Faith and Science, as They Really Are


During the Vietnam War, a string of malaria appeared that was resistant to chloroquine, the most prevalent treatment at the time. Malaria was already a huge killer – in 1967 alone, the disease infected over 5.8M people – and a resistant strain could have spelled disaster. In response, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai launched a secret research group to find a new treatment; in May 1967, an undistinguished female scientist named Tu Youyou joined the team.

By that time, scientists around the world had already tested over 240,000 compounds with no success. And yet, the community at large and the Premier’s team continued to research – the latter sent Tu to the island province of Hainan to research malaria patients in person.

In 1969, Tu had an unconventional idea: why not study traditional Chinese herbal medicine for new ideas on compounds? To their credit, the research team allowed her to pursue this train of thought – for although herbal medicine was considered just one step better than witchcraft, they were desperate – and the team was rewarded for their confidence. After analysis of a 1600-year-old text, on a page titled “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve” to be prescribed for “intermittent fevers” (a classic malaria symptom), Tu discovered the sweet wormwood plant as a possible remedy. Upon testing, Tu found that this was not only the most effective compound of the 240,000+ found to date, but also objectively effective as a remedy for malaria. Her discover could – and eventually would – save literally millions of lives when brought to the world at large.

Unfortunately, however, that “when” wasn’t realized as fast as it could, and should, have been. The difficulty was that the compound was so closely linked with the “superstitions” of ancient Chinese medicine that it was largely ignored on the world stage. It took the World Health Organization another 24 years to approve the use of the compound; and Tu Youyou was only awarded a Nobel Prize for her discovery in 2015. (When she was given another, similar award in 2011, Tu simply commented: “I am too old to bear this.”)

Tu’s discovery had an incredible impact on the world. But could it have been still larger if the world was more receptive to spiritual, or religious, hypotheses? I have to think so.

And I have to wonder what other powerful ideas we might have missed out on – and what future ideas we might let pass – due to skewed notions of what our worldviews really are, and what they ought to be.

For the better part of the last four years, I’ve worked to understand science, religion, and the world in between the two.

From the outset of that research, I’ve decided to study science and religion as they actually are, not as any argue they ought to be. This was a surprisingly uncommon decision. Many in the modern debate will subliminally jump from how religion (or science) “is” to how it “ought to be,” as if there was no difference between the two. The difference, however, is vast, and can lead to an unnecessary divide between adherents of both belief systems.

To help us understand how people perceive these different worldviews, consider the following 2×2 grid. (And forgive me for letting my inner consultant shine.) On the vertical axis: worth. And on the horizontal: scope.

The vertical ranges from laughable to laudable. Some worldviews, like that of a child whose only goal is to be the White Power Ranger when he grows up (e.g., the author circa 1995), might be considered laughable. Other more successful and mature worldviews effectively explain the real world, and for the sake of this framework, we’ll call those useful worldviews laudable.

The horizontal ranges from prescriptive to descriptive. Some worldviews are entirely prescriptive, and, leaving reality behind, only hope to explain the world as it should be (e.g., utopia). Others are entirely descriptive, and eschew all that is not empirical, provable, and concrete. To echo the language from before, prescriptive worldviews make “ought” statements, and descriptive ones make “is” statements.

Illustratively consider the perspective of a scientifically-minded atheist. This could be someone like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris (or the author circa 2010). From that perspective, where do science and religion fall?

The L/L dimension is self-explanatory. P/D, however, is worth a brief explanation.

To many, science and religion occupy entirely separate domains – as Stephen Jay Gould put it, they are “non-overlapping magisteria.” In theory, then, they can peacefully co-exist as long as they stay on their own sides of the fence. Science gets to describe the descriptive facts of the world, and religion gets exclusive domain over moral judgments; science gets the age of rocks, and religion gets the rock of ages.

This division makes intuitive sense. The scientific method can’t prove a moral law to be true. We can’t deduce Newton’s laws from the Bible. This is a non-confrontational, seemingly fair way to subdivide the world.

