Monday, January 12, 2009

Science and religion

Listening to creationist videos and the biologist and other scientist to those videos makes me want to ask about science and religion. Some scientists expect religion to disappear replaced by the wonders of the natural world, logic and reason as the basis for or societies and laws. Other believe that religion will always exist as some part of humanity will be unable to leave behind the idea of god. But it all comes down to a single, are science and religion opposite ideas?

I would answer strangely, religion is the opposite of science, but science is not the opposite of religion. The opposite of science would ignorance and even the most backward of religion is based on knowledge, often knowledge without understanding but knowledge nonetheless. If we follows the thoughts of some anthropologist and biologist to think that religion arose from a new to understand the event of our life and feel that we have an importance in the universe it as no choice but to be based on a little knowledge. Any religion that would not offer explanation for natural phenomenon or would not thought its ritual offer observable protection from unexplained problem would quickly disappear in favor of more personal god. You just have to think about the rules against eating pork that many religion have, its easy to explain, undercooked pork meat as a very risk of making you sick or infecting you with parasite. You don’t need to know how it is dangerous but you need to know it is.

Now, I say that religion is the opposite of science for a simple reason, science is the quest for more understanding, for more knowledge with at it’s core the knowledge that there is no forbidden knowledge, that the problem is not in the knowledge itself but in how we will find ways to use that knowledge.

As a side note, this explains why I think the story of Adam and Eve depict god as a dangerous monster. Think about it, you have here an all powerful being creating intelligent being with curiosity, free will and the power to learn and grow; yet forbidding them the fruits of the tree of knowledge. Then, when those creature he created follow curiosity he build inside them, and use the free will he so graciously provided to disobey and taste the fruit to learn and grow, something else the creator put into them. This god, cast them out of paradise curse them to die and be tortured for all eternity afterward, curse them to pain and suffering and finally blame his creation for their own punishment. Already at the beginning of the story this god person sound evil, denying knowledge that he already has, and then he proves it by his action when things follow predictably from the condition he himself set.

Anyway, back to religion as the opposite of science, religion by it’s very nature as a set of ritual and an explanation for the natural world by an outside intelligent or energy must change very slowly or very rapidly but catastrophically (just look at Christianity schism in the Renaissance). Rapid change would not make sense to explain, things we see, as human, as unchanging, like the mountain and the stars. In short, to maintain it existence religion needs to oppose new knowledge and new explanation for things. It’s part of the god in the gap problem, most of our religions are based on what is missing from human understanding but as we fill those gaps the place for god seems to disappear. Even more problem start to appear when science contradict the teaching of religion by demonstrating that a phenomenon that religion explain do not work as religion advocate. Try think of someone today that would follow the Greek Pantheon of god, how do you reconcile Zeus sending lightning bold down from the star with humanity using electricity and producing it own lightning for experiment. If Zeus is supposed to smite the infidel claiming to use his power he is taking his sweet time about it.

One last thing, science is not a religion no matter how little some people understands science or how it works. Even if those people see similarity in how scientist act toward people with less knowledge and how priest and holy men act toward the less enlightened. Even if science looks like it as dogma that cannot be challenged just like religion. It is false, there is no absolute law in science, anything and everything can be challenge… but there is a few catch, you must have something to replace the law, that not only explains all the phenomenon the law you are challenging explained (it was obviously valid for some phenomenon otherwise it wouldn’t have been used), it also has to explain the phenomenon you used to challenge the law in the first place and it must not invalidate other laws (except if it respect the two first condition for those laws as well). This is why, you do not see many big changes in the theories of sciences, it is very hard to find something that would at once explain what was previously explained AND explain the new objection.

There are only a few good recent example, but they should give you the scope of the change that can occur in science: Relativity. Not only did it explain everything Newton explained about gravity (in fact General relativity is mathematically identical to Newtonian dynamics in the limit of slow moving object in “weak” gravitational field) but it also explained why Mercury was behaving strangely, how light travelled through space, what would happened if you increased an object mass to infinity, what were the possible future for the universe and many other unexplained observation of the time. As a second example, Quantum mechanic not only did it solve the problem of the single electron interference pattern, it also explained the radiation of the stars, the nature of light, the nature of elementary particle and so many other fantastic things that it is just mind boggling.

That last difference is quite interesting, when science change it is most often by building on what already existed, expanding our knowledge even as it is changing it. When religions change it is by tearing down the old and replacing it with the new. It burns what it didn’t like with the ancient and provides a new explanation and new sets of rules to go with that.

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