Science, religion, and meaning

A particularly grueling dental experience may leave someone worried about her teeth, and we say that she flosses religiously. Or maybe someone who is concerned about his weight exercises religiously. OK, when we say things like that we’re speaking informally, and all we mean is that they’re very faithful in doing these things. But is there any sense in which we can talk about doing science religiously?

I recently read an article about studies that indicate that people who practice a religion live longer than those who don’t; the article suggested that maybe religion provides a sense of meaning that makes people better able to cope with life, and also that for some people, science can be a religion in the sense that it also provides that sense of meaning.

The use of “religion” in this sense, even with a lowercase “r” to distinguish it from traditional church-going Religion, bothered me. You can find meaning, or a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, in places as diverse as your job and your family, and that doesn’t make either of those a religion. This may be a small point to get exercised over, but I’ve seen other indications of a blurring of the line between science and religion. With a perceived shift in authority from religion to science in the last 500 years or so, people wonder if science is supplanting religion, providing a new worldview that fulfills the same functions as religion did. Some books even seem to propose something approaching a science-based religion (e.g., Connie Barlow’s Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science).

Religion and science share in some sense a common goal—understanding and controlling the world—but the underlying values and methodology are entirely different. Science is looking for things that can be tested, that are reproducible and falsifiable, and it seeks natural explanations for things. The principal value is empirically discovered truth, and you are not expected to believe things that do not meet the standards of proof. (You may need to trust that the people who have done the experiments are not lying to you, but that’s not the same thing as believing something that no one has seen, and science has built in a system of peer review specifically to guard against cheating and even honest mistakes.) Religion, on the other hand, favors or does not rule out supernatural explanations that often need to be accepted on faith. Furthermore, religious leaders can be dogmatic in presenting their beliefs, and people are sometimes prone to superstition or blind acceptance of religious credos, whereas science demands an educated audience. In particular, if we are to make adequate decisions about many of the most important questions before us, like how to live sustainably on the planet or to what degree new biomedical capabilities are used, we need to know all that we can about the underlying science. We can’t just accept someone else’s word or go by our feelings of what is right.

A friend pointed out another intriguing difference between religion and science. To take Christianity as an example, what began as a fairly unified institution splintered into smaller divergent groups, and these smaller groups often splinter into yet smaller ones. A scientific theory, on the other hand, can start out with few who believe in or understand it, but if it stands the test of time and experimentation, it becomes more and more widely accepted until it becomes taken for granted, like the Newtonian theory of gravity. This suggests to me that religion serves a purpose that varies with time, place, and personality, whereas scientific discoveries are universally applicable.

In my opinion, there are dangers in trying to press science into service as a religion. While scientific knowledge can inform your worldview, forming a worldview and building scientific knowledge are two separate, if related, enterprises. And some of the purposes that religion serves have little or nothing to do with the concerns of science.

Religious ritual and ceremony, for example, and spiritual practices such as prayers, fulfill social and emotional needs. Maybe science can tell us something about why we seem to need the words or music or ritual actions of religious ceremonies, but even if we can someday explain this need in terms of how our brains work or how we evolved, that doesn’t mean we’ll need our spiritual practices any the less. And furthermore it doesn’t turn religion into a science, any more than understanding the physical principles of vision turns art into a science.

I’ve also found, to my surprise, that it’s possible to appreciate things like religious music even if I no longer believe in the literal truth of the Christian story of the creation, fall, and redemption of the human race. I love to listen to classical liturgical music: oratorios and masses and hymns and Magnificats. When I first listened to the complete Messiah by Handel, I found the Biblical verses intensely moving, which baffled me at first since I don’t believe in their literal truth. But then it occurred to me that the verses Handel chose were ones that told a story of redemption, and of course I believe in redemption, because I’ve experienced it in my own life—not divine redemption, but the restoration of things I had thought lost or damaged beyond repair. And so the story is a metaphor and the words and music move me on that level. I suspect that this is the case for many people.

If spiritual practice were all there were to religion, I’d be inclined to agree with Stephen Jay Gould, who advocated that we view science and religion as ruling in two separate domains, or non-overlapping magisteria. However, the magisteria do overlap, because both science and religion offer explanations of how the universe, the earth, and we humans came to be here. And even if you are willing to accept the scientific explanations for these things, there is still another aspect of religion that is often informed by our knowledge of science, although in a complex way: deciding what is ethical behavior, and finding meaning and value in our lives. I think it’s important to be clear about how science can enrich our understanding of these areas while remaining a separate endeavor that is not a source of ethics or spiritual meaning in and of itself.

