Science, Religion and Evolution
Is Science really just another religion?
One spoiling tactic that many apologists for various anti-scientific themes resort to is the claim that science is just a religion, and as such has no more persuasive merit than any other superstition. This quibble is scientifically, philosophically, religiously and ethically bankrupt, but even to begin to refute it we must have a clear criterion by which to distinguish science from religion.
This essay describes and illustrates a simple criterion which is sufficient, necessary, and cogent. It includes a brief discussion of some claims that evolution is nothing more than a religious faith.
Science and Religion or Science as Religion?
In some circles it has become a cliché that science is merely an instance of a religion. For this to be meaningful, much less correct, it must be possible to demonstrate some attribute that defines any particular thing as a religion, and to show that science has that attribute. If on the other hand we are to demonstrate that it is unreasonable to class science as a religion, we need diagnostic criteria distinguishing between science and religion: "X is (or is not) science (or religion) insofar as it meets (or fails to meet) criterion Y."
Note that this would not necessarily imply that everything must be either science or religion.
Given such a criterion, any particular thing might be one, the other or neither, but not both. An elementary NAND relationship, if you like. As we shall see, this is a bit optimistically simplistic, but we can achieve a good first approximation for practical purposes.
Whatever else they might be, science and religion both are activities based on bodies of theory and for the most part both depend in practice on their adherents being able to persuade others of their ideas. (“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations. . . ”) Nothing forbids a hermit to worship without preaching, or a scientist such as Cavendish to do ground-breaking research without publishing, but for the purposes of this discussion, we may ignore introversion as irrelevant, however devout or profound it may be. At the least such practitioners work to convince themselves of the validity of their own ideas, so we may regard them as degenerate cases, rather than counter-examples.
Such distractions notwithstanding, is it possible to formulate and demonstrate criteria for distinguishing science from religion?
One argument in favour of regarding science as religion is the claim that in spite of the general belief among scientists and the public that science has all the answers, science is in fact fallible. I cannot answer for all members of the public, but I don’t know any scientist who believes in the infallibility of science. For example M. Cartmill, an anthropologist, said: "As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."
Wry, but realistic -- and penetrating...
Indeed, many people claim that in contrast to science, religion has all the answers, including in particular all those answers that science lacks. This is ironic, because one of its cardinal strengths is that religion does not always need answers, particularly not morally or logically cogent answers. For reasons that I mention later, religious answers do not as a rule need to stand up to ethical, logical or even factual criticism. They do not even need to be consistent, let alone sensible or compassionate.
In either science or religion arguments may or may not involve material evidence and the search for new insights, therefore such argument is not helpful in distinguishing science from religion. Where science and religion tend to differ from each other in ways that matter in practice, is largely in how they establish and defend or extend opinions. Science in particular demands the construction of arguments with which, if he pleases, a sceptic may convince himself, perhaps using his own methods and data, rather than accepting assertions unquestioned. In practice such a stage of persuasion and scepticism may be protracted, heated, even embittered. In the long run it even may turn out to have been mistaken and pointless, when the disagreement is based on common views that later are found to be mistaken, or on shared terminology that turns out to be based on unshared semantics. However, even if all the sceptic achieves is the conviction that he has as yet no conclusive counter-argument, that is progress of a sort.
Instead of course, he might convince you that his argument or evidence rests on stronger ground than yours. That also happens. If your change of mind is rational, that too is progress.
Science is based on the opinion and insight of the scientist. Its reliance on observation, prediction and cogent theory does not alter this fact; the scientist has nothing but his own opinion to justify his certainty of the reality or accuracy of his observations and theories; he has no more ultimate justification for these views than any believer. Scientific research produces wrong answers and trivialities more often than it produces durable scientific "laws". It progresses by its heuristic nature, not by its infallibility.
Scientific "proof" is based on "induction", which unlike formal induction, is not logically compelling, not logical proof at all. Many a scientist and philosopher would happily crucify me for that assertion, those who did not assume that I had typed the statement inadvertently. But no, I did nothing of the type. I also am well aware that nowadays in many circles there have been attempts to eliminate induction. Popper in particular tried to substitute the idea of basing scientific work on hypotheses to be falsified, but in my opinion he achieved nothing more substantial than a change in terminology. In the views that he presented through the decades the old difficulties with "induction" remain and so do most of the old merits; hypotheses do not emerge from a vacuum.
Even the so-called analytic sciences -- logic, mathematics and the like -- are founded on belief -- and belief in a formal proof of anything may be an error. Errors occur in the formal disciplines as well as in laboratory or field research.
Some scientists may argue that this class of procedure is not really belief, but something more like conditionally and transiently entertaining a given hypothetical structure, but that is doubtful pleading. A scientist rarely does much work on hypotheses that he thinks are wrong; he looks for, and tests, the ones that he thinks are most probably right. And as everyday opinions go, although the evidence for the idea is strictly inductive, it would be a highly atypical scientist who does not believe firmly that on Earth stones fall (i.e. that their trajectories end in the position of lowest energy accessible on the surface of solid earth unless they are propelled into space with sufficient velocity.)
As Kipling put it in "The Gods of the Copybook Headings":
What is Religion then?
Then how do we show that science is distinct from religion? First let us see what religion is. If we cannot find any criterion defining religion, then it is hard to see how we can be sure of defining non-religion.
Immediately we encounter a difficulty. Religion is enormously miscellaneous. What unites say, Nama/Kung Mantis veneration, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judeo-Christian-Muslim beliefs, Marxism, Norse, Classical, aboriginal American and Australian religions? Far from being just mutually contradictory, even mutually hostile, many religions and sects are effectively mutually incomprehensible. In fact the closest approach to unanimity among religions, be they never so in favour of ecumenism, is almost of necessity that each asserts or implies that the others are in error.
After all, if they did not disagree in any respect, it should follow that they were the same religion. For two religions to concede that there were no differences between their beliefs, at least one would have to die, possibly both.
And yet. . .
Apart from sharing their mutual dissimilarity, all religions do have at least one thing in common: they all have dogma.
Here the sense of the term "dogma" is not specifically pejorative; it does not refer to closed-minded assertion as such. It is the technical term for that part of a body of belief that is given as non-negotiable. If you like, it is the statement of that part of a religion that adherents unconditionally believe. Call it the doctrine or tenets if you prefer. Perhaps you wish to draw fine distinctions between such terms as doctrine and dogma, but for present purposes they are not likely to be very relevant. For the rest of the discussion I shall mainly use the term “dogma”.
Also, as I point out later on, believers, comparative theologists and the like might find the criterion too inclusive. They might wish to distinguish religions from heresies, sects, cults, superstitions and so on. I also explain why such distinctions, however valid in other contexts, are not relevant in this essay and why I lump them all together into the same category, without prejudice to whether they have anything else in common, or even whether or not they are diametrical opposites in every other respect (as is perfectly possible). It is after all likely that the origin of the word religion ultimately stems from the Latin word religare, to bind. And this fits the concept of commitment to the dogma.
Some religions wisely forbid that their dogma be questioned or even so much as discussed; some might not even permit their lay members to know the detail of the dogma, let alone study the high secrets reserved for the priests. Other religions do permit some questioning, as long as the answers unthreateningly leave the dogma intact, on pain of charges of heresy. Historically it sometimes has turned out to be dangerous even to be too helpful in suggesting rational support; simply to suggest that the fundamental beliefs or sacred scriptures might be in need of such support would in itself be heretical!
