Review 2006

Gia from SunshineDNA asks:
What do you feel provides the human race with answers, closest to the truth, Science or Religion?

"You can't handle the truth." - Col. Nathan R. Jessep, A Few Good Men.

I should preface this with some notes on my own religious history because I believe this will have some baring on the opinions that will follow. I'm technically Protestant, although my mother is a Methodist and I'm not quite sure what my dad is. So any of the following will be from something akin to a Christian perspective. I didn't go to church much when I was very young, but watched Songs of Praise every week. Church only really became a regular activity when I was in the Cub Scouts although it was compulsory rather than a choice; there were hymns and prayers in primary school though.

This continued into secondary school were I experimented with Christianity in my first year attending Bible Study and Scripture Union and the rare prayer meeting. To this day I'm not sure why, standing in Garston Market during freezing cold lunch times even though I wasn't born again. That sort of ended at the beginning of the second year when the teacher who ran everything wanted me to do something and it become clear he'd simply assumed that I'd born again before I joined the school. From then on and felt like I'd been excommunicated.

Throughout the rest of school I did my best to try and find out as much as I could about the other religions available, actually trying to pay attention in RE and talking the Muslim student. I was in the school choir and the music was generally of a religious content, apart from a bizarre incident later on when we sang a Beatles medley. But the prayer continued in assemblies and the hymns.

Eventually I came to the conclusion, then note, that God and science weren't incompatible. I remember voicing the idea in one of the classroom discussions that the bible might just have been a metaphoric way of describing scientific proof, that God used the big bang to create the heavens and the earth, with 'day' being a flexible term for any great length of time. That's right - I was inadvertently advocating something akin to intelligent design, more on which later.

Since then I wouldn't say I turned my back on religion, I just haven't specifically joined any of the monotheists in a particular cause. When asked I tell people I'm a non-denominational spiritualist, which until recently didn't specifically mean anything to anyone but me, but I've noticed lately churches being set up or green witches describing themselves as such so I might have to decide upon something else. I was using in the phrase for occasions when I wanted to encapsulate my odd don'tactuallyknowwhatthehellsgoingon-type feelings and so that I can be spiritual in my own way, lighting candles in cathedrals, making wishes, singing the good hymns and enjoying Christmas carols.

Even more recently however I'm seriously beginning to see a shift in my belief system. I'm beginning to understand that religion is a human construct, its laws and acts the work of people like me, with perhaps only a slightly clearer idea of what it all means based on earlier teaching. That's obviously understating the scholarship involved and the expectation that the product is the work of God but its difficult equally for me to live with the fact that people have sometimes gone to war over whether their version of the truth is the correct one even if there is the distinct possibility that they're both wrong. In addition, are we saying that current religious thinking is any more right or sophisticated than the Greek, Roman or even Egyptian belief systems. Aren't they all just manifestations of the same thing - the need to believe in something?

Now, what I probably should do here is drop in some good quotes from people like Richard Dawkins or The Dalai Llama to cover the two sides of the argument. The fact that I'm not shouldn't in any way be thought of as a lack of research, more that I want to attempt to present my opinion unfiltered which I know presents the risk that the following will sound like the kind of pissed meanderings which I'd often spew during a pub lock-in in my early twenties. I can still hear Richard Coppell, the scientist who I'd known from school telling me I don't know what I'm talking about, not that he seemed to either.

Frankly it's difficult not to actually come to the conclusion that neither science or religion holds the answers because people are involved. In a sense, all that religion does is allow control, either benign or otherwise with the most powerful figures wielding the most influence. The New Testament, for example, is a collection of books that gained orthodoxy in the fourth century AD, banishing, with perhaps the exception of Revelations, anything really controversial. The apocrypha makes for eye raising reading but underlines how the Christian church's attitude to most things might be very different now had they not been disregarded as heresy by other religious figures way back when.

