In the United States, time and time again we are met with a perceived crossroads within our social construct and education system. This intersection is battled wildly by parties on either extreme, and debated frequently (and sometimes responsibly) by those who fall somewhere in the middle. The roots of our varying opinions and beliefs can run incredibly deep, winding in and around the very cornerstones of our reality and truly shape the way we see the world every single day…in a way that seems matter-of-fact…until perhaps we take a step back.
I’m speaking of course about the intersection of the measurable and the immeasurable. Fact and faith. And largely, though not nearly as simple as this phrase, science versus religion.
Many are of the opinion that these two things are quite fine to coexist, and that they even play well together. What is unavoidable as a discussion is that quite frequently they contradict one another. This has been true as long as we have searched for a greater understanding of ourselves, and will continue to unfold, as does our comprehension of the universe. It is worth remembering that religion has not always been gracious or accommodating to scientific discoveries that might contradict existing doctrine and teachings.
What I plan to undertake within this four part series is a reasoned and measured look at their compatibility and contradiction, and the effect this has on our personal worldview, collective psyche, and society. With the current social climate and the reboot of “Cosmos” fresh on our minds, I can think of no better time to have this discussion. To do so, we will examine science itself, politics, religion, and education.
Part I: Science
“I would never ask you to ‘believe’ anything, only to examine the facts and draw your own conclusions.”
- Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, Director of the Hayden Planetarium
“The reason is simply historical facts…The Christian scriptures were written between about 2000 years before Christ, to about 200 years after Christ. That’s it. Modern science came to be with Galileo, up through Newton, up through Einstein, what we know as modern science, okay, is in that period. How in the world could there be any ‘science’ in scripture? There cannot be! Just the two historical periods are separated by so much. The scriptures are not teaching science.”
“Intelligent design isn’t science even though it pretends to be. If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”
- Father George V. Coyne, PhD, former Director of the Vatican Observatory
Science, by definition, is the process of organizing observations about the universe by way of testable, measurable data. It is a continually expanding body of knowledge, built upon daily by predictions, hypotheses, experiments, accidents, and unexpected discoveries. Though an experiment may have an intended or expected outcome, the results simply exist, and any preconceived notions are irrelevant when logging the product of evidence.
Having said that, there can at times be what some would perceive as “trust” or “belief” involved in science. I have certainly never split an atom. I have never been to Venus. I haven’t personally counted all 4800 species of frog. Doesn’t that mean that I have to trust these scientists who say these things are true? Well, no. We have the evidence (both benevolent and terrible) of the results of atom-splitting. We can see Venus in the night sky, and in countless pictures and video. We can view specimens and photos of thousands of different frogs. Scientists have done the work for us, but we aren’t meant to simply trust their papers and discoveries as if they were the product of something unverifiable. And that is perhaps one of the greatest outcomes of science…we can all share in the discoveries.
Another interesting component of science is this: The accuracy of your experiment is only as good as the tools with which you use to conduct it. I could make a guess at the length of a tree branch. This would be an easier task using a piece of metal cut to about one foot. It would be easier still with a highly detailed tape measure. The experiments would all be conducted in much the same way, but the results would vary. I can observe Venus with my naked eye, but won’t have much to put in my report other than “bright spot in the sky low on the horizon”. If I have a pretty decent telescope, I could say that it is definitely a moving object, presumably very far away based on simple calculations. If I send a satellite up there, I can retrieve a whole host of additional data about its size, precise distance, atmosphere, temperature, and chemical makeup. In all scenarios, I’ve learned more about something than I knew before. But my results are only as good as my tools.
Science is certainly observation. Another large component of science is using it to invent the tools that will get us to the next observation. This is an interesting paradox of sorts, being that there will never truly be a pure observation of anything in the universe. In other words, our perception of the known universe will always be colored in some way by whatever method is used to capture the data. Even if no scientific instrument is used, and we conduct an experiment that relies on only natural observation, we are still depending on some conduit by which the data is captured. Further still, we are relying on a brain to decode and interpret that data into something useful. A spider would capture and interpret a leaf falling in front of it much differently than a human would, based on just the structure of the eye alone.
