Involving Science in Discussions of Religion

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RichardGarfinkle

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Discussions of certain aspects of religion sometimes require the discussion of science. While science is not a religion, the principle of respect that governs this board must still be applied in posting to such discussions.

But science requires a different form of respect than that required when discussing other religions. Science is a process that seeks explanations of certain aspects of reality rather than an overarching understanding by which one governs one's life. The respect due to science is the respect due to any tool or method that does its job well. And the respect due to scientists is the respect due to people who undertake a difficult and complex job that is of benefit to others.

Paradoxically, the respect necessary for science requires the constant challenging of its current views. Such challenges can only be properly made if one has enough understanding to be able to make such challenges. The proper respect due to science is to understand what it is, how it works, and how and why its views change over time.

The core of science is a sophisticated process of trial and error called:

The Scientific Method.

The goal of the scientific method is to create theories (that is, mental descriptions) that as accurately as possible model natural processes in a predictive manner. Scientific theories are valued by how well they predict outcomes of events that have not yet happened (like the next time a star goes supernova) and accurately predict what will be found in the results of events that have already happened (such as seeking the causes of a fire).

There are two basic scientific methods for creating and refining theories.

Method 1

1. Observe something that needs explanation.
2. Formulate a hypothesis that explains the phenomenon.
3. Deduce consequences of the phenomenon from the hypothesis.
4. Using the deductions, create predictions of what the phenomenon should produce.
5. Create experiments that will measure these predictions.
6. Examine the results of the experiments to see how closely the actual results match the predictions.
7. If they match closely, tell others about the hypothesis and the experiments so they can try it themselves.
8. If they don't match closely, go back to step 2.

Method 2 is an elaboration of step 2 in method 1. This method is used if the scientist can't think of a good hypothesis.

1. Do lots of different measurements of various aspects of the phenomenon.
2. Try to create in mind a hypothesis that accounts for the various measurements.
3. In doing step 2, introduce as few changes into current theories as necessary.

Note: This does not mean that radical new hypotheses should not be made. It means that one should introduce radical ideas when they are shown to be necessary.


What Can Science Be Applied To?

The scientific method implicitly restricts science to the study of phenomena that fit certain criteria:

1. They are independently observable and measurable by multiple people.
2. They belong to a class of phenomena which behave in the same manner.

Any phenomenon that does not fit these two criteria is not the subject of science. Thus a great many subjective phenomena are not within the bounds of science.

To take a really simple example, the color of an object can be externally measured. The experience of a person seeing that object and how they feel about the color cannot.

This is the first and most important semantic difference between scientific discourse and most religious discourse. In religion individual awareness and understanding are often the center of discussion. In science they are explicitly moved to the side.

This also brings up the first serious challenge between scientific and religious discourse. The act of removal of a subject from a discussion can seem like a dismissal of the importance of that subject. Because personal experience is not the subject of science it seems as if scientists would regard personal experience as unimportant.

This view of scientists is simply not true. Scientists value their personal lives as much as anyone else and consider their personal experiences as important as anyone else.

What they don't do is regard their personal experiences as scientific evidence.

Furthermore, this separation between scientifically examinable phenomena and those that cannot be so examined can be seen as evidence of the uniqueness and individual character, the personality, as it were, of non-interchangeable phenomena. My subjective experiences are not the same as yours, my life is not the same as yours. It can indeed be deemed a mark of respect that such experiences are not the subject of science.

Within those classes of phenomena to which science does apply, science has shown itself invaluable. Science has passed the basic test of a good tool: Does it do a good job when properly applied. The trial and error character of science means that as an endeavor science begins in error and moves closer and closer toward understanding of those phenomena.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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Doubt, Mistrust, Data Analysis, and Statistics.

The next big gap in thinking between science and religion is in differing attitudes toward doubt and mistrust. While not all religions rely on faith, there is a value in personal testimony in nearly all religions. The attestation and discussion of one's own experiences carry with them the implicit idea that someone's word should be enough that something happened.

Science, on the other hand, has a greater level of mistrust, a demand that claims be backed up with examinable data and repeatable experiments. In the sciences doubt and mistrust are considered morally good.

It might seem as if there is no way to bring this in accord with a more faith-based thinking, but that challenge seems not to be a problem for many religious scientists.

One method of reconciliation of these views is to see that what science doubts is the fallible human mind in the face of subtle reality. Science treats reality as the ultimate test of understanding. Any human understanding of that reality is to be mistrusted and subjected to rigorous testing because humans are subject to all the potential flaws of humanity. Thus the doubt and skepticism of science which often look like arrogance can also be exercises in humility.

This also means that scientists can be wildly happy to discover that they have been wrong. The universe has surprised and delighted them with fascinating new puzzles. Many (but by no means all) of them are like children opening presents when they discover they have been wrong.

Scientists have the third highest standards of mistrust known.

