The Science of Religion


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A look at the premises underlying the recent contention that science and religion are inherently at odds.

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The Science of Religion

  1. 1. The Science of Religion
  2. 2. How do we know? • Most people feel that they know a certain number of true things about themselves and the world they live in. • What is the process by which we have come to hold one thing true and another false?
  3. 3. Direct observation How do we know . . . •The frog is green. •The frog is moist. •The frog chirps.
  4. 4. Rational process But, how do we know . . . •The frog is an amphibian. •The frog hatches from an egg. •The frog begins life with a tail and fins instead of limbs.
  5. 5. Beyond common sense... “It is when we try to go beyond the level of common-sense knowledge that we are forced to reflect more seriously about the process of discovering truth, for the unanimity which characterizes the world of practical truth is then rather quickly lost. We may, for example, start wondering about the inner and hidden structure of the things we observe—those forces and entities which we cannot observe directly but whose existence seems required to explain what we do observe.” — William S. Hatcher, PhD, mathematician, philosopher, educator
  6. 6. How do we determine reality? “In sum, we seek what science calls a theory, a consistent set of hypotheses involving abstract concepts which describes a model of reality and which allows us to deduce and thereby explain the known facts. In religious terms, we seek a faith, which is simply a theory to which we add a high degree of personal commitment and emotional investment.” — William S. Hatcher
  7. 7. Science & Religion: The Orthodoxies • Both science and religion are human, social activities. • Neither can claim to be better than their ultimate influence on society.
  8. 8. Science & Religion: The Orthodoxies • Both science and religion can be abused due to humanity’s social and moral atrophy. • Just as religion has been used for prejudicial, ungodly and irrational ends, so science has been used for prejudicial, unscientific, and irrational ends. • Historically, science has been a tool to obtain desired (but not necessarily beneficial or even rational) social ends. • Science has been used to “destroy nations, render the earth uninhabitable, effect mass murder, disgorge a cornucopia of often useless gadgets, and even to bolster dogmatic and puerile political-social or philosophical points of view about life.” (Hatcher)
  9. 9. Science versus Religion? When the true purpose and nature of science and religion are understood, there is no conflict.
  10. 10. The Scalpel Analogy • Purpose: to save lives. • In the hands of a skilled surgeon it fulfills its purpose. • In the hands of an ignorant or unskilled user, it can become the source of accidental harm. • In the hands of a criminal, it becomes an instrument of murder.
  11. 11. The Scientific Method
  12. 12. The Bahá’í View 1. The basic unity of science lies in its method of inquiry. 2. Bahá’ís accept this and accept whatever redefinitions of the terms “religion” and “faith” arise from it.
  13. 13. The First Faculty of Man “Between scientists and the followers of religion there has always been controversy and strife for the reason that the latter have proclaimed religion superior in authority to science and considered scientific announcement opposed to the teachings of religion. Bahá’u’lláh declared that religion is in complete harmony with science and reason. If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God; therefore, it is unworthy of belief and not deserving of attention; the heart finds no rest in it, and real faith is impossible. How can man believe that which he knows to be opposed to reason? ... Reason is the first faculty of man, and the religion of God is in harmony with it.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 231 (14 July 1912, New York, NY)
  14. 14. What is science, anyway? “ is a collection of statements or affirmations which are taken as truths about reality (or some portion thereof).” — William S. Hatcher
  15. 15. Statements About Reality • “This cat is black.” • “E=mc2” (Energy is equal to the squared mass of an object moving at light speed (c) in a vacuum.) • One is concrete. • One is abstract. • Both are equally true statements of physics. • BUT they are not equally important.
  16. 16. This cat is black... • Is a concrete statement. • Is empirical or experiential. • The “cat” and its quality of “blackness” are directly observable.
  17. 17. E=mc2 • Is an abstract statement. • Is logical or theoretical. • It requires the use of abstract terms such as “energy” [e] and “mass” [m] and light speed [c] that are not directly observable.
  18. 18. e=mc2 “In fact, the pregnant statement “e=mc2” has such a high theoretical component that it takes years of concentrated effort to assimilate its meaning. This statement is far removed from simple, direct physical observations like the whiteness of paper. On the other hand, “this paper is white” has such a simple linguistic structure involving the use of concrete terms that its meaning might even be conveyed by the one word “white” accompanied by appropriate gestures toward the physical object in question. It is inconceivable to think of conveying the meaning of a highly theoretical statement in this manner.” — William S. Hatcher
  19. 19. In other words... It is rocket science. Hatcher comments: “A statement with a high empirical component and a low theoretical component corresponds to the popular notion of a fact.” BUT… “Often, but not always, the important statements of science are statements with a high theoretical component.”
