Faith and Science, as They Really Are (Part Three)

(Part Three of Faith and Science, as They Really Are; see Part One and Part Two.)


Science and religion overlap significantly, and make similar claims about the world. (Read Part Two, if you disagree!)

Given as much, it is hard to claim that one worldview is necessarily “better” than the other. And yet, both worldviews claim superiority. I’ve thought at length about why that is, and as far as I can tell, the theme is the same as the one we have been exploring: that each domain sees the best in itself (viewing its domain as it ought to be), and the worst in the other (seeing it solely as it actually is).

The case that religion makes for superiority is interesting, because it’s so simple: because religion is divinely inspired, it wins. So, when science and religion conflict, the believers ought to be on God’s side.

I understand this argument, and empathize with those that believe in it. But I think that train of thought does justice neither to reality nor God’s intentions.

In reality, Christianity is one worldview out of a vast multitude of other candidates. Even within Christianity, we find Catholicism and Protestantism, and beneath those categories lie still further divisions and disagreements on what constitutes the divine truth. How, then, to choose between these worldviews? Claiming divine superiority for one flavor of the religious truth seems to be impossible to defend. The Bible, of course, doesn’t tell us how to interpret its text. And as soon as we start to judge, or compare, or really even think about the possibilities of that interpretation for ourselves, we lose the right to claim divine superiority. Those are our judgments, not the Lord’s.

The only way to believe in something – at least in my book – is to think that the preponderance of the evidence suggests it to be true. That is an inherently personal (and, so, mortal and inevitably flawed) judgment call. This isn’t meant to be nihilist or solipsistic, just realistic. It’s always true. To claim that your worldview is divinely ordained to the demise of all others is a claim that requires evidence just as much as any other; I don’t see another way of looking at religious faith from the perspective of the real world.

And to briefly comment on my admittedly sparse understanding of God’s intentions, I’ll just ask two questions. Why did he send his son? And why did he tell his message through mortal men like John or Mark? If he wanted his message to be truly divine, he could have written it in the clouds or behind the eyelids of every newborn child. Instead, he chose to ground his message in the world by personifying himself through Jesus Christ and spreading his ideas exactly as all others have been spread in the history of the world. Both of these facts suggest to me that the God of the Bible recognized the necessity – and the struggles – of judging claims of perfection in an imperfect world. They recognize that religious ideas, at least from an objective perspective, aren’t superior in some apriori way. They might gain significance after they are justified, but that process of justification is the same for religion as it is for any other worldview.

Similarly, the public at large should recognize how similar biases exist for the scientifically-minded. To claim the superiority of scientific ideas because they have stamps of approval from the scientific method and are supported by incredibly smart, dedicated scientists feels tantamount to claiming the superiority of religious ideas because they come from God.

I can feel the violent reaction that may stir up within a scientific believer – because it would have brought about a similar reaction in me just a few years ago – but let me defend that claim.

Yes, science should be a validating, justifiably believable enterprise. Yes, the scientific method is a great check on natural biases, and ensures that experiments are repeatable. But just think – if you time-traveled 100 years into the past to attend a Harvard lecture on the state of modern science (anyone’s guess why that’s where you’d go, but more power to ya), nearly everything you would hear would be incorrect. Almost everything! And again, yes, that represents the march forward of science and the (genuinely incredible, surely laudable) willingness of many scientists to reject past hypotheses when they no longer accord to the facts. But why should we assume that our time now should be the privileged age when science finally gets everything right? In the real world, science is constantly improving – which implies that future scientists will deem many of our current beliefs to be outdated… even laughable.

But I want to make an even deeper point here. The “limitations” of science, as I’ve described them above, are still largely “ought” claims – in that their object is the Knowledge of All Science, an idealized amalgamation of what many individual scientists have discovered and contributed to the Public Scientific Consciousness. But of course, there is no real Knowledge of All Science. No one person knows it all. And, to go further, I’d venture that, on average, people don’t know any science. I surely don’t. I mean, I know what other people think about science – and what very smart people think, at that – but I haven’t completed a scientific experiment since my freshman year of college. My entire knowledge of science is, in effect, one massive appeal to the authority of the scientific community. And I would guess that is how it is with you as well. What science do you really know for yourself?

