In my post yesterday I suggested one of the issues frequently – though not always necessarily – dividing science and religion was the disagreement over the existence of a supernatural world whose inhabitants may intervene directly in the operations of the natural world.*
But there is a second assumption dividing scientific thought and religious belief which seems to me to be even more fundamental. Not only does science accept only explanations which reflect natural processes and events, those explanations – that is theories – must be testable.
We’ve already seen that scientific proof is not absolute. There is always the possibility that even the strongest, most broadly accepted theory, will be overthrown by new observations and new theories that explain what we observe more simply or with fewer contradictions.
Nonetheless, to be a workable scientific theory taken seriously by the scientific community, it must be testable. That is, it must make predictions which scientists can then test. The more predictions are validated, the stronger a theory becomes. They are, essentially, the “proof” of the theory.
If a theory cannot be tested or if its predictions fail, it is not accepted as scientifically valid.
Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are based on faith, which by its very definition, cannot be tested the way a scientific theory must be. Religious doctrine may make a lot of sense, may explain much of what we experience about the world and what we hope for the future. But it is accepted for reasons that are beyond proof.
To many people, this sounds like an open and shut case demonstrating the superiority of science.
But I’m not so sure.
I personally cannot argue for the infallibility of any particular religious belief. But I have difficulty accepting the scientific method and reason as the only valid roads to understanding. Why?
First of all, because there seem to be so many important things about which we must decide in life which are either in theory or in practice not subject to scientific or even full-scale rational scrutiny. And some of these decisions are terribly important. Like: “will we be happy if I marry this person?”, “what career path will I find fulfilling?”, “will this investment make a profit?” Admittedly, science can sometimes shed light on these questions, but it cannot answer them if only because in practice I cannot set up the required scientific observations.
And there are other questions which are simply beyond scientific testability. Like “does my life have a purpose?” or “why does a child or a flower or even a frog deserve respect?”
Are the answers we give to questions sheer guess work? or can we intuit some things, can we at least orient ourselves in the right direction? Has, perhaps, evolution given us some wisdom to which we have access but which we do not fully understand about ourselves? are even our scientific hypotheses based initially on intuitions which have a better chance of being validated than would mere guesswork?
And if we do possess some capacity for intuition, how do we use it? through poetry? through music or literature? from others? in our scientific endeavours?
If yes, how do we recognize it? can we validate these intuitions outside science in any way? How do we distinguish between superstition and valid intuition? between wishful thinking and insight? between fear-laden bigotry and a sixth sense that we might trust?
Given my background, I tend to approach these questions as a psychologist first, rather than in terms of theology or philosophy where I am a neophyte.
From that perspective, at this point, I don’t fully trust the announced intuitions of any one who seems to have a need for absolute certainty, who cannot consider the possibility that they might be wrong. This is as true of scientific as religious thought. I think it is an inescapable condition of being human that we must live with some level of uncertainty. The decisions we make will always entail some risk that we are wrong. That’s life.
But I also look for some coherence. I can’t adopt a philosophy of life that broadly contradicts the assumptions and observations of modern science. So I do not believe that the world was created in seven days some four thousand years ago, I don’t think homosexuality is intrinsically wrong or even immature, I’m open to the possibility that polygamy is a viable structure for some cultures, I don’t think any of us have a mission from God to either convert all non-believers or eliminate them from the face of the earth.
I do, on the other hand, have a sense of responsibility for earth and every one and everything in it, mainly because I can’t see any other alternative.
* There is a fuller and possibly more accurate exploration of the relationship between philosophy and religion by the author of the comment made in relation to my post yesterday.