Coming in at number one: Mathematicians. Modern mathematics works as follows:

1. Create a set of assumptions for a system. These are called the axioms of that system.
2. Using processes that never produce false results from true premises, deduce theorems from those axioms. Thus the theorems are exactly as true and exactly as applicable as the axioms.

Mathematics is not itself deeply connected to reality, but because of its ability to produce mental tools that preserve truth, it is of immense value to science in the formulation and testing of theories.

Number two with a card trick: Stage magicians. These folks don't trust anything they can figure out how to rig. They know people can lie, cheat, steal, and fool themselves into believing anything. They are often better than scientists are at spotting pseudoscientists.

Number three: Scientists. They create their experiments and observations and examine their results using mathematical models of reliability in order to see how much they should trust their results.

This last is vital. Scientific experiments do not produce results with a simple true / false checkbox. Rather, the experiments produce evidence for or against the truth of an hypothesis. The evidence is subjected to statistical data analysis demonstrating how reliable the evidence is.

Unfortunately, this central aspect of science is not seen in everyday reporting on science. Science reporting makes absolute claims where actual science makes relative assertions about how well a hypothesis is confirmed or refuted.

The disparity between the science and the science reporting creates a false image of science and scientists. It sounds to the general public as if scientists were each day making absolute assertions and each day tearing down their last batch of absolute assertions. This is not what the scientists are doing or saying. Actual science talks about likely, not definite. And all the while there is the fundamental awareness that there is more to understand than in current understanding, and that the ongoing process will fill in more and more of those gaps, mostly incrementally, but sometimes with radical changes of understanding.
 

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Common Communication Gaps

Areas of controversy between science and religion: None.

Areas of apparent controversy between science and religion:

The word "theory"

In the scientific method an untried idea is called an hypothesis. An idea that has been tried and strongly confirmed is called a theory. This is almost the opposite meaning of the everyday usage of the word 'theory,' as in "it's only a theory".

The myth that science = atheism

The scientific method by its nature seeks to create theories that correctly predict future occurrences of phenomena similar to past occurrences and to discern the consequences of past phenomena. The scientific method, because of the inherent restrictions on it, cannot be applied to any phenomena that cannot be modeled. So the best a scientific theory can be is a model for how things work.

The ultimate why behind such a how is not within the province of science. The standard atheistic answer is that there is no why behind the how, the standard theist one is that there is.

Because this question of ultimate why is not a scientific one there is no problem with scientists being either theist or atheist. Indeed, scientists of all religions and atheistic scientists can all work together without any more than standard human conflict on the same research and produce equally effective explanations and functional models for reality.

They can even find the same theories equally beautiful (as expressions of an ultimate cause or simply as explanations for how things work).

Science Fan Culture

Science has a fannish culture consisting of people who are attracted to the cool characteristics of science and technology, but who don't actually know the science they are talking about. As with any fan culture, the most extreme members are often seen as spokespeople, despite the fact that they don't necessarily understand what they are talking about. Worse, their fanatical assertions that 'science says this' are the antithesis of proper scientific mistrust.
 

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The Theory of Evolution

Evolution is probably the largest area of controversy these days, but paradoxically evolution may also be the most solidly proven scientific theory ever.

Let's back up and take a running start on the concept of evolution.

An evolutionary process is a process that has two mechanisms which operate over time:

1. A mechanism to generate a diversity of objects.
2. A mechanism to cull the diversity of objects, removing some and leaving others.

Any process that has two such mechanisms will behave according to the basic theory of evolution. The generation process will continually generate new varieties of objects and the culling process will continually select those that continue to exist.

There is a temptation to see evolution as a story of events that is only relevant to life on Earth, and therefore no better or more informative than any other story. But the truth of the matter is that evolution is fundamental to all levels of existence in the universe.

1. At the level of elementary particles, particles interact and decay, causing new particles to come into existence. Which particles stick around and which disappear to become other particles depends on a number of quantum mechanical and environmental factors. But the fact is that some particles in an our current environment are more stable than others. The particles that make up atoms (protons, neutrons, and electrons) are very stable (actually neutrons do decay, but in atoms they tend to reform fast). Thus in our current environment subatomic evolution generates and selects for the components of atomic nuclei.

2. Protons and neutrons can be stuck together by one of the primary forces of the universe to form atomic nuclei. Not all nuclei are equally stable. Some fall apart quickly, some slowly, some just stick around. The ones that stay long enough can in a cool enough environment become the nuclei of atoms by attracting electrons to fill their electron shells. Thus outside of stars and other hot environments, atomic evolution creates and selects for atoms.

3. Atoms can interact chemically to create molecules. What molecules form depends greatly on temperature, pressure, and concentrations of available atoms. It is at this level that diversity really takes off. The number of possible subatomic particles is very small. The number of possible atomic nuclei is larger but still not very big. But the number of possible chemical compounds is mind-boggling. In a cool enough environment (like the Earth) a vast diversity of molecules can come to be.

