Religion and Science

Richard Dawkins, who nominally started this whole conversation, and whose picture is here to allow me to post this to Pinterest.

This is a collection of excerpts from a conversation I took part in with some other uncorrelated Mormons on Facebook  (some with 5+ scores on the Dawkins Scale), in response to an article pointing out how Richard Dawkins had “admitted” that he wasn’t totally certain of the nonexistence of God (which was determined by several in the thread to be neither news nor as significant as the person posting the link seemed to think).

My part began quite innocently, in response to the person who originated the thread saying “I think it is foolish to believe that we can see, or have access, to everything that is.”  I said:

It’s also unscientific. Science is limited to things we can see or have access to. It has nothing of value to say about anything beyond that, [n]or can it predict how long or far we will be able to mine the pile of things we can see or have access to to bring us further understanding or technical progress.

Which got a somewhat miffed response, and then a more careful reading by the same person who found that we didn’t disagree after all.  I agreed that we agreed, and then added this, which is where I first broach the subject of a religious belief in Science:

Nothing in my comment was a slap at science nor scientists — it was, if anything, a slap at those who have minimal understanding of how science works or even what it has said, but have a unquestioning faith that it is a cornucopia which will never cease to deliver more and better understandings and technologies that will give us cooler toys and better lives. Those who do not practice or understand science, but who do worship it, in other words. Most particularly, those who think that their un-named god in Science can beat up all of those other named gods, and that that makes them better and smarter than all of those deluded fools who believe in the (inferior and false) other gods.

This comes in response to a statement that the God of Science is growing in power and scope, while the God(s) of Religion are withdrawing and weakening:

See, I don’t think that fits. Just as an example — antibiotics are running out of effectiveness faster than they can be developed, and the cost of developing new ones is much, much higher than previous generations has been. We’ve been able to knock the microbes back quite a lot for the last couple of centuries, and have relied on that being an always-available solution, but the microbes have adapted to our strategies in a major way. As have disease-spreading organisms, like rats, which, in some areas, are no longer vulnerable to the available pesticides (England in particular).

Our global economy has been based in fossil fuels which are becoming increasingly expensive to reach and transport, in terms of money, pollution and political consequences, and there is no apparent replacement with a comparable ease of use at a comparable price.

Our agriculture system is stretched about as far as it will go. There aren’t going to be any more Green Revolutions. The signs are that the systems we’ve used to mass produce food have brought some major problems with them — planting food crops in massive monocultural spaces which make it very easy for parasitic species (including those darn microbes) that prey on them to grow explosively. The pesticides we’ve used to knock them back have been decreasingly effective (yet again), and the newer, systemic ones seem to have combined with the large-scale trucking of bee colonies for regional pollination to produce Colony Collapse Syndrome.
And the radio-frequency band-width we’ve built our global communication system on is running out. The growth of demand on that bandwidth has been explosive, with no apparent plateauing in sight, while the growth of supply has been much, much slower.

So, continued scientific progress will not be able to happen at the escalating rate it has been, at the same time that the vehicles we used to build the technologically dependent First World lifestyle are proving to be unsustainable. Not without magic-wand like breakthroughs in hot-fusion technology.

I don’t want to sound Malthusian here. I’m not predicting that the sky is falling anytime soon. But I don’t think we have appreciated how very much work and investment it has taken to build the systems we take for granted — food, transportation, energy, communication, sanitation — and I’m not sure we’ll be able to allocate that much work and investment much longer. And that would just be to tread water.

Science is not a cornucopia. It’s not magical, and it’s not divine. And the people who have been more faith-based in the expectations they’ve placed upon it, without a commensurate willingness to learn about it so they can use it more efficiently and effectively are going to see that faith tested in the next generation or two. Or so it seems to me.

This brought a response from another individual to the effect that he was more hopeful and optimistic about the future than my previous excerpt sounded, and I responded with this:
But the assumption that progress can be made exactly where we need it iin the time that we need it is not scientific. That it has happened in the past is no guarantee that it will do so in the future. Your optimism is based in faith about the future. I share that faith. But I identify it as faith.

(And using the word “myth” to describe agricultural monocultures is a significant reach. Diversity of strains isn’t exactly the same thing as diversity of species. Particularly when genetically modified strains haven’t produced quite the panacea they were claimed to be. )

Those who actually understand science can understand that the low-hanging fruit we’ve been using have been just that — they aren’t where I identify the problem. The problem comes with those who think water comes from a pipe, food comes from a store, electricity comes from a switch, the internet comes from the wall, gas comes from a pump, and flushing the toilet, washing dirt down the drain, and taking out the garbage makes all of our problems go away. It’s not the priests and prophets of Science I’m concerned about as much as it is their parishioners who don’t really get how it works, but they’re sure it’ll keep on working forever. Somehow.

To which someone responded to the effect that only science had any hope of solving the problems I was talking about, and I responded with this:
More statements of faith and doubt. Your professions of both belie the process your faith is based in. Science can not address the potential for supernatural processes to address or solve those problems. Such things are outside its domain. The problem is not nearly as much as that science is incapable of dealing with supernatural matters as it is its believers desire to pretend that it says that nothing supernatural exists. Using science to discuss anything supernatural is akin to speaking of time before the Big Bang, or of what exists beyond the edge of the limited universe.
This brought a challenge that I was using an “unnatural definition” of “supernatural,” which I answered thusly:
Wasn’t expecting the definition of “supernatural” to be tricky. So I googled once and found a reasonable definition at the top of the screen that I can go with:

Definition of SUPERNATURAL
: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially
: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit)

( for those who want to follow along at home)

I’d go with definition 1 at this point.

