Monday, December 18, 2006

Render unto Caesar ... Part II

I watched a rather disturbing program this evening which attempted to show through metaphor why science was a religious subject by focusing on atheist beliefs and then associating those with science.


This was tabloid TV at its worst, with a lack of any form of neutrality and a blatant agenda.

God is not a provable concept - it is outside the realm of physical reality. It is a matter of faith whether you believe in God or not, and if you do believe which version of religion you accept.

The one common fact is that all these faith systems are absolute in the belief of that faith. Atheism is also a faith based system, it is the absolute belief that God does not exist.

So what has this got to do with science? Nothing at all.

Science is a reason based system using principles of falsification, testability, the realm of reality (that which is physically observable), empirical observations, non-absolutes, usefulness and predictions.

There is no conflict between Science and Religion - they do not touch on the same things. There is of course conflict between Pro God and Non God (atheist) beliefs.

Now to Darwinism. Evolutionary theory is currently the best scientific model for explaining the origin of species.

ID (intelligent design) however is a faith based system which is not testable, falsifiable or limited to the realm of reality (it invokes an intelligent creator). It is simply put not science.

This doesn't mean that ID is wrong, or that God does not exist - it simply means that those are questions for religion not science.


Does god exist? Well that's outside the scope of science.

Is science a religion? No.

Is atheism a religion? Yes.

Is science atheist? No, it's agnostic to the matter.


Anonymous said...

The problem religion has with science is that it erodes faith. The basic principle of science is to take nothing on trust but to verify everything with experiment. It is this naturalistic stance, denying the sacred, that is probably more damaging to religion than those who say "There's no proof for god, therefore there is no god".

My view is that it's very probable that there is no god. But if the existence of Jehovah or Allah or whoever were proved, that would not make me religious; the deity would be just one more thing in the universe to be curious about.

swardley said...

An interesting view point..

You state, that science erodes faith as it takes nothing on trust. This only holds to the scope of science - which is physical reality.

A faith based system deals with that which is outside of the realm of physical reality.

It's the allegory of the cave - science is extremely capable and useful in helping us understand the shadows - the physical reality. What we don't know is whether anything exists beyond this or not - and that's the realm of faith.

The counter to this, is to point out where our understanding of physical reality has increased and usurped a previously held belief or something held sacred.

That is an obvious point of conflict if a faith based system is taken as literal.

hmmm, food for thought.


Anonymous said...

What other reality is there?

Can you prove it exists?

Claiming that it is, inherently unprovable is a terrible cop out. It is (at most) merely unfalsifiable.

The claim that the world was made in 7 days by a creator god is something that isn't exactly falsifiable, But that the world looks so much like one that is actually billions of years old and the life crawling on its face looks so much like the sort of thing you could expect from applying Darwin's algorithm over hundreds of millions of generations that it's awfully easy to apply Ockham's Razor, cut away the creator, and conclude that we are living in a purely physical world.

There is no supernatural, nothing is sacred. Prove that ghosts exist (say) and all you've done is demonstrate that the physical world doesn't work in quite the way we thought it did. But we already know that are best theories so far aren't entirely accurate. (Admittedly if you prove ghosts, they'd be way more inaccurate than we first thought).

We have about as much positive evidence for the existence of a god that's worth worshipping as we have for Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapot. Claim that there's a teapot in geosynchronous orbit around the earth and you'd be expected to show us the teapot. But make the claim that there's a creator god who takes an interest in human affairs - someone worth worshipping - and suddenly it's the nonbelievers who are supposed to come up with the proof. Pleading ineffability or whatever it is that the church does seems pretty bloody flimsy to me.

swardley said...

Interesting points.

This heads towards the issue of absolute truth?

I am not aware of anything in science that is an absolute truth, the models we use are nothing more than the best models waiting to be falsified, based upon reason and observable phenomenon. They are not "right" but instead "useful".

It is difficult to see how it is possible to know everything unless information is infinite (allowing therefore for an infite subset of infinite knowledge to exist at a single point) in which case it becomes infinitely unlikely that the reality we exist within is real (the infinite virtual worlds argument) - so either there is a limit on knowledge or it is increasingly unlikely that what we know is real other than in the sense of being useful.

As with the Bertrand Russel paradox and the issue of the axiom of choice, both mathematics and science have limits but these are acceptable on the basis of usefulness.