That religion and science are separate is one notable characteristic of what I we can call the “scientific normal” 2×2. And, as noted earlier, here science is superior to religion given its position on the L/L axis.

I contend that these two characteristics – separation and superiority – are based on the false equivalence of “is” and “ought” that I described earlier. Let’s tackle each in turn.

SEPARATION

Neither the religious faithful or scientifically-minded folk do, or desire to, stay on their “halves” of the subdivided world.

For one, religion makes claims about the real, descriptive world. The Christian worldview says that in the beginning, God created the universe; that this same God created the Earth and all of its creatures; that the Earth once flooded over; that there was a man who lived in Nazareth named Jesus Christ. Religion even makes claims about the future of the world and the nature of the end times. (Though, regrettably, any observers of that validating event would be a little too late to the party!)

Each of the past events above either happened or did not happen. It really is that simple; there is a definite truth or falsity to each of those claims.

Of course, many of them are difficult to test, but so is testing the Big Bang or determining whether Julius Caesar was a real, living man. The same tools that we use in science can, and indeed have been used to test religious hypotheses about the real world (e.g., the historicity [i.e., historical evidence to determine the reality of] Jesus Christ is as good as the historicity of Julius Caesar).

And also, thinking now of “ought”: would believers really want to give up the right to talk about physical, descriptive, “scientific” evidence? Say that tomorrow, historians found fossils that confirmed the story of the flood. Would any sane Christian deny that evidence as descriptive, and therefore not of the domain of religion? Of course not. Religion is a moral system. But it also makes – and wants to make – claims about the descriptive truth of the world.

Similarly, while science primarily holds to its value-neutral assessment of the descriptive truth, it depends on, and desires to make, value-based prescriptive claims.

Science claims objectivity. Through the scientific method, science can supposedly divorce itself from guesswork and find the truth. But in reality – the real, messy world of science as it actually is – things aren’t that simple or clean.

This is true methodologically, for science can’t use its own tools to reflexively justify the way that it uses those tools. What objective standard can determine whether a sample is “large enough”? Or when a margin of error is “acceptable”? How to judge whether an experiment is rigorous enough? Or whether its assumptions were justified? Even more fundamentally, how can the tools of science guide which hypotheses are chosen to test in the first place? The easy way to resolve these dilemmas would be to say that such value judgements are non-scientific, but that would ignore that they’re the foundation of all scientific research. Although I admittedly have no experience in the matter, I’m sure that articles fail peer review every day for failing to subjective criteria like those above.

This is especially true when science turns to questions of events that cannot be repeated (e.g. the beginning of the universe; for who is to judge whether the conditions of the experiments are germane to the actual conditions of the original event?) – or for broader, metascientific discussions that play a large role in determining the current state of the scientific truth (e.g., determining when consensus is reached; because what about that one dentist that thinks Colgate doesn’t effectively fight plaque?).

It may be easy for science to shut itself off from these criticisms by saying that science is always a work in progress and that these questions don’t have sufficient answers – but that’s precisely my point. Science is not a closed system, descriptive and determined and true. Many of the most important decisions that scientists make are judgement calls, and necessarily fall outside the domain of deductive fact.

And, as with religion, I severely doubt that many scientists would wish for science to stay within its pre-ordained, descriptive world.

Many scientists research hypotheses typically considered the ground of morality: they study the evolution of groups of animals and whether they understand tit-for-tat; they explain the rise of morality in the human brain; they debate whether true altruism is possible. And, even more meaningfully, scientists often hope that their descriptive research enters into the prescriptive norms of society. Vaccines and global warming are the obvious examples, and in the future, science may even be asked to weigh in on other moral issues like abortion (when does a human life begin?).

Per the above, I think the claim that science and religion occupy two non-overlapping magisteria is, to be blunt, crazy talk. Neither one does stay fully within their proscribed domain in the real world, and neither one wants to. The only way to deny that argument – that I can see – is to allow each domain to think of itself only as it ought to be, rather than how it actually is. But to my mind, that’s unhelpful – because we live in the real world, not the world that ought to exist.

