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Is Science a Religion?

by Bill Meacham on January 16th, 2012

I was asked recently whether science is a religion. My answer: No, not at all, but some people treat it as if it were.

It is easy to contrast science and religion as two fundamentally different and incompatible ways of acquiring beliefs about the world. Science is based on empirical evidence. Religion, many say, is based on faith, which is belief without evidence. And empirical evidence is better than faith, so science is better than religion. In its extreme form, this account says that science is the only reliable way to knowledge, and religion is total bunk. End of story, and a fat fickle finger of fate to those deluded souls who still believe in the latter.

That, however, is rather an oversimplification. In fact there are elements of faith in science and elements of empirical inquiry in religion, or at least religion at its best. (One of the problems in the science-vs-religion controversy is that there are many forms of religion and some of them are undoubtedly full of ignorance and superstition. But some aren’t. So I’ll talk about religion at its worst and religion at its best, recognizing that most religions fall somewhere in between.)

There are a couple of ways to acquire knowledge about the world. The most fundamental, which we all do from infancy onward, is to notice regularities in our experience of the world, devise strategies for dealing with them, and hone and revise our strategies as we get more experience. Babies and small children are mighty learners, with huge curiosity and love of finding out new things and mastering new skills. If we are lucky, we retain that inquisitiveness throughout life. If not, if we succumb to the distresses of the adults around us and the rigidity of the schools we are forced to attend, we gradually lose our zest for learning.

This is not to say that paying attention to what adults tell us is bad. In fact, it is not only a necessary component of learning, but the other primary way we find out things. We listen to what others tell us about what they have learned from their experience of the world, and thereby avoid having to go through a lot of those experiences ourselves. Without culture, without shared learning, we would hardly be human.

And then we test what others have told us against our own experience, which is why paying attention to our experience is primary and listening to others is secondary, although certainly a very close second.

So here is the fundamental difference between science and religion at its worst: Science is a systematic way of checking what people say about reality. Religion at its worst is systematically believing others without checking. And the claim of the pro-science folks, of which I am one, is that the former is a far more reliable way of acquiring true beliefs than the latter.

The word “science” can mean two things: a method for acquiring knowledge and the sum of the knowledge thus acquired. I am talking about the first meaning, the scientific method, which consists of five steps:(1)

  1. Observe and describe some phenomenon or group of phenomena of interest.
  2. Formulate a hypothesis to explain the phenomena.
  3. Make predictions based on that hypothesis. You can predict observation of other phenomena or the quantitative results of experiments to be performed.
  4. Perform experimental tests of the predictions. Ideally, get several independent experimenters to perform the experiments. Document both the procedure and the results so others can replicate them.
  5. Come to some conclusion about the hypothesis. If the experiments come out as predicted, they confirm (but do not fully prove) the hypothesis. If the experiments fail to come out as predicted, they disprove the hypothesis.

You don’t have to be a scientist in a laboratory to do this. The scientific method is just a formalized approach to everyday problem solving. For instance:

  1. Phenomenon of interest: the car won’t start.
  2. Hypothesis: It is out of gas.
  3. Prediction: If I put gas in it, it will start.
  4. Experiment: Put gas in it and try to start it.
  5. Conclusion: If it starts, the hypothesis was correct and the problem is solved. if not, the hypothesis was wrong, and I need to try something else.

Carefully elaborate that procedure, put in stringent safeguards to isolate the variables so you are sure that you are measuring just what you want, and you have the scientific method. The strength of this approach is that it minimizes the influence of bias or prejudice. By getting others to replicate the experiments and document their results the process weeds out mistaken observations, overly-hasty conclusions, biased interpretations and the like. The result is a model or representation of the world that is reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary. In other words, it results in our best attempt at knowledge of the world, always recognizing that future findings might alter the model.

In the scientific method, what we take to be true is always provisional, subject to change based on further observation. Of course, some aspects of our knowledge have been confirmed so much that it would take quite a lot to dislodge them. But the point is that science does not give us theoretical certainty, only the practical certainty that comes from basing our actions on what we have found out and having our actions be successful in the world. And that practical certainty has given us defense against disease, a secure supply of food, roads, bridges, electricity, indoor plumbing, the Internet and all the other technological marvels that we enjoy today.

It is all based on public verifiability, on repeatable observation of facts that any competent observer can see. But what happens when the phenomena to be investigated are private, not public? What happens, to take an extreme case, when you see a burning bush and hear a voice that nobody else hears, and that voice tells you to do something well outside your comfort zone? I have addressed this question before. Given a single numinous experience of this kind, there is no way to tell whether it is truthful or delusional. But given more than one of them, or given reports of others about similar experiences, or – most importantly – given your response to such an experience and the results of that response, you have some basis for belief.

