Monday, July 23, 2007

Science and Religion

So, I've been thinking about the relationship between science and religion. They seem to be very much at odds; the science-minded among us seem to think that the faith-minded among us are very naive and backward and stupid, while the religious, apart from being very frightened of the science-minded, seem to be content to ignore and belittle their cold and colorless stance. Yet I am noting, perhaps in both camps, at least among the more intellectual circles, a growing interest in finding some kind of common ground. Look at - a very anti religious site, which is seeming to come a bit toward a softer stance.

I've been thinking that it would be nice if the two could come to terms in a way that was not insulting either to science or religious orthodoxy. Yes, that's right, religious orthodoxy. When a fundamentalist says that the earth is 6000 years old, this is insulting to science. When Richard Dawkins says "And I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions" and writes books called "The God Delusion," this is insulting to religion. Yet it is equally insulting to both to think that we can find some vapid happy medium. I can't stand these overly simplified compromises; truth is a very singular thing.

It is the wrong question to ask, is science right, or is religion right? Is there some middle ground? Maybe God caused evolution? I am always irritated and bored by these discussions regardless of your perspective. Who cares if religion or science is right? I don't. I care what is TRUE. People always seem to snicker and shake their heads when I bring this up, as if I am a naive child - the TRUTH is an impossible standard to obtain. In the REAL world we have science and religion. The true thought leaders in these fields were not pioneered by such cowardly thinking; they were pioneered by people who believed in and sought truth. A wreckless and fearless abandonment to the pursuit of truth is the only thing that will really carry the day.

Let's consider this: what options are available to us, here in the 21st century, to interpret and understand the world? We have science, which believes (yes - BELIEVES) that the universe sprang into existence uncaused, and that life arose purely by the lucky kiss of chance plus time. I think we should all step back and look with honesty, and say, this is absurd. It's OK, it is absurd. Science shoots itself in the foot and loses its credibility when it refuses to admit its weaknesses.

Now, let's consider the considerably murkier waters of religion and metaphysics. The religious believe that an invisible super-intelligent being somehow masterminded all of existence, but remains so elusively invisible that we debate about whether or not He even exists.

Then there are the agnostic among us, who pretend that it doesn't matter and we can't know and perhaps shouldn't pursue this. The strange and mystic thing here is that almost no one really believes this; we all strive to know the answers to these things; we maintain an insatiable curiosity. This is in itself a huge clue to me.

So, no matter what, we are shut up to believing in something which is patently absurd. There is no choice. Life is huge and beautiful and tragic and crazy and impossible to explain. Science is inadequate and religion is just... WILD!

One of the things I love about my faith is that it directly embraces this patent mystery; it demands faith right up front. It out and out admits that it demands belief in outrageous things. This does not make it true, by the way, don't think I am saying that. But it does say things like, God exists, God became a man, that that man's chief play for power was to die, even that somehow God wrote a book, things like that. The religious believer should not and cannot shy away from the fact that he believes in things that are shocking and outrageous.

However, does this mean, that in seeking truth, we only believe the shocking and therefore science is all wrong? How could that possibly be TRUE? Are we to throw all sense out the window? That would be just a little too black and white and simple to really explain the world, wouldn't it? Just as reason alone cannot explain or color existence, so faith alone cannot only guide us. Perhaps God has created nature and given us minds. The scriptures, in all of their admitted strangeness and also their beauty, do not really advocate a 6000 year-old universe or any such thing.

I want to go back to something I said earlier. Religion, and not only religion, but religious ORTHODOXY, is crucial to our pursuit of truth, because if there is a God, surely that God can speak to the humanity He created, and He could speak to people all through the history of mankind. If it is not old religion, it is not ancient wisdom, it seems not to be as good. That is why I say, science and religious ORTHODOXY need to come to terms with their own patent absurdities and their own strengths and come to a place where they are set together without insult in the pursuit of the actual truth which is there.


