Sunday, December 23, 2007

Conflicts between science and religion - bring 'em on!

Adrienne said something particularly clever about religion and I'm going to pass it on. We were talking about the touch of flames on this post, the fiery touch being about, unsurprisingly to those who read my blog, intelligent design. Which I, of course, think is deeply stupid and a pretty pathetic attempt to insert supernaturalism into science.

For my part, I was opining why intelligent design folks decide to take on the best scientific theories. In the above discussion, the point wasn't evolution, but cosmology. The gent with whom I was talking was making some bizarre points like . . . because physical laws are uniform throughout the universe that's proof of intelligent design. Which is a bizarre argument. I mean, also false, but additionally bizarre. Even if it was true - and it's not, say, inside a singularity, or in the very early universe, or the differences between quantum effects and relativistic effects, there's plenty of reason to think that the universe isn't the same everywhere - I don't know why that's suggest an intelligent designer. I mean, couldn't the same reasoning be applied regardless of how the universe is? But one of the specific things that the person said is that there is no scientific theory, even a bad one, that explains the origin of the universe. This is very wrong. Not only does science have a theory about the origin of the universe, the big bang, but it is amongst the strongest theories in science. The big bang theory is science working very much how science "should" work - the theory of general relativity suggested that far enough back in time that all matter and energy would achieve infinite density and there would be a beginning to space and time. From that reasoning, there have been numerous experiments that validate the big bang. There are few scientific theories with the level of proof we have for the big bang, both theoretical and observational. The same is true of evolution. The proof for it is staggering, overwhelming. If supernaturalists want to challenge science these are not the theories they should be challenging. I mean, much better would be . . . gravity. We don't know what the fuck it is, hehe. It's downright confusing and there is simply no connection between quantum gravity and relativistic gravity theories, and gravity behaves in certain unique ways that make it the odd-man out of physics. Or electricity. Or turbulent motion. All these things science is having trouble addressing. But, no, they always go after evolution and cosmology, which are particularly strong as theories go. Adrienne opined, certainly correctly, that the reason they go after those two is because they challenge the narrative of religion.

Then Adrienne said, and this is the clever thing, that some religious apologists will try to reconcile religion and science by saying that they cover entirely different subjects, different parts of the human experience, but that's a lie. And it is. The reason why science and religion are brawling is because both of them talk about . . . how humans came into existence, how the universe came into existence. No major religion lacks a creation myth. But this isn't discussed very well, that so long as religions have creation mythology there is going to be considerable antagonism between religion and science. Because, y'know, science says that the universe came into existence because of quantum flux in an instanton around fifteen billion years ago causing the big bang, and religious folks say that a supernatural being that transcends time and space willed the universe into existence. These are conflicting narratives, mutually exclusive, so the people who say that religion isn't about the same things as science are wrong. They are, and evidently so, and people don't much talk about that as being the essence of the conflict, because it is a conflict. Science says one thing, religion says another.

And even beyond cosmology and the origins of life, there are still conflicts. Religious people all make supernatural statements. Even if you're the species of religious person who says that the big bang and evolution are the way that god created the universe, almost all of those people will still cling to supernatural events to justify their belief. So a Christian might say that evolution is the method that god created life, but what about Jesus rising from the dead and physically ascending into heaven? Even religious folks who are willing to concede the creation myths are allegorical or whatever nevertheless make statements of fact. They say, "Jesus rose from the dead". They say, "He physically ascended into heaven." Even when they avoid the biggest issues, they make all these statements that simply cannot be physically true. They still are saying that supernatural agents are at work amongst us.

Which is back to intelligent design. That's what intelligent design is - saying that supernatural agents work amongst us, but do so invisibly. In the case of ID, the invisible is the bogus concept of irreducible complexity. Otherwise, it is invisible amongst the annals of history - which are, of course, woefully incomplete. A Christian says that, you know, supernatural events are only recorded in religious texts because they are otherwise lost to history. Sometimes they can sorta get away with this, like the census that supposedly took place at the time of Jesus' birth. We know the Romans did a number of censuses whose records did not really survive. It becomes less plausible, of course, when you're talking about the graves giving up their dead and zombie prophets walking around Jerusalem, or the Nile turning into fucking blood, or the destruction of two large cities by angels, or . . . you see the point by now, I think. That the only records of the innumerable supernatural events that occur in all religions seem to be recorded only by members of that religion. So, we entirely lack Babylonian accounts of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or any other of these supposedly supernatural events (save when one religion copies a story from a second religion, like with the Biblical Flood).