People are free to believe or doubt as they wish. But belief and doubt are not tools of science. They are expressions of faith (positively or negatively stated). Science is about repeatable natural phenomena, and is a methodology for determining (or eliminating proposed) causes, as well as the accumulated knowledge produced by that methodology. I truly don’t understand why this seems to be (pun accepted) rocket science. I learned all of this in high school. That I do not worship Science in a faith-based fashion doesn’t mean I know nothing of it, nor that I don’t value it.

(For those wanting to verify my definition of “Science,” I would suggest the definition found in the American Heritage Science Dictionary:

The investigation of natural phenomena through observation, theoretical explanation, and experimentation, or the knowledge produced by such investigation.

? Science makes use of the scientific method, which includes the careful observation of natural phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis, the conducting of one or more experiments to test the hypothesis, and the drawing of a conclusion that confirms or modifies the hypothesis.

This brought two related challenges, to the effect that my definition of supernatural made all supernatural claims equally valid, and I said this:
Only if you presuppose that “natural” or “scientific” are synonymous with “valid.” And assuming that which you’re trying to prove to be true is entirely circular logic. Bad juju in the world of science. That science can not distinguish between God, invisible unicorns or the FSM is not a statement about God, invisible unicorns or the FSM — it’s a statement about science and its limitations. Come on, man! If you’re going to be in the game, get in the game!
(I decided to inject a bit of humor into the conversation now, in the form of some bantering back.  But the point in that was serious — I was getting challenges based in fallacious reasoning and against claims I was not making.)  At the same point, I got another challenge that I was talking about a supernatural “realm” which was totally separate from the natural “realm.”  I said this:
Now you’re trying to bring in concepts not at play, and that’s a discussion-foul. Neither I nor the dictionaries I’ve cited bring in the notion of “separate realms” (total or otherwise). Let’s keep it on the page, please.
At this point, I think we were all a little tired.  My next challenges came that things supernatural were “by definition” entirely separate, and that “any good philosopher of science or religion” would agree with that.  It also went on to postulate that I might be defining science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA)” as described by Gould (guessing that’s Stephen J., but it was a new term to me, and I thought it sounded cool).  I responded with:
And now you’re going to bring in overgeneralization and appeals to unnamed authority? Am I the only person here who has studied Logic? I feel like Paul on Mars Hill!

Let’s try this again, with a Venn Diagram (just in case, google it if need be). What I’m describing, consistent with the definitions I’ve stated, is a larger set which can be labeled (for lack of a better term — and you’re welcome to offer one if you wish) “Real Things.” Within that, there is a subset that can be labeled “Natural Things,” with the portion of things outside the subset, but remaining inside the superset as “Supernatural Things.”

Now, the claim of the Church of Science (not Scientology, not Christian Science) is that the subset and the superset are logically equivalent, and that “Supernatural Things” is a null set. For yet another time, I am fine with people believing whatever they wish, but that remains a belief that goes beyond what the discipline of Science claims.

I have, to this point, made no claims about Religion (presumably writ large). I’m afraid you’re leaving the page, again. I am not arguing for any fight between Science and Religion, nor for totally separate domains of thought. What I have spoken of is the distinction between the discipline of Science and the matter of faith in Science which goes beyond that discipline. I do see similarities between that faith-based approach and the faith-based approaches found in Religion, and have pointed to some of them. The responses have, with a few exceptions [been] similar to the response[s] a heretic gets when challenging orthodoxy.

Now, since you’ve (presumably) hung in long enough to get to this point in the conversation (and apologies to those who have — I had no intention of this going this long), I will go beyond what I’ve said before to address how I see the relationship between Science and Religion (both writ large).

I see them both as methodologies and the bodies of knowledge (information) generated through them. Science is a study of natural and repeatable phenomena, by means of the Scientific Method, which has more to do with disproving hypotheses than it does in proving them. It is skeptical in nature, and responds only to evidence gathered as carefully as possible — as better evidence becomes available, previously held hypotheses can be disproven, and newer hypotheses that take into account this new evidence need to be developed.

Religion has to do with the world of faith and belief — of meaning and purpose. It can be applied to both natural and supernatural events — both repeatable and unique. Its claims about the natural world may be disproven by scientific inquiry. It can be theistic or atheistic in nature, and it can be wrong and self-contradicting. Determining self-contradiction can be done rationally, proving a non-natural belief right or wrong is quite difficult. “Proof” in a religious setting has to be based on a set of assumptions which can not be proven, and the soundness of the conclusions of that proof will be dependent on the truthiness of those assumptions.

Religion and Science, when based on Truth, do not disagree. Apparent disagreement between them is a sign that one or both has an incomplete understanding of the matter at hand. (I think Brigham said something very similar, and it probably didn’t originate with him).

And then I was out of time for the conversation, as was one of my primary correspondents, so we wrapped it up there.

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