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From the profane to the sacred
January 12, 2005 3:31 AM   Subscribe

sacred science The scientific method is a tool for determining objective truth about the world around us, right? But not everybody thinks so. From being a proof of God's existance to a mere socio-pilotical construct, scientific humanism is under attack.
posted by MadOwl (50 comments total)

 
Well the magazine cover pretty much tells it all : to some people "science" is a God (Shiva I guess ?) with a white lab coat and other devices that are part of a "collective" image, that of the "scientist" as a priest of some particular religion.

For instace, much to my amazement, a friend of mine with a quite interesting education in human literature and languages came to me proclaming amazement because a friend of him said : there is no doubt a planetary alignement caused the 26th december tsunami and the guy who predicted the disaster did so on the 15th of december.

What was presented as "evidence" is that planetary alignments caused gravitational fluctuations therefore the guy had predicted the event because of his knowledge of astrophysic. Any student can see that this proves absolutely nothing : or maybe not, if the student is very gullible.

What seems problematic is another approach: either FIND (read construct, fabricate) PROOF OF our religious axioms OR get no funds for your research, get no job. As researcher are human beings they're likely to cave in as much as anybody else...what is again under attack is intellectual honesty.
posted by elpapacito at 4:03 AM on January 12, 2005


The scientific method got us to the moon. Try doing that with prayer alone.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 4:40 AM on January 12, 2005


PrettyGen: bah who cares about moon, the prestigeous satellite. Rather prayers scprayers will not feed your family.
posted by elpapacito at 4:44 AM on January 12, 2005


Rather than encourage and nurture a critical spirit toward inherited traditions, many of which are authoritarian and patriarchal, postmodernist intellectuals have waged a battle against science and against the spirit of the Enlightenment itself.

Damn postmodernists! :-)

It amazes me how so many can enjoy the benefits of sound science while at the same time decrying its legitimacy. Scienctific method is a package deal, all or nothing!
There's no picking and choosing which things to believe or not believe, there's only having confidence that the scientific method will eventually lead to a truth that can be harnessed to our benefit.

To the fundies: If God created everything then doesn't the scientific method lead to discovering God's laws in nature? A good thing, right?
posted by nofundy at 4:51 AM on January 12, 2005


Damn, at first I read the link as Sacred Silence. I was hoping for some cool article on meditation as a means to objectively observe the subjective.
posted by lyam at 5:25 AM on January 12, 2005


Umm... I think the post itself shows the problem. The scientific method does not "determine objective truth" about the world. It's a tool that helps to construct and test theories about the world. The engineering that comes out of that science gets you to the moon but it doesn't tell you what truth is. Asserting that you know the truth because you can build pretty toys is just as silly as saying you know the truth because god told you.
posted by rdr at 6:17 AM on January 12, 2005


rdr: I'd contend that this depends on your definition of "truth." Personally, I'm more comfortable working with a truth that is roughly equivalent to a synthesis of our best theories about the world. Since, as you say, we can never really prove anything about "objective" Platonic truth, why even consider it most of the time?
posted by rxrfrx at 6:32 AM on January 12, 2005


The whole science vs. religion dichotomy is pretty much fabricated, both in a logical/philosophical sense as in a historical one.
Most people who "make a stand" for one side or the other are just making power plays, grandstanding for their fellows.
posted by signal at 6:35 AM on January 12, 2005


Asserting that you know the truth because you can build pretty toys is just as silly as saying you know the truth because god told you.

Yes rdr, if that is all you do. The difference is, as you say, that science involves the TESTING of theories-with the expectation that they are either validated by the results or revised in light of new evidence. As a scientist myself, I do not claim a monopoly on 'truth' (sorry if my posting was a little clumsily worded). However, by basing beliefs on testable hypothesis', and being prepared to change them if further research shows them to be inaccurate, I am vain-or silly-enough to think I am doing more than acting in blind faith. No system is perfect and we may never fully understand the world around us or exactly what or where life came from, but the scientific method really IS a way to try and reach objective judgement- on the basis of all available evidence and the understanding subsequent data may prove current theories wrong.
posted by MadOwl at 6:47 AM on January 12, 2005


science vs. religion dichotomy is pretty much fabricated...

