Monday, May 13, 2013

Religion and Science

When I first decided to write a blogpost on this topic, the first thought that struck me was "What can I write about religion and science that isn't already articulated by others ?". This was quickly replaced by another thought "If it is so, why majority of people have twisted views about them ?". The answer was pretty simple: In public venues or in mainstream media, people with extreme views are the ones who are most vocal, whereas moderates often seem unconcerned, callous or worse condescending.

Since moderates are often characterized as being tolerant (which is a good thing), let's try to understand what does it really mean to be tolerant. Is it same as being indifferent ? If you are tolerant, should you be vocal about it or is it sufficient to say "you believe what you want to believe, but don't bother me" [12] ? Should it be a choice or a requirement ? Would you be tolerant if you chose not to tolerate the intolerants (often called as terrorists, extremists, fascists, nazi, etc) [1]. Wait, it gets even more complex: Who defines the term "intolerant" ? For Islamic extremists, it's Western world stopping them from enforcing their interpretation of sharia law. For Western world, it's cowardly and inhuman attacks on civilians by these terrorists. For some, it's bible thumpers trying to dictate how they should live their life; for others, it's atheists (or may be liberals), who are ruining their family or moral values. The list goes on and on and is equally applicable in my beloved homeland India and gracious guest country USA (and I suspect every diverse nation in the world). Unfortunately, unlike Karl Popper I don't have a globally applicable answer to these questions [10]. A local answer is to be tolerant in terms of freedom of speech, but keep people responsible for their actions in terms of secular humanitarian laws [2]. Bottom-line: in a civil society, the simplest working principle seems to be that we educate ourselves (enough to be intellectually capable of deciding right from wrong), embrace the diversity, be tolerant of opposing views and let the law judge the people who we feel are intolerant. It might also help if we abandon our cloak of complacency, engage in serious and meaningful debates/discussions and elect representatives who share our thoughts. Before I come back to the original topic, let me explain the dangers of being intolerant: If you chose to accept so-called "little intolerance", you will soon find yourself governed by "little intolerant" elected officials and as history has showed us, they will soon be replaced by "little more intolerant"elected officials (who would win the elections by saying the former aren't intolerant enough) and the cycle will continue.

Since there are different definitions of the same term [3, 4], for sake of this blogpost, let me explain my interpretation of these terms.
1. You are a theist if you believe that God created the world and takes active interest in the world. For example: if you are a theist, in times of trouble you believe that God will intervene to provide you with guidance or in someway affect the outcome. How far and how often God intervenes depends on degree of your theist beliefs.
2. Almost all theists also follow one of many organized religions, which are based on revelations given by prophets or reincarnated Gods. It is important to note few things about organized religions:
  • There is a clear distinction between prophets and ordinary people, former being first-class citizens who are the only people that have access to these revelations.
  • Since revelations are the only mechanism for finding or validating "religious truths", it makes scientific inquiry impossible. This is because as of this day, there is no clear way to distinguish between the revelations of first-class citizens and hallucinations/delusions of ordinary people. This is also true for spirituality. So, religion has a concept of faith which requires you to believe something because the first-class citizens said so [5].
  • These revelations can be categorized into two parts: information about God (and hence the universe) and information about how to conduct ourselves in the world. Often, the former (for simplicity, let's call it knowledge) is used as main reason to stick to the latter (let's call it moral guiding principles or human values) in our day-to-day life. By definition, knowledge is considered to be absolute and universally-applicable [6] whereas the moral guiding principles are treated as relative [7]. The consensus among many intellectuals is that the scientific method is the best available tool for exploring and validating knowledge. For moral guiding principles, people often use either religion or philosophy or spirituality or law or introspection or advice from friends and family [8].
  • Most revelations are described in holy books and are often accompanied by a back story. Many anti-theists criticize the revelations because of validity of the back story rather than applicability of revelations themselves. Some theists believe them to be exact historical account whereas others theists believe them to be embellished so as to get the message through to the general public [9]. In these back stories, there is often mentions of so-called miracles and many use the argument that specification of these miracles is a proof of validity of the revelations and hence God [11]. However, non-reproducibility and often embellished centuries-old second-hand accounts make the likelihood of these miracles highly improbable, if not impossible, and hence they are not accepted as facts by the scientific community.
  • Even though it is often suggested that all religions say the same thing [12], many organized religions are very clear on one particular requirement: "To adhere to religion X, you must ignore teachings of all other religions and consider them to be pagans". So, ipso facto all religions don't say the same thing, it is what we chose to believe to promote tolerance. I, on the other hand, think we should celebrate pluralism and not be afraid of the fact that different religions say different things. The only reason we ever need to be tolerant is coexistence and survival of human race.
  • Many religions are based on the concept of two-world: physical world (where we live) and transcendent world (which is termed as heaven, paradise, etc). Some religions that have concept of rebirth and karma (eg: Buddhism and Hinduism), also have concept of enlightenment (nirvana or moksha), which is often referred to as state of being, rather than a physical location (like heaven). The hidden assumption in two-world philosophy and most religions is that human beings and earth has undivided attention of God and hence has special and central place in this universe. Science makes no such assumption and in fact many scientists believe human race and earth to be a product of a wonderful accident.
3. Science on other hand is based on "scientific method", which Oxford dictionary defines as "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses". Since there are already enormous amount on literature on this I won't discuss it in more detail. However, I do have few advices for young scientists:
  • Make sure you understand how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience.
  • Don't be afraid of uncertainty and not knowing everything. It's OK to say "I don't know", you will be surprised how often that phrase is used by renowned scientists.
  • Avoid the urge to be self-centric and to accept something to be fact because you feel it "deep inside" [12]. Also, don't make up stories, that have no scientific bases, to explain things you don't understand.
  • There is no such thing as faith in science. It is replaced by reasoning and experimentation. For example, when you read a research paper or a book, always exercise critical reasoning on it to make sure that the results are plausible. If you think something is fishy, conduct an experiment to validate its result and hypothesis [5]. This is also true when a professor explains you laws of motion or electricity or something else and claims it as science.
  • For reasoning and validation, stick to Occam's razor, i.e. don't just jump to the easiest/quickest answer, instead put effort to find the answer which requires fewest assumptions. For experimentation, at minimal, understand the correlation-causation fallacy and also statistical testing. One particular book that that you can start with is How to Solve it by Polya.
Even though both religion and science started because of human curiosity to explain the universe [13], both employ completely different methods/practices: revelations and scientific method, respectively. To make sense of the debate between them, it is necessary to recognize that these methods are inherently incompatible. So, unless all the parties agrees on a common method for finding and validating facts/truths, I think the whole argument will keep on spiraling itself. So, if a religious person choses to use the scientific method to convince me of the validity of the revelations, I welcome it; if not, I prefer not to engage in the discussion at all.