A related obsession of some religious bodies is hatred of the apostate, and one can easily imagine how damaging it might be to the minds of the faithful, to see how someone who had at one time been blessed with faith in the dogma, could come to believe that after all it was worthless, untrue, or at the least, that there were better and higher things in this world or the next. Throughout the history of humanity the rage of the faithful in such religions has led them to persecute or murder anyone who came to believe that their faith had been mistaken.
In many religions lately, secular restlessness has led to increased flexibility of interpretation of dogma, but that is a detail of circumstance, not a refutation of the principle of founding a religion on a body of prescribed belief.
Historically dogma has been formulated arbitrarily and ad hoc by ignorant persons and for ignorant persons, and accordingly it is rife with absurdity, fossil topicality and wishful thinking. It therefore is a frequent rationalisation in religions, to represent faith as a positive virtue. Faith, which I define as unquestioning belief in the dogma, irrespective of logical or factual justification or absurdity, is what such religion demands and exalts. In such faith the worshipper deliberately renounces his reason in embracing the desired absurdity or even meaninglessness.
This might seem unlikely, as though I were inventing damaging evidence as a polemical trick, but no, there actually have been religious writings by Christian believers mourning the fact that the dogma did not demand the belief in more impossibilities. For all I know, similar statements may have been made by fundamentalists in other religions as well. Faith according such persons is a poor thing if it is based on whatever anyone could see is true; real faith, worthwhile faith, is belief in the face of whatever anyone could throw at the believer, even facts or logic. The seventeenth century genius, Sir Thomas Browne, satirised such views in his Religio Medici, as quoted at the head of this section. That work is available online, and well worth a read even today.
For all I know, some religions might have a dogma denying that they have dogma, but this essay is not based on whether they accept or reject the idea that they might have dogma or not, or whether the tenets that define their beliefs should be called dogma or not, only whether they have certain items of belief that they assert unconditionally, without which they refuse to accept that a person is a member of their belief or not.
So don't think it was my idea or that I am misrepresenting anyone. Mind you, I must emphasise that I do not claim that this attitude is in the majority. I have no idea how frequent it is, nor how strongly it affects the typical day-to-day thinking of such people.
What is Dogma then?
Dogma may take stronger or weaker forms:
Strong forms of dogma say, more or less: This creed is what you believe, no matter what any fancied reason or evidence might show to the contrary, and no matter whether you understand its details or not (The less secure the religion, the stronger the dogma, and the more probably it will add codicils to the effect that even your questioning is evil, and prescribe in its compassion, a therapeutic grilling at stake or stoning, plus eternal damnation for the good of your soul.)
Weaker forms of dogma will typically say (also more or less): Here is the body of what we believe. Such and such an absurd detail of our creed is patently mythical. It either is included to test our faith or is a parable that remains true in spirit, when subjected to appropriate hermeneutics. As long you still don’t understand, you need to be instructed, till you do. You are the one in error.
Weaker forms of dogmatism used to be much rarer than they are nowadays, simply because they were unnecessary in the old days. Their modern popularity has arisen largely from the increasing need for previously impregnable theocracies to incorporate sufficient flexibility to weather the prevailing climate of rationalism.
A more sophisticated version of the weaker forms of dogmatism is: This non-parsimonious, non-Occamist doctrinal material is presumably unfalsifiable. It is the substance in which you must believe if you wish to count yourself as one of our belief, but if, against all reasonable expectation, you find really compelling evidence against it, then very well, we shall adjust our view accordingly. (An example, I understand, is the Buddhist belief in any doctrine, even reincarnation.)
How does Dogma Fit into Religion?
If a body of belief has nothing corresponding to dogma in any such form, it is hard to know how to call it a religion, except that some religions, or at least schisms, are too incoherent to define any clear body of dogma at all. Such religions may amount in effect to politics or con games, but their sincere members do insist that great truths underlie their belief and that rivals are mistaken or evil. The more pernicious examples include a few of the grosser evangelical scams and movements like the People's Temple of Jim Jones or Scientology. Others are blander, tailing off into tea parties for the rich and inept.
Religions typically are not abstract but have specific imperatives, such as worship. They may be more or less good, evil, or simply incoherent, but their goodness or otherwise is not what defines them as religions; by the criterion of dogma, Satanism and dogmatic atheism intrinsically are classes of religion as definite as Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Hindu-etc faiths. (Any particular version of agnosticism may be a religion, or may not, specifically insofar as it entails dogma.)
Dogmas defining any religion as a body, as a formal ideal, have little to do with the private beliefs of individual members (which to the extent that they conflict with the dogma are by definition heresies) or their personal behaviour (sins) or their sociology and politics outside the commands of the religion. In most religions only a small minority of the members have the slightest grasp of the dogma that they theoretically espouse. Many do not even explicitly realise that there is such a thing as a body of belief, such as one might learn in a catechism.
In fairness, not to present the position of science too smugly, only a minority of practising scientists could coherently discuss philosophy of science. Many of the rest simply consider it to be so much hot air, fit only for obsessive academics and for superannuated scientists who are past their best and no longer fit for research. They speak of the "philosopause". How much this actually matters in either case is debatable. The point is that neither deviant belief nor deviant behaviour in individual adherents is a general criterion for distinguishing science from religion.
Notice that it does not follow that every opinion in a given religion need be dogma. In fact, in most religions it is likely that most statements are not dogma, no matter how dogmatically they might be presented; they may deal with everyday concerns and be open to debate, interpretation, and adjustment. For instance, one might, but need not, include in ones dogma the rules for how and when to clean one's teeth, or on what parts of the body to shave one's hair, or what to wear on one’s head, or the question of whether penguins or bats are birds, or whether elephants can jump, or whether mountains might come when called. It is in fact well known for religious people, often actual religious functionaries such as priests, to do good scientific work -- one even might argue that historically most of scientific progress has been made by believers. So not even one's opinions in secular matters need be of much use in distinguishing religion from science.
None of this affects the main point: that there is in each religion a core of dogma and that anything conflicting with that dogma may be defined as heresy. In principle that means that insofar as it is heresy, it is unacceptable unless apologists can rationalise it by arguing that there was not in essence any conflict. For instance, during a reformation religious authorities might decide that the traditional view actually had been a misinterpretation of the dogma. Such things have happened repeatedly in the history of the major religions, either locally or at the highest levels of authority.
Tolerant religion clashes very little with science. In fact many scientists, including some evolutionists, are religious. Some reconcile their beliefs with their science, but others live double mental lives, believing their science with one part of their minds and their religion with the other. They rationalise or even radically divorce their conception of their work from their faith. Presumably most do it largely unconsciously, but I have met research workers (usually biologists) who unapologetically believed one thing in their laboratories and another thing in church. Mind you, some so-called scientists who would be deeply offended at my saying so, although they do acceptable work in research on scientific questions, have only the vaguest concepts of anything like a defensible philosophy of science.
I do not understand any such intellectual process, but it is not for me to tell anyone to change the beliefs on which he builds his mental or social peace. A religious attitude seldom makes much difference to how one practices one’s science; most scientists worry as much about the philosophy of science as the average carpenter worries about the atoms that make up his wood. Still, the history of science is rife with examples of workers who insisted that the result of every scientific investigation must support their personal religious or political dogma.
One way or another, that core of dogma is what lies at the heart of anything we can reasonably call a religion.
So how is Science not Religion?
So much for religion. And science? Is science dogma free? Really? Could anyone cogently support such a claim? How?
