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.