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:
“ 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?