Dogma may seem to you like a very strange, small difference to pick on; in fact, the proponents of what they call “creation science” have claimed that science is itself a religion. They say that science places its faith in observation, in Occam’s Razor (the principle of parsimony and elegance) and in scientific method; it has its own wars and splits and dogma and accordingly has no special merit compared to religions.
And yet these are not points of dogma in science. . .
Science in the sense that we are discussing differs from religion in that, far from relying on dogma, it intrinsically has no conceptual scope at all for ideological dogma. Science is essentially a range of processes for finding and using information for constructing, urging, or selecting the strongest candidate hypotheses to answer any reasonably meaningful question. No appeal to dogma, in fact, no appeal to any assertion at all, whether empirical or philosophical, transient or eternal, has cogency in science, because the only means available for convincing persons who do not accept your arguments, is by letting them convince themselves in the light of available evidence, including any evidence that they unearth themselves.
It follows that no statement is sacred in this essay for example. Anyone might take issue with any point. By replacing enough of the principles I assert, the concept of science could indeed be modified or even destroyed outright.
Certainly you would have to convince the scientific community first. Convincing them is the essence of scientific progress.
Of course, if your arguments are not in themselves convincing, that is a separate problem. Nothing in science promises that your beliefs are meaningful or correct, and whether they are or not, there is no guarantee that they will convince anyone soon or at all, and nothing demands that anyone be interested in listening to you.
It is not that scientists loathe or love dogma, that dogma is evil or stupid, or even that particular dogmatic or scientific propositions are true or false, but that in the process of convincing someone who will only accept arguments that he can understand and confirm for himself, dogma as such has no meaningful role. Granted, in scientific controversy appeal to authority often may be tempting (Thus spake Maxwell! Ipse dixit Al Kwarizmi. Also sprach Einstein. My professor said. . .) but it constitutes no more than an argument of convenience, a substitute for time-consuming exploration of probably unrewarding avenues. We cannot delay Biology 101 while each student personally verifies every individual assertion presented in class.
Or the appeal to authority might be used in bad faith to intimidate those whose critical faculties are not up to scratch.
Science can no more guarantee universal good faith or understanding or knowledge than religion can.
In religion, to reject the revelations of the charismatic or the authority of the ancients may be criticised as a sin of pride. Historically the punishment has ranged from grilling by your spiritual counsellor to grilling at stake.
In science the sin of pride (and futility) is to demand that others shall not differ with your pronouncements and wisdom. Also in science there is a matching sin of humility: forbearing to differ when your insights or evidence suggest a flaw in the received wisdom of authority. The punishment in either case is likely to include painful levels of cognitive dissonance.
In particular, although hardly anyone routinely devotes all his time and resources to systematically opposing received wisdom and established opinion, there is no prescribed penalty for doing so. No unexpected anti-dogma police drag heretics off to the COMFY CHAIR. Anyone at any time is in a position to ask in effect: "How does the establishment position make more sense than alternatives proposed in the light of new findings or new arguments, or for that matter, old work that has gone unnoticed, or temporarily been forgotten or overlooked?"
Granted, withholding of grades, degrees, tenure, cooperation, honour and lucre, or even attention, are sometimes represented as being almost as effective, almost as barbarous even, as religious persecution. There certainly have been many ugly examples of such, and there have been even uglier examples of so-called scientists who have tried to stifle views that conflicted with their political dogma, by authority or even by inciting public riots against speakers, but actual religious martyrs faced with physical torment and death, would be unimpressed by the fate of our contemporary dissidents among scientists. Even Galileo and Urban VIII would probably have snorted dismissively.
So: in science the fact that a hypothesis is accepted wisdom is no reason for pioneers or dissidents to refrain from criticising it and from refuting or even replacing it if they can. (Have you had any recent debates with supporters of phlogiston theory for example?) Conversely, the newness of a proposal is no argument for establishment supporters to adopt it. Cold fusion and quantum theory, jumping genes and polywater, introns and N-rays -- each encountered scepticism in its turn. From the point of view of science their respective rejection or acclaim had nothing to do with newness or authority. The point of view of individual scientists might be another matter, but whether the temperaments of particular workers happen to cause them to prefer new ideas or old, has little significance in the long run. It is true that it may take time for people to get used to an idea, mentally to integrate its attractions, its non-cogencies and its potential, but that is a reasonable consequence of the difficulties of dealing with imperfect information on unfamiliar material. It is not a merit or demerit of an idea for being new as such.
Political persecutions such as of Vavilov by Lysenko have nothing to do with science. Nor does the incitement of mobs to shout down unwelcome opinions or evidence that contradicts one’s dogma. It is said that fifty Nazi physicists once collaborated on a book refuting the "Jewish science" of relativity. Einstein reputedly remarked that this was totally needless; if his theory was wrong, a single scientist would have been sufficient. Whether to class the behaviour of the anti-scientists as religious in any particular case is moot. This discussion is not much concerned with discriminating between politics and religion, much less discriminating between religions.
Science (as incarnate in the body of scientists and scientific record) does not deny spiritual planes or intelligence in the universe; it largely ignores them until someone can show which phenomena to observe, in order to obtain material upon which one could found hypotheses in terms of relevant conceptual structures. If you like, you could say that until we have some idea of how to talk about what we think we are talking about, we are not talking science.
This frequently is a difficulty with questions of the form: “Why. . . ” Such questions are very treacherous for the naïve to deal with because they sound simple, but the word is deeply ambiguous, so discussions of such questions are often meaningless and even more often, they are at cross purposes. Some “why” questions are outside the province of science because they have no demonstrable empirical consequences. According to some points of view they therefore are metaphysical.
Possibly the main nontrivial example of such a question is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Some people think it is the supreme question in science and philosophy. Some think it is simply stupid. For what my opinion is worth, I think it simply has not yet been defined clearly enough to count as a meaningful question, and until it does, it is not a question that can be taken any further in any constructive formal or scientific investigation.
None of this has any more to do with Kuhnian paradigms and scientific sociology, than the sins, heresies and sociology of the faithful have to do with a religion's fundamental dogma or philosophy. Classes of techniques, procedures, and conventions have been developed for choosing between rival hypotheses in science, but again, these do not define science any more than prayer in general defines religion in general; they simply are the currently established tools.
Some people might find it amusing to reflect that there is nothing stopping anyone in a particular religion from formulating an immutable dogma concerning science, but that any scientific hypothesis concerning religion would be subject to the same forms of attack as any other.
Science, evidence, and near-proof
Formal activities are those based on defined sets of axioms and operations. Examples are mathematics, logic and, in some of its forms and applications at least, philosophy. Formal assertions can only be criticised meaningfully in terms of their consistency with the axioms and operations that they are based on, which in turn can only be criticised in terms of internal consistency (or para-consistency), completeness, parsimony, elegance, relevance and the like.
In contrast, empirical science deals with the world we seem to see ourselves in and so the axiomatic structure of such science must be compatible with empirical evidence. In empirical science we therefore have no unconditional axioms about our world -- we can do no more than propose theories based on assumptions about our observations and the perceived behaviour of the world. For instance for practical purposes we generally assume such things as:
- the world operates on principles consistent enough to permit us to generalise meaningfully, in particular to generalise according to axioms in logic and mathematics, chosen according to their being suitably isomorphic to the apparent behaviour of the objects under study.
- such information as we can derive about the world from our sensory perceptions and instrumentation, forms a practical basis for a mental image, a model that has relevant and practical isomorphisms to some sort of presumed underlying reality that has a meaningful relationship to that which is apparent to us
- for practical purposes the theory of probability may be assumed to be isomorphic with relevant behaviour of entities in the perceived universe. This is the basis of the ubiquitous applicability of statistics as a practical and philosophical tool in science.