Just like religious missionaries, let me take a moment to state why you should use scientific inquiry for finding facts and solving problems ;) Look around what scientific inquiry has enabled us to discover and invent: medicines, cars, internet, computers, phones, planes, trains, camera, music players, guitars, paints, bricks, electricity, bulbs, etc. Whether you are a student or a nobel prize winner, a poor person or a millionaire, a prisoner or the president, your experimental findings and ideas will be judged purely on its merit and nothing else ... not on your status or gender or age or or religion or race or caste or nationality. You are allowed to ... no, you are encouraged to come up with new ideas, ask questions, doubt and investigate widely held beliefs. In fact, I urge you to doubt everything in this blogpost, discuss it with your teacher/professor/colleagues/priest/friend/family, read books about both religion and science and come up with your own opinions :)

Let me summarize this blogpost in a sentence: Whether religion or spirituality is inevitable and necessary part of of human life, I don't know; but I am absolutely sure that they don't have place in science classroom or textbook.

References and footnotes:
[1] The paradox of tolerance:
[2] The legal argument about tolerance gets more complicated if majority decides to collude to deliberately oppress the few, which has happened far too often in the past. However, we won't get into that and let's rely on inherent human goodness and assume that there are constitutional provisions to disallow that.
[4] The Cambridge companion to atheism
[5] Scientists are expected to practice same level of skepticism to the theories of even the most accomplished scientists (be it Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Turing or Feynman), i.e. science does not have authorities, just heroes.
[6] Even though I called knowledge to be absolute and universally-applicable, it was little misleading. Read research journals to find just how many previously accepted theories are replaced by new theories in light of new evidence, which essentially means knowledge and science is ever-evolving. Anyways, I urge you to read about epistemology for understanding the nature and scope of knowledge.
[7] Religious fundamentalists believe "how to conduct yourself" is absolute (i.e. strict adherence to revelations).
[8] Recently, I encountered a person who was against organized religion, but claimed that spirituality is better tool than science for both exploring knowledge and for moral guiding principles. He didn't provide me with any evidence or rationale to support his hypothesis, so I disagree with him on that. It is also important to point out here that Sam Harris suggests that science can also determine human values.
[9]  Irrespective of which is true, one thing I submit to is that they probably were the best collections of ideas of their generations. However, in this age of globalization and democracy, I don't think if they are applicable.
[10] At the international level, with so many dictatorships, monarchy, theocratic governments, territorial disputes and dogmatic/partisan politicians around, it is difficult to come up with one principle that will work every where. Non-intervention (or non-alignment) expects every country to make decision before you stop a genocide (example: EU and Bosnia). Respecting every nation's sovereignty means pulling out your troops from unstable governments (like Iraq and Afghanistan) or countries surrounded by superior military powers (like Kuwait, South Korea, Taiwan or Japan). Think non-violence and Tibet. So, this blogpost is only applicable to citizens of secular nations with access to freedom of speech.
[11] If you believe in miracles, aren't miracles of science (pun intended) equally mind-blowing, for example: flying objects, going to the heavencreate new life, curing the sick, all-knowing oracle, walking on water, being invisible, etc.
[12] Penn Jillette: Why tolerance is condescending ?
[13] Of course, many religious people will disagree with this opinion and will point out that religion exists because God wanted it to exists, not because humans were fishing for answers.

For those people who followed the entire line of argument, I must admit that I deliberately skipped the underlying question about existence of God in non-religious/non-theists, atheist, agnostics settings.