Monday, December 2, 2013

What About Evolution?

Undoubtedly, the topic which has caused the most conflict between science and some religions is the Theory of Evolution. Quite truthfully, it is the philosophical extrapolations based on evolution, not the science itself, which have been most problematic. Nonetheless, even the science related to things like the age of the earth and the origin of man have come into conflict with traditional religious interpretations.

Obviously, I can’t cover this topic in any kind of comprehensive way on this blog. But I am not going to shy away from it, either-- that wouldn’t help anybody. Because my own religious beliefs encourage me to accept all truth, from whatever source, I enjoy tackling this topic head-on and without fear. Exploration is non-threatening to my faith, because I only have to believe what is true; if I’m not sure of the truth, I can refrain from committing my opinion while I continue searching.

In my search for answers, here are a few books that have been most helpful and enjoyable. (I won’t say that I agree 100% with everything they say, but I found much to agree with, and they offer some wonderful insights and possibilities.):


If you want to see my own conclusions (so far) about evolution, I will simply lift a passage from my novel, Emergence: A Journey of Friendship, Science, and Faith. In this passage, Miriam Bancroft is a biology professor, and Meg is her graduate student: Miriam On Evolution

What an intriguing mystery we get to try to unravel! I can’t wait to learn someday how all the pieces fit together, and I want to be in the front row when God eventually explains all of this! In the meantime, let’s all take a few deep breaths and keep our cool about it. Contention seldom generates understanding.

One more word is helpful when discussing topics so complex that none of us fully understands them yet: humility.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why God is Not a Scientific Hypothesis-- And Why We Would Not Want Him To Be

Despite all I have said on this blog, there will still be some who say that God should be treated as a scientific hypothesis. Consider this statement by atheist Richard Dawkins:
“Either admit that God is a scientific hypothesis, or admit that his status is no higher than that of fairies or river sprites.” (in Stenmark 2004:74)


Dawkins is indeed correct that if God is not a scientific hypothesis, then he can’t hold any more prominent place in science than fairies do. However, Dawkins’ statement reveals two logical errors lurking in his philosophy. The first is his assumption that anything that isn’t a scientific hypothesis isn’t worth considering—i.e. he is revealing his scientism. The second error is the reasoning, common to many atheists, that if there is a God, and if he interacts with the natural world at all, then his actions should be empirically detectable. (Don’t ask me how they “know” this-- it is an untestable assumption. One could just as reasonably claim that the way to detect God is through our spiritual rather than our physical senses, and there would be no scientific way to refute that.) Ironically, the sign-seeking argument that a deity must be physically detectable is used not only by some atheists who say, “see, there’s no evidence for God, because we have never detected him,” but also by some believers who wish to make a place for God within science.


I have spent a considerable amount of time cautioning the first of these groups, including my fellow scientists, against representing science as atheistic. It is not. Science is agnosticit  cannot claim any knowledge one way or the other about God. If you don’t want to take my word for it, I would refer you again to the UC Berkeley website and leave it at that for today: Science has limits


Now let’s turn the tables a bit and take a look at those segments of society that wish to embed God in science. Many religious people object to the idea that science tries to describe the natural world—God’s creation—without reference to God. While some of these groups openly regard science as the enemy, others of them try to couch their religious beliefs as a new kind of science that can include God. While I understand their desire to give the Creator credit at every turn (which I do from a religious standpoint), efforts to do so from within science quickly become problematic. This is a complex and multi-faceted topic that keeps me awake at night, and I can only scratch the surface here. But for a start, let’s consider this analogy:


Many believe that God has influenced various historical events. How, then, would you propose to teach in the public schools, to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagan animists, atheists, etc., history with God inserted? Everyone has their own account—commonly called scripture—of God’s dealings with mankind, and everyone has their own idea about how God (defined differently by all of them) has worked. What if, in the middle of a secular history class, the teacher or a student wanted to insert an explanation that the Hindu god Shiva had caused some historical event, or that Allah had, or that Jehovah had? And once that can of worms was opened, someone else could assert that fairies had caused something, or that aliens had. How would you test any of these claims, and how would you settle the disputes? It would be absurd to think that we could teach history or conduct scholarly historical research this way. But no less absurd is the idea that because the study of secular history does not include God, we should reject it as a discipline. The same could be said for political theory, sociology, economics, and innumerable other fields. We don’t throw out a hammer or a wrench just because it can’t saw a board, and we don’t expect any one tool to perform all functions.


