In my previous blog, I talked about the removal of evolution from Turkish high-schools. I specifically said I wouldn’t be touching the religious aspect of the debate, even though it was obviously pertinent. I always avoid talking about religion because I don’t want to discuss my own beliefs (for obvious reasons) yet it's one of my favourite topics to discuss. The interplay between Science, religion and philosophy is a nexus for humanity’s deepest and most profound questions, so it actually takes a lot of self-control to not talk about it more often.
However, I have finally decided to share some thoughts on the issue without getting personal. If I'm careful it should be possible to discuss the debate without giving away where I stand on it. Here is an illustration of what I’m doing...
So, is there a war between Science and religion?
Well, there is a conflict of ideology between religious and non-religious people. And there is a conflict between scientifically literate and scientifically illiterate people. But those two debates do not necessarily correlate. It isn’t as simple as “science = atheism” and “religious = anti-Science.” The real debate isn’t even about Science or religion at all. It’s about which philosophical stance you feel is appropriate.
Science in a nutshell
Science is wonderfully intricate and involved, but we can summarise it as follows: you find the truth by gathering evidence through experiment. It’s the idea that when we look at nature carefully, it’s possible to get an accurate picture of her.
How we specifically do that is where the Scientific method comes in and we have to talk about hypotheses, falsifiable predictions, data, repeatability, reproducibility, statistical analysis, peer review, rejection of ideas, theories etc...but the core idea is simple. Investigate the world and never go with feelings, intuitions or preferences.
It’s also worth qualifying that Science never proves anything with absolute conviction. Being 100% sure of something is the same as being 0% willing to accept you might be wrong. And, given humanity’s fallible nature, we prefer to have confidence rather than certainty.
So, how does this philosophy of finding evidence via experiment tie-in with other approaches? Well, I'm warning you, this is where I have to make things complicated.
Three Little Epistemologies
Science claims that if you investigate the world through experiment it will give you a picture which is reasonably trustworthy. So here's the question: is that the only way to find out what the world is like? There are many who would say yes; if you can’t answer a question through experimental investigation, you can’t answer it at all.
We call knowledge you gather from observation a posteriori. Empiricism is the philosophy that only a posteriori knowledge is trustworthy. If you can’t answer the question through observation, empiricists would say, the answer is unknowable. The most famous empiricists are probably David Hume and John Locke.
A different claim would be to say there is only a posteriori knowledge i.e. if you can’t discover something through Scientific means, it does not exist. This philosophical position is called Logical Positivism. However, there is a version of logical positivism called naturalism which is a much quicker word to type. So I’m going to treat them as if they mean the same thing. If you’re a philosophy student who’s just written a thesis on the difference between naturalism and logical positivism, then I cry your pardon. I know they aren’t quite synonymous, but this blog has the potential to get too mealy.
Both empiricists and naturalists believe in the observable world, but empiricists remain ignorant about non-empirical claims while naturalists rule them out entirely. Some famous naturalists included Voltaire, Maurice Schlick and occasionally Bertrand Russell (although Russell had a habit of hopping from philosophy to philosophy - he was pretty much everything at some point).
Then, there are a third group of people who accept Scientific knowledge but believe you can also know things from logical deduction i.e. you can learn things by thinking. For example, Aristotle argued that a thing cannot be itself and the contradiction of itself simultaneously. You can’t be a living chicken and a dead chicken at the same time. This is a fact about the world but we discovered it without doing any experiments to see if chicken/dead-chicken hybrids exist. We call knowledge like this – knowledge you get without having to leave your bedroom – a priori knowledge.
The philosophy that we should accept a priori knowledge as well as a posteriori knowledge is called rationalism. Almost all the classical Greek philosophers fell into this category, as well as some later ones like Leibniz and Descartes.
What about Religion?
Justice Potter Stewart, when asked to define something which isn’t appropriate to mention in a family-friendly blog, famously said “I know it when I see it”. It can be dangerous to assume your personal definition of a word is universal however, because not everybody interprets the world the same way. And typically the more widely used a word is the more fluid its meaning becomes.
Complex words are often easy to define because they’re rarely used. Take the word "deuteragonist". It means the secondary hero-characters in a story. For example: Mr. Potato Head and Rex in the Toy Story films, Hermione and Ron in the Harry Potter franchise or Morgan Freeman in every film he’s ever been in.
By contrast, it’s the everyday words like “intelligence”, “happiness” or “offensive”, which are hard to pin down. So I’m going to briefly lay down what I mean when I use words like religion and God. These definitions are far from universal (precisely my point – they no longer have universal meaning) but they will serve for this essay.