These are just a few examples of course, but they are important. If we cannot rely on something of that kind, it is hard to know how we are even to attempt to discover anything about the world with any confidence of anything like success. At the same time, such assumptions still amount to no more than working hypotheses. Anyone is free at any time to present arguments for thinking we are wrong, or at least that the assumptions are not logically justified. Conversely no one is constrained to be interested in those arguments.
In fact, in any sizeable community of philosophers of science, you can be sure of a lot of heated dissent even on such basic points, let alone the question of which points should be included in such a list, their relative importance, how they should be worded, and what they imply for the meaningfulness of science or what form meaning in science might take at all.
In short, those assumptions are about as far from dogma as one can get; they are not even axioms except to particular workers who choose to define them as such. And such a worker is getting pretty close to religion, please note!
And notice that Occam’s Razor is not one of the basic practical assumptions. It certainly is enormously useful as a rule of thumb and only a fool would fail to test his ideas against Occam, but it is only a convenient tool, a basis for principles of elegance of theory and parsimony of things assumed, not a proof of validity.
The current discussion is mainly about empirical science -- formal disciplines have little to do with belief, since one can construct as many independent formal axiomatic structures as one likes, to be compatible with practically any coherent belief one likes, or none at all. These structures would not differ in "correctness" but only in their interest or usefulness and applicability.
In spite of the popularity of the phrase: "scientific proof", empirical science has little to do with formal proof. Because of their inherent uncertainties, observations cannot formally prove anything, but they do permit us to compare the defensibility of rival hypotheses that imply observable phenomena. Observations that constitute confirming instances of predictions, can be used as a basis for establishing working hypotheses, a weak form of support that can be assessed in terms of statistical theory. The currently most popular example of such a confirming instance is called falsification. When the prediction of a hypothesis X fails, then this is taken as confirmation of the hypothesis not-X.
Naïve practitioners have been known to regard such falsification as “disproving” X, i.e. “proving” not-X, but such fatuity has nothing to do with science as such. Having "falsified" hypothesis X, we have no more than established that in terms of our (well-designed, well-executed) experiment some version of not-X is a stronger hypothesis than X, and also given that more persuasive evidence is not forthcoming from other, independent research or explanation.
This is all on the assumption that the hypothesis has been suitably expressed for the procedure to be meaningful, and that assumption is large because the design of experiments is a treacherous field -- it is subject to the venerable principle of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.
An important problem in testing any new hypothesis is that it can only be tested on the basis of a lot of other assumptions. You cannot generally test a combination of more than one hypothesis at a time, so we go to great lengths to test just one variable, making the assumption that all other circumstances are held constant according to already established facts: known truths or givens. That is what we call a controlled experiment. The problem remains however, that the assumptions about already established facts amount to extra hypotheses. If we were wrong about any of them and our experiment yields results that contradict our predictions as dictated by our new hypothesis, then our conclusion that the new hypothesis is incorrect is unsound, and if our predictions were in fact borne out, then our acceptance of the new hypothesis as a working hypothesis in turn would be unsound. If we concluded that we had in fact been victim to such errors, then we would say that our experimental setup is underdetermined, meaning that there could reasonably be more than one interpretation of the results.
This class of limitation on our ability to determine our experimental controls and the hypotheses that we test in any experimental programme is in line with what is known as the Duhem–Quine thesis, which you might find it helpful to read about under that name in Wikipedia, or in the Stanford article on Underdetermination of Scientific Theory.
But, you might object, how is it possible that one could be mistaken in one's known truths, one's predetermined facts?
It happens. In the past predetermined facts included flat Earth, planetary epicycles, phlogiston, speed of light being affected by its path through the ether, the impossibility of converting matter to energy...
All such and many, many more were predetermined facts, givens in their own places and times, natural assumptions on which we based our controls in our scientific research, often unconsciously.
For such reasons even modern scientific practice produces a great deal of wasted research and outright delusion. For much of such work, the fundamental reason that it is a waste is that it is based on misconceptions or misformulations, and yet even peer-reviewed publications may report favourably on just such research. Once he has missed the hidden conceptual flaw or error, the researcher may perform the rest of the work coherently and competently, but of course futilely. When that research work is indeed coherent and competent, it may be very difficult for a reviewer to spot the flaw, or if he does, to justify his view that the paper is ill-founded. A major source of such disasters is not poor work, so much as experiments based on preconceptions or poorly constructed or inapplicable questions. Even flawless work on meaningless questions produces meaningless answers, and preconceptions often mask or rationalise that meaninglessness.
Whether the experiments have been well designed or not, if the observations are too poorly consistent with the predictions, we discard the hypothesis, modify it, or try again with a totally new hypothesis. We never prove it. We never forbid anyone to doubt our work or re-test the hypothesis or propose alternatives or extensions. We never demand that anyone accept a hypothesis. In empirical science the closest we come to proving a hypothesis is by presenting evidence so strong that to deny it one would have to be perversely unreasonable.
Of course, we do not generally stop our work and wait until everyone agrees that we have shown that which we set out to do. After all, by that time we have convinced ourselves, at least conditionally, and there will be more work to do while discussion proceeds.
The other side of the coin is that, when anyone else proposes a hypothesis, we in turn reserve our acceptance until we have convinced ourselves of its merits. And of course if we do accept it our commitment to the new hypothesis (whether our own or anyone else’s) is fundamentally temporary. It lasts only until we are sufficiently convinced that yet another hypothesis is superior. In most religions such behaviour would be apostasy, and as such, traitorous. In some quite major religions apostasy still is punishable by death. In science it is no more than common sense, and to stick to a hypothesis in the face of the balance of the evidence is regarded as mental ossification, the weakness of an old fogy (or worse still, a young fogy).
Nor is our acceptance any guarantee of correctness, not even temporarily and certainly not permanently.
It does not matter whether this is necessarily because "we" as "scientists" are so virtuous, so liberal minded, that we would never dream of imposing our diffident opinions, or because we just have too much good sense. The reality is that if we did try to impose our views it would have little effect. That simply is how the process works. It depends on conviction, not imposition. Conviction by fashion, compulsion, peer pressure, authority or even riot, certainly has worked very frequently and widely in history and in contemporary education, religion, business and politics. Science and scientists are not immune to such influences. Anyone who has never seen a senior who refuses to let a junior publish embarrassing or unwelcome evidence, cannot have been in the field for very long.
But as conviction goes, the influence of compulsion or crookery in scientific work or the associated politics is exceptional and transient. Within a century, or a professional lifetime, or perhaps months, future generations will hold it to scorn. Brash young students will sniff at the very idea that anyone could have been stupid enough to fall for such rubbish.
Simplistically retailed history generates either simplistic adulation or simplistic disdain. One is tempted to despair. . .
Unfortunately, work presented in bad faith, though it has no long term effect on the body of science, has led to the ruin of many a promising career, often the career of the whistle blower. We have seen several tragic and immoral examples in the past few decades.
Interestingly, there have been far more cases of good faith retractions of work, sometimes very prominent work, that turned out to be in error or at least unrepeatable, and the reaction of the scientific community has generally been muted, even sympathetic. It is a sad reflection on the effects of ambition, greed, malice or vanity, that they can corrupt such a beneficial system.
Be that as it may. . .
