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August 14, 2003

Science as Religion
Kaveh Khodjasteh  [info|posts]

I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Of course the scientist always had his (not her this time, it would be an anachronism and an interesting subject to talk about later) place in the society, sometimes dark and fearsome (Faust) and sometimes almost angelic (Pasteur), but always a source of rational (and proverbial) wisdom to the non-scientist people.

During the conflicts of ideologies in 19th century, science was one of the intellectual safe havens that provided its occupants with a neutral position in the war that was fought by culture and education. This contributed to its growth and strength. This neutrality was destroyed after the world wars in which a major recipient of science, technology, was the winner.

After the transfiguration of arts into an oblivious form (if not into barbarism), science once again assumed its position of power in the society: space travel, telecommunications, computers and nuclear weapons became the new wonders of the world. Science was victorious in its apparent objectivity, absoluteness and usefulness. The three building blocks of any religion are indeed in place and Nature (but in fact technology) would be God.

But what will stop us now? If we believe in science as a religion? Since we are made of stars ...

The fact is we are not made of stars. Science as religion isn't different from other religions. Its objectivity is only on the surface but from inside it is a world of people, interpretations and styles. Science might be useful but many other things are also and none have caused that many sufferings of humankind directly. As a matter of practice, usefulness of science has always rested with the user and ironically science and religion both have bloodstained hands when it comes to practical applications.

Absoluteness is at best a lie about science: Even the most conservative supporters of science and scientific method agree, science is good because it can be wrong and can be corrected! This point is not shared by religion, religion is always right, cannot be corrected. While it is still the same physics that is being corrected, it is not the same Islam that is being reformed, many clerics would tell you that; it is something else, just a new religion, a source of eternal schism.

My personal disappointment with science as religion comes from the fact that science is very incomplete and its wisdom is always subject to doubts, but it is still used by many in arguments that have little, if any, relevance to science itself. I will try to bring up examples of the unjust and pathetic use of science and scientific methods in the upcoming posts.

Hazhir at August 14, 2003 04:47 PM [permalink]:

Good article Kaveh :)
For me accepting that science is fundamentally not different from several other humanly affairs, has been a great source of insight, as well as cognitive dissonance (it feels much more comfortable to potentially have all the answers in "Science")!
I think this shift of view can be helpful for us to be more reflective on our practice as scientists (if we claim to be one). Having accepted that science is only different in the rules of its game, rather than the nature of the game, one can remind her/himself that s/he is doing science only as long as one is understanding and following the rules of the game.
For example, it took a long time for scientific community to come to accept that Ozone layer is getting thin, as a result of CFC's. One of the interesting reasons behind this was that the measurement devices designed by NASA to measure the thikness of Ozone layer, were programmed to discard very low measurments as instrument error! Therefore, being programmed not to see what can potentially discredit their theory (this is where the rule of the science game is overlooked) "scientific" community was held back for several years to react on the Ozone layer problem and several people died from skin cancer as a result of this delay.

Arash at August 14, 2003 05:13 PM [permalink]:

Good to see an article focusing on something other than politics. Here are some points I do not particularly agree with:
1- At the dawn of civilization (a vague term by the way that could refer to all sorts of civilizations, e.g. Chinese, Persian, Greek etc.), science was not "the" religion. In fact, if anything, it was the other way around. Religion assumed the role of science.
2-I cannot particularly call science a safe haven from those as you call ideological (I prefer the word philosophical) conflicts. In fact science and scientific discoveries triggered most of those conflicts. Take Newtonian mechanics, for instance, which provided evidence to determinists' claims.
3-I don't think any scientist ever claimed science is objective or absolute! Science, unlike a scientist, is always subjective. In fact, it is the "subject" itself. As regards absoluteness, I believe one of the essential differences between science and religion is that science is based on (logical) argument and admits fallibility (no claims of absoluteness) whereas religion is always dogmatic.
4-I think there's a mix up in your arguments, between two fundamentally distinct concepts, i.e., that of science (which you are so disappointed with) and a scientific method. Although both utterly imperfect, scientific methods (which are also vastly employed by philosophers) are by far the best alternatives to the dogmatic approach of religious thinking.

yahya at August 14, 2003 07:36 PM [permalink]:

I disagree to some extent with what Hazhir says that religion and science are only different in the rules of their games. It is true that on the boundary of science there are controversial issues, but once enough experiments is done, and their results is fully studied, a consensus is built, and almost every scientist agrees on the consensus.
However, this is not the case about religion. In fact, as time passes there is more and more schism in each religion.