  20. 20. What makes a statement important? • Internal structure and meaning. • Its relationship to other statements. • Specifically, the number of other statements that depend on it being true. • Hatcher explains: “Thus, if we dropped e=mc2 from our list of truths, many statements come into doubt; but if we drop “this paper is white” from our truths, then few statements, if any, are affected.”
  21. 21. Implication • One statement can imply another statement without our being aware of it. • We discover relationships between statements, theories, or facts by examining the logical connections between them. • Often this discovery takes place not by direct observation but as a result of intuition and subsequent proof of the relationship between the statements. • Observation and experimentation are not the only means of discovering scientific truth. We often discover new truths by recognizing that a new or previously dubious statement is implied by known and accepted truths.
  22. 22. What Science is Not • Science is not a “collection of facts”. • Science is not a belief system. • “Factual” statements are simply statements with a low theoretical component. • Facts comprise only a small part of our scientific statements, and sometimes the least important part.
  23. 23. Scientific knowledge is relative.
  24. 24. Scientific inquiry... “Scientific inquiry brings into play a host of human faculties such as reason, intuition, and experience, and these on different levels of profundity and objectivity. One cannot, however, explain in any simple manner the way in which these faculties interact to produce a given statement of science. The statements of science are arrived at by a process of repeated application of these human faculties, and by many different human beings. Years of experimentation (organized experience), theorizing (conscious reasoning and intuition), and discussion lie behind the one statement “e=mc2”. — William S. Hatcher
  25. 25. Scientific inquiry... “It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience. In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole.” — William S. Hatcher
  26. 26. Is scientific fact absolute? • No statement of science is independent of the meaning of other statements—which may be altered either by subtle shifts in the way we use words or by a change in definitions. • Our knowledge is relative and subjective. • A classic example: • • Newton's laws of mechanics and his theory of gravitation have been considerably modified since his time. At least one change came as a result of experiments with subatomic particles that Newton could not have performed in his lifetime. No statement of science is absolutely true, for no statement is independent of other statements and facts which may not yet be known. (Occam’s Razor may apply.)
  27. 27. Occam’s Razor • William of Occam was a Franciscan monk and theologian and unarguably one of the most influential philosophers of the 14th century. • He is the father of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) by virtue of his assertion that: Entia/Essentia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. [Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.]
  28. 28. Knowledge is human • Human beings are the knowers. • This does not mean that the world “out there” is unreal or a figment of our imagination. • It means merely that our understanding of this objective reality (whatever it is) is subjective and relative because our relationship to it is relative. • Contrary to popular notions, “absolute proof” of anything is simply not within the domain of the scientific method.
  29. 29. The Process of Knowledge
  30. 30. How do statements become accepted as true?
  31. 31. Organizing Our Assumptions • In order to make sense out of experience, we make certain assumptions about reality. • If these assumptions are made unconsciously, we often refer to them as “common sense”. • We know that getting thumped by a baseball bat will hurt if we’ve fallen down and experienced the effects of sudden acceleration. • BUT … we may know this without being able to cite a single principle of acceleration or velocity that “proves” it will hurt.
  32. 32. Organizing Our Assumptions • When our assumptions are organized consciously, we have the beginnings of science. • As we examine and test the logical relations between our assumptions and their consequences we’re led to a well-organized “body of knowledge” which describes a model of reality. • The collection of statements which make up this body of knowledge are the statements of science, which will be continually revised in the light of new experiences, new assumptions, and new logical relationships.
  33. 33. Science is organized knowledge. The conscious, explicit organization of knowledge is what makes it scientific. Logician W. V. Quine wrote: “science is common sense which has become self-conscious.”
  34. 34. The cat is black... • “The cat is black.” • Common sense. • Arrived at unconsciously. • Directly observable. • “The cat’s fur absorbs all frequencies of visible light.” • Science. • Arrived at consciously. • Not directly observable.
  35. 35. Does it work? • Science is not just a matter of discovering true statements; we all know a myriad, trivial, true statements: black cat is black, fire burns, baseball bats are hard. • Proof, in scientific terms, means the total process by which we render a statement acceptable by the pragmatic criterion: “Does it work the way it says it will?” • Abdu’l-Bahá suggests that faith ought to be equally pragmatic.