The way we draw meaning from the findings of science seems to have as much to do with personality and background as it does with the science itself. Do you look at the workings of the universe as revealed by science and see, as many do, natural explanations for the things we see, with no need to posit a deity? Or do you look at the cosmos and see such beauty that you conclude the universe is the work of a god who created the natural machinery that we’re studying? Some people feel threatened at the thought that we are “only” biological mechanisms, and that our thoughts, dreams, loves, and goals arise from the firings of our neurons and the circulation of hormones through our bloodstreams. I think the phrase from the Hitchhiker’s Guide books of Douglas Adams is “bags of mostly water”. An alternate view, which I prefer, is that I’m incredibly lucky to be a bag of mostly water who can think and dream and love and follow my goals, and even read, write, and admire the starry sky.

When you look at the vastness of the universe and think that there is no obvious God of the kind humans have long envisioned, and that there might not be anything else out there outside of this life here, it’s easy to feel insignificant and troublingly mortal. But on the other hand, it’s amazing how much we can know, given our limitations in space and time. I am intrigued with Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s idea that life may be common in the universe, but complex intelligent life may be rare (this idea is explained in Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe). It can be scary or thrilling to think of the number of factors that had to come together to create the conditions on earth that allowed us to evolve. That fact depresses some people with the sheer randomness of it, but it informs my worldview by making me feel that it’s a great gift to be conscious here on this planet, and not something to be taken for granted.

In other words, the facts or speculations of science can be interpreted in different ways, and so science doesn’t provide a firm foundation for a system of meaning or a worldview or a set of values. Furthermore, when people try to extend scientific theories into areas of moral meaning, they often distort the science.

For example, relativity is about differences in the physical behavior of objects at velocities approaching the speed of light. It has all kinds of implications for astronomy and physics, but no direct moral content. Since the physical rules vary depending on your velocity, relativity theory might suggest to the metaphorically inclined mind that not all moral rules apply in all situations. But that’s not what the theory of relativity says, and it certainly doesn’t provide any kind of scientific endorsement of moral relativism. Similarly, chaos theory doesn’t say that everything is random and we can’t control anything. It looks at physical systems that once seemed random because they were complicated and/or unusually sensitive to initial conditions, and often finds an underlying order.

Evolution is particularly prone this kind of misunderstanding. We use the word “evolution” in everyday meanings that don’t always jibe with the scientific use of the term. This can make it too easy to see evolution as a goal-directed process that was working toward producing humans all along, for example, although that’s not the case. Evolution is not just a recreation of the great chain of being in time instead of space. Some misunderstandings of evolution are more harmful than others. For example, Social Darwinism simplifies the idea of natural selection to “survival of the fittest” and applies this idea to cultures and races as well as to individuals. This misunderstanding led people to believe that they had scientific support for morally repugnant policies.

This misuse of science is to me one of the biggest dangers of seeing science as a religion, or trying to make too tight a connection between the two. People can misuse scientific ideas to support their own prejudices and agendas, which I find deeply distressing because to my mind, that is not at all what science is about. Even innocent misunderstandings of scientific theories lead people astray; the theory of relativity has nothing to do with moral relativism and it’s a mistake to think that it does.

Science’s input on ethics and morality is likewise complicated. Maybe science can tell us something about our raw materials: the biological bases for our behavior and the evolution of human nature, and the constraints on what kinds of societies we can build. However, it cannot tell us which of the available options to choose. As we learn more about the biological underpinnings of human behavior, it’s a struggle sometimes to realize that describing something is not the same as saying it’s right or that it implies any particular policy.

If you suggest, as Lawrence Summers of Harvard did to his cost, that there might be some innate differences in men’s and women’s brains that would lead to differences in the careers they pursue, you’re not necessarily saying that women should not be scientists or that they should all stay home and have babies. If you try to understand the different reproductive strategies of males and females over evolutionary time, you’re not advocating a particular type of male or female behavior. This is one of the most delicate areas where science influences our thinking on areas that were formerly seen to be entirely the province of religion, and where we need to be very careful to distinguish between the scientific findings and what we want to do about them.

Essentially science is a method for finding the facts about the universe we live in, and religion has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about the universe. I don’t mean to belittle religion when I talk about telling stories, because I think that story-telling is intrinsic to how our minds work and is an excellent way of making sense of what is going on around us. Even scientific theories might begin, in some sense, as stories, but they are stories that are rigorously backed up with observation and testing.

The stories we make up about whether the universe is beautiful or lonely or meaningful, whether human life is meaningless or miraculous, whether and when we should behave in accord with our animal natures or rise above them—these are separate from the facts of science. It’s better to have religious stories that don’t conflict with the facts as we know them (and if there is a conflict, a well-tested scientific theory wins out in my book). Many scientific findings can inform our sense of what it means to be here and how to live a good life; they certainly don’t strip all the spiritual value from life as some claim. But the scientific findings are separate from the meaning we build out of them. By all means floss your teeth religiously if you like, or exercise religiously, but please don’t try to study science religously.

(Originally posted April 11, 2005. As with any topic this complicated, my thoughts have shifted a bit on some of the details since I wrote this, but in essence this is still pretty much what I think.)

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