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.

#18 - Thoughts on science and the spiritual life

American Heathen:  aired: 04 August 2012

It’s common for some of my believer colleagues to attempt to dismiss my concerns about the illogical position of being a religious believer and a scientist at the same time.  The main thread of their argument is that one’s spiritual life is somehow in a different compartment than one’s life as a scientist.  This response actually reinforces my speculation that in order to be both a scientist and a religious believer, these two components of your life must be confined completely in separate, disconnected, impermeable compartments within your brain.

I’m perfectly willing to accept that a scientist can have a spiritual side, since I recognize that in myself.  But I simply can’t ignore the lessons I’ve gained from being a scientist so that I could embrace irrationality and science simultaneously, and accept arguments by authority pertaining to my spiritual life without question.  To do so seems so incredibly inconsistent and troubling to me.  My believer colleagues must somehow be ignoring this obvious conflict between their professional and spiritual lives.  Such cognitive dissonance seems to imply a sort of schizophrenia I find inconceivable in an otherwise intelligent, functional human being.  The power of fallacy-dominated rationalization must indeed be strong to hold sway in the mind of a science professional!

The bible and other sacred texts are not science textbooks, of course.  On that, my believer friends and I certainly agree!  The description of the natural world in these documents is manifestly in conflict with modern science unless you choose to view the biblical narrative not as literal truth but as allegory or ancient mythology (which it is).  For someone to see the evident clash between biblical stories and modern science as somehow compatible logically leads me to question that person’s ability to think clearly.  If you decline to accept the literal truth of some parts of the bible, I think this naturally calls the rest of the bible into question, as well.  Fundamentalist believers are at least consistent, whereas believer moderates who pick and choose those parts of their “sacred” documents that they see as convenient for them are engaging in obvious self-deception.

It’s not my place as a physical scientist to speculate on why people would choose to live with this clear contradiction between two important components in their lives.  The eloquent astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has commented about believers among science professionals.  He points out that as we move up the ladder of scientific expertise from the “general public,” to practicing scientists, and finally to the members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, the percentage of religious believers declines precipitously.  But as Dr. Tyson says

I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t.

A most pertinent question, that!  I, too, want an answer to that one!

The world of science is not for everyone, but everyone should be able to understand the important distinction between ideas backed up by scientific evidence versus those supported only exceedingly tenuously by ancient stories of dubious lineage and by faith in a total absence of evidence. The late, great Dr. Carl Sagan said

If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote.  As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.

It’s the apparently unshakeable commitment to illogic and irrationality among otherwise intelligent friends and colleagues that concerns me.  I have no wish to deny them their right to their beliefs, but I’d like to think that an honest, open-minded person must see the inherent dangers in embracing a delusionary, irrational worldview that sanctions misogyny, slavery, violence in the name of advancing the faith, ill-treatment of homosexuals, and so on.  The leaders of many of these faiths presently are seeking to replace the teaching of evolution in public schools with the religious dogma of creationism..  Can my friends not see how religion and science are in an epic battle for the minds of our children (and, hence, our future)?  Apparently not.

Just how do my believer colleagues reconcile their faith in a doctrine based on the content of a “sacred” document laced with contradictions and a total absence of modern-day, repeatable evidence?  This must involve a mental juggling act that has to be seriously perturbing their inner bullshit detectors, whether they want to admit it or not!  Just because it’s spiritual, doesn’t mean we can safely dispense with a bullshit detector!

Dr. Sagan wrote in his book The Demon-Haunted World, before the turn of the millennium in the year 2000:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

I feel the same concerns because those old habits of thought lead to ignorance, fear, and suffering.  I believe that scientists should be at the forefront of those working to prevent us from going down that path, not participating in irrational, dangerously violent, mythological nonsense.

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.