Theists of a certain stripe like to claim that science is just another religion, nothing more than a system of belief. And relativists love to argue that science is just another way of looking at the world, no more privileged than any other worldview.
There is a kind of truth in the argument that the scientific method relies on a system of belief; and that method is, in simple fact, a particular way of looking at the world. But to extend that limited truth to the notion that the facts of science are just beliefs, or just a point of view, is — in a word — absurd.
The simple truth that the methods of science emerge from a series of principles doesn’t support the theist’s implied claim that science is a system of belief like religion.
In A Devil’s Chaplain, and again in the “Tanner Lectures on Human Values” he delivered at Harvard in 2003, Richard Dawkins characterizes the origins of information as a hierarchy of five sources: Evidence, Tradition, Authority, Faith, and Revelation. A comparison of the properties of each source shows that science and religion do not occupy the same intellectual turf at all.
These information sources are hierarchical because, as one moves down the list, the source becomes less and less objective and testable. The less objective and testable information becomes, the further away it travels from what we can reasonably call “knowledge.”
Dawkins describes science’s reliance on Evidence this way:
Scientists believe X because we have seen evidence for it. Philosophers may turn this around: the X hypothesis has withstood strenuous attempts to falsify it. But I am not concerned with such refinements. It still counts as evidence, even if technically all our beliefs are on probation. Nor shall I lose any time on fashionable claims that science is just the white, Western, patriarchal view of truth. Science works. That is why when you go to an international conference on cultural relativism you go by Boeing 747 rather than by magic carpet.
And what evidence lies at the basis of religious belief? There isn’t any, Dawkins writes, unless one counts as “evidence” the accounts of miracles which “support” the holy stories of religions around the world. Proof by evidence requires more than anecdotes. The “miracles” attributed to the waters of Lourdes have been shown to fall within normal statistical probabilities. In fact, comparing the incidence of miraculous cures (as accepted by the Vatican) after visiting Lourdes to the rate of spontaneous remission among sufferers who have never visited Lourdes shows that you have a better chance of being cured if you stay away than if you go.
Tradition is not very prominent in science, but it is a major feature of religion. Why is it, Dawkins asks, that religious “truths” group themselves geographically? Why should the children of Muslims in Saudi Arabia grow up to believe different “truths” than the children of Pentecostals in Alabama, or of Hindus in Bangalore? This regionalism is absent in science: “Confronted with the same strong evidence, an Indian scientist, an American scientist, and a Japanese scientist will come to the same conclusion.”
Authority, sacred texts and the priestly castes which interpret them, is central to most religions, including all of the major monotheistic religions of the West. The Old and New Testaments and the Koran are promoted and explained by rabbis, priests, ministers, and imams. The Catholic doctrine of “papal infallibility” and the many deficiencies of dogma that can lead to death sentences in strict Muslim cultures are just the most spectacular examples of the power of religious authority.
Dawkins, with characteristic scorn, illustrates the incompatibility of science and the religious version of authority:
But just imagine if science worked in the same way: “On the Origin of Species is the inspired word of the Prophet Darwin. No word of it can possibly be mistaken. All Darwinian children must learn to recite it by heart, nodding their little heads backward and forward as they do so.” Just imagine if biologists, instead of going out into the field and doing research on seagulls or antelopes or dandelions, spent their time locked in argument about exactly what Darwin meant in chapter 6, line 32. Or, worse, exactly what some learned exegete meant in his interpretation of Darwin’s inspired words.
While there is respect for authority in science, it is based on evidence, and it is not immutable. Experimental data, sensibly, is first interpreted in terms of the current theory (which, unlike religious “theory,” is itself based on empirical data), on the reasonable expectation that the new results will be explainable in terms of our present understanding. However, unlike religious dogmas, scientific theories will be altered, even abandoned, if the evidence is strong enough. Similarly, the theories advanced by renowned scientists are respected because these experts have tended to be right in the past. Yet as soon as the data is strong enough, the entire scientific community, including the esteemed researcher whose previous theory has now been contradicted, modifies or abandons the discredited theory and accepts the new evidence. This never happens with religious dogmas.
