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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Religion - The Antithesis To Science

by Peter Atkins

Many consider that the conflict of religion and science is a temporary phase, and that in due course the two mighty rivers of human understanding will merge into an even mightier Amazon of comprehension. I take the opposite view, that reconciliation is impossible. I consider that Science is mightier than the Word, and that the river of religion will (or, at least, should) atrophy and die. The basis of my belief that reconciliation is impossible is that the techniques and criteria of religion and science are so extraordinarily different. Science seeks simplicity publicly and encourages the overthrow of authority; religion accepts complexity privately and encourages deference to authority.

There are, of course, many who regard the concept of God as an exceedingly simple explanation of everything, and who regard scientific elucidations as either incomplete or ponderous. However, that is a self-delusion. Such views are generally held by people who do not understand the scientific method. Indeed, to believe that the assertion that God is an explanation (of anything, let alone everything) is intellectually contemptible, for it amounts to an admission of ignorance packaged into the pretence of an explanation. To aver that 'God did it' is worse than an admission of ignorance, for it shrouds ignorance in deceit. We scientists know that it is immensely difficult to trace the deep, simple ideas of science out into the world of phenomena. Those ignorant of scientific procedures, or simply antagonistic to them, often mistake this for impotence. Scientists know that the complexity of the world is the outcome of huge numbers of sometimes conflicting simple events.

The biochemical mechanism of organisms is one example of how the principles at work are well known, and if not well known, determinable and expressible in principle in terms of familiar (to us chemists) processes. That is certainly true of the physiological processes that sustain us, and only the blackest of pessimists would not extend that view to the workings of our brains. Yet we also know that even the simplest organism is so extraordinarily complicated that unravelling its biochemistry is immensely difficult. But that difficulty is not defeat. Nor should our inability to predict the course of biochemical processes, let alone build a novel organism, be construed as failure. Indeed, it should be a source of pride in the power of the human intellect that it has gone so far in understanding in such a short time.

The challenge of elucidating living processes - including consciousness and all its baggage which we bundle together as 'the human spirit' - is only one example of a challenge where hard work is paying off and science does not need to accept the false explanations peddled by religions. There are other, perhaps more challenging problems, including the origin of everything. In no case, though, is there any indication that science is grinding to a halt and coming up against a barrier to further explanation. There is certainly no justification for asserting that the powers of science are circumscribed and that beyond the boundary the only recourse to comprehension is God.

Many will accept that science can indeed deliver on all these promises, but will maintain, nevertheless, that it provides an incomplete account of the full dimension of being human. For them, science's merciless stare is one-eyed. For them, there are aspects of the world that science, with its reliance on public examination of evidence and the affixation of number to events, can never touch. They point at joy, misery, aesthetic appreciation, love, death, and above all the sense of cosmic purpose, and feel confident that these transcendent spiritual aspects of the physical will lie for ever beyond science's reach. I disagree with this pessimistic vision. I consider that there are two types of spiritual question. One concerns topics like joy, pertaining to physical states of the brain in conjunction with a variety of physiological states of the body, not least of our endocrine systems. I see no reason at all to regard these states as outside the boundaries of scientific discourse.

Some will regard the scientific analysis of such topics, which include bestiality as well as love, creativity and gullibility (such as so often results in religious belief), as an erosion of delight. I think the opposite is true: while scientific understanding adds depth to our delight, it does not intrude into the acts of delight. That we may understand passion, that we may understand iniquity, and that we may grope towards an understanding of what it means to be human, that we may look within ourselves with vision unclouded by mysticism, seems to me to add to our wonder at this amazing yet explicable world. Then there is a second group of deep questions that many would wish to protect from science's glare. These questions are the more cosmic of those beloved by religion, including the purpose of our existence, the role of evil, free will and the prospect of life eternal.

I believe that such questions have been invented, and do not represent really challenging problems for us to solve. It would indeed be fascinating if the universe did have a purpose; it would probably be pleasant for there to be life after death. However, there is not one scrap of evidence in favour of either speculation. As it is easy to understand why people crave for cosmic purpose and life eternal, and there is no evidence for either, it seems to me an inescapable conclusion that neither exists. All there is for science to explain about these matters is the psychology of brains that maintain them as actualities. My conclusion is stark and uncompromising. Religion is the antithesis of science; science is competent to illuminate all the deep questions of existence, and does so in a manner that makes full use of, and respects the human intellect. I see neither need nor sign of any future reconciliation.

13 comments:

Dave said...

Very interesting article, it would be great if you turned on your 'link to this post' thingy as I'd often like to link to your posts!

CyberKitten said...

Ok. I'll see what I can do....... I'm not very 'technical' despite my job description... [grin].

uberchap said...

Intersting...Yawn !

It's only athiests that have a problem with faith and science cohabiting in a modern rational world. Yet again, I'm reading an article that misquotes the basic tenets of faith to make points against faith. Science and faith are entirely compatible. There is no conflict in my mind at all.

This was yet another patronising and ignorant article by an athiest claiming to know more about faith than those who profess it. I know little about science in many respects, although I understand scientific principles, but my faith does not put me at odds with scientific reality.

Am I correct in assuming that athiests think that those who profess a faith are intellectually inferior ? If I'm right; why is this so ?

I do not need to comment on the intelligence of an athiest to bolster my faith.

Why are athiests so touchy ? They're in the majority where I live. You're putting your neck on the block admitting to faith.

Athiesm is socially easy and far more acceptable.


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Sadie Lou said...

to add to what 'uberchap' already said...
the article stated:
However, there is not one scrap of evidence in favour of either speculation. As it is easy to understand why people crave for cosmic purpose and life eternal, and there is no evidence for either, it seems to me an inescapable conclusion that neither exists.

