February 10, 2005

Religion: What's Fair?

I cannot believe that this is still going on. There are Americans who are astounded that much of the world views them as an intellectual backwater, and they protest such treatment (rightly, in my mind). But when you look at what the public face of America is, you can begin to understand why they are looked down on. Go back ten years, or even five years, and there was a very different opinion.

You can protest all you want about how good a family guy you are; or the books you read; or the amount you give to charity. If you throw your garbage into your neighbours yard; skin their dogs; and shoot at people randomly, then the neighbourhood is not going to like you. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "It matters who you pretend to be; because that, in the end, is who you are."

So what's this got to do with religon? Currently in seventeen states of the US, there are legal and educational challenges to the teaching of evolution. How has this particular brand of idiocy survived this long? Simple: people believe. And when you believe, you don't have to think.

More specifically, there have been several religous groups who feel that evolution and religon are opposites. So they have created a concept called "intelligent design". This is the claim that since science cannot prove that evolution requires complexity, then the complexity that life contains could only be from a creator of some kind. (Gee, I wonder who they could be thinking of...?) You can imagine the uproar if every variant of creationism was taught alongside evolution, eh?

So, they say, in the intrests of fairness and tolerance of other views, creationism should be taught alongside evolution (inteligent design) and should be given equal time. What's wrong with that?

Let me count the ways...

Actually, I'm just going to stick to the most basic reasons why creationism and science are 1) not opposites; and 2) incompatible. Whoa - does that look like a paradox to you?

Science is a study based on observations of the world around us. We can see how something functions, study it, and try various hypothesis to explain it. The best part about science is that it is self correcting: the instant a hypothesis (or even a theory) is disproved with superior facts, then that hypothesis is consigned to history. Perhaps the classic example of this is Newtons alchemy: here was one of the greatest scientific minds in history, convinced that base elements could be transformed instantaneously from one to another through mystical means, but the laws of nature didn't bear this out, so that branch of science died out, bearing no fruit. Chemistry was only tangentally related, and could be best described in its early form as "physics with liquids"; but it did produce repeatable results, and so thrived.

One of the greatest fallacies used by evolutions opponents is that evolution isn't perfect, so the entire theory should be trashed. Besides, it's just a theory, right? These are people who do not know the difference between hypothesis, theory, and proof. What it means that science calls evolution a theory seems to be missed by critics: there is a will to change the theory should superior facts present themselves. They haven't.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, is simply a variant of the "watch in a desert" question: if you were walking the desert and found a watch, you would not expect it to have grown there naturally, would you? Of course not. Likewise, with the awsome complexity of life, you don't expect it to have come from nowhere, do you? Of course not. Ipso facto, the watch was created by an intelligence. To which, you reply certainly: and that intelligence came from where? What they don't mention is that if later in that same desert you found a watch bush growing at the side of the path, but no sign of intelligent beings anywhere, then you would have to leave the subject open, wouldn't you? This is what science does.

Science starts with observation: what is here, what is around us. You can teach science, and how science operates, and what physical laws have been discovered, and what's still up in the air. And if those laws are found to be false, science changes to match the facts.
Religon starts with belief: what we want to be here, what could be around us. You can teach about religon, and what various religons are, and what moral codes they may have, but you can't force belief. The moral values are absolute and unchangeable, or else a schism results.

That's the difference at its core. Science is of the physical realm, and religon is of the spiritual. There is no real conflict between these two because they operate in entirely different fields. The only time they can be considered opposties is when religon tries to claim scientific validity.

Why is this a crisis in schools? Because the intelligent design groups are trying to change what is being taught from science to religon, from fact to fantasy. Learning biology without evolution is much like trying to learn physics without calculus: there are some basic things you can do with it, but nothing very advanced. The entire fields of research have come from evolution and its sister study, genetics. They are two halves of the same equation, they simply do not stand alone without the other. Perhaps this means both are wrong. Perhaps there will be a discovery in time to explode the current theories: it's certainly possible. But here's the crux: when this happens, it will be fully trained scientists who bring these theories forth; and they will be savaged by their contemporaries, and the theories will survive because the facts support them.

This is why I trust science before religon every time: what is real will win out, not what is believed or what should be believed. Giving mysticism equal time with science is fine, if you really think it necessary: just don't make the mistake of believing that mysticism to be science.


posted by Thursday at 11:29 am


Anonymous Rish said...

Interesting arguement. Perhaps you might also want to consider the following arguement in addition: One who is a true follower of scientific though cannot have a religion, and one who is religious cannot be of pure scientific thought. The reason is, as you alluded to, a scientist must doubt EVERYTHING. Anything is only considered true in so far as the evidence supports it, and is thrown away once the evidence does not. Indeed, without doubt, scientific progress could not exist. Religion requires a faith in an idea, which is beleif without doubt, for something that cannot be proven. Thus, for example, a scientist without personal hypocracy must be an agnostic.

An excellent illustration of this idea is Albert Einstein, who argued for decades against the quantum theory because he had a conviction that (as the saying goes) "god does not play dice". He has described this as his greatest mistake.

3:15 am  
Blogger Thursday said...

My favorite rejoinder to Einstien's comment was from Niels Bohr: "Albert! Stop telling God what to do!"

Personally, I disagree that scientists must doubt everything. They must be able to test any hypothesis before it becomes theory, and they must be able to accept the results of that testing, but so long as they can differentiate between science and belief, I have no problem with a scientist being religious.

As I mention, "There is no real conflict between these two because they operate in entirely different fields." Many, indeed most, scientists proclaim themselves to be followers of one religion or another. But the best scientists don't start with a conclusion (the bible) and go through incredible lengths to froce their hypotheses to fit!

Thanks for the comment.

9:35 am  

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