ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Are science and religion compatible?

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

I like to think that science and religion are like two immiscible liquids (water and oil, for example), which do not mix or interfere with each other, nor are incompatible, that is, they could live together peacefully in harmony. But is it? Just as there are no two completely immiscible liquids (every liquid has a certain solubility in another liquid, albeit small), science and religion often mix, and, when this happens, a “frontal collision” usually occurs.

In fact, religions have had to alter their dogmas numerous times in the face of new scientific discoveries. Earth is no longer the center of the universe, the stars are no longer located in a sphere around the Earth, the moon has craters, the supralunar world is no different from the sublunary world, the man was not produced from clay nor woman from a piece of the rib of the first, man and chimpanzee possess a common ancestor, among many other examples. The Catholic Church already admits the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life (Giordano Bruno was sentenced to be burned at the stake by the Holy Inquisition on charges of heresy for defending this idea). Fortunately, when science and religion clash, common sense tends to the former. However, if even today the religion’s dish in the balance still weighs heavily against that of science, in the past it weighed more than this.

But, after all, if religions have to correct their dogmas whenever science presents contrary evidence, why would God have “revealed” us the wrong knowledge the first time? The answer I hear most is that we misunderstand the initial message. This answer leads to several other questions: (1) If God knows that we misunderstand the message (after all, he is omniscient), why did he allow us to continue misunderstanding it? (2) If God is infallible, why was he not clearer in the knowledge transmission, even though he knew that mankind did not assimilate it very well? Or he isn’t such a good teacher? Or he isn’t omniscient? Or he isn’t infallible? (3) How can we trust that we understand all other revelations in the holy scriptures right?

Photo by Andre Gorham II on Unsplash

One point at which science and religion collide head-on concerns miracles. We know from empirical experience that it is not possible to rise from the dead, nor that a virgin becomes pregnant before the advent of artificial insemination, nor that a burning bramble bush talks to you without being consumed by flames, nor that sea waters suddenly open leaving a passage through the land, just to name a few famous miracles. Many, even among those who believe in science, or even practice it (scientists), firmly believe that these things actually happened in the way they were described in the scriptures. Others prefer to believe that these canonical records are nothing more than allegories, metaphors, used figuratively or symbolically, which did not actually occur, but were placed in the scriptures as allegorical forms of making a narrative; and that, even so, we could trust the sacred records. Anyway, either you believe that miracles are possible, or you don’t believe, there is no middle ground. It’s a matter of belief!

From the epistemological point of view, science and religion are completely distinct. In the first, the knowledge origin lies in systematic observation and rational explanation of natural phenomena. The origin of religious knowledge is completely different: it is in the sacred scriptures. In other words, religious knowledge comes from (supposed) divine or spiritual revelations. It is revealed to us directly by God or indirectly through his emissaries (angels, saints, priests, messiah, etc.).

Scientific knowledge is never “revealed”, it is always acquired. Note that the verb reveal cannot be confused, here, with teaching, that is, with the knowledge transmission from person to person, from generation to generation, etc. I’m using this verb, as well as the noun revelation, in the sense of divine revelation, that is, the knowledge acquisition provided by God.

In another story that I have published here, I have placed religions within a classification system that I have called belief systems. It may seem unfair, and even inappropriate, to mix all beliefs into the same “can of worms”. After all, in those belief systems, in addition to religions, I include all sorts of popular beliefs, such as superstitions, naivety, conspiracy theories, magic, etc. In fact, these are very different things, with different origins as well. However, they all have one common point: they are beliefs, that is, they do not originate in the rational observation of the facts. Its origin is usually canonical, mythological, mystical, supernatural, etc.

A belief is a mental process of those who believe in something. It’s a manifest opinion with faith and security. In modern empiricism, belief represents a subjective disposition to consider something right or true, because of habit or sensitive impressions, provided that it is compatible and consistent with rational reflection. According to this definition, a belief can have its origin in science or outside it (in religion, for example). However, in this story I will use the term belief always referring to the perceptions of the world not originating from the rational observation of phenomena, that is, cognitions acquired by means different from the scientific method.

