Musing about Science and Religion

Words like “science” and “religion” do not have widely agreed meanings and connotations. What we think the words mean and how important they are to each one of us reflect different cultures, histories and differing relative dependence on the understanding of the two streams of thought and practice. This means that different supporters of different aspects of science and/or religion find it hard to communicate their respective views to those who come with a different background.

One common misunderstanding is to assume that there are no common features in the styles of thought required by both types of discipline.

To take one obvious similarity is in the notion of testing faith. An important part of experimental method is taking an aspect of the underlying knowledge, and testing it against what can be demonstrated by observation or by manipulating one or more variables. This is not unique to science.

For example one dimension of Christian faith is to set up assumptions about the age and provenance of key documents. By analysing the accuracy of translation, the age of the document (eg carbon dating) and comparing it with related documents eg looking for closely related stories from earlier documents from different civilizations, we can start to make reasonable assumptions about the originality and unique nature of a religious story. Using such techniques, religious scholars have discovered stories and religious instructions in the Bible which have antecedents in Babylonian and Egyptian literature.

Specifically a number of the 613 commandments in the Old Testament have parallel commandments in the Code of Hammurabi while the story of Moses being discovered in the Bulrushes by the Pharoh’s daughter is virtually identical to the earlier story of Sargon being discovered in the bulrushes. Using a scientific approach has also helped scholars discover signs of subsequent editing. For example an earlier version of the Gospel of Mark (identified by the style and shape of the Greek letters) was shown to end before Ch 16 which was apparently added more than a century later.

Other ways of testing faith by the application of science include checking out the historical results of prophecies and testing the effectiveness of healing prayer.

It is frequently asserted that science and religion have different methodology in that science usually focuses on reason, empiricism and evidence, while those following a faith are supposed to emphasise revelation, the identification of sacred articles of faith and metaphysical assumptions.

It should also be acknowledged that many scientists hold to established theory if they focus mainly on empiricism and in practice are often more concerned with the application of tested theory to standard measurement eg the techniques of dating a fossil or using known chemical pathways to make an anti-cancer drug. In addition there are whole vistas of science where assumptions are largely metaphysical eg speculation about what goes on in a black hole or a multiverse.

The second common misunderstanding about both science and religion is that it is assumed that the leaders of the discipline – ie the great theologians and scientists responsible for the breakthroughs are typical of those who see themselves as followers of the respective studies.

If we start with typical scientists, it is comparatively few who can take the credit for the spectacular advances. The rest are accepting commonly accepted theories worked out by others and in some cases holding to old theories tenaciously in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Since many scientists are involved in applying others’ theories to their measurements, and since many followers of religion are following faith structures shaped by others, the perception that typically scientists discover new knowledge is probably no more likely to be true than the claim that the religious derive their faith from a personal journey of discovery from the scriptures in their original languages.

When it gets down to congregation members or members of the general public, there are unresolved disputes between assertions from the followers some forms of religion on one hand and on the other, those who claim scientific knowledge yet who are similarly yet understandably poorly informed. A general school education is rarely good enough for the high school leaver to have more than a rudimentary understanding of current scientific knowledge which seriously handicaps those seeking to defend a poorly comprehended form of evolution against an onslaught from a Bible literalist who wants to defend a 6000 year old Earth and Universe implied by a literal reading of the book of Genesis – yet with an equal ignorance of techniques for working out the age of the Universe, dating fossils or tracing genetic histories.

It is nevertheless interesting to note that an advanced academic qualification is often shown to be inversely associated with a fundamentalist unquestioning faith. For example when different faiths are surveyed for an association with level of education those like the Unitarians who are often associated with a questioning approach to religion have a much higher percentage of members who have completed a college education when compared with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who score low in the number of graduates.

An added complication is that because since scientists like all members of the community have their thinking shaped by their personal understandings and background experiences, it is common for scientists to confess a personal religion and increasingly common for the followers of a religion to be familiar with advances in science. It is by no means unusual for scientists who are making the most useful advances in science to be comfortable with acknowledging their religious beliefs. Sometimes otherwise qualified scientists appear strangely naive in their superstition and beliefs. On one hand we think of Newton whose rigorous study of the laws of motion making huge progress in physical science while at the same time writing mysterious and now acknowledged meaningless tomes on astrology and alchemy.

