Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Science and Religion

There has been a flurry of blog posts lately about the conflict between science and religion. Thanks to the indisputable success of science, the Christian bloggers argue that there's no conflict. In fact, they argue that Christianity was the source of science, and they quote two authors in particular, Rodney Stark and Stanley Jaki, to back up their claims. If these authors are to be believed, the Dark Ages are a myth, and we wouldn't even have science if it weren't for Christianity.

Fortunately, Richard Carrier sets us straight with a detailed and authoritative explanation of how Christianity impeded science. I highly recommend Carrier's wonderful debunking of some truly devious revisionisms. (HT: Thinking Christian)

Still, Carrier doesn't argue that Christianity is inherently anti-science. Rather, he argues that it impeded science because it established an authoritarian power structure that put a damper on non-conformist thought (non-conformism being a vital ingredient of scientific thinking).

Revelation and Authority
Suppose you make a claim that's not verifiable by logical proof or by empirical testing. Such a claim would be revealed knowledge, and by definition, it isn't publicly testable. This means that the status of revealed knowledge is established by authority.

Don't secularists accept knowledge by authority all the time? Yes, but usually when that authority is itself testable. We take a doctor's diagnosis based on her authority, but we would be loathe to do so if our doctor had had no training, no testing, and if the syllabus she followed had not been validated by medical testing.

Religious authorities are quite different. There's no way to test that religious authorities know what they are talking about. Obviously, we can check that a lowly priest is teaching what the Catholic church says he ought to, but how do we know that the Catholic church leadership knows what it's talking about? By going to the authority of their teachers? The buck of religious knowledge stops at some guy who has no evidence for his claims, and no way for the public to verify what he says is true. If religious authorities were doctors, they would be the worst kind of fraudulent quacks.

How do religions get started?
A prophet comes along and says something like "The highest good is to worship the creator." How do we know he's right? We can't because his claim is not testable. So, if the prophet gains a major following, he does so for reasons other than verification of his claims. Maybe he is followed because he's a charismatic leader or a seasoned warrior, and while these may be rational reasons to make alliances with his clan, these skills aren't reasons to believe his claims. That is, he has authority in verifiable areas (e.g., sword combat), but no authority that will justify his claims.

Nevertheless, people flock to his religion simply because other people are already following it. This is natural for humans. Most of us don't pay much attention to the medical certification process, but we figure that everyone else goes to see doctors, so there must be something worthwhile to medical treatment. Of course, in the case of medicine, we have established formal oversight to ensure that doctors aren't quacks, and to ensure that the medical system isn't just founded on herd mentality. However, in the case of religion, there's no oversight because there's no possible mechanism for oversight.

Eventually and unreasonably, the prophet's followers establish a religious institution with political and economic powers.

One of the conflicts with science arises when the prophet makes claims that he thinks are unverifiable, but which later turn out to be scientific (and false). I can imagine that in the old days, this sort of thing happened all the time. "This volcano is a god, and if you place a piece of pumice at your door, your house will be safe!" shouted the prophet. As the homes of the villagers burned down, leaving nothing but ash and lumps of blackened pumice where the doorsteps used to be, the volcano god and his prophet went up in smoke.

Sometimes, though, the prophet's claims remained untestable for a long period of time. For example, the people who wrote the Old Testament probably thought that geocentrism was either obvious or unverifiable. When scientists showed up hundreds of years later and said the Earth wasn't at the center of the universe, they were effectively challenging the authority which established the religion, and religious authority had to fight back.

Thus, religion tends to damp scientific investigation because religion is inherently authoritarian. When state and religion are mixed, non-conformist ideas (like scientific ones) get clobbered, even if those ideas are verified. Galileo's case clearly demonstrates this phenomenon. Though many Christians will protest that Galileo's imprisonment was primarily political, the church still forced Galileo to recant his (true) heliocentric ideas, and declared heliocentrism a heresy.

