Monday, 22 December 2008

The Battle Between Science and Religion

In the 3rd century BCE, a Greek called Aristarchus of Samos came up with the radical idea that it was the earth that orbited the sun and not the other way around. It was an idea that did not survive even it's own time, but almost 2000 years later a Polish mathematician named Copernicus made a mathematical model that predicted heliocentric orbit. It was expanded upon by Kepler, and finally it came to Galileo who for his work advancing heliocentrism was tried for heresy by the Roman Catholic church. It's only been in recent times that Galileo has been admonished and now in a complete turnaround Pope Benedict XVI is praising Galileo.

Between certainty and knowledge
Science is a very tentative enterprise, it's not to say it's wrong, but the nature of science means that ideas change over time as new evidence comes to light and new explanations are needed. For that reason, science is a highly conservative process wherein new explanations are vigorously tested as to weed out the inadequate explanations. An idea is as good as it's explanatory power for the empirical data.

By contrast, dogmatism already has ideas of how the world works. One only needs to look at the ferocity of the creationist movement to see the rejection of evidence in favour of a pre-existing story. The appeals of creationists today for genesis chapters 1 and 2 aren't all that different from the appeals in Galileo's day where the appeal was to Psalms 93 or 96. These days the charge of heresy is gone, but the threat of hell for rejecting God's word remains.

Herein lies the problem of trying to amalgamate dogmatism with scientific understanding. Once there is that preconceived notion of absolute truth any contrary view is unequivocally false. Science doesn't work on that notion, instead the tentative nature of knowledge has a mode of uncertainty that accompanies any knowledge. What we know to be true today may be superseded in the future as more evidence comes to light. It's grounding in empirical measurement of reality is what sets science apart from other means of gaining insight into the world.

When one comes from the point of view that there is a divine mandate that all knowledge must be reconciled with, fundamental shifts in knowledge are going to be an affront to said mandate. How can a religion reconcile knowledge as it keeps changing over time? The only two really tenable options are to withdraw the dogmatism as a guide to science or reject science as a means discovery. It's simply untenable to reinterpret an authoritative document time and time again then claim that each point along the way that the document was right. Though I'd take that act of mental gymnastics over the outright rejection of science as a means of inquiry.

A failed hypothesis
Many mythologies have died out, the myths preserved only through scholarship. We don't talk any more of the polytheist myths that were rampant in the ancient world, deities like Ra, Apollo and Odin have ceased to be used as explanations for natural phenomena. What one believes is much like what we see in nature, their cultural environment is shaped by the time and place of their birth. Being born in Australia in the 1980s means I'm growing up in a predominantly Christian culture. Just 250 years ago I would have been born into the hunter / gatherer culture of the Aborigines and been brought up with the dreaming.

Each one of these present-day religions is a concept that is waiting to die out as the culture that carries it perishes. Many of the major religions have done well in propagating their myths, making it collectively harder for them to go away completely. There are 38,000 current denominations of Christianity with well over 2 billion adherents to the religion, as a religion it will be a mainstay. Likewise Islam has over 1 billion adherents, Hinduism 800 million and Buddhism 300 million. For the foreseeable future, this is the religious map of the world.

Each one of these religions makes their own claim on reality, backed up through ritualised dogmatism. When a god was an explanation for forming the mountains, what place does that god have when a naturalistic explanation takes it's place? The same goes for all natural phenomena, almost all of these gods are expressions of explanation for phenomena that can be explained by natural causes. In addition, the myths of creation simply do not match the evidence. As for the explanatory power of gods, it's simply being cut away the more we learn about nature.

Now The Bible is considered by many to be the inerrant word of God. When thumbing through the bible, it's hard to consider there was divine insight imbued into those words either on a literal or spiritual front. Sam Harris notes "[the bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century." It's hard to find anything redeemable about this holiest of holy texts, it was purely the work of men and ignorant men at that. God in this sense is a failed hypothesis, what it did explain has now either been superseded or supplanted.

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