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
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