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Posts Tagged ‘science and 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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I like talking about science. I like talking about religion. I even like talking about the relationship and boundaries between the two. These are all fascinating subjects, with many questions that are very much up for debate, so I am very pleased to see that CERN is participating in an event in which scientists, philosophers, and theologians talk together about the Big Bang and other questions.

But this quote, at least as reported by the BBC, simply doesn’t make any sense:

Co-organiser Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, said that the Higgs particle “raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer”.

“They need to explore them with theologians and philosophers,” he added.

The Higgs particle does no such thing; it is one aspect of a model that describes the matter we see around us. If there is a God, CERN’s recent observations tell us that God created a universe in which the symmetry between the photon and the weak bosons is probably broken via the Higgs Mechanism. If there is not, they tell us that a universe exists anyway in which the symmetry between the photon and the weak bosons is probably broken via the Higgs Mechanism. It doesn’t raise any special questions about the origins of the universe, any more than the existence of the electron does.

There are many interesting philosophical questions to ask about the relationships between models of scientific observations on the one hand, and notions of absolute Truth on the other. You can also talk about what happened before the times we can make scientific observations about, whether there are “other universes” with different particles and symmetries, and so on. Theologians and philosophers have much to say about these issues.

But in regard to searches for the Higgs boson in particular, the people we need to explore questions with are mostly theoretical physicists and statisticians.

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The contentious relation between science and religion is the topic of this, the penultimate[1] post in the current series.  Ever since science has gone mainstream, there have been futile attempts to erect a firewall between science and religion. Galileo got in trouble with the Catholic Church, not so much for saying the earth moved as for suggesting the church steer clear of scientific controversies.  More recently, we have methodological naturalism (discussed in a previous post), a misidentification of why the supernatural is absent from science. Then there is the: science cannot answer the why question—but it can when it helps make better models (also discussed in a previous post). For example, why do beavers build dams? This can be answered by science. And there is the ever popular non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) of Stephen J. Gould (1941 – 2002).  NOMA claims that “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: … The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

The empirical realm covers not just what can be directly observed but what can be implied from what is observed. For example, quarks, and even something as well-known as electrons, are not directly observed but are implied to exist. That would also be true for citizens of the spirit or netherworld. If they exist, they presumably have observable effects. If they have no observable effect, does it matter if they exist or not? Similarly, a religion with no empirical content would be quite sterile, i.e. would prayer be meaningful if it had absolutely no observable effects?

Moral issues cannot be assigned purely to the religious sphere. The study of brain function impacts questions of free will and moral responsibility. Disease and brain injury can have very specific effects on behaviour, for example, a brain injury led to excessive swearing in one person. What about homosexuality? Is it biological or a lifestyle choice? Recent research has indicated a genetic component in homosexuality, thus mixing science with what some regard as a moral issue. Finally, what about when life begins and ends? Who decides who is dead and who is alive? And by what criteria?  Scientific or religious? This has huge implications for when to remove life support. The bigger fight is over abortion and the question of when independent life begins. Is it when the sperm fertilizes the egg? That is a scientific concept developed with the use of the microscope. That simple definition has problems when there are identical twins where the proto-fetus splits in two much later than at conception. In the other direction, both the sperm and the egg can be considered independent life. After all, the sperm has the ability to leave the donor’s body and survive for a period of time. The arguments one hears regarding when independent life begins are frequently an ungodly combination of scientific and theological arguments.

In the end, there is only one reality, however we choose to study or approach it.  Thus, any attempt to put a firewall between different approaches to reality will ultimately fail, be they based on science, religion, or philosophy.  At least the various religious fundamentalists recognize this, but their solution would take us back to the dark ages by subjugating science to particular religious dogmas. However, it does not follow that religion and science have to be in conflict. Since there is so much variation in religions, some are and some are not in conflict with any particular model developed by science. Still, it should be a major concern for theology that something like religion has not arisen naturally from scientific investigations.  While there are places God can hide in the models science produces, there is no place where He is made manifest. And it is not because He is excluded by fiat either (see the essay on methodological naturalism referenced above).

One should not make the same mistake as Andrew Dickson White (1832 –1918) in setting science and religion in perpetual hostility. He was a co-founder of Cornell University and its first president. He was also embittered by the opposition from the church to the establishment of Cornell as a secular institute. The result was the book: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896); a polemic against Christianity masquerading as a scholarly publication. This book, along with History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by John William Draper (1811 – 1882), introduced the conflict thesis regarding the relation between science and religion and said it is perpetual hostility. Against that, we note Newton, Galileo, and Kepler were all very religious and much science was done by clergymen in nineteenth century England. White’s book, in particular, has many problems. One is that the very opposition to change is cast as science versus religion rather than recognizing a lot of it as simple resistance to change. Even science is not immune to that—witness the fifty year delay in the acceptance of continental drift. The historical interplay between science and religion is now recognized to be very complex with them sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord, and most commonly, indifferent.

If we take a step back from the results of science and its relation to particular religious dogmas, and look instead at the relation between the scientific method and theology, we see a different picture. Like science and western philosophy, science and theology represent competing paradigms for the nature of knowledge.   Science is based on observation and observationally constrained models; Western philosophy on rational arguments; while theology is based more on spirituality, divine revelation, and spiritual insight. This is, in many ways, a more serious conflict than between scientific results and particular religions. Particular religions can change, and frequently have changed, in response to new scientific orthodoxy, but it is much more difficult to change one’s conceptual framework or paradigm. Also, as Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) and Paul Feyerabend (1924 – 1994) pointed out, different paradigms tend to be incommensurate. They provide different frameworks that make communication difficult. They also have conflicting methods for deciding questions, making cross-paradigm conflict resolution difficult, if not impossible. Hence, there will be tension between science and theology forever, with neither dominating.

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[1] NLP in the notation of effective field theorists.

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