Friday, November 11, 2005

Science and Two Types of Religion

We keep a pretty close eye on the evolution-versus-creationism debate here, because it is exactly parallel to our controversy. That issue is perhaps a little easier to understand, because it is a pure case of religious extremists disrespecting science. There isn't much to discuss as far as the subject matter goes, if you take the fundamentalists' literal view of the Bible then you reject Darwin, and if you do research in the life sciences you reject Genesis as an explanation for how we got here.

The sex-ed situation is a little tougher, because science is still trying to understand the ontogeny of sexual orientation. Why does a person grow up to be gay? The question is still under investigation. We have a tendency to think of science as a sort of repository of facts, but really, science is a method for finding the answers to questions. As techniques and theories that inform present-day genetics and neuroscience are still quite new, those sciences are still asking more questions than they're answering. And I don't think the controversy will settle down until we get those kinds of answers, mechanistic, low-level explanations for variation in sexual orientation.

As you know, up in Dover Pennsylvania the people decided they weren't going to support their school board's attempt to replace scientific course content with religious dogma. They voted all eight members of their school board out, replaced the whole bunch of them.

Pat Robertson has something to say about that:
Conservative Christian televangelist Pat Robertson told citizens of a Pennsylvania town that they had rejected God by voting their school board out of office for supporting "intelligent design" and warned them on Thursday not to be surprised if disaster struck.


"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city," Robertson said on his daily television show broadcast from Virginia, "The 700 Club."

"And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there," he said. Televangelist Robertson Warns Town of God's Wrath

Personally, this doesn't strike me as the most ... sophisticated ... kind of religion. Hey, here's a total change of subject, when athletes on two opposing teams both pray for victory, what do they really expect God to do?

Anyway, Pat's pretty sure Dover Pennsylvania's toast.

But it's not that simple. This story didn't get a lot of notice last week, but it certainly affects the shape of the landscape:
VATICAN CITY -- A Vatican cardinal said Thursday the faithful should listen to what secular modern science has to offer, warning that religion risks turning into "fundamentalism" if it ignores scientific reason.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture, made the comments at a news conference on a Vatican project to help end the "mutual prejudice" between religion and science that has long bedeviled the Roman Catholic Church and is part of the evolution debate in the United States.


"The faithful have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer, just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity."


Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest, reaffirmed John Paul's 1996 statement that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis."

"A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false," he said. "(Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof." Vatican: Faithful Should Listen to Science

Reading the news stories about this, you can tell that the Church is still a little jumpy after they denounced Galileo for insisting that the earth goes around the sun nearly five hundred years ago. And I'm glad they learned from that experience.

Religion and science answer different kinds of questions, and it is only when one tries to comment in the other's domain that they come into conflict. Questions that can be addressed by the methods of science must be falsifiable. That means there must be something that can be done, an experiment or some kind of observation or something, that can clearly show that a theoretical statement is false. It's not enough to demonstrate that a statement is true -- in Karl Popper's famous example, no matter how many white swans you see, you can't say with certainty that all swans are white. Observing one black swan, though, proves the statement false. So the methods of science are focused on disproving hypotheses.

Religious statements generally are not falsifiable. What experiment would disprove the existence of God? There is none possible. Miracles may provide evidence in support of religious views, but really those are like white swans, they don't prove anything. Religious statements are taken on faith, not evidence. That is certainly not to say they are any less important, or any less valid, in their own domain. Knowlege by faith and empirical knowledge are just two different kinds of things, and apply in different circumstances.

But of course it is possible to go out on a limb and make falsifiable religous statements. For instance, the statement that the world was made in seven days is a falsifiable statement -- it's not about faith, it's about the observable world. Similarly, the statement that all animals living today are descended from Noah's passengers -- falsifiable.

It goes both ways. I see scientists make claims about consciousness, for instance, which is unobservable, and those statements are not falsifiable. Consciousness is a matter of faith, we have no evidence that a being is or is not conscious. And it seems to me that scientists who theorize about consciousness are not only out of bounds, but ... wrong.

I'm afraid that as long as people insist that everything in the Bible must be taken literally, there will be conflict between religion and science. There must be a way to interpret scripture so that its domain is understood, it must be understood that religion is about spirituality and not about the physical world, and it does look like the Catholic Church is aware of the conundrum and is being very reasonable in looking for a path that avoids a showdown between faith and fact. This is a tough one, and I totally sympathize with those who are unwilling to give up beliefs about God's effects in the world, but as science keeps marching forward it is simply an insult to the intelligence of the human race to cling to prehistoric myths. The Catholics seem aware of the potential train-wreck, have figured out who will win a debate between fact and fairy-tale, and are proactively defining their beliefs to be in accordance with fact.

Pat Robertson, on the other hand ...


Anonymous Anonymous said...


If you're in public school, could tell us the teacher's name?

November 14, 2005 11:36 AM  

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