Religion – First, a religion is a group of people who hold some common belief in the supernatural. By supernatural I’m not referring to things like spooky vampires and ghosts, I’m referring to a class of things not bound by the apparent laws of nature. Things above/beyond/transcendent to this logically bound Universe we find ourselves in, and therefore non-observable. Any belief which claims there is more to the Universe than brute matter following quantifiable laws is a supernatural one.
Second, this group of people must be organised. There are over 4,000 religions in the world and something distinguishes them from a person who believes the ghost of their uncle is haunting the basement. The person who believes in the uncle-ghost has a supernatural belief, but it is not part of a religion. Religions typically feature things such as rituals, meeting places and elders with great knowledge of the supernatural belief.
This is still too vague a definition though. There are many people who go to haunted houses, séances and ghost-hunts together. They believe in the supernatural and have organisation. So I think one more thing religions have is some code of behaviour derived from the supernatural belief. My definition of religion, although not something I would require others to use, is therefore a group of people who:
1) Hold some supernatural belief in common.
2) Have a degree of organization or structure.
3) Adopt a behavioural code deriving from the belief.
God – While most religions, I think, fit the above category, not all believe in God. Taoism and some schools of Buddhism do not have a God concept, but they still believe in things like the soul, reincarnation etc.
Furthermore, those religions which do believe in a God tend to mean lots of different things by it. The only thing common to all definitions of God is that God is a being with significant supernatural power. Attributes such as infinite knowledge, being the maker of the Universe, being all loving etc. are only specific to certain religions and therefore doesn't need to be part of the definition.
Deism – Belief in a certain type of God. This is a God which created the Universe but then ceased interactions. This is an impersonal God, an indifferent and elegant agent of creation, perhaps better described as a supernatural force than a supernatural being.
Theism – Belief in a God who has personal characteristics and chooses to interact with his/her creation at certain times. This God usually has thoughts and desires for how the Universe ought to be. Sometimes this God is seen as having emotions like love. This God may listen to prayers, interact with the world and will sometimes violate natural laws to work miracles. This is the belief that you can see the hand of God in our everyday lives.
Three Becomes Seven
And now the next layer of complexity comes in. Those three philosophies subdivide into people who believe in supernatural things and those who do not. Take the God concept for example. A naturalist would reject the existence of any kind of God (theistic or deistic) because they reject the possibility of anything transcendent to the empirical/natural world. They would argue there cannot be evidence for a supernatural claim.
If the stars suddenly rearrange to form the words “Hello there, I am God and I exist” naturalists would refuse to accept this as evidence for a God, they would simply say it was evidence of stars forming a pattern.
Empiricists might be a little different. An empiricist will commit to a belief if there is empirical evidence for it, but they are still open to the notion of supernatural things. To take the stars example, an Empiricist may interpret such a phenomenon as empirical evidence for God i.e. it is natural and observable, but strongly implies the existence of something transcending it.
Then there are the rationalists. Some of whom will believe there are logical arguments for the existence of a supernatural e.g. the ontological argument for the existence of God, and some who find such arguments unconvincing and logically flawed.
Let's take the God idea and consider what happens to our three philosophies. Initially they subdivide into five, and then they subdivide again into seven (theistic and deistic). Kind of like symmetry breaking in a field theory, a simple picture becomes more intricate when we factor in extra information.
I’ve summarised these positions in a nifty diagram and tried to give the name of the philosophical position they describe, although some of them don’t have names (well, they probably do, just not names I’m aware of...any help?).
You can see why this causes problems. Seven philosophical positions all disagreeing with each other and this is for just one supernatural claim. Religions such as Taoism would fall into one of the atheist categories, but they are still religions. We would get a different grid entirely if we then talked about a supernatural claim like the soul, reincarnation, the afterlife etc.
And even looking at this one supernatural claim leads to confusions. Two negative atheists could completely disagree on whether you can prove the existence of God. An empiricist who doesn't believe in God will still disagree with an empiricist who does. And so on.
The argument we have to have is much more nuanced than “Science vs religion” or “atheism vs religion”. There are multiple factions arguing about what we can know, how we can know it and whether it applies to God or not.
And there is still another philosophy to consider. An eighth way, which has its own ideas about how you can learn the truth. The most popular of all, hands down: fideism or, to give it its more common name, faith.
