Science and Religion

We are often told that science and religion are mutually incompatible. The reasoning goes that religion is based on faith and science is based on facts and experimentation.

I’ve even heard it said that religious people should not be employed in scientific establishments because scientists endeavour to find the truth, whereas religious people simply attribute events to God and therefore do not look for the truth.

If we were to accept this argument we would have to accept that everything can be explained by science. Even a basic understanding of quantum physics would show that the universe is not deterministic. In other words, there will always be events that we can’t predict the outcome of. Some quantum theorists would argue that outcomes can be determined according to probability but this is really not very satisfactory.

Let’s say we have 90 people and each has two dice. Let us assume that each dice is absolutely random. Each person throws the dice. We know that probability predicts that 15 of these people will throw 7.

However, we can’t be certain of that and even if it is true we couldn’t say which 15 people. If science cannot determine this then are there any ways in which we could? Of course scientists would say the question cannot be answered because, by definition, they use science to answer questions and this question is metaphysical, in that it is ‘meta’ (beyond or outside) of physics (science). If it is outside of physics than it is not unreasonable to say that it is in the realm of religion.

Atheists attribute what they can’t understand to ‘randomness’ or ‘chance’. Why is this better than attributing something to the will of God — and then trying to understand why God works the way He does?

We hear of people saying something must be so because it says so in the Bible, even though the weight of evidence appears to contradict that. Of course some people would argue that something must be so because ‘science’ says it’s so. So what does it mean to say something is ‘scientifically’ true?

  • It has been tested in controlled situations and peer reviewed.
  • It has not been tested scientifically and therefore we can’t say that it is a scientific fact.
  • It is information that the majority of scientists would agree with.

The implication when we say that something is scientifically true is that it is of the first quality — it has been tested. However, when we analyse many statements about what is scientific we actually find they are of the second or third kind. One may ask that if a religious person is fallacious in their thinking by assuming that something in the bible must be true, or something said by a religious priest must be true, than why is it also not the case when someone says something is true because a scientist (or group of scientists) says it’s true? At this level of understanding we have turned science into a religion. Admittedly, it is a religion that most people accept and seems to be based on good practices but then a Christian could make the same claim.

What we get back to is assumptions. A religious person starts from the assumption that God exists and they may therefore believe that what’s in the Bible or Quran must be true.

Someone who uses science makes a number of assumptions as well:

  • There is an objective reality that we can observe and our observation does not alter that reality.
  • We can make valid assumptions about what repeatability means.
  • The scientist is an objective observer of the truth, or if not peer review will weed out any subjectivity.

The scientific process actually makes more assumptions than many religions. I want to examine the scientific process here.

Imagine a primitive country where nothing is known about technology, in the sense that we use it, and a person has developed a primitive thermometer. The experiment he wants to perform is probably the simplest one that can be devised: he wants to measure the boiling point of water. He has a hunch (a hypothesis in scientific parlance) that water reaches a certain temperature when heated and doesn’t get any hotter. He wants to know what that temperature is on his primitive thermometer. To do this he places the thermometer in a bowl of boiling water and marks off the position on the gauge. He repeats this a number of times in various locations and gets the same result. His hypothesis is now established into a theory. He lends the thermometer to a friend to perform the same experiment. His friend takes it to his house up a mountain but finds that the water boils at a different point on the thermometer. If these people were following a correct scientific process, they would attempt to find out what is different in the tests. Science demands repeatability and the test must be reproducible in order to assert it as an established theory.

Now in reality every experiment is different in one way or another and what these experimenters have to do is to determine what the relevant differences are. Without any prior knowledge we have to make assumptions about what we think is relevant. One obvious difference here is that the experiment was performed by a different person, so our original experimenter could perform the experiment himself. Eventually they would find that performing the experiment at different altitudes gets different results, and so the original theory is not disproved but is refined. Later on someone may boil water at sea level and find they get a different result again. More experimentation may determine that the purity of the water is a factor, and so on. All the time we have to make assumptions about what is relevant to the experiment and what isn’t. Also, when someone gets a different result do we simply say they are wrong or do we attempt to find out what the differences are?

Even in this simple example we have to assume that the time of day, the phase of the moon, sunspot activity or the weather won’t affect the outcome. In reality, you can never know what is relevant or not without knowing the whole picture, and of course you never can know everything and so we make assumptions. Nowadays few people follow the true scientific process. Previously accepted scientific theories are used as a basis for establishing new theories and cannot be questioned — they are assumed to be correct. In other words, not only have scientists determined what is or is not relevant, once an experiment has become established scientific ‘fact’ it can never be disproved or, more specifically, cannot be refined. In our example when the experimenter determined that water boils at a particular temperature and found that this wasn’t true in all situations, the experiment wasn’t disproved it was simply refined.

In the example above the experimenter assumes that the thermometer is accurate but the accuracy of a thermometer is determined by testing against a known temperature, for example the temperature of boiling water. Ironically, we have to understand something of what we are testing in order to determine what is relevant and what isn’t. I’ve read of experiments to do with the efficacy of meditation where the testers obviously had no idea of what meditation was and therefore couldn’t differentiate between people who really meditated and those who claimed to meditate but actually didn’t. In my experience, most people who defend science actually have little understanding of the philosophy of science and the scientific method.

Two refinements that have been added to what would be accepted science. These are Occam’s Razer and the assertion that ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. It should be noted that these refinements are not designed to increase our knowledge but to potentially decrease it.

Occam’s Razer says, in short, that you should always take the solution with fewest assumptions. As someone said, if you hear hoofbeats think horses not zebras. Although in parts of Africa the assumptions may be different. If we see a bright light we are told to think Venus, not a UFO from an alien intelligence. Even if the light doesn’t correspond with any view of Venus in my experience. And of course, if I am of the view that aliens exist and are sending spacecraft then this is going to be my assumption rather than that it was Venus. Occam’s Razer is a method of limiting ideas so that the established way of seeing the world won’t be upset.

‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ is an extension of the same idea. If an assertion is made of an event that cannot be explained by conventional ideas, we should not throw out the convention but throw out the assertion. Of course the argument is that we would accept the assertion with sufficient evidence but in reality no amount of evidence will support some claims. Thus miracles can be dismissed out of hand, then it is said that there has been no miracle that has withstood the weight of scientific investigation. Of course not. It is because scientists refuse to question their assumptions.

This isn’t to say that science isn’t useful. It is a tool for a job. For some jobs (such as establishing the boiling point of water or working out the trajectory of a rocket) it is very useful; for other jobs, such as social science and psychology it can be useful but one has to be very careful as there are many factors beyond the control of the experimenter; and for some things, such as philosophy and theology, it is totally useless because of the assumptions that the scientist has to make. In tasks such as medicine there are so many variables that a totally different system of science is used (for example control groups use double-blind studies and placebos when testing drugs). This is reported to be scientific but these methods are based on assumptions many of which are quite tenuous on close examination.

By Philip Braham on July 26, 2018




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