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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Is science just another religion?

Modern science has assumed many of the roles traditionally played by religion and, as a result, is often mistaken for just another religion; one among many. But the situation is rather more complicated and many of the claims that science is not a religion come across as a claim that science is The One True Religion. In the past, religion has supplied answers to the basic questions of how the universe originated, how people were created, what determines morality, and how humans relate to the rest of the universe. Science is slowly but surely replacing religion as the source of answers to these questions. The visible universe originated with the big bang, humans arose through evolution, morality arose through the evolution of a social ape and humans are a mostly irrelevant part of the larger universe. One may not agree with science’s answers but they exist and influence even those who do not explicitly believe them.

More importantly, through answering questions like these, religion has formed the basis for people’s worldview, their overall perspective from which they see and interpret the world. Religious beliefs and a person’s worldview were frequently so entangled that they are often viewed as one and the same thing. In the past this was probably true, but in this modern day and age, science presents an alternative to religion as the basis for a person’s worldview. Therefore science is frequently seen as a competing religion not just the basis of a competing world view. Despite this, there is a distinct difference between science and religion and it has profound implications for how they function.

The prime distinction was recognized at least as far back as Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). The idea is this: Science is based on public information while religion is based on private information, information that not even the NSA can spy on. Anyone can, if they wait long enough, observe an apple fall as Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) did, but no one can know by independent observation what Saint Paul (c. 5 – c. 67) saw in the third heaven. Anyone sufficiently proficient in mathematics can repeat Albert Einstein’s (1879 – 1955) calculations but no one can independently check Joseph Smith’s (1805 – 1844) revelations that are the foundation of Mormonism, although additional private inspiration may, or may not, support them.  As a result of the public nature of the information on which science is founded, science tends to develop consensuses which only change when new information becomes available. In contrast, religion, being based on private information, tends to fragment when not constrained by the sword or at least the law. Just look at the number of Christian denominations and independent churches. While not as fragmented as Christianity, most major religions have had at least one schism. Even secularism, the none-of-the-above of religion, has its branches, one for example belonging to the new atheists.

The consensus-forcing nature of the scientific method and the public information on which it is based lead some to the conclusion that science is based on objective reality.  But in thirty years of wandering around a physics laboratory, I have never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Objective Reality—very opinionated physicists, yes, but Mr. Objective Reality, no.  Rather, science is based on two assumptions:

  1. Meaningful knowledge can be extracted from observation. While this may seem self-evident, it has been derided by various philosophers from Socrates on down.
  2. What happened in the past can be used to predict what will happen in the future. This is a sophisticated version of the Mount Saint Helens fallacy that had people refusing to leave that mountain before it erupted because it has not erupted in living memory.

 

Science and religion are, thus, both based on assumptions but differ in the public versus private nature of the information that drives their development. This difference in their underlying epistemology means that their competing claims cannot be systematically resolved; they are different paradigms.  Both can, separately or together, be used as a basis of a person’s worldview and it is here that conflict arises. People react rather strongly when their worldview is challenged and the competing epistemologies both claim to be the only firm basis on which a worldview can be based.

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19 Responses to “Is science just another religion?”

  1. Lukas says:

    “science tends to develop consensuses which only change when new information becomes available”

    Strange statement; ‘tends to’ is a weak claim, while ‘only’ is a strong claim.

    In any case I don’t (yet!) agree with the statement “scientific consensus only changes when new information becomes available.” Science changes all the time without new information. Copernicus didn’t see anything that Ptolemy didn’t, he just worked out a different way to look at the information, using the same data and the same mathematics. In some sense he didn’t even look at it differently; Ptolemy was well aware of the possibility of the heliocentric model, he just didn’t accept it.

    And if scientific progress isn’t clear-cut, the reliability of science also suffers. Problems in a paradigm are often ignored or overlooked, sometimes there is even disagreement as to what counts as a problem (e.g. Newton’s failure/rejection to explain why gravity exists)…
    The question then becomes: is science, as understood by (for example) Kuhn, just another religion? I think this question is far more interesting, and sheds more light on the distinction between science and religion.

    I don’t know the answer, especially not at 00:43am, but I will think about this. I’m positive that even from Kuhn’s POV it should still be possible to make a clear distinction between science and religion.

    I’ll definitely come back with an attempt to analyze the distinction from a Kuhnian perspective.

    • Gavin Flower says:

      I agree in part, that science changes
      “when new information becomes available” (Byron)
      and
      “new ways of looking at the information” (Lukas – paraphrased).