The religious impulse to Faith — “I just believe it” — has a limited kind of scientific parallel. There is a kind of faith, Dawkins acknowledges, in accepting the work of other scientists as competent and honest; and “faith” that a new postulation is true will determine what kinds of experiments are done. But again, contrary facts trump expectation, and a scientist will abandon an approach or a hypothesis in the light of evidence. In contrast, religious faith is that belief which persists in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence. For some, the ability to believe even more strongly as the evidence piles up against you is a cardinal religious virtue.
The appeal to divine Revelation — “God spoke to me from a brush fire on the road to Damascus” — has no scientific equivalent. While it’s certainly true that scientists have often “dreamed up” new ideas that, when tested, have turned out to be brilliant and creative insights, no scientific idea is ever accepted on the basis of imagining alone. Never.
Is science a religion? Not at all. And the theist’s tactic of trying to characterize science as “just another religion” is remarkably short-sighted. After all, at its base the argument is that if science is a religion, it has no objective truth, no universal application, no legitimate authority, and therefore it exerts no claim that it should be believed.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote of the orthodoxy of scientific work, how almost all of the practice of science takes place within an accepted framework, a way of seeing things — famously, a “paradigm.” New ways of seeing arise when the existing theoretical framework can no longer adequately account for the data, when anomalies accumulate to the point that an entire new paradigm gains hold. Aristotle’s conception of motion, for example, is supplanted by Newton’s, and Newton’s conception of space and time is replaced by Einstein’s.
Some people, most of them “on the other side” themselves in the social sciences and the humanities, including theology and the rest of philosophy, interpreted Kuhn (misinterpreted, he long maintained) as claiming that scientific inquiry produced only relative and temporary truths. If the predictions and explanations of one scientific era were destined to be succeeded by others, and so on indeterminately, then this must mean that the realities described by science were contingent. Being contingent, they were no more concrete than were other, equally mutable ways of seeing the world.
According to a central tenet of postmodernism, science is “nothing more than a ‘myth,’ a ‘narrative’ or a ‘social construction’ among many others.” In extreme cases, this relativistic viewpoint leads to “interpretations” of science that are quite simply ridiculous, interpretations that rank scientific discoveries alongside cultural mythologies and political ideologies as just one more “way of seeing.”
I’ve disputed the relativist view of science more fully elsewhere (“Moving past postmodernism“), and I won’t get into that kind of detail again, but I will insist here that there’s a central way in which this criticism of science is certainly wrong. That way has to do precisely with the notion that a commitment to science is not only an assertion of epistemological preference but also the only reasonable preference given the success of scientific investigation as a methodology.
In other words, while it is possible to choose to value different ways of “knowing” than scientific rationalism, real knowledge about the things of the world, including ourselves, can come only from a method of inquiry that is, in crucial ways, external to the observer.
One simple way to express the epistemological commitment to science is to see what it is not. Throughout human history, in religions and other philosophical approaches, much value has been placed — and continues to be placed — on internal, subjective “truth.” Our personal experiences, our “ways of seeing,” are validated not only as real truths but often as deeper, more significant truths. That these experiences are wholly interior, in many ways independent of outside reality, is seen not as a disadvantage but rather as a sign of superior validity.
The inner life is just as present to the rationalist as to the mystic. The rationalist experiences beauty and majesty, feels awe and joy, in the same ways as does the most inward-seeking spiritualist. How else, for example, could I, rational thinker that I am, have spent more than three decades teaching literature, exploring and sharing books and poems, many of which I truly love?
The difference between the rational thinker and the entirely subjective thinker isn’t that the one can’t or doesn’t experience life subjectively, while the other does. It’s simply that the rational thinker separates the thing perceived from the experience of perceiving it.
Each of us has these perceptual experiences, and if that were all there is, each of those perceptions indeed would be equal. But rational inquiry strives to understand the thing in itself, not just how one interacts with it. And it’s this willingness, often this need, to step “outside” oneself that constitutes the sacred value that is a commitment to scientific inquiry.
