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Monday, January 21, 2008

The Future of Religion (Part 2)

[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]

Before we continue to discuss science fiction and religion, we must reflect briefly on religion and science. It is an oft-repeated canard that science and religion are different but equally valid ways of understanding the world.

No. Nonsense. And it's still nonsense no matter how often it's repeated by politicians, scientists, or religious adherents. "Science" is an organized body of knowledge, developed through the systematic application of the scientific method -- ultimately, it comes down to the systematic testing of hypotheses. Claims which cannot be tested are outside the purview of science.

For example, the presence of a supernatural being who cannot be observed through natural processes (allow me the redundancy for purposes of clarity) -- this is not a testable claim. One can neither prove nor disprove through experiment or systematic observation this possibility. This claim therefore belongs to the realm of religion, and not science.

However, I am not aware of any religion which makes no claims that can be tested. In fact, religions typically thrive on the assumption that the supernatural interferes with the natural. Intercessory prayer is a common practice among Christian religions, for example. Now this is testable: can intercessory prayer affect the outcome of certain events? (In fact, it has been tested, repeatedly, but discussing the validity of these experiments is a topic that belongs on another blog.)

Science and religion do overlap. However, they can still co-exist peacefully. Religion could welcome science - perhaps not all religions, or all interpretations of any given religion, but in principle... why not? The converse is also possible: science could thrive on religion (though not dogma). Scientists are seekers of truth -- is that not a phrase that could apply to many religious adherents?

The conflict arises because science accepts nothing - nothing - on faith. Everything must be tested, and when scientific knowledge begins to fail the best and most devious tests (note the plural), then that knowledge must be discarded. Evidence that conflicts with prevailing belief is examined, weighed, and -- if found valid -- gladly welcomed. To put it another way, scientific belief is based on evidence. Many religions (I do not say all) rely on dogma and faith; conflicting evidence is anathema.

Witness the fundamentalist Christian movement in the United States. A belief that the Bible must be literal and accurate results in a jarring conflict with scientific knowledge. The latest battlefield is the teaching of evolution (or lack thereof) in public schools, as well as a watering-down of science standards in order to permit the teaching of fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It's a very odd thing -- apparently many individuals are threatened by the fact of overwhelming evidence in favour of the validity of evolution by natural selection.

Some links might be of interest:


  • The evidence to support evolution by natural selection is summarized here. You can download the pdf with a few clicks, or refer to an executive summary. (With thanks to PZ Myers of Pharyngula [see below] for the link to the NAS summary.)


  • Perhaps you'll recall the Dover trial? The latest, of course, is the creationist push in Texas. Code words to notice: "teach the controversy" and "just a theory" all signal a fundamentalist push against science. This push is part of a very organized movement, often led by the deceitful Discovery Institute. Coming soon to a state near you! (Up here in Canada, the anti-science movement is far less strong at the moment, but I fear that it will change.)


  • Are you interested in the scientific details of the creationism vs science debate? Try TalkOrigins. Panda's Thumb keeps track of the latest events in the creation vs science conflict. Pharyngula also provides current events, but readers may find the strident anti-religious tone to be offensive. In contrast, a haven of ignorance: Uncommon Descent. Or, for something truly frightening, the latest in creation "research".


  • And there's the current US presidential race (sweet Mabel, will it never end?!), in which several of the initial Republican candidates expressly denied a belief in evolution. From Reason: "A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence."


The conflict between science and religion -- science and any cherished belief of human culture -- is hardly new. I have offered this crude summary of current events in the United States in order to provoke some thought about the future. Where will science and religion go in the future? Will the conflict continue? Will one "side" win?

I personally find it doubtful that religion will ever fade by the wayside. I find it impossible that the entire human species will ever agree on any one set of beliefs. Shouldn't science fiction reflect the religious and scientific turmoil we see today?

Comments are invited - how will the conflict between science and religion play out in the future, and how should science fiction address this issue? If you imagine a world in the future - aliens and spaceships and the whole lot - where does religion fit into your vision?

Next week I'll try musing about why science fiction so rarely addresses human religion.

6 comments:

Billy Goat said...

Great article, Mister Troll! I am impressed by the number of informative links you have provided, as well!

aspiemom said...

Wow-this was a great post!

My only comment would be that I think the reason that authors don't touch it is that it's tough. It would take a science fiction piece up a notch. And would an publisher go for it?

And would a reading audience read it?

