Science and Religion
The subject of “Science and Religion” is obviously monumental. They are arguably the two greatest influences on western civilization, and a full discussion of this topic could take volumes. What I really intend to do here is something smaller in scope: to discuss the differences in how religion and science pursue knowledge. This encompasses a branch of philosophy called epistemology – what is knowable and how do we know it? But if I put “epistemology” in the title, I think, perhaps, that no one would read this. So, please don’t stop!
From our modern day perspective, both religion and science have a body of knowledge about the world, things that are believed to be true, and both of them have their own method of acquiring this truth. Is this knowledge and are these methods necessarily in conflict? This was certainly not always the case, for it has just been in the last few hundred years that study of divine causation and natural philosophy have begun to dissociate. Now that the methods of modern science have been well honed, and it’s discoveries are often found to be in apparent conflict with traditional religious knowledge, what is the contemporary nature of this difference? Can the two be reconciled? Why does the scientist fight with the theologian, often inside the same mind? The idea that science and religion are inherently inimical, is sometimes referred to as the warfare model of the science vs. religion debate, and it is historically a rather modern concept. In response, some have advanced the “separate realms” opinion that some knowledge of the world is best left to religious methods and some are best left to science. In this second thesis, any conflicts that arise are merely “border transgressions” between the two realms and should be resolved by putting each question back in it’s proper place.
As I said, in this essay, I will choose to deal with the methods that science and religion both employ in acquiring knowledge, rather than any specific knowledge each claims. For example, “how do we determine the age of the universe?,” rather than “what is the age of the universe?”
How Modern Science Acquires Knowledge of the World
With science, we first receive information through our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – which I’ll refer to as sensory perceptions or observations. An immediate or firsthand observation is what is often called “empirical evidence.” Many philosophers (they would be “empiricists”) think that all beliefs must be founded solely on this information; they discourage the notion of innate ideas and prefer a posteriori (after the fact) knowledge to a priori (before the fact) knowledge. On the contrary, purely “rationalist” philosophers distrust empirical evidence, often because they distrust our senses, and prefer knowledge that is gained only through logical thought. Nearly all scientists since the beginning of the scientific revolution, however, incorporate both empirical knowledge and the tools of rational logic and language. They use both in a process that is now known as the scientific method. The scientific method involves a few simple steps.
The Scientific Method
Question. All scientific knowledge starts with empirical observations about something in the world and a human sense of wonder. Why is fire hot and why does it flicker? What makes water turn to a solid? Why does the moon stay up in the sky? Why are some peas smooth and some wrinkled?
Hypothesis. Once we have a question we’d like to pursue, we gather all previous knowledge about the topic (the first scientists had little of this!) and we construct a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a guess as to why something happens. It explains the behavior of something you see in the world and it predicts that if I do this thing I think that thing will result. Certain things can make a hypothesis more, or less, impressive. For example, we would hope that we could not explain the result as something purely coincidental. But this much is vital: it must be falsifiable! It must be possible to prove yourself wrong. If it is not, then it is not possible to test it, which is the next step.
Experiment. Then we construct an experiment to test this hypothesis. A good experiment is as simple as possible so that other factors outside the hypothesis itself are minimized and whose effect on the result can be estimated. For example, using fewer instruments ensures that broken and miscalibrated instruments will lead to errors. Also, the result must be clear and easy to interpret. It won’t help if you already know beforehand that it is going to be difficult to analyze the results. Importantly for this particular essay, note that the results of the experiment are perceived through your five senses.
Analysis. The tools of rational logic and language are used subtly throughout the scientific process, but especially when analyzing the results. It is important that we know what is a valid conclusion and what is not, lest we commit a logical fallacy. Our analysis of the experiment will reveal that one of three things has happened. The result may contradict the hypothesis, whereupon you are back to square one. The result may be completely unexpected, which is interesting, and you are also back to square one. Or, the result may confirm your hypothesis. If that happens it is important not to get too big a head yet. Importantly, other people must be able to repeat your experiment. An experiment that can’t be replicated is worthless. Also, it is a good idea to test the hypothesis from another angle to see if the results are robust. Sometimes the results might necessarily vary slightly each time the experiment is repeated, as would be the case with particle physics, and a statistical approach is necessary to verify or falsify the hypothesis.