It is no different with science. In order to study the natural world and communicate with each other about it, we had to devise a system (over the centuries) that put people of all beliefs on equal ground, with access to the same data, through their senses only. The scientific method seeks to do that by prohibiting up front all hypotheses that cannot be tested by the physical senses. Even this kind of evidence is hard enough to agree on, but at least it can be seen, measured, and experienced by people of any religious persuasion. To insist that science include Diety (and whose Diety?—we’d have to entertain all imagined types) would require us to abandon the hypothesis-testing foundation that makes science reliable. Science (and the centuries of work required to develop its methods) would regress and scientific progress would flounder under the infusion of disparate, untestable beliefs.


Those who have attempted to formalize a method for detecting God empirically have had to begin by adopting untestable assumptions about how God works, and some of these assumptions are objectionable to people of varying faiths. I am thinking specifically of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in the United States, which is the most sophisticated attempt to date to carve out a space for God within science. (Although spokesmen for ID are usually careful not to specify the designer or imply that they are talking about God, their arguments do indeed have direct theological implications.) On close examination, the assumptions of ID would produce a science that may be untenable for Buddhists, Taoists, and various Christian groups, such as Mormons, among others. (This is to say nothing of the scientific objections to ID, which are many.) Additionally, by attempting to create a scientific way to prove God, the arguments of ID would unintentionally create empirical ways to disprove God, something which science is currently incapable of doing. Thankfully, so far the methods developed by the ID movement don’t work, or else aggressive atheists would have all kinds of new ammunition in their hands! In short, ID is a prime example of why attempts to make God a scientific hypothesis are problematic from both scientific and religious standpoints.


I advocate the scientific method, not only for protecting science against untestable and unfalsifiable claims, but also for protecting religious freedom against the various philosophical claims of pseudoscience, both theistic and atheistic.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Calling for Education Reform in Science

All around us in society today, scientific knowledge and scientifically-developed technology are applied to value-laden situations and questions, which lie outside the jurisdiction of science. Such practical application, one could argue, is ultimately what science is for-- not only for understanding our world but for improving our situation within it. But in such application, scientists need to be very careful to understand where their science stops and where personal philosophies begin.

In a previous post, I gave you some examples of what I would call “boundary violations” by scientists. In each case, the scientist stated a non-scientific, personal philosophy as if it were a direct conclusion of science. And in each case, the statement could have been corrected and conflict could have been avoided if the scientists had recognized and respected the limits of science and acknowledged their own personal biases.

Because I am religious and I am a scientist, I have to cross the boundary between science and non-science on a daily basis. Therefore, I had better be darn sure of where that boundary is if I’m going to maintain credibility as a scientist. Why then, I wonder, have we allowed the science-supports-atheism misconceptions promoted by some scientists to go largely unrefuted by the general scientific community? Shouldn’t scientists making such claims have lost their credibility on that subject by now? The only explanation I can think of is that many scientists and certainly most of the general populace have quit thinking carefully about where science starts and stops. We are not being trained to recognize the limits of science, and I believe this poses a long-term threat to the credibility of science itself.

The Understanding Science project at UC Berkeley (and funded by the National Science Foundation) was initiated in response to concerns about widespread “misunderstandings of the nature of science.”:
“...research indicates that students and teachers at all grade levels have inadequate understandings of the nature and process of science.” (About Understanding Science)

I am calling for an adjustment in the way we teach science, with emphasis on recognizing what science is and what it is not. In our science classes, presenting a little flow chart of the scientific method and then moving on to a list of “facts” to memorize is not adequate. We should be looking back through the history of science-- to Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Bacon, Popper, and others-- to remind ourselves why and how science came to develop and adopt the scientific method in the first place, and how that sets science apart from other fields. Our students need practice in how to construct hypotheses that can be addressed by that method and recognizing what kinds of hypotheses cannot. This will lead to added emphasis on the idea that science is not the only field with valuable insights to contribute to our broader knowledge. We will thus rediscover that it was the scientific method that allowed us to maintain the integrity of science as a system that is both reliable and neutral with regard to the religious and ethical portions of human knowledge. I will be so bold as to suggest that the scientific method-- the limits it imposes-- is the very reason science can be compatible with religion (nearly the whole spectrum of it) and with various human ethical systems.

