Monday, August 16, 2010

Can Science And Religion Exist Side-By-Side?

The more I read this article, the more annoyed I got. The writer is arguing that science and religion can co-exist because (i) they are both "religions" and (ii) they should stick to within their own boundaries where each of them works best.

He listed what he called as the "similarities" between religion and science:

Both have ubiquitous entities that permeate everything. In religion it is called a god, in science a force. If one wants to know the entity, in religion one prays to find out the "will" of god, while in science, one does experiments to discover the "properties" of the force.
When I read this, I scrolled to the bottom of the page to see if it listed the credential of the writer, and it did. "Wolfgang Baer teaches graduate-level courses in Monterey and received his doctorate in physics from the UC Berkeley...." No! He has a Ph.D in physics and still thinks that science cares more about discovering the properties of "the force"? What force? In QM, there's no "force". In fact, in classical mechanics, one can use the Hamiltonian/Lagrangian approach and not deal with forces at all!

And oh, let's not forget one GLARING fact here. In religion, there is no one unique god! In fact, there could also be multiple gods in the same religion! In physics, when a concept is accepted, no matter what religion, society, economic background, social standing, etc. you come from, you use the SAME, IDENTICAL principle! In other words, we all agree on the physical formalism!

Both have the nasty habit of defending embarrassing facts by turning them into features.

How embarrassing is Mary's conception until it is turned into further proof of God's divine intervention? How embarrassing is our inability to predict the trajectory of an individual electron until uncertainty is elevated to become the cornerstone of modern physics by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.
This is puzzling. The fact that we have particle accelerators clearly shows that we CAN predict the trajectory of an individual electron. That's how we can design such accelerators. But if the writer is invoking QM and the superposition principle that's inherent in phenomena such as the double slit, then he has it all wrong. This is NOT a matter of physics not being able to predict such a trajectory. It is rather that this is what nature is! Unless he is claiming that there is an underlying description of the physical world that physics either does not understand or have no access to, then he is making an a priori assumption that is based on no physical evidence.

Not only that, since when is the HUP become the "cornerstone of modern physics"? The HUP, despite its name, isn't a "principle". It is a CONSEQUENCE of how we define observable operators and wavefunctions in QM. In other words, many of us use it as a back-of-the-envelope type calculation and very seldom (I don't know of any) use it as a starting point. It isn't that important as far as day-to-day "operations".

In religion, a divine intervention is called a miracle; in science it is called a singularity or an emergent property.

Er.. how is this even the same? A miracle has never been verified. Emergent properties have! Emergent properties just doesn't come out nowhere. Superconductivity didn't just appear for not apparent reason. We can also create those ON DEMAND. So when was the last time one can call in for a miracle?

He then described the "differences" between science and religion. I'll pick just one example here:

The logic of science and religion have opposite starting points, but neither is right nor wrong. The differing starting points are tailored to serve specific domains of applicability. Science has clear advantages in supporting engineers to build and control machines, while religion has advantages when dealing with the human experience of feelings and emotions.

When we apply these belief systems beyond their domain of applicability we run into trouble. Few would seriously pray to God to direct the trajectory of a bullet instead of taking careful aim along the sights. Science clearly dominates in this application.

However, consider a priest who is called to the bedside of a dying patient to provide comfort and hope with a tale of everlasting life. Compare this with a medical establishment that plasters the patients with tubes, needles, and an irrational fear of dying when there is not a shred of scientific evidence that the "first person I" ceases to exist simply because body functions stop. This is like concluding the radio station is dead because one's receiver box quit.

Wow! Where should I even start?

He seems to think that there's a clear boundary between issues that are within the domain of religion, and issues within the domain of science. This is obviously wrong! Religion cannot help but describe the physical and natural world and offer explanations for them. The Genesis is nothing but the creation of the universe and human beings! So he wants cosmology and physics and biology to stay out of such topics? Or does he want the Genesis to be removed completely from the Bible? After all, there is a clear overlap here!