(Yes, I know there are a smaller section of Christians who believe all supernatural events in the Bible are allegorical and treat Jesus simply as a wise man or whatever, but this isn't really addressed at them and they are a very, very small portion of Christians and most other Christians would say that they're not Christians, so even calling them Christians is fairly problematic.)

I think that non-religious people should stand up more to religious people who are trying to slip it in, then, that "science and religion aren't about the same things". They are. Religions have creation myths that explain the origin of the universe and of life, and these are in direct contradiction to scientific theories. Religions also include supernatural events which also contradict science in a number of ways (being that science, by definition, can't have supernaturalism in it). The people who say that religion and science are about "different things" are ignoring the cases when science and religion do discuss the same topic and are at odds.


Blurber said...

One could say that science and religion are incompatible because:

religion thrives on faith (a belief not supported by evidence or logic)

science thrives on doubt, always questioning. In Christianity doubt is bad (Doubting Thomas).

Randy said...

I disagree with Blurber. I also disagree that science is somehow "pure" and untouched by the same irrational processes that guide religions.

Science is _saturated_ with myth, lies, and irrational beliefs. I need only point to neuromedicine and pharmaceuticals that have invented diseases in order to sell their drugs and surgeries. Psychology and psychiatry are still rife with conflicts going all the way back to Salome and Freud.

It doesn't stop there. How many scientists still cite the studies of brain sizes and intelligence to justify the inequalities between men and women? Between gays and straights? Between blacks and whites?

And as for the Big Bang... so much of its "evidence" is highly, highly circumstantial. We have NO idea what the universe was like in its "first few seconds" -- assuming it even had a first few seconds! Yet you'll see textbook after textbook explaining to high school and college students how there was this specific ratio of hydrogen-to-helium at x point in time in a formative universe that no human could ever possibly know.

The truth is NO one knows where we came from. Science is very much behaving like a religion when it makes absolutist claims to our origins that it CANNOT prove, such as the Big Bang.

(I believe evolution is, without a shadow of a doubt, a fact. Nor do I discount the Big Bang -- I believe that the Big Bang is a model for behavior of our universe rather than a model for the _origin_ of our universe.)

I also find it difficult to put such high esteem in an institution which has been traditionally very, very sexist AND racist. Things are changing but much too slowly. I still find it abhorrent that I can open books on evolution that will endlessly cite the likes of Darwin and Dawkins yet remain suspiciously silent on Margulis.

So, no, sciences and religions are not about separate things. They do share a lot of the same methods, traits, and ends.

Chris Bradley said...


You're full of bad reasoning there. You also have no idea what you're talking about, unfortunately, in some of the specifics.

It is indisputable that science is filled with error. It is equally indisputable that science is the most materially productive and swiftly self-correcting field of knowledge that there is. Sure, unscrupulous scientists have invented disease to provide those cures (but, for the record, pharmaceuticals isn't a science, it's a business, so I'm not even sure why you're bringing the unethical advertising of corporations in condemnation of science); this practice is widely regarded as criminally unethical by the majority of people in the medical profession. And so what if psychology and psychiatry are rife with conflict? All sciences are rife with conflict. That's the way science works. There's a conflict and competing hypotheses and over time, with study and evidence and research, the best of these float to the surface.

How many scientists cite brain size studies for intelligence? AFAIK, roughly zero. That has been long discredited. Not even The Bell Curve asshats had the stones to do that one. The science of discrimination has become more subtle even as it has become less powerful.

But, it's with the Big Bang that you demonstrate that you have no idea what you're talking about. The Big Bang is one of the most chock full of evidence theories in science. Every time we turn around we see evidence of the big bang, from the energy density of the background radiation to the rate of universal expansion. Further, to say that our universe didn't come from the Big Bang is like saying you didn't come from your parents because your parents came from other parents. Our universe came from the Big Bang. That the Big Bang, itself, might have come from the collision of two or more branes in the bulk or whatever, and let's not even talk about if something is happening to the bulk, is itself a scientific curiosity but our universe came from the Big Bang.

What you are doing is conflating that humans are sometimes foolish and unscrupulous (such as inventing disease to sell the cures), and that science doesn't know everything (such as with psychology having no unified model of consciousness), and then something weird about the Big Bang that isn't true to say that religion and science are highly similiar. Tho' I have done it before, I shall do it, again, and list off some of the primary differences between science and religion.

Science is based in observation of the material world, and when it is at variance with the material world, or our understanding of the material world, science changed to fit the new observations. Largely, religion does not. (And, please, do not bore me with a diatribe that it happens inaccurately or slowly. It does happen, and faster than religion. Indeed, as far as I can tell, faster than anything.)