SUPERIORITY

In light of the conclusion above – that science and religion overlap significantly and make similar claims about the world – it is hard to claim that one is necessarily “better” than the other. And yet, both worldviews claim superiority. I’ve thought at length about why that is, and as far as I can tell, the theme is the same as the one we have been exploring: that each domain sees the best in itself (viewing its domain as it ought to be), and the worst in the other (seeing it solely as it actually is).

The case that religion makes for superiority is interesting, because it’s so simple: because religion is divinely inspired, it wins. So, when science and religion conflict, the believers ought to be on God’s side.

I understand this argument, and empathize with those that believe in it. But I think that train of thought does justice neither to reality nor God’s intentions.

In reality, Christianity is one worldview out of a vast multitude of other candidates. Even within Christianity, we find Catholicism and Protestantism, and beneath those categories lie still further divisions and disagreements on what constitutes the divine truth. How, then, to choose between these worldviews? Claiming divine superiority for one flavor of the religious truth seems to be impossible to defend. The Bible, of course, doesn’t tell us how to interpret its text. And as soon as we start to judge, or compare, or really even think about the possibilities of that interpretation for ourselves, we lose the right to claim divine superiority. Those are our judgments, not the Lord’s.

The only way to believe in something – at least in my book – is to think that the preponderance of the evidence suggests it to be true. That is an inherently personal (and, so, mortal and inevitably flawed) judgment call. This isn’t meant to be nihilist or solipsistic, just realistic. It’s always true. To claim that your worldview is divinely ordained to the demise of all others is a claim that requires evidence just as much as any other; I don’t see another way of looking at religious faith from the perspective of the real world.

And to briefly comment on my admittedly sparse understanding of God’s intentions, I’ll just ask two questions. Why did he send his son? And why did he tell his message through mortal men like John or Mark? If he wanted his message to be truly divine, he could have written it in the clouds or behind the eyelids of every newborn child. Instead, he chose to ground his message in the world by personifying himself through Jesus Christ and spreading his ideas exactly as all others have been spread in the history of the world. Both of these facts suggest to me that the God of the Bible recognized the necessity – and the struggles – of judging claims of perfection in an imperfect world. They recognize that religious ideas, at least from an objective perspective, aren’t superior in some apriori way. They might gain significance after they are justified, but that process of justification is the same for religion as it is for any other worldview.

Similarly, the public at large should recognize how similar biases exist for the scientifically-minded. To claim the superiority of scientific ideas because they have stamps of approval from the scientific method and are supported by incredibly smart, dedicated scientists feels tantamount to claiming the superiority of religious ideas because they come from God.

I can feel the violent reaction that may stir up within a scientific believer – because it would have brought about a similar reaction in me just a few years ago – but let me defend that claim.

Yes, science should be a validating, justifiably believable enterprise. Yes, the scientific method is a great check on natural biases, and ensures that experiments are repeatable. But just think – if you time-traveled 100 years into the past to attend a Harvard lecture on the state of modern science (anyone’s guess why that’s where you’d go, but more power to ya), nearly everything you would hear would be incorrect. Almost everything! And again, yes, that represents the march forward of science and the (genuinely incredible, surely laudable) willingness of many scientists to reject past hypotheses when they no longer accord to the facts. But why should we assume that our time now should be the privileged age when science finally gets everything right? In the real world, science is constantly improving – which implies that future scientists will deem many of our current beliefs to be outdated… even laughable.

But I want to make an even deeper point here. The “limitations” of science, as I’ve described them above, are still largely “ought” claims – in that their object is the Knowledge of All Science, an idealized amalgamation of what many individual scientists have discovered and contributed to the Public Scientific Consciousness. But of course, there is no real Knowledge of All Science. No one person knows it all. And, to go further, I’d venture that, on average, people don’t know any science. I surely don’t. I mean, I know what other people think about science – and what very smart people think, at that – but I haven’t completed a scientific experiment since my freshman year of college. My entire knowledge of science is, in effect, one massive appeal to the authority of the scientific community. And I would guess that is how it is with you as well. What science do you really know for yourself?

