IMO

Science naturally divides itself into two main factions: Physical science, and theoretical science. By definition, applied science is based upon observations of the natural world – and is always potentially controvertible by additional observation. Established “laws” of nature are constantly being re-interpreted and re-formulated to best match the existing body of evidence. Unlike physical science, theoretical sciences, such as mathematics are much less open to re-evaluation – since these fields operate within extremely strict frameworks like formal logic. Many times, the two fields overlap, in that a particular theoretical model can give insight into a physical observation, or tangible evidence can lead to a new scientific theory.

However, the two fields are fundamentally distinct in that one field’s discoveries do not match the other’s definition of truth. Physical science defines truth as “agreement with the majority of reasonably-verifiable physical observations,” while theoretical science defines truth as “that which incontrovertibly follows from a set of initial axioms.” Observable science makes no claim regarding the finality of its results, and theoretical science does not address the validity of its initial axioms. Thus, the current scientific majority opinion cannot and should not be defended with the religious fervor that is attached to regarding science as absolute truth. Science is only one limited perspective from which interpret human experience – it makes no claim about the validity of alternate viewpoints.

In particular, where any set of beliefs (such as a religion) does not address physically observable information or formally provable statements, that set of beliefs is completely distinct from science. Science does not address the deeper meaning of the universe or human existence. It makes no prescriptions of morality – it does not speak of the spiritual world. In many religions, the most fundamental teachings, practices, and concepts reach beyond the scientific definitions of verifiable truth and therefore cannot be in agreement or disagreement with science.

Given the vastly distinct roles of science and religion, it is extremely unfortunate that the few instances in which science and religion overlap have generated so much conflict over the years. This is especially unfortunate, when one considers that it is often the interpretation of evidence, not the evidence itself that is the source of contention. For example, the relatively sparse nature of ancient historical data often necessitates a good deal more speculation within the scientific community than the average layperson tends to believe. Scientists rarely give “facts” about history the same weight of certainty as “facts” about the behavior of macroscopic objects under a gravitational field.

Consider, for instance, the Native American tradition of the Thunderbird. Within the scientific community, the Native American Thunderbird is currently considered to be a mythical creature. Traditionalistic Native Americans choose to interpret the oral history more literally. In this particular case, the majority scientific opinion does not have sufficient evidence to seriously question the validity of the contradicting perspective. So, while Native American religion and science might be said to hold different views, they cannot be said to contradict one another.

It is important for religious and non-religious people alike to understand that the vast majority of religious views are squarely outside of the realm of science. Moreover, most religions only overlap with science in a select few areas – and most of the conflicts stem from different interpretations of historical data. In areas where the existing evidence is open to some speculation, it is important for scientists and non-scientists alike to realize that there is value in seriously considering all perspectives even when those perspectives disagree with the current majority consensus. By recognizing the respective limitations of religion and science, modern scientists and religious leaders can avoid becoming embroiled in petty debates over differences in interpretation. Instead, the religious and scientific communities have much to gain from each other by offering different perspectives from which to experience the universe.

10 thoughts on “IMO

  1. I will probably leave another reply later rebutting some of the ideas here, as I would love to debate more on this topic.

    First, I just wanted to say that I feel like I may have been a bit of a jerk the last time we discussed the topic of religion. If this is the case, I apologize. I want to have this debate without being overly belligerent or overbearing.

  2. Dude no need to apologize. This was pretty much just copypasta from the History of Math assignment I just submitted. I just wanted something to get the blog back “on the air.” Debates are encouraged — hence the IMO and moderately controversial topic. 🙂

  3. “Science does not address the deeper meaning of the universe or human existence. It makes no prescriptions of morality”

    This much we can agree on. Religion provides prescriptions for how to live and how to find meaning in life. Science does not. However…

    “It is important for religious and non-religious people alike to understand that the vast majority of religious views are squarely outside of the realm of science.”

    This is false. Let’s look at your own example of the Thunderbird. Many Native Americans believed there was literally a giant bird who was responsible for creating thunder and lightening. This DOES contradict science. Religion routinely makes existence claims about objective reality. Granted, most of these claims are in the form of myths whose primary purpose is to inform people’s sense of morality and give prescriptions for action. If you saw these myths simply as useful metaphors and parables which were “true” only in the sense that they provided a practical guide for living, I would have no disagreement with you. But I don’t think this is the case with religion, at least not as it is commonly practiced. Claims such as virgin births, resurrections, and the existence of God DO fall within the realm of science because they make claims about objective reality.