It's a thinking man's question for a thinking man's science fiction work.

Is there one out there like that?

Mister Troll said...

Religion may be tough to deal with. Or maybe not. There's a lot of "normal" literature which has religion sort of in the background, but not really such a major part of the novel. It's just acknowledged that people are religious. And sci-fi rarely has the same.

Part 3 of this series should be up in a few days. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

All in all, a very good commentary on science and religion. Just a quibble or two: First, science is also based on faith. There are certain axiomatic beliefs that underlie science and cannot be tested. For instance, the belief that all that we observe is objectively there and not an illusion. And quantum physic says that just the act of observing something changes it, which gives some scientists the willies.

Science also relies on faith in other scientists. That is, scientists trust that whoever they are basing their work on did their work properly and recorded the results accurately. They also have to trust that nobody committed fraud as in the Piltown Man or in the recent Korean scandal over cloning. When that faith is betrayed, years of work must be rethought or abandoned.

Secondly, there are different kinds of sciences, depending how hard or soft they are. Hard sciences tend to be math based, like physics. They also focus on phenomena that are measurable, and either frequent or repeatable under lab conditions.

But there are sciences (like archeology) that aren't really about experimentation but are mainly about ordering, categorizing, correlating things and making interpretations, which can and are debated by other scientists. Finally, you get to very soft sciences like psychology and sociology, in which findings are quite open to interpretation (recently, it was found that the kids of families that eat dinner together do a lot better. Does eating together make a family less disfunctional or do more functional families tend to eat together?)

The sciences are excellent at learning about certain aspects of the universe. But for those aspects that are not measurable, irrepeatable, rare and widely open to interpretation...not so much.

Mister Troll said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by!

I will offer a counter-quibble. First, indeed science is based on some axioms, particularly one regarding an objective reality. It's an axiom. Call it faith if you like. But... so? I fail to see how it is in any way relevant to any conversation regarding religion and science.

Until the very end of your post, I'm afraid I must most strongly disagree.

a) Quantum physics is one of the foundations of modern physics. In many ways it's counter-intuitive, but that is not in any way related to the notion of an objective reality. (Someday I may post more extensively on this topic...) The process of observation is certainly poorly understood at the current time, but in many ways the idea that "observing something changes it" is incredibly obvious. Quick example: if you want to "observe" an electron, then you'll need at least to send in a photon, more-or-less bounce it off the electron, and record the photon in an appropriate device. The photon will transfer some of its momentum to the electron, which means you won't know any more quite where the electron is. Change-by-observation is inescapable in quantum theory, but is not a particularly remarkable property.

b) Faith in other scientists... yes, and no. First, I trust no one in my own research. And if I trust them, it's only temporary. Your point is well-taken only if some particular piece of knowledge is obtained through one experiment. This is unusual and highly improper. Errors and frauds certainly occur (I suspect more than we'd like to admit), but won't affect scientific knowledge that has been developed conservatively.

If one had based an entire theory on a single fossil, well, yeah, that is a theory based largely on faith. Multiple independent lines of evidence -- that's what you need to do good science. In that case, you aren't putting your faith in one scientist, or one result, or one scientific theory.

Furthermore, scientific knowledge is always revised upon further evidence. Who exposed the frauds that you mentioned? Scientists.

c) You specifically mentioned archaeology. Like any other science, archaeology is based on the testing of hypotheses. (This is sometimes called the New Archaeology, which was developed in the 60s -- I'd offer a link, but wikipedia fails to do the topic justice). If one isn't fundamentally generating or testing hypotheses, then I agree: it's not science. But archaeology is science.

d) Your example from psychology refers to cause-and-effect. The phrase I use when teaching this is "Correlation does not imply causation." This is all-too-rarely realized by the media, and very very sadly overlooked in a lot of scientific work. Finding correlations is quite scientific (it can -- or should -- be about testing hypotheses), but the conclusions reached are not warranted by the data.

Scientists make mistakes. Sometimes it's at the level of individuals, or groups, and sometimes the entire discipline can screw it up. Scientific knowledge is not the same as true knowledge.

d) Your final point I must agree with. Phenomena that cannot be repeated are almost certainly beyond the pale of science.

Could one imagine natural phenomena that are not repeatable? Suppose the laws of physics "hiccuped" - gravity goes wonky for thirty seconds, but only once in the entire lifetime of the universe. Could scientists figure out why? Beats the heck out of me.

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