Part 2: reality check.

07/12/2009 at 23:57 | Posted in science | 11 Comments
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I came into the lab yesterday (yes, on a Sunday), and was pleasantly surprised.  One of my labmates was also in, and she had brought her friend – let’s call him Daniel – along.  He’s a grad student in another department, studying New Age thought and science.  We ended up having a nice chat about the very topic I had brought up here earlier – why religion and science are fighting a duel, and what is the root of this battle?

From what I understood, this fight is simply one of egos.  It was refreshing to hear someone say something that was so clear, so simple.  It’s not because science or religion is fundamentally at odds with the other, but that scientists and religionists have massive egos that apparently need feeding.  Good for them.  I proudly consider myself a scientist, but I respect that I am merely studying one source of knowledge… something that seeks to describe half of our universe.  Anyway.

As for the root of the battle, apparently that starts when the Moor libraries are captured and St Thomas Aquinas begins to integrate Aristotelian physics with dogma.  And of course, after that, if anyone sought to build/modify Aristotle’s work, I guess it was considered to be against the Church… hence the whole situation with Galileo.

So, that was quite an exciting experience for me!  Of course, if I have misunderstood, I am very open to learning more.  Thoughts?



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  1. Science is so practical and valuable. It is falsifiable and tested over time and around the world. Through scientific investigation, we have come to understand so much about the world, and we have found new and better ways to orient ourselves in it.

    I don’t see anything nearly so useful in religion. I don’t think that science and religion need to engage in a “war”, but I do think that the more people understand science, the less likely they are to be religious.

  2. I agree that science is indispensable to civilization, and that religion appears to be quite expendable. I wonder if it is possible to have a religion that does not disagree with science, though. Does science really exclude religion? Or does religion need to revamp itself to catch up to the times?

    • How refreshing to read honest questions!

      I think science and religion are incompatible in the sense that science attempts to find out why things are the way they from the natural world, whereas religion attempts to provide answers from suppositions based on the supernatural. At their hearts, the two approaches are simply incompatible; the first is honest inquiry, the second dishonest non-inquiry. Goddidit is not a meaningful answer and questions directed at the supernatural are meaningless (it is a silly question to ask if unicorns are really hollow, just as it is a silly question to ask if god has a purpose for each of us).

      • ahah, i like that “dishonest non-inquiry” – it’s true. religion is very much afraid of questions. it’s rather sad, since it’s human nature to explore the world… it makes religion seem unnatural, actually. …interesting…

  3. That’s a good question. There are plenty of claims made by various religions that are not excluded by science, but remain highly improbable. As science has expanded its purview over the centuries, religion seems to be in a state of permanent retreat. It’s no longer acceptable to attribute unexplained natural phenomena to the acts of a god, because it’s only a matter of time before those phenomena are more accurately described and understood by science.

    This seems to have happened in every possible arena, from the weather to neuroscientific explanations of things that were once included in the general term “soul”. At some point, it may be better for us to decide simply to jettison the religious stuff and stick with what gives us demonstrable and practical answers.

    Don’t get me wrong; I don’t deny that the types of personal fulfillment attributed to religion exist. I am sure that people have genuine life-changing experiences every day all over the world. But I think we’ve reached the point where it makes more sense to strip away the metaphysical dressing from these events and try to understand (and achieve) them psychologically.

  4. i agree.
    the last part of your comment raised a few thoughts for me.
    i wonder if understanding the precise reason why things happen make them any less important human events…
    i understand, for example, how a child is created… from gametogenesis to the moment the first breath fills the lungs and beyond… but that doesn’t stop me from feeling very strong emotions when i see newborns – particularly those of my close friends and relatives. my response is independent of my knowledge of the science behind a situation. i wonder if religionists fear that knowledge lessens the impact of a significant moment. or maybe… they believe, deep down, that significant human moments are made more significant because of the mystery behind them… in that case, i would suggest that maybe the moment isn’t all that important. but for those real moments – no amount of knowledge and understanding can change the impacts.

    so what are we afraid of?

    • Richard Feynman has a wonderful passage – I can’t remember which book it’s in – about the difference between two people admiring a flower. People who note only the aesthetic beauty are deprived of the deeper and more gratifying pleasure of understanding the aesthetic beauty as well as its role in an ecosystem.

      Dawkins talks about the same idea in Unweaving the Rainbow. The book’s title comes from the criticism that John Keats leveled at Isaac Newton. Keats claimed that by describing the spectrum, Newton somehow diminished its grandeur; Dawkins (and I daresay Feynman) disagrees.

      To me, a mystery is something that demands investigation. By taking the time to understand something, we show it (and ourselves) a great deal of respect. Chalking an unexplained phenomenon up to the supernatural seems dismissive and brutish to me.

      • totally. i’ve just been reading linus pauling… and he says something that i think is fantastic: “Chemistry is wonderful! I feel sorry for people who don’t know anything about chemistry. They are missing an important source of happiness.”
        …i’m going to start quoting this to my friends ahahha

  5. Hooray! We’re in agreement. You might like my blog, which is more than a bit less polite than yours:

  6. I think science deals with the whole universe, including people and everything about us. I also think Barry is bang on when he suggests that religion as a way of knowing retreats with each advance of knowledge. God was typically inserted into the unkown – especially about the origins of life. Now that evolutionary theory deals so remarkably well with the development of life, too many religious folk think that the science is an attack on their notion of a creator. (This is right across the Abrahamic religious spectrum.) And I don’t think they’re wrong to worry about this advance because it does raise some very troubling questions. Hence, the hostility one encounters between the religious and the scientists dealing with any part of evolutionary theory in particular; the religious for having their cherished tenet attacked (god created man in his own image – but not, apparently, as a precambrian blood worm) and those involved in the biological sciences having their science attacked so vociferously by billions of believers (just wait ’til the ‘militant’ muslims begin murdering blasphemous biologists).

    This just doesn’t happen with chemists! Lucky buggers.

    • it’s true. i get a lot of comments about how terrible i am for studying biochemistry. in fact, in my first year biology course in university, one of my best friends and i would get into very heated debates after class – he was a deep believer in christianity. it’s sad that a large part of our society cares more about tradition than about truth.

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