At this point, a question arises: do we take belief as knowledge? The answer is relative, it depends on what is meant by “knowledge”. In principle, I would answer no, because belief and knowledge are in distinct semantic systems. Knowledge is the act of perceiving or understanding something through reason and experience. Philosophically speaking, knowledge is an act or faculty of thought that allows the apprehension of a cognoscible object, through diverse and combinable cognitive mechanisms, such as experimentation, rationalization, classification, analogy, contemplation, intuition, etc.

Belief (in the sense that I am using this story, as described above), in turn, is something that is believed or not, regardless of the evidence. As I said earlier, it is an opinion expressed with faith and security. It has no relationship with science. Then, in lato sensu, it is possible to acquire knowledge both through science and through religion or any other belief system. There are several ways to acquire knowledge, for example, reading a book, a journalistic or scientific article, watching a class, a lecture, a video, a report, a documentary, etc. Knowledge of a historical, political, or economic fact, for example, is neither scientific nor religious but is knowledge.

Auguste Comte. (snl.no)

Auguste Comte created the philosophical movement known as positivism, whose basic idea is that science and its methods are the only source of truth and the basis for an optimistic or positive view of the future. For Comte, human thought would go through three stages. The first stage was marked by the supernatural explanation of natural phenomena. So, it was mythological and religious. Knowledge would be “revealed” to us by a god or something worth it, using its emissaries (priests, imams, ayatollahs, mythological figures, etc.), through scriptures. In the second stage, people would no longer conform to the (supposed) revelations that only the (supposed) emissaries of god would have first-hand access to and only priests understood; they would require proof. The first one is the stage of faith and the second, stage of reason. The advent of philosophy would mark the beginning of the second stage.

In the ancient world, there were some trading warehouses where there was the convergence of a variety of different cultures. This cultural diversity provided its inhabitants with access to a myriad of opinions and worldviews. One of these places was Miletus, an Aegean city located where Turkey is located today. There emerged the pre-Socratic philosophers, who developed the first systematic way of looking at the world in terms of explaining principles. There, too, began the thought of the second stage. “Water is the principle of all things” (Thales of Miletus) and things like that. Philosophers created magnificent systems and currents of thought to explain the world and our place in it. For the second stage thinker, the universe is organized in such a way as to allow us to discern the right from the wrong, the good from the evil, the light from the darkness, etc.

Although based on reason, there were some inconsistencies in the second stage of thinking. Thinkers often disagreed with each other. Each one had its own theory of the universe. Some arguments seemed better than others. But, when all was said and done, no one could prove that systematic philosophy was coming somewhere.

The third stage began when a group of thinkers proposed to test the ideas empirically. This would be the best way to find out what is true and what isn’t about any subject. Suddenly, scientists gave up on making useless abstractions and began to base their findings on concrete evidence, which is never total, but at least allows them to make decisions about probabilities. Knowledge, they said, is always growing and changing, because the world we want to learn about is a very complicated place, full of unknowns. The true scientist[1] must structure his hypotheses and test them step-by-step. Hypotheses that are confirmed by our best tests and can be replicated by others deserve to receive the status of knowledge. Hypotheses not confirmed (for which there are counterexamples or instances of rebuttal or no result that confirms it) should be simply discarded. From now on, our convictions about the world, who we are, where we came from, and how we should design our societies, would no longer come from faith (first stage priesthood) nor pure reason (second stage sandcastles), but from the scientific reason (third stage empiricism, based on fact-checking).

However, for Steven Yates, the third stage ended when his icons “expelled God” from human morality. Pierre Laplace said about God: “I don’t need that hypothesis.” Fyodor Dostoevsky amended: “If God doesn’t exist, everything is allowed.” Friedrich Nietzsche buried him for good: “God is dead.” There were numerous attempts to develop moral philosophies based on something other than religious doctrines. Kant’s thinking, for example, invoked duties deduced from pure reason (for Yates, he was more a second than a third thinker). But sometimes, one duty seemed to conflict with another.