In a similar way, science cannot be considered cold and unbiased. True, science just is but scientific breakthroughs and theories are merely understandings of available evidence. If the evidence is obscured and hasn't been revealed yet the developments will be limited. But scientists are the gatekeepers of the knowledge and again it's the most powerful of these, either through magnificent thought or sponsorship from major companies seeking business opportunities who dictate the scientific truth that will be disseminated. That's why green sciences have until recently been severely under funded and are in some cases decades behind other fields. Why would anyone want to fund the development of a car that can run on water or ethanol or whatnot if their vested interests are in old?

I was shocked to discover recently, reading the local newspaper, that the same teacher I had the probable falling out with is attempting to bring the teaching of intelligent design into science lessons. Nothing too concrete, just a few videos, an attempt to open up the possibility that any science that can't be explained must be God's work. The reason I eventually rejected my version of intelligent design is that actually its not that they can't be explained - it's that they can't be explained -- yet. Fermat's Last Theorem looked impossible for three centuries until Andrew Wiles came along and found a proof.

If then it is possible to take us people out of the equation, for us to peer at science and religion in abstraction, which do I think is most likely to provide the truth? Drum roll please.


It just is. There will inevitably be a time when the current religions, no matter how complex they may be will change or even disappear just as the aforementioned Mediterranean belief systems have. They're the product of humanity (at least through my eyes) and as such perishable along with whatever the apparent truth might be that they're advocating.

Science however will continue, there will always be something to discover or rediscover after the apocalypse and whatever truth it may be will continue to exist waiting to be stumbled upon or sadly suppressed. I don't know that there's some ultimate equation that offers the answer to everything and really it also depends on what you expect the truth to be. But you know what's really scary? Somewhere in here, is something that actually gives sense to a famous quote from Donald Rumsfeld We know there is a truth, but we just don't know what that truth is.

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."


Anonymous said...

Life isn't an episode of 'Friends', you know. You've got a lot more living to do before you can make these claims.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent answer! Of course, I think your answer is the correct one... Anyone who thinks otherwise has a different definition of the word 'truth'. They are only thinking of Truth as something they have learned from their own filtered version of their own Life experiences, whereas I am thinking 'Universal Truth', which, of course, is the proper definition.

Anonymous, no one has to 'live more' in order to understand Universal Truth. Universal Truths have existed long before there we were here and will exist long after we are gone. And by 'we' I mean The Human Race.

2+2=4 exists whether or not there is anyone around to understand it. God's existence, however, is entirely dependent on there being *people* around to contemplate him.

Anonymous said...

"I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."

"If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor."
- Albert Einstein

"Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" - Moses (or possibly God....)

This all seems pretty fair stuff, but here are some ideas to throw in the mix aswell.

At the heart of science lies, ideally, the potential to question ANYTHING, ie Newton's laws largely replaced (or highly qualified) by relativity, that in itself contradicted by quantum tunnelling, thence looking for further theory and proof to reconcile contradictory postulates.

But that's the point - PROPER science starts with ignorance and tries to infer meaning from what little we really know, without any assumed basis beyond this method. 'Creationist Science' (intelligent design, etc) refuses to question its basic predication, that is it is founded in FAITH. There's no fundamental reason why normal science can't conclude that a creator is behind everything, it just seems that from all the evidence this seems unlikely. However, there is already, before we've even started, an assumption in creationist sciences that creationism must be read into the world.

'Creationist science' (etc) does not have independent scientific foundations, so it isn't science, and that's all there is to it.

(by the way - anyone who has faith out there - fair enough, you're welcome to it but you don't need creationist science to support you. I'd suggest that those who pretend to use pseudo-science to bolster their faith are merely egotists seeking ways to engage the interests of needy people attracted into churches etc. TRUE faith comes from within [or Manchester....])

Basically all religion is an expression of tribalism - Moses' appeal for brotherliness was just that - love and forgive thy neighbour, oh yes, but not necessarily those outside your group.

Rob said...

