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Posts Tagged ‘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.


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.


Lady Hope (1842 – 1922)[1] in 1915 published a claim that Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) on his death bed had recanted his views on evolution and God. This story published thirty-three years after Darwin’s death was strongly denied by his family but has made the rounds of various creationist publications and web sites to this day. Now my question is: Why would anyone care? It may be of interest to historians but nothing Darwin wrote, said, or did has any consequences for evolution today. The theory itself and the evidence supporting it have moved far beyond Darwin. But this story does serve to highlight the different role of individuals in science as compared to religion or even philosophy.

I have always considered it strange that philosophy places such importance on reading the works of long dead people—Aristotle, Descartes, etc. In science, Newton’s ideas trumped those of both Aristotle and Descartes, yet very few scientists today read Newton’s works. His ideas have been taken, clarified, reworked, and simplified. The same thing applies to the scientific writings of other great and long dead scientists. Nothing is gained by going to the older sources. Science advances and the older writings lose their pedagogical value. This is because in science, the ultimate authority is not a person, but observation.

A given person may play an important role but there is always someone else close on his heels. Natural selection was first suggested, not by Darwin, but by Patrick Matthew (1790 – 1874) in 1831 and perhaps by others even earlier. Alfred Russell Wallace’s (1823 – 1913) and Darwin’s works were presented together to the Linnean Society in July 1858[2].  And so it goes: Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912) and Hendrik Lorentz (1853 – 1928) were nipping at Einstein’s heels when he published his work on special relativity.  Someone gets priority, but it is observation that ultimately should be given the credit for new models.

When the ultimate role of observation is forgotten, science stagnates. Take, for example, British physics after Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). It fell behind the progress on the continent because the British physicists were too enamoured of Newton. But the most egregious example is Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). The adoration of Aristotle delayed the development of knowledge for close to two millennia.  Galileo and his critic, Fortunio Liceti (1577 – 1657), disputed about which was the better Aristotelian, as if this was the crucial issue. Even today, post-docs all too frequently worry about what the supervisor means rather than thinking for themselves: But he is a great man, so his remark must be significant[3]. Actually he puts on his pants on one leg at a time like anyone else.

Then there is the related problem of rejecting results due to their origins, or the associated ideology. The most notorious example is the Nazi rejection of non-Aryan science; for example, relativity because Einstein was a Jew. One sees a similar thing in politics where ideas are rejected as being socialist, fascist, atheist, Islamic, Christian, or un-American thus avoiding the real issues of the validity of the idea: Darwinism[4] is atheistic hence it must be condemned. Yeah?  And your mother wears army boots.

In science, people are considered great because of the greatness of the models they develop or the experimental results they obtained. In religion, it is the other way around. Religions are considered great based on the greatness of their founder. Jesus Christ is central to Christianity: and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). Islam is based on the idea: There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet. Many other major religions (or philosophies of life) are founded on one person: Moses (Judaism), Buddha (Buddhism), Confucius (Confucianism), Lao Tzu (Taoism), Guru Nanak (Sikhism), Zoroaster (Zoroastrianism), Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’í Faith) and Joseph Smith (Mormonism).  Even at an operational level, certain people have an elevated position and are considered authorities: for example, the Pope in the Catholic Church, or the Grand Ayatollahs in Shi’ite Islam. Because of the basic difference between science and religion, an attack on a founder of a religion is an attack on its core, while an attack on a scientist is an irrelevancy. If Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844) was a fraud, then Mormonism collapses. Yet nothing in evolution depends on Darwin, nor anything in classical mechanics on Newton. But we can understand the upset of the Islamic community when Mohammad is denigrated: it is an attack on their whole religious framework which depends on Mohammad’s unique role.

The difference in the role of the individual in science and religion is due to their different epistemologies. In science, everything is public—both the observations and the models built on them. In contradistinction, the inspiration or revelation of religion is inherently private, a point noted by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). You too can check Einstein’s calculations or Eddington’s experiment; you do not have to rely on either Einstein or Eddington. Now it may take years of work and a lot of money, but in principle it can be done. But you cannot similarly check the claims of Jesus’s divinity, even with years of study, but must take it on faith or as the result of private revelation.

Unlike in science, in religion, old is better than new. If a physical manuscript of St. Paul’s writing dating from the first century were discovered, it would have a profound effect on Christianity. But a whole suitcase of newly discover works in Newton’s or Darwin’s handwriting would have no effect on the progress of science. This is because religion is based on following the teachings of the inspired leader, while science is based on observation.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] Otherwise known as Elizabeth Reid nee Cotton

[2] The president of the Linnean Society remarked in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries.

