He also believes that modern science makes religion obsolete. Primitive men invented religion to explain, for instance, why the sun goes around the sky. The people who still cling to those old stories are just not smart enough for the complexity of science's explanations, or not tough-minded enough to accept the finality of death.
This essay is an all-out attack on that point of view, just to get it off my chest.
It's very easy to say that religion and science both share the same goal, which is to discover the underlying principles that govern the universe. Easy, but wrong. In fact, that isn't what either one is about.
Science is about the question: "Under these circumstances, what will happen?" You can imagine, for instance, that Physicists find the Grand Unified Theory that comprises quantum mechanics and general relativity, all the fundamental forces, all the elementary particles, and the price of tea in China. One big equation, the governing law of the universe, correctly predicts it all. The job of science is now done.
But science cannot help if you ask "Why that particular law? Why not some other law? Or no law at all, and no matter and energy, and no universe?" Or worse yet, "Why cause and effect? Why not randomness and chaos?" You can't do an experiment that will help answer that kind of question, so it is not in the domain of science: the best science can say is, "this equation works."
Religion is about the question: "How does my little life fit into the bigger picture?" Sure, we're all kind of curious about the sun going around the sky. But what we really want to knowwhat the Greeks learned from their pantheon, the Buddhists from their cycle of death and rebirth, and the Christians from their Bibleis, do I have some kind of larger purpose? I only have 50 or so years left: what is the best thing I can do with that time?
Put aside, just for a moment, the question of whether you are happy with any particular religion's response. My point here is that science will never offer any answer to that question. Science is about what "is," not about what "should be." If you believe, for instance, that "We are here to help other people," you cannot do an experiment to support your hypothesis.
Even the fundamental force driving pure sciencethe idea that "knowing the truth is better than ignorance"cannot be defended in any scientific way. Scientists accept that premise in the only way they can, which is (...pause for overwhelming moment of irony...) as an article of faith.
So the point is, science cannot make religion obsolete any more than a really good Chemistry class can make your piano lessons obsolete. They exist for different purposes, and neither can possibly do what the other does.
That's really enough to make my point, but because I'm getting all this off my chest, I want to attack the two fundamental pillars of science's claim to truth: pure logic, and empiricism.
Intuition is more important than reason
The blueprint for reason in the West is Euclid's Geometry. You start with a few "postulates" or "axioms": statements of fact so self-evident that anyone must agree to them. From there you proceed rigorously, with no big leaps or fuzzy steps, to prove everything you want to know.
The sheer intellectual beauty of Euclid's vision has captivated thinkers for millenia. Spinoza tried to explain God by using Euclid's method. Russell and Whitehead tried to systematize all of mathematics in a Euclidean format, until Gödel proved that the goal was unachievable. (Click here if you want to read my explanation of Gödel's proof. It does not require much mathematical background, but it is not fast or easy reading.)
But even without Gödel, I think any child can see the limitations of the Euclidean approach. Where do the postulates come from? And the steps that we use to move from postulates to theorems: how do we justify those steps? How do we know that "A=A" or that "If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal"? It boils down to...intuition. We believe in the fundamental rules of logic because we cannot help believing them.
And where does that intuition come from? True believers will argue that the basic rules of logic have been hard-wired into our brain, not because these rules are true, but because they were useful to our ancestors. We are sophisticated computers, programmed with some starting assumptions that helped us survive, and our programming does not allow us to imagine those assumptions being false. But at the same time, the same people will faithfully maintain that those assumptions really are definitely, unquestionably trueindeed, that they are the yardstick by which all truth must be measured.
There's an odd paradox there, to be sure, but that isn't my core point. If you believe that "A=A" is absolutely true, not because you can defend it logically, but because you simply know it to be true, then that hopefully leaves you open to the possibility that you can know other truths in the same way. Ultimately, as Socrates said, the only way to be sure of anything is to realize that you've known it, at a deep level, all along. That is the path of the mystic.
It's easy to forget, in a world of Higgs Bosons and genetic splicing, that all science is based on things that we humans can actually see and hear. But it really does all come down to that: one of the core assumptions of science is that "our senses give us accurate information about the universe."
Of course, we know in fact that our senses lie to us all the time. So that leaves us assuming that "our senses give us accurate information about the universe, except when they don't." And we also assume that the accurate information happens more often than the inaccurate. Why assume that? Well...just because, that's why.
How could it be possible that your senses are completely unreliable? The classic answer is that you might be dreaming. Another answer that many people have experienced is drug-related states of illusion and sensory confusion. But modern science fiction gives us any number of other ways to imagine your senses lying to you. We might be in some sort of sensory illusion tank ("The Matrix," the "Star Trek" holodeck, any number of Twilight Zone episodes). Your memories themselves might be falsified ("Blade Runner" replicants, "Total Recall").