...nails it for me too. The only thing that gets in the way of scientific inquiry is pre-deciding the results. Some religious people do this, some don't. Genetics, somewhat apocryphally, owes it's start to a catholic monk after all. Lots of scientists are logical positivists of some stripe, if they think about philosophy at all, but you certainly don't have to be.
posted by bonehead at 6:50 AM on January 12, 2005


Good point fxrfrx. Logic, the scientific method,mathematics, and all the rest of the machinery that we sometimes use to attempt to understand the world are just sets of rules and intuitions. We cannot even formalize anything outside a small corner of math. It seems to me that even if you accept science as a guide to truth it can only tell you about a tiny (but immensely useful) portion of the world we live in. That said, I'm way more comfortable with people who try to use observation, logic, and critical thinking to address the world than people who refuse to even try. I guess I'm just trying to say that I think people who claim that their world view is more valid because it is "scientific" are deluded.

Now for a little switch. The reason to pursue truth is not because we can expect to find it but because the pursuit allows us to build interesting models and think about the world. We just have to start questioning ourselves the minute we start to believe that we've found the truth.
posted by rdr at 7:00 AM on January 12, 2005


A scientist tells you the sky is blue because water is blue.

A priest tells you the sky is blue because god made it that way.

From your point of view, the only difference between accepting the truth of either statement is your attraction to the conceptual model that each person used to say it.

The act of trusting what you have not directly experienced is more or less the same in either case.
posted by sandking at 7:08 AM on January 12, 2005


This whole argument boils down to:
What is truth?

I suppose we can sit around an play philosophical games all day, but in the end we can only verify what we can observe.
posted by ozomatli at 7:12 AM on January 12, 2005


Science is the study of what is naturally reliable (ie: "truth"), and how to use that reliability for human benefit.

Faith has many good things going for it. Reliability isn't one of them.
posted by PsychoKick at 7:21 AM on January 12, 2005


If God created everything then doesn't the scientific method lead to discovering God's laws in nature?

that's what plato originally believed, before he wised up.

only the most basic mathematics and fundamental scientific truths exist in nature, the large part of science is invention and this is what threatens the fundies and their belief in an omnipotent, hands-on god moving the pieces on the game board.

god didn't create the atomic bomb, she created the underlying physical relationships that made it possible.

it was man - not god - who gave us the kabloom. the earth shattering kabloom.

science leads to the conclusion that we - mankind - are the masters of our fate and prayer is a complete waste of time.
posted by three blind mice at 7:29 AM on January 12, 2005


science leads to the conclusion that we - mankind - are the masters of our fate

No it doesn't. That is a possible conclusion but it's not the only one.

A scientist tells you the sky is blue because water is blue.
A priest tells you the sky is blue because god made it that way.
From your point of view, the only difference between accepting the truth of either statement is your attraction to the conceptual model that each person used to say it.


That and the fact that statement 1 is demonstrably wrong.
posted by biffa at 7:45 AM on January 12, 2005


Ah yes, I am trying to recall passages from Atlas Shrugged where Rand decries those people who rely on 'faith' and 'good will' to solve material problems on earth.

Faith never fed anyone outside of the Bible, and faith most certainly did not lead to medical breakthroughs. Faith most definitely did not get us to the moon (but dammit, a lot of luck sure helped).
posted by tgrundke at 7:51 AM on January 12, 2005


I guess the gist of the article is not whether or not Faith is a relevant, useful tool, but whether or not Faith has any place as a tool within the discipline of science.

I'm hesitant to dismiss Faith completely but I am more than happy to make sure Faith has no limiting effect on scientific thought.
posted by lyam at 8:01 AM on January 12, 2005


As I see it, the two could coexist, except they keep stepping on each other's territories.

Science is primarily concerned with HOW.

Religion is primarily concerned with WHY.

If people could understand this, there wouldn't be any conflicts. Instead, we have people in one column saying, "We can convert the whole universe into math, so God doesn't exist!" Which is an obvious logical fallacy. And in the other column, "God created all life, so evolution cannot be true!" Which is another obvious logical fallacy.

(yes, I'm exaggerating and strawmanning, but those underlying stances show up all too often)

I blame the clergy. Your average Believer, if you explained evolution to him cold and concluded with, "And isn't God great for coming up with such a system!", he'd agree with you enthusiastically. They need clergy - who are drunk on power and tithing - to tell them that science is evil, and facts about the world somehow challenge faith.

And it certainly took a clergyman to come up with the idea that the Bible (or insert favorite religious text here) is absolute 100% factually correct, including the portions that even a small child would recognize as fables. (I especially love how Christians often take the old testament more literally than the Jews do - and the Jews wrote the thing!)

Really, too, there are people in the scientific community who are threatened by the mere presence of religion, again under the assumption it's encroaching on their turf, which it is not. It's a sort of ideological war with a few powerful people on either side trying to influence the masses.

