Friday, October 28, 2005

Faith and Science

I posted this elsewhere today, but it got pretty long and this may be a better place for it. Plus, the response to the animatronic chimp bust was distinctly underwhelming.

For the most part, scientists don't think they have all the answers. They do have faith in the scientific method, but the point of that method is to keep asking questions. Religious people do think that their faith provides all the answers they need - and they're right, in the proper sphere. If you want to know how to live well with others and participate in a community of faith, religion does have all the answers - but the purpose of religion is to help us understand existence in an anthropocentric way: what is our place in the world, and how should we live? It's not a good choice for explaining how, physically, things come to be and go away; it is a good choice for understanding what that means for the people of that faith. Another way of expressing this is to say that religion is concerned with ontology, the fundamental question of being, in a quasi-philosophical way; while science is concerned with process, how things happen. Science will never be able to answer why we're here at all; religion addresses precisely this question.

And but so we have to ask ourselves: why do so many people not believe in scientific explanations for the process of life? A lot of people, for example, reject the notion that the Big Bang explains the way the universe came into being. This is taken by some as proof that Americans are rejecting science in favor of religion. They may be right, but I have some thoughts about this that I think we should sort of keep in mind.

First, I think the Big Bang example is kind of dumb, because my impression has been for some time that there's a lack of consensus about it among scientists. And it doesn't explain where all the stuff comes from. I don't think that the Big Bang is incompatible with belief in a deity because the Big Bang isn't really addressing the problem of Creation; it's more looking at process.

Second, I think that a lot of people aren't really geared up for, or interested in, scientific process. They just want to know How Things Are so they can stop thinking about it and get on with their lives. From their perspective, it just doesn't matter much whether Darwin or William Jennings Bryan was right - they're still going to be engineers or cops or shop foremen or whatever. But if you ask them what they think, they're going to tell you something strange, because really they don't think about it. They accept a story and move on to what's important to them.

Third, I think that most people have a kind of blinkered view of "science" - partly because, as I said, they just don't have the time, energy, or interest to engage with the scientific method, and partly because we do a poor job of teaching kids what science is. We present it as though science has all the answers to things. That's not really true. I understand how, for the purposes of a high-school chemistry class, we just want kids to understand the periodic table, how it works, how basic atomic theory explains the structure of things, and so on. And that's all verifiable by experiment. But it teaches people to think of science as, in some ways, another kind of "religion" in that it Explains How Stuff Happens and it's not really important how or why it does so in the way it does. But really, the how and why are the point, not the periodic table and learning not to mix acids and bases indiscriminately.

Fourth, I think the whole Fundamentalist/Literalist reading of the Bible it totally bats. Almost nothing in the Bible, IMO, should be read literally - it's virtually all symbology, and metaphor, and allegory. Because we're no longer able to access the thinking of the people who wrote the Bible, it's very hard for us to understand it. It appears that religious education is as bad as scientific education in the article of teaching people how to think about the subject matter of their field. I don't mean to say that you need to read the Bible in some freaky-deaky postmodernist deconstructionist way; but if you don't understand that it's not about literal fact I don't think you get it at all.

So, fifth, I think that the combination of (1) people misunderstanding what science is really about, and how that is fundamentally different from religion or practical knowledge proper, and (2) people just not wanting to think about stuff that doesn't actually matter to them in their daily lives; and (3) poor instruction about how science works and what it does; and (4) poor instruction about what religion is and specifically how to read sacred texts results in (5) a false dichotomy between faith and science that causes people to reject a scientific explanation of how the world works despite ample evidence that the scientific explanation (though subject to revision) is correct AND ALSO causes other people to underestimate or reject religion entirely because they misunderstand the point of it.

In my view, science and religion aren't even addressing the same issues, and we'd all be a lot better off if more people understood that faith and science aren't "competing narratives" of how the world Really Is. They're explaining different things.


Anonymous said...


Hooray (again) for The Batman! Perfectly said. Only a small quibble... I do think most 'scientists' agree that the "big bang" is really what must've happened. One component of the arguement supporting the big bang is that everywhere we look heat (energy in all its forms actualy) keeps dissipating (spreading out, getting farther apart) all the time. The universe is expanding. Did I say everywhere? I mean everywhere. It is just that it is so painful and, admitedly, IMPOSSIBLE to concieve of in anyway other than the most abstract and absurd manner. For us, meaning "we who have not access to the hubble telescope, powerful observatories, equipment for doing numerous sub-atomic particle experiments and similar technological acoutrements.

There was a recent Colbert Report where he interviewed a physic's heavyweight and he said something along the lines of "there are some people who LIKE (meaning actively pursue) thinking about things that make their brains hurt." The big bang is exactly that sort of thing. Imagining all matter and energy condensed into something much smaller than the head of a pin should be painful and make one feel rather foolish and scared shitless. But it is also, for many, just a fun topic to jabber with friends about over pints at the local pub.

HOWEVER, the fact that life keeps on organizing itself into these endlessly fascinating dances and perfectly gorgeous systems is a good counterweight to the overwhelming burden of the second law of thermodynamics. It has taken me a decade plus change, but I'm finally coming to terms with the brutal oppressor that the second law of thermodynamics can be... Not for the faint of heart. Caveat Emptor!

-Nature Boy, aka Hyperbacon

A. said...

Yeah, what I meant to say, but didn't, was that there are disagreements about the consequences of the Big Bang - does the universe expand infinitely, or will it eventually collapse back on itself? That sort of thing.

twins15 said...

you don't say!