It does not follow that because a hypothesis is untestable by any observation accessible to me, it is not investigable and falsifiable by some other subset of the scientific community, perhaps even by just a single member. Members of such a subset may be perfectly scientific in their work. Nothing in the nature of science guarantees that every proposition that is meaningful in terms of falsifiability to one worker, must be equally meaningful to every other. There might be differences in skills, in equipment, in resources, in chance observations. There might be differences even in personal senses or aptitudes, such as perception of harmony, taste or colour. How is one to react to a scientific claim that one is not in a position to test personally? Is every such claim meaningless by definition to everyone but the observer in person?
Not necessarily. It depends on our personal world view and intellectual taste, how high a level of confidence we demand before we are willing accept a given assertion as a working hypothesis. The principles of science neither demand that we believe, nor that we disbelieve. The world is too large for everyone to investigate all of it personally in detail, or even to acquire the necessary skills to do so. In discriminating between rival hypotheses, we need not consider only formal falsifiability by personal experiment; it is reasonable and in practice it also is necessary, to give appropriate weight to weaker evidence, such as:
- a claim's consistency with our experience and opinions
- the word of other observers
- the opinions of persons whose skills we respect
- its consistency with coherent and logical bodies of theory
- other criteria than direct evidence, such as parsimony and explanatory richness.
None of these is proof either, but they are useful in practice and historically have been of enormous power and value.
Weak or indirect evidence still is evidence -- evidence is everything that has weight in rationally influencing one's choice of particular hypotheses as being the most persuasive. Strong evidence carries the most weight; weaker evidence carries correspondingly less. There is no general, cogent basis for assessing the weight to assign to any item of evidence; its strength keeps changing according to context, and in any case one's appraisal of context and weight necessarily are largely arbitrary. Except in religion there is theoretically no such thing as absolute evidence, only a range of cogency that extends from an interesting speculation at one extreme, to repeated, independent observation, precise, practical, predictable, quantitative, and explicable, at the other.
Well asked is half answered
Consider: with the technological sophistication of the typical hunter-gatherer, for instance with no conception of electricity or magnetism, one would have great difficulty formulating a meaningful theory about how a battery operated fan works. We in turn have no idea at present, how many levels of sophistication we stand below the TOE (“Theory Of Everything”) of the god's-eye-view.
These difficulties make sense in view of the well-established and repeated observation in the practice of science, that the greatest scientist is not necessarily the one who finds the best answers, but very likely may be the one who frames the best questions.
Framing relevant questions in meaningful terms is in fact a major challenge in the design of meaningful experiments. Our hunter-gatherer might well ask whether that fan works because it has trapped the spirit of a dragonfly or rather because it has trapped the spirit of a hummingbird.
As a good scientist the hunter-gatherer might proceed to carry out experiments to resolve the question. Statistical analysis of his results might well yield high significance, but an industrial engineer who designs fans might have a harrowing time explaining why, in spite of significance at a level better than p = 0.00001, those experiments do not constitute strict proof that the fan works because what it has in fact captured is indeed the spirit of a hummingbird. One of the engineer’s difficulties in convincing the investigator might be the fact that both the experiments and the analyses were impeccable. Trying to point out flaws in basic assumptions tends to be dismissed impatiently as airy-fairy academic quibbling beyond the rational concerns of practical, down-to-earth experimentalists who know all about dragonflies and hummingbirds, and can see that they have nothing to do with the nature of amber and the fur of cats.
In our case, say in our conception of modern cosmology, we do not know whether we are any nearer understanding the universe in terms more meaningful than the hunter-gatherers' conception of the principle of the operation of the fan. Would the Olympians with their god's-eye-view laugh at the idea of the multiverse? Of superstrings? Of the Big Bang? Of red-shift? Of gravity? Of quantum theory? Of evolution? Of matter? Of mind? Of spirit? Of ideas? We don't know. And if they do, we certainly do not know what they would replace such things with, or in what contexts.
But we can go on asking, doubting, thinking, measuring, synthesising, and falsifying. All abject activities no doubt, but, offensive though they seem to some people, they have yielded proud results time and again.
Scientists as a group do not tend towards conscious modesty, and yet the philosophy of science embodies an implicit humility so deep as to transcend the mental horizons of the arrogance of dogma. Subjection of oneself and one's Weltanschauung to a concept, be it never so small, or so counter-intuitive, or transcending the scale of every vision of humanity or the universe, and dropping it or accommodating it according to what one can show about it; there is humility to vaunt, if you like!
Note yet again that these principles we observe in today's science still are not dogma. They certainly are resilient, because they are based on views that have developed through the centuries and have taken coherent form in particular during the twentieth century. In the process they have undergone generations of criticism and have been adapted accordingly. Whether formal or empirical, they are at all times subject to review and dissent. Each adjustment to the underlying view may have been disconcerting, but always has been assimilated once it has outlived the fogies. The problem is to persuade the community (or let it persuade itself) that some particular view is preferable (for now, in some particular context). In fact, if you discuss the philosophy of science in different circles you will find a great deal of variety in the details of all the opinions, but one thing that no one but a crackpot would tell you, is that in science the way to persuade a sceptic is by exercise of violence, authority, or even reproach. It is no part of science to prove the formally unprovable formally, or force anyone to believe it by moral or physical pressures.
This no more suggests that any particular person who does work in scientific fields is dogma free or religion free, than that any religious person must be without sin, heresy or doctrinal error. Many a professor of a field of scientific study does in effect accept something as dogma and does force it on his students, and most of his students will swallow it as dogma, often without even token inquiry. Many of the top scoring students actually will object bitterly if asked to accept views as conditional; what they want is hard fact that they can master for the examinations. Some of them will never outgrow such childhood diseases. Mind you, as a rule such students and professors both would be bitterly offended if anyone pointed out the unscientific nature of their behaviour. Very likely the class notes contain a solemn passage on the intellectual independence and dignity of science, and the students can get marks for mentioning it in the exams.
So that dogma is the creation of the professor, not a component of the field of science. That fact makes no difference to the demands placed on the professor's rivals or associates. The proposition that his dogma asserts might be robust or it might be transparent delusion. All that the scientific community requires is that the work that a dogmatist presents is subject to the same scrutiny as that of anyone else. If the dogmatist takes such scepticism as a personal affront, then so be it.
In science the word "scientist" as applied to a person, is of far less importance than the word "scientific" as applied to his behaviour. Furthermore, non-scientific work performed by someone under total misapprehension as to its meaning often has produced material of value. One could argue that, until perhaps two centuries ago, progress based on such misconception was rather the rule than the exception. What the scientists of two centuries in the future will say of science in our time, we can only guess, or if we prefer, wait and see.
Why dogma as the diagnostic criterion?
Rather, our distinction is a basic operation in the formal discipline of systematics:
- identify the (super)set you are dealing with
- find by inspection of some subset of its elements, one or more attributes that are not attributes of the rest of the elements of its superset
- by definition you thereby have established two subsets whose membership can be diagnosed, using those attributes as criteria.
How useful these diagnostic criteria are, is another matter. It depends on such things as:
- how practical the diagnosis is (can one rely on identifying elements and telling which elements have which attributes?) and
- how relevant it is (Is it evidence, i.e. is it calculated to affect anyone's opinion?)
Given n objective, mutually independent attributes of elements in a set, there could be a large number of ways of partitioning it into up to n subsets. We simply choose the one that seems most useful in context. If anyone can demonstrate a more coherent and relevant (i.e. more useful) partitioning, we are free to reconsider.
In our current exercise of separation of the sheep from the scientists, the diagnosis is pretty comfortable and the distinction that emerges is in fact the point at issue, so yes, I think we quite easily can justify the choice of dogma as a practical criterion.