Conversely, it is often the top religious scholars who appear familiar with advances in science. Certainly the considerable proportion of Nobel Prize winning scientists who are listed as having Christian beliefs should cause us to doubt the notion that religion has nothing to do with academic rigour, application of logic empiricism and evidence.

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2 Responses to Musing about Science and Religion

  1. dave says:

    I can offer my own musing about science and religion for you to consider.

    Science is an organized investigation of how something in nature works, whether physics (natural processes), biology (life), or even sociology (how society works). The scientific method directs the investigation to follow development of a hypothesis, testing of that hypothesis, and then validation or rejection of the hypothesis based on the test results. Either conclusion helps human knowledge, with confirming some valid directions of further research or indicating invalid directions to be noted in further research.

    Religion is more of an intuitive understanding of one’s place in the universe. Every normal human being thinks, with the brain doing its pattern recognition learning. By recognizing what is being learned by scientists, one’s world view can be adapted with new knowledge.

    You mentioned Isaac Newton, who had an interesting view of religion as a scientist. He had developed a method of calculating planetary motions, which are typically elliptical rather than round. This was a significant contribution to science. However he was unable to find a way to calculate the motions of comets which can move on parabolic or hyperbolic paths. He reached the conclusion that because these paths could not be calculated then this is an unknown in science. Therefore he assumed there was some other force at work, which in his view must be God.

    Later scientists were able to build onto Newton’s work, to be able to calculate the paths for comets. In other words, for what had been unknown at one time, future scientists were able to advance human knowledge, so those things eventually became known. Just as the ancients did not know about the role of plate tectonics for earthquakes or the role of frontal boundaries for weather but now more of these natural events are becoming better understood, over time human knowledge continues to expand.

    My personal opinion is that within humanity, there is a pivotal decision point when the person takes one path or another. At this pivot, one realizes that not everything about nature is known right now. Along one path the person recognizes that nature is chaotic but those surprises are ‘natural’ – that nature can be spontaneous. Human knowledge is still incomplete but in the future that which is unknown might become known. Along the alternate path, the person recognizes there are things in nature that cannot be explained, and so those events must be driven by something outside of nature, and this something is called God (in the case of a monotheistic religion) or this something is given the name of a particular god (in the case of a polytheistic religion).

    There is a wide variety of religions in the world, including those with no god(s) like several Eastern religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. There are also religions with one or more gods. These range from those with a single god like Islam or Judaism, or others with multiple gods. (I was brought up Catholic so I was taught as a child there is one God made up of 3 entities (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) – and that is just the way it is.)

    That there are Nobel Prize winning scientists with Christian beliefs or not is just a reflection of the diversity of humanity. Some people have the capacity to accept nature is chaotic and there is no external god(s) at work while others find comfort in feeling there is an external god at work to explain that which cannot be explained right now by human knowledge.

    It is my opinion there is not a right or wrong path at this god or no god decision point. The decision depends on one’s personality, upbringing, and culture. Each person takes one or the other path. I expect for many the path taken is usually quite dependent on the parental influence and/or the religious indoctrination while a child, before an objective consideration of the world is possible with sufficient maturity in intellectual and emotional development. However as an adult each person is typically able to reconsider their unique path in life, perhaps multiple times, and so sometimes people abandon their childhood religion, to be replaced by another that makes more sense based on their accumulated life experience. While I feel there is not a right or wrong path, I feel it is absolutely critical for everyone on either path to recognize a huge portion of humanity will be on the other path – and that either path must be accepted to all and tolerated by all, not a reason for abuse or suppression (as has been historical practice).

    Faith is the commitment to a belief even though it cannot be proven. Faith is often applied to a religion, especially when the religion is based on ancient scriptures written for an ancient culture probably unlike the culture of the believer and yet the believer accepts those ancient scriptures apply today. There is no practical way to prove the interpretation of an ancient scripture still applies hundreds or thousands of years later; it is just a matter of faith.