Statements of scientific fact are largely verifiable and falsifiable. Not so much with religion.

Scientific theories support each other (like evolution being supported by geology). Facts in one field of study are useful in other fields. Related to this, a good scientific theory opens un new areas of scientific exploration. Religion doesn't even have anything like this.

Science has technological implications. We have yet to see a single supercomputer because of religious study. Or even a single angel, unfortunately for them.

Experimentation. Science has it. Religion does not.

Accurate predictions. When science says something will happen, it almost always does.

Public fact checking. Scientific statements and their reasoning are publicly accessible and checked by those hostile to them. Religion? Not so much. Religious facts are created by dogma and a few charismatic leaders who claim absolute and often literally miraculous truth.

I could go on in this vein for a while. To believe that science is like religion ignores the ways that they are different. You can say, "Oh, they're both flawed belief systems" and you'd be right. But it would ignore the way they're different, and the differences in how they're flawed. Ignoring for the moment that some scientists are unscrupulous (and it's fairly hard to be an unscrupulous scientist because public fact checking), when a theory or hypothesis is in error, it still represents an honest attempt from the scientist. This is in opposition to how facts, in religion, are simply irrelevant. When the real world abutts religion in such a fashion that demonstrates that the religion is flawed, the response is almost always that the real world is wrong. In science, the science changes to reflect the new information (yes, this happens slowly and imperfectly, but it *does happen*). That's an important difference. All the differences I've said above are important, and to ignore them is, I think, just ignorant.

And about that sexist and racist thing, fuck, man, what field are you in? Yes, science is sexist, racist and classist, both presently and far moreso historically, but what field isn't? The world is sexist, racist and classist. I mean, to say you don't have faith in science because it's sexist and racist and then back religion . . . is pretty fucking funny. Or what is it you're doing, again? Let me guess, there's this long history of sexism, racism and classism. Who knew. Which is not to dismiss the damage that sexism, racism and classism do - far from it! But to select out science as a particular bad case is daft.

Randy said...

I never said science and religion were the same thing. I wouldn't be pursuing a science degree if that were the case.

What I was saying is that science is a human system, and like all human systems its subject to the same flaws that we see in religion. Being surrounded by science students and scientists alike, I constantly hear how science is self-correcting, progressing, perfect.

Just so we're on the same page, I know all that stuff about the difference between science and religion. We've been over this ad nauseum in years past. I'm simply providing a counter to all the "Science is super, ra ra ra's" that I've seen on this board and elsewhere. I'm being Devil's advocate.

Science can be used to create a lot of bad policy -- just as religion used to (and still does). Remember all those drug studies that say x-drug will cause x-amount of brain damage? These same kinds of studies are STILL being done and are STILL dictating our policy on drugs. Ecstasy, for example, is still being touted as a brain killer even when the doctors who conducted the study, in their own data sections, said that their results were inconclusive! (Yet their abstract and conclusion said they had a definite conclusion - ecstasy causes brain damage.)

These bogus studies are keeping MDMA from being used medicinally. MDMA has numerous therapeutic uses and the possibility for its use has been restricted by drug laws. This also goes for marijuana.

And yes, science is largely to blame.

For a real life example, my dad's researching traumatic brain injuries (TBI's) in soldiers coming back from Iraq. The lead researcher was recently given an order from the Departement of Defense to show that Gen. Petraeus' new strategies are reducing TBI's across the board. Regardless of whether or not what the researchers find, they've been told to conclude in their studies that TBI's have fallen so our government can look better. That is BAD science.

You could say, "Well, that's a problem with policy makers and not science." Sure. But where does that line get drawn between policy makers and scientists? What happens when your funding can dictate what you declare to be truth? How much of our scientific research is guided by our government and business that wants _specific_ results?

In some sense, this isn't that much different from religion: science can be used as a tool to maintain the power of elite individuals. Science can disseminate lies and myths among the population just like religion can. The difference in this case is that religion does it on the basis of "faith" and science does it on the basis of "observation."

As for NO scientists citing brain studies? I can tell you that a tenured professor and researcher at my university, Dr. Hasker Davis, DOES cite brain studies to his students (on top of bell curve studies). He's driven black students out of his class when they've protested to him, explaining that they can always leave his class if they don't like what he has to say. (He also uses these studies to do the same shit to females.)