In short, I am a staunch defender of the scientific method-- and an advocate for teaching it more effectively-- because of both what it can tell us and what it cannot tell us.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Love is Real

Once again I divert from my main line of thought to share something on a personal note. This past weekend, I attended the wedding of my brother. It was one of those rare, most memorable occasions when, as my author sister put it in her blog, “we packed a week’s worth of emotion into one day.” In fact, I would say that we packed the buildup of many years of emotion-- of love for my brother and hopes for his happiness-- into the one culminating day when our best wishes for him were realized. The wedding ceremony was beautiful and full of spiritual depth, as the two committed themselves to each other and to God. The obvious and peaceful happiness on the couple’s faces and the intensity of family love, with their parents and all siblings present at the celebration, made this the most joyous event I have ever attended. The story of how the couple met playing ultimate frisbee, of how he proposed (involving a lamp-lit table display set up in the frisbee field where they had met), and the events of the wedding itself are sure to become the stuff of family legend from generation to generation. Just as I love hearing the story of how my dad pushed my mom around in a wheelbarrow following their wedding reception, my brother’s posterity will cherish the story of how he and his bride waltzed in Denny’s restaurant at the family dinner following their wedding. In short, there are no words adequate for describing the joy and beauty of this union, and my gratitude for witnessing it.

There are those who claim that the whole sum of our experience, thoughts, and feelings as humans-- all of our experience with so-called love, beauty, or spiritual experience-- can be reduced to explanations of chemical reactions and the firing of neurons in our brains. These reactions, in turn, are the result of a long evolutionary history that made the development of such feelings and beliefs adaptive for our species. In this view, our emotional or spiritual experiences are only products of our physiological makeup rather than manifestations of ideal or transcendent principles that exist independently of our minds. In other words, the very feelings that make us human are illusions, artifacts of evolution, not external realities. This is the view put forward by E.O. Wilson, “father” of sociobiology, and promoted by those such as Dawkins.

After the events of this past weekend, just thinking about these spiritually impoverished philosophies feels like a punch in the stomach! Fortunately, Wilson and Dawkins cannot prove that they are right. But neither can I prove to anyone’s satisfaction that they are wrong.

Only those who have felt-- and trusted-- the kinds of things my family felt this past weekend know the truth of the matter. There is more to our minds and hearts than mere physiology or evolutionary expediency. I believe in God and in the godly nature of our human relationships, not just because I want to believe them or because my ancestor’s genes compelled them to believe for their own survival. The first-hand knowledge I have of love, of beauty, of the spiritual, and of God, is based in experience beyond the explanatory scope of science or empirical observation. I cannot convince you of them by logical argument, mathematical proof, or scientific hypothesis testing. All I can do is simply testify, by my own experience, that they are real. And they are wonderful. I know that each of us can discover-- through our own transcendent experiences-- the verity of all those good things for which our human hearts most hope.

Thank you to my brother and his wife for helping me glimpse the eternal.
LDS temple in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Is Science Value-Free?

While scientists must adhere to the moral of intellectual honesty in order to produce reliable results by the scientific method, science itself is moral-neutral. That means science cannot make judgments about values or morality. To emphasize that point, here are a few good, authoritative quotes:


“…science is not equipped (and it does not pretend) to make value judgments on these [emotional or psychological] matters.” –Massimo Pigliucci (2002:153)
“…while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.” –Stephen Jay Gould (1999:4-5)
“…morality consists not in any relations that are the objects of science; …not in any matter of fact which can be discovered by the understanding…the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”- David Hume (1740:Volume III, part I, section I) (I know this quote is a little hairy, but Hume is an important figure in the philosophy of science)


Here’s a great website about what science cannot do (presented by the University of California at Berkeley with funding from the National Science Foundation): Science has limits


I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince you that science is limited and that it does not encompass all possible areas of human knowledge. And that is true. (Don’t forget it!) But now I am going to throw a fun little wrench into the discussion by giving you these quotes:


