Thursday, April 27, 2006

The right way for religion to critique science (and vice versa)

Science and religion waste of a lot of energy talking past each other by arguing about the wrong things, like whether or not God exists. Relgionists go to extreme, sometimes comical lengths to "scientifically" prove the existence of God. Scientists also go to equally extreme and ultimately equally futile lengths to prove his non-existence. It is at once amazing and sad to see all these smart people wasting so much effort on such manifestly useless endeavors.

What is most amazing about it is that it is transparently obvious even by their own standards that both sides are wrong. How can that be? It seems a logical tautology that either God exists or He does not. But it isn't so. P or not P is tautologically true only if the truth value of P is well defined. "Either God exists or He does not" is no more of a tautology than "Either Les Demoiselles D'Avignonis a beautiful painting or it is not."

The futility of the debate ultimately stems from the fact that the two sides are actually arguing about something different than what they think they are arguing about. They think they are arguing about the existence of God, but in fact they are arguing about His nature. What the religionists really are setting out to prove is not that the Universe was Designed, but that the Designer is still around, and He has a plan, and you have a place in it. What (most) scientists/humanists/atheists really want to say is not that the universe is devoid of transcendant meaning, but that we need to seek it in places other than holy scripture.

Even on a question as basic as whether or not we were created in God's image the two sides could find common ground if only they would be honest with themselves about what they really believe. The Bible teaches that we are created in God's image, but what does that mean? It can't mean that we are exact duplicates of God, if for no other reason than that there are six billion of us and only one of Him (to say nothing of the fact that He is almighty and omniscient and we clearly aren't and never were). The only reasonable interpretation is that there is something in our essential nature that mirrors the essential nature of the Creator. But for a scientist, the Creator is simply the Laws of Physics (LP). Framed that way, it becomes self evident that we are created in the image of the Creator/LP. We can even agree on what certain aspects of that essential nature is. For example, we have the capacity to do Good. The story that would be told to explain this is different on both sides, but the fact itself is beyond dispute, as is the fact that it arose from and is a reflection of whatever created us.

This is not to say that we would achieve perfect harmony; we would not. There are legitimate disagreements between science and religion, and productive debates to be had, but we're not having them because neither side is capable of seeing beyond its own prejudices.

One of the most counterproductive prejudices that is shared by both sides is that science is not a religion, that it is the antithesis of religion. That is hogwash. Science is not necessarily a religion, but it certainly can be (and I think it should be). It is clearly Richard Dawkins's religion (and the fact that he would take great umbrage at that suggestion is evidence that it is in fact true). And if Dawkins won't have it, then I'll claim it as my own. I am a scientist. That is my religion. I believe that the Laws of Physics, once they are properly understood, provide an adequate guide to how to live a good, moral, and even transcendant life. But coming to that understanding has not been easy, either for me personally or for mankind as a whole, and I can certainly understand how someone could believe otherwise.

I think a proper understanding of science as a religion would help the debate become more productive all around. We would not achieve perfect agreement, of course, because no two religions can ever be perfectly reconciled. (That's one of the things that makes them religions.) But I do think that reframing the debate as one between two religions rather than between relgion and non-religion would go a long way towards breaking some of the present logjams.

Consider for example the question of the reliability of the Biible on how we should live our lives. The extreme positions are "It is absolutely reliable" (the fundamentalist Christian position) and "it is absolutely unreliable" (the fundamentalist scientist position). Both are, of course, wrong. (Ron's First Law: All extreme positions are wrong.) Even the most extreme fundamentalist would concede that, if nothing else, the meaning of certain passages in the Bible is far from self-evident, and the debate within the religious community about how to address that problem has been raging for thousands of years. And even the most extreme scientist would concede that some parts of the Bible, like "Love thy neighbor as thyself", are probably not bad ideas. And we can go even further: the scientific viewpoint on morality is that it evolved as an evolutionarily stable strategy, so it would make sense that at some point as the human brain evolved that certain aspects of that strategy should be codified in writing. So the Bible can be viewed as a sort of an early draft of a theory of evolutionarily stable (which is to say moral) behavior, just as Beowulf can be viewed as an early draft of a theory of drama.

So how should religion critique science? Well, how about something like this:

There is no dispute that science serves as a reliable guide to a great many things, like how to build cars and computers, and how to make medicine. But science has its limits. Our scientific understanding of the human mind is rudimentary at best, and progress is slow. Those who pursue this work are driven by a faith that the extreme challenges presented by this undertaking will some day be overcome. That faith is laudable, but it is, in fact, faith.

In the meantime, the world is filled will six billion humans who have to figure out what to make of their lives here and now. Many of these people do not have the luxury of being able to invest the very high time and effort that it takes to reach a scientific understanding of one's place in the Universe. Most people's time is consumed with the day-to-day business of survival, of getting crops planted and harvested, of finding clean water, of caring for the livestock (if they are lucky enough to have livestock), of struggling with the passion and pain, the joys and sorrows and the pain that are part and parcel of being human. Some day, perhaps, science will understand all this well enough that we can cure every disease, ease every heartache, and provide everyone with a sense of purpose and transcendant meaning based on science. In the meantime, if someone is in pain, what purpose is served by depriving them of the comfort they might obtain by believing that God loves them and has a Plan?

And how should science critique religion? Well, how about this.

2 comments:

quantamos said...

How does one get morality from science given that people tend to bring their own biases with them? That is, how would somebody avoid using science to justify a position that they had already come to?

I guess I've always taken the perspective (as a Christian) that if the Bible ever proposes any morality, then we should be able to arrive at the same conclusions, independent of the Bible. E.g. thou shalt not murder -- well it's obvious that if murder was permissible, then people could hardly be expected to work productively.

Ron said...

How does one get morality from science

http://rondam.blogspot.com/2005/09/metaphysics-of-chocolate.html

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0465021212/103-8295002-6527856?vi=glance&n=283155

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0465045669/103-8295002-6527856?vi=glance&n=283155, especially chapter 27

given that people tend to bring their own biases with them? That is, how would somebody avoid using science to justify a position that they had already come to?

That's what science is all about. That's why we do double-blind studies, apply statistical methods, etc. precisely to avoid confirmation bias.

I guess I've always taken the perspective (as a Christian) that if the Bible ever proposes any morality, then we should be able to arrive at the same conclusions, independent of the Bible. E.g. thou shalt not murder -- well it's obvious that if murder was permissible, then people could hardly be expected to work productively.

But that's the low-lying fruit. It's much harder to figure out how to get to e.g. I Corinthians 14:34-35 from first principles. Or Timothy 2:12. Or just about anything in the book of Joshua. (I could go on.)