      I think Byron’s phrase should point out that this can be both from new observations and also from combining existing information that was separately obtained.

      Lukas was talking about devising different ways of looking at the information, but it might also be a simply matter of noticing some pattern that was overlooked, or discovering a mistake in how the information was processed (a bug in a computer program, transcription errors, finding some equipment was wrongly calibrated, etc.).

      A key factor is that religion is based on a set of implied & explicit assumptions that are treated as Truth, to the extent that believers can have extreme problems when Reality conflicts with their Beliefs: that leads them to get annoyed when the relevance, or validity, of their arguments are challenged – regardless of the strength or how diplomatic their opponents are. I have observed this, in many ‘discussions’ with Creationists – to the extent that most Creationist arguments would fail, even if Evolution was invalid.

      Treating Science as a Religion is just as dangerous as claiming that gods exists and we should follow what their believers insist is correct way to decide what to do. Saying women who have been raped should be punished because one’s religion says so, and justifying slaves because Evolution says that blacks are inferior to whites (a deliberate misinterpretation of Evolution) – are both very wrong.

      Science, is all about creating models/theories to predict what will happen in the future based on what we have observed in the past (and in the present). But scientists tend to have a healthy consideration of the strengths & weaknesses of this, and realize that we are dealing in approximations. So the appropriate theory depends on the situation, in some situations no theory is considered reliable.

      We design and build high performance fighter jets using Newtonian Mechanics, even though Einstein’s Theories are a provably more correct view of reality – because Newtonian Mechanics is a good enough approximation in this situation and the corrections brought by using Einstein’s Theories would be significantly smaller than the practical limits imposed by high precision engineering (with very rare exceptions).

    • Byron says:

      The Copernican model was developed without new data but its acceptance was driven by new data. When the telescope was tuned on the heavens it revealed the phases of Venus and the changing size of Mars. Both were inconsistent with Ptolemy but required by Copernicus.

    • Lukas says:

      “its acceptance was driven by new data”

      Was it really? Copernicus’ method for calculating positions of planets were accepted not because of new data that proved ptolemy false, but because of its easier calculations. The phases of venus were not discovered until the advent of the telescope in 1610, at which time the copernican revolution had long been set in motion. I would argue that the Copernican revolution was unstoppable by the time of Reinhold’s Prutenic Tables and Rheticus’ Narratio Prima made Copernican methods indispensable for astronomy.
      In any case, the Copernican revolution did not start by accepting the motion of the earth; the Tychonic system is geometrically equivalent with the Copernican system, even though it is geocentric. But still it was vastly influenced by Copernicus’ methods.

      What you see in the 16th century is that every piece of evidence is cast in favor of the Copernican model, even though it doesn’t really prove anything about the Earth’s motion. A good example of this is the 1577 comet, which was regarded as proof for Copernicus, while it doesn’t tell us anything about whether the earth moves. It is just as much a proof for Copernicus as it is for Tycho Brahe.

      Also: I don’t understand what you mean with Mars’ changing size. This was something that the Ptolemaic system could do quite easily, and the Tychonic system as well, just by using eccentrics and epicycles. Also, the changing size of Mars is not something they needed a telescope to see, as it was well-known and measured for centuries.

      Perhaps you are confusing the size of Mars with Kepler’s 1609 ‘On The Motion Of Mars’, which solved not the size problem, but the speed problem. But by that time Kepler was already a convicted Copernican, and he was using geocentric data to derive his elliptic orbits. So he was not using new data at all. The real break-through by Kepler was not so much based on new data, but on a new insight: “perhaps we’ve got this constant-speed-law all wrong. Perhaps angular velocity is not constant, but the number of anima motrix rays that hit the planet and make it move. Therefore, the time it takes to travel a certain area is constant.”

      @ Gavin: “But scientists tend to have a healthy consideration of the strengths & weaknesses of this, and realize that we are dealing in approximations”

      Fully agreed. But then the validity of science is based on the say-so of experts, which is something that many people are not willing to accept.
      Of course, that doesn’t make science a religion, but it does provide reasons to place less value on some scientific discoveries.

      One example is the disdain many physical scientists have against psychology, sociology or sometimes even neuroscience/biology. They are often not in any position of knowledge, and as such cannot make serious judgments, but yet they dismiss those fields as ‘unconvincing’. If serious scientists are so easy to dismiss an entire field as ‘just an opinion’, then why wouldn’t a layman dismiss evidence for unwanted elements such as dark matter, black holes, etc.?

