Science and Religion

I’m wading into shaky waters by posting this, but it arose out of several conversations I have had recently. In one, when discussing global warming with a skeptic, I found myself having to defend science against charges that it is a religion. In the second, when discussing randomness (actually, the recent death of John Dobson which then led to other discussions), I was confronted with the odd claim that, unlike other religions that are based on mere faith, Christianity is an evidentiary faith. The latter is an interesting tactic; it would seem that in an attempt to combat science (or certain tenets of science), some people have taken to co-opting the language of science (while, whether they realize it or not, changing the meaning of that language). Clearly, “evidential” and “faith” are antonymic words. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (which I was required to use for a deductive logic class in college because it contains word origins), evidence is something that furnishes proof. Conversely, Webster’s defines faith as a firm belief in something for which there is no proof (emphasis mine).

Setting aside this linguistic pretzel, one of the claims in the discussion that grew out of Dobson’s death was actually a continuation of another one I had had with the same group of individuals (some believers, some not) last year: whether there is true randomness in the universe. One of the people in the discussion argued that since God knows the outcome of every single process and since God created the universe, there thus can be no random processes in the universe. (He then went on to say he does not reject any type of science despite having rejected evolution as it applies to humans in at least one discussion.)

My response to that is this: I have no problem with anyone believing that God or the Divine or whatever knows all and for him/her/it/them there is no randomness. The fact of the matter is that none of us as human beings can and will ever achieve the status of God and thus be able to know everything. We live in the here and now, in an empirical world that, for whatever the reason (God, randomness, etc.), is possessed of certain patterns that are somehow comprehensible to us via deductive and inductive logic. Science is concerned with the here and now. It is concerned with what we can know. Legitimate science is always supported by evidence which means empirical data and the rules of formal logic. Religion didn’t discover insulin and penicillin. It didn’t invent automobiles and televisions. If you want to believe that God has helped guide these discoveries, I have absolutely no problem with that. But that is a question that is beyond science.

Now, by saying that there is no randomness or chance because God knows all (and therefore rejecting, for example, evolution), one either is suggesting that we can achieve God-like status or that a mere faith in God is all we need to understand seemingly random processes. But a faith in God isn’t going to suddenly allow someone to predict the outcomes of die rolls in a game of craps or to suddenly understand how to get around the uncertainty principle. Science makes incredibly accurate predictions and models as it is. Nevertheless, there are God-fearing scientists out there (e.g. John Polkinghorne). But it’s not like they have been any more successful than anyone else at figuring out how to predict games of craps or getting around the uncertainty principle.

And that is precisely the point. The aim of science is to make sense of the real world in which we live, to understand (or “model” as best we can) how it works, and, to some extent, improve our lives in this real world since, for better or for worse, it is the one we inhabit at this moment. Whatever individual scientists may say, science really says nothing about actual reality (at least in the philosophical sense). But that was never its point. It’s purpose is to comprehend the world around us, the world we inhabit right here, right now.

Science is a profoundly human endeavor. Certainly its results are, to some extent, objective in the sense that a scientist from China and a scientist from France can agree on the result of an experiment even if they don’t speak the same verbal language (mathematics is, in some sense, the language of science, and mathematics is universal). But science is still human. It describes the state of our knowledge about the world around us and, sometimes, the limitations of that knowledge itself. If someone wants to believe that everything we perceive every day of our lives is an illusion, that’s fine. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But that doesn’t help humanity make practical advances to better our lives and the lives of others. It doesn’t help us make accurate predictions about anything. Like it or not, we rely on certain things being consistent in our lives — the Sun coming up every morning, stuff not suddenly “falling” up, the fact that you won’t wake up tomorrow morning on Mars. Science extends the scope of reliability. When science talks about randomness, it has something very specific in mind that must, in some sense, produce reliably predictable results because that is what science does. Period.

And that is the crux of my response to the person who made the accusation that science was a religion (intimating in his accusation that religion is inherently a lot of hogwash, an idea David Albert nicely put to rest two years ago in his review of Lawrence Krauss’ book). Science produces reliably predictable results that are self-consistent and follow the basic rules of formal logic. If it’s a religion, then it’s the only one that can make future predictions about physical systems with anything more than 50% accuracy.

