I thought this was an extremely interesting quote on a whole variety of levels. My friend didn’t wish to host a debate on his Facebook page, which I can understand and honor, but I wanted to explore a variety of issues that the quotation raises.
The Hope of Science
In the debate surrounding science and religion I think people spend too little time trying to figure out what both science and religion are. If you want to figure out how they inter-relate, we should have a clear idea of what they are for and how they work.
There is no question that the invention of science (and it is an invention) is one of the most important discoveries in the history of the world. My favorite computer game is Civilization and one of the technologies that changes the world is called “The Scientific Method“.
When we talk about Science we are usually talking about the practice, the community, the body of information developed around the deployment and practice of the Scientific Method. Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.
The hope of Science I would assert is certainty AND community.
The certainty claim is more obvious. Certainty is pursued by the promise of verifiability and consistency. When a finding is published it should stand up to peer review. Someone else should be able to duplicate the finding independent of the persons who first published the finding. Given consistency in context and components a process should yield the exact same outcome every time.
This is or course a powerful thing because what it offers for humanity is something we’ve been seeking through magic, religion, politics, and relationships: control over outcomes. Knowledge gained through the scientific method holds out the hope that we can by virtue of knowledge and technique control outcomes that we desire.
The hope of science is nothing less than control.
Science and Community
Not only does this hope of control over outcomes attract us to science, but it also holds out the offer of undoing another limitation that has long plagued us.
Genesis 11 tells the story of the tower of Babel. In rebellion against Yhwh’s command that the descendants of the world’s best man (Noah) spread out to “be fruitful and fill the earth) they congregated together into one great city and built a tower to make a name for themselves. Yhwh then famously confused their language and their capacity to collaborate was greatly diminished leading to the outcome that the descendants of Noah initially resisted. Science seems to offer the undoing of Babel.
Because science is all about the search for objectivity, for reduction and control over variables, for control over description of process and thereby securing outcomes, Science often employs specific languages: mathematics, physics, etc. These languages are within the scientific community a lingua franca . Science establishes languages that get around the confusion of languages described in Babal and offer a chance for groups of people to collaborate again in order to build bodies of knowledge, systems of inquiry, and the foundations of technique to create models that predict the future, create desired outcomes or avoid undesirable outcomes.
The promise of Science as seen in certainty (based on reproducible, empirical, verifiable evidence) and community for reliably achieving desired outcomes works upon us as individuals and communities in a variety of ways. Science is truly one of the most important and amazing things about human community and it deserves the respect and praise it receives.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
I don’t remember what class I read this classic book for at Calvin College, but Thomas Kuhn’s masterpiece changed my view of science and the world. (I just saw you can buy it on Kindle for less than $4!) He aptly demonstrated how the history of science was not a simple construction of a body of knowledge but rather a process of communal agreements with respect to construals of the data.
What the book really shows is that Science is a communal human enterprise. It is about human community forming around knowing and agreeing about the world we live in.
Upon What does Science Depend
When I hear people talk about “Science” I often hear them using the wrong word. Often people talk about “Science” as if they are speaking about the objective order within which we live. That is incorrect. Science is the a process by which we view, know, and technology is the means we employ to interact with this objective order.
What all of this means is that Science itself is dependent upon a number of assumptions. We assume that there is an objective world that exists apart from human perception. When that tree falls in the woods where no human is present to hear it it still makes a sound. Existence predates human experience of existence. This seems simple and obvious, but when we get to the question of religion, it becomes important.
We also assume that this objective existence outside of our perceptions is ordered, consistent, knowable and reliable. Without these assumptions the whole quest of certainty and community of Science would be in vain. If an experiment were not verifiable and reproducible then there would be no point to the scientific method. Science can’t deliver upon what we hope for it apart from these assumptions and the assertions (and evidence) that these assumptions are true and valid.
Again, to reiterate, Science is a way of knowing and a way of forming human community.
The Limitations of Science
If we understand what Science is (a process of knowing and establishing community) and we understand what the process requires (a control of variables, limitations of data) then we can understand the limits of Science. Science only works by intentional limitation of one’s view.
