The Unfinishable Scroll
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Fri, 25 Dec 2009
It's the holiday season again. Christmas is here, and Hanukkah is recently past. For many people today these holidays have a significance that is purely cultural. However, many others still observe these holidays as religious occasions.
I'd like to take this opportunity to spread some "Joy to the World" by stating an important point about religion - not any particular religion, but religion in general. Here it is:
Science has not debunked religion and never will succeed in debunking religion.
The reason is simple: the most important claims of religion cannot be tested by scientific means. Science can't prove these beliefs right or wrong, or even prove them highly improbable. Today's noisy militant atheists might not like this fact, but it is a fact nonetheless.
Science can pass judgment on religious beliefs that are scientifically testable. For example, science has ruled out creationism - the belief that living species and the Earth are results of miraculous acts of creation instead of products of natural processes like evolution. Clearly science can debunk some religious beliefs. Many traditional religious beliefs have gone out the window for this reason. We can expect some more to go out the window in the future. However, science cannot debunk the really important ideas in religious thought.
Here's an example.
For many religions, the most important religious doctrine is the belief that there is a God. Who, or what, is God supposed to be? There are different opinions. Some people think of God as a ghostly being, perhaps cruel and violent, who created natural objects through supernatural acts. Some believers picture God this way; so do some atheists. But is such a "God" really worthy of the name "God"? Is he (or she, or it) worthy of our unswerving love? And why should we believe in those miraculous acts of creation when science offers better explanations of natural phenomena? People of conscience and reason often have trouble with this idea of God - and well they might!
If we think about the religious feelings of the more conscientious and thoughtful believers, we find that the God they believe in is not an angry ghost. Instead, their God might be described as a supremely good being - a being embodying great love, kindness, and spiritual beauty. If there is such a being, then He, She or It is indeed worthy of our love. (Believers who think of God this way often also believe that God is a supernatural creator. However, this other belief is not really indispensable to their thinking. They could believe in a good God even if God didn't create the universe. What matters in their daily lives is not how the universe started, but that God is good.)
Science can't debunk the idea that there is a supremely good being. The reason is simple. This idea of God depends on the idea of the good - and science, acting alone, cannot make judgments about what is good!
It is impossible to prove or disprove moral judgments, like "mercy is good" or "hate is bad," by means of scientific methods alone. The same goes for aesthetic judgments, like "This meadow is beautiful." It isn't possible to confirm or disconfirm such statements through scientific methods alone, without resorting to other ways of knowing, such as moral and aesthetic reasoning. This isn't news to philosophers, but nowadays it's too easily forgotten. The possibility that values are partly a matter of opinion doesn't change all this. Even if someone claimed (implausibly) that nothing has objective value, that claim still wouldn't be scientifically testable. Needless to say, scientists can make value judgments on their own, as human beings. However, no one can succeed in making value judgments using scientific methods alone. Science can study some questions about morality, like what makes people behave in ways commonly regarded as moral. However, science cannot say whether any moral standard (regardless of its origin) is objectively right.
Now back to the subject of God. We have seen that the idea of a supremely good being is one idea of God - and such a God is much more admirable than the angry ghost. So here's the big question: How can science prove that there's no supremely good being, when science, acting alone, can't even tell us whether anything is good or evil? The answer is simple: it can't. The very idea of science proving that there is no supremely good being is silly. It's like trying to prove scientifically that pulling the cat's tail is naughty. Any "scientific" argument that pretends to prove such conclusions must involve hidden side assumptions that are not scientific. Any plausible argument for or against God will be philosophical rather than purely scientific.
Some atheists have tried to debunk God on scientific grounds by arguing that God would have to be a very complex being, and that very complex beings are intrinsically improbable. This argument starts from an inadequate concept of God, but the argument also has another, more glaring flaw. The argument overlooks the fact that the improbability of complex beings is a consequence of the laws of nature. If the laws of nature had been different, things might have had probabilities vastly different from the ones they actually have. If we take God to be supernatural (as many people do), then we don't know whether the laws of nature apply to God - so we have no way to tell whether God would be improbable or not. If, on the other hand, God is natural (as some people believe), then the complexity of God is just all or part of nature's complexity. Either way, the argument that God is too complex to be believable is bad logic on a monumental scale. This objection to the argument certainly doesn't prove there is a God, but it shows that one "scientific" line of argument against God is wrong. For the details of this objection, and for some other objections to the same argument, see this paper. Similar problems face any argument that compares God to "Russell's teapot" or other improbable natural objects.
Until now I've been using the idea of God as an example of a scientifically untestable religious belief. Certain other important religious beliefs are like this too.
For example, there is the idea of an afterlife. Scientists often seem to think that science has debunked the afterlife once and for all. They argue that science has proven the self or personality to be a feature of the brain. Therefore (the argument goes) the self must disappear when the brain dies. But does this argument really work? Even if your self is only an attribute of your brain, why can't another brain have the same attribute after the end of your present brain?
It's nothing special for an attribute of a physical object to occur later in another physical object. Here's an example: Suppose that there were only one object having a certain shade of green. Then that object is destroyed. Later, a painter mixes new paint and just happens to create an object having exactly that same shade of green. In this example, one object has an attribute (a particular color) for a while - and later, after a delay, another object has the same attribute. Yet nothing passed between the two objects, and nothing miraculous happened.
If your self or identity is an attribute of your brain, couldn't that attribute occur again later in another object (brain)? The answer isn't obvious; when you begin to think carefully about the question, the question turns out to be quite complicated. The important thing is that when we look at the afterlife this way, we find that the scientific view of the mind cannot rule it out. Even if the self is an attribute of the brain, it's still logically and physically possible that there is an afterlife. What is more, the existence of an afterlife doesn't have to involve any kind of complexity that would make it statistically improbable. (See here for more details.) This certainly doesn't prove there is an afterlife - but it shows that the scientific view of the mind doesn't rule out an afterlife of some kind. The existence of the afterlife is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.
This post is not meant to persuade anyone to believe in God or in an afterlife. (Fanatical atheists, take note of this last sentence before you start calling me a hack, a fairy believer, and all your other usual hate words.) Also, I'm not asking anyone to believe in standard forms of religion. (As you know if you perused my website, my own ideas about religion aren't exactly standard and tend toward the disgustingly logical.) I'm just trying to point out that science cannot debunk the essential ideas of religion. Science can dispose of some outdated forms of belief, but science has little to do with the most important ideas at the heart of religion. So-called "scientific" disproofs of religion are simply pseudoscience. Away with them, along with the flat earth theory!
Now go have a very happy holiday season. Of course, this might be difficult if you are a militant atheist. In that case, you might prefer to spend the time putting the evil eye on me - an act just as rational as any so-called "scientific" argument against God.
posted at: 02:27 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry
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