But You Gotta Have Faith
There is one thing all seven philosophies above agree on: you need evidence to believe something. Empiricists and ratioanlists will disagree about whether you can include philosophical evidence, but they still agree you can't just believe whatever you want. Faith, on the other hand, says you can.
Faith, celebrated in all cultures across our planet, is the idea that you don’t need evidence to believe something. That you are allowed to believe a claim based on feeling. You can believe something simply because you believe it's true.
We might refer to a person as a member of the Catholic Faith but this is an incorrect use of the word. A person is a member of the Catholic Religion. Faith is describing an attitude one has about one’s beliefs, not the beliefs themselves. It is essentially a meta-belief.
Faith is usually defined in one of three ways. It is either “complete trust and belief in something”, “belief based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof” or “belief in something in the absence of evidence”. NB: having complete trust in something can only be achieved without evidence, since evidence can only make you confident, never certain.
It’s hard to talk about this concept critically however, because everyone is taught that faith is a good thing from an early age. When I was younger I remember attending a church which was fond of Matthew 17:20 "Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." And there are no movies where the protagonist succeeds because “she had doubt in herself”. Faith is always praised, but I do think this presents many traps.
For one thing, faith provides no way of deciding which beliefs are true and which are false. People used to have faith in Zeus and Thor. They told stories about them, were willing to die for them and “just knew in their heart” they were real.
But if we decide it’s ok to take things on faith, we essentially give permission for anyone to believe anything. I could claim to believe in faires, boogeymen, pixies, leprechauns etc. etc. I could claim a spirit told me to commit murders...and I could defend it by saying I had faith I was doing the right thing. Who are you to tell me otherwise?
The second problem with faith is that it shows dangerous overconfidence in our own ability. Humans are fallible and prone to making mistakes so it's wise to remember that everything you know, someone else might know it better. It’s not very flattering to our egos, but the likelihood is that we’re not the cleverest person in the world and there’s a very good chance we’re wrong about a great many things.
The moment you decide you’re certain about something you’re essentially saying you can’t be persuaded you’re wrong and that’s dangerous. You should always be prepared to admit fault. Faith opposes this humility. Faith says you can believe something without needing a good reason. Just "feeling it's true" is sufficient. You also don’t have to listen to counter-evidence because you didn’t have any evidence to begin with.
The third problem with faith is that it is not falsifiable and if you can’t subject a claim to testing, you can never check if it’s correct. After all, if you claimed to believe in something on faith I could very easily say I believed you were wrong on faith. Why would my faith that you're wrong be any less convincing than your faith you are right.
This is what Science has a problem with. Science (and the seven philosophies which endorse it) stands for the idea that any belief ought to be based on evidence. It might not necessarily be empirical but simply believing something “because you feel it’s true” is not a legitimate reason. Believing in God is fine, being a member of a religion is fine, but Science would say you ought to have some reason for it, other than a feeling.
So Are There Religious Scientists?
Yes, absolutely. It's like asking whether there are right-wing Scientists or vegetarian Scientists. Passionate atheist Scientists sometimes give the impression that Scientific belief automatically rejects religion, but I don’t think that’s true at all.
There are many well-respected Scientists, both living and dead, who held some supernatural belief. And I'm not just referring to those who lived at a time when religion was the norm, so we'll never know how they really felt (e.g. Isaac Newton). I'm talking about people in communities which accepted atheism, and still became believers. Being religious and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive. What all religious Scientists have in common however is that none of them believe on faith. They are empiricists or rationalists who have reasons for believing a supernatural claim.
If you do have a religious idea that's not a problem for the Scientific community provided you are prepared to abandon it if some test shows it to be incorrect. Any idea, including your cherished ones, ought to be investigated thoroughly. If it stands up to scrutiny, then you go on believing it! However, if you find a particular idea in your religion conflicts with the evidence then you have two options before you.
1) Abandon that idea.
2) Change it to match the evidence.
Taking option 1 doesn't mean you have to give up your religion and taking option 2 doesn't mean you are ignoring the evidence. But I'm afraid those are the only options you have. If you come across evidence which contradicts a deeply held belief, you aren't allowed to reject it or bury your head. If you take the oath of a Scientist, you have to face the facts however inconvenient they may be. No claim can be above investigation and no claim can be based on faith. It's not an easy path to take and I warn you, if you are religious and considering taking Science seriously, you may have some difficult choices and sleepless nights ahead of you. But truth is always worth discomfort.
Ultimately, Science has no quarrel with religion. Individual Scientists might (naturalist ones) but Science is simply trying to investigate the natural world. It says very little about whether there is another one.
I love science, let me tell you why.