Sunday, January 1, 2012

Science v Religion, Round Two

Like most people and places that aspire to be self-sufficient, The Shed must deal with a wide variety of topics under its corrugated iron roof.  It is both a place of work and a place of reflection.  I not only go there to solve the practical problems of my life (using science) but also the more existential problems of meaning, purpose, and that which the Buddha is pleased to call "the end of suffering."  Because I've had my fill of suffering and anguish.  Being me isn't just all groovy calculators and engineering awesomeness, you know.

I've written previously about why Science and Religion have nothing whatever to do with each other, and why they need to just stay right out of each other's way.  Today I'm going to most likely confuse the hell out of everyone by explaining how Science and Religion are compatible, even inseparable.  How can two diametrically opposed systems exist simultaneously inside one brain?  Simple: they help each other.

Well, they do in my case anyway.

Religion Prepares You For Science

My experience growing up in a household of more-or-less devoted members of a specific religious faith has prepared me for a career in Science like nothing else could.  The beliefs and habits I acquired have made doing science at a high level of excellence practically second-nature to me.  Here's a few of the concepts normally associated with religion which are also essential traits of the most successful Scientists on the planet:

Humility.  I don't know everything, so let the Data do the talking and let them say what they will.  I am not infallible, so my results will need to be replicated before even I will believe them.

Hope and Faith.  New discoveries can take time and are not guaranteed.  Patience is essential, as is a firm unshakable belief that doing Science is worthwhile, even when the practical applications are not immediately apparent.

Absolute Integrity.  There is nothing to be gained in the long run by fudging that data.  You will be found out, and then never trusted again.

Discipline and Obedience.  Once you design an experiment, follow the plan exactly, never wavering or varying from that which is written.  Otherwise the data will be corrupt and your time wasted.

Remain as Teachable as a Child.  The church I belonged to accepts continuing divine revelation to correct past errors and provide new instructions from time to time.  This requires flexibility of thought and adaptability to new realities.  In Science, new things are constantly being discovered and scientists must always be learning, must adapt and accept, or be left behind.  There is never the luxury of wallowing in some decaying old dogma.  Which sounds pretty dreadful when you think about it.  (Yuck!)

Go To Church.  Without a community, a scientist working alone can do very little of consequence.  He or she needs the support, encouragement, wisdom, correction, insight and assistance of the community.  Successful scientists either learn to get along with others in their field or they find another field.  They learn both to give and to receive.

Break Away From Church.  The truly exceptional scientist is capable of visions which transcend the current understanding of his peers.  He must be prepared to break with his church and go up to the mountain where he will stand alone, toe-to-toe, face-to-face with the naked truth of the universe.  And then he must return from the mountain, proclaiming his vision.  Though scorned and doubting, if he has truly seen the universe, he can never give up his calling as a prophet of a new age in science.  But beware the false prophets: their results cannot be replicated.

Science Prepares You For Religion

Wonder and Amazement.  As people gain experience in a grown-up world of complex ideas and facts, they usually outgrow the limited, cartoon version of God with which they were raised.  But if someone is exposed to the real universe - everything from subatomic particles to superclusters of galaxies, the amazing variety of ever-evolving life on earth, and the astonishing elegance of chemistry, physics, mathematics -  it becomes very difficult to accept that simplistic Sunday School version of God.  That's why at a fairly early age I rejected the cartoon and began to view God as infinitely more wise, complex, intelligent, majestic, self-restraining, and having unimaginably grand vision.  The more I learned about science, the more awe and humility I felt toward my version of God.

As I came to understand the individual and untestable nature of such beliefs, I began to think of God not as hiding in the gaps of our knowledge of the universe, slinking undetectably between what we know and what we can only guess, but as dwelling entirely outside the testable, objective universe and therefore not subject to our probes and probing.  While many have long since given up believing in the divine nature of creation, I have not.  Is this in spite of or because of an in-depth, detailed knowledge of the empirical universe?

Standing for Truth versus Falling for Anything.  Training as a scientist has prepared me to take an empirical approach to religious teachings and teachers.  All are not equal.  An idea, doctrine, teaching, or particle of wisdom must pass certain tests that I design for it before I give the matter further consideration.

The idea must be at least self-consistent.  Illogical gobbledygook has nothing to offer, in my opinion.  I'm not interested.

The idea must be consistent with other beliefs which I hold.  Of course a compelling new idea with at least some supporting suggestive evidence will cause me to question my existing beliefs.  I must either confirm their soundness or evaluate whether they can be adjusted to accommodate something new of obvious value.

The idea must have acceptable extensions, conclusions, corollaries, and implications.  In the world of ideas it is important to watch where you are going and stay off those slippery slopes on which others have come to grief.  A thorough knowledge of history and the history of ideas is really useful here.

Finally, if a new belief has made it this far, it needs to be tested empirically, experimentally, to see what fruit it bears.  This means making objective, dispassionate observations, being perfectly honest with one's self, and a willingness to admit being wrong once in a while.  All things that well-trained scientists do.

People are often all too willing to believe anything, as successful con men well know, including TV preachers and leaders of churches that have making money as the reason for being.  Not that there's anything wrong with making money, but how do the punters know they're receiving anything of value?

Simple.  Teach people to apply the Scientific Method.  Just like Jesus did.

Science v Religion is a question that will never be put to rest, because they are two of the most extraordinary human preoccupations that help define who we are as self-aware beings.  Improbable beings in a most astonishing universe!

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