Sep 262011

I recently posted Silly review by Colin Tudge of “The Magic of Reality”. In there I quoted from an older article of his: Microscopes have no morals (Guardian, 2003):

It is often said that science answers “how” questions while religion asks “why”, but that is simplistic. The greater point lies in their scope. Religion, properly conceived, attempts to provide an account of all there is: the most complete narrative that human beings are capable of. Science, by contrast, is – as the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter – “the art of the soluble”. It addresses only those questions that it occurs to scientists to ask, and feel they have a chance of answering.

Perhaps he has since changed his views, although other quotes from there suggest not. But that is irrelevant; I am not writing this article to further criticise Colin Tudge, but to refute the sentiments in the above quote, thus:

  • The scope of science is expanding what we think and talk about, and increasingly encroaching on what was once the scope of religion.
  • The scope of religion is shrinking as science replaces parts of it, and diminishing as a proportion of what we can now plausibly discuss.

The expanding scope of science

What are the boundaries of science? What topics will it never be able to tackle? I often say “sooner or later, science works”. But will there be a time, or a topic, where this isn’t true? I don’t know!

But one thing is pretty clear: we cannot yet rule anything out. And without confidence that a particular topic can never be handled by science, we might as well just try it anyway! If we can’t make progress within (say) the next 1000 years, perhaps we will have to admit defeat, and let a vastly more capable species eventually descended from us tackle it.

Can science say anything about the existence of god(s)?

  • Science can state confidently that certain types of god don’t exist, that certain other types of god are unnecessary, and that certain things supposedly done by god(s) were not.

Among the hard tasks are finding the right questions, and then identifying the right tools (in the most general sense) to answer them. Science often has to approach a topic from an unexpected direction, not from the direction of earlier, poorer, questions.

Science is now capable of giving us the “magical” or poetic narratives we enjoy.

The shrinking scope of religion

I won’t use Colin Tudge’s esoteric redefinition of religion (as in: “Religion, properly conceived …”). Obviously, by redefining religion and science to a point where religious people and scientists wouldn’t understand the words any more, the title of this article could be reversed. I’ll try to use the words in a way that a typical audience would understand.

Holy books talk about such things as: the issues of the day when they were written; the nature of the universe; and how people should think and behave. Each of these separately ceases to be relevant over centuries, even if they ever were relevant.

The issues of the day

When we treat history as a scientific-type (rigorous, rational) discipline, rather than a fanciful narrative, even the “issues of the day” of religious texts are transformed. The issues may have been real to a sub-population, but their context typically reduces. Moses probably didn’t exist. The exodus never happened. They were myths to provide a back-drop for inspiring hope in a beleaguered society. Adam and Eve didn’t exist, so they didn’t sin, so we haven’t inherited their sin, so Jesus didn’t die for our sins. If he existed, he died a pointless death.

The nature of the universe

Needless to say, everything to do with the nature of the observable, detectable, measurable, predictable, universe has been pretty well superseded by science. Certainly the scientific process/method justifies the statement “sooner or later, science works”. And “other ways of knowing”, including (but not confined to) religion, can’t establish credibility. The expansion of our vision of the universe, hence of what it is that a “way of knowing” has to explain, is driven by science. (The Pope doesn’t have a “hot-line to Jesus”! And neither does anyone else, or it would be religion, not science, that pushed at the boundaries of our knowledge).

A problem with those “other ways of knowing” is that people are entitled to ask of them “why should we believe these results?” Religions can only go so far with an attitude of Evidence? I don’t have to show you any stinking evidence!

I am an engineer, not a practicing scientist. (Although my degree was in Mathematical Physics, and I have been reading about science at least weekly, and more recently daily, for decades). For me, the power of science is that I have been able to exploit it, as technology, and help build things with it that work. In other words, “sooner or later, the products of science work”. The same does not apply to “other ways of knowing”.

How people should think and behave

This is the topic of morality. And Religions are incompetent at morality! Here are the implications:

  • Religions create poor moral codes and/or let their moral codes become out-of-date
  • Religions believe they have good moral codes, and so promote them and often try to enforce them
  • Religions under-estimate moral codes from other sources

The 10 Commandments long ago became obsolescent. They are pretty useless in the 21st Century. But they were never a competent moral code.  (See also:  What’s Wrong With The Ten Commandments?)

Sam Harris is attempting in effect to start a science of morality with his book The Moral Landscape. There are two different but related effects:

  • religions are losing credibility about their views on morality;
  • and science is independently beginning to tackle the topic.

Religious people who take their holy books seriously become more separated from the real world decade by decade.  They should accept that Holy books need expiry dates. This needn’t kill religions, but it identifies their scope within our complex world:  Religions are hobbies.

“It’s only the Bible; it’s not gospel!”

Here is what Edgar Guest could have said about science:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

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