Nothing like oil and water

I'd like to work this week on a little side project of mine: World Peace.  I recognize this is a somewhat utopian ideal that we're generally pretty far away from, but sometimes there's low-hanging fruit we can pluck to make the world a better - and more peaceful - place by simply removing a source of conflict from public discourse.

Today I'd like to focus on an easy one and remove the conflict between science and religion.  Trust me on this, it's not as big a problem as it seems at the outset.  As a scientist and an actively religious person, I often get asked questions that vaguely sound like, "how's that working out for you?"  The assumption is that I must be compartmentalizing in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.  After all, doesn't science require a certain degree of atheism?

No.  I never took a class as an undergrad or a grad student where any evidence was ever presented that there is no god.  I also never took any classes where the opposite was presented.  In making the admission that I am a religious person, I'd like to allay the concerns of any atheists in this space who think I'm going to be unfair to them. I'm not making the case that science proves god exists, any more than I'm making the case that it disproves god.  Instead I want to show both sides that the supposed conflict has no foundation.  You can all breathe a little easier

That's where the world peace angle comes in.  If we address the conflict between these two groups, such that they don't fight each other anymore, we'll have plucked that low-hanging fruit and we're that much closer to our goal.  In a way, by reading on you're contributing to Peace on Earth.  Good for you!

Conflict Thesis - Origins

There's a great article on Wikipedia about Conflict Thesis, which is the idea that religion and science must be fundamentally at odds with each other because of their underlying nature.  I won't waste your time rehashing Wikipedia, but this quote in particular struck me: "The thesis retains support among some scientists and in the public while historians of science reject the thesis."

I think there's not enough understanding among scientists of the history of science.  These are two different things, and I think many scientists think they know the history when all they really know is the progression of discoveries within their chosen field.  The difference between these two things lies in the nuance of history that's stripped away when we only focus on the progression of discoveries.  To understand this better, we'll take the most famous case that's normally pointed to when we hear about the clash between religion and science: Galileo.

The way this story is normally portrayed, Galileo is the guy who shows the Earth travels around the sun, but the Pope doesn't like this so he throws him in prison or has him executed.  It's a simple story of religion versus science.  It's also wrong on every important detail.

First, it's important to ask what it meant to be a 'scientist' like Galileo.  At the time they called themselves 'natural philosophers' because they believed they were building on the tradition of Aristotle over a millennium before.  The idea was that you make observations and philosophize about what those observations mean.  It was a kind of proto-scientific method.

Aristotle started the ball rolling with a lot of things, including one very important model of the universe.  He observed the Earth and noticed that animals and things moved around a lot.  Up in the sky you had a few birds flying about, but not above a certain point.  Up in the clouds, you had some movement, weather, and the like.  Beyond that there was the moon that came in phases, then the sun that rose and set, then the planets in their paths and finally the fixed stars.

He wanted to describe these layers of increasing distance from the ground up to the sky, and came up with a theory.  At the time it was well-known that the Earth was a sphere (not technically, but they didn't know the nuances).  So Aristotle hypothesized concentric spheres above the Earth, each one allowing for less motion or change within it.  There was a sphere that comprised the clouds, and the level of change in that sphere was less than that of the Earth.  Meanwhile, in the Moon sphere the level of change was smaller still, and so on to the spheres that held the sun, then planets, then stars.  The important detail about this philosophy is that you have to have increasing levels of order the farther out you go.  From what Aristotle could see with just his eyes this made perfect sense and nobody should doubt him.

Then a lot of stuff happened in world history, and after hundreds of years the Europeans rediscovered old texts from the likes of Aristotle, Plato, and others.  They had been lost to the West, but were preserved by Arabic scholars.  It was a gold mine of human knowledge and understanding.  We've never experienced anything like it. It would be like if we were all bombed back to medieval times and someone discovered a full printout of Wikipedia.  Our best philosophers and scientists would study and learn from what it said on just about any subject.  We'd have some idea about alchemy or something and Wikipedia would say, "No, that's not actually possible outside nuclear fission or fusion events."  And our scientists would spend years trying to disprove Wikipedia only to discover we were wrong and it was right.  The problem is our short stint in discovery can't possibly match the years of scientific work done by the society that produced Wikipedia.

