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May 03 2010

Why science is better than religion

There is a very stupid argument out there in the world of arguments. It goes something like this:

You have to believe in science, just like you have to believe in religion. Therefore, science is just another kind of religion.

On the surface, that appears to be a logical premise. It even managed to find its way into an episode of one of my favourite shows. However, that’s due to an unfortunate accident in the English language whereby “believe” has two meanings. I’m not going to go through the entire argument here, except to give a specific example. The statement “I believe in myself” means that you have confidence that you will be able to perform a task based on self-knowledge. It does not (or at least not usually) mean “I have faith that I exist as an entity” although Descartes would probably have a few things to say about that. At any rate, the word “believe” when it comes to reliance on facts and observation is quite distinct from “believe” when it comes to large, unfathomable concepts. I’ll let PZ Myers and xkcd talk about that for now, and perhaps come back to it later.

However, it doesn’t matter. Let’s, for the sake of argument, allow this line of reasoning. Let’s suspend logic in this particular case and grant that you have to believe in science in the same way you have to believe in religion (or God, or faeries, or gremlins, or whatever you believe in). Even if we make this concession, science is still far better than religion for one very important reason:

Science allows you to make predictions.

Religious belief of any kind (in Yahweh, or Zeus, or Allah who is really  just Yahweh in disguise) has its origins in looking at the world and attempting to explain what has happened. Our ancestors looked at a seemingly unimaginably complicated world and made some post-hoc rationalizations to explain things. This is entirely reasonable and there is apparently some evidence to suggest it’s hard-wired into our genes for us to perform this process. Science undeniably performs the same task – evolution is a prime example of using present-day observations to predict (post-dict?) what has happened in the past to explain the world we are in today.

However, religion stops there. Any claim that religion can make about what Yahweh/Allah/Buddha (YahwAlladdha) will or will not do is wrong as often as it is right (I’m being generous here). People who are prayed for, for example, do not consistently recover from terminal illness. Virtuous, God-fearing people still get murdered, have their houses blown over by winds, go financially bankrupt, the list goes on. Following the precepts of religion does not give you any protection against the events in life over which you cannot exert control. This phenomenon (also known in some theological circles as the Problem of Evil) is commonly explained by evoking the “Master Plan”:

God has a plan for us all. We cannot know the mind of God, as He is so far above us.

I call shenanigans. What this argument is essentially saying is that it is impossible to know with any certainty what YahwAlladdha will do. I’m going to repeat that for the sake of clarity: the Master Plan argument is a statement that nobody can know with any certainty what YahwAlladdha will do in the future. Since the Master Plan appears to all eyes to be effectively the same as random chance, in which sometimes good things happen to good people and other times they don’t, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that belief in YahwAlladdha is not useful when it comes to trying to predict the future.

If you’ve been keeping score, science and religion are tied in terms of being able to explain the past (although science is much better, we’ll round up). However, religion draws up a big goose egg when it comes to reliably predicting what will happen in the future.

So how about science? Does science do any better when it comes to making predictions? You bet your ass. The examples are legion: the moon landing, medicine, the very technology that allows you to read and me to write this stunningly brilliant post, again the list goes on. I’m going to pick one that is intuitively easy to grasp for the sake of specific illustration: the origin of lightning. There are two competing hypotheses in this example. The first is that lightning is caused by the discharge of electric potential energy borne by particles interacting in large weather systems. The second is that lightning is forged by the god Haephestus and hurled to Earth by a wrathful Zeus.  Ignoring for a moment the absurdity of the second hypothesis, let’s treat them both as equally plausible from the standpoint of a person who is naive to the evidence.

I need to back-track here for a moment to make a very important statement. That is, that science is a process. Science is not merely the facts and theories that have been generated by scientists; it is the method by which those facts and theories were developed. In that, science is a tool used to generate reliable knowledge and understanding about the world. The process involves proposing an explanation for a phenomenon and then testing that explanation while simultaneously ruling out other potential explanations. Science is the application of observation and reason to find suitable explanations for everyday events. Phrases like “scientific truth” or “science says X” are attempts to equate the process and the outcome. To someone who understands science, these statements are innocuous reference to the method behind the findings. However, to those who do not understand science, the statements are blind appeals to the authority of experts. The important thing to remember is that science is the process by which we test our understanding of the world, and allows us to distinguish and eliminate erroneous explanations.

So how does this apply to our example of lightning? Our naive individual has to decide between two competing explanations. She sees that lightning does indeed fall from the sky, which neither confirms nor denies either hypothesis (since everyone knows Zeus lives in the clouds). She observes that lightning is most often accompanied by rain and wind, two phenomena which are not explicitly within the domain of Zeus, but he could still be teased in as an explanation. She further observes that sparks, potentially a miniature form of lightning, can be generated through static electricity independently of the wrath of anything. She sees that lightning tends to strike most often at certain times of the year, independent of the actions of the people (who may or may not have done anything to provoke any wrath). She also sees that even the virtuous followers of Zeus are occasionally struck by lightning, with approximately the same frequency as the iniquitous. By this time, the Zeus hypothesis has been quite exploded. As our observer goes on to learn more about electricity, weather patterns, conductivity and other properties of matter, she will gradually come to accept the weather hypothesis as evidence-based fact.