British philosophers who auto called themselves utilitarian derived the morality of the binomial happiness versus unhappiness, pleasure versus pain etc. According to utilitarian, we always have to act in a way that maximizes happiness and minimizes unhappiness, seeking the greatest amount of good for the largest number of people. However, other philosophers saw problems in this reasoning. First, different people and different communities understand happiness in different ways. In addition, imagine that we isolated a group and, disregarding their happiness and their pleasure, we would make all other members of society better off so that the total amount of happiness and pleasure is increased. This would be perfectly compatible with utilitarianism!

Friedrich Nietzsche. (pixabay.com)

But what Nietzsche was trying to say is that it wasn’t God who was dead, but whatever the idea of God had represented, including morality as most people understood it, as even secular morals were trying to have Christian principles without having to resort to the supernatural, like duty, serve others and so on. Science had revealed no reason to believe in gods, spirits, or anything transcendent or supernatural. For Nietzsche, we would either develop new values for the materialistic world of science or we would end up moved on to nihilism, a cultural environment where nothing matters, because nothing has value. He challenged other thinkers: “Develop a proper morality for this world.” He himself sought to develop such morality. What resulted was not the morality of Christian duties, but rather the morality of those who move the world, who make their own rules and command them to impose order and create security, usually in the midst of chaos and hostility. A morality of the masters, not of the slaves. Most people are weak, are slaves, and want to be led. They need to be led! Instead of kneeling faced their imaginary God, they would turn to bowed to some substitute. It couldn’t work!

For Steven Yates, a fourth stage, not predicted by Comte, began there. And his initial milestone was existentialism. Rebellious movements against “the system”, as beats (1950s), hippies (1960s), and post-modernism (1970s) marked this transition. If the third stage thought was based on science, technology, commerce, and education, and was inherently optimistic about human possibilities, the fourth-stage thinking was pessimistic and cynical, bordering on the desperate.

According to Yates, positivism was buried in 1975. The idea of some kind of universal morality, universal human rights, which Nietzsche would say is a Christianity reminiscence, was dismissed. It was typically defined by white, Christians and heterosexuals’ men. From the 1990s, identity policy has been developed, in which each group defines its own reality and seeks its brand of reward against its oppressors. Truth becomes as fluid as morality.

Meanwhile, industrial civilization seems to be destroying the planet, literally! Deforestation, depletion of natural resources, oceans filling with non-biodegradable waste, global warming, beginning of the sixth mass extinction in the planet history, etc. Mass consumerism marks the third stage and deepens in the fourth stage. Where will it take us?

In Yates’ view, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic will mark the beginning of the fifth stage of human civilization. This will be characterized by the end of mass consumerism, a gradual decrease in soil resources extraction, use of technology for collective finalities, resources abundance to meet human needs, utilization of renewable energies, vertical agriculture, massive use of robots for automatable activities, reduction of economic inequalities. I will not describe here the reasons that the author has to believe this, because it would escape the scope of this story. Who wants to know details, access the original source. Recently, a movement in this direction led by French actress Juliette Binoche and French astrophysicist and philosopher Aurélien Barrau received the support of 200 personalities of culture and science, including names such as Madonna, Ricky Martin, Iggy Pop, Penelope Cruz, Robert De Niro, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darín and Pedro Almodóvar. I hope Yates is right!

Finally, if you are religious, then you acquire certain knowledge through divine revelation. If you are or have ever been a student or scientist (or are simply curious about science), then you have acquired other knowledge through science. If the knowledge acquired through religion eventually conflicts with the knowledge acquired by scientific means, then you will have to deal with it. You will have to choose which of these conflicting knowledges is the most reliable. In another story that I published here, I revealed how easy it is to believe in untruths, in invented stories. For my part, I’d rather believe in inconvenient truths than comfortable lies. I follow the facts, wherever they take me, even if I don’t like that fate. The search for truth must be systematic, rational and dispassionate!

[1] William Whewell, contemporary of Comte, coined the term scientist. Until then, the third stage thinkers self-titled natural philosophers.

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Ricardo Bastos Cunha

Ricardo Bastos Cunha

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I am a free thinker. I always seek the truth, wherever it takes me. I prefer inconvenient truths to comforting lies.