Except there need not be any conflict at all.
posted by InnocentBystander at 8:21 AM on January 12, 2005


This whole debate is utter bullshit: the OBJECTIVE TRUTH is that the scientific method rests on the principle that any established theory can be challenged, while religion rests precisely on the opposite.

Now, there might be a god and she might even be omniscient. But the OBJECTIVE TRUTH is there ain't no omniscient human being. And that pretty much ends the argument.

(Incidentally, it is not only organized religion and nationalism who are pushing this crap. Michael Crichton and Bjorn Lomborg come to mind too).
posted by magullo at 8:27 AM on January 12, 2005


They do not reject modern science (who can?) but ‘merely’ treat it as one among the many different paths to the ultimate truth, which is known only to the Vedic Hinduism.

I like the first part of this observation, science as one of many paths to the ultimate truth. Very cool.

signal - I'm not so sure the contest between religion and science is entirely fabricated although do agree there's power play at work in a sense: the basic argument seems to be over which of the two world views encompasses the other.
posted by scheptech at 8:37 AM on January 12, 2005


InnocentBystander:
As I see it, the two could coexist, except they keep stepping on each other's territories.
Science is primarily concerned with HOW.
Religion is primarily concerned with WHY.


Frankly, I've always found that popular distinction to be fairly meaningless. "Why" and "how" are vague enough to often refer to the exact same things. Indeed, said vagueness may actually exacerbate the "stepping on each other's toes" between religion and science.
posted by PsychoKick at 9:04 AM on January 12, 2005


Science is primarily concerned with HOW.

Religion is primarily concerned with WHY.


Well, no, if we really must make such a distinction, philosophy is primarily concerned with WHY. Religion is a system that strives to control peoples ethics through the evocation of a (quite possibly) fictional superior being, a being whose existence is but a small, secondary, and IMHO rather boring, area of philosophical inquiry. Why people believe that a series of organized, institutionalized superstitions, has a major role to play in determining any aspect of whatever they're referring to when they talk of "truth" is beyond me.

Anyway the linked article is a magnificent exposition of the reactionary character of the whole pseudo-leftist post-modernist maelstrom. The "cultural studies" world view is, when judged by its own standards, an ideal philosophy for the advertiser: A system where all statements are equally valid, is a sales person's natural intellectual habitat. It's also the religious fundamentalist's last escape and the exploiter's excuse. For a similar complaint from an Islamic background, see here...

An aside: Note that the article also hints of the deep reactionary character of the Indian religious zealots (idealized in certain western circles) - something that was amply evident in the recent Gujarat massacres....
posted by talos at 9:11 AM on January 12, 2005


PsychoKick I'm afraid I don't follow you. In what case would "why" and "how" have the same answer?
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:11 AM on January 12, 2005


Science is a method of investigation. It is not a truth, but a compilation of tested (and always further testable) ideas. Religion is a truth.

Science has been kicking a* since it realized it's own limits (see Heisenberg, Godel, etc.). Personally I find that realization so intellectually satisfying that I hold science higher than religion. Although, there are religions that hold humility and transience as high as science. I like those religions I guess.

Many religions I have encountered are self-appointed truths. They are just an entirely different organisms than science.
posted by willns at 9:12 AM on January 12, 2005


Talos If I was going to assign a single question to philosophy, it would be "What". (which straddles both How and Why) It's fairly rare for philosophy to directly tackle "why."
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:17 AM on January 12, 2005


Hmm, OK, I *can* think of one thing which is an answer to both "how" and "why".

Money.

But that's being flip. :-)
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:28 AM on January 12, 2005


Religion obviously makes claims as to "How." It's just that it's been so embarrasingly wrong in these cleams that adherents now like to focus on with increasingly unfalsifiable "Whys."
posted by callmejay at 9:29 AM on January 12, 2005


Religion obviously makes claims as to "How." It's just that it's been so embarrasingly wrong in these claims that adherents now like to focus on increasingly unfalsifiable "Whys."

(corrected)
posted by callmejay at 9:30 AM on January 12, 2005


A scientist tells you the sky is blue because water is blue.
A priest tells you the sky is blue because god made it that way.
From your point of view, the only difference between accepting the truth of either statement is your attraction to the conceptual model that each person used to say it.
The act of trusting what you have not directly experienced is more or less the same in either case.


Nonsense. Read my comment on color in the thread you linked.
So whether a seizure is due to epilepsy or possession by the Devil is a matter of opinion?
Your teeth get cavities because God made them that way? Or is plaque an instrument of the Devil?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:30 AM on January 12, 2005


I blame the clergy. Your average Believer, if you explained evolution to him cold and concluded with, "And isn't God great for coming up with such a system!", he'd agree with you enthusiastically. They need clergy - who are drunk on power and tithing - to tell them that science is evil, and facts about the world somehow challenge faith.

