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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Well here's a can of worms

This was initially a reply to a comment that K. left on this post, but, go figure, a comment about religion and science got way too long for the comment section. So now it's a post. My apologies for the rambliness (yeah, it is too a word!). I'd say I'd work on it some more, but I probably won't :P

The God question. It's a tough one. One of my favorite television quotes ever was from Northern Exposure. I don't remember which episode it was, but the main character says something like this: "I admire atheists. It takes a lot of faith to believe that everything came from nothing."
That really struck me, the idea that atheists have faith. I think that's part of the problem - people tend to think of faith and religion as the same thing. They're not. And since it's your life's work, who better than you to know that?
I think, in fact, that you could easily make the argument that science is the new religion. (I'm sure someone much smarter than I actually has.) Religion started as a way to explain why things happened. People followed their religions blindly. People now follow science just as blindly.
blah, blah. I could ramble about faith, religion and science for hours. Personally, I am a practicing Christian. I am a creationist that believes in evolution. I think people use both religion and science as an argument a "stick to beat people with."
Finally, want/need proof that there is a God? The Saints won the Superbowl...

So, here is my comment turned post:

K., it is a tough one. I happen to think that we can't really know, which I why I choose the agnostic option :)

Now, before I go on this tangent, let me say first that I think it goes without saying that not all religion is followed blindly. Let me also say that, while not all religion is followed blindly, I think that a large majority of people do just about everything without the proper amount of reflection. Being religious, not being religious, and everything in between. That said, I'm just not sure what it would mean to follow science blindly. I think that being a layperson who is not a scientist but believes that science is pretty good at figuring things out when done carefully is different than following science blindly, and I think it is impossible to be a scientist and follow science blindly. I also think there is a difference in "thoughtlessly" adhering to religious principles and "thoughtlessly" adhering to scientific principles. If what you're doing in either case is giving someone else the responsibility for interpreting, you're probably doing so for different reasons, and I think those reasons are important, as are the levels of expertise of the people you hand over that responsibility to. More on that later.

To your point about faith: as I see it, faith is, in its simplest terms, belief that does not rest on logical support or proof. It's that lack of proof, supporting evidence, or even testability that leads one to refer to it as 'blind" (though I think that's often an unhelpful and unfair way to refer to it). One can have faith in religious matters (which is what the word is most often associated with) or in non-religious matters. So, you're right to say that they're not the same things.

It makes sense (to me, at least) that people tie them so closely together, since religion is the realm in which faith is most often discussed, and also because so many religious people use the words interchangeably. (Don't even get me started on how lose we are with the world "religious.") It also makes sense because faith is a necessary part of religion. Or perhaps I should say that in every religion I can think of off the top of my head, one has to have faith in *something,* whether it's an entity, or the efficacy of a procedure, or the desirability of a state.

Now, some would say that that's just the human condition, whether religious or not: there's just lots that we can't know for sure, s our lives are marked by the need for faith. It might be the human condition. I think it's certainly the religious condition.

As for your other point, I'd have to disagree with the idea that people follow science just as blindly as they follow religion. First, I'm not sure I'd call what people do to science "following." Science is a way of explaining why things happen, but it's a way of attempting to understand why things happen by observing, testing, identifying, describing. To say that you "follow" it is to imply that it's optional in a way that it's really now. Not, that's not to say that it's unchanging or infallible or complete, just that it's actually based on systematic observation of reality, which doesn't actually have to be subscribed to because it just happens.

Second, and I'm more sure about this than I am about that first point, all that observing and testing and identifying and describing and attempting to understand by the application of reasoned principles requires the sort of engagement with logic, proof, and evidence that is the opposite of blindness in the faith-related sense. Scientists can't follow science "blindly," because the only way to actually "do science" is to observe, to test, to adapt. And those of us who "follow" scientists (because they actually do have better access to the knowledge, having been trained to do the observation, testing, set) do so because they have greater expertise - because their vision is better trained, making them less blind. Now, it's true that I can't explain the intricacies of gravity to you, despite the fact that I "believe" in it. But I don't follow it blindly. I believe in the principles of reasoned exploration and questioning that led to the postulation of the theories, the testing, the observation, and the laws that are borne out by continued experience - when I drop things, they fall. When I jump, I come back down. And, if I look it up in the right places, I can read the research, and see the various bits evidence that have gone into the science.

And when something new presents itself in the line of scientific vision - new information, new interpretive tools, better understanding, etc - science cannot turn a blind eye and refuse to change. The science gets revised, which is to say that the truth changes - Homo sapiens and Neanderthals aren't directly related, and Pluto isn't a planet anymore.

Again, this is not to say that there is no place for faith, but to say that I don't actually think one can argue convincingly that the place for faith and the place for science are the same. And because I think faith is such an integral part of religion, I don't think the place for religion and science can be the same (just like, while I think we can learn something by discussing it in religious terms for a while, I don't really think we can call Democracy a religion in any honest way). Now, what I *do* think one can argue - and I think this is also part of your point - is that people are likely to get as fanatical and closed-minded in how they think about one as they are about the other. Because that has less to do with the thing itself and more to do with our tendency to look for sticks to beat each other with.

And I close as I began. I think that there is a lot more in the world than my mind is able to fully comprehend. If gravity can move the world the world in ways I don't fully grasp, why couldn't a divine being of some sort? I don't think it would look much like anything we've imagined, but if it cared at all about human affairs, I suspect it would be as happy about Ricky Gervais telling people to be nice even though there is no hell as about Stephen Colbert calling conservatives out for being bad Christians.

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eta: K. made an excellent reply to my reply (I ran it by her, to see what she thought), saying that when she'd equated religion and science, she'd had in mind the way that people now turn to science for an ultimate, unarguable answer (mechanics be damned - "a scientist somewhere has the answer about why something happens/ed or will have the answer one day") in the way that people once turned to religion ("God/Allah/whomever wills it!"). I think she's right on that for some people, and that it relates to the way that people are unreflective and always trying to pass off the responsibility of interpreting and thinking to someone else. But, I suspect that most of the most thoughtful of the religiously faithful and the most of the best of the scientifically minded (and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive) will tell you that there *are* no ultimate unarguable answers. Both gods and science are far too complex for that.

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