Saturday, August 11, 2007

Science is Not A Religion

Special Guest Blog this week: Scott Merlino, Ph.D., Philosophy Department, CSUS

Lots of people believe science should get off of its high-horse and admit it is a religion or just like a religion since it too is built upon apparent articles of faith. For instance, what scientist can deny that a world outside of humans, languages or minds actually exists? However, this article of faith is hardly unique to science: Religious people accept it too. In fact, I'll wager that most all of the basic claims about reality that science accepts are also accepted by the religious. But wait, don't scientists accept the Big Bang Theory or Darwinian Evolution, whereas many religious people do not? Nope. Many scientists do not accept Big Bang Theory but they do accept that the origin and the complexity of the cosmos need explaining. Similarly, many scientists are ambivalent about Darwinian Evolution and acknowledge that it is possible that many (maybe even all) complex life forms emerge without any natural selection operating whatsoever. Such scientists accept that life begets life and even that sometimes it is possible that non-life produces life but propose alternative explanations for life that either diminish the scope of natural selection as a creative force or supplants it with another natural (chemical, physical, probabilistic) process.

What scientists believe as fellow observers of the world is that there are curious phenomena needing explaining. There appear to be law-like regularities in nature or curious organisms behaving in ways sometimes conducive to survival and sometimes not; they only sometimes accept explanations of these provisionally, based on observable, testable, imperfect evidence. Religious people agree superficially with this attitude, but, where they differ with science is in their purely faith-based belief (wholly not dependent on empirical evidence) that not only are such things describable by observation and inference, such things are only fully explicable by reference to at least one intelligent, super-powerful, supernatural creator-being or force whose existence cannot be doubted.

Every article of faith in science is subject to doubt and only accepted conditioned on and constrained by empirical evidence. But most articles of faith in religion are never doubted, each is unconditionally believed and none are constrained by any evidentiary limits whatsoever. Faith overrides "reasonable doubt" in religion or when coupled with wishful thinking. Faith licenses the religious to accept what appears impossible: miracles, healings, epiphanies etc. In science, faith is the enemy of reasons for accepting; indeed, grounds for reasonable doubt are sought out---no scientist wants to accept what might be false or better accounted for by a more accurate theory. Religion says: "Many miracles are inexplicable, thus a mysterious divinity must be their cause." Science says: "Many allegedly miraculous events have been reported and are heretofore inexplicable, thus we need to consider (a) whether such events occur and (b) whether other explanations account for what is alleged before we settle on any traditional, popular or untestable explanations."

Science can function without believing that whatever it accepts is true or beyond reasonable doubt. Religion cannot. For instance, science can explain religious experiences (REs) or near-death "out of body" experiences (OBEs) without referring to souls, spirits, gods or angels. Religious people think these are proofs of the divine or immortality or evidence of life-after-death. But scientists do not go so far, since they know, from careful, controlled observations that human minds are capable of imagining all sorts of things, especially under the influence of brain chemicals released during stressful events. Also, meditation, drugs, exhaustion, hallucination, seizures, brain surgeries and even memories induce and inform REs and OBEs. Religion cannot even entertain the possibility that prophets did not talk to God (or divine messengers) or that its messianic-heroes healed the sick or arose from the dead. Can a religious person really imagine there is no heaven or a life without meaning? Science routinely imagines the cosmos without a beginning or life without a purpose.

So here are five big differences. (1) Religion presumes more than science, since it assumes the existence of entities or a non-physical realm about which science remains skeptical or silent, given that whatever science cannot examine and test science is neutral about. (2) Religion has too many articles of faith science can do without: In science, what explains with fewer commitments to unsubstantiated speculation or unobservables is better than what explains with more. (3) Religion has a built-in faith-based immunity to criticism and scrutiny which science rejects; the scientific attitude requires a perpetual, skeptical attitude about articles of faith however much these may support what one wishes to believe. (4) Religion believes what it does not bother to prove, since evidence is either not needed or optional as long as it is complementary; science accepts only what it proves (tests) and this is only conditioned upon the quantity and quality of the evidence available. (5) Religion never rejects or corrects its foundational beliefs, but science often does---this is the source of its honesty and its usefulness. Science is a self-correcting, revisionary, fallible process that routinely revises and even abandons altogether inadequate hypotheses in favor of better ones.


Jon said...
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Anonymous said...

I think that (5) is science's greatest strength, and socially, its greatest weakness. Being a philosopher (or at least an aspiring one), I continually forward opinions and observations in such a manner as to embrace the above and rely on the reasonableness and knowledge of the people around me to help establish the veracity or falsehood of my claim when there is a question as to whether or not I may be right. This however is seen as a weakness amongst the majority of people I have encountered, probably owing to the influence of Christianity and faith in general. It is the most annoying thing in the world to be schooled in reasoning and thought a fool for not taking a strong, indomitable stance that is not doubted in the slightest. I can't understand why "normal" people want such surety based on flimsy evidence and unsubstantiated conjecture. This happens incessantly in my life; I will make a "weak" claim because of my willingness to doubt what I have said and the importance I place on what another person may add and I am seen as spineless, weak minded, unmanly, or lacking opinions altogether. Really I'm just trying to be reasonable. Although this attests to the pervasive narrowmindedness of religious people, it is extremely dificult to be thought well of in their circles (which are over 90% of the population, and even if a person is not overtly religious it is more than evident that religious-type thinking is an influence on their view as to what it means to "stand your ground" and who deserves respect concerning conviction and passion) and maintain what I consider to be a reasonable attitude. Even more annoying is when they are just dead wrong, and are not only obstinant in their stance, but become insulted that their belief was even questioned. What they see as weakness is actually a strength, one that can be seen in medicine and technology. If science stuck by religious thinking concerning foundational beliefs we'd still be using leeches and sticking crusifixes inside of deluded young girls. I just wanted to complain a little bit and saw an avenue for it. I get kinda tired of dumb-ass backwoods peasants telling me Jesus is in their tortilla and that I need to stand by something the way they stand by the flag before the world ends in 2012 and some slut with a dragon makes this dead guy have to fly around on a cloud and burn people to death because his bizarro-self with a goattee is pretending to be him and is making kids listen to 80's hair bands and smoke reefers so they vote liberal.