You may believe that nothing exists or something exists outside these limits - this is a faith position, being beyond the realm of reality it is not testable or falsifiable. You may believe that this or that is the right order of the alephs - doesn't matter.

So to your point regarding can you prove that another reality exists - of course not, it's a faith based choice and purely personal. I don't deny or imply it exists, merely acknowledge that as such it is outside the realm of physical reality.

Science doesn't need to prove or not prove the existence of god, it's a question which is most likely beyond its limit - the realm of reality - and is not relevant in much the same way that Intelligent Design requires concepts beyond the current realm of reality and is therefore not science.

This doesn't mean that at some future point certain supernatural questions can't be answered and brought into an expanded realm of reality, however this does not preclude the existence of concepts outside of even such an expanded realm - the question of where did this come from always leads to another question and so on.

To prevent this requires the necessity to be "right" or absolute truth - a non falsifiable position. This requires absolute knowledge which is not obtainable in a closed system at a single point, only in an infinite system which leads to the infinite information paradox.

Hence in science as in mathematics, I take the approach of certain limits to the system and that which is beyond those limits is not relevant (otherwise they would be measurable). In other words if we can't measure it, it ain't science.

In the same way, that the axiom of choice says that the order of the alephs is irrelevant to the usefulness of mathematics then the same can be said of that which is beyond the realm of reality and its relevance to science.

Does god exist? A question of faith.

Does this matter to the usefulness of evolutionary and planet formation models - no.

Anonymous said...

I think we're fast approaching the 'continue over marrowbones at St John' point in this conversation.

swardley said...

sounds a fabulous idea - something definite for the new year.

Keep well.

Anonymous said...

On Dec. 21st our local NPR station (KUHF) ran an episode of "The Engines of Ingenuity" which discusses Scotish philospher David Hume's (1711-1776)view on this topic. It was a rather interesting discussion on not being able to prove God does or does not exist. A transcript and audio replay are available at

swardley said...

An assumption of enlightment is that everything can be understood with enough knowledge, which invokes the notion of absolute knowledge. I take the view that knowledge is limited, and hence scientific reason is limited to the realm of reality or that which is knowable.

The counter to this depends upon an assumption of knowledge being infinite, in which case the likelihood of our reality being real is infinitely small (infinite virtual worlds argument), and so a mute point.

Taking the alternative assumption, that knowledge is finite then absolute knowledge at a single point within a closed system is not possible.

Hence you are left with a dilema, either absolute knowledge is obtainable in which case it is infinitely unlikely that what you know is real or absolute knowledge is not obtainable.

Since the later is more useful, and with no evidence to support or deny both cases, I choose the later as a limit of the system on its usefulness alone (its the equivalent to the axiom of choice and choosing your order of alephs).

Hence for this reason I see no conflict with the existance or non-existance of the supernatural and the realm of reality.

It is beyond the limit of the system, beyond reason and it is therefore not relevant.

"Rational proofs for the existance of god are as non-sensical as rational proofs for the non-existance of god"

I couldn't agree with Hume more.

Thank you for this link.

Anonymous said...

The problem religion has with science is that it erodes faith. The basic principle of science is to take nothing on trust but to verify everything with experiment.

It needn't erode or challenge faith. If anything, science should push people to have a much more sophisticated understanding of it. I can't think of any religion that demands faith in the invisible bearded man in the sky. God is and not knowable nor his existence proveable by our epistemological terms, but only proveable by mystical or metaphysical terms. There is no reason the both cannot exist at once.

Science only threatens people that have an infantile understanding of faith. Belief that the story of Genesis is literal, that Moses lived to be 800 years old etc. These were stories told to explain faith to a civilization that was far less sophisticated than our own.

To the extent that it shakes the faith of those people, than that is a good thing. If we're still relying on rules and dictates to help us understand what the right thing to do in any situation, then we still have a long way to grow.

Fascinating topic. Thanks for posting.

swardley said...

I agree that science doesn't erode or conflict with faith unless you take a literal interpretation of works which were used in earlier times.

There is a distinction between the physical and theological branches of metaphysics, this boundary (a limit of physical reality) is where science operates.

That boundary can change as our understanding of physical reality changes, but this does not diminish the meta physical nor deny or confirm the existance of that which is beyond the physical. Those are matters of faith.

Great comment, thank you.

swardley said...

I republished this with a minor correction as I had not been clear in my distinction between:-

A faith based system as a collection of beliefs not based on proof or material evidence but based fundamentally on volition.


Belief in a faith based system.