Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Science and Religion

The New York Times published a somewhat general book review. It is about different books whose authors dared to pick up the science-religion cross point. Needless to say, there are many issues here. Sadly enough, they are all interconnected. There is no way to make out things from this mess. One issue concerns directly the relation between science and religion. Another quite different, though not so easily noticed as such, is the relation between human scientists and their religious beliefs. These are, perhaps, the easy ones. Other thorny issues have to do with the mythical meaning of life, the supposed need for religion, and the all so general stupidity of human beings. For more than two thousand years humans have dealt with these topics. The book review deals mainly with the first two, easy, issues. The result, however, is surprising.

Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich and Joan Roughgarden have recently published their books. All of them have a common topic: there is no inconsistency between science and religion. After all there is, they claim, a great number of scientists with deeply embraced religious beliefs of all sorts: Catholic, Christian, Evangelic, and what not. The claim has a laudable side. In a state where conservative religious views take more and more hold of power relations, arguing for intelligent design and creationist theories to be taught, it might be a nice pragmatic move to show that you can understand evolutionary biology without cheating to your own personal Jesus.

The view is contrasted with that of Daniel Denett and Richard Dawkins, who explicitly follow the view, common to Marx and Nietzsche, that religion is more a sickness than bliss. Both authors, i.e. Denett and Dawkins, argue that there is no place for religion within a proper scientific understanding of the world. They realize, however, that atheism constitutes – as Nietzsche so clearly put it more than a hundred years ago – a brave and courageous thing to do.

Thus, we are presented with both issues: what humans do with science and religion (for the former religion-lover scientists) and what science and religion are (for the latter atheist scientists). The former realize that humans get a lot into this thing called religion. The latter realize how stupefying that is. The former claim that we should, then, give people science through heaven’s gate. The later claim we should give people vaccines through the microscope’s view. Who should we believe?

The fact that religion, like folk-psychology, has been around for such a long time gives us reason to think that is has somehow helped. At least, it forces to understand it as more than just an evolutionary adornment. Let alone the possibility that it be an evolutionary hazard. That is why, among others, Denett has come up with an account of it. Religion has helped by giving humans an easy exit through the need of understanding the world. The time has come, however, to avoid the easy exit and start doing some serious, autonomous reasoning around here.

For sure the fact that the immense majority of humans still have some or other religious understanding of the world does not show that the worldview it expounds is true. That such arguments are flawed has been shown over and over again. See, for example, Wittgenstein’s opening of “Über Gewissheit”. And this, I guess, is also an argument against experimental philosophy, intuitionism, and all the proposals that intend to get things straight by just asking people how they feel and what they think. If we were to build up our science by asking people about the world we would still believe that the earth is flat, that it sits on the very center of a closed universe and is protected by the first motor, or perhaps four gigantic turtles (or better, why not a pencil?).

That said, I am worried about one thing: up to what extent is it consistent, and even morally correct, to be both a scientist and a religious believer? Before attempting an answer let us get rid of an easy exit, the easy exit of Collins, Gingerich and Roughgarden: the fact that there are (even hundreds) of scientists (even famous, intelligent ones) that are believers gives no answer whatsoever. Their mere existence makes none of this consistence. It won’t be the first time that intelligent, laudable, amazing scientists end up being surprisingly stupid when it comes to personal moral knowledge (e.g. the German Intelligentsia of the Nazi Regime).

If science and Religion are to be compared is because they both must make a similar offer: a conception of the world and ourselves within it. So lets take religion as another theory of the world. What is the difference between them? I see one very simple: self-criticism.

Both views, one must accept, stand up on certain beliefs and claims that are very rarely object of direct proof or even doubt. Science, for instance, presupposes that there is a natural world full of natural causes; and, until very recently it also presupposed that it was full of atoms. Religion, on the other hand, presupposes that there is one or more gods. What is the difference, one might ask, between presupposing the existence of atoms and presupposing the existence of god?

This is the difference: to presuppose the existence of atoms comes as the result of a self-critical questioning as to which, among our available theories, are better explanations of our experience. To presuppose that there is a god comes, at the very best, as an ineffable, unexplainable dogma. They are both, to my mind, reasonable. It’s just that reason covers such a big array of possibilities, from autonomous to heteronymous, from good to bad, from altruistic to perverse. I think good science stands sometimes close the autonomy, good and altruistic poles of reason. I am sure that the majority of human beings with religious beliefs stand on the heteronymous, morally bad side that, unfortunately, turns so easily into the perverse.

The reason I believe this is simple: morality is a matter of autonomy. As Plato well pointed out, what is correct is not that good is because god said, but that god said because good is. To do something just because god said so (leaving communication problems aside) is not to act morally, it is to act gregariously. The same goes for our theories of the world. To embrace evolutionary biology because it is the result of a self-critical process where questions and answers have been constantly in display is not the same as to believe in intelligent design, or creationism, just because the priest, mom or dad said so.
Being a scientist is much like being a skeptic: it is a matter of forging one’s own understanding by one’s own means (of course, the tradition plays an important role here, but it does so critically, not dogmatically). Thus, a person that does science in the morning, while buying dogmas on the street late in the evening, is just cheating herself and others. To defend, on the one hand, that there must be opened critical judgments on our theories (as I suppose any single scientist worth the label defend), while, on the other, close their judgments and criticisms when it comes to the acceptance of god’s existence, is both inconsistent and immoral.

Thus, science and religion are two very different things, as distinct as water is to oil. This, so far as I can tell, is the relation between science and religion as such. Another very distinct is, one must say, the relation between scientists and religious people. This have been sometimes together, sometimes apart. Which is something rather sad than surprising about human beings. The scientist-dogmatic believer relation shows up a different face. It is, however, a face we should reject. It is the acceptance of a double standard for believing, and, as such, it is morally deplorable. Furthermore, it is the rejection of the individual’s autonomy, which constitutes the basic (perhaps only) foundation of morality and moral judgment. Religious people around the world should not only be taught about evolution. They should be taught about human rationality and how autonomy has to do with it. And this is nothing more than human nature, no need for gods here.

It is not surprising, human nature being so complex, that so few people (even among famous scientists) are able to understand this. Thank God we have people like Dawkins and Denett!