This fact often escapes us in daily life. We see what happens around us and have gotten so used to how we process the world that we see it as the end all, be all of how things work, move, sound, and appear. As it stands, we take in only a fraction of what countless other species do (a dog’s sense of smell, a dolphin’s sonar, a bird’s ability to see ultraviolet), and on top of that, only a micron of what is truly present in the universe across all spectrums of the senses. So what can we do? We can build instruments that hopefully accomplish much of this for us, so we can see and understand…even though we can’t always see and understand, and even though at the time we may not fully realize the implications of the information we have captured.
In the 1600s, an Italian scientist observed that the Earth was likely not the point around which other heavenly bodies revolved. Instead, the sun seemed to be the center of our neighborhood. The advent of better telescopes and confirmation from additional observers helped solidify this discovery and position it as closer to factual. On its own, this was simply a pure scientific discovery, observed, catalogued, and verified. But in the times and locale during which it occured, it was Galileo Galilei asserting a controversial proposition against well-established Catholic doctrine. This simple observation resulted in house arrest for the remainder of his life, during which he developed what we now know as kinematics and the mechanics of materials.
This story is fairly well known and often quoted, but the point rings true: In this historic example, we aren’t talking about the practical application of stem cells or at what point life begins, and the moral impacts. We are talking simply about whether or not verifiable data was embraced or shunned by religion, and in fact, by a practicing member of that very religion. It shows the frightening impacts that have historically been felt due to a difference in thought by those in power.
It is a very fair assessment to say that man invented what we know as “science”, in that man invented (and continues to invent) ways to interpret and catalogue the world around him. But man certainly did not invent the world itself or the subjects of his investigations. In a purely scientific sense, whether or not there was an inventor of those things is largely irrelevant, because any preconceived notions about an experiment are irrelevant. Only the results are of note. And herein we arrive at the biggest difference, the actual point of contention:
Religion consistently works toward an end result, being that a higher power is responsible for creating the world that we are able to observe, and possibly some attributes that we cannot. Science, on the other hand, endeavors to observe and understand what exists, regardless of its origin, and strives to arrive at conclusions that will possibly be helpful in revealing the source. Could science “discover” God? Perhaps. But it could also continue to show the existence of God is increasingly unlikely, simply due to the fact that we can understand the previously unknown a bit at a time, as our collective understanding progresses.
This very simple fact details explicitly why it may be impossible for the two to coexist in a way that is constructive. So, man invented science as a tool to measure the universe. But if a higher power invented man, did that power also (in a way) invent science so that man could have a better understanding of it? If this is true, at least to me, it doesn’t seem to be a very economical way of distributing important information, and here’s why:
The Earth is 40,000 kilometers at its circumference. To us, that seems massive. And if we travel by plane to anywhere else in the world, we can agree that it is indeed large. The simple fact that it can take upwards of 8 hours to reach Galileo’s house from New York, traveling at maximum speeds of over 900 kilometers per hour, should tell us that. And that’s just on Earth. Now think about this: The Voyager 1 satellite has been traveling from earth on a mission to interstellar space for 36 years. In September of last year, NASA confirmed that it had indeed crossed into that realm a year ago. It took 35 years, traveling at a maximum speed of 62,000 kilometers per hour, to reach a distance of 19 billion kilometers from Earth, and it has just now exited the Solar System.
Voyager 1 has traveled my entire life at unimaginable speeds and has only just now made it out of our solar neighborhood. Our sun is only one of three hundred billion in the Milky Way galaxy. And astronomers estimate that there are over one hundred billion galaxies in the known universe.