      I’m sure there are better angles from which to draw a distinction between science and religion. I doubt we should look at it from the side of acceptance, but perhaps more from the side of methodology? And it’s probable more of a gradual scale than a dichotomy.

    • Byron says:

      The dispute over Copernicus extended long after 1609. It was in 1633 that Galileo was condemned to house arrest. So the question was not settled by 1609 (also the year Kepler published his elliptic orbits based in Brahe’s data). The Copernican system had as near as we can tell about the same number of parameters are Ptolemy and comparable accuracy. It main advantage was it eliminated the equant. This was the reason people liked it.(See the book referenced below). Both the Ptolemaic and Copernican were used to predict planetary motion until Newton made them both obsolete.

      While both systems gave similar results for the location of the planets in the night sky they had quite different geometries. In particular, Venus was predicted to have phases because it was between the earth and sun while mars was predicted to vary considerable in size depending if it was on the same or opposite side of sun as the earth. That these two effects were not seen by the unaided eye was used against the Copernican system. The telescope changed all that and showed that the geometry predicted by Ptolemy was wrong.

      The other thing the telescope showed was the moons of Jupiter. This demonstrated that satellites could indeed circle a heavenly body. Also a telling point.

      An interesting book is “The Book Nobody Read” by Owen Gingerich on the Copernicus’s book. He found all the existing copies of the book and the notes in the margins are quite informative.

    • Lukas says:

      Of course, the new data did spur the public’s acceptance of the Copernican system. But I still maintain that the revolution had already started by then, at least among astronomers.

      At least up until Galileo or Kepler, new data wasn’t the issue, it was just a matter of simplicity, elegance and convenience. The moment people started using Copernican calculations, Copernican methods and Copernican insight, the revolution was irreversible: even before people accepted heliocentrism, Copernicus had become indispensable in astronomy. His revolution had infinitely more to do with the realization that the heavens were not immutable or ‘special’. That aspect of Copernicus’ theory was quite easily accepted, as is demonstrated by the 1577 comet and the Tychonic system. After that, it was just a matter of waiting until people were ready to reject the geocentric intuition.

      Your reasons why the Copernican system won the day are interesting: all of those points could easily well be explained by the Tychonic system. The simple fact that people nevertheless chose the Copernican system demonstrated that it had less to do with observations and more with new ways of thinking.

      Also, I doubt the conviction of Galileo or Bruno really counts as fair evidence that heliocentrism wasn’t accepted yet. In the same vein one could argue that the theory of evolution has yet to be accepted in this time; there are still many people in the world that openly ridicule or criticize the theory. In fact, to this day 20% of Americans still believe in geocentrism. I don’t even want to know how few people believe in QM or relativity.. My experience tells me that hardly anybody without a proper understanding of physics believes those theories to be true.

    • Byron says:

      The Copernican system was not that much more elegant than Ptolemy’s. While Copernicus eliminated the epicycles he introduced epicyclets. In total, he has over thirty cycles, comparable to Ptolemy. And indeed,the Ptolemaic system continued to used until Newton’s work. Brahe’s system of geocentric motion was what was eliminated by simplicity (see my previous blog for a discussion of simplicity).

    • Lukas says:

      Yes, you are right, Copernicus wasn’t ontologically simpler. But anyone who has every tried to work with equants will agree that anything is better than those pieces of . So at least in some sense he was simpler. Like I mentioned in my comment to your article on simplicity: perhaps there is a distinction to be made between ontological, formal/mathematical and psychological simplicity?

      Either way, to what extent do you agree with my argument that scientific development is not just about new data, but also about new ways of thinking about the existing data?

    • Byron says:

      Science normally advances through new interpretations of new data. There are certainly examples of science advancing through new analysis of old data. Einstein’s article on Brownian motion is a prime example but it the exception not the rule.

  2. Uncle Al says:

    Tommy Aquinas bludgeoned observation with paper to fit faith (e.g., Phys. Rev. D/I>). A naked emperor (e.g., arxiv:1310.8214, 1306.5534, 1306.3983) is clothed in Yukawa potential alpha-lambda multi-level opportunity. Science has degenerated into business plans and marketing schemes, including managerial priesthoods,

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2013/10/science-marketing-needs-consumer.html

    Religion is interminable textual reinterpretation fitting connivance. Proton decay will happen, someday. Gran Sasso’s “superluminal” neutrinos were brilliantly parameterized. The neutrino see-saw mechanism is a test of faith. SUSY!, then MSSM. 10^500 vacuum indulgences. String/brane exotica, squarks, sleptons, bosinos, leptoquarks, axions, lazy photons, WIMPs, colorons, supersymmetry exotica, extra-dimensions, magnetic monopoles, mini-black holes, Randall-Sundrum 5-D phenomena (gravitons, K-K gluons), ADS/CFT duality, fractionally charged particles.

