Saturday, June 23, 2007


Stanley Fish, a columnist I recommend, wrote in the New York Times last week about “Atheism and Evidence”. His argument was an old one that one hears from the very religious – that truth is constructed, and both science and religion are based on faith, so one is just as valid as the other.

I will concede that science is also based on faith. We don’t have direct experience of all that science tells us, yet we choose to accept it, really on faith.

The question of which is the more valid hinges on how great a leap of faith is required.

In my entry from last week, I noted how while most Americans say they have faith in science, in practice they hold to very unscientific beliefs. People hold those beliefs simply because they seem to work OK for them. As a guide to a good life, religion works pretty well for many people.

One chooses the truth that one finds most fruitful as a guide to living one’s life. Religion for many is a kind of rule of thumb for righteous living.

This is only understandable if one recognizes that what we call “truth” is really just a proposition about reality. The religious tend to believe that Truth has a capital “T”, that there are fixed, eternal, immutable truths, just as the fundamentalists believe that species are fixed and immutable. Science tells us that everything is in motion, everything experiences constant change, nothing stands still but everything evolves.

Science starts from the hypothesis, which is a kind of proposition. Let’s assume that something will work, and then test it out in practice. If it works, it’s a valid guide to action. Science assumes that truth is not fixed, that what works under most circumstances will not work under all circumstances. But if “by and large, for the most part” (to borrow a phrase from Aristotle) it holds true, if experiments produce verifiable and repeatable results, we can trust the hypothesis.

Religion is pre-scientific – it offers truths that it does not feel obliged to prove through evidence. For example, many religions recommend faith in the power of prayer. Science says, rather than just accept that prayer is powerful, let’s test it in practice. Thus a large study funded by the John Templeton Foundation tested the power of prayer in practice – and found no evidence that it had any positive effect on the health of heart patients.

Many atheists will conclude that religious folks are acting irrationally when they pray. But I think we have to understand that the object of the healing power of prayer is not the person prayed for, but the person doing the praying.

Human beings desperately want to believe that they can have some power over the tempestuous world we live in. Believing in prayer gives them hope that they can somehow bring about a positive outcome, even in circumstances where they are quite powerless. Believing that one has power to bring about positive outcomes, that there is always something one can do, is a very healthy mindset. Prayer therefore has a very concrete benefit – otherwise people would not be praying.

One has faith in the truths that seem to yield the best results.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


I listened to a podcast lecture yesterday by Harvard history of science professor Steven Shapin. Shapin argues that science is becoming so loose a term used by so many – think creation science, scientology, etc. – and so few people live by science, that perhaps the term has lost all meaning, and certainly that the modern consciousness is not scientific.

He cites a number of sad statistics about Americans – that more than 90% believe in God, 82% believe in a physical Heaven, 84% believe in the survival of the soul after death, more than 50% reject evolution, that more than 25% believe the sun revolves around the Earth, and so on – as evidence that while people talk as if they respect science, they don’t actually know what it is.

Furthermore he states he has never heard a convincing definition of the scientific method. Which prompts this entry.

Let me start with an interesting point Shapin makes. He points out that at some point in our culture, scientists conceded some important ground to religion. They began to argue that science had nothing to say about morality, in fact that science and morality were mutually exclusive. Science was not about morality, and morality was not about science. They were all too willing to surrender the hard questions to the mystics and the divines, the priests and the pastors, because they had no scientific answers to offer.

One of my goals for this blog is to find a way to bridge science and morality, to show that morality can be explained through a range of scientific discoveries, not least of which was the work of Darwin and his intellectual descendents.

In part this is an epistemological question. Scientists, if they were worth their salt, learned early in their careers that absolute certainty had no place in science. Science is not the search for absolute truths – in fact physics has proven that all is in a state of flux and impermanence, and there are no absolutes.

Aware of this, and no doubt influenced by the religious cultures in which they were born and bred, scientists in the Enlightenment began to argue that their endeavors were much humbler and more practical than those of the spiritual leaders. They operated on a different plane.

Today in America one frequently comes across a curious belief that religious convictions are sacrosanct, above question, and that anyone has the perfect right to believe any sort of nonsense if it seems to have a “spiritual” basis. The rules don’t apply. It’s the split between faith and reason.

This split often shows up in the individual themselves. Something over 50% of American scientists, people who make their daily living from rationality, believe in a God, and seem quite comfortable with this split brain. Orwell called it double-think – the ability to firmly believe in two contradictory ideas at the same time.

Prof. James T. Hall cites a lecture he attended given by an evangelical. The speaker distinctly contradicted himself in his talk. When Prof. Hall questioned him on this, his reply was too the effect that, yes it was true that he had contradicted himself, but that didn’t matter, because “this is not science, this is religion.” Oh. OK then.