This may be true for preachers in small home grown churches, but most well-educated clergy are actually a lot more flexible and deistic than their followers. Many laypeople just don't really give it much thought. If you're intelligent and give it thought, you have to see that natue is living, which means it is changing, which implies that evolution would be congruent with it, and given the evidence, the most likely scenario. A lot of catholic/anglican clergy are quite deistic or even spinozistic (or aristotelian).

innocent, it's pretty difficult for anyone to tackle "why" in the broad sense, because there is always another "why" behind it (though religions end up cutting off with "because god said so"... which is not satisfying even to a two year old).
posted by mdn at 9:41 AM on January 12, 2005


MDN Oh, I know I was casting a wide net. The post was already getting too long. There are certainly good clergy out there as well, teaching that science is NOT a threat to religion. But they tend to get overshadowed by the powerful few preaching hate and fear. (which, sadly, will ALWAYS trump understanding and acceptance in terms of influencing mass opinion)

It's the same way that people can somehow be convinced that two men getting married in Toronto somehow threatens their M/F marriage in Arkansas.
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:48 AM on January 12, 2005


InnocentBystander: You're right, but then again philosophy adresses all questions - "why is there something instead of nothing" included. Yet now that I think of it, science also deals with an enormous series of whys (irregardless of the fact that its whys all the way down... as mdn suggests).
posted by talos at 9:56 AM on January 12, 2005


Well, no, if we really must make such a distinction, philosophy is primarily concerned with WHY.

Excellent, a third contender for all-ecompassing world view.

Science is a method of investigation. It is not a truth

This is somewhat disingenuous, yes science is supposed to be only a method, but for all practical purposes it does in fact represent 'truth' for millions and indeed causes many to dismiss any religion as absurdist.
posted by scheptech at 10:06 AM on January 12, 2005


Good link. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 10:13 AM on January 12, 2005


Good article, but I think the writer misread/overestimates the postmodernist/postcolonialist enterprise. Seems like anytime someone wants to complain about some modern trend, it is "the damn postmodernists!"
posted by papakwanz at 10:41 AM on January 12, 2005


This is somewhat disingenuous, yes science is supposed to be only a method, but for all practical purposes it does in fact represent 'truth' for millions and indeed causes many to dismiss any religion as absurdist.

Religion IS absurd, because it is something you accept on faith. Of course, billions of people are comfortable with this.

Science (and most philosophy) is concerned with discovering truth (or a theory/framework for explaining why/how things happen). It does this by a rigorous method of gathering evidence, testing, and revising theories when new data emerge. It is based on logical thought and reason.

The science-religion dichotomy doesn't exist, because one actually leads to new knowledge, whereas the other is crap you can pull from your ass and is utterly non-falsifiable. The doctrines of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. are non-falsifiable, as is Scientology and any other wacko-cult you can think of.

Notice I didn't say religion is worthless. Many people benefit from having some sort of moral guidance in their life, a way for them to find "meaning" and order in life. Religion does serve a social function. But to say that there is any kind of "truth" to religion - that's just wishful thinkng.
posted by aerify at 10:42 AM on January 12, 2005


...science as one of many paths to the ultimate truth. (and) ...science is supposed to be only a method, but for all practical purposes it does in fact represent 'truth' for millions...

This attitude is absolutely the problem: people keep trying to bend the results of the scientific process into the shape of a religion. This is utterly horrible. The whole point of science is that you don't have to believe! Within certain caveats and under the right conditions, scientifically-tested theories tell you that, on average, certain things will likely happen (or probably did happen, depending) in a certain way, scientists being the world's champion hedgers. If you don't accept that, then you can always go try it yourself.

This is why faith is the opposite of science. As mentioned by many posters earlier, religions often get into trouble when making theories of how things work (people made of clay, for instance), but the why questions (why do we exist) are the province of faith and philosophy, and aren't accessible by the scientific method. Pretending that they are is a dangerous and disingenuous fallacy.
posted by bonehead at 10:56 AM on January 12, 2005


The problem is that science and religion are both tools for different aspects of human thought, and sometimes people try use the wrong tool. Religion will not tell you how to build an airplane. Science can not tell you how to live your life.
posted by unreason at 11:00 AM on January 12, 2005