Anonymous said...

Great topic.

Some perspective for those of us who feel actually trying to be correct is a weakness.

Theists may feel good about taking strong stances, but it does not follow that a strong stance is correct; therefore, why feel good about your strong stance if you have no real objective facts to back it up?

In truth, despite the claims of faith, theists really have nothing to feel confident about at all -- after all -- what does one need faith for at all if one really has the truth/facts on their side?

Faith is only needed when one LACKS truth.

When I see a red apple, I don't need any faith to believe I'm seeing it -- I just see it and KNOW.

What humanity needs to grow OUT OF is the so-called strength of the STRONG STANCE -- which is really humanities GREATEST WEAKNESS.

It may make theists _feel good_ to be absolutists without evidence, but it does not follow that happy feelings have any relationship to truth at all.

I would point this out to any "confident theist."

How can one really be confident in a faith based on zero empirical evidence?

In fact, that kind of person is more like a child than an adult, so why ever think that science is the institution with the problem?

The problem is that people want easy answers they don't have to work for or think about much.

No atheist should ever be theatened by people like this -- just saddened.

Jon said...
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Josh May said...

FYI, related to this post (at least to this blog), Richard Dawkins has a new documentary out called "The Enemies of Reason" that attacks superstition and other forms of irrational thought. You can view the first part on Google Video here:

The Enemies of Reason (part 1)

(Thanks to Chris Baad for the link!)

I also posted a little somethin', somethin' on my blog about the video, for anyone interested.

Anonymous said...

Great post - I have had this debate with a christian fundamentalist recently who kept asserting that science is just a type of religion - sadly logic seems to fall on deaf ears in such debates though.
As I see it the core difference is this.
I believe that the theory of evolution is true. However I remain open to its disproof and can envisage the sort of proof that would lead me to abandon this belief.

My christian fundamentalist believes in God. he is not open to any disproof of the basis of this belief. he cannot envisage any evidence or proof that would lead him to abandon this belief.

Therein lies the core difference between rationlist scientific belief and religious faith belief.

Anonymous said...

For me the most obvious difference between science and religious faith is the ever increasing amount of empirical evidence for science where the religious explanation for any and everything always ends up "God did it." To me it seems to be a cop out for the truth. Given science is not always going to provide the truth everyone is searching for due to the contingency of nature and thus the contingency of facts in nature. For that reason I feel it is difficult to have "faith" in science like faith in religion if the facts are changed or updated frequently. Where religion has faith in the fundamental explanation for any and everything, "God did it."

Anonymous said...

Re (5) Religion never rejects or corrects its foundational beliefs.

I am not so sure we can be so categorical here. Certainly like dictatorships, alot of them have problems with transitions. So I would accept that Religion has difficulty in correcting foundational beliefs, but I don't think I could agree with never.

The fact that it is difficult to shake peoples faith may, like some game theory suggests, be because in spite of appearing unreasonable, the choices that result do end up giving them close to them the optimum outcome, even though they cannot give a good rational explanation.

Anonymous said...

The more I think about (5) the more I think that religion and science have something in common here. The rigidity say of the Freud school to move away from what "Freud would have done" is comparable to the rigidity of some groups to move away from what they beleive for example "Jesus would have done".

Sure there are conversions from one school to another, but often we have to wait for one school to die out before we can say that the previous school is nolonger representative of that branch of science or religion.

There remains quite a big difference on the nature of the "facts" that are admissible in arguments. Surveying the writings of Freud, or Mohammed to try to deduce his approach are accepted in their respective fields. Arguments of how each would have interpreted new data can be quite heated as the schools try to remain faithful to what they hold to have been a great or inspired insight, while reacting to the new situations that arise. There are Christian sects (The United Church in Canada) where even the divinity of Jesus became open to debate (see
I am wary of definitions that are of little practical use. "The truth is never false". Science does represent our best knowledge, but that doesn't mean any of the present notions we hold will not be disproven. I don't think science is a religion, because it doesn't deal with the same things, the greatest and most limiting thing about science, is that it deals only with testable predictions.

Anonymous said...

(1) This to me is the only article required

(2) Occam's razor is not something that is in my mind a part of science. It can be a clue to the correct path but there are many anti- razors including the principle of plentitude from Gottfried Leibniz which is used in some quantum mechanics interpretations.

(3) I don't see this as a requirement of religion. I can see several that do self criticism and scrutinize. The difficulty they have is that they ultimately are dealing in domains that are not testable.

(4) Religion per se, does not believe what it does not bother to prove. How many religions still believe the sun revolves around the earth. Sure some religions are for the moment rejecting evolution, but that is not because they are religions. The problem goes back to (1) in my mind that religions core is where evidence is unavailable.

(5) Religions can reject or corrects its foundational beliefs. There is no problem contemplating a religion that changes its values every two weeks. See also last post w.r.t the United Church. The problem again is (1). A religion deal with beliefs that are not yet testable.