Monday, 8 September 2008

Science vs Religion

I have advocated the position on nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) for a long time in the science / religion debate, the two ideas should not be in conflict. But taking a diplomatic position on what ought to be should not take away from the reality of what is. There is a huge conflict between science and religion, there has been since the beginning of science and there will be until the end of our species. It's not really so much about the two concepts on their own, rather it's that there are opposing ideas that do indeed overlap.

A war of ideas
It needs to be said that there are many theists who have no problem having a scientific worldview and a religious worldview together. Likewise there are many atheists who reject a scientific worldview on some level. This is not directed at them, rather it's at those theists who do put religion as an ultimate truth ahead of empiricism and those atheists who refuse to recognise that there can ever be such a reconciliation between the two different ideas.
I think that Gould's separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it's a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.
Richard Dawkins (in that quotation above) is spot on is showing the folly of NOMA, he's picked apart exactly why the position cannot be taken on it's own in the current war of ideas. It must be understood that religion did have first domain over the workings of the world. It's with great strides over many centuries that our investigative nature as yielded a holistic and plausible worldview that can adequately explain the natural workings of the universe. From there, our society has come to regard science as the tool in which to explain natural phenomena. So it's not so much that religion is treading on science turf, it's that science has pulled the turf from under religion and expecting them to leave without hostility.

Science does have claim to that domain, however. An unbiased method of understanding reality that transcends culture and can bring about progress is needed for liberal democracy to survive. In a pluralist society there needs to be a means of discerning one idea from another, having a single authoritative point of knowledge won't satisfy a diverse crowd. With many men and women fascinated by the natural world gathering knowledge, it was only inevitable that the Church's role in historical truth would eventually be usurped. To cut a long story short, the reason I can write this from a desk in Australia and have it instantly broadcast all over the world is thanks to the scientific progress in the last 300 years. How the natural world works is now firmly under the scientific domain.

The position of "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" is disturbing beyond words; well my linguistic capacity anyway. It's telling people not to think, not to understand, because the answer is already there: Goddidit. As a cause (the whole point of science) it's the intellectual equivalent of saying "aliens did it", it tells us nothing of how aliens did it. The brief description given in Genesis is not a scientific guide, it's not even consistent with itself. It's a spiritual guide shaping God's relationship with mankind. So it surprises me that people take the clay golem story so literally. The sad thing is that any admission of fallibility in the scriptures means that God is too infallible. And even though the bible is riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies and absurdities, to question the inerrant nature of the scripture is to question God. Yet if God's creation is fallible, then surely the book that his creation made is fallible too. If God is perfect, then man should be as perfect as any text subscribed to God. This is not to show that God doesn't exist, just to highlight why those causing conflict between science and scripture have broken thinking.

While religion still carries the burden of dogma, it's safe to say the conflict between science and religion will remain. In very simple term, science answers the how, religion (or philosophy) answers the why. By trying to answer the how the dogma puts the religious belief into a falsifiable state; something that is easily done with evidence. Where some atheists fail in thinking is precisely the same, seeing dogma as incompatible with science. If God is taken out of that dogmatic structure and put in a supernatural position, it's completely unfalsifiable. It also leaves the belief as nothing more than speculation, but that's what faith is in the first place. The greatest mistake an atheist could make is to deny that people can take this transcendental view of the workings of God, that he works through nature as opposed to against it. There may be nothing to the argument philosophically, but beliefs are always going to exist about the dualist nature of reality. It's best to recognise that they can be (and have been) reconciled with a wholly scientific view of the world.
Our evolved brains empower us to rebel against our selfish genes. - Richard Dawkins
Just as we can rebel against our selfish genes, surely a theist can rebel against the dogma of their religion and still encompass a view of God. The belief itself may be absurd, but the position is exactly what NOMA encompasses. There is no need to kill religion to advance a scientific view of the world, there are so many theists these days who have found a means to keep their God and look to science to explain reality that it's unhelpful to go after religion in that manner.

The selfish meme
It's probably best to look at religion in the way we look at organisms. It was even Dawkins who proposed this back in the 1970s. Humans, like all other creatures, are individuals. Yet we can be broken down into the summation of our parts. We have arms, legs, head, torso, etc. Now those can be broken down into parts, like the face can be broken down into eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hair, etc. Now we can take the eye and break that down into smaller parts: iris, lens, cornea, pupil, optic nerve and so on. If we go down far enough, we get to the building blocks of cells: our chromosomes, genes and ultimately DNA. This is not to demonstrate the complexity of the body, rather to show that an individual is a collection of other individuals all the way back if you will to subatomic particles.

A meme can be viewed this way as well. So in this sense, we can look at smaller parts of religion itself that make up the whole. Dogma is just one of those parts, and that itself can be reduced to a collection of stories. In this sense, maybe dogma is the memetic equivalent to junk DNA. It once had a purpose, but it's largely been superseded by more specialised functionality. Upon replication, the dogma still remains, but the meme itself has little need for it anymore to propagate. Rather, it can be a hindrance at times. The religions in this modern age that adapt to the social environment it needs to propagate in will survive better than those that don't. So a religion can survive perfectly well because it offers more than just a mythology for the planet. It has meaning, purpose, morality, a guide to better living. While there are surely better philosophical guides out there, the works of David Hume barely reach the masses. It's not propagating anywhere near as successfully as the message of Jesus, so while that message may be coupled with the dogma that is no longer relevant, it still survives as per the environment.

I'm trying to say here that it's not wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While religion in it's most extreme can give rise to dangerous fundamentalists that lead innocent well-meaning people down the path of intolerance, an explicit rejection of the very notion of religion as being completely incompatible is going against the very science we look to. If an organism can adapt to it's environment in order to survive, then surely an idea that propagates has to do the same. Natural selection will take dogma away as long as there is pressure on the dogma itself. It's a formidable organism to try and starve completely, why not work to creating an environment where the unfavourable parts don't propagate but the more favourable parts do? Direct hostility from atheists is not going to endear believers to science, it's unnecessary. Instead, make memes that individually are more successful than religion is for the same task. Soon religion will have to adapt to survive. Darwinian selection at finest.

1 comment:

cactusren said...

Hi Kel,

I wandered over here via Pharyngula, as I was impressed by some of your comments. In general, I have to agree--we can't force religions to change or to disappear. Its something that will certainly happen over time, but only as science is able to explain more and more, and religion is left in the dust.

I suppose the problem in the meantime is that those people who are most religious, and feel the most threatened by science, are the most vocal. And while I generally try to be nice to these people, I have to say that I get pretty angry when they tell me that my profession is all based on a lie. (I study paleontology, and have been told that fossils are tricks of the devil, or put there by God to test my faith, or that fossils don't exist and I'm simply lying.) While I know that a majority of people do not hold these beliefs, a vocal fringe of people do, and its exasperating.

So while I recognize that religion and science do not have to be opposed to one another, its sometimes hard not to have an antagonistic relationship with the devoutly religious.