Secondly, he is implicitly invoking the "god of the gaps" here. Here's arguing that where science broke down and offers no explanation, this is where religion comes in. Baloney! Back in the dark ages, there are many phenomena that science and rational understanding could not explain. Various gods and spiritual explanations were used to explain those things, ranging from eclipses, the flooding of the Nile, the explosions of volcanoes, etc. If we buy into this writer's argument, since religion is already the explanation for such things, science has no business going into such areas. But it did and showed why and how these things have a natural and rational explanation. The "god of the gaps" has been shrunk, and continues to shrink. Science may not have any "tale of everlasting life", but this is not a criticism about science. It is more of a criticism about religion for perpetuating such Santa Clause-equivalent to the dying. If all we care about is sedating a dying patient, I hear that morphine can do as good of a job without lying to the patient.

The one thing about science is that we ACKNOWLEDGE the deficiencies and things we do not fully understand. In fact, that is why we continue to have employment in science. Scientists, by definition, studies things that we do not understand, look into new things, and tries to find explanations for things we don't know about. No such thing exists in religion. Scientific knowledge expands and changes as we know more and more. This is not true for religions. Religion, by definition, is "perfect"! When was the last time you hear any preacher preaching things about the various things that his/her religion can't do, or don't have an understanding of, or can't explain? There are so many things stated as FACTS in religions, and even when there's contradiction between religion and science, many still cling to the religious description even when there isn't any shred of evidence to support that.

I don't know what his definition of existing "side-by-side" really means, but I can see both of them existing in separate, parallel universe! :)



HM said...

Well said, I couldn't agree more!


Peter said...

The piece you've picked on doesn't look great, but your responses to this kind of thing generally seem as if you rattle them off slightly too quickly. I seem to meet mostly religious people who are fairly open to other peoples' ideas, who I don't find especially dogmatic. I guess I go to the right places [or is that the wrong places?]

Your statement, "In physics, when a concept is accepted, no matter what religion, society, economic background, social standing, etc. you come from, you use the SAME, IDENTICAL principle! In other words, we all agree on the physical formalism!" seems to me to be in conflict, or at least tension, with your later statement, "Scientific knowledge expands and changes as we know more and more". Newton's laws have both been superseded and are still used, even though they can be said to conflict with both QM and GR, which doesn't seem totally different from attitudes that might be taken to the old and new testaments. Your qualification "when a concept is accepted" seems ultimately problematic, insofar as you neither mention who nor how many a concept has to be accepted by.

FWIW, I take religion to be about anything that is not reproducible, Science to be about anything that is reproducible. This is, loosely, a Heisenberg cut sort of thing, insofar as perhaps no event is reproducible to infinite precision, but if we set pragmatic rules that allow us to define ensembles of similar enough events, so that differences are perhaps taken to be uninteresting for the purposes of a given experiment, we can group almost everything together. This seems to me a moderately principled way in which we can be religious or scientific at different moments. I think you're right that godofthegaps arguments are hopeless, but I wonder whether this means that there is no possibility whatsoever of a more sophisticated discussion that might be interesting, even if you demolish my FWIW?

ZapperZ said...

I don't see any conflict in such a statement. The first means that when we reach a consensus, that's that. We know what Newton's laws are, and we know the boundary of its applicability. Yet, people in the US, India, Argentina, South Africa, China, North Korea, Australia, Somalia, etc... will use the SAME, identical Newton's Laws to build their buildings.

But this doesn't mean that science is stagnant. It changes based on the more we learn. We have research-front areas simply because we are learning new things, and we haven't come up with a convincing set of formalism to describe these various areas and phenomena. We may even have multiple description for them. This is not contradictory with the earlier statement because this is the nature of the endeavor.

However, in religion, the ACCEPTED "truth" comes in many different varieties. Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc.. all proclaim they have the truth in their beliefs, and that's that. The variety can be mindboggling. This is where the conflict and contradictions arises.

I'm not sure if you can define religion as anything that is not reproducible. That is being too generous, because you made the assumption that there are cases where either a single event, or a now-and-then event takes place, and these can only be attributed to religion. If that's the case, then being psychic and winning the lottery are religious events.


Peter said...