    Strength Through Sacrifice.

    • Gavin Flower says:

      I think that saying “neutrino see-saw mechanism is a test of faith” is wrong, as the fluctuations of a neutrino between different flavours has been observed.

      The fractional charges of quarks only came about because we discovered electrons first. If we had assigned 3 units of charge to electrons, then we would have no fractionally charged particles – as far as I know.

      Because you either don’t understand and/or dislike some aspect of a theory, does not automatically make it wrong. For example you seem to dislike String Theory, but you provide nothing to justify your dislike.

      Quoting phrases seemingly at random, appears to be gibberish and obscures any valid points you might be attempting to make.

  3. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    Science has many parts,
    a. By definition — it is your usage in this article, as public information and repeatable predictions.
    b. By people — as a scientist, he/she has opinions and emotions, and these two can easily become the base for a religion-like-belief. Henry Gee, a senior editor at Nature penned a piece entitled, “Science: the religion that must not be questioned (http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2013/sep/19/science-religion-not-be-questioned?commentpage=1 )”. His conclusion is, “Why is this? The answer, I think, is that those who are scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority. And as anyone who has tried to comment on religion has discovered, there is no such thing as criticism. There is only blasphemy.
    c. The underlying truth — it sits there silent, blocking all detour attempts regardless of they are sciences or religions. Most of the science paper (99% published in the science journals) are just great articles which have nothing to do with the truth.

    • Byron says:

      In b. you are equating religion and world view. I think it is important to separate religion from world view. It is the world view that gives you the religion-like-belief. Everyone has a world view and clings to religiously (word chosen deliberately).

      As for c. I do not believe that truth, in this context, is meaningful. In science, we just build models. The ultimate nature of reality is forever beyond reach.

  4. Gavin Flower says:

    We can only deal with models that are approximations to reality, even if the models are implicit.

    When we pour water into a glass, we don’t need to know the precise arrangement of molecules, nor the isotopic composition, nor any finer level of detail. It is generally sufficient that we know it can hold sufficient water, and we can manipulate it satisfactorily for our purposes. I could spend days listing all the things we are likely to include in the model, but they would all be approximations, and most of them we do not normally consciously consider.

    We talk about Truth a lot, though we never ever deal with it directly, but only via models that we consider to be appropriate approximations for the tasks in hand.

  5. Gavin Flower says:

    Byron, I just read your bio…

    Englishman never tell the truth – I should know, as I am an Englishman!

  6. Yuri Danoyan says:

    No one noticed that “Objective Reality”is meaningless combination of two words because it tautology.Please check etyimology.
    Bless you Ludwig Wittgenstein…..

    • Gavin Flower says:

      “Objective Reality” is meaningful alright – but we can never get to it. Possible just as well, as we need to add filters and weighting to how we perceive reality to function.

      If I see a picture of my wife, I say that is my wife, another might say she is a beautiful woman – I think both statement are true; though in reality, it is a photograph and not actually my wife. Even in saying it is a photograph is applying a filter – it is actually a bunch of hadrons and other elementary particles, but even that is an interpretation. How do we define a photograph? What is a photograph? I don’t know at an absolutely rigorous level, but most people would agree with me as to what is, or isn’t a photograph – given an example to look at.

    • Byron says:

      As Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912) said: But what we call objective reality … can only be the harmony expressed by mathematical laws. It is this harmony then which is the sole objective reality, the only truth we can obtain.

  7. Jorge says:

    Science is like religion in that lay people who do not have access to science are compelled to accept via faith what scientist say. To NOT accept facts of science in our current culture is a sign of insanity.

    When it comes to truth, only scientists know that it is an ideal to which we continually strive to approach. The lay person does not have such knowledge. The lay person becomes the rabid zealot for whatever system of belief they have adopted, either religion or science.

    The wish man knows what he does not know while the fool thinks he knows it all. As science becomes the dominant generator of truth be prepared to deal with science zealots. Also be prepared to have many false scientists.

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