This is similar to what happened to the Europeans.  At a certain point the rule of thumb was that any knowledge had to be justified by referencing these ancient texts of wisdom.  The job of the scholar was to understand them, not surpass them.  But if we go back to our Wikipedia analogy, the very fact that we have this wealth of information suggests we should at some point be able to surpass it.  In fact, we might be able to do so faster since we have this great resource.  But when would we know we'd surpassed the received knowledge of the past?  How could we be confident that new discoveries really did outstrip this ancient society of which all we have is the record of their discoveries?  This was the problem the European scholars faced.

Most European natural philosophers believed in the Aristotelian model of the universe.  They were generally taught religion in addition to other disciplines, because there was no separation between the two ideas (more on this later) and they would of course incorporate religious ideas into their models.  Besides, the Church was pretty much the only game in town for funding science and the arts, so you have to justify your grant money somehow.  This is how heaven - the most perfect place - is positioned in the outer-most shell of the cosmos.  It's where God lives.  Incidentally, if God lives in the most perfect and unchanging shell of the universe, he must also be perfect and unchanging.  Bodies decay, whereas stars are perfect unchanging points of light, so if God is greater than the stars he must be a formless void without any relationship to physical matter that decays (not knowing clouds are water vapor, they saw them as less like 'matter' that stuff on Earth, so anything beyond them must be even less like matter) and without things like emotions, which seem philosophically imperfect.


Many of the traditional Christian ideas of God that formed in the first few centuries AD were attempts to map religion onto the Aristotelian model.  Indeed, if God lives in the most perfect outer sphere, where would you expect to find Satan and his ilk?  That's right, in the most corruptible (read: decaying) place possible - the center of the Earth.

I know this is a roundabout explanation, and any atheists are rightly asking, "Why am I reading about all this lore I don't believe in?"  Well, I don't believe the Aristotelian mappings either, but it's important to know where we've been so we can understand some of the features of the landscape.  And in the case of Galileo those features defined everything we might otherwise misunderstand about what happens next.

Remember that it was the philosophy that drove the religious principles here, not the other way around.  There wasn't some scripture handed down from on High that dictated this is how things ought to be.  There were these wonderful books of unmatched philosophy that the greatest minds of their age had beat their head against trying to add to the corpus of knowledge.  Only a fool would go against them.

Enter the Copernicans, who were trying to do exactly that.  Copernicus proposed this crazy idea that didn't fit with Aristotle at all: that the Sun was the center of the universe.  Other philosophers made the perfectly rational assumption that as in so many other things the astronomy of the ancients was better informed than the upstart heliocentric model.  Their job was to justify all new observations with existing evidence, hence epicycles.

Then Galileo got ahold of a telescope.  He wasn't the only one with a telescope at the time, but he was the fasted to publish.  (Actually he rushed to publish and his work had lots of errors that were soon corrected by more careful, less salacious astronomers.)  His observations were damning for the Aristotelian model.  He found evidence all over the heavens that corruptible stuff happened in spheres Aristotle said were nearly perfect.  The sun had spots, Jupiter had moons, etc.  The verdict: toss Aristotle out the window!

Hold on a minute, other philosopher/astronomers said.  Telescopes weren't that common, and they hadn't witnessed these things for themselves.  Maybe they could still explain all this through the old Aristotelian model.  Besides, it didn't make sense that the Earth, which everyone knew didn't move, was hurtling through space and spinning around wildly.  The heliocentrists had nothing but magic hand-waving to explain why people didn't fly off the Earth in their crazy model.

Remember they weren't trying to justify any religious point.  Aristotle long predated Christ and was by no means a Jew.  All the religious references people made were of the grant-justification type because the Catholic Church funded them.  These philosophers were asking Galileo to hold off on teaching young impressionable minds that Aristotle was worthless until they could get to the task of proving whether that really was true, especially since the new model was riddled with philosophical holes, and suggested ridiculous things like how we'd all get dizzy while flying off into space.