  36. 36. Material & Spiritual Science “Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary...” — Abdu’l-Bahá
  37. 37. The Scientific Method “The scientific method is the systematic, organized, directed, and conscious use of our various mental faculties in an effort to arrive at a coherent model of whatever phenomenon is being investigated.” — William S. Hatcher
  38. 38. Principle & Proposition Once we accept a concept or principle as true, our emotions begin to organize themselves around it. We come to depend on it. The concept “ceases to be a mere intellectual hypothesis or assumption. It becomes part of the way we live and expect things to behave.” (Hatcher)
  39. 39. Principle & Proposition • Principle: “Hatred does not cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love— this is an eternal commandment.” — Buddha, Sanskrit Dhammapada • Proposition: “A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.” — Abdu’l-Bahá , Paris Talks • Lab note: How many times did Abdu’l-Bahá prove that principle in the laboratory of his life by putting the proposition into action?
  40. 40. A Good Word “We need a good word to sum up this process of organizing our emotions around our assumptions, and religion has provided us with the word: faith. We can define an individual's faith to be his total emotional and psychological orientation resulting from the body of assumptions about reality which he has made (consciously or unconsciously).” — William S. Hatcher
  41. 41. What if…? Experience leads us to have faith that unsupported objects will fall. Even scientists act on this faith unconsciously, though it can be scientifically formulated in the theory of gravitation. But what if an unsupported object did not fall? What would happen to the scientist’s assumptions about how the world works? What would happen to their faith?
  42. 42. What is faith? Faith is the process of organizing our emotional life around our assumptions. BUT… the quality of one’s faith depends on the quality of the assumptions on which that faith is based.
  43. 43. The Analysis of Reason: “Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today. Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions... In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?” (Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity)
  44. 44. • The scriptures of the Bahá’í Faith make it clear that a scientific outlook on life is essential. • William Hatcher eloquently sums up why this is so. • “Change and reappraisal characterize knowledge and faith. But what is also true is that we seem to be more suited to gradual, smooth transitions than to sudden, violent, cataclysmic ones. The latter tend to overstimulate us to the point of shock, rendering a new and pragmatic response difficult.” • The Bahá’í Writings suggest we should keep our faith aligned with reality.
  45. 45. How does faith become dogmatic? • Irrational or unscientific assumptions about reality lead to a parting of faith and reason. • • We come to expect the wrong things and to be emotionally disturbed when reality doesn’t match our expectations. (The unsupported object doesn’t fall.) • • Faith becomes blind and irrational. Faith becomes dogmatic and adamant … and out of step with reality. We’ve set ourselves up for a “rude awakening” or a “crisis of faith.”
  46. 46. Dogmatism is human “Even when presented with clear contradictions in our conceptions we resist change... Thus, we may be led, by our emotions, to act against our own interest. How scientifically did Jesus say, ‘As a man thinketh, so is he,” and how scientifically did Paul say, “The good I would do I do not.” The more we persist in our blind faith the greater the inertia against acceptance of a truer picture of reality, and the greater the pain when the larger conception forces itself upon us, and we can avoid it no longer.” — William S. Hatcher
  47. 47. Faith & Reason—Only in Oz? • There is no intrinsic opposition between faith and reason— faith and reason are part of the human process of knowing and living. • Faith must be rational, and reason must operate within the context of our basic assumptions about reality—i.e., our faith. • The reason for accepting (having faith in) the scientific method is that it works.
  48. 48. A practical understanding of reality “The theoretical uncertainty remains even with the surest of statements, but it is our explicit awareness of this uncertainty which is our greatest asset in adapting to our human situation. Once we accept humbly the limitations imposed on us, it becomes practically possible to resolve a good many issues and to make real progress in formulating a meaningful and practical understanding of reality.” — William S. Hatcher
  49. 49. A practical understanding of reality “God has given man the eye of investigation by which he may see and recognize truth. He has endowed man with ears that he may hear the message of reality and conferred upon him the gift of reason by which he may discover things for himself. This is his endowment and equipment for the investigation of reality. ... Each human creature has individual endowment, power and responsibility in the creative plan of God. Therefore, depend upon your own reason and judgment and adhere to the outcome of your own investigation; otherwise, you will be utterly submerged in the sea of ignorance and deprived of all the bounties of God. Turn to God ... that God may rend asunder the veils that obscure your vision.” —Abdu’l-Bahá
  50. 50. Thank you!