Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Are science and religion compatible? Answer: A fish...

Magnum mysterium shmisterium.

Religion is entirely explainable via anthropology and sociobiology. So are ethics. Religion and ethics derive from us being pack animals that take a decade and a half to raise our young.

Science is the practice of studying reality--and we know we've studied it well when replicable experiments and observations lead to predicted results.

Whether religion leads to good behavior or bad is irrelevant to whether there's a god(s) or not. Same goes for science.

So many people with no religious affinities are well-behaved, contributing members of society, because our character (pack animal+long-dependent young) hardwires us to be happy when we behave well. I've known a lot of putzes, and not a single one was happy. That's no coincidence, and religion is unnecessary to explain it. what's even more interesting is how many boastfully religious people behave badly (of course many religious people behave well).

Saddam Hussein was not religious. Bin Ladin is. Both were/are mass murderers. Some kill for gain, others for religious reasons. I find both flavors equally despicable, but the religious ones are more dangerous. Few atheists are suicide bombers.

Since religion's premises and conclusions can't be studied scientifically, science can only discuss religion in the aspect of it being a human phenomenon. A scientist can't say "there is a god" or "there is not a god" as a scientist, because the word "god" isn't scientifically definable. it's exactly the same as asking "Do you believe in slgoahdshn?" All attempts to define the word "god" scientifically produce tautologies.

This means that the scientific perspective is not agnostic. An agnostic says "There may or may not be a god." Nor is it atheistic, since an atheist says "There is no god." Ask a scientist "Do you believe in God?" And the proper scientific response is "Sorry, I didn't understand one of the words you said, so I can't answer the question." That is, the word "God" can't be defined in a way that's scientifically comprehensible.

Now about 2/3 of American scientists profess to be religious--though the more eminent the scientist, the less likely he/she is to be religious. I'm guessing that religious scientists simply compartmentalize these aspects of their life. Like having a wife at home and a mistress near where you work (I won't venture to guess which is which in this metaphor).

What religious enthusiasts find hardest to swallow is not that scientifically trained people may criticize or oppose religion. It's that so many of us find it completely irrelevant--except perhaps to study it as a human phenomenon. it's a holdover of our species' youth, like the gill slits every human embryo develops at an early stage.

And what religious people find hardest to understand is that entirely nonreligous people want to do the right thing from exactly the same pack animal motives as religious people experience. It's why we can weep at a Bach fugue, or, more popularly, some of the big numbers from Les Mis.

The only difference is that religious people put an elaborate cognitive superstructure atop these primal motivations. We don't. We just realize that while humans can exhibit a wider range of behavior than any other animal, we can't alter our core nature. That's what I meant by "hardwired."

And it's why I tell my religious friends that if they woke up and realized suddenly that there was no God, no heaven, no hell, no eternal reward and no eternal punishment--I would expect them to treat others exactly the same as they had before...if they know what's good for them.

I'm fascinated by the human face, and I've seen what I'd call the Religious Face and the Scientific Face.

The religious face shows someone with their focus turned inward, experiencing ecstasy from ideas residing deep within themselves. The Scientific Face is turned outward, utterly enthralled by observing reality and figuring out how it ticks without fear or favor. (The third face is the affective face--the one used to communicate feelings to other people, to influence them; actors excel at this face, while they often have a hard time with the scientific face--they generally just come off looking distracted.)

I'd find religion a harmless hobby, such as stamp collecting, except that some religions--not all by any means--are guilty of being accomplices to planetary ecocide through encouraging overpopulation and discouraging some or all forms of birth control.

This is the sense in which they energetically pave the way to Hell with their good intentions.

1 comment:

Sean said...

First, some definitions that seem to be decent. Science seeks to understand the world through observation and experimentation. Religion is a set of belief and practices that are derived from faith in a higher being.

While I applaud your efforts to try to explain the compatibility of science and religion, I think this type of effort generally does not resonate well enough to change opinions. For one, science and religion, both in their pure definitions, are quite separate. This becomes especially obvious when one side tries to prove another wrong - it's about a productive using philosophy to disprove a math theorem. Whatever one's persuasion may be regarding religion, I think it's fair to say that the 'science vs. religion' mantra is only effective in persuading one's self (given the nature of the topic).

So, concerning human habits and behaviors, what does it matter to attribute them to a certain cause? When each person in the argument feels that they are indeed correct, this exercise all at once becomes impossible and pointless. Rather, I believe that only once a person can recognize the limitations and strengths of science/religion can one begin to reconcile the two.