Galileo wasn't having any of it.  This was his discovery, and anyone who disagreed with him was wrong.  Reasonable objections?  Don't care.  Legitimate questions about how this would work with the physical laws they understood at the time?  No comment.  Galileo is just right.

They needed an arbitrator.  The Pope intervened, as the representation of their funding source.  His suggestion?  "Galileo, my boy, you need to be less strident.  They'll come around to your way of thinking eventually.  Heck, I'm nearly convinced about it just talking to you, and I'm by no means an expert.  Just try to incorporate both sides of the argument when you write up your work.  That way people can choose for themselves which ideas they think have the best merit."

Galileo barely listened to this advice, and wrote a book in which he portrayed the Aristotelian model through the eyes of an idiot he named "Simpleton".  Simpleton was a thinly-veiled public ridicule of the Pope.  The open mockery forced the Pope's hand, and to save face he put Galileo under house arrest.  That didn't mean he couldn't leave his house.  It meant he couldn't live his home town, which at that time was significantly less of a burden.  Nowadays perhaps Galileo could get everything delivered by Amazon, but at that time he had to wander down to the butcher...

But I digress.  The important points of this whole episode are to remember:
  1. Galileo was arguing with other natural philosophers, like himself, not with the Catholic Church.  Those philosophers had legitimate concerns that Galileo didn't address.  The only reason the Church comes into this is because they funded all the research.
  2. Galileo was punished because he openly mocked powerful people, not because those powerful people had ideological conflicts with his ideas.  No punishment would have happened if Galileo got along better with the scientists of his day, or had been willing to engage with them on legitimate questions about his model.
The more you dive into it, Galileo's story looks less and less like a conflict between religion and science, and more like the normal structure of how scientific revolutions happen.  New observations upend the old model.  Legitimate questions keep the Old Guard from accepting a new and incomplete model.  Eventually everything gets filled in after the kinks are worked out.  Religious principles didn't hinge on the outcome.  Perhaps the way people pictured religious concepts changed as a result of new scientific discoveries, but the concepts themselves remained intact.

Cut to the facts: don't religion and science claim different objective truths?

I think the reason the oversimplified Galileo story is so popular is because it highlights the real question people are driving at: What if religion makes an absolute claim that science refutes?  Does that mean there is no god?  Do religions just change their claims constantly to match science?  Do we just disprove one religion after another, playing whack-a-mole with ancient beliefs?  If so, what good is religion?

There are two instances where Biblical claims are most commonly viewed to be in direct conflict with scientific understanding:
  1. The Creation
  2. Adam and Eve -> Abraham
There are other minor issues, but these two are much more important than whether Jonah was really swallowed by a fish.  Both of these are in the book of Genesis.  It says the Earth was created in six days, and if you do the math from generation to generation you only have six thousand years from Adam on down to the present day.

And there are religious people who believe these two things: that the Earth was created in six 24-hour days (including the sun, which makes you wonder how they knew it was a 'day' of 24-hours?), and that the Earth is six thousand years old.  What do I have to say about that?

I don't believe it.  Sorry, I'm not going to defend these two ideas because I think they're obviously factually incorrect.  Now, I could go into detail about why I think they're wrong from a scientific standpoint, but there are dozens of sites that will do a better job than me.  Instead, let me make the point that this idea is not scripturally justified.  As in, if Moses were alive today he would agree with me about what he wrote, not with those who claim he was making a scientific claim about the age of the Earth when he wrote the Torah.

Genesis was written by Moses, not directly by the hand of God.  He was a man tasked with leading an exodus of unwilling migrants out of Egypt and across the desert.  To do that he had to forge a lasting group identity and protect against external ideas that could easily divide them.  This wasn't just some idle theoretical problem.  The first time he comes down off the mountain Aaron has a golden calf and they're all worshiping it.  This tells Moses that the moment he dies these people will revert to a group of resettled Egyptians.  He has to overcome this impulse and forge a national/cultural identity.

