By way of explaining his attitude towards the Templeton Foundation, Sean Carroll resurrects his contention that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. He writes:
“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.”
“[T]he progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect. 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.”
Of course science shows that the dead do not rise from the grave, but we never really needed science to know that. First-century Jews and Romans knew that the dead stay dead just as well as twenty-first century biologists. The point of the Resurrection is not that it could have naturally occurred, but that it couldn’t have, and so—if it really happened—it must be an instance of God’s extraordinary action. The Resurrection of Christ from the dead was not one possible explanation acceptable in ignorant ancient times, but which has since been ruled out by science. It was known to be just as impossible back then as it is known to be now. But the very claim at issue, then as now, is whether something more than nature can be at work. If a religion claims that a rare, miraculous, supernaturally caused event has occurred, it makes no sense at all to claim that the claim must be wrong simply because supernatural events do not normally occur when science is looking at them. In fact, the more firmly science disproves “resurrection” generally, then granting that it happened, the more certain we can be that the Resurrection must have been a divine event.
“Again, this is not an a priori result; the God hypothesis could have fit the data better than the alternatives, and indeed there are still respected religious people who argue that it does. Those people are just wrong, in precisely analogous ways to how people who cling to the Steady State theory are wrong. Fifty years ago, the Steady State model was a reasonable hypothesis; likewise, a couple of millennia ago God was a reasonable hypothesis. But our understanding (and our data) has improved greatly since then, and these are no longer viable models. The same kind of reasoning would hold for belief in miracles, various creation stories, and so on.”
At least with respect to miracles, though, of course this is a priori. No Christian claims that people normally rise from the dead, or that given enough controlled studies we’ll observe resurrections at statistically significant rates. If it’s a one-off, extraordinary, miraculous event, how can we study it with laboratory science? In fact, if you were to ask a Christian to make a prediction, he’d predict that the data would be exactly as we currently see it. But then, so would an atheist. New data haven’t changed the picture at all. Instead, interpretations developed on the basis of prior commitments are what produce the differing results.
All Carroll seems to be saying is that since the dead don’t normally rise from the grave, and since other arguments for the supernatural fall short, in his estimation, we should conclude that Jesus must not have resurrected either; he would claim, I assume, that it’s more reasonable to conclude that accounts of the Resurrection must have been fabricated or exaggerated. That’s a reasonable argument to make, but it’s largely a historical and philosophical one, and not the sort of claim that can be supported by science’s continued investigations of the biology of death.
The mistake in Carroll’s thinking becomes more evident if we imagine the opposite scenario. If we suppose that science had established that sometimes the dead do spontaneously and naturally reanimate and rise from the grave, then atheists could just as easily write off Jesus’ resurrection as a rare but not impossible natural event. If science shows that an event couldn’t have happened naturally, you can conclude that it therefore didn’t happen; alternatively, if science shows that an event could happen naturally, you can therefore conclude that there is no need for the supernatural explanations of religion—but you’ve rigged the game from the start, and simply defined naturalism as true. All you’ve done is establish a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. If you claim that supernatural events are impossible and that therefore the resurrection either has a natural explanation or it didn’t happen, you can add all the evidence of physiology you want, and it won’t help or hinder your argument, one way or the other.
If you define naturalism as true, and then define science as only possible within a naturalistic paradigm, then of course you will conclude that science and religion are at odds. But whether science is possible only in a naturalistic paradigm is exactly the point in question, and miracles, those odd exceptions that do not affect the scientist’s daily life in the lab, have little to do with it.