I'm not sure in what way we would have to say that any given religion is ACCEPTED? Not everyone accepts any religion, so the question of whose acceptance I accept rears its head for religion no less than for Science. I take it, anyway, for me, that one doesn't accept a religion, one practices it, one sees where it takes you. I suppose that choosing a religion depends on what I think of the people who practice it in both my immediate and mediated experience, and continuing to practice a religion depends on my not becoming disillusioned with the people who come into my new experience.

I would take every religion to be in a pre-ACCEPTED state. That would equate religion with, say, string theory. No empirical evidence yet. It seems legitimate to me for someone to pursue string theory, say, to see where it takes them, and to see if they can make it make contact with the world in some more-or-less robust sense, whereas it seems problematic to me for someone to pursue string theory because it's obviously the one true way. That's just a failure of imagination. If someone wants to take a leap from practice into acceptance of a given religion for themselves, that's not something I think I would do, but I accept that by refusing to leap there are some experiences I will never have.

I can define religion as anything that is not reproducible, but of course it might not be an interesting definition to anyone else, nor to me next week. I've been teasing out the consequences in a lackadaisical way for perhaps 6 months, and it hasn't stopped seeming curious to me yet. It puts a considerable weight on what it means for something to be reproducible. Winning the lottery happens all the time, but I don't win the lottery even once (there's the slight problem that I never buy tickets, I haven't bought into the system). Is a lottery win or a miracle a reproducible event? It depends on what one requires for evidence and how tightly we categorize the events, which in different circumstances we might choose to do differently.

The requirement that evidence must be of a certain kind and reproducible has long been a pair of criteria for what is science, which is sometimes problematic for making an advance. As a fairly trivial example, freak waves were well-known to seafarers while they were for a long time largely dismissed by scientists. Now when and where they occur is a subject of observational and theoretical study, and I suppose there might be experimental studies in existence. It's interesting to consider what it was that changed in such cases.

ZapperZ said...

Each religion is accepted to be the truth and correct by those who practiced that religion. That is why I emphasized the fact that such a view of what is valid from the point of spiritual/religious angle is not unique!

I accept Newton's laws to be correct within the boundary of its applicability. Until empirical evidence point to the contrary, all the evidence we have so far points to that acceptance to be valid. Such an ability do point the validity of an acceptance of something is missing in religion. What is written in the Genesis alone can be challenged by other religions (see "The Bible, Quran, and Science" by Maurice Bucaille), so forget about disagreeing with just science.

Religion is not unique. Period. The existence of multiple religions is the biggest self-contradiction that human beings have ever invented.


rob said...

Not to interested in the rest of the post but really interested in the Hamiltonian doing away with forces. As a graduate physicist now in IT my physics is a little rusty but I always remember pondering force vs energy since A level days. Never found a clear explaination how to different concepts seemed to explain the same thing!

The Universe said...

Science isn't religion, zapper. But there is an old saying "science advances one death at a time", and there is some truth in it. Science isn't immune from the vagaries of human nature. Even in science people "believe" in things for which there is no actual evidence, and seek to impose a consensus. Some then defend it tooth and nail, dismissing evidence and responding to challenge with outrage or ridicule. The parallels are there because people are people and people aren't perfect. Even if some are holier than thou.

ZapperZ said...

Which science is there a "belief"? Or are you confusing the process involved in research-front science versus those that we have accepted to be valid? If you bring out String Theory as an example, you clearly don't know anything about what we clearly defined as valid and accepted in science. Even String Theory proponent admit that for their work to be accepted as valid, they require empirical evidence. If not, as Brian Greene freely admitted, it isn't physics, but philosophy!

It is natural, during the process of vetting out the various theories, that people will defend what they are convinced of. This is going on right now in finding the correct theory of high-Tc superconductivity. But the acceptance of such a thing and achieving a consensus are NOT based on who shouts the loudest. It depends on more empirical evidence. New techniques and experiments eliminates many possible explanations, and refine many different parameters that constraint the remaining theories. This is part of the long process of gaining acceptance and consensus! Scientists just don't "believe" in such things without any reason. Find a similar example in religion and what is believed in.