There is a simple but definitive test of the claim that science, like faith, is just another belief system. What happens to each of these approaches when newly-discovered facts contradict its “doctrine”?
In the case of religion, factual contradiction is intolerable. Any contradiction must be ignored, denied, or explained away or the faith claim collapses. There are endless examples, and they are so familiar that there’s little point in cataloguing them here.
In the case of science, factual contradiction is progress. Any contradiction must be explored and accounted for, either by tweaking the present theory or, in the most dramatic cases, abandoning the present theory and finding another that better fits the evidence.
In the simplest terms, belief is immune to evidence; science depends on it.
The most relevant example at the time of this writing — and the direct impetus for this essay — is the September 5, 2012, report in Nature that “junk” DNA is not, in fact, junk but a complex series of “gene switches” that direct, regulate, and alter the operation of the genes that had been thought to be the sole determiners of genetic identity. This new information promises to throw into doubt virtually everything we know about human genetics.
How would a religious community react to news that one of its central tenets was wrong, or at best woefully incomplete? There’s no doubt that the reaction would not be the reaction of John Dupré, Professor of Philosophy of Science and Director, ESRC Center for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter, who wrote in “Evolutionary Theory’s Welcome Crisis”:
The creationists are right about one thing: contrary to the impression given by much popular writing on the subject, the theory of evolution is in crisis. But this is a positive development, because it reflects the non-linear progress of scientific knowledge
Nothing more clearly demonstrates that science and creationism are polar opposites than the latter’s assumption that disagreement signals failure. In fact, disagreement – and the deeper insights that result from it – enables new approaches to scientific understanding. For science, unlike for dogmatic belief systems, disagreement is to be encouraged.
Evolutionary theory’s current contretemps – and our inability to predict where the field will be in 50 years – are a cause for celebration. We should leave the creationists to their hollow convictions and happily embrace the uncertainties inherent in a truly empirical approach to understanding the world.
Since I couldn’t have put it better myself, I won’t even try, except to repeat that science is inquiry; belief is stagnation.
As Dawkins wrote, “Science works.” A 747 doesn’t fly because we believe that it will; it flies because it is constructed according to a factually accurate view of the physical world.
In earlier centuries, Western medicine, for just one example, was often essentially a custodial discipline, for everyone knew that only God could cure illness. We lacked a sufficient physical understanding of the world, and thus we had nothing concrete on which to construct a worthwhile medical technology. Much of Aristotle’s science was simply wrong, despite its close adherence to the beliefs of his age about the nature of the world.
This is a crucial difference between belief and science, and it’s another example of the difference between faith in something unreal and faith in a methodology that will reveal something real.
In this important way, the “worldview” of science is based not on opinion or tradition or culture but on external evidence. It makes no sense to claim that science is just another viewpoint, if by that you mean that the “facts” of religions and mythologies, Vedic physics and homeopathy, are “just as valid” as are the facts of science. The volume of water in a bathtub is not a belief, a way of seeing, or a cultural formulation. It’s a number, one that can be measured, and then re-measured for verification.
It makes no sense to say “I don’t believe it” when someone tells you that the thermometer on the wall reads 20C. It’s not something subject to cultural interpretation. It does, or it doesn’t. No one, not even the most ardent postmodernist, would respond “That’s just your way of seeing things” if I report that there’s a cat in the living room. Yet these same “thinkers” are willing, even eager, to claim that the heliocentric solar system is just “one version” of cosmology.
One particularly outrageous example will do here. One feminist thinker attacked the Copernican Revolution as an imposition of male oppression on the universe. In this view, the purpose of the shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmology was to demote the feminine from its central position in the cosmos to a lesser place, as just one of any number of secondary bodies orbiting an obviously masculine sun. That is, modern cosmology is not about facts or empirical observation but about the cultural disposition of the female from its natural prominence. As a cultural construction, the argument concludes, heliocentrism is a point of view, a privileged way of looking at things that just as legitimately could be looked at otherwise.
To repeat one word from the introductory paragraphs — absurd.