After a hypothesis is tested through different experiments many times, all verifiable, and with consistent results, it becomes theory. A theory is more than a fact. A theory is an explanation of how facts came to be. One example of such a well tested theory is the theory of evolution. Darwin’s original hypothesis was logically and internally consistent, but that was not enough. It had to be proven true in nature. Experiments from geology, paleontology, atmospheric science, chemistry (carbon dating), zoology, environmental biology, developmental biology, and now, very importantly, molecular biology, all yield consistent results. To be tested from so many angles without contradiction is a best case scenario for a theory.
Well tested theories are something we start to hang our hat on. They are ideas we have about how the natural world works. We act as if this idea, the original hypothesis, were true, and then, using rational logic, construct new hypotheses. This can seemingly carry us far from our original sensory, empirical, experience. We originally saw light with our eyes. We carried out experiments on light, for example, to test increasingly more complex hypotheses about it until we came up with a theory of electromagnetic radiation. Each experiment along the way had to somehow yield results that could be experienced through our senses even as the phenomenon we were studying lay beyond our senses. Eventually we began to have such a thorough understanding of microwaves (long wavelength light that we cannot see), that we could develop technology that uses them. We believe what we have learned about microwaves because we have been able to make machines using them that when they heat our food we feel the warmth on our tongue and when they transmit signals through our cell phones we can hear the sound in our ear.
In summary, here are the really important points regarding how science acquires knowledge of the natural world:
- All information is received directly or indirectly through our five senses before applying the rules of logic.
- All hypotheses must be falsifiable.
- Anyone can repeat an experiment and expect the same result. All experiments have to be reproducible. The entire process can be clearly communicated to another human being starting at (1).
- From simple theories. more complex ones are derived. Technology proceeds.
How Religion Acquires Knowledge of the World
A discussion of how religion acquires knowledge is more difficult than science, because religious experience is so varied. In some cases this knowledge is acquired by scripture and the church hierarchy and in others it is acquired by revelation. Let me explain.
Some religions are established, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions that have had so much influence over western civilization. These religions each have their own political structure, religious practices, scriptures, and theology (a methodological discourse on the nature of God, God’s actions and relationship to the Universe). Ancient scripture within these organized religions is sometimes taken to be the most legitimate primary source of knowledge, and theology by church leaders, is the proper means of extending this knowledge. This method of acquiring knowledge of the world is sometimes referred to as faith. But faith, when so narrowly defined as this simple acceptance of scripture and church leaders, is the mere “suspension of disbelief .” And suspension of disbelief, by definition, is not an epistemological method of gaining knowledge about anything. It is simply intellectual laziness. For this reason, I do not consider scripture/church leader centric “faith” to be germane to the purpose of this essay.
More interestingly, and more broadly across all varieties of religious experience, faith is considered to be revelation, epiphany, or the grace of direct knowledge of God’s existence and force in the Universe which bypasses the five senses and is perceived directly by the consciousness. It is a kind of sixth sense. To a Christian this might be a “born again” experience and to a Buddhist it might be an “enlightenment” experience. It might be felt in prayer. Some claim to walk with this “sixth sense” always alive in their mind, while others feel nothing.
It is important to stress here that revelation is the only direct means of experiencing God. There is no direct knowledge of God that is discernible by our five senses. God cannot be seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. You might hypothesize that the thoughts in your brain or the propagation of light or the initial creation came from God. But if you want to prove the existence of God through science, the hypothesis must be testable and verifiable. But no one, so far at least, has been able to conduct an experiment whose results could only be explained by the presence of God even indirectly, and which could then be replicated by someone else.
So, now we come to a crucial point: this means of acquiring knowledge of “God” is an entirely personal affair. Many of you may have read my “Welcome” page to this blog and are aware of my fondness for the term “Nullius En Verba”. This was the Seventeenth Century motto of the Royal Society of London (one of the first and greatest scientific organizations) and it abjures a person to think for them self. Do the experiment yourself. Observe the world for yourself. Do not uncritically take on another person’s ideas or experience as your own. Unfortunately, a revelation cannot be transferred from one person to another. There is no way to convince another person to have the same revelation that you have had. They might be excited into an religious ecstasy, God may choose to bestow upon them the grace of sudden knowledge of the divine, but there is no telling whether this experience is the same as yours. This is the fundamental difference between knowledge obtained through the five senses and confirmed via the scientific method and knowledge gained by faith. Religious knowledge is not transferable in any philosophically rigorous way.