You WILL note that, at the very least, there are an over-abundance part of science that have a lot and very strong empirical evidence. The same cannot be said of religion. That, in itself, is a glaring difference that people seem to have overlooked.


Andy said...

"It is true that I warned against self-righteous and dogmatic ideology by members of the scientific community because they often fail to understand that science is also a religion."

That reminds me of the old joke:

Q: How many legs does a horse have, if you call a tail a leg?
A: Four. Just because you call a tail a leg doesn't mean a tail is a leg.

The Dispatcher said...

I didn't find this Baer guy's post particularly well-reasoned, but I am sympathetic to the idea. I'm a Christian, and have degrees in the humanities and the sciences, and so I'm familiar with the strong suits of both.

My idea of how science works has been formed by reading Thomas Kuhn on scientific paradigms and Robert Merton on the sociology of science. I've also read a great deal on ancient and medieval thought and the development of modern science. From that reading I conclude that the development of scientific ideas is much more complicated than the way you describe it (although admittedly physics is the "hardest" of the sciences and so is the least messy). Peter's comments on the acceptance of concepts gets at this point I think.

You try to bring back the discussion to reproducibility and falsifiability, for good reason. A lot of religious people ignore empirical results. You seem to have had contact with those sort of people, but those are not the only sort of religious people.

I think it might be more useful to think not of religion vs. science but rather about our personal and societal values. Religion provides and proscribes those values, but a lot of other things do too. People make up their own values without religion sometimes. Marketing campaigns create them. Movies and music reinforce them or maybe call some into question.

The Dispatcher said...

And ultimately science is founded on certain values that are not empirically verifiable: we can know things about the universe, the universe is orderly, we should try to know things about the universe. Many societies did (or do) not have these values. As you note, certain expressions of religion can get in the way of empirical understanding of the universe, but I think Christianity properly understood leads one to seek to know the universe better. And I'm willing to reconsider my hermeneutics in light of new scientific discoveries. Ultimately, knowing that God spoke to humans in their culturally embedded situation with their scientific knowledge at that point in time helps clarify a lot of issues. But the values and morals that guide that interaction are guided by Christianity (loving God and others, reconciliation, redemption, etc.)

It may not be the most common view among Christians you have known, but, among others, Newton and Kepler viewed things the same way.

CoolPhysics said...

The scientific method:
-Ask a question
-Formulate a null (initial) hypothesis
-Test the null hypothesis via experiment
-Evaluate data results
-Fits hypothesis? Yes. Draw conclusions and report results.
-Does not fit hypothesis? No. Draw conclusions about experiment viability and ask another question.

"Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1). By that admission, science and faith are not side-by-side "religions."

The faiths of many peoples on the earth are cultural guidelines for social behavior. To say they compare equally is to denigrate both and their impact on society. E.g.: an astronomer probably couldn't lead a March on Washington as effectively as Dr. Martin Luther King. He was in college at age 15 and passed the MCAT for medical school before his foray into faith. As eloquent a speaker as he was, he at his own admission, dropped out of medical school because that's not where his passions nor his skills were.

I do think that science and faith need to "bury the hatchet" and come up with things they could support (career fairs for high school youth, for example), without having to "absorb" each other.

The Dispatcher said...

@CoolPhysics You're right. They're definitely not "side by side religions". That part of this guy's argument was definitely wrong.

There's something special about empirical knowledge--what we can get through the scientific method and not through any sort of religion or philosophy or personal conviction.

What I was trying to say was that certain values at the foundation of science are not testable, just as the values of religion/life philosophy/personal conviction are not testable. Ultimately we just take them at face value based on some sort of faith.

These convictions or beliefs can be reinforced by experience, but not tested in the way you can a scientific hypothesis. My conviction that all true religion is summed up in the two commandments to love God and love other people (as Jesus said) has been reinforced by my life experiences. It hasn't been proven; it can't be. Ultimately I accept it on faith, no matter what happens.

In contrast, science's repeatedly confirmed empirical results can be accepted as tentative truths about the world (always subject to disproof later on down the road). However, the values that undergird that scientific method cannot be accepted the same way. Those values have to be accepted just as religious truths are.