I think it's stubborn and prideful of atheists to claim that 'life eternal' does not exist when there is no scrap of evidence that says otherwise.

CyberKitten said...

uberchap said: It's only athiests that have a problem with faith and science cohabiting in a modern rational world.

Really? The US Creationists seems to be having a bit of a problem - as does the Vatican.

Uberchap also said: my faith does not put me at odds with scientific reality.

That's good... and thankfully you're still in the majority - at least on this side of the pond (where I presume you're from).

Uberchap finally said: Athiesm is socially easy and far more acceptable.

In Europe yes. Try being an atheist in most other parts of the world....

Sadie Lou said: I think it's stubborn and prideful of atheists to claim that 'life eternal' does not exist when there is no scrap of evidence that says otherwise.

Why? If there is no evidence that something exists - even if there is no good evidence that it doesn't exist... why should we give something as fantastical as "life eternal" the benefit of the doubt - especially as it would require a whole host of other beliefs to make it credible. Without evidence of somethings existence it is far more logical to take the position that it doesn't exist until proven otherwise.

Juggling Mother said...

I believe they can co-exist quite happily for many thousends of years yet.

"to believe that the assertion that God is an explanation (of anything, let alone everything) is intellectually contemptible, "

That is insulting to all theists who believe that God did it, but then go on to ask how? Which in my experience is the majority of theists. They are quite happy to accept that God did it following fundemental & unversal laws of physics, biology & chemistry etc

I think it is self delusional to say "god did it" but not necessarily anti-scientific as can be seen by the number of extraordinary scientists who amnage to do their job perfectly well while believeing in one of the monotheistic religions.

I also find it rather stupid of any atheist to say "theists think linke this". It's a bit of a generalisation don't you think?

keda said...

very interesting. when i dont have the lets tugging at my elbows i'll try to think more deeply about it....

as for the torture article below, our own bastard courts are trying to ensure the freedom of saudi f**kwitts to torture our citizens freely without fear of reprisal.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/story/0,,1755288,00.html

nice post on that here too :http://www.muttawa.blogspot.com/

my first time here. i'm a visitor from craziequeens and i think i saw you slipping out of the door with clara lst week no?

CyberKitten said...

Mrs A said: I believe they can co-exist quite happily for many thousends of years yet.

I think that it is *possible* for science & faith to co-exist... but only so long as they stay out of each others turf. Unfortunately for faith though the turf of science grows by the decade....

Mrs A also said: I think it is self delusional to say "god did it" but not necessarily anti-scientific as can be seen by the number of extraordinary scientists who amnage to do their job perfectly well while believeing in one of the monotheistic religions.

Humans are very good at believing things that sometimes contradict each other. Also - if you're coming at an issue from a particular PoV you see things in that light. Therefore, its quite possible that two different people/groups can be exposed to the same evidence and draw too very different conclusions.. which is why its very difficult to argue about faith using facts and evidence.

Finally Mrs A said: I also find it rather stupid of any atheist to say "theists think like this". It's a bit of a generalisation don't you think?

It's very difficult to generalise about atheism - there are many flavours... and not all of them taste good.

keda said: my first time here. i'm a visitor from craziequeens and i think i saw you slipping out of the door with clara lst week no?

Welcome. My assignation with Clara was post-party.... But you might have 'seen' us together....

Feel free to pop in & chat whenever you can. Don't worry though, it's not always serious topics here...

RCA said...

You lie CK - serious topics is what you live for!

Talking about 'strands' of athesism as said before I differ from you in that while I am an atheist (not beleiving in a supreme being and definitely not that a supreme being should be worshiped) I nonetheless do think there is far more to the world than simply materialism. As a philosophy students its the question - The Why? that interests me.

How something happens is not sufficient on its own... and while we may never now the why; we shouldn't stop looking or simply assume that science is the only tool in the box that will help unlock the puzzle.

Science IS a super deluxe multi singing and dancing high powered wonder tool which still has lots of bits to be found and added but its arrogance to beleive that scientific theory is infallible, all encompossing and unquestionable... why thats like treating it as a faith...

Sadie Lou said...

Well I have faith in science and God so I guess I get the benefits of both worlds. They are not at odds for me.
:)
The only difference is: I worship one as the creator of the other...

CyberKitten said...

rca said: You lie CK - serious topics is what you live for!

I'm actually struggling to remember any non-serious conversations we've had.... Nothing has come to mind so far... but it's not all my fault. We *have* both studied philosophy remember!

Sadie said: Well I have faith in science and God so I guess I get the benefits of both worlds.

Then it would seem that your are open-minded enough and flexible enough not to let them clash.... May it always be so!

RCA said...

And you relegion and me politics so yeah we get a little involved in theories sometimes...

We occassionally discuss relationships - or at least I whine about how terrible my life is and you laugh at me until I stop...

BeerMan said...

What you say about science and religion is fundamentally flawed.

Actually, science is fundamentally a study of the nature of the universe and the laws that God has established for our world. By studying that world, we can learn of it. However, we must not attempt to subject the Lord to those rules. He exists outside of them. We may or may not be able to gleen some measure of understanding of Him by observing nature -- that discussion is for another time.

The study of religion is fundamentally a study of the supernatural - that which exists apart from the rules of nature. Yes, some things that we attributed to religion in the past are now explained by science, but that does not take away from the fundamental.

Nothing is mutually exclusive about science and religion because they are fundamentally studies on different levels of reality. Nothing in the future will change that. The only thing that changes is our level of understanding of the rules that God has established for nature.