In other words, religion at its best bears some resemblance to science. The phenomena it concerns are not public in the same way that the subject matter of the physical sciences is. But they are subject to verification. There exist, for instance, quite detailed sets of instructions for meditative practices that produce altered experiential states. They are reliable, having been replicated many times over the centuries, and if you do the practices you too will experience those states. The instructions carry with them conceptual frameworks for interpreting and understanding what you experience, including recommendations for how to conduct your life. If you live your life as recommended, you will experience the benefits, which typically include more peace, harmony and happiness than before.

You can think of spiritual practice as a sort of experiment. You have to do the experiment to get the results, just as you do in the physical sciences. Unlike the physical sciences, the results are largely private, not public; but they are not unverifiable. You can talk to others about them. And some of the results  – increased compassion and generosity, decreased anger and harshness toward others, for instance – are indeed observable by others. The best religious teachers encourage a scientific attitude: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense,” says the Buddha.(2)

That’s religion at its best. What about science at its worst? Just as many in the pro-science camp find fault with religion, many religionists find fault with science. Science, they fear, leaves out all the important things in life: meaning, value, personal freedom and responsibility, connection with a transcendent reality. They think science denigrates profound sources of truth, sources on which they have staked their lives. Hence the question that prompted this essay. They think science is just another form of religion, antithetical to their own.

Science itself is not religion, it’s a method of investigation, but some people do make a religion out of it. We can call that religion “scientism” rather than science. Scientism asserts that public knowledge is the only real knowledge; that physical matter is all that exists; that consciousness is at best an epiphenomenon, along for the ride so to speak, but without causal efficacy; that belief in God, spirits or anything that goes beyond the physical is sheer delusion. People who espouse scientism (perhaps we could call them “scientismists” to distinguish them from true scientists) take as the ultimate and only truth a narrow view of the scientific method and a subset of the findings of science. In this they are indeed religious; they espouse their view of the world with the same dogmatism and fervor as the worst of the religionists.

What those who make a religion out of science don’t seem to understand is that the scientific method itself is based on some assumptions that are not, strictly speaking, demonstrated by the method: that there is an objective reality; that it is ordered in a rational and intelligible way; that it is describable by immutable mathematical laws, laws that are not going to change arbitrarily with the passage of time or in different regions of space; and that these laws are discoverable by systematic observation and experimentation. And science – meaning both the scientific method and the results of that method so far – fails to explain why these things are so. Science cannot tell us where the mathematical laws come from, nor why they apply as they do. Science is based on faith in an orderly universe. So far that faith has panned out, and we have no reason to disbelieve it; but faith it is, nevertheless.

Uncritical faith in anything is unworthy of a true human being, whether that be revealed religion or the findings of science. Religious believers would do well to understand and appreciate what science is really about: “The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know.”(3) And those who make a religion out of science would do well to have some humility and realize that they are not so different from those to whom they think they are superior.

————-

Notes

(1) Wolfs, Frank L. H, “Appendix E: Introduction to the Scientific Method.” On-line publication, URL = http://teacher.pas.rochester.edu/phy_labs/appendixe/appendixe.html as of 22 November 2011. See also Science Made Simple, Inc., “Understanding and using
The Scientific Method.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/scientific_method.html as of 22 November 2011.

(2) Buddhist-Tourism.Com, “Buddha Quotes.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.buddhist-tourism.com/buddhism/buddha-quotes.html as of 7 January 2012.

(3) Pirsig, Robert M., _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_ as quoted in Railsback, Bruce, “Some Definitions of Science.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/1122sciencedefns.html as of 22 November 2011.

References

Davies, Paul. “Taking Science on Faith.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24davies.html as of 7 January 2012.

Overby, Dennis. “Laws of Nature, Source Unknown.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/18/science/18law.html as of 7 January 2012.

Wikipedia. “Science.” On-line publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science as of 22 November 2011.

From → Philosophy

10 Comments
  1. Stephen Fretwell permalink

    If “religiously” means doing something with a habitual and usually mindless regularity, then a religion might well be defined as what is done religiously. Especially as applied to actions that deal with unseen parts of the world. Most especially as applied to living beings, called “spiritual,” that may be themselves invisible, while inhabiting such invisible parts of the world.

    The earliest definition of faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Very close to a broad definition of applied and basic science. Like scientific Bayesian plausibility, faith can be small or great, grows with successfully “stepping out,” (confirming experiments), and addresses the unreachable goal of fully knowing God (Truth.)

    Atheists have adopted a mindset that eliminates a mentally superior life form from earth, Also because most people still believe in such lifeforms, atheists become the smartest people on earth. So, if they are right, they are the smartest lifeforms on earth. Hmmmm.