“Science is supposed to be value-free.  It is presumably completely objective and free from such human frailties as opinions, goals, and desires.  Because science is done by humans, however, it is never value-free.” –Gary Meffe and Ronald Carroll (1994:21)
“…All applied science is done because of value judgments.  Scientists in fact have a dual role.  First, they carry out objective science that both obtains data and tests hypotheses…They can also be advocates for particular policies that attempt to change society….But it is crucial to separate these two kinds of activities”–Charles Krebs (2001:12)
“No matter how objective scientific research might be, its findings often lead to conclusions that are value-laden.” –Ernst Mayr (1982:79)
“…science is neutral only at the level of methods and not at the higher level at which problems are selected and fields defined. That higher level is determined by values, politics, funding, and…paradigms…which in turn are products of culture, psychology, and political power.” –David Orr (2004)


This is certainly true of my own field, conservation biology, whose very name reveals that it is a marriage between a value system (conservation) and a science (biology). The same could be said of medicine, psychology, or various other fields that apply technology or scientific knowledge to practical problems. Therefore, I have found it helpful to use the following definitions:


Science is: The scientific method and the resulting body of knowledge (facts, hypotheses, theories, laws).


Applied Science is: The scientific method, the resulting body of knowledge, and the interpretation and application of this knowledge, including to value-based questions.


In applied science, we conduct our research in the realm of science but communicate and apply it outside that realm. Note that the values inherent in applied science are not subject to the scientific method and are thus open to debate from opinions contributed by sociology, economics, ethics, religion, and other segments of human knowledge. BEWARE: Representing one particular value system as the “scientific” one is intellectually dishonest and decreases the credibility of any scientist who would make such a claim.


Because applied science is so prevalent in our society, I believe that our science students today should be trained to think and converse across the boundary of science without violating it. In such communications, violations lie not in crossing the boundary from science to non-science but in failing to acknowledge the boundary. Communicating science as if the boundary is not there undermines scientific credibility and perpetuates conflict.

I believe that religion and science can either be competitors or cooperators in causes we all care about; the key lies in how the two communicate across the science boundary.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Too Much Faith in Science?

As I stated in an earlier post, faith can be described as having trust in something based on our experience with it. Over the centuries, our collective human experience with the natural world led us to develop science as a trustworthy method for discovering how that world works. And we have reason to have a great deal of faith in the scientific process-- it is the most reliable system imperfect humans relying on their five senses have ever devised. But just how much faith should we have in science? Recall that science is by definition tentative-- it can only result in knowledge that is probably, not absolutely, true. Hence, putting 100% faith in science is unscientific.


No one can tell you just how much faith you should have in any particular area of science. Certainly some hypotheses have been more extensively tested and supported than others, and certainly there are some things we are confident accepting as facts. Some scientific analyses employ statistical tests that calculate confidence intervals around our estimates, giving us an idea of how reliable they are. But ultimately, none of us knows yet which parts of scientific knowledge will turn out to be right, and which parts will turn out to be wrong. Nor can anyone tell you what percentage of the time the scientific method arrives at truth. We simply don’t know. But it is quite easy to recognize when someone has too much faith in the scientific method, and “scientism” is the word that has been used to describe that view.


Scientism is the belief that science applies to and will answer every important question, or that science is the only source of truth. Let me give you a few examples of statements by scientists that demonstrate this inaccurate representation of science. (These and other statements are summarized in Miller 1999:171-172, 183, 186).


“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” –Richard Dawkins


“We have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. …the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.” –E. O. Wilson


“Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society.” – William Provine


“…the problem is to get them [the public] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.” –Richard Lewontin

DANGER: Scientists have no business making statements like these as scientists (though they are, of course, entitled to their own philosophical opinions). Such statements, which are not scientific, have done much to perpetuate conflict between science and religion. First, they have caused considerable backlash against science by those who have taken these statements at face value. Recent anti-science movements in the U.S. have been spurred by a belief, originating with such statements, that science is by its very nature antithetical to God. It saddens me that so many good people have written science off because of these “out of bounds” statements by scientists. A second and, in my opinion, more threatening danger is that these kinds of statements go beyond being careless; they have been used to support an aggressive atheism aimed at undermining all religion. Dr. Ted Peters summarizes the characterstics and fallacies of this new “evangelical atheism”: Evangelical Atheism Today: A Response to Richard Dawkins