Does this show that religion, using faith, cannot yield knowledge of the Universe? No it does not! It simply shows nothing outside of the person who was “graced”. For the person who has had a moving religious epiphany the experience may prove quite convincing. They may suddenly see the evidence of their five senses through quite a different prism. Suppose I have a friend named Nikolai who is a passionate atheist and who believes that the scientific method is the only method of finding out something new about the world. You are hiking through the mountains with him when he unfortunately steps into a beehive and is attacked. He is allergic to bees. He quickly goes into anaphylactic shock and his heart stops. But you, being quite logical and prepared, pull out your epinephrine filled syringe and AED (automated external defibrillator) and manage to get his heart started once again. Upon opening his eyes, what a story Nikolai has to tell! He saw a bright light through a tunnel which he was compelled to follow. He was surrounded by the incorporeal spirits of his loved ones that have passed. He knows and understands everything. And above
all, he feels a more profound love than was ever imaginable to him before. After making sure he has fully recovered, you suggest that maybe what he experienced was an artifact of what happens to a brain when deprived of oxygen. “No, no NO! That was NOT what happened to me. I saw something real. There is, in fact, something beyond this world. There is a God! I saw Him!” And from that day on, Nikolai no longer fears death and he believes in God. Well, what do you make of this situation? Nikolai was not mentally unstable. He was a natural skeptic, yet he changed his mind in a matter of minutes. Do you just accept Nikolai’s experience as the truth even though you have a nagging doubt about oxygen and the brain? Certainly what happened was impressive.
The question of what to make of another person’s unverifiable revelation strikes at the heart of what it means to believe in something. The topic of “Belief, Doubt and Uncertainty” is easily large enough for a post of it’s own, or a whole book. Put simply, however, for things that lie beyond the evidence of the five senses, outside the hand of experiment and the scientific method, we must choose to believe, or not, to a matter of degree, forever held in a kind of intellectual limbo or until we have our own epiphany. For such supernatural things, only when we need to take action based on this belief is it necessary to take a position (knowing you could be wrong) and that doesn’t happen very often. We may believe in an afterlife a bit more after our harrowing hike with good friend skeptical Nikolai, but Nikolai’s words cannot convey his experience.
In summary, here are the really important points regarding how religion acquires knowledge of the world:
- Belief in something because it is written down somewhere, or because someone told you, is not a valid epistemological reason for believing anything.
- Belief in something through revelation, outside the five senses, is personal and cannot be conveyed by mere words.
- Supernatural “beliefs” can be considered more or less “plausible,” as in agnosticism. Natural beliefs about the world accessible to our senses can be investigated and found to be correct or incorrect.
So, Should Science and Religion be at War or Not?
The reason I have focused on the two different ways science and religion acquire knowledge is because I think this holds the key to finding peace between these elements in our society that seem to be at war with each other. Where the five senses rule, the scientific method is preferred. If you need to get the ice off your windshield, determine how not to get a sunburn, discover new drugs, calculate when the next high tide will come, figure out why you can’t sleep, or what plants grows best in your garden soil, the scientific method is the only route to getting the answer. You make hypotheses, experiment, and cooperate with your neighbor. And it isn’t helpful to pray for a revelation to solve these practical problems of this world we are all now living in. On the other hand, if you are wondering about the meaning of your life…who can tell you what to think? For some, revelation might indeed be helpful and all they can do is relate their story. Others may find your story interesting, or not. So, if there is a “separate realms” concept of where science and religion should each rule, it comes down to how you acquire knowledge and how you share it. This is why I have focused on their different epistemologies.
Nikolai has the best answer. He respects your reticence to “believe” as he now does. He was in your shoes. You respect his enthusiasm for a “higher” world. In this world, you will share a common approach, science. In the privacy of his own mind he knows that you are loved beyond imagination. In the privacy of your mind you wonder if Nikolai suffered oxygen deprivation. You continue to buy season tickets to the football game, or ballet, together.