Note that this assumption does not deny that there are other ways of splitting the set. It does not even imply that we have inspected the set of belief structures comprehensively. We have performed a notional exercise and it seems to meet the needs of our discussion. It also seems sufficiently persuasive that if anyone rejects the view that our superset is indeed usefully to be partitioned in that way, we can invite them to produce counter-examples that destroy or at the least demand adjustments to the thesis.
Or possibly demonstrate a different partitioning that is still more persuasive and probably therefore more useful.
In particular note that comparative theologists may regard some dogmatic belief structures as religions and others as sects or cults or superstitions or the like. Also adherents to some beliefs are likely to class their own beliefs as religion and other beliefs as anything from paganism to heresy. None of this affects the validity of the terminology in this essay within its own context. Granted, in other contexts the terminology could be inappropriate, but that does not affect the current arguments.
Scientific behaviour can be distinguished from non-scientific behaviour primarily by the attitude to falsification or some functionally similar principle. Science can indeed be applied to the study of religion, personal experience, emotional views and the like, to the extent that the statements concerning such can be expressed in falsifiable terms. The only secure faiths are those that avoid falsifiable statements.
But such security need not imply persuasiveness.
Science, religion and. . .
Notice that not everything is either science or religion. Some things are nonsense without being either. Is sport a religion? Some people might argue that for some people it is, but even if it turns out that in some cases this literally is true, certainly it is not generally a reasonable thing to assert. Is sport science? Certainly science or scientific method can be applied to the study of sport, or used to improve performance or technology in sport, but again, sport as such cannot simply and sensibly be regarded as being science.
To say such a thing is neither praise nor criticism; it just reflects differences between sport and science.
On the other hand, whether science is sport depends on the attitude of the particular practitioners or spectators. It does not affect the science as such.
There are dogmas in fields other than those we normally call religions. Some are milder, some about as fervid. Think about traditions, superstitions, racism, patriotism and party politics. There are many such. Humanity seems to hunger for certainty rather than for truth or cogency.
Dogma is the most convenient substitute for cogency, though one liberal minded dogma of the last century or two is that what the human mind yearns for is creativity, dignity and freedom to think for itself, and that it hates dogma. But dogma saves the pain and trouble of thinking and suitable dogma can be memorised and recited to give a comfortable sense of superiority and righteousness; in that form it can justify any kind of cruelty and greed and if there is danger of argument, rage and repetition will always work, as long as they are loud enough, preferably in a crowd that is large enough and supportive enough and enjoys howling slogans.
The same sort of reasoning could be applied to deciding whether art, law or business should be regarded as science or religion (or perhaps sport. . . ?) When we develop a scheme of classification, we should not forget that if some objects do not fit into any of the classes, it does not necessarily make sense to force them into one or the other.
Science and religion are largely classes of attitudes and activities. In the role they play in anyone’s life, they also are largely matters of context and degree. Not everyone is necessarily and categorically a scientist or a religious adherent. One might take a scientific view of one matter, and an essentially religious view of another. Notice again that according to the criterion of dogma, such a religious view need not imply worship or virtue.
Even apart from such questions, it does not follow that every body of theory must be all science or all dogmatically based religion. A believer in a flat Earth at the centre of the universe with the sun circling it daily in accordance with his holy scripture, could make perfectly valid astronomical observations and perhaps make valid scientific deductions from some of them. Some points of his belief would be scientific and some would be religious.
What is more difficult is to imagine how any one point could be both.
Dogma is not all bad. For one thing, for the bulk of humanity the best weapon against bad dogma is good dogma. The human mind seems to have a level of dogma which is healthy and traditionally religious people tend to have a resistance to the superstitions that run riot through the ranks of say, New Agers.
Evolution as a religion
Evolution? What is special about evolution in this connection? Not much really; it is just that at present no other branch of science is more rabidly attacked by religious fundamentalists and zealots. At the same time such parties claim that evolution is no more than another religion – this is a rearguard debating tactic intended to nonplus those who claim that the study of evolution is a scientific discipline. It certainly is the most intelligent tactic that the creationists have conceived so far.
Of course, to speak of evolution as either a religion or a science is careless terminology. Evolution is a process, a range, a structure of phenomena. You may believe in it or not, study it or not, theorise about it or not, revere it or not, but it could no more be a religion or a science than say, a glacier or the colour red could be such a thing. No, what people such mean is that the religion is the study of evolution, the attitude towards evolution, a body of theory on evolutionary themes. Such loose terminology is understandable, if a little sloppy, so I make no fuss about it. In fact, I might be as sloppy myself at times, as I forgive those who trespass. It is not at all unusual even for scientists to speak of “evolution” when they mean “evolutionary theory” or the like.
Certainly there are evolutionists whose behaviour would be appropriate to religious zealots. We see them all the time. Some of them are actual professional biologists, and many others are militant self-styled sceptics who have read the latest popular book and are ready to go out and shout down anyone who has not seen the light. Sometimes they currently are students who have studied one or more modules dealing with evolution. They often are impressively informed, articulate and partisan. Beware the zealotry of the proselyte; it makes an uncomfortable ally of him!
Of course, evolution as a field of study has nothing much to do with such things. The fuss and bother are the product of human vanity, sloth, wrath, avarice and envy. I am not so sure about lust and gluttony, but I cannot exclude them outright.
But then how seriously are we to take the claim that evolutionary theory as she is spoke could be religion? Let us apply the test: if it is religion, then where is the dogma? Famously, Darwin based his theory on a few observations concerning the exponential propagation of populations, the inevitable mortality, its favourable effect on those sub-populations that bore suitable attributes and so on. None of these is dogma. All of them have been observed or deduced and exposed to falsification in the field or the laboratory in context after context, and they continually get re-exposed, re-thought, and re-qualified. Successive generations of geneticists, zoologists, botanists, ecologists, evolutionary psychologists, palaeontologists, and microbiologists publish, observe and experiment.
And for all we know, some of them may worship and sanctify and proselytise. . .
Certainly many of them speak outright nonsense on one point or another.
And then there is the Great Darwinian Tautology: How-Do-We-Define-Fitness? After all, fitness is that which permits an organism to reproduce effectively. How do we know the organism is fit? Why, simple: see how effectively it reproduces! Surely this is about as cogent as any typical Jesuitical exercise in apologetics? (Please bear in mind that I use the term “Jesuitical” in the metaphorical sense. I am sure that any self-respecting modern Jesuit would scorn such a transparent fallacy.) So, with dogmatic baggage like that, how is Darwinism any better than religion?
For what it is worth, relative fitness is measurable by actual correlation of genetic attributes with reproductive success. One might as well call magnetism a tautology because it is something that acts on a magnet, while a magnet is something acted on by magnetism. Over a century ago Ambrose Bierce was wittily acrid on that very point, but since his time we have generated a great deal more substance to discuss when we argue about magnetism.
Mind you, even in Bierce's day geniuses like Maxwell and Faraday had established some really sound theory describing the nature of magnetism, but we cannot expect scientifically illiterate literati like Bierce to let things beyond their ken inhibit their wit.
In discussing circular arguments in evolutionary theory, we are even better off. Even Darwin would not have found it a challenge to refute the charge of tautology, and since his day enormous volumes of work have addressed the measurement, prediction, and effect of fitness in hundreds or thousands of contexts in nature. In fact I cannot think of much in the line of contemporary work on evolution, that does not focus on the actual identification of the components and mechanisms of fitness and their measurement. As a concept fitness is quite simple; it comes down to the effect that a genetic variable has on the reproductive success of a population.
