Science vs. Religion and Philosophy

We discussed these ideas in a few earlier posts, notably Creationism, Politics, and Everything, but that was more than four years ago and it’s time we raised the subject again. As we recently said in Why Does Creationism Endure?:

One might justifiably think that when an obviously faulty belief exists and is countered with a clearly superior explanation, the wrong belief should fade away. This routinely happens in science — see Wikipedia’s list of Superseded scientific theories. But people trained in science, who appreciate the concept of a disproved hypothesis, are far from a majority of the population.

How do we decide which ideas are correct and which are wrong? At the most basic level, we have our biological senses. They work fairly well. They have to or we wouldn’t be alive. What’s great about them is that we don’t have to think to receive sensory input. You know when you’ve put your hand on a hot stove. If not, you’re in trouble. If someone’s sensory apparatus is so defective that he doesn’t know he’s walking off a cliff — well, he’s gone. His genome is automatically filtered out of the gene pool. The feedback of natural selection is fast and final.

Aside from that, the few human activities that provide reasonably certain resolution of errors and disagreements are science, engineering, and free enterprise (military tactics too, but that’s a kind of engineering). What those activities have in common is rapid, readily perceived feedback from the real world. There are also a few — very few — intellectual areas where there’s little or no disagreement — arithmetic, geometry, and Aristotelian logic are the best examples. Although some scientists, mathematicians, etc. have been religious, religious doctrine has never, so far as we know, contributed to such activities.

As for the rest of human affairs, by the time errors are detected (if they ever are) and generally acknowledged (which is rare) it’s often too late to make corrections. With politics (a subset of philosophy), feedback is often delayed, sometimes for generations. A government doesn’t know it’s gone wrong until it’s smacked by economic collapse, civil war, revolution, or foreign conquest — maybe all of the above. Nations rise and fall, and when they fall their philosophy and gods often fall with them. But that kind of historical judgment isn’t immediate, and the lessons, although harsh, aren’t permanent. The same errors reappear elsewhere, again and again.

Philosophy and religion provide no reliable mechanism for error correction. If one wants to believe in Plato’s theory of Forms, it doesn’t accomplish anything, but it doesn’t seem to result in any harm. It’s a relatively benign personal choice — see Faith-Based and Evidence-Based Thinking. One may even find fellowship in the company of others who believe the same thing. Such beliefs can persist, often for millennia. As with Plato’s forms, belief in things like Noah’s Ark has no serious consequences — except sometimes in academia, but that’s not serious.

Everyone who holds unverifiable theological ideas imagines that he is correct, notwithstanding that his ideas conflict with those of others who are equally certain. Why is there such disagreement? It’s because such ideas are untestable. There’s no feedback from reality. Supernatural beliefs have no dispute resolution mechanism — in this world. When such a system encounters a competing supernatural view, conflict is almost inevitable, and the only advantage to that method of resolving conflicts is that it makes for interesting history.

There are some exceptions where feedback is immediate, such as when a religious leader makes a very specific prediction about the immediate future that fails to occur, or in the case of faith healing, which can result in death instead of an otherwise available cure, but most religious leaders are clever enough to avoid such obvious traps. Instead, the promised feedback is in the afterlife — a promise for which preachers are never accountable.

A belief system that provides no feedback from reality is pure gold for those who promote it and make their living from believers. It’s why creationist websites rarely allow comments, and those that do vigorously expunge what they consider disagreeable commentary. They seem to instinctively avoid feedback.

The fascinating thing about science is that it has emerged from philosophy (it was once called natural philosophy) by devising what philosophy had always been lacking — a rigorous technique for obtaining feedback. We know it as scientific method.

Science uses real-world testing, which is why geocentrism, the recent global flood, creationism, the luminiferous aether, phlogiston, and so many other wrong ideas have been abandoned — they all failed the reality test. In science, we look to the natural world for answers, and when an idea is shown to be incompatible with reality, everyone drops it. Through mechanisms such as publication of research in scientific journals, peer review, verifiable data, and reproducibility of results (where applicable), scientific progress is achieved through the falsification of incorrect theories and the validation of theories which are increasingly closer to truth.

And then there’s the free enterprise