[3] I have heard that very comment.

[4] Note also the attempt to associate evolution with one person.


– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749 – 1827) was one of the great French mathematical physicists. In math, his fame is shown by the number of mathematical objects named after him: Laplace’s equation, Laplace transforms, the Laplacian, etc.  In physics, he was the first to show that planetary orbits are stable and he developed a model—the nebular model—to account for how the solar system formed.  In modified form, the nebular model is still accepted. In spite of these important contributions, he was also very much a lackey, being very careful to keep on the right side of all the right people. During the French revolution, that might have been just good survival strategy. After all, he served successive French governments and, unlike Lavoisier, kept his head.

Laplace presented his definitive work on the properties of the solar system to Napoleon.  Napoleon, liking to embarrass people, asked Laplace if it was true that there was no mention of the solar system’s Creator (ie God) in his opus magus. Laplace, on this occasion at least, was not obsequious and replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This is essentially the simplicity argument discussed in a previous blog, but stated very crisply and succinctly.

Laplace was not just a whistlin’ Dixie. Newton had needed that hypothesis, ie God, to make the solar system work. Newton believed that the planetary orbits were unstable and unless God intervened periodically, the planets would wander off into space. Newton had not done the mathematical analysis sufficiently completely. Laplace rectified the problem. Newton also had no model for the origin of the solar system. Laplace eliminated these two gaps that Newton had God fill.

Back to Napoleon—he told Joseph Lagrange (1736 – 1813), another of the great French mathematicians/physicists, Laplace’s comment about no need for the God hypothesis. Lagrange’s reply was, “Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.” Laplace’s apocryphal reply was, “This hypothesis, Sir, explains in fact everything, but does not permit to predict anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions.” This is the ultimate insult in science: it explains everything but predicts nothing. Explanations are a dime a dozen; if you want explanations, read Kipling’s Just so Stories. Now, there are some fine explanations. I particularly like The Cat That Walked by Himself.

Lapalce’s argument, I had no need of that hypothesis, is still being used today. Hawking and Mlodinow in their book, The Grand Design, created a stir by claiming God did not exist. But their argument was just Laplace’s pushed back from the beginning of the solar system to the beginning of universe:  they had no need of that hypothesis.  Whether their physics is correct or not is still an open question. It is not clear that string theory has gotten past the “it explains everything but predicts nothing” stage.

An alternate approach to understanding God’s absence in scientific models is methodological naturalism. The term seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 and published it in the Christian Scholar’s Review.  It has since then become a standard definition of science, even playing a significant role in court cases, most notably the case [1 in Dover Pennsylvania on teaching creationism in public schools. The judge mentioned methodological naturalism prominently in his ruling.

Methodological naturalism, as a definition of the scientific method, is rather ill defined except for its main idea, namely that science, explicitly, by fiat, and with malice a-fore-thought, rejects God, gods, and the supernatural from all its considerations. There is frequently an implicit secondary idea that science is about finding explanations but only natural ones, of course. Both ideas are inconsistent with what science actually is: building models constrained only by observation and parsimony. (See above and the previous blog for my opinion of the role of explanations in science.)

However, methodological naturalism is a very convenient hypothesis. It avoids awkward questions about the relation between science and religion. By inserting naturalism into the very definition of science, methodological naturalism, if valid, would create a firewall between science and religion. This would both protect religion from science and scientists from the religious. Considering the violence done in the name of religion, the latter may be more important, but the former was probably part of the original intent.  However, I suspect the main motivation was to explain why God and the supernatural are absent from science.  But Laplace gave the real reason for God’s absence: parsimony—there is no need of that hypothesis. There are probably also very good theological reasons for that absence but that is outside the scope of science and this blog.

Methodological naturalism confuses the input with the output. To the extent science is naturalistic, it is an output of the scientific method, not part of the definition. Excluding anything by fiat is poor methodology. But once one realizes that historically God and the supernatural have been eliminated from science, not by fiat, but by Laplace’s criteria, methodological naturalism becomes redundant; an ad hoc solution to an already solved problem.


[1] United States District Court for the Middle District Of Pennsylvania, TAMMY KITZMILLER, et al. v. Dover Area School District; et al,