This is such a prevalent theme in science fiction precisely because, deep down, we all know it might be true. Maybe, just maybe, the words you see in front of your eyesthese words, right here, right noware not really there. The light traveling from those words to your eyes, and the eyes that see them, are not there either. You believe your consciousness to be an emergent property of your physical brain, but actually your whole head is just another illusion in your consciousness. (Again, if that seems far-fetched, remember that that is exactly the case when you are dreaming!)
So what do you do with all that? You think about it, you discuss it as a far-out possibility at 3:00 in the morning, and then you shake your head and move on. It isn't productive to worry about such things. So, you wind up doing exactly what people sneer at religious people for doing: you adopt a particular set of beliefs ("the world I perceive is the real world" and many others), not because you have any logically compelling reason to believe those things, but because you really want to believe those things. Because those beliefs make life simple enough to live your life constructively.
So now I need to reassure you, as I did at the beginning of the essay, that I do not believe the Bible. It is a wonderful source of inspiration and wisdom, but I haven't seen any particular reason to believe that it is factually true. I'm not trying to convert anyone to be a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Moony, or Hare Krishna.
But I am trying to convert you to a point of view, which can be expressed in two basic propositions.
From my perspective, the fundamentalist Christian ("All my answers are in the Bible") and the fundamentalist scientific sort ("There are no answers accept the ones we create for ourselves and choose to believe") look a lot alike. They are both grabbing at glib generalizations to avoid facing the hard questions.
The Richard Dawkins-types of the world are writing book after book to explain why the first set of glib generalizations doesn't work. So this essay is my little attempt to explain why the second set is just as inadequate. Once you can't fall to either side, you are stuck walking the razor's edge. That, of course, is where the real work begins.
When you make the claim that one thing (science) is or is not superior to another (religion), you're assuming a definition of "superior." In this essay, it seems to mean "truer" or "more logical." Since science and religion both ultimately rest on unprovable axioms, your claim of the non-superiority of science follows logically.
But your essay title suggests a more general conclusionthat there is no basis for preferring science over religionwhich in turn implies that your definition of superiority is the only one. Not so. Here are three possible definitions.
One belief system is superior to another to the extent that:
There's another point of ambiguity in the essay, namely, the question of what you mean by "religion." If you mean a codified set of beliefs held by many people ("organized religion"), then at least Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism would rate as inferior to science using both Criteria 2 and 3. As for more generalized beliefs in the existence of some higher being or consciousness or something undefinable that transcends the power of human minds to comprehend, they may be no worse than science by Criteria 1 and 3, but they still fail the testable hypothesis criterion.
There are a lot of ways I could quibble here. I think religion makes good, testable hypotheses all the time about human behavior and its consequences. I think that, in the name of religion, people do as much secular good (helping the poor) as they do harm (crusades).
But at the larger level, I think we agree. I'm happily willing to give science the "doesn't cause wars and oppression" prize and the "testable hypotheses" prize. I also award it the "neat gadgets that help us live longer and better" prize, which I think is the primary reason that science dominates so much intellectual thought in the last few centuries. But I do not cede to science the "monopoly on truth" prize.
Your last question, about how I'm defining religion, may be best answered by the essay itself, at the risk of making the whole argument circular. Religion is an attempt to find certain, absolute answers about our role in the universe. There are some religious paths that make more sense to me than others, but anyone who takes any religion seriously for this reason (as opposed to, for instance, to advance a political agenda) is more on "my side" than people who simply blow off those questions entirely.
This was really interesting...but I found your dad's comment: "Its adherents do not deliberately cause harm to other living creatures in the name of the belief system." Shocking in regard to science....IMHO, science has deliberately caused incredible harm to all kinds of living creatures in the name of its belief system. I'm not a member of PETA or anything, but let's just start with the animals slaughtered in the name of science...then we move right along to various scientific testing on humans including everything from Hitler's atrocities to our own government infecting people with syphilis to find a cure....I'm not saying that some of the harm caused didn't eventually lead to benefits which we enjoy...but clearly a lot of harm has been done in the name of advancing science.
But I do agree that organized religion has a pretty poor track record as well...problem is, too often organized religion has absolutely nothing to do with God and a relationship with God and everything to do with political power, greed, corruption, etcwhich are present both in organized religion and even amongst those with no religion at all. To me, true faith meets each of the criterion Richard set forth, but is unfortunately so rare that few have really witnessed it!
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