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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 14-Jul-13


Sunday 14-July-13

Why science and religion are the same

It may sound like hypocrisy, but science and religion are basically the same.

Full disclosure is probably useful here. I am quite well qualified, with a degree in engineering and several postgraduate degrees, including psychology. This has two effects. First, it gives me a strong scientific leaning with a tendency to analyze everything. Secondly, I am not tied into any single discipline and often find it useful to take multiple simultaneous viewpoints.

When I was young I was a fairly cherubic choirboy, in awe of the godly church. In my teens I naively read about spacemen as gods and read ghost stories on the edge of my seat. Now I am agnostic, nostalgically envious of true believers while cursed with a mind that refuses to believe as I once did.

And yet it is all belief, religion and science. Each has its authorities who interpret, preach and administer the canons of knowledge. In my education I read and accepted science just as I blindly accepted the Bible as the unchallengeable word of God. In both cases, as a curious individual who likes to explore, I asked stupid questions like 'Why?' and 'How?' And in both cases I found boundaries where, if I crossed, I got slapped down and derided, at best as a misguided fool.

And yet both are based in the explanation of human experience. In science, you form a hypothesis for an observation and then do experiments to prove it true, and so create a proven theory. Similarly, religion is based in observation, experience and explanation. The pagans explained the forces of nature as the acts of various gods. In modern religions too, natural disasters are seen as acts of God.

As science historian Thomas Kuhn explains in 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions', science evolves in fits and starts, mostly with subtle adjustments of established theories to fit new observations. Sometimes, however, major breakthroughs shake up the old order and cause a serious reshaping of what is held to be true. Such change indeed has the shape of a bloody revolution, with the old order only dying out with its authoritarian elders.

Religion also has had its revolutions and some of the battles are still raging. It is no wonder that Jesus was crucified as he challenged the status quo with modern thoughts of tolerance and kindness, yet still fundamentalists cling to the Old Testament today. There have also been many differences and schisms through the ages that have further divided churches and religions.

Despite their differences, religions have much in common, with a general theme of social support and intolerance of other views. Monotheism is widespread, though the actual desires, actions and shape of God are much disputed. Worship is common, though variably practiced. The whole is kept in order by a priesthood, though the independence of priests varies greatly between religions.

Scientists also have their own social structure, with professorial high priests and rebellious researchers. Like religions, they claim to be working for the good of mankind. And, like religions, they are intolerant of contradictory views, with cruel ways of ostracizing those who stray too far.

While claiming a goal of peace and social support, both religion and science are systems of power and have been used for social control and as a means to war. Religions can end up seeking to destroy non-believers while science has provided the means of mass destruction.

And yet it is all founded in the very human system of belief. We cannot prove everything for ourselves, and so must believe others whose belief is also founded on those who have gone before. In fact you cannot prove anything. Karl Popper shook up 20th century scientific thinking when he noted that you can confirm things a thousand times yet this does not prove it will never happen. The only real proof is to show that something you say cannot happen, does happen, which leads to the inverted experimental method of falsification. Basically, if you think something is true then you must devise an experiment that shows it is false. If this fails and it cannot be false then, like Sherlock Holmes, you have proven it true.

Falsification suits science but is a dilemma for religion. How can you disprove the existence of God? This also provides a buffer against scientists who, very unscientifically, declare that God does not exist. Atheism is a belief system every bit as much as the religions that atheists deny. For science, the existence of god (or magic, for that matter) cannot be disproven and is hence are of little interest. When things are outside the studiable natural world, they are simply described as 'supernatural'.

Within the non-religious world, science and psychology have been uneasy bedfellows. Science is based in hard and repeatable measurement. Yet people are not entirely predictable, which makes laws about how humans behave difficult to pin down. Certainly, we do science-like experiments, but all we can do is report on results and suggest probabilities. The holy grail of generalization is much harder when it comes to people. If you control for other variables you may get a certain predictability in the laboratory, yet in the outer world and in different cultures, people can act very differently.

Psychology has even more in common with religion. It is about people. It deals in intangibles that defy measurement. Yet it is still a science and perhaps offers a bridge between the two as it asks us to consider and accept complexities beyond our ken. And, of course, it is our selves, our minds, our brains which experience, think and believe.

And what of religious experience, on which religions place such emphasis? To the neuroscientist it is simply the activation of a bit of the brain. Yet this also explains the whole of our experiences and thoughts. And, reflexively, we are using our brains to think about our brains, which poses another conundrum. Yet religious experience has converted hardened scientists as it creates bottomless feelings of joy and connection. With the mysteries of quantum science and things yet to be discovered, we cannot say what connection there is between people and beyond, though we surely experience this in our daily interactions.

And so religion and science are not opposite poles in a black-and-white dichotomy. Both seek to explain outer and inner experiences. Each professes to serve both individuals and a wider society. Both are based in canons of belief which may yet be questioned, though at the challenger's peril.

If you have taken this divided view, then perhaps you might try stepping down from your podium and going to meet and explore other places. It may surprise you how much you have in common with those who profess alternative beliefs. And together you might find a new place between.

Your comments

I appreciate this article. I am not a scientist although I do think from time to time. I came to the same conclusion that science and belief in God both require faith. I came to this by reasoning that due to our nature we always have limited knowledge and need to make some kind of assumption as a starting point, even to hold temporarily in mind an idea we doubt or disbelieve. For the things unknown requires some kind of ability to assume they are so. For example, somewhere in the universe, there are monkeys eating ice cream cones surfing on ski slopes. Of course I know that sounds absurd yet I am in the universe and the image exists in my mind (though you may think my mind has left the world) so at least temporarily it is true in the extreme abstract. Yet the preachers describe that as the nature of faith. And to close, faith for us must rest on faith and not on knowledge. That\'s like psychology as you described it. Scientific knowledge as we know it is always subject to experimentation which is a humble admission, we don\'t know everything.

-- Tzod E.

Dave replies::
You're right, Tzod, in that we have limited knowledge and bounded rationality which limits our ability to reason and forces a need to believe.

If you accept the principles that the universe is limited in sized (most scientists agree this), and that there are an infinite number of parallel universes, then things get interesting. It means there are a huge number of universes identical to this one in every detail. And then also many with one atom slightly moved. In fact there are many universes with every atom (and subatomic particle, and field) in every possible combination. A step on from this is to think about time as stepping between stationary universes rather than the illusory movement of one universe. This makes time travel, forward and backward, quite feasible...

Wow! I finally found someone who sees the similarities and accepts both as one human experience. Why the division and who's right or wrong. If faith works for you, go for it. If science is what puts your mind at peace.... Why not.

As long as we don't spend our energy trying to prove that the other opinion or "fact" is wrong.

I am a Christian, a believer. I also read a lot about science ,psychology, and human behaviors. I finally after shifting from one to another found the link between the two and I see no contradiction, other than what humans are trying to create so they can either be elevated to the rank of intellectuals or put down as simple and dogmatic.

-- Ghada M.

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