Did he succeed?  Phenomenally.  The fact that there are still people alive today - thousands of years later - who identify as Israelites descended from the group that came out of Egypt is a testament to how powerfully Moses' solution worked to forge a group identity.  Whether you believe that solution was divinely inspired or not, let's look at some of the details of how he did it.

His first obstacle was polytheism.  Over and over in the Torah the Israelites are admonished not to go after other Gods, but of course they do.  Everyone worships multiple gods in this period.  Crops failing?  Make a sacrifice to the god of this valley.  Wife barren?  Sacrifice to the fertility god.  Sheep sick?  Sacrifice to the animal god.  It's what people did.  Once they were settled in Canaan, Israelites often lived near natives.  I imagine the conversations went something like this:

Amos: "Hey Joe I noticed your crops are doing much better than mine.  What's your secret?"
Joe: "I sacrifice to the river god.  It works pretty well for me.  Aren't you sacrificing to the river god?"
Amos: "No, we have a god.  We only do sacrifices to one deity."
Joe: "Sure, sacrifice to that god if it makes you happy, but why can't you sacrifice to the river god, too?  It's an alligator, I'll show you how to make an idol of it."

The Genesis story was perfectly structured to give the people an answer in this situation.


Amos: "Actually, Jehovah made the rivers and the streams.  In fact, he made them before the alligators, which he also made.  I'll stick with my god because he's more powerful."

The point wasn't to craft a full scientific account of the creation of the Earth.  The point was to create a society of monotheists in an environment where that was seriously out of fashion.

Similarly the point of drawing a line from Adam to Jacob was not to create a perfect genealogy of all generations of humans (heaven forbid anyone forget Arphaxad or how long he lived!), but to demonstrate to the people that their god had a particular interest in them as a people.  They were directly connected to him in a line that ran from a man who walked and talked with god directly down to their own grandparents.

Most of the gods of polytheism were generally uninterested in humans, and only cared about mortals to the extent people made sacrifices.  They were often regionally or situationally based, so you had to know which sacrifices to make, in the same way you had to know what kind of crops grew well in your soil.  Moses, meanwhile, was leading a band of nomads who would soon become agrarian settlers.  He needed a story that tied his people to their god more closely, so they would continue to worship regardless of where they were or of the religious competition.  The traditional link of polytheism was something like farmer-land-god, or traveler-weather-god.  The story of Genesis circumvents this by making things personal.  It cuts out the middle-man so it's a direct link of person-god.  This seems normal to Western religious traditions, mainly because of Genesis, but it was a novel concept at the time.

What Moses was entirely uninterested in doing was teaching a master class in science to a bunch of rebellious nomads.  It would not serve his purposes at all to waste time cataloging Earth's history.  Reading a desire for scientific precision into the record is not only inaccurate, it robs Genesis of its original intent.

Whether you're a believer or an atheist, it's easy to take this second look at the record and understand what Moses was trying to accomplish.  The only difference here will be that believers see it as divine inspiration and atheists see it as an intellectual innovation of primitive culture.  Either interpretation has no problem with the current theories of universal/biological origins.

Yes, there are some Christians who do have a problem with basic scientific theories.  But most of us don't.  Religious people are not a monolith.  It doesn't take a lot of deep reading of the Bible to come away with no scientific issues.

"What about when [Special Event X] happened?"  You mean that miracle?  The one-time event that defies natural explanation?  It's a one-time event.  By definition it cannot be tested through repeatable experiments.  That's a restriction of empirical methodology (more on this later).  Until we can invent time-travel we'll never have a conflict between specific historical accounts of miracles and scientific demonstrations of natural phenomena.

History is nice, but science explains everything now.  Why do we need religion to do that job?

I hear this idea that "religion was once used to explain all natural phenomena, but then we invented science and now we don't need religion anymore."  There are lots of anachronisms in that statement, but I want to focus on a few key problems.