4. Chemical compounds in interaction can facilitate or impede each other's interactions. If we narrow our examination to the compounds largely made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen (CHON for short), we see the beginnings of the complex interactions of organic chemistry. At this point the primary selector of what keeps going and what is broken up or absorbed is other chemicals. We are beginning to see the precursors of life.

5. Organic chemicals can form complex systems that are mutually supportive, sustaining, and reproducing. This is the next big structural jump. If compound A in the presence of compound B has an easier time making more compound A out of compounds C, D, and E, and if a naturally occurring membrane (like cell membranes) makes it possible to keep A, B, C, D, and E together, then we have a proto life form in the making. Furthermore, if a number of different such globules have need of C, D, and E then the question of which globules will keep going depends on how efficient the globule is at acquiring C,D, and E and we begin to see evolution in action.

6. The confluence of biochemical competition and cooperation in step 5 can elaborate by evolution into the kinds of objects we definitively assert are alive (cells, usually).


All of the above are scientifically replicable in a lab except, to some extent, step 6. This doesn't mean step 6 is false. It simply means that it may not be practical to recreate it in a lab. The formation of life from organic chemicals is, according to the current hypothesis, a low probability event. Given the length of time the Earth existed before there was life, there were enough opportunities for protolife to form.

The critical understanding here is how low probability of individual events can lead to high probability of outcome. People often imagine the coming to be of life as a single Frankenstein-like event, but the evidence of cell biology shows that it clearly wasn't. Structures of some complexity came to be which in turn came together and produced other structures of higher complexity and so on. At each point the probability of coming together is low, but there were a large number of chances given the length of time between the Earth's formation and the first life, and there was a lot of space for this to happen in, given the expanse of oceans on the Earth.

Low probability event times lots of chances equals likely outcome, but not necessarily one that can be reproduced in the lab.

The above description of life forming is a hypothesis of abiogenesis. It is not an inherent part of the theory of evolution. And it does not rise to the level of theory because we can't explicitly observe it and we don't have more than one planet with life on it to study.

Science has hypotheses about abiogenesis and is trying to find ways to test them. There have been encouraging results, but not a solid specific theory.

It is not uncommon for non-scientists to treat this as a 'gotcha' moment, because science does not have a definite answer for a single event that it cannot observe or replicate.

But it is the very admission "we don't know" about this event that should earn science more respect, not less. Science has possible explanations, it has hypothesis, it has evidence. But it does not treat abiogenesis as an established, solidly understood part of the theory of evolution. It is an area that needs work and may never be resolved given the limitations of human life span and probability.

Once there is life -- that is, a replicating organic process with stored replication software (genes to us) -- evolution can take off on two whole new mechanisms: genetic mutation as a mechanism to create diversity, and death as a selection mechanism.

So, how do we know biological evolution happens?

Simple, we can observe it in mutations within individual species. And we can cause it by acting as a selection mechanism for animals and plants. Indeed, a great deal of agriculture and animal husbandry consists of deciding what plants and animals to allow to live and reproduce. Humans have been active agents of evolution for far longer than we have had writing, and we have demonstrably changed by selection the plants and creatures we domesticated. Evolutionary biology is the oldest practical science known to humanity. It's just that the scientists who practiced it called themselves farmers.

So why is the oldest and most well tested of all scientific theories a religious controversy?

For a lot of people it isn't. Evolution as a means by which life and humanity comes to be is untroubling to many people in all religions.

Those who are troubled face a daunting task if they wish to overcome evolution. Evolution is not a theory with a single linchpin that can be pulled out to make it fall apart. It is solid and thriving as more and more understanding advances and refines the knowledge of how evolution works and how the various aspects of modern life came to be. Evolution is also firmly rooted in modern biology. Modern medicine cannot exist without it. To throw away one is to throw away the other.
 
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RichardGarfinkle

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Cosmology

Second to evolution in controversy is cosmology.

Cosmology as a field of science sounds like it is stomping hard on religion's turf by trying to explain why the universe exists. The purpose of cosmology is to examine the structure, size, shape, and distribution of stuff in the universe. These questions extend in space and in time (actually in spacetime, but relativity is a whole other subject). We cannot look forward in time to see future distributions, but thanks to the fact that our primary means of perceiving (light) moves at a fixed speed (300,000km/second), we are constantly receiving messages from the past that allow cosmologists to chart backwards in time and discern earlier stages of the universe.

One of the things that can be discerned as we look back in time is that the universe was smaller at earlier times. The farther back we look the smaller it gets. There is a point around 13.5 billion years ago when all the universe seems to have been at a single point.

We can't actually see back to that point. We can see back to just after that point, and using theories that work well in other circumstances we can deduce a great deal of what was going on just after that moment (the Big Bang).

The moment of the Big Bang and anything that might have happened before it are so far not matters to which science can be directly applied. In a sense therefore the primal event is not a matter of science. And the causes of that event are purely hypothetical at this moment because there is no discerning what there was beforehand.