BHS at August 14, 2003 07:41 PM [permalink]:

"Science was victorious in its apparent objectivity, absoluteness and usefulness. The three building blocks of any religion are indeed in place and ..."

Did you mean that objectivity is a builidng block of religions? If so, I totally disagree. In fact, the question of objectivity and subjectivity is unanswered in the religious appraoch to the world. It was only later, when people came to discover the scientific approach that this question was raised. Moreover, unlike Arash, I think what remains subjective in science, is the scientist. However, science itself is rendered objective through its method.

And the method of science vs. religion is what I think should be referred in thinking about and/or comparing the two. The religious method not only doesn't accept falliblity in its construction, it doesn't have a non-subjective prescription of falsifying its statements. The scientific method, on the other hand, not only admits its fallibility but, I believe most importantly, has a built-in non-subjective way of falsifying its statements. Exactly this feature is what brings about the so-called scientific objectivity.

Highlander at August 14, 2003 09:18 PM [permalink]:

A big applause for Arash for his beautiful and brief comment. I re-iterate his words about the importance not to mix up "science" with "scientific methods".

Moreover, in recent centuries (after renaissance) religion has also become a subject of study in the west, just like any other subject. Although we have theology studies in Iran (and possibly other islamic countries), religion is not treated academic research the same as it is treated in the west. In other words, in Theology studies in Iran they still assume that the core of religion is holy, untouchable and unchangable (which is not a scientific way of dealing with a subject).

I once talked to a German prof. who was doing research about history of religion in Iran. She described her biggest problem as not being able to open a true debate with islamic scholars and students of theology; neither in universities nor in religious schools (Hoazeh Elmieh). She said their pre-assumption is that everything in the religion is correct and you can not have debate and doubt on anything which is believed to be from God or the prophet or major saints (imams).

Last but not least, I have to mention that the education and debating methods in Shia system (which is Iranian in its roots) is very modern and dynamic comparing to its Sunni counterparts. In some way, it resembles modern academic systems: Students start as freshers (newcomer Talabeh), they study the base theoretical parts, then study more advanced topics, then start research (if they continue their education), and finally come up with a thesis (resaleh). Although the system has shown its age and most resaleh's are more or less the same, but it has a built-in dynamism and ability to adapt the religion to any time (ie offering new solutions and definitions by reseach).

Hazhir at August 14, 2003 10:14 PM [permalink]:

I think hazhir's comments about science having some fixed "rules" of the game, while not being informative about truth, is internally inconsistent!
Where does those "rules" of the game (e.g. In scientific method one should make claims that are falsifiable) come from? Aren't these rules of the game themself socially constructed in a social, political negotiontion process? Then even though seemingly different building blocks from those of religion, these rules of the game, or elements of scientific method, are still subject to negotiation and change.
Take for example the "scientific method" that FDA (Food and Drug Administration) uses for evaluating and approving drugs to be introduced into the U.S. market. The process is made based on the consensus of scientific community about what are the plausible scientific tests and steps that should be taken to make sure a drug is effective. To make a long story short, until 10 years ago, these consisted of 3 steps of clinical trial using double blinded (neighter doctor nor the patient know who is having real vs. the fake drug) controled random trials. No drug could be accepted without passing these tests. Then when it came to AIDS drugs, several questions and challenges were raised by patients: "we don't want to eat your placebo (fake drug) and die, so that you test the efficiency of your drug! We want real drug!". The argument/actions/war went on, on one side with AIDS activists (mainly coming from well organized gay community) and the other side FDA and the scientific community. Well, the final result was that FDA changed its regulations, eased up the process of drug approval and decided to accept other methods (e.g. community based clinical trials) as acceptable measures of scientific proof that a drug works... and so did the medical scientists.
The example is too dramatic, as the rules of the scientific game changed in less than 10 years. In most other cases, the change is more gradual, probably too gradual for us to feel it, but the point remains valid.

Saeed at August 14, 2003 11:35 PM [permalink]:

Science also gave birth to secular philosophies in 19th century. I think the effect of physics as a fundamental science “against” religion has been pretty substantial. The headline that physics brought was, in principle if you know the initial condition of a system you know it at every time. You will have a hard time matching this picture with the “revival” picture. The stupidity of advocates of religion has also helped for widening this gap!