Even supposing that a PhD reads this someday, I’d stick to my guns on that last thought. Even you, you person that is far smarter than me, probably depend more on judgment calls than you depend on descriptive, scientific truth to determine what you think about the scientific world. You know your own subject extremely well. You’ve completed many experiments, and even a few novel ones, so you’ve seen with your own eyes why the claims that have circulated through journals and the public knowledge about your subject are true. But have you done the same for the experiments of your colleagues in other departments? Sure, you have great reason to believe them – they’re your friends, they’re smart, and they wouldn’t lie about what they are doing in the lab – but recognize that judgment for what it is: faith. You don’t know their results in the same way that you know your own.

And what does that imply for us, the non-scientific public? Of course, we are even worse off than the average PhD. I would guess that few of us truly understand science – far less the complex science that matters most nowadays, like quantum physics or evolutionary biology or, topically, the real science behind vaccination (and before you say “duh, the immune system learns how to fight the virus,” think about how many times I’d have to ask “how” or “why” to reach the end of your knowledge on the subject). That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t believe scientists, but it is to say that we should recognize that science, in the real world, usually looks more like an appeal to authority than an experiment. And for the average person, belief in science requires faith.

Both of these characteristics of the “scientific normal” 2×2 – separation and superiority – seem to be unjustified. Science and religion do not occupy two separate domains, and neither is inherently superior to the other. At least in the real world.

Religion, really, is a system of understanding the world. It often feels like it ought to be divine, untouchable – and to some people, it is – but I’ve never understood how to arrive at that conclusion without wading through the messy business of picking one belief from the multitude of other possibilities.

And science, really, is also a system of understanding the world. It often feels like it too is untouchable, because the people allowed to talk about it are smarter and better credentialed than we normal folks. But because science is a worldview like any other, it depends on people trusting in scientific authority, which is nothing more and nothing less than trusting that other people have done their jobs correctly.

This implies a different picture of the world, one that looks something like this:


Science and religion overlap, because they can talk about some of the same things (e.g., the morality of vaccines, the beginning of the universe). And each is both laughable and laudable to some extent, largely depending on perspective – a perspective that will be honed as time progresses and our understanding of the world evolves.

This might be a messier picture than many would like to believe, but understood correctly, this picture is also uplifting: it implies that science and religion have things that they can learn from each other.

Religion could learn from science how to allow its beliefs to evolve while still staying true to its core principles. If there is one criticism of modern religion that is undeniably true, it’s dogmatism – and that’s why I chose to place the upper bound of the religious box slightly below that of science. There are some leaders, like the current Pope Francis, who are working hard to bring religion into the modern age – but they have been resisted at every turn. Believers should think long and hard about how they may be able to draw inspiration from the scientific method. By doing so, they might be able to better reach the upcoming generation of skeptical, questioning – and for now, largely agnostic – Millennials.

And science, believe it or not, could learn a lesson from religion: how to build faith among a population. To think that there are some who don’t believe in climate change and the value of vaccines is ridiculous to me. How could such incontrovertible facts ever be denied? The climate is getting warmer, and it’s our fault. Vaccines do not cause autism. Those of us who are scientifically-minded don’t understand how others could doubt those facts. But, as I tried to explain earlier, it’s not simply about the facts – it’s also about authority, and trust, and faith.

Some people in America, whether as a result of religion or otherwise, don’t want to believe in science. So, how can science reach those people? I expect the answer will not come from additional experiments to prove the veracity of global warming or vaccine effectiveness. Rather, it may come through a simpler conversation – explaining not just the facts, but also why they are true, why we should believe them, and why they are important. The normal response is to make an embittered appeal to the authority of scientists – e.g., “where’s your PhD?!” – a strategy that doesn’t work. And for good, predictable reasons: if the anti-vaxxers were swayed by that sort of appeal, they wouldn’t be anti-vaxxers in the first place.

All in all, the two worldviews have more in common than they think, and can co-exist better than they suspect. Simply recognizing the difference between “is” and “ought” may be able to help – but true reconciliation and – optimistically – collaboration will require sustained effort, and concerted attempts to see the other side as you see your own.


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