The genius of the Scientific method in fact is in its humility. I can’t know everything, and in fact human community is always fractured by its inability to agree on what IS, so maybe we can make progress if I severely limit what I am looking at, and isolate a process that I am to explore, and control the variables around this process, THEN I can discover and relate that discovery to others GIVEN these limitations.
The second sentence in the Wikipedia article is very good and helpful: “To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.“
Keys to this way of knowing and forming community are that the subject matter is empirical and measurable. Ever since we agreed upon this great tool we’ve tried to explore increasing amounts of our universe with it, with varying degrees of success. What stops us? Because huge areas of the objective world are resistant to empirical scrutiny, reduction to measurement, and most importantly, our capacity to control the limitation of variables. A great deal of energy is exerted on making the outlying parts of our universe fit under our microscope. A great deal of human conflict surrounds whether or not we are able to apply the scientific method to subject X.
The Secular World
One way of viewing the creation of secular culture is seeing that we as a society have attempted to make the hope of Scientifically knowing and forming community THE organizational principle for public discourse. Conflicts created by differences in religion, politics, ideology, and just plain human opinion we hope to believe can be solved by application of the scientific method to our worlds. It is around this method that we hope we can know the objective world upon which we depend, seek to control outcomes, and find an means by which we can establish stable, peaceful and productive human community. That is the dream of the secular world. Will it work? Can it work?
When Science and Religion Meet
If we understand what Science is, we have a hope for understanding how science and religion inter-relate.
Not only am I regularly amazed at the poverty of people’s working definitions of science, I am also regularly amazed at the poverty of people’s working definition of religion. Just like people get distracted by the apparatus of science (coats, beakers, rulers, pencils, computers, etc.) they also get distracted by the apparatus of religion (books, rules, songs, liturgy, body positions, social structures, etc.)
Religion has always been a means by which people have sought very similar things from which they sought through Science. Through Religion people seek
- knowledge of the objective world upon which they are dependent.
- control over desired outcomes
- community with which to pursue those outcomes
The key difference between Religion and Science are their scope. Science can never be as broad as Religion UNLESS you intentionally and pre-suppositionally limit your view of existence to that which can be addressed by the controls that the practice of Science demands. Religion knows no such boundaries.
What can we expect from the conversation?
1. Not all religions will interact equally well with science. Religions have history and rules, philosophical and metaphysical assertions. Religions make assertions with respect to the knowability, objectivity, and predictability of the empirical world. It was this issue that drew my attention in the Dalai Lama statement. If you want to understand his statement as more than a slogan probably lobbed more onto the cultural battlefield of the Abrahamic religion’s relationship with science you should do some reading about the assertions of the Hindu family of religions and their assertions about the knowability, objectivity and predictability of the empirical world. There are philosophical reasons that Science came to develop within the cultural realm of the Abrahamic religions and I’d recommend that we pay attention to those reasons.
What we will discover in the process (something that secularization too often papers over) is that not all religions are the same. Religions have always had a complex relationship to the empirical world and they always will because religions are about the quest to know the reality upon which we are dependent. For this reason throughout the history of human civilization religions have arisen and fallen in competition with each other and factions within them as well. Even Western religious consumers evaluate religion upon its relationship with the empirical world, no matter how shallow or individualistic their analysis may be.
2. Those with skin in the game will at times feel threatened and therefore behave poorly within the process. Religions address core convictions and assertions outside the purview of science. Religions have created commitments around which communities have formed and within those communities there are relationships, livelihoods, institutions and other things that may be at stake within the conversation.
All of this is equally true of scientific communities. A reading of the history of scientific revolutions will demonstrate (as well as experience within scientific communities) that scientists have egos too and the process by which communities of scientific knowledge and agreement are formed almost always involves conflict, politics, personalities and emotions. Scientists are people too and the reason they do what they do is because they love it, they are emotionally invested in it. Feelings won’t just be coming from the religious experts or adherents.
The Dalai Lama’s Quote
The quote is a fun place to start because it is either a simplistic slogan or there is a lot of complexity beneath it that invites a much longer conversation. I choose to believe and engage in the second.