  4. Science isn’t about universal “objective reality.” It’s restricted to physical reality and abstract logical progressions. God’s existence and the various core philosophies of Christianity (namely, those about how humans are to properly relate to God and other people) are beyond both, so claims about God’s existence or a particular religion’s utility is mostly outside of science.

    Virgin births, resurrections, and Thunderbirds do fall into the realm of physical reality, but they are statements about the distant past, which is extremely difficult to verify one way or the other. I can say “most scientists don’t believe the Thunderbird was real,” but their non-belief bears little more certainty than my non-belief (which is based on nothing more than the fact that I’ve never seen a Thunderbird). There’s just not enough hard evidence to be really adamant scientifically.

    Also, the prompt was “Can religion and science be reconciled?”

  5. Perhaps I should revise my original statement. Science doesn’t necessarily describe “objective reality”–that depends on your philosophy of science. However, It does concern itself with describing any observable phenomenon (I am speaking here of empirical science, not of math). Under my view this is equivalent to describing physical reality, although if there were anything observable which is non-physical it would in principle be subject to scientific study as well.

    Whether or not God is subject to scientific study will depend on your definition of God, and whether it lends itself to observation.

    Events happening a long time ago hardly puts them “outside the realm of science”. Sure it is extremely difficult to verify one way or another–the same could probably be said of all science (research is hard!). Nonetheless there is evidence about what happened in the distant past which can be pieced together. This is what natural historians do. Miracles such as virgin births and resurrections can be said to contradict science in that they contradict established scientific theories.

    In the case of Thunderbirds, I may have been too quick to say they contradict science. My brief reading on the subject tells me they were thought to be giant birds which were capable of creating thunder and lightening. If they were thought to be the only source of thunder and lightening, this does contradict science. There is already an adequate scientific description of what causes thunder and lightening, and Thunderbirds are ruled out via Occam’s razor. Otherwise, yes, the existence of a previously undocumented species of bird does not contradict science. However, it is still within the realm of science because it is, in principle, subject to observation.

  6. What I’m trying to express here is the idea that I would really like to see the certainty bounds of various conclusions be emphasized more. For instance, I think it would be nice to have a classification system to help non-scientists understand the relative “weight” that certain statements carry.

    “Dogs and fish have a common ancestor” carries considerably less certainty than does the statement “the sun is 93 million miles from earth.” Of course, each statement carries evidence behind it, but the logical “wiggle room,” while remaining consistent with the data in the former is orders of magnitude greater than the room for interpretation of the latter.

    Contrary to what you might think, it really doesn’t bother me that macro-evolution is taught in schools (implicitly assuming the absence of God). If I was bothered by such things, I’d also have to be upset that schools teach the Pythagorean Theorem (implicitly assuming Euclidean geometry). I only wish that these implicit assumptions were made more obvious as such — and that there were a couple of hints dropped (nothing more!) that there is more than one sensible set of axioms.

    The absence-of-God hypothesis doesn’t suit me, and I don’t think I need it to have a consistent, practical, and meaningful existence. I could be wrong, but my guess is that both sides of the argument ultimately boil down to this kind of axiomatic choice.

  7. This appears to be a substantial retreat from your original position. Originally, you seemed to say that things such as the origin of humanity were outside the realm of science. Now you are saying they have a scientific description accurate enough to be taught in public schools, albeit with a disclaimer about the error bar.

    As for your claim that the existence or non-existence of God is simply an axiomatic choice, I heartily disagree (this opens up an entirely new debate). In my view, the existence of any entity is an issue that must be resolved empirically. While the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the absence of evidence is sufficient ground for not believing the existence of the entity in question.

  8. Depends on your definition of science. I think there is a point at which the error bars are too high to be considered science. The origin of humanity, is not known with enough certainty for me to think of it as “science.” Note that I also don’t think of studies like sociology as “science,” either.

    As to the existence debate, I still contend that the evidence is there if you look for it (the strongest evidence, in my opinion, is direct experience and communication with God and His Word — but there are others in nature [I think Mere Christianity lists several]). This evidence, however convincing it might be (if one assumes the existence of God), can always be interpreted convincingly in a different way (if one assumes the nonexistence of God). And so, we are back at the choice.

  9. Touche.

    I still think the error bars on evolutionary history are small enough to consider it science, but this is based on nothing more than my trust in the scientific establishment. I must confess my ignorance.

    I happen to agree that personal experience is by far the most convincing evidence for the existence of God. We can get into the arguments from Mere Christianity if you want. At one point I briefly check that book out and was very unimpressed by the parts that I read.

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