Sunday, November 18, 2012

Exploring the conflict between Science and Religion

As an introduction to this post, most of what follows I actually wrote as a response to a discussion prompt for a class two semesters ago, as have several other blog posts I've done.  So if this seems kind of out of the blue it is.  I just really like what I wrote up so I figured I'd re use it.

The real point of incompatibility between science and religion is the type of logic used by each.  Since 1620 when Francis Bacon wrote Novum Organum science was reoriented to be based on inductive logic where (simply put) you take observations, make tentative assumptions based on observation, and then test the assumptions by more observations.  Previous scientists had made observations but the scientific method didn't really start to be worked out till Bacon.
Religion, on the other hand, is based more essentially on deductive logic as developed by Aristotle.  A series of spiritual experiences or beliefs are taken as assumptions and then conclusions are made based on those assumptions.  Occasionally the assumptions might be revised by a new spiritual experience or from some other cultural source of information but generally speaking the foundational assumptions are not supposed to change.  If anything is encountered which seems to contradict the assumptions then the typical doctrinal response is to ignore it as invalid on its face because it contradicts the assumptions, contradict it by interpreting the assumptions in a more complicated way, or to make more and more complicated interpretations of the assumptions to allow the apparent contradiction to disappear.
Science using inductive logic never assumes it has a completely true and exact assumption but by testing and revising the assumptions a lot over time they become useful or probably mostly true.  Religion using a more deductive style of logic assumes it has achieved at least some things that are completely true and exactly correct.  It is more or less assumed that given time that other truths can be discovered by exploring the complexities and consequences of those original assumptions.
At least as far as traditional biblical interpretation is concerned we have many cases where there is apparent contradiction between science and religion.  How individuals handle that can vary a lot.  I don't have any easy answers.  Over my life I've had a lot of people who tried to reassure me of my faith by telling me a folklore version of science that was easier to disbelieve or where the contradictions didn't exist.  Like claiming neanderthals and humans didn't overlap in time and that humans don't appear in the fossil record till the time that the bible says they should.  I think that's a practice that we should try to avoid.  It seems almost unavoidable that such folklore sciences will show up because as long as normal people try to figure out science they are bound to make mistakes or make stuff up to fill the gaps in their memory or understanding.  But as much as we can I think we should avoid putting words in scientists mouths to reassure ourselves.
There's no easy way to tell science and religion to make nice and stop fighting because a typical religious doctrine system has no inherent logical path to rapidly reform itself when new evidence shows up.  Science has no inherent logical mechanism to adapt to new religious ideas nor any way to judge which religion's ideas should be incorporated.  They are based on two completely different logic systems so it wouldn't really make sense for them to immediately cross fertilize each other.  If you aren't supposed to contradict the assumptions it takes a lot of time for the assumptions to disappear before you can ignore them.  It wasn't until 1822 (per wikipedia ) that the Catholic Church stopped the ban of printing "heliocentric books in Rome".  That's a grand delay of nearly 300 years after Copernicus published in 1543.  Granted its not always that slow, I think when I read one of Stephen Hawking's books (sorry I can't say which I read several) that he said the Catholic church almost immediately gave doctrinal support to his work on the Big Bang because they thought it was easy to reconcile the big bang with the idea of God having created the Universe.  Having already dismissed biblical literalism from their astronomy they were open to further change.  On other subjects literalism is still more or less the official interpretation (depending on which religion you adhere to).  Its always possible that science on any given subject will turn out to be partially or extremely wrong.  Science isn't supposed to give us absolute truth so we can never rule that out.  Its always possible that the range of subjects on which religions will judge their traditional beliefs to be unsupportable will expand and that in 100 years our descendents will look back on us and laugh with scorn about how crazy we were and how we just didn't realize that a few more parts of our belief systems were obviously expendable.  I think the best thing to do would be for each side to be tolerant of each other and pick their fights as respectfully and as humbly as possible.  Science is most certainly not representing absolute truth because its not meant to do so.  On the other hand, there is probably no belief system with a long history where we couldn't look at the early history and find beliefs contradicted by their later history.  Just take the Old Testament statements about what to do with people with contradictory beliefs and behavior and compare that to the time immediately following the Reformation (lots of religious wars-kill the heretic and force them to believe) and then again with modern practice of Christians.  Or look at New Testament statements about the spirituality and worth of women (1 Timothy 2:12-15 for example) and compare it with recent statements by LDS church leaders (I won't bother linking any, the statements that women are spiritually superior is so frequently repeated it doesn't bear citing).  No matter whether you think its good or bad, no true contradiction, or happened for valid reasons and that both were right in their times, some doctrines change.

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