Among popular books describing the subject, “The Beak of the Finch” by Jonathan Weiner is a particularly convenient example. At a more professional level, every modern textbook of evolution defines the concept and measure of fitness both verbally and mathematically. Measuring the concept is neither arbitrary nor as simple as it sounds. Even in non-sexually reproducing populations measuring fitness certainly is hard work. In sexually reproducing populations with overlapping generations it becomes downright tricky.
But no one said that just because it is science it has to be simple. At least the idea is simple.
Given such a vast background of support in practice and theory and simple common sense, it is hard to imagine any realistic prospect of the idea of fitness being shaken in future. But there is nothing, not a solitary thing, in science that forbids anyone to present evidence to modify or even annihilate the theory. You might argue that such work would never get published, and you might have a point. It certainly would not be easy to find anyone to take you seriously, any more than you could easily find anyone to take seriously the theory that the sun really is hollow. But it still would not be forbidden, and if the work really was cogent you could be pretty confident that eventually the new insights would prevail.
And they would not take four hundred years to do so.
The resistance would come, not from any doctrinal conspiracy of suppression, but from people refusing to believe – which after all is their right.
So much for tautology and Jesuitry in science!
Still no dogma.
The closest I can come to anything of the type is the playfully named “central dogma of molecular genetics” of Crick and Watson. This stated that DNA in nature would be transcribed into either DNA or RNA, and RNA into RNA or protein, but not into DNA.
Like most real dogma it did not last long in the face of the progress of science, but in any case it never was a real dogma, either in practice or in intention, just a conveniently challenging hypothesis with a provoking title. Crick and Watson had never seen anything of the type, nor any strong reason to propose it, so instead they proposed their "dogma". It turns out in fact that Crick had proposed the term "dogma" in ignorance; he had misunderstood what the word "dogma" meant, thinking that it just meant something like a concept. But that is by the way.
In due course virologists discovered reverse transcription in cells infected with RNA viruses. Scientifically it was enormously important, enormously exciting, and enormously interesting. Possibly surprisingly to the layman though, it was not particularly startling. And as the overthrow of dogma goes, it was about as earth-shaking as a typical report on a minor intra-denominational ecumenical congress.
Still I find nothing in the study of evolution that as a biologist I am compelled by authority to believe, nothing that I must not criticise, any more than if I were studying physics.
And is physics dogmatic? If you like. And yet, no one got burned at stake for proposing the existence of N-rays, electrons, polywater, relativity, cold fusion or quantum mechanics. A lot of people got hot under the collar, but that was about as hot as they got. It is not for you and me to claim that therefore they were dogmatists.
Similarly those evolutionists who functionally amount to religious zealots make no practical difference to the status of evolutionary study as a branch of science rather than religion. However devout their professions might have been, however influential their work may have been, it all got exposed to the same erosive or supportive criticism and discussion, helpful, scornful, enthusiastic or simply dismissive. If it got sifted out it got discarded, or at least archived, no matter how slowly, justly or unjustly, and no matter how passionate the originator might have been.
Of course, as a matter of practical fact the nut cases are the exception -- the rare exception -- rather than the rule. Your run of the mill evolutionist is an enthusiast, as well he might be, given such a beautiful, varied, surprising and absorbing field, but that does not mean that he demands, foists, or accepts dogma, or that he is shocked to have to defend his ideas and evidence without any support other than verifiable observation and falsifiable theory.
If anyone insists that such a situation also is characteristic of religion, good luck to him. As long as the universe behaves consistently, it certainly remains characteristic of science that it can outlive its opponents and obstructionists.
After all, it is not chained to a practically immovable body of dogma; it can adjust to new findings almost as fast as they emerge.
Religion versus science
Having distinguished religion from science, we might take the view that they really have nothing to do with each other. After all, if science has no dogma, then on what basis is the scientist to criticise religious beliefs? When a scientist has religious views of one kind or another, why should there be a problem? Religious dogma that deals with metaphysical, unobservable, unverifiable, and unfalsifiable concepts should be outside the field of scientific research, surely.
Well, maybe. But there are difficulties even so. Consider the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. It is not really possible to prove that they do not exist, any more than one can prove that paranoid conspiracy theories are groundless. It is always difficult to prove a negative in the empirical world, unless we fall back on weaker forms of “proof” such as presenting evidence so strong that to deny it one would have to be unreasonable.
In science we think very little of any theory that has little relevance to anything else. The most valued theories fit in with others and enable us to make predictions that we can test. They also have a great deal of power to explain large classes of things. For instance modern atomic theory explained all sorts of things about the way matter behaves, whether gases, solids and liquids, or the way energy affects matter. This did not happen all at once, but within a few decades of Dalton’s proposals, there was hardly anything in physics or chemistry that did not refer to the atoms that made up matter.
The seventeenth-to-nineteenth century theory of ether was another good theory, or perhaps I should say collection of theories. Unlike atomic theory, it was discarded near the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps permanently, but in its time it supported a lot of ideas that led to work that in turn led to modern physics. Such ideas that at first look reasonable, but later are rejected as wrong are rather like scaffolding that supports the construction of later theories, and then gets broken down and discarded once the building can stand on its own. Only a fool fails to respect the scaffolding that is necessary for new and great constructions.
Now, suppose a theory cannot be criticised because it can answer all objections of people who cannot see any evidence for it (“You cannot see the Tooth Fairy because she can make herself invisible; you cannot detect her gravitationally because she is too light” and so on). Such immunity to criticism may sound marvellous to anyone who does not understand science. The problem is that as you go down that road you soon find yourself at the point where every prediction the theory makes is just the same as if the theory were left out. The world of the Tooth Fairy looks just the same as if there were no Tooth Fairy. This follows because if things were not so, then we could find evidence for or against the Tooth Fairy. All we need do is to see what difference the Tooth Fairy would make, and then look for that difference. If we do not find that difference after looking long and hard enough, then we assume that there is no Tooth Fairy.
Have we thereby proved that there is no tooth fairy?
Of course not, but there is no limit to the number of things we could imagine that we never could detect. How about a separate Tooth Fairy for every tooth in the world? Can you prove that to be false if you accept even one Tooth Fairy?
When we refuse to accept the existence of something as long as the only evidence for its existence is that you cannot prove that it does not exist, then we are following an important principle in science and simple common sense. This is the principle of parsimony elegance, sometimes called Occam’s razor. Cut out every assumption one can do without. The fact that you can do without those assumptions does not prove that they are wrong, but it does mean that a sceptic is on strong ground if he refuses to believe. In fact, the effectiveness of Occam’s razor has historically been so great that it seems almost suspicious. Why should the simplest possible assumption nearly consistently turn out to be the best in practice?
I say again: Occam’s Razor is not a scientific axiom, just a useful tool, but it is an uncomfortably sharp tool. Failing the razor test is a bad, bad thing for dogma. It is so bad, that for most purposes it disqualifies a hypothesis if there is not good evidence to rescue it.
Then there are various rules that depend on the consistency of theories with predictions based on those theories. For instance, Darwin proposed that there should exist undiscovered species of insects with particular types of mouthparts, because on the basis of his theory and the structures of particular orchids, no known species could have pollinated them. Sure enough, decades later, in fact after Darwin's death, a hawk moth was discovered that did pollinate those orchids. If the moth had never been found, then some other theory would have had to be tested, say that some undiscovered tribe had bred the orchid artificially. And of course, if the moth had died out before anyone had discovered it, then perhaps we never would have discovered the answer to that question.