Jon Cordas said...

Both religion and science are avenues of exploration and both can be expressions of wonder at the world around us. Problems arise when dogmatism and ideology on both sides come into play.

The main difference between the two is religion is an ideology and science is a methodology. Religion is based on subjective experience to determine "truth" and science relies on objective quantification and measurement to approach the "truth". Science in the mid-18th Century rejected subjective "truth", although there is no reason to altogether dismiss it.

Science is a limited tool, not a belief system, which has rather narrow boundaries of inquiry. Science tests guesses and always approaches the measurable "truth" but never arrives at it. Going beyond the systematic boundaries of the scientific method can lead to an entrenched dogmatism similar to religion, but this is not science. This is called "scientism", essentially a religion which looks to the human spirit, science and technology to advance mankind.

The experiential divide between science and religion concerns data. Science is utterly dependent on data and its analysis, and religion could care less about data. This is the real divide between the two.

So what do we have? Very smart people sitting in church who neither know nor care to learn about the data the scientist deals with. It is this disregard that rankles scientists. Scientists will contend that reationism can't be taught as science because it doesn't deal with data, as an example.

But the data is often contradictory and spotty in many areas of science, so the scientist should adopt a position of curiousity and humility. Many don't. There are issues, such as observations of the physical world, that science is well suited to address. There are many more issues dealing with the mysteries of the human condition, that science is ill suited to address, and many issues that go beyond the boundaries and ability of science to address.

Take an observable issue such as evolution. Science is well suited to contribute to human understanding when examining past creatures and environments. Science at one time was cojoined with the Catholic Church, but split and moved to Holland and England when the Church was unable to reconcile what scientists were observing. The earch is a few thousand years old, was the medieval Catholic position. A guy made this date up (I can tell you his name and when he did it). Science for the Church was Aristotle, who was pretty smart for his day and smarter than the average medieval bear. But the Church's science was ideological. If natural observations didn't fit with the ideology, natural observations were wrong. But they had to say this didn't they? The institution was built on infallability. If they were wrong in this area, what else were they wrong in? So a trip to Holland or England was in order.

Jon Cordas said...

So much for history. A couple of points can now be made. (1) When we deal with the issue of origins, the creation of the world or of life, these are matters of faith and assumption for both the relitious person and the scientist. The scientist is loathe to frame their not being able to know in terms of faith, but it's the same thing. Ok, we all evolved from single celled critters. How were they formed? How was DNA formed? We "get it" from there, but these orgin questions are questions of faith.

(2) This stuff really doesn't matter. If the Earth is so many billion years old or a few thousand, it doen't matter. It doesn't affect our everyday life. It never did. It didn't matter when the Jews told the stories around the campfires or first wrote down the Garden story. Or when a bijillion other cultures told and wrote their origin stories. It never mattered.

You get up, go to work, raise your kids, have babies, and die. Life goes on. Whether the answer is one way or another never mattered.

It didn't matter to the medieval monk who made up the creation date. It doesn't matter to the smart person sitting in the pew, although they will swear to you that it does. It does not.

It does, however, matter to the scientist, who's trying to explore the physical world. Because it really doesn't matter, Christians don't really want to bother learning about the data the scientist is analyzing. The data wouldn't support their ideology anyway. If it did, Christians would be forced to learn about IT.

Instead, Christians don't want to feel ignorant and uninformed, so they make up their own "data" which supports their ideologies. They teach their kids all sorts of nonsense about historical timelines and guys riding dinosaurs. Too much Flintstones I suspect. These points don't contend that Christians are stupid or ignorant. It purports that differences with science don't really matter. Life goes on.

So leave the scientists alone or learn about the data they work with. There's enough mystery and contradition within the data to have a robust dialogue. But Christians should not pretend they are practicing science with issues such as Ceationism. That's creating an illusory religion called "scientism". At that point, bad religion and bad sicence can converge.