The point is, we have been left alone to decipher this information. The expansive power that is responsible for all of this is impossible to comprehend, which is why for some it might make it easier to put it in the hands of a creator, and for it simply to remain beyond our collective understanding. But is it? And could it not be, based on the staggering statistics above, be a severely misguided and human-centered outlook on what has to be considered to be “all of creation”? Science is still moving forward and looking for answers to these questions. Religion, largely, claims to have an explanation, and then chooses to work backward from there. This is why no matter how much there may be to “agree” on, it will never work. A system of open discovery cannot coexist with one of end result assumption.
The level at which these systems compete (or don’t) in our minds is due to our social imprinting, personal choices, and geography. If I am born in India to Hindu parents, statistically I am more likely to stay in India and practice Hinduism than someone who does not share these demographics. Furthermore, the intensity level or fantastic nature of the belief system in which we are raised often makes it more of a challenge to process scientific evidence, since it may very well contradict things we believe to be true. It may also prevent us, our children, and our grandchildren from exploring the world that exists outside our reality tunnels. It shakes the very foundations of peoples’ lives.
Here’s an example. In America today, especially recently in states such as Arizona and Georgia, the debate of homosexuality is largely viewed as being a social, ethical, or religious issue. It is associated with civil rights and legality. It fuels strong opinions about marriage and children and education. Surely, between heterosexuality and homosexuality, the heteros have the greater numbers.
But what’s really going on here? Especially when you consider that homosexuality occurs at nearly the same rate among animals as it does within humans? In his book Biological Exuberance, Bruce Bagemihl explores this subject in amazing detail. In short, homosexuality has been observed in over 450 species, including monkeys, bats, flamingos, giraffes, and even dolphins. Same-sex animals copulate, pair off as couples, and co-parent, many for life. They do this for pleasure, partnership, and companionship.
The point is that every animal community has its gay population. Humans are no different. What IS different is the application of morality, religion, and social bias to something that simply occurs naturally, and has been scientifically proven. Science provides us with the evidence. Humans then interpret it. If a person’s reality tunnel (Leary, Anton Wilson) and social imprinting tells them that homosexuality is evil or wrong or abnormal, then no amount of statistics or research papers will convince them otherwise…or at least, it will not be an easy process to take a step back and re-examine the contents of the mind they are relying on to process information. Allowing unfounded bias to control this processing will cause a person to remain ignorant to the true reality of the world around us.
Another common example is the perceived validity of evolution. The word “theory” being attached to it often seems to provide to detractors an opportunity to point out that it is “only a theory, and not fact”, even though it actually means “scientific theory”. It certainly began as a theory, as all scientific investigations or proposals do (Newton also started with the “theory” of universal gravitation). Even though there are varied opinions within the scientific community, extensive research over the years with DNA and RNA has concluded that all creatures are most likely descendants of a “last common ancestor” billions of years ago. Again, science has done the work. We aren’t required to “believe” anything. We can examine the research and decide for ourselves if it makes sense.
It is interesting that many religious opponents of evolution state there isn’t enough evidence to convince them. Many would like to see fossils that represent each and every branch on the evolutionary family tree. Plenty of intermediate fossils exist showing the evolution of individual species, but this isn’t enough for them. Additionally, every time a fossil is produced which links two others, they see it as creating two more gaps in its wake. They want to see a “from pond scum to a man” scenario that they can touch and see and believe. This is incredibly ironic, considering they require far more evidence from biologists to prove evolution’s existence than they do from an omniscient Creator to prove His.
Science has always advanced, and always will. Theories are revised when new information becomes available and when new technologies are developed. We didn’t always know Jupiter was a planet. Electrons had to be discovered. Dinosaurs were once unknown and buried beneath our feet. It takes effort and research and imagination to uncover and understand the world around us. The fruits of discovery are under no obligation to make sense to us or fit into our reality tunnels. They simply exist. At that point, it becomes our responsibility to examine the evidence, as well as the way we choose to process it.
Science & Religion: Part I - Science