Can Biology Refute Scripture?

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One of the most often cited reasons for leaving religion appeals to science. More specifically, Pew Research Center reports that many American “nones” lost their faith after they went away to college and learned about evolution. Contrary to the fields of physics and chemistry, biology stands apart in its impact on religious belief. This may be due to the most prominent organism that is of primary concern as its subject matter – Homo sapiens. Moreover, a number of subjects that receive much popular attention rely to some degree on biology. These include all the “human sciences”, such as psychology, sociology, and the current fad around anything to do with neuroscience (which should really be termed neurononsense).

The impact of biology on how we should understand human nature and behaviour eventually reaches religion, where at least in the Abrahamic traditions a conflict arises between what biologists claim about the origin of humanity vs. what scripture states. Although some manage to compartmentalize these contradictory narratives and change intellectual costumes based on whether they happen to be at mosque or the lab, many find the cognitive dissonance unbearable and depending on which circle of peers they spend most of their time in, a choice is made. What seems to be missing is a deeper analysis of the problem, and a general assumption of the unity of science, where biology receives the same reverence and trust about its ability to explain the nature of reality as physics and chemistry. This assumption is what the American philosopher Alexander Rosenberg challenged in his 1994 book Instrumental Biology, or the Disunity of Science.

To set up his thesis, Rosenberg begins by explaining the abstract topic discussed by philosophers of science on the degree to which science explains the nature of reality (realism), or whether it should be conceived of as a practical tool that we use to organize our observations of the world and predict consequences of behaviour (instrumentalism). The concern of realism is to assert what is true or false about the world, whereas instrumentalism is more about generating rules of thumb to serve our interactions with the world. Rosenberg elaborates on this distinction by stating:

“Between epistemology and metaphysics the realist gives priority to the latter: there are absolute truths about the way things in the world are disposed, regardless of the limitations on any sentient creature’s abilities to discern these truths. In fact, we humans have been able increasingly to discern these truths as reflected in the growing correspondence between our theories in the world. Indeed, this is the best argument for realism. Without this history of successive approximations to the truth about the world reflected in our science, the fact of our amazing technological advances would be a transcending mystery, a cosmic accident.

The instrumentalist rejects all talk and thought of correspondence. At best, correspondence is beyond our powers to establish; at worst, it is a meaningless illusion. According to the instrumentalist, theories are shaped solely to meet our human needs, interests, and limits. The most adequate theory is the one that most fully meets these needs, interests, and limits. A theory does so when it can accurately predict how our observational apparatus – the five senses characteristic of Homo sapiens – will be successively affected. Since our knowledge does not extend beyond our senses, claims about objects too small or too large to be detected are either to be understood as heuristic devices for systematizing our experience, as open invitations to skepticism, or finally as meaningless nonsense.

One can use the distinction Rosenberg offered here to make an argument that scientism is a case of realism gone to the extreme, and that a reactionary religious response that rejects science out of hand when it is assumed to conflict with scripture utilizes instrumentalism to the extreme. It is interesting to note that Rosenberg is an atheist who has later written an evangelical book to defend his blind faith in science. At any rate, if we stick with this earlier book, he took the philosophical distinction and applied to show what makes biology different:

“Biology is more of an instrumental science than physics and chemistry in this sense: if our cognitive and computational powers were vastly greater than in fact they are, biological theory would be much different from what it is, while physical and chemical theories would not be so different from what they are. If our computational and cognitive powers were much greater than they are, we would still need the second law of thermodynamics in order fully to explain and predict a wide variety of phenomena, but we would not need most of what we now consider interesting generalizations of biology… For agents more cognitively and computationally powerful than we, these generalization would be explanatorily otiose. As such, the generalizations and theories of biology are, in an old-fashioned way of putting it, ‘mind-dependent.'”

This last point about mind-dependent generalizations needs to be emphasized. A favourite quote by many in the New Atheist Scientism arena is one by the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson where he boasts about how transcendent science is, stating that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Aside from the false equivocation between science and the natural world, this claim reveals how one could be successfully engaged in the scientific enterprise without understanding what science is – the process in which nature is filtered through the human mind, which is subject to its own biases. Rosenberg further elaborates:

“If there were cognitive agents much smarter than we are, who could keep far more alternatives clearly in mind and trace out the implications of far longer and more intricate chains of reasoning than we can, then the generalizations of biology would be very different from what they are, and no one would reckon what we take for the significant generalizations of biology to be any serious part of that science. The character of biology is contingent on our cognitive and computational powers; it reflects as much the ‘grain’ of description of nature. It is in this sense that biological theory is a heuristic devise reflecting our needs, interests, and powers.

The reason biology is presented in this way in contrast to physics and chemistry lies in complexity:

“The universe is simple enough in its operations from the level of microphysics up to the level of the organic molecule that creatures of our intelligence have been able to discover the relatively simple general laws – the nomological generalizations governing these relatively simple processes. To do so we have had to avail ourselves to models, analogies, approximations, idealizations, and other heuristic devices. But in physics and chemistry these instruments have helped us uncover a small set of simple laws governing a vast range of phenomena.

Once matter aggregates beyond the level of organization of the biologically active macromolecule, the level of complexity becomes so great that creatures of our cognitive and computational abilities cannot move from models and approximations to nomological generalizations governing the biological processes. Accordingly, we have recourse to heuristic devices that enable us to do the best we can. If we were much smarter, we would not need these instruments but would be able to employ the very complex general laws that do govern these complex phenomena. If we were very much smarter, biological theory would be very different, but physical and chemical theory would not be… My thesis…claims that nature is sufficiently complicated that we cannot hope to discover the regularities that operate at the level of the biological. Thus in biology we must content ourselves with heuristic devices, useful instruments.”

This is a fascinating analysis. The complexity of biology is mind-boggling to say the least as an interactome of known protein-protein interactions between known proteins in the cell shows:


The complexity outside the cell and the body is not any less. Yet, the  generalizations made in modern biology as a result of our limited cognitive capacities as Rosenberg describes them are taken for many people as gospels filled with truth. One of the most theologically contentious issues for modern Muslims is Evolutionary Theory when it comes to the origin of humanity. Two camps have been erected, one believing in the absoluteness of traditional scholarly understanding of the Quran and Hadith narrations, and the other believing in the absoluteness of science. The attempts to reconcile between the two seem to assume unity in science, where claims made by biologists are taken to hold similar truth value as those made by physicists. It appears, at least in the popular discourse, that the distinct nature of biology managed to go undetected because when it is presented under the general umbrella of “science”, it goes unchallenged. Hence, the criticism against religious believers using scripture to stop thinking may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.


For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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