    Faith can also be present among scientists. For example, gravity remains unexplained. Gravity is a ‘mutual force at a distance’ where the force involved depends on the distance between the bodies and their masses. Magnetic and electromagnetic fields are another type of force at a distance.

    Western science is dominated by linear thinking, where one action results in a reaction. Gravity is a ‘mutually arising’ force that exists based on the conditions (distance and individual masses) at the time. Gravity is not really an action/reaction event. The Eastern religions are better equipped to handle this concept as they are more nature oriented. Nature is always simultaneous and spontaneous. Linear thinking expects nature to be sequential (hence the ‘first cause’ argument).

    Faith has arisen in science for another reason – the influence of money. Before recent years, much scientific research was funded by universities, government agencies, and private foundations, often for the sake of the research itself. Now certain small groups become critical to the management of this funding for research, and so knowledge monopolies arise (a term from a book by Henry Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine). Knowledge monopolies police their discipline (through intimidation and through control of funding), to keep researchers in line with the wishes of those responsible, and so dogmatism results.

    Dogma is similar to faith in that something is assumed to be true by the claim of an authority figure, rather than as a result scientific investigations – so dogma is often unproven but is just assumed to be proven. There is religious dogma and there is scientific dogma – where an authority figure decides what is considered truth.

    The two obvious cases of scientific dogma: big bang cosmology and catastrophic anthropogenic global warning (CAGW). The big bang theory arose when gravity was assumed the only important force in the universe and large red shifts were assumed to be the actual indication of distance. Halton Arp disproved this red shift theory many years ago when large red shift objects were found to be in front of or next to low red shift objects – so the red shift is not an accurate indication of distance. Red shift appears to reduce over time; most of a red shift is not related to an object’s distance. Most (perhaps 97%) of the universe is plasma so electromagnetic forces are frequently in play with all these charged particles, and these forces can be much stronger than gravity. Because the red shift explanation is wrong (but is dogma) and because gravity is considered the only significant force not electromagnetic forces (more dogma) theorists have had to conjure up more dogma to explain surprising observations with new concepts like black holes, dark matter, dark energy, parallel universes, all of which cannot be proven. Often plasma behaviors can better explain those observations, and plasma experiments scale well from the micro to the macro scales, so tests in a laboratory often have relevance to stellar and galactic scales.

    The knowledge monopoly controlling the big bang dogma does not tolerate dissent. For example Halton Arp after disproving the red shift theory was subsequently denied access to telescopes – to suppress such conflicting research results. Any new research is either in line with the dogma to get funding or the researcher is unlikely to get any funds.

    CAGW is also dogma. Though scientific investigations have revealed most carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, not from mankind, and that carbon dioxide levels usually follow ocean temperatures in time, so a rise in ocean temp will result some years later in higher carbon dioxide levels. This is because colder oceans absorb more carbon dioxide while warmer oceans release more of that CO2 in solution. Over human history and even before that, scientists have found natural variations in temperature and in carbon dioxide levels. For example every 2000 years or so there has been another peak in temperatures (now, medieval times when Greenland was colonized, Roman times, the time of the mythical Garden of Eden). However, the current dogma is that carbon dioxide levels are primarily driven by human generated sources and that temperature levels in the last 30 years are primarily driven by that CO2. Further global climate models, that have been shown unable to replicate any natural climate conditions, have been developed to show this relationship of CO2 to temp (dogma) such that future temperatures will be much higher than now because CO2 will be higher than today. All of this has been disproven by the recent plateau in the world’s calculated temperature even though CO2 have continued their increase.

    The knowledge monopoly controlling the CAGW dogma does not tolerate dissent (as clearly demonstrated by the ClimateGate emails). The maintenance of this CAGW alarmism is critical for the political goals, in addition to sustaining the dogma. The solution to the perceived problem of CAGW is a global government to manage everyone’s CO2 contributions, and so many governments and popular media have been brought into conformance to help push this alarmism, with the anticipated eventual result of a global government (which would be unaccountable to most of humanity).

  2. peddiebill says:

    I enjoy your comments Dave. They encourage thought!

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