September 1, 2006

Science and Religion

I received a comment on a post a while back that I wanted to comment on more extensively. The comment read:

"You might think of the discoveries of science as tools. For example, evolution and genetics are enormously powerful tools for conducting medical research. Another example: When you build a house, you would be wise to use a building code manual. You would want to know some math and physics too. Religion could be thought of as a tool people use for their emotional well being and to provide social structures for societies. But you wouldn't want to use the Bible if you're trying to figure out what optimum roof truss spacing you need to support the weight of your roof.

Recently on the radio I heard a religion scholar named Karen Armstrong. She said she evaluates faith traditions with the following question: "Does it result in practical compassion?" I think this is a very powerful view of religion that gets away from the endless (and destructive, in my mind) arguments over who (or which religion) owns the truth about God. It also enables us to find a way to respect traditions we don't fully accept for ourselves. (As you said in your original post, we have to figure out how to get along.)

You could carry this over to the evolution concept and say "Does it have a practical application that will help us find a cure for malaria, for example." And, yes, in fact it adds a great deal to the understanding of this medical problem. You may not have to accept it theologically, but it's critical for us to respect its usefulness as a very important tool in medicine and scientific research (and many other fields). Why so critical? So we can solve problems!"

On one level, I couldn't agree more. Evolution, like all scientific theories, is a tool and a language used to describe and explain certain observations made by various individuals we call "scientists." As a language, then, it is simply a construct we use. It is not the truth, but it attempts to describe the truth. It is a perspective. Science works in such a way that if new evidence comes along that better explains the observations we've made, we can revise the language we use to explain the universe we live in. It's a work in progress.

A great example in recent news is the terran solar system. Human language has now evolved to a point where we describe planets differently than we used to. Pluto, now, is part of a binary dwarf-planet system, rather than a planet with a moon. The language has changed because our understanding of the phenomena has advanced to a point where we can use new evidence - and new language - to better explain the universe. It was the case with Newton's gravitational laws to Einstein's relativity to Quantum Physics; as our understanding progessess, so does our language.

Science, in the case of absolute truth, has more to say than religion, in some ways. Science posits a universe with an abolute set of boundaries (sometimes called laws) in which all behavior - of objects, life, molecules, etc. - can be rationally explained. If you know the laws, you can then explain (and hopefully predict) how everything works, then use that knowledge to do things. So many religions don't buy into this kind of world; they think that truth is "relative," meaning that it changes from individual to individual. While I don't think that anybody really buys into relativity (how can you possibly when you're absolutely sure that each time you take a step you won't go hurtling off into the oblivion of space?), lots of people have used it as a useful mental construct that makes any argument go away. We can all be happy because everybody is right and nobody has to feel dumb for being wrong.

In order to discover its absolute truth, science relies on repeatable, verifiable evidence by multiple objective observers in order to explain behavior. The trouble is, there is no such person; objective observers do not exist, because everyone's perspective is subjective. In order to be an objective observer, you must be unimpaired by judgemental bias, something that human beings are incapable of. A mundane example: a scientist observes something happen, but as soon as he sees it, by his very nature he is already conjuring up a theory as to why it happened. In order to prove his theory, he must conduct experiments, which are then designed to prove his point, rather than disprove it (in pure science [translation: optimistic science], this is the opposite; you perform experiments to disprove your theory, but rarely does this happen in a world that expects results - we are not payed to disprove our theories, rather we are payed to prove a theory that will make money and progress). Still, the fundamental principle is a good one; if you can observe something repeatedly, you will be able to develop a theory to explain it. It works - we have the drugs and the cars and the computers to prove it. Ask anybody.

Religion, like science, is a construct, a language we use to try and explain the various phenomena we observe in the much-debated metaphysical world. These phenomena tend to be much more subjectively verifiable, however, open to much speculation due to the low number of observers and the unrepeatable nature of the phenomena. So many people do not understand that religion, like science, is also a work in progress. We aren't perfect, and since we aren't in control of metaphysical phenomena, and therefore can't perform experiments to verify their existence, we have to go with the evidence we have, limited as it is. Religion, by its nature, will talk about things that it has very little understanding of - God, first and foremost. Because religion does not require repeatable evidence, it can believe in God/gods, angels, demons, nymphs, sea monsters, aliens, and all sorts of things that science does not.

Science, on God, has a fundamental flaw. As many scientists acknowledge, it is impossible to prove the existence of God simply because there is no objective observer, nor is there verifiable evidence. In order to prove God, you would have to be outside of God. Since God is everywhere (omnipresence), this is impossible; the very definition of Hell, in some textbooks, is a place with the absence of God. So you'd have to be in hell to prove God is there, and chances are that if there were such a place, you'd be there precisely because you didn't believe in God. Science gets stuck in a logic loop here; either God is or he isn't, and it's easier to believe he isn't.

And so often enough, science and religion start to speak different languages, simply because of their differing requirements for evidence. In the end, the people (humanity) seems to have gone the science route because of one thing: results. Science has proven itself time and time again because it provides tangible benefits to people. You can see these benefits everywhere: medicine, technology. The fact that you're reading this right now is a result of science.

I'm not saying this to say religion is wrong, but to inspire us forward. Science can only bring us so far, and it cannot give us one thing: meaning. It is the task of religion to give us a language for meaning. There is an absolute truth out there, and though our perspectives cloud it (we see as through a glass darkly), it's there. I submit that God is there, and in fact, all around us. Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.


A. Annie said...

I heard a man on the radio ( a speaker at one of those big rallies ) trying to illustrate how horrible relativism is and why we need to subscribe to one truth. He used a particularly flawed illustration. He told the audience to cover their eyes and point a finger “North.” Then he told them to open their eyes. Everyone was pointing every which way. Then he pulled out his compass and pointed the way North according to his compass. Now if we would all follow him we would get to the north pole. I had several questions and problems with his illustration. Was he trying to go to the North Pole or to magnetic North? Even magnetic north shifts around quite significantly from year to year and it’s almost never at the actual north pole. There are places on earth (Isle of Skye, Scotland) where the composition of the mountains make a compass useless. Also, there is more than one way to travel to and determine when you are at the North Pole. You can use the sun, the stars, and several other navigational methods. Also, it’s been discovered from sea floor volcanic rock that the poles have swapped many times over in the course of the earth’s history. His “constant” wasn’t so constant nor was it an exclusive means to get to his destination.

Chris said...

I think that there are a lot of horrible metaphors out there. Still, while there are lots of ways to think about truth (perspectives), some must be closer than others. If there is such thing as an absolute truth - science posits it, I believe it - then at some point you really have to start wondering who is closer. You can't just say "we all are right" because it's just not possible! I think relativism has its usefulness, particularly with respect to religion: ideally, relativists listen to all viewpoints around them, something many religions (most, in fact) are known for not doing.

Religion must learn to listen to other viewpoints and glean the bits of truth from each one, but then move forward by discarding the useless bits. Paul does this in the NT many times (the statue to the unknown god is a fantastic example), and so have the greatest missionaries through history - they put their view in context of the other person's view. If we can learn to do this, we may have a chance of moving closer to harmony and truth - and maybe even God.