Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#8 - Standards for evidence in science and religion

American Heathen:  aired: 11 February 2012

I’ve been involved with a number of discussions with believers over the years, including acquaintances of mine who are scientists.  As I’ve said repeatedly in other essays, I consider religious belief to be based on faith, not evidence.  Two weeks ago, I made the point that any effort to put forth a rational argument on behalf of one’s religious beliefs implies that faith (belief without evidence) is not enough.  Is your faith so weak you must try to rationalize your irrational belief?  You’re free to believe whatever you want in America, but at least own up to the irrationality of your religious belief in a supernatural deity.

This brings up a question about what “evidence” might be marshaled on behalf of religious beliefs in a supernatural deity.  It’s not possible to respond to every conceivable example, so in my limited time, I can comment on just two prominent ones:

#1. The complex structure of the universe couldn’t have occurred by random chance.  There must have been a creator who designed it!  This is the essence of the argument for the so-called “intelligent design” alternative to evolution.  It’s appeared in other contexts, as well, including arguments by believers who see their religious creation stories on an equal footing with the Big Bang hypothesis in which “something appears out of nothing.”  There are many problems with this proposed “evidence”, but the basic premise – that a deity must be the only possible explanation – is profoundly antiscientific.  It’s completely unwarranted to take this giant leap of faith on behalf of which no solid evidence exists that would pass a critical analysis.  Given the laws of physics, the existence of matter and energy in the universe, and enough time, random chance can in fact produce exactly what we see.  Science may not know all the answers to all the questions, but a “god of the gaps” in science is not a valid alternative.  I’ll have more to say on solid evidence shortly.

#2. The universe is a beautiful place and that beauty must have been expressly created for our appreciation and to the glory of god!  The basic issue with any “beauty” argument is the entirely subjective nature of beauty.  Everyone has their own personal ideas about what is beautiful and our notions of beauty versus ugliness are creations of our individual minds and cultures, superimposed on an objective reality that makes no such distinctions.  Scientists see beauty in many things that non-scientists find repulsive or terrifying:  slugs in the garden, natural selection, tornadoes, and so on.  Our ideas of beauty can offer no rational evidence for anything except the emotional side of a human mind.

Many believers quote scripture as “evidence” of their beliefs, in a classical example of circular logic.  There’s no logical reason to accept “sacred writings” in abrahamic religions as convincing evidence.  The scriptures are liberally laced with factual errors, accounts of events for which no corroborating historical evidence can be found, contradictions, multiple different accounts of the same events, and so on.  Since biblical authors were not actually eyewitnesses to the events they chronicle, they clearly provide at most only hearsay evidence.  Supernatural events as described in scriptures are simply not being seen and documented today and the most likely reason for that is that those events described in scriptures are myths, not real events.  As writings go, these can’t be advanced as convincing of anything except the fertile imaginations of late Bronze Age authors and their predecessors (from whom the biblical authors plagiarized).  Religion is the ultimate argument by authority and so is at its core essentially inconsistent with a scientific worldview.  Believers have pretty loose standards for what they consider evidence!

On the other hand, science imposes a number of rigorous standards that proposed evidence must meet.  Whatever ideas are put forth must have some basis in logic and/or mathematical reasoning – they can’t encompass contradictions, or violate other rules of logic.  Science rejects the entire notion of “supernatural” explanations for anything, more or less by definition.  Scientific ideas must have consequences that can be tested empirically – otherwise, they’re outside the realm of science and are considered mere speculation.  When possible, having quantitative evaluation of the ideas based on some form of direct observation of those consequences is given great credibility in science. Experiments that provide evidence on behalf of some hypothesis must be reproducible in some way, and the data must be accessible for independent analysis.  The more extraordinary the proposed idea, the more extraordinary the supporting evidence must be.  No argument by authority is ever considered to be valid.  There are no sacred texts, including scientific journals and textbooks.  In fact, there’s nothing sacred in science – anything is open to question and experimental validation.  Scientific ideas have implications that can be applied in the real world every day, and they can be relied upon to work in practice, or they wouldn’t be embraced by the science.

Science admits that it doesn’t know everything and never will.  Science admits it can’t explain everything although it now explains things that had no explanation before.  Science admits its errors when they’re uncovered and fixes them.  If you can embrace science as a valid and useful way of thinking, how can you justify an irrational faith in your life?  Only by embracing contradictory world views.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.