Keep the faith: science does not, indeed cannot, demand atheism, nor can it tell us anything about meaning, purpose, or the spiritual realm. To sneer at another’s faith under the guise of being scientific demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of science and the kinds of questions it can address. Science, understood correctly and kept within the bounds delineated by its method, can be trusted to broaden and enrich our understanding of the world and thus be a great partner to religion.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Describing the Elephant: Different Ways of Knowing

So far on this blog, I have had way too much fun defining science and showing how it relates to the rest of reality, including religion. And hopefully I’ve established that many view science and religion as compatible, even overlapping. In my own view, for example, science and religion overlap extensively, because I accept any truth as part of my religion. 

“But Alisse,” you must be thinking, “science and religion really are different systems, even if they sometimes overlap in topic.” And you are right. The way we “know” something in science is generally not the same way we “know” something in religion-- they are different ways of knowing.

Lest anyone misunderstand my little diagrams, let me hasten to clarify something: Remember that science is defined by its method, so any truth within the “science” circle can be obtained through the scientific method. And obviously, most religious knowledge is not obtained that way. When science and religion do converge on the same reality or arrive at the same conclusion, they have generally taken different routes to get there. I am not suggesting a “non-overlapping methods” scheme similar to Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria," because many religions (including mine) welcome truth obtained through the scientific method-- hence the overlap. But because religion is not limited to that method, it can ask questions of a different sort. Thus, as we discuss any given truth from a religious perspective, we may move freely in and out of the overlap with science, depending on the kinds of questions we are asking at the moment. (I will have lots more to say later about what happens when scientists move in and out of the boundary around science-- there’s a right and a wrong way to do that. Stay tuned!)

Perhaps an easier way to think about all of this is with the old “blind men and the elephant” analogy. Sometimes science and religion take hold on and describe entirely different parts of reality, much as the blind men grabbing onto different parts of the elephant. But sometimes the difference is in how they describe the same part of reality. Science uses its hands to describe the physical features of the elephant; religion can accept the testimony of the hands and use its heart to understand the purpose and meaning of the elephant. 

I’m going to use Kenneth R. Miller again, because he puts things so well:
“...science allows believer and nonbeliever alike to investigate the natural world through a common lens of observation, experiment, and theory. The ability of science to transcend cultural, political, and even religious differences is part of its genius, part of its value as a way of knowing. This leads some to conclude that the world as seen by science is devoid of meaning and absent of purpose. It is not. What it does mean is that our human tendencies to assign meaning and value must transcend science, and ultimately must come from outside of it.” (Miller 1999:267-268)

It is my belief that when we allow ourselves to know reality in both ways simultaneously, our overall view and understanding is greatly enriched. The only problem arises when the two ways of knowing appear to contradict each other. I will not pretend that this never happens, but it is my experience that it happens far less often than is commonly thought. And when it does happen, it inevitably means that our understanding is incomplete in one or both arenas. Ultimately, reality (or truth) cannot contradict itself. We need only be patient, and in time, our various ways of knowing-- if they are trustworthy-- will be congruent.

The question we must ask in the meantime, then, is: how trustworthy are these two ways of knowing? Let’s attack the easiest one first and explore how much faith we should have in science… next time

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Most Exquisite Little Creature

I’m going to take a little sidetrack here, because I just have to show you something. Yesterday while hiking by the river with my kids, we came upon a beautiful little mayfly! My husband was able to get a picture of it:

Such an exquisite creature! As far as I can tell, this is a subimago (subadult) of one of the species commonly called “Blue-winged olive.” Mayflies are unique among insects in that the wingless aquatic nymph (larva) molts into a winged subadult and then again into the mature adult. All other insects that molt from a wingless to a winged form only do it once-- from the larva directly to the adult. Another cool thing about mayflies is that while nymphs live in the water for up to a year or more, the subadult and adult are very short-lived, usually less than a day. I get very excited about all of this, and my husband has to remind me to calm down a little bit whenever I see a mayfly (if there are other people around). Even though adult mayflies are sometimes present in large, impressive swarms, to me each one of them is a rare and beautiful thing.