So people can believe what they want about how the world really works, but don’t tell me, when something that is quantifiably verifiable, i.e. offers up results that can be agreed upon across cultures and across times, that those same methods are wrong. My response will be: can you give me a method that is better and that I — and humanity itself — can rely on to be consistently correct and predictable every single time? If religion were the answer to that question, science never would have arisen to begin with.


6 thoughts on “Science and Religion

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  1. So you are writing this in a reply to someone who claimed science was a religion? Interesting thoughts but this is a very elementary level discussion. You’re finding people disputing these facts stated above?

    1. Unfortunately there’s a lot of this kind of stuff out there and I am just stupid enough to actually think I might convince someone to change their mind (or at least think more deeply about the problem).

    2. As far Science and religion is concerned let me put some excerpts from intellectuals here:

      1) Science doesn’t draw conclusions about supernatural explanations. Supernatural entities, forces, and processes cannot be studied with the methods of science.
      2) Although scientists often care deeply about how their discoveries are used, science itself doesn’t indicate what should be done with scientific knowledge. In scientific studies Individuals make their own decisions for themselves based on their own aesthetic criteria.
      3) People have their pet theories and foundations meetings tend to end up making no progress (as a whole) because they are either devoted to a single, common viewpoint or, if they are more general, people just end up yelling at each other.
      4) One of the points commonly made when attempting to distinguish between classical systems and quantum systems is that the latter are probabilistic. This is often then (somewhat carelessly) extrapolated to mean that classical physics is exact while quantum physics is not. Not only is that an oversimplification, it is misleading.

      Then I came to a conclusion quoting Winston Churchill as;

      “Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public”.

  2. Ian ,
    Perhaps the “evidence” in the statement “Christianity is an evidentiary faith”, is circumstantial.
    Jury’s recognize this type of evidence all the time… (well, why the O.J Simpson jury didn’t see it and why the prosecution team didn’t hang their hats on the lack of “randomness” surrounding the Bruno Magli shoe prints, I’ll never understand).

    “Beyond a reasonable doubt”.
    Is there an equivalent to circumstantial evidence in Science?

    I put Science and Religion on the same base line of a triangle that points to the truth.
    Both of these spheres of investigation are interested in explaining the world we live in.
    ie “Saving the Phenomena”.
    Some, like me however, do not have to separate Science and Religion and we can make it one straight line of inquiry because we believe that there is a first cause in the form of a being (God) who created it and we enjoy discovering the mysteries along the path.

    I do happen to agree that Christianity posits the most trustworthy body of evidence to explain our existence, our nature and our future.

    Thanks for the post

    1. Thanks for the reply Ron. Regarding circumstantial evidence, there really is no such thing (or shouldn’t be) even in the legal world. My cousin is a public defender (he represents people who can’t afford lawyers) and likes to tell a story about one of his first cases more than thirty years ago. He, himself, was entirely convinced of his client’s guilt based on what seemed like more than circumstantial evidence. The guy turned out to be innocent in the end.

      That said, we can assess the probability that a certain statement or claim is true both in science and in the law. In that sense, “circumstantial” evidence is exactly this: differently weighted probabilities of the truth based on a juror’s or scientist’s state of knowledge. But inherent in that, is the notion that the knowledge itself is measurable. In other words, the things a juror or scientist does know beyond any shadow of a doubt, can be independently verified and follows a logical deductive path. By saying that specifically Christianity itself somehow has circumstantial evidence in its favor, you have to show me (using legitimate, deductive logic) how any of the “evidence” favors the Christian faith over, say, Buddhism or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism. Die-hard adherents of every single one of those faiths would likely make very similar claims to yours (except, possibly, the Buddhists) about their religions. If there is no objective way to differentiate between them, then there is no evidence — circumstantial or otherwise — to support one over the other. This is precisely why they are called faiths. In fact this has been recognized since the age of St. Thomas Aquinas and possibly since St. Augustine. Christianity is a revelatory faith (and has always claimed to be). To think otherwise actually is a logical road to thinking that humanity can discover the mind of God which seems fairly heretical to me.

      And that brings me right back to the original argument. We, as human beings, will never achieve a state of full knowledge regarding everything in the universe (regardless of whether or not God exists). Ever. Science accurately describes our state of knowledge about how the world works. Even St. Augustine recognized the priority of science regarding “earthly” (i.e. non-spiritual) matters (Augustine of Hippo, De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [408], De Genesi ad literam, 2:9), and this was in the fifth century!

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