Even supposing that a PhD reads this someday, I’d stick to my guns on that last thought. Even you, you person that is far smarter than me, probably depend more on judgment calls than you depend on descriptive, scientific truth to determine what you think about the scientific world. You know your own subject extremely well. You’ve completed many experiments, and even a few novel ones, so you’ve seen with your own eyes why the claims that have circulated through journals and the public knowledge about your subject are true. But have you done the same for the experiments of your colleagues in other departments? Sure, you have great reason to believe them – they’re your friends, they’re smart, and they wouldn’t lie about what they are doing in the lab – but recognize that judgment for what it is: faith. You don’t know their results in the same way that you know your own.

And what does that imply for us, the non-scientific public? Of course, we are even worse off than the average PhD. I would guess that few of us truly understand science – far less the complex science that matters most nowadays, like quantum physics or evolutionary biology or, topically, the real science behind vaccination (and before you say “duh, the immune system learns how to fight the virus,” think about how many times I’d have to ask “how” or “why” to reach the end of your knowledge on the subject). That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t believe scientists, but it is to say that we should recognize that science, in the real world, usually looks more like an appeal to authority than an experiment. And for the average person, belief in science requires faith.

Both of these characteristics of the “scientific normal” 2×2 – separation and superiority – seem to be unjustified. Science and religion do not occupy two separate domains, and neither is inherently superior to the other. At least in the real world.

Religion, really, is a system of understanding the world. It often feels like it ought to be divine, untouchable – and to some people, it is – but I’ve never understood how to arrive at that conclusion without wading through the messy business of picking one belief from the multitude of other possibilities.

And science, really, is also a system of understanding the world. It often feels like it too is untouchable, because the people allowed to talk about it are smarter and better credentialed than we normal folks. But because science is a worldview like any other, it depends on people trusting in scientific authority, which is nothing more and nothing less than trusting that other people have done their jobs correctly.

This implies a different picture of the world, one that looks something like this:

Science and religion overlap, because they can talk about some of the same things (e.g., the morality of vaccines, the beginning of the universe). And each is both laughable and laudable to some extent, largely depending on perspective – a perspective that will be honed as time progresses and our understanding of the world evolves.

This might be a messier picture than many would like to believe, but understood correctly, this picture is also uplifting: it implies that science and religion have things that they can learn from each other.

Religion could learn from science how to allow its beliefs to evolve while still staying true to its core principles. If there is one criticism of modern religion that is undeniably true, it’s dogmatism – and that’s why I chose to place the upper bound of the religious box slightly below that of science. There are some leaders, like the current Pope Francis, who are working hard to bring religion into the modern age – but they have been resisted at every turn. Believers should think long and hard about how they may be able to draw inspiration from the scientific method. By doing so, they might be able to better reach the upcoming generation of skeptical, questioning – and for now, largely agnostic – Millennials.

And science, believe it or not, could learn a lesson from religion: how to build faith among a population. To think that there are some who don’t believe in climate change and the value of vaccines is ridiculous to me. How could such incontrovertible facts ever be denied? The climate is getting warmer, and it’s our fault. Vaccines do not cause autism. Those of us who are scientifically-minded don’t understand how others could doubt those facts. But, as I tried to explain earlier, it’s not simply about the facts – it’s also about authority, and trust, and faith.

Some people in America, whether as a result of religion or otherwise, don’t want to believe in science. So, how can science reach those people? I expect the answer will not come from additional experiments to prove the veracity of global warming or vaccine effectiveness. Rather, it may come through a simpler conversation – explaining not just the facts, but also why they are true, why we should believe them, and why they are important. The normal response is to make an embittered appeal to the authority of scientists – e.g., “where’s your PhD?!” – a strategy that doesn’t work. And for good, predictable reasons: if the anti-vaxxers were swayed by that sort of appeal, they wouldn’t be anti-vaxxers in the first place.

All in all, the two worldviews have more in common than they think, and can co-exist better than they suspect. Simply recognizing the difference between “is” and “ought” may be able to help – but true reconciliation and – optimistically – collaboration will require sustained effort, and concerted attempts to see the other side as you see your own.

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