As you can see for yourself, nothing in science promises that we shall find the answer to every question, or that all the answers we find are correct answers.
Such principles are basic to science and if you think about them carefully, they are basic to common sense as well.
Now, according to the principle of parsimony, the less a religious belief has to say about anything we can test, the less seriously a sceptic need take that belief. If it offers us nothing to test, then it might as well go straight into the Santa Claus bin; it makes no practical difference in life. If we want Christmas presents, someone must buy them, it is not enough just to send letters to the North Pole. But if that is the case, we might as well ignore Santa, leave out the assumption that there is a Santa. We pay just as much to just the same people as if there were no Santa, whether we have been good children or not.
But if there is something to test, such as the tears of a statue turning to blood for one day every year, then the sceptic may argue that he has grounds for disbelief if he is not permitted to perform or witness the test to his reasonable satisfaction, or if the statue fails the test. This is not a special attack intended for the destruction of religious claims; it applies to everything in science as well. Some of the earlier scepticism about the Piltdown skull began when the parties in possession of the skull, and who passionately believed that it was genuine, refused to let sceptics examine it.
Not that every such refusal immediately amounts to grounds for absolute disbelief of course. There may be many reasons for not letting self-confident amateurs play around with irreplaceable specimens. For instance, the custodians of the Archaeopteryx fossils refused to let the late, brilliant, but biologically naïve Fred Hoyle experiment on the material to prove it to be faked.
And if he and some others elected to believe it to be faked, too bad!
In such connections we begin to see where the spheres of science and religion overlap. Science cannot disprove that which makes no difference, but can give strong reason either to accept or reject that which has been predicted. If items of dogma entail the predictions, then testing the predictions can make or break those items except for the perversely faithful. See whether this sounds familiar: “. . . they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear; Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely. . . ”
In case it does not, you may find it in Psalms 58, verses four and five. You may also find a difference between the attitudes of scientist and Psalmist. Scientists say in effect: “Suit yourself whether you believe my argument or not; now, unless you have some new and relevant material, excuse me while I carry on with the next interesting question.”
The psalmist on the other hand goes on about breaking the teeth of the adders and the young lions.
Ah well, each to his own! But it was the scientists, not the tooth breakers, that revealed the creation to be vaster and more wonderful than anyone had imagined. There is a smug pride, not just a cruelty, but a smallness of mind, in prescriptive and proscriptive formulators of dogma, that I see as being destructive in the highest degree. Nothing shows up the sin of pride more mercilessly, more accusingly.
To religion of that type, science is very rightly the arch fiend, the destroyer of faiths.
What science does conflict with is what, speaking loosely, I will call religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are believers who deny, and may forbid, anything they see as clashing with what they take to be their given “truth” or dogma. If they believe that their dogma demands that the world be flat or just a few thousand years old, then everything which suggests say, roundness or billions of years, is a delusion or a Snare of Evil. And so is anything which suggests that they might have mistranslated or misunderstand their dogma. Logic need not come into it. Even to question or discuss the matter may be evil.
What really is wryly amusing, is that fundamentalists as a rule, vigorously object to logic and evidence as criticism of their dogma. Then they argue back with… (wait for it!) logic and evidence. Ask such a person why they reject logic, and the answer is likely to begin: “Because. . .”
Now, anyone who starts a statement with “Because” is trying to state an implication. That is to say that he is trying to use logic.
I admit that the fundamentalists do not go out of their way to be consistent. Their logic and evidence is often flawed, and they abandon both logic and evidence when caught contradicting their own dogma. Afterwards they feel free to come aboard again at another point. This is a convenient practice for point scoring in bad-faith debating, but it would cause sleepless nights for anyone who tries to be honest with himself.
What other kind of religion does one get? Are there religions of honesty, of humility in recognising that perhaps neither the author of the dogma, nor the faithful, might have known everything, might have been right about everything? Or indeed, right about anything non-trivial?
Think about it. And then think about what one might do about substituting for religions of the more ludicrously, demonstrably nonsensical dogmas. Notice how many of them include the cruelest, most destructive dogmas, most valuable to demagogues, parasites, and politicians, and most harmful to the advance of knowledge and civilisation. Some of these beliefs class themselves as religions, some as manifestos, but none of them is willing to trust its followers to think for themselves without telling them what to think. Don’t bother to read my lips; just look about you.
For such, science is an abomination, of no use except in helping to produce new and more effective instruments of destruction.
And yet, surely a civilisation that relies on hiding the flaws in its unjustified beliefs cannot command much respect, or expect much progress.
Anyway, that sums up most of it. In science your final arbiter is what you see in the world about you; in religion your final arbiter is your dogma; in fundamentalism it is the literal view of your dogma as you see it.
Dogmatism or fundamentalism as blasphemy
What is the difference, you ask? After all, dogma is that which you must not deny, and as a rule, that which you must assert. If assertion of dogma is not dogmatism, then what is?
That sounds reasonable, but it overlooks some important differences in the way people deal with their dogmas. It also shows a weakness in the concept of rigid doctrine as a basis for a belief. Given a structure of dogma built on a number of basic statements of religious tenets, it might in theory be correct that every one of those is literally true. It certainly is true that some people do believe this of their own dogma. There are two points of difficulty, one internal and one external.
The external difficulty is that there are many groups of such people, each as passionate as the next, but no two agree on each point, each vital point, sometimes they differ on practically every vital point. And sometimes they are willing to kill to assert a single minor point. This is not too serious from the point of view of any particular fundamentalist, because although it certainly is impossible for two such groups to be correct, it is theoretically possible for just one to be correct.
And of course each of them is willing to die for his belief that his is that one. The alternative possibility, that every single one of the beliefs is built on hot air, is not to be entertained.
So we shall not entertain it. Not here and now.
The other difficulty is more serious and is harder to fix. Fortunately for their own peace of mind, fundamentalists are not generally inclined to be analytical, or they would not be fundamentalists in the first place. The only reason that many of these sects have more than one member is that practically none of the members seriously get together to work out what each really sees as the true implications of the tenets of his faith.
Now, by the time you have enough material to base a religion on, you have enough to guarantee that no two people will see all of it the same way. However, there are a few things that practically all religions agree on: each claims to be true, to be the fount of wisdom, and to be good. Let a zealot have his head in an environment like that, and you have a recipe for disaster. For one thing he is working with a mass of material that it is not possible for any person to make full sense of; don't take my word for it, just see how often you find two persons reading the holy scriptures of any religion and giving the same answers to penetrating questions without having colluded with each other. In fact, doing something of that kind is a good way of starting up new schismatic sects!
Another thing to try is to get a lot of predictions about the world around us, that follow from the sacred texts. Even though our tame fundamentalist theologians take their scriptures as the literal truth, they don't often agree with each other in detail, but they don't let that put them off pontificating about it. And insofar as their statements are about the empirical world, they are either falsifiable or nonsensical. And practically every non-negligible prediction ignominiously fails the test of falsification.
It follows that practically all the nontrivial statements of the dogmatists cannot be the word of any honest and omniscient godhead, which is just what they claim it to be. And to claim that incoherent untruth, commonly incoherent nonsense, is the word of that transcendent god, when it can at best be the frothings of fallible humans, typically fools or parasites, automatically amounts to blasphemy.
Just as well for them that they are talking nonsense, or the whole lot would by now have been blasted as horrible examples. A nuisance to the rest of us though...