Allow me a small digression to clear this up.  Trust me it will lead to the present day.  I already alluded to the idea that before the word 'science' came into vogue the people in this line of work considered themselves 'natural philosophers'.  This is because they saw what they were doing as simply a sub-specialty within the general field of philosophy, just as it relates to the natural world.  Indeed, this is why my terminal degree in biology is called a PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy.  At no point did they 'change' away from natural philosophy into science.  There's still a lot of philosophy to science, and to each sub-discipline.  We can follow this chain of sub-dividing domains of knowledge as the need arose:
It's not as simple as this, of course, because if I'm doing lung cancer research I will probably benefit from the work of other cancer researchers, and even other biologists.  Indeed, I might take general scientific lessons about clinical trial design from other scientists and improve my research.  So while we recognize the utility of separating out each discipline of human knowledge, we've known for a long time that these separations are artificial.

These categories, however, weren't always there.  We built them up over a long period of time because they were useful.  Specifically, when you go back a couple hundred years everything except natural philosophy disappears.  (Aristotle introduced that one.)  How does this relate to religion versus science?

Well, it turns out that past a couple hundred years ago you also eliminate distinctions between religion and natural philosophy, such that they lie within the same discipline.  People who thought they were studying biology would also include religious ideas because there were no boundaries between the two as of yet.  Go back even farther, to Biblical times, and the idea of this distinct thing we call 'religion' was itself not yet defined.

People sometimes like to say that "Jesus was a Jew".  And there's a genetic sense in which he was a Jew.  There's also a sense in which he appears to have followed the Law of Moses, which would also define him as a Jew.  But if you were talking to one of his disciples back in the day and asked, "Are you Jewish or Christian?" they wouldn't even conceptually understand what you're talking about, regardless of terminology.  Yes, they had words like "Israelite" and "Gentile", but these referred to national boundaries that also happened to encapsulate genetic and religious boundaries.  Indeed, when the Samaritans got conquered, their Jewish brethren stopped considering them truly 'Jews', for national/genetic reasons, even though they continued to follow the same religion (caveats).  The categories we use to draw these anachronistic distinctions weren't rigidly defined at the time.

With this in mind, let's go back to the statement that "religion used to be used to explain natural phenomena".  There was a time when many natural phenomena had unknown origins.  People tried to explain them with the tools they had at their disposal.  Sometimes this meant head bumps or body fluids, while other times it meant invoking the action of some god or another.  This wasn't 'scientific' in the sense we mean today because they didn't have that category.  They tried to explain things in a way that made sense, paying no heed to how much future generations might mock them for phrenology.

In the same way, inserting religious explanations for natural phenomena was not viewed as 'out of bounds' because those bounds weren't defined yet.  It's as anachronistic to expect ancient people to refrain from speculating about actions by the gods when discussing droughts and floods as it is to expect them to defend their ideas about the four humors with randomized clinical trials.

So where does this leave us today?

In one sense, I can't understand why religious people don't embrace science more.  Most modern religious traditions make few concrete claims that are objectively verifiable on a scientific scale.  That's in part because religions focus on different problems than science.  Categories have been laid down between disciplines, and that's a good thing.  In other areas, we recognize categorization as beneficial.

As an immunologist I don't want to have to keep up with all the new discoveries in non-Newtonian fluid dynamics or have to describe why they relate to my field.  If I encounter some non-Newtonian fluid in my research, I'll call up a physicist and we can talk about how their research relates to problems in my field.  That physicist wouldn't expect my insights into T-cell biology to contribute meaningfully to their work in physics.  In the same way I could talk to an astronomer about how the discovery of exoplanet frequencies relates to religious concepts of creation without expecting to make specific contributions to astronomy.

Categorization is different from compartmentalization.  If I were compartmentalizing, I'd have to ignore discoveries in science, lest they contradict my religious beliefs and vice-versa.  Categorization is recognizing that religion is best at tackling different kinds of problems than science.  It means I don't expect religion to tell me how old the Earth is, and I don't expect science to tell me the meaning of life.

