesky little factual claims about the unknown that religions keep making, and eventually, science figures out the answers to a few of them. The planet turns out to be more than six thousand years old. We understand the mechanism by which rainbows are formed. And so on — those are just a couple examples.

I was really startled by Ayala’s caveat, “If they are properly understood….” There’s a pretty common definition of science, I suppose, but a lot of very different ideas about what it means to do religion right. Who decides what it means to “properly understand” religion? It sounds like Ayala was saying that if you pick the right religion, it won’t contradict science. It seems to me that there are only two ways to achieve that. One is to find a religion that makes basically no claims whatsoever about the material world and what has happened, is happening, or will happen to anything in it. We won’t find any evidence to contradict that religion, because it doesn’t make any assertions about things that have associated evidence. The other option is to be a scientist, and to call that your religion, disregarding the common understanding of the term. That will also never contradict with science. So, is Ayala arguing that a vague, noncommittal deism is the one true religion? Or that science is the only acceptable way of being religious?

(I know, I know, he’s a former Dominican priest and is probably not arguing for either one of those options. I just can’t imagine how an intelligent person could, with a straight face, argue that there is no contradiction between science and any specific organized religion.)

One final thought: even if science and a particular religion don’t happen to be at odds with each other, it is still definitely true that scientific thinking is at odds with religious thinking. One relies on observation, evidence, hypothesis-testing, and logical reasoning. The other relies on faith — that is, the passive acceptance of implausible ideas that lack any indication of their truth. These two approaches to reality are hardly reconcilable. It might make everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside to pretend that they are, but in fact, they are mutually exclusive.