Science-based Religion Blog

Science and religion are not intrinsic enemies. Science strives for revelation. It is the revelation of the universe as we find it. The current picture of the universe is in perfect harmony with many religious perspectives and in stark contrast to others. This blog intends to explore these harmonies and conflicts of Science and Religion. Keep an open mind and a gentle heart please.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

My family background is third generation German-American. I was the younger of two sons. My father was an English professor who had also served a Protestant minister and missionary to China. My mother was a nurse and social worker. I went to Purdue University, where I earned a B.S. degree in the Honors Physics program. I got a masters degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and also a masters and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the USC school of religion. I have worked as a teacher and as an IT professional. I am married, with no children but two cats.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

World View in Science and Religion

When people find out I have degrees in both physics and religion, they often ask whether this is not something of a contradiction. Many people assume that science and religion are somehow inherently at odds. I believe science is only at odds with certain instances of religion. Many religions exist which consider science or at least the scientific method to be important, even essential. Other religious traditions developed before the rise of modern science but have found nothing objectionable in the world view that science has provided.

What is a world view? It is pretty much what the term implies, how one views or thinks about the world. In this context, the world really means the universe, which really means everything that exists (not just the physical universe of science). There is a pretty good definition at the Principia Cybernetic Web. The web site presents one group’s world view based on scientific principles.

Quoting from this article, here is what a world view should do:

It should allow us to understand how the world functions and how it is structured. "World" here means the totality, everything that exists around us, including the physical universe, the Earth, life, mind, society and culture. We ourselves are an important part of that world. Therefore, a world view should also answer the basic question: "Who are we?".

Another way of putting it is to say that a world view explains who we are, how we got here, and what is our place in the cosmos. As I have argued elsewhere, this is what religion evolved to do, in particular to help us live productive lives that help ensure social cohesion and hence survival of all things human. Other animals don’t need this. Instinct has provided them with a set of responses for every situation they are likely to encounter. But humans evolved to take advantage of both the benefits of social living and also the adaptability to migrate to other places, other environments.

So we evolved thinking, that is, making a mental model of our environment and sharing that model through language. As our mental capabilities evolved, so did the complexity of our model of the world. Religion evolved to link the demands of social living (essentially ethics) to the most awesome and mysterious elements of the world. It provided a world view.

Different religions provided different world views. In earlier, simpler times, everyone in a community had the same religion and hence understood the world in the same way. This world view had to account for many important physical aspects of the world: weather, natural disasters, agriculture, sex, birth, life, disease, and death. Before the advent of modern science, people made use of the dominant form of logic at the time: analogical reasoning.

Analogical reasoning means using familiar experiences to solve a problem in a less familiar domain. For ancient people, things got done in society by following the will of the leaders. They reasoned that in the natural world it must be the same way. They imagined gods and goddesses, powers and principalities, willful beings of great power, making things happen in the world: causing rain, disease, nurturing life, designing the world, and determining what people should be doing in it. At least that is how most religions saw things.

Science set out to determine what it could about a part of the world. It limited itself to things that could be objectively observed. Galileo’s problems with the Church were in part because his scientific findings contradicted a portion of the world view of the Church, that the earth was the center of the universe. A few hundred years later, the Church finally admitted that Galileo was right.

Science has never claimed it would provide a replacement for the world view provided by religion. But over the course of several centuries, it has rewritten 90% of what the Western religions thought they knew for certain about the world. This is why some religions, especially Western religions, are having such a hard time maintaining themselves at present. It is also why the most hard-core fundamentalists are so distrustful of science, particularly biological science, which has radically repositioned the alleged centerpiece of God’s creation: human beings.

People in the West tend to think of religion purely in terms of the Western traditions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But there are many other religions. Some of these may have started out with similar ideas of spirits and powers controlling nature, but they evolved world views that did not involve monotheism.

Taoism, for example, taught that the universe was created and maintained by the Tao, which translates roughly as the Way or better, the Way of Nature. Confucius, likewise, did not conceive of the Absolute as a personal deity, but as Heaven and Earth, which we would simply call the Universe. Humans are not told by a God how to behave, but have to discover what to do by seeking their humanity in relationships. Buddhism holds a world view in which each person must discover the truth about our place in the cosmos through experience, not through professing a creed or performing a ritual and abiding by rules.

All of these religions have world views which integrate relatively well with the modern world view of science. So I do not hold that Science and Religion are at odds. They merely have different world views. Another important difference: Science does not attempt to integrate into the world view things which cannot be objectively observed. Yet I believe, as do most people, that there is more to reality than what science can observe. Just as radio waves go undetected without a way to translate them into something we can observe, so does religion need to translate the unobservable portion of the universe into something we can understand.

No religion can hope to provide a complete picture of our place in the cosmos without integrating the world view of science. Those religions that resist this task do a disservice to their adherents. Those that attempt to utilize science without religion may be seriously handicapped by their unwillingness to consider more to reality than what we can see and touch. Science and Religion must complement each other.


Post a Comment

<< Home