Um. If one takes the question as being a valid one then I think Stuart's answer is the only one possible. But is it a valid question, or is it like asking "Which provides answers closer to the truth, cookery or football?" However much the creationists might wish otherwise, science and religion were never intended to provide alternative answers to the same questions. If you want to know why your arm feels cold when it gets wet, you don't ask a priest. But if you want to know whether my feeling of "cold" is the same as Stuart's, you wouldn't ask a scientist either. You'd ask a philosopher, and in my book there's pretty much a continuum between philosphy and religion, with the differences coming down to branding. Some brands place more value on individual thought than on group conformity, others don't. It has often been said that there is nothing intrinsic to Buddhism, for example, which makes it a relgion rather than a philosophy. Belief in a god, for example, is optional.

Phiolpshy, in mu opinion, can answer questions that by definition fall outwith the purview of science but which are interesting for all that. If our universe came into existence at the instant of the big bang, was there nothing at all prior to that or merely nothing (obviously) in our universe? Might our universe be part of a greater "universe2"? If our univese is open and thus does not recollapse, what implications might this have for any underlying "universe2"? What does it mean to be conscious? What does it mean to be intelligent? Are the two questions the same, related, or completely independent? If we created a machine, how could we establish whether or not it was conscious? If it was, would we have created a form of life, regardless of its replicative power?

Questions like these are by their nature not amenable to scientific answers. Scientists are quite capable of making the distinction: when I was a (chemistry) undergaraduate my physicist buddies had classes on The Interpretation Of Quantum Mechanics. These didn't discuss the (universally true in gia's terms) equations which are the heart of QM, but discussed the various ways in which physicists have attempted to give meaning to what those equations represent, whether by means of "hidden variables" (Einstein/Rosen/Podolsky) or "parallel worlds" (Everett/Wheeler/Graham) or whatever. A purist would say that it's the equations that perfectly describe reality, with the various interpretative paradigms just enabling us to make sense of it, like the shadows in Plato's cave. And that, surely, is what the whole (false) science/religion dichotomy comes down to. Science tells us more or less perfectly how the world works, and even (up to a point what it IS. Religion tells us what it means, and boldly treads beyond any point science could reach even if it wanted to, in suggesting what it is in a (warning: loaded language coming) more fundamental sense.

Let me finish by pointing out that Plato identified more kinds of kowledge (and hence truth) than just scientific and religious, or even philosophical. His system made room for aesthetic truth (opening a whole other can of worms: why is it that one work of art comes closer to universal appeal than another? can you disentangle cultural conditioning from intrinsic value? aaargh....) but perhaps more interestingly he distinguished between mathematical truth and scientific truth. And of course he was absolutely right about that: a mathematical truth can be proved true. A scientific truth can simply withstand disproof. It's like the difference (which once caused a lot of excitement) between formal proof of correctness of computer programs, and rigorous and thorough testing thereof. One can imagine worlds where the laws of physics are different from our own: think of George Gamow and his Mr Tompkins stories, where the values of h and c are tweaked. It's difficult, though, to imagine worlds where 2 + 2 is not 4. (Though less basic concepts can bend: think of the sum of the angles of a triangle on surfaces of varying curvature.) And since Godel's Theorem, we have had to admit that even mathematical truth has limits. And is that fact (a mathematical truth) significant? Bring on the philosophers, priests and shamen to answer that.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks so much for such a long and considered opinion. I think the original post is pretty much a semi-colon on what I might say, but in reaction to what you've written ...

As far as I can see, philosophy is almost a discussion room for ideas which may eventually come under the consideration of science. In other words, the philosophical questions you list related to what happened before the big bang simply aren't necessarily scientific questions -- yet.

But at some point in the future, when technology or human reason has developed to the degree that it can deal with it in empirical terms it will become a matter for scientists.

I might be wayward in this, but I'd suggest astronomy as an example where the shape of the heavens was a matter of philosophical discussion before Ptolemy took a crack at it (although he used some guess work) and then Galileo then onwards -- and it wasn't until thought and technology were available that the sky could be mapped much more constructively.

So in the end, everything is a scientific question, just not all at once.