    True religion, defined in scriptures, limits itself to charity and self-correction and improvement. True science limits itself to strict adherence to philosophically-based methods. (Which was, and still ought to be, why scientists are trained as Ph.D.s). Both are sorely burdened with hypocrites and phonies.

  2. Katy permalink

    Good one, Dad! Thanks for the exploration. I’ve encountered a few “scientismists” whose ideas are in direct conflict with my own experience, so that is where the question came from.

  3. steve permalink

    Well done and thought provoking, as usual.

    steve

  4. Parmenides permalink

    One minor suggested edit: “of which I am one” should be “(and I am one of them)” or at least, “of whom I am one”.

    A major complaint: meditation is NOT religion, at least to the extent that it provides instructions with verifiable results. For you to call it “religion at its best” is thus just plain wrong. The use of meditation in conjunction with religion is a very interesting phenomenon, and I don’t blame you for not trying to write about the relationship between faith and meditation, as it is obviously extremely complex. But what you wrote about it is, in my opinion, not correct.

    A minor complaint: the alleged “faith in an orderly universe” is just part of the scientific hypothesis. A good scientist would be open to a refutation of that hypothesis. I don’t think it’s fair to call that “faith”. It’s entirely different from the belief that “the Bible is the Word of God”, and I can give you the reason why it’s entirely different: A scientist will say, well, it does appear that the universe is orderly, but maybe at the deepest level it will turn out not to be. Whereas a good Christian will brook NO POSSIBILITY that the Bible is only a human document.

    • Meditation is indeed not coextensive with or identical to religion, but most of the meditative practices come from a religious tradition, or a mystical current within a religion. So perhaps I am being a little loose here, but I think not too far off the mark.

      Regarding orderliness of the universe, how would you test the hypothesis scientifically? Of course every successful experiment confirms it, but if your experiment disconfirms your prediction, you don’t just chalk it up to disorderliness of the universe. Instead you look for a different way of describing or explaining or quantifying the phenomena so that they end up being orderly after all. Sure, theoretically scientists might say that the universe could turn out not to be orderly, but in practice they don’t go there. They assume orderliness; it’s a fundamental presupposition. So scientists may be a bit more open to questioning their faith than fundamentalist Christians, perhaps, but I still maintain that it’s faith. (And, by the way, there is a range of opinion among Christians about the extent to which the Bible is only a human document. Some say it is the divinely-revealed Word of God, King James locutions and all. Others say it is obviously written by humans with varying degrees of integrity, as revealed by textual analysis.)

  5. I liked this article very much. I wanted to add from my own experience that a lot of science is paid for and is shoddy at best to promote a product, and nowhere is this more rampant than in medicine and especially in psychiatry.

    Margarine was said to be good for you for years until the truth came out, coconut oil is said to be really bad for you until the truth comes out, antidepressants are proclaimed safe and effective until the truth comes out. Vioxx is declared safe until the truth comes out.

    Many of the foods we can purchase at the store are banned in Europe and unwanted in other countries. The FDA is absolutely not a friend of the people and allows all sorts of crap in the country and calls it science and pretends to be scientific.

    I firmly believe in the scientific method, but these days if some new thing comes out spread amongst the media in a PR like campaign then I instinctively know it’s some sort of lie to make money or reduce personal freedoms, and that is sad and harmful.

    In summary what passes for science today, especially science that is used to approve or sell products, in many respects is like a religion because no one is fact-checking the science and everyone is swallowing it whole on faith that the science has been honestly done. But I know from documents recovered during litigation discovery that the manufacturer(s) knew all along their product was dangerous and lied and promoted it to people for profit anyways and settled for a fraction of their profits. They all know they will not be banned by the US government because they are too big.

  6. Brian permalink

    Nice blog post – religion and science as seen through the lens of evidence vs. faith and truth vs. fiction.

    To me, both religion and science have evidence. I think religion’s evidence comes ultimately from internal truth; whereas science’s evidence comes ultimately from external truth. But you need both to balance and cross-check each other. I think we are more complete human beings with both religion and science.

    But you’re right to be skeptical of fictions in both. We are imperfect human beings seeking truth, and our imperfections inhabit our religions and sciences.

    I think faith is a step beyond evidence – once you know that you don’t know, you can look to faith in God and in the scientific process to continue your search for truth rather than holding to your own power. You can have faith in both God and science.

  7. Larry Yogman permalink

    Here’s another take on the same question, by Dawkins:

    http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/dawkins.html

    “There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.”

  8. Larry Yogman permalink

    A great video series for anyone with a sense of wonder (science as religion in a *good* way):

    http://www.symphonyofscience.com/

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