As a physics student, I see physics as just a mathematical “game” with nature; carrying subjectivity at its very core. I think beautiful color of “technology” has covered up this “game” as a very real thing to people and due to the “covered up science”, I think in the next chapter of history you’ll see fundamentals of religions dissolved!

Saeed at August 15, 2003 04:02 AM [permalink]:

I think that the subjectivity of science is fundamental because it's about "outside world". But for example the concept of "life after death" is very close to a person because life itself is being experienced at every moment crystal clear!

maryam at August 15, 2003 12:10 PM [permalink]:

I think you are mixing up two different issues here. In my view, science is a tool in order to understand the "Outside World"! namely the way to understand how things function as an entity, this can be in trun used to facilitate the human beings'lives, whereas religion (to me) was meant to be a set of rules to ensure a rather peaceful co-existence of people, a way of perpetuating the existence of human societies( I'm aware that it has been misused counless times,so don't bother reminding me of contradictions!:)
Both science and religion have their own set of domains that they can be only relevant "Within" their domains, outside those domains they become irrelavant.
Human being and human society are very complicated and can not be treated as abstract notions! that's why I think it becomes necessary to study history more carefully in order to get some insight into this complicated being ( not to mention that the collective behavior of this complicated being even is more complicated!)

Kaveh at August 15, 2003 07:12 PM [permalink]:

Please forgive my untimely indulgence in replying which is due to the blackout in Toronto.

I just have a general comment that I don't think scientists themselves very much believe in absoluteness or objectivity of science mostly, it is usually the view taken by the outsiders ...

By safe haven what I had in mind was mostly the 19th century science and by the war I mean the beginning of the end of the age of reason something I forgot to mention in my super-sketchy intro' to social history of science!

I should also add that in my opinion as someone who's been trying for some years to become a scientist, science is not just a mathematical game, it is not a tool either. All of these views are simply aspects of it. It is like saying that literature is just a game we play with words, or a tool to convey emotions and knowledge.

I also have to apologize about the low profile of this particular post of mine, as it was put up in a bit of haste (just two days of thinking only!).

Yashar at August 16, 2003 02:00 PM [permalink]:

the best thing about science is that it works. This no one can deny, even its most stubborn adversaries. science brings power.

the second best thing about it is, i don't know of any other language game (except for mathematics which is a most important tool in science) that is as precise and unambiguous as science. it's most recent adversaries' (some post-modernists) use of language seems to me, is so vague and sloppy, it's pathetic. (who can resist deriding Derrida?)

on the other hand it seems, you can not squeeze out a 'meaning of life' or anything like that from scnience. that's why we need other things to compliment it. love, spirituality, religion, ... are some examples. in the words of the master himself:'religion without science is blind, science without religion is lame.' (i like it with the word religion given a rather broad interpretation)

John Anderson at August 18, 2003 08:26 AM [permalink]:

I doubt I can make a point, or even that I have a point, but I'm going to spout anyway...

Science does resemble religion in some aspects, but at least tries not to let individual scientists either impose untestable systems or be forced into accepting such imposition. A polytheist Hindu and a Creationist "Christian" may indulge in fantasies of fistfights or duels, but both agree that for something to be "science" it must somehow be testable (if only by mathematical scribbles on blackboards).

Perhaps the best-known example is the attempt by Einstein to stop investigation of Quantum Mechanics by saying "God does not play dice with the Universe," which he stated so often that his friend Bohr finally chided him "Albert, stop telling God what to do." I am sure non-Abrahamic-tradition scientists would have wanted to put it more strongly. Thing is, even his co-religionists objected to his placing untestable faith into the testable realm of science - but they most certainly did not try to get him to renounce religion.

Yet science does sometimes draw upon religion, or at least upon religious accounts of history, as seen in archaeology. The two are complementary, with science trying to answer "How?" and religion trying to answer "Why?".

Kevin at December 3, 2003 01:08 PM [permalink]:

what are you talking about?

LINKDOONI at March 18, 2004 03:03 PM [permalink]:

SOUTH AFRICA: RELIGION HONOR Dr. George F. R. Ellis, a theoretical cosmologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, is this year's winner of the Templeton Prize, which honors contributions to religion. While his physics research examines the earliest moments of the universe, including the possibility of multiple universes, Dr. Ellis, 64, has also written about ethics and the boundaries of physics and metaphysics. He said he would donate half of the $1.4 million prize money to social causes, including a campaign to establish a basic income grant for all South African citizens to alleviate poverty. Kenneth Chang (NYT)