However, religion still conflicts with science, even when it remains separate from the state. Imagine that the church in Galileo's time was not also the state. What would the church have been teaching? It would have taught its followers to reject Galileo's science in favor of church authority. This is anti-scientific in the sense that it aims to discredit science. This isn't just a thought experiment. Modern churches convince their flocks that the established science of Darwinian evolution is a myth. That's anti-science, my friends.

Always in Conflict?
I spent a while trying to figure out a way to have a science-friendly religion, but I wasn't particularly successful.

We could require state secularism, i.e., strict separation of church and state, and we could require that the religion not make claims that are verifiable. That way, no scientific conclusion will ever impact religious views, and the religious authorities will have no reason to spread dissent against scientific methods or conclusions. This certainly helps, but I think that it doesn't go far enough.

A scientific mind will not easily accept propositions that are established solely on the basis of authority. For example, what is a scientist to make of the claim that "God is good despite the fact that there's nothing we could ever observe that would change our minds"? To a scientist, this is a thoroughly unreasonable proposition. The scientific mind is filled with doubt, not faith. Yet religious faith trains minds to accept claims based on authority and without evidence.

If claims based solely on authority without evidence are useless when verification is available, why should such claims suddenly become effective just because we can no longer verify that they are wrong?


Peg said...

Stephen Hawkins admits in his books that their is a divine creator (God) and uh, isn't he considered one of the greatest physicist to date? Credible to the scientific world?

And what about plank time? Have you been able to explain this? I know many other intelligent, well known physicists haven't?!

Hi ya Doc, just passing through from a long absence! Good to see you are still opened to new information and debates! :-0}

Good to see you, sir, and have a Merry Christmas and a fantastic New Year!!

Peg :-0}

PS I have been asked to teach Physics next year to eleventh grade...kind of makes you shudder, doesn't it! ;-0} ;-0} :-0}

Robin Zebrowski said...

Stephen Hawking definitely does not admit there is a god. He argues publically that there is simply no room for a creator. He makes reference to things like "the mind of god" in the same way that I say "oh god" in exasperation. It's poetic in his case (and laziness in mine!) :)

Doctor Logic said...

Hello, Peg.

Where to begin? :)

1) As Robin says, Hawking doesn't believe in God, at least not the way you think he does.

2) I don't generally believe in things just because there is another smart person who does.

3) As far as we know today, we cannot probe physics beyond the Planck scale. This tends to set limits on what we can know, although we are still a long way from the Planck scale as far as limitations go.

However, I don't see the relevance of this. Just because I can't see into black holes doesn't mean there must be, say, lions inside black holes. I can't see what's in a black hole, so I don't know what's inside a black hole. It doesn't matter whether smart people say there's a lion in every black hole. If they give me no reason to believe they can see inside black holes, they're just guessing like me.

4) God doesn't explain anything, you know that, Peg!?! For God to explain the world, we would have to know that, given God, we should expect to see the world we see. However, you only know that God wants to make a world like ours by looking at our world and working backwards. That's circular logic. You can only escape circularity by making predictions about the world, and there are no predictions where God is concerned.

I have been asked to teach Physics next year to eleventh grade...kind of makes you shudder, doesn't it!

Hmmm. I've heard of Physics for Poets, but not physics by poets! However, I'm sure you'll do a marvelous job if you stick to classical physics. :)



Robin Zebrowski said...

Sorry, I'm back!

Just wanted to say that whenever I teach the science v. religion debate, my main argument for why the two are so different is actually a case of dogma. Religion relies on dogma. It is necessary that there be teachings that aren't constantly being overturned, or there's really no religion there to speak of. (This is one of my issues with the new breed of Christians who try to pick and choose what they like from the bible and from the religion without recognizing that revising the dogma is against the rules of the dogma!) Science, on the other hand, necessarily requires revision. So religion can't work with revision and science can't work without it.

Now I forget what part of your post spurred this on to refer back to it. 3am blog commenting is never a good idea.

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Robin,

You are right, as usual. :)