The more I learn about the beautiful creatures God has made, the more I am in awe of his work. There are those who feel that trying to explain the physical world through science, without reference to God, automatically undermines a belief in him. But for me, the understanding provided by science (even though it must reach its conclusions without reference to God) enhances rather than diminishes my appreciation of God’s handiwork.


I like how Kenneth R. Miller said it:
“Each and every increase in our understanding of the natural world should be a step toward God, and not, as many people assume, a step away. If faith and reason are both gifts from God, then they should play complementary, not conflicting roles in our struggle to understand the world around us.” (Miller 1999:267)

I am grateful to understand, from a stance within science, how some of this amazing world works. And I am grateful to know, from a place outside of science, that a loving God is responsible for it.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Worldviews about Science, Religion, and Reality

Last time we established that there are many possible relationships between science and religion, because religions are so varied. Worldviews concerning the relationships between science and religion have been summarized by several scholars, including Barbour, Peters, and Drees (see The Counterbalance Foundation for a summary of their ideas), as well as Pigliucci (2002) and Stenmark (2004).

Below, I present my own diagrams, which represent three of the most common worldviews we may encounter (and a visual framework for depicting additional views). My scheme differs from previous schemes in that it uses “reality” as the background against which to view these relationships. Remember, from my Science-Reality diagram, that I consider reality to be “The way things really are, were, and will be.” (If you’re more comfortable calling it “truth,” go ahead and think of it that way.)



Click image to enlarge


Other worldviews could be depicted, but the point is that all of us--scientists or not, religious or not-- define these relationships differently. However, no matter one’s view on religion, there remains a boundary between scientific and other kinds of knowledge. This boundary is not imposed by religion but is delineated by the methods of science itself. Science is limited in the kinds of questions it can address. (Of course, there are those who deny this, but I will have more to say about them in an upcoming post.)

Can you guess which diagram represents my own worldview? Which one most closely resembles yours?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Do Science and Religion Overlap?


In one of my classes in graduate school, the professor often referred to science and religion as “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” or NOMA. This definition was coined by prominent biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who said:


“Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains. ...science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” (in Miller 1999:170)
“...These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” (Gould 1999:5-6)

Here is a very good, short article that takes a mostly-NOMA approach: Science and religion: Reconcilable differences


When I learned about the NOMA concept, I took a quick survey among my friends and relatives in my own faith, and none of us thought it accurately represented our viewpoint. And we are not alone-- even a small sampling of statements from religious entities demonstrates a spectrum of ideas about the relationship between science and religion, from NOMA to extensive overlap. (Would you like me to share these interesting statements in a future post?)  In fact, there is an entire academic field dedicated to studying the relationships and interplay between religions and science. Here is an example of how one theologian, Ted Peters, has summarized eight possible views about science and religion: Peters' Typology. It quickly becomes apparent that:


“There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts.” -John Brooke (1991:321)

So, how do we go about understanding such an array of viewpoints? Stay tuned next time, when we will unravel this mess and summarize the whole shebang with three simple diagrams.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Most Helpful Diagram: Science and Reality

In previous posts, we defined science, explored its characteristics, and established that it is limited by its method and our five senses to investigating testable, falsifiable hypotheses about the natural world. (Have I beaten this point into the ground enough yet?) Hence, it is not a system designed for investigating all of truth-- such as love, beauty, spiritual experience, ethics, and most of the other things religions talk about.


Of course, there are plenty of people who believe that everything can be explained by science-- or rather, that there is nothing beyond the scope of science. This view, called “scientism,” is not part of science itself (because it’s not testable or falsifiable); it is something these people take on faith, ironically enough. Still others have trouble with the word “truth,” because they believe there is really no such thing. (I would ask them to explain how they know that is true and catch them in their own paradox.) So instead of talking about “truth,” maybe a less problematic term is “reality”-- the way things really are, whatever that turns out to be, and whether we understand it yet or not. Whatever our view, let’s all adopt a little bit of humility and assume that reality-- the whole of it taken together-- is far beyond our current understanding.

Okay-- we are ready! (drumroll) Here it is, folks, the most helpful diagram I have ever thought of (click to enlarge):