I don't see how "science is a method" is disingenuous. You say "but for all practical purposes it does in fact represent 'truth' for millions and indeed causes many to dismiss any religion as absurdist." I say, for those who consider scientific findings ultimate truth, they don't understand science.
posted by willns at 11:18 AM on January 12, 2005


willns - yes agree, they don't

I say disingenuous because many who argue for science, imho of course, hide behind this notion of only being merely a method while at the same time believing very firmly in science as The finder / explainer of 'truth'.
posted by scheptech at 11:43 AM on January 12, 2005


Religion IS absurd, because it is something you accept on faith. Of course, billions of people are comfortable with this.
One thing I've never understood is that don't most people accept science on blind faith, too? For example, I'm guessing most of you freely accept that DNA is made of the double helix, right? But why? Have you ever actually experienced the double helix? Have you ever actually got under a microscope and visibly observed the double helix? Or do you simply trust what everyone tells you is truth, namely on an appeal to authority (I think?)?
As a fellow scientist, I don't mean that in a way to equate religion in science, but simply that people do accept numerous scientific theories without ever doing any research based only an appeal to authority (as in they never experience science first-hand), which is exactly what so many religious folk get ripped apart for.

I say, for those who consider scientific findings ultimate truth, they don't understand science.
Word. Sit down and read some real scientific papers one day. Scientists are just as guilty as anyone else for trying to draw conclusions that aren't really there from their results.
posted by jmd82 at 11:44 AM on January 12, 2005


I say, for those who consider scientific findings ultimate truth, they don't understand science.

I say disingenuous because many who argue for science, imho of course, hide behind this notion of only being merely a method while at the same time believing very firmly in science as The finder / explainer of 'truth'.

That is exactly what science is. A method for discovering truth. Not "ultimate truth", of course, but certainly truth that's good enough for us to rely on. Of course there is no way to discover absolute truth. But science is the ONLY (and I do mean only) way to get at what we might consider the truth. Religion does not get us anywhere near truth.

Where do you think we get the knowledge to build computers, planes, wireless networks? There's a lot of 'truths" about the world we have to know to do those things. And they don't come from any Bible.
posted by aerify at 12:00 PM on January 12, 2005


How to spot bogus science (without postmodernism.)
posted by nofundy at 12:31 PM on January 12, 2005


Unreason: Religion will not tell you how to build an airplane. Science can not tell you how to live your life.

Nutrition science can tell us how to eat properly, social sciences can tell us how to behave towards each other or why we behave in certain ways and the consequences of doing so, biological sciences can tell us what to avoid since it will be bad for our bodies, the physical sciences tell us what we can't physically do - or what we can, and the chemical sciences instructs as to why we treat our food the way that we do (cooking)...

/yes, it's a weak arguement
posted by PurplePorpoise at 1:37 PM on January 12, 2005


why questions (why do we exist) are the province of faith and philosophy, and aren't accessible by the scientific method

<sparkly devil's advocate hat>
Why does there have to be answer? Surely it's possible that there isn't one - that there is no 'why' to our existence, only the how, only that 'some stuff happened earlier and here we are'. How many religions have arisen because people are too scared or too arrogant to face that possibility - and how many less would we have if prozac was invented shortly before the wheel?
</sparkly devil's advocate hat>
posted by Sparx at 1:52 PM on January 12, 2005


Why does there have to be answer?

Do many religions admit the null hypothesis? That's sort of the point, no?
posted by bonehead at 1:56 PM on January 12, 2005


InnocentBystander:
I'm afraid I don't follow you. In what case would "why" and "how" have the same answer?

For situations that do not involve people or other living creatures, "how" and "why" can have the same answer, completely serious and non-flippant.

Consider these two questions:
- "How does rain form?"
- "Why does rain form?"

Both can be answered with "Water vapor builds up in the air. When the air cannot contain any more, the water forms into drops and falls from the sky."

Now, consider these two questions:
- "How does he run?"
- "Why does he run?"

These will yield entirely different answers, due to the presence of a living subject. A living subject possesses independant motivations, something that natural, deterministic phenomena do not have.

To assume that "how" and "why" are always different is to assume that a living creature or some other sort of willful entity is always actively involved.
posted by PsychoKick at 5:31 PM on January 13, 2005


The way I see it, even in the case of "willful entities," there's still no distinction between how and why. The motivation behind an act simply comes in the causal sequence before its mechanics.
posted by zerolucid at 3:17 PM on January 15, 2005


That is, assuming the How question and the Why question are talking about the same instance of an act. Obviously there's a difference if the Why question is about a specific instance and the How question is about the mechanism in general.
posted by zerolucid at 3:20 PM on January 15, 2005


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