But that's a personal example. A more well-known case came about just recently. In April of last year, James Watson of (plagarized) DNA fame, came out and said that he was unoptimistic about the problems in Africa because blacks were less intelligent than whites. He's basing a lot of this off of old "studies," yes, but nonetheless he's still spouting this shit to his students, and he's of such a high standing in the scientific community that for him to say that kind of shit is a BIG deal, Chris.

We could brush this off. "He's just an old racist coot. He doesn't represent all of science." Which is true. But nonetheless, he represents a sector of science that people look to for creating policies. There are non-scientists out there who will look to someone like Watson and say, "See, science PROVES that blacks are inferior. I can go on being a fucking racist."

Of course, we could also just assume that these non-scientist racists are just simply racist, and will always be racist regardless of what evidence is provided to them. If that's the case, then why is it so wrong for sectors of religion to also advocate racism/sexism/homophobia/classism/etc?

As for the Big Bang: I'm sorry, our observations from our one little point in space isn't enough to create an overarching _theory_ to explain where the universe came from. This akin to someone who never left Manchester to make definitive statements about what the rest of the world must be like. You even said yourself in a previous post that the rules of physics could very well be DIFFERENT in other places in our universe! If that's the case, doesn't it stand that our observations and thus our conclusions could also be entirely different depending on where and when in the universe we are when we make those observations?

I'm not saying that the Big Bang was wrong. I never did. I only contest it as an _origin_ for our -- or any -- universe. And, as a scientist, I would have to say that at the very least it is the best model we have to explain what we can observe right here right now. But you're a historian, Chris. I don't have to remind you that scientists have held tightly to theories, only to have those theories torn apart in lieu of new evidence. And yes, I know that's a part of science: old theories get replaced by new ones. Religion doesn't do that (per se, and certainly not as easily). But as you've shown, and as countless other scientists have shown, the Big Bang can be touted as its own "origin myth."

We don't know where the universe came from. We don't know where energy comes from. We don't why the rules of the universe are the way that they are. To claim that we do isn't much different than saying that we know there was a Garden of Eden or that we know the world has a giant serpent living beneath it.

Quite frankly, I don't believe that our universe ever had a beginning. I don't believe in a beginning of time. I don't believe in the prime mover, which is essentially what the Big Bang theory is if one considers it the origin of our universe. I believe that cause and effect are largely illusions generated by our language. I don't believe that our universe ever required a beginning in order to exist, nor do I conceive of it ever having an end.

I can't prove this. But neither can you prove that our universe had a beginning. Hence, no science.

And I'm not discrediting all of science because of a whole lot of assholes. I think science can be humanity's saving grace. But I am critiquing the system and how humans can and have abused the system. To brush off science's -ism's as, "Well, EVERYONE knew that!" is in error. Science is a powerful institution, and humans put a lot of faith (yes, I said it -- FAITH) into a system that is supposed to generate truth. When even a handful of scientists use that position of truth to justify hate, there is a PROBLEM WITH THE SYSTEM.

Doctors can lose their licenses to practice medicine if they're deemed irresponsible by the medical community. Why can't scientists?

I guess it's like the serial killer vs. dictator thing: it's easier to get away with killing a thousand people than it is a dozen.

Man, that was long. In closing, I want to say that I don't hate science. I don't hate religion, either. I like science much more than I like religion. I believe that a lot of good science is done all the time, and I know that science has the potential to cure most of our ills (many of which were created by -- ta da! -- religion).

But I also think it's irresponsible to disregard the abuses of science as "errors" or "uncommon." Just as science has given us cures, it's given us bioweapons. It's prolonged our lives, but it's also provided us the means to nuke ourselves into oblivion.

I'm just saying: keep sharp and watch 'em. Science is subject to the same insanity as any other human institution.

Chris Bradley said...

I stopped reading after this: "Being surrounded by science students and scientists alike, I constantly hear how science is self-correcting, progressing, perfect."

I stopped reading it because it's stupid. Obviously stupid. You don't seem to be getting how it's stupid, tho', so I'll point it out.

If something is self-correcting, it's obviously not perfect. Now, is it true that science is self-correcting? In some areas, this is incontestable. Is it progressing? Well, yes, also indisputable. Is it perfect? No. There is open admission of this in scientific circles. (Indeed, if anything, I think too many scientists are working to force a change in science, to be the leader of a paradigm shift for ego's sake, rather than following the research where it goes.)

But I read that bit and said, "Huh, he can't make sense in a single paragraph about this."

And anyone who has paid attention to my blog over the years will also be able to find places where I elaborately criticize science's sexism, racism and classism. So I don't know who you're even talking to.

But the idea that religion is not worse than science, given the historical differences between them, is the argument of someone who is either ignorant or a moron.