Okay, let's set boundaries then

I'd like to define a new category of knowledge that has always been there but is perhaps not yet firmly divided.  This is similar to how chemistry and physics had to be split at one point in order to better understand each of them.  Despite this, we know knowledge can cross over from one to the other.  The conceptual split is useful, though.

One of the hallmarks of science is the idea of objectively demonstrable observations.  We want evidence that is empirically driven, such that a scientist on one side of the world in 1955 can do the same experiment as another on the other side of the world in 2015 and they'll get the same results.

There is an assumption implicit in the idea that all human knowledge can be derived through this approach.  It's false.  Some things cannot be objectively measured or defined, such as love, agreement, thoughts and the like.


When I first heard this argument I wrote it off as flowery nonsense.  Then I started working on clinical trials in some important indications where we have to bridge the divide between subjective and objective measurement.  Lower back pain is a major health problem in the USA, which is exacerbated as our population gets heavier.  This can be debilitating, a fact anyone with the condition will attest to, and require treatment to alleviate or manage the pain.  The problem is that pain is subjective.  It's not objectively measurable (as of now).  You could go to your doctor with no lower back pain and claim the pain is so bad you can't sleep at night and they can't tell the difference.  They'll do a bunch of tests to try and measure other things that are often related to people's claims of back pain, but they can't put a number on how much pain you have, or even whether you have it or not.

The same goes for tinnitus (ringing in the ear).  Apparently one way you can claim disabled veteran status is if you have tinnitus as a result of combat operations.  This is a real, severe, problem that affects many veterans.  They are impacted daily by this horrible ringing in their ears, even though they may bear no physical scars from the heat of battle.  We can't objectively prove one way or another whether you have this condition.  It's entirely dependent on subjective self-reporting.  It's real, but certain aspects of our understanding of it are outside the scope of the scientific method.

(We can still measure things like how much sleep a person with tinnitus or lower back pain gets.  We can measure how much tinnitus impairs their ability to hear/concentrate on other sounds.  We can treat their condition and measure improvements in sleep-related health, or mental health.  These are indirect, as they're concerned with sleep, hearing, and mental health not the underlying cause.  In the same way, we can try to get at religious concepts like faith healing empirically, though this also suffers from methodological difficulties.)

Approaching World Peace

Religion - as many understand and define it today - is focused on making sense of important aspects of life that are subjectively defined and/or experienced.  There's no conflict between it and science, which is focused on empirically describable, objective observations.  Let's be more specific than that, because religion isn't the only field focused on subjective human experience.  It's a sub-category of a search for knowledge.  When it makes claims that are entirely outside its field, such as the age of the Earth, we're going to approach conflict.

We can either embrace that conflict and declare the subjective sub-discipline superior to all objectively-derived evidence (such as with young-Earth creationists) or we can start asking questions about whether our interpretation of subjective understanding is even accurate within its own field (as in asking what Moses was really trying to tell us in the book of Genesis).

Here's what I'd really like to see.

Atheists: Stop treating people with religious beliefs as oblivious to reality.  There is more in heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy, and there is more than is dreamed of in their philosophy as well.  Everyone is trying to drive toward a better understanding of the truth.  Subjective experience is a real thing.  Even if you don't believe God is real, religion is a useful tool for many to improve their understanding of subjective truths, or shorthand concepts that would take too long to be useful through other means.

Religious people: Stop treating science poorly.  There's no inherent conflict between religion and science, except the issues you bring to the table.  Sometimes there's a conflict with your particular interpretation of the Bible and scientific concepts as currently understood.  Now, I know it's common to say, "science doesn't know everything" and attribute the conflict between your interpretation and the scientific principle to errors of science.  This is intellectually lazy, and kicks your problems down the road unnecessarily.  The issue may be that your understanding of certain religious ideas might be what needs to be reexamined.  That doesn't mean you need to lose your faith.  Perhaps instead you'll find your faith is refocused more directly toward what it's best at handling: subjective reality.

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