The advantage to using this process – rather than slavishly adhering to a belief in Zeus – is that our observer can learn to predict when lightning will strike. She can also use her theory to anticipate methods of reducing the impact of lightning by building structures that ground electricity safely. If she had instead asserted that “the will of Zeus cannot be predicted“, then no such anticipatory steps could be taken. Our observer would go on worshiping Zeus until the day she is killed by a random lightning strike. It is interesting to note here that the validity of the weather hypothesis doesn’t necessarily completely rule out the Zeus hypothesis. One could argue that Zeus behaves exactly like random chance because of his ineffable will. However, if the unfathomable will of God Zeus looks exactly like random chance that can be explained and predicted through the scientific method, there is no value in adding Zeus to the equation. The point is that religious explanation that opposes scientific findings is wrong as often as it is right, and religious explanation that is in line with the science is essentially indistinguishable from science and does not contribute anything meaningful to the discussion.

I have chosen perhaps an absurd example – nobody has believed in Zeus in thousands of years. However, it should be noted that the identical line of “reasoning” is used in contemporary attempts to explain the natural world through God (specifically Yahweh). They are flimsy arguments that require you to believe (in a religious sense) in order to work. As I said previously: if you have to believe in it for it to work, it’s nothing but a placebo. True statements don’t require you to believe, they just require you to look at the data.

In order to forestall the argument that science can say nothing about moral matters whereas religion can, I will make a brief comment here (first, you should look at my previous post on this subject). Religion provides many assertions (in the form of prescripts or commandments) of what is “good.” Religious text is consistently short on justification for these assertions; the only support these texts can offer is that “God says it is so.” We are then all enjoined to believe not only in the existence of God (for which no evidence is offered) but the inerrant infallibility of the texts from which His edicts supposedly come (again, with no evidence to support this claim). Logical contemplation and observation, however, provides us with a great many moral assertions that are supported by more than hand-waving and invocations of an invisible Almighty. Many texts – from Socrates and Aristotle down through Kant, Hobbes, Mill, and Bentham up to Sartre, Pirsig, even Ayn Rand – provide us with discussions on what is moral and immoral that do not come from “God says it is so”, but descended from deontological first principles and founded in reason and observation. Religious belief fails to provide us with consistent and clear moral guidelines except insofar as it says that certain things are bad because God says they are. In this way, it fails even this exemption on moral grounds.

Even if we grant religious belief the same status as belief in the scientific method (and they are by no means the same type of belief), religious belief still fails to measure up to scientific beliefs. While both can be used to explain things that happened in the past, only the beliefs arrived by way of the scientific method can consistently provide us with the means to predict what will happen in the future. Religious invocation of a Master Plan is indistinguishable from random chance, and retards progress and understanding. Science can do as good or, more commonly, far more accurate a job at predicting events in the future and it does not need to invoke any unprovable religious concepts to do so. Science is distinct from religion and is in fact far better.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Tim

    I understand a little bit where the beliefs thing comes from. Many theories exist to attempt to explain observed phenomena. Convergence and Contagion theories quite accurately predict crowd behaviours, for instance, but by their nature cannot be proven in law form.

    Wouldn’t both be based on observations and understanding of human nature?

    Anyway, I think this is all a little off topic. Religion’s role is not to predict the future (I thought). Why the focus on this?

  2. 2
    crommunist

    Tim, if the two theories are in direct conflict, whichever one is most supported by the observed evidence is the superior theory. If I refine Contagion theory and my refined theory is a more accurate representation of what happens the next time I have to predict crowd response, I would consider it to be better, even if it is not completely correct.

    In times when religion and science conflict, there need to be some criteria for determining which is superior. In this post, I set out one such criterion; namely, that while religion and science are both able to provide a narrative about the past (only one of which has any evidence), religion is useless when trying to extrapolate what will happen or what should happen in the future, and must rely on the scientific method. Just because they are both derived retrospectively doesn’t grant them equal veracity.

    There are innumerable other reasons why science is better than religion, this was simply the one I wanted to talk about today.

  3. 3
    Joanaroo

    Give me science over religion any day! I like having physical proof as in a scientific event, rather than place my belief in something that cannot be proven. Here in the US we are constantly having to hear that the greatest minds in the world are wrong, politically driven (meaning liberal), and then we have this extreme Christian argument that the world is only 6,000 years old and that Adam and Eve cavorted with dinosaurs. You know, as if all the archeological studies, fossils, carbon dating and even preserved bodies found in permafrost are not even present. Used to be intelligence and discovery were treasured and honored in America by all as something to strive for, but no more, according to these idiots.

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