There were a couple interesting articles this last week at io9 and at Slate addressing the question of whether or not Religion and Science and be reconciled. The explicit conclusion of the Slate article by physicist Sean Carroll is that they are not. The comments to both articles seem, in general, to agree.
Carroll’s article is mostly about why he won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation, but links to an earlier blog post about why he feels Science and Religion are not compatible.
A key quote:
“The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.”
Needless to say, this got me thinking (not for the first time) about the relationship between Science and Religion.
While I agree with everything Carroll wrote in his blog, I find I disagree with his conclusion. He, and most folks, think of Religion as a whole thing, rather than being made up of several constituent aspects, some of which, I believe, are compatible with Science.
Off the top of my head I think you could at least subdivide any religion into the aspects of Mythology, Theology, Ritual, Ethics, Spirituality, and Mysticism.
Mythology is the stories that a particular religion tells about the world and its founders. If these stories have no historical or provable component, they require Faith (yes with a capital F). The Mythology of Region is not compatible with Science. Science requires proof for belief, and always remains willing to change it’s mind. Mythology must be taken on Faith.
Theology is the way the myths are interpreted and how doctrine is explained and defined over time. Theology changes, but myths do not. Here, as with Mythology, there can be little compatibility with Science. Theology generally seeks to reinforce the founding beliefs espoused by Mythology and give them legitimacy through philosophical rationalization, rather than empirical evidence. One proves the existence of a supreme being that created the universe with Theology, but not with Science (unless some better evidence to the contrary arises at some point).
Ritual is the way a religion is expressed in practice — the liturgy, prayers, and practices that comprise the collective and individual worship. That final word — worship — is the key indicator that Ritual is not compatible with Science. There simply isn’t any overlap between Ritual and Science.
Ethics, the moral values and injunctions that a religion promulgates, are usually thought of as the purview of philosophy, but I think that the Science can study ethics. Certainly psychologists study the ethical development of humans and sociologists and anthropologist can study the ethical behaviors of different societies around the world and throughout history. While these fields are not what is typically thought of as “hard” science, they all make use of the scientific method to establish facts about the human world.
Spirituality, the intentional cultivation of peaceful states of mind like love, compassion, patience, and equanimity, is another aspect of Religion that I think can be compatible with Science, in particular, psychology. Psychologists can and do study different states of mind, the means for achieving them, and their affects on individuals and communities.
Lastly, Mysticism, by which I mean the meditative practices for achieving deep states of conscious awareness in which perceptions about the nature of reality are heightened or altered, can potentially be an aspect of Religion that is compatible with Science. Mysticism is an inner practice of examining the Ultimate Nature of Reality, an area Science leaves to physics. Certainly psychologists and neuroscientists can examine the brains of meditators who are claiming to have a non-normal perception of reality, but this does not prove that this perception — of the non-dual nature of reality espoused by Buddhists (Emptiness), Hindus (Brahman), or Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics (Godhead) — is accurate and factual. We can argue that our normal perceptions are “proven” by collective agreement, i.e. if enough people say the sky is blue, it is likely to be blue. A similar claim is made by interspiritual mystics, that if thousands of people have preformed the same experiment (meditation) and obtained a similar result (a non-dual perception of reality), then this perception can be taken as at least a provisionally accurate description of the full nature of reality. Proving this perception through the science of physics is a more complicated matter.
Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has cautioned against hitching one’s mysticism to physics, because as the physics of the day changes, one must either readjust one’s mysticism to match, or give up the association. New Age seekers have spent decades pointing to the ‘non-intuitive conclusions of quantum physics’ (to borrow a phrase from Carroll’s blog post), to suggest that mystical perceptions of reality are in fact scientifically founded. However, String Theory (‘theory’ being a poor word choice), assuming it can ever proceed to an actual experimental stage of development, might upend the conclusions of mystics. As might whatever the cutting edge physics is a hundred years from now.
This doesn’t men that we should not use Science to investigate Mysticism. While it doesn’t make sense to try and match up mystic perceptions of the ‘Ultimate Nature of Reality’ with hand picked theories from physics, it also doesn’t make sense to wall off Mysticism and Science. To me, Science and Mysticism are compatible because Science can explore, in both mathematical and experimental manners, the perceptions that are presented by Mysticism. In the same way that Science and look at the wavelength of the light reflecting from the sky and tell us that it is what we typically label the color ‘blue,’ Science can also examine the claims about the non-dual nature of reality to determine if it is merely a perceptual bias (seeing what we expect to see) generated by slowly altering the neural connections of the human brain, or if it has a basis in fact and is an accurate description of the universe. (As a side note, see physicist David Bohm‘s work on what he refers to as the Implicate and Explicate Orders of reality.)
This is actually what I think the mission of the Templeton Foundation is aiming at, and for which I think Carroll might reconsider his self imposed ban on Templeton funding. His presumption is that the perceptions of mystics about the Ultimate Nature of Reality are fantasies, but the science to investigate them has not really been done yet.
I think I might also add the additional area of the Supernatural, although it is not strictly as aspect of Religion. Science tends to disregard any “supernatural” phenomenon as errors in perception with no basis in fact or reality. Whether it’s ghosts or precognition or telepathy, the presumption is that these are artifacts of imaginative minds.
Simply because a phenomenon is non-repeatable, does not mean it did not take place. In fact, I tend to think of many supernatural phenomenon as ‘non-repeatable unique expressions of reality.’ In other words, we may not have the science to explain something that has happened, and a perceived event may not be entirely a product of the perceiver’s imagination and perceptual bias. I have personally had several experiences that defy any explanation by physics as we understand it now. However, I do not attempt to reach conclusions about these events, or foist upon them some supernatural ‘explanation’ because doing so doesn’t help me find the truth of what I experienced. Seeking the truth of such non-repeatable unique expressions of reality should be done with a scientific approach involving investigation, hypothesis, and experiment.
So, while I agree that some aspects of Religion are not compatible with Science (Mythology, Theology, and Ritual), I do think that others clearly are (Ethics, Spirituality, Mysticism). I also think that Supernatural phenomenon need the investigation by Science to better understand how these non-repeatable unique expressions of reality can so frequently flaunt the commonly understood laws of physics.
And that is enough deep thinking for the day!