Science, Religion and Certainty

  (12 October 07)
  by Greg Spearritt

SoFiA member David Miller of Victoria sends the following thoughts on science and religion:

As one of the soapbox orators at Melbourne's Speakers Forum, I am often to be found bellowing in competition with Creationist speakers. These Creationists and Fundamentalists demand to know how anybody could possibly believe in Evolution. "The fossil record is incomplete", they say. They shout their other criticisms and conclude with the observation that Evolution is useless as a belief.

When it's my turn to respond I spruik back at the Creationists that Evolution is not something to be 'believed' in. It is just a theory with a high probability of being correct, that's all. It's not 'The Truth', any more than science in general is The Truth. Capital 'T' Truth is for believers in religion and for those who seek Certainty. The psychological need for Certainty is the hallmark of Theistic religion.

"Yes", I admit to my audience, "There are many Atheists who do believe in Evolution and who treat science as The Truth". These Atheists are using science as a 'secular religion'. They are worshipping it. They want science to give them Certainty. But science can never give Certainty, only higher or lower probability. New evidence causes changes to both hypotheses and theories. Sometimes hypotheses and theories have to be discarded.

The knowledge on which science is based is conditional. It is constantly modified by new discovery and experience and by being subjected to the most rigorous standards of examination, testing and experimentation to see whether it meets the standard of replicable results. Consequently science is ever changing. People who rely on science for their Certainty are wasting their time. And what's more, if they themselves are the researchers then they may distort, pervert or even destroy those areas of science within which they are active.

You can tell who these science worshippers are by listening to their verbiage. Do they implore you to accept that 'high probability' means 'near certainty'? Do they use terms like: immutable laws, established authority, universal principles, self-evident claims to reason, fixed bodies of knowledge, enduring facts? You can almost smell their desperation for Certainty. Why don't they go back to supernatural religion to find their Certainty, and leave science alone?


David makes a very important point about science and certainty. My main argument with Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) is that he writes as if he has discovered some true, something (there is no God) as certain as the science that he usually writes about. There is a high probability that Dawkins writing on evolutionary topics is as close to the 'truth' as is possible at this time. However when he writes about religious matters the probability declines markedly. Why? Because there is so little evidence to support his views about religious matters, most of which are not amenable to observation and experiment anyway. Dawkins is a scientist: we have a right to expect (unless he indicates otherwise) that whatever he writes will be up to the standards of science. God Delusion isn't.

Posted by Scott McKenzie

Science may be ‘just another story’, but it is a story that is being constantly rewritten with the express purpose of providing empirically testable hypotheses. Ideally, scientific methodology is the achievement of replicable results by a process of hypothesis, prediction and experimentation. Dr. Peter Pockley, a science populariser, stated that, “Science is wedded to evidence. The scientific view of our planet and Universe changes because of new evidence”. He quoted Sir John Maddox, ex-editor of ‘Nature’, that it is important to educate people to understand, “…the necessarily tentative character of scientific conclusions, or theories, which all began life as hypotheses”.
Hypothesis is speculation. In other words, a hypothesis is a ‘guess’. It is, however, a guess based on new discovery, new analysis, new experimentation, new testing for replicability. We can, if we wish, label these guesses as mere ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’. But they nevertheless work! Via the scientific process they really work! One has only to look at the exponential growth of Information Technology to see how each new ‘fantasy’ replaces the previous ‘fiction’ with ever-increasing rapidity. *******************
Are my Atheist colleagues utilising science as a religion? I would answer with a qualified ‘Yes’. It seems to me that those of my colleagues who are in dire need of ‘certainty’ make science the rock on which they stand.
This is most evident when I suggest to them that it is possible that all the theories that we now hold may someday be shown to be wrong and fall or, at least, be in need of serious modification. This suggestion is usually met with instantaneous rejection. When I remind them that one of the tenets of scientific methodology is the transitoriness of theories, they reply that it is highly unlikely to apply to all theories, and will especially not apply to those theories that have stood the test of time.
Notice their desire for the status quo to continue! Notice how their need for certainty negates being open to possibility! ******************
But it is not only my Atheist colleagues who are utilising science as a religion. It is all of us! For example, when we ask ourselves, “Is the chair real?” - what is it that we all parrot-off? “A chair is ‘really’ a collection of atoms, electrons and molecules.” Yes, that is what we say. We negate our experience of the chair in the name of one of our new ‘guesses’, Molecular Theory. Instead of accepting that our seeing, feeling and experiencing of the chair is the reality we, instead, replace that reality with a Theory. That is, with a fiction, a fantasy, a guess, a speculation, a hypothesis. In other words, the fiction is real, not the chair!
We think that we have gone from religion over to science. But all that we have done is move from one religion to the next. Instead of it being God (fantasy) that is the reality, it is now Theory (fantasy) that is the reality.
Beware! We are allowing one fiction to be replaced with another.

Posted by David Miller

I "believe in Science" in contradiction to the above writers, However I am also a Sceptic Humanist. The only thing less reliable than human endeavour is that of fictitious gods (a specific creation of human endeavour). Yet as a Humanist there is much room for hope and improvement.

What most people get wrong is in my view the difference between Science, technology and human endeavour, this is in fact the mistake of the above comments and possibly even David's Millers response "There are many Atheists who do believe in Evolution and who treat science as The Truth". This suggests evolution is science, no, it is a product or theory of science.

Science is a methodology, and will itself only change a little over time. The subjects of sciences study, the technology created from it's fruits, are human, revisable and usually the replicable and changeable.

It is quite easy for me to see the methodology of science as a firm "truth". Scientific Methodology obtains relative certainty and I can maintain it as a belief, whilst been sceptical of it's use.

Athieisum is a broad "Church" and I have no doubt that many do take science as both the methodology and it's practice and imbue both with unqualified certainty.

I have not read the God Delusion yet, perhaps because I expect I know everything he may have to say. But I think it reasonable that in the absence of scientific method, religion must be a delusion. What about Dawkins and his "faulty" views of religion?, well by application of the scientific method anything Dawkins believes is a hypothesis and open to revision, this is not true for most religions.

Perhaps we can say on the one hand
As Scientific Methodology relates to technology
and on the other hand
As God relates to Religion

I conclude Scientific Methodology and God can be beliefs. Technology and Religion are open to very human manipulation and thus not a dependable place for Faith.

What has more verifiable success at improving the human condition ?

Posted by Tony

Re: “Science, Religion and Certainty.”

I was wrong! My initial statement was incorrect. I have contradicted myself.

I stated that some people use science as a ‘secular religion’.
But I also stated that these same people are ‘worshipping science’, that they are science worshippers.

What is the contradiction? The answer is that you do not worship a religion, you worship a god. Via your religion you worship or apprehend your god.
If science is your religion, what then is your god?
If you are using science as the means of its apprehension, then
I would suggest that that god is Truth, or, alternatively, The Truth.
By the rituals (procedures) of science you attain your god, Truth.

Am I suggesting that you are consciously aware that your god is Truth?
No, I am not. On the contrary, if my past experience of making ‘left-field’ suggestions is any guide, then you will immediately go into denial and declare that I am talking gibberish. (I find that this is the usual reaction of my Atheist colleagues. I also find that such far-reaching ‘god-talk’ is outside the comfort zone of the religionists).

Of course, there are many other gods that you could have besides or as well as Truth. There is Beauty. There is Goodness. There is Love. There is Justice. There is Freedom. And they are merely the beginning of the list.

Posted by David Miller

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