Monday, 19 September 2016
I said in my last post that there were some things that came up that I wished to discuss further, so here goes. I have always maintained that science and religion are not incompatible. I have now come to the conclusion that, in fact, they are. Not, I hasten to add, mutually exclusive, merely incompatible. They are trains running on parallel tracks of different gauge; the scientific train cannot run on the religious rails, and the religious train can’t run on the scientific ones. I believe, for what it’s worth, that they are nonetheless running in the same direction.
My wife mentioned to me a comment she’d read online from an atheist who said that the only logical position was to assume that God does not exist, and then see if there’s any evidence for Him. I think that this perfectly encapsulates the problem. To me, this is like saying that the only logical position is to assume that grass is not green or that aeroplanes can’t fly, and then try and find evidence to prove or disprove the hypothesis. In this instance, the proof is comparatively easy (some existential contortions aside), but that doesn’t mean that the position is logical. You can see that the grass is green and that aeroplanes fly; you don’t assume, for the sake of cold rationalism, that it is not so until you have conducted a full scientific study.
At one point (the probably apocryphal story goes), the scientific evidence showed that bumblebees were unable to fly, due to principles of lift and aerodynamics. It was, however, everybody’s (including the bees’) experience that they could fly, so it was obvious that the scientific model being used was incorrect. At no point did anyone (especially the bees) think it logical to hypothesise that they were earth-bound until the science could be figured out.
Likewise the theist’s experience of God. It is my experience that God exists, therefore it seems unutterably daft to suggest that it is only logical to assume that he doesn’t. ‘Provide proof then,’ we are told, and of course we cannot. The problem is that what they mean by proof is scientific proof, and that underlines the problem with the basic background scientism and rationalism of the world in which we live. It assumes that we live in a wholly rational world which can be wholly understood by science. It assumes that everything, prayer, miracles, even God Himself, are essentially scientific phenomena, and that if they are not, then they do not exist.
The problem with this should be obvious to everyone. As soon as you say, ‘But what if they are not scientific phenomena,’ the argument falls down, and what actually happens is that you are either accused of talking nonsense, refusing to give an actual answer or simply knocking over the chessboard. Such a ludicrous suggestion (heresy?) cannot be permitted to stand, and the very idea is anathema to a great many people.
Because we are born into this scientistic, rationalistic milieu, it is also the way we tend to think and approach problems. The scientific method suffuses almost everything we do, and the way we approach every single problem, and while for many things this works well, for many other things it doesn’t. This isn’t only true of religion, it comes into play a lot when looking at many subjects, such as sociology and anthropology. Humans are, despite modern schools of thought and modern wishes and intentions, still essentially illogical, irrational and emotional. Nonetheless, we always try and act ‘rationally’ and ‘logically’ as though these attributes are inherently praiseworthy as opposed to merely useful. I discussed this in my last post; the tendency and desire to answer rationalistic objections with rationalistic answers for fear that it will otherwise appear that there is no answer at all, but that is merely seeking to squeeze religious thought into a scientific mould, and it simply won’t fit.
Where religion makes essentially scientific claims about the world, about creation, the origins of life etc., then the scientific answers are clearly superior to the purely religious ones. These claims are a hangover of a time when there were no scientific answers, and so religious ones were substituted. The problem is the assumption that this holds true for every single religious claim or tenet. Religion has much to say on morality, philosophy and the discussion of why we are here, why the universe should exist at all, and what we ought to be doing, since it does. It talks about hope, courage, love, faith, loyalty; things that are not scientific but are still desperately important.
There are also intrinsic problems with the assumption that we live in a purely scientific world. How does one go about testing it? Scientifically? If I assert (and I am) that not everything is bound by the laws of science, then the immediate urge is to test it, attempt to observe unscientific phenomena, study them, test them to find out if they follow certain laws or not. Again the problem should be immediately obvious. You are trying to apply scientific principles. All the studies of the ‘efficacy’ of prayer have followed this route. They have made use of double-blinds and control groups, set up experimental conditions and parameters, and attempted to see whether prayer works, and the rules by which it works. What they’ve found is not (as it is claimed) that prayer doesn’t work, but that it is not a scientific phenomenon, and doesn’t work according to any laws or rules or predictable patterns. (Actually, mostly what they’ve proved, and very conclusively, is that the researchers have not the slightest notion of what prayer actually is.) However, the assumption is that since prayer doesn’t work scientifically, it therefore must not work at all.
Likewise with miracles, which by very definition are unscientific. Again I’ve touched on this before, and discussed the circular logic which says ‘There have never been any miracles because they are impossible, and I know they’re impossible because they have never occurred. Anything that appears to be a miracle is merely science that we don’t understand, and I know this because miracles are impossible’. The same thing applies equally to all religious thought, and most especially God. Most of the objections raised against the idea of God, the questions of where He came from and how He works, are all based on the assumption that God can be understood using the rules and logic of the universe. If God, as is believed, is a spatially infinite and temporally eternal being outside, above and pre-dating the universe, why on Earth (if you’ll pardon the phrase) would we suppose that He’d be bound by its rules?
Religion is not based on rationalism or logic or scientific experiment; it is based on thought and experience. At the same time, I certainly don’t consider religious belief ‘irrational’, it’s just that it doesn’t necessarily fit the scientific paradigm of inductive reasoning. I cannot prove that I saw a beautiful sunrise this morning. We could get up early and watch the sunrise tomorrow, and it might be beautiful, but it would not be the same sunrise. It is not safe or logical to assume that the sun hasn’t therefore risen today, and to assume that that glowing yellow thing in the sky is not the sun because it cannot be proven purely logically that it has risen.
The two modes of thought work in very different, almost opposite ways. Science starts with a theory and tries to find evidence to prove it correct or incorrect. Religion starts with an experience and then seeks to understand it. My keyboard and my monitor are not opposed to each other, they both function to allow me to use my computer, but the keyboard won’t do the job of the monitor, the monitor won’t do the job of the keyboard, and they won’t plug into each other’s sockets in the back.
Likewise religion and science. Both are about increasing and improving our knowledge of our universe and ourselves, and they are not mutually exclusive or inherently opposed. One is not ‘better’ than the other, or more worthwhile pursuing outside the context of their specific roles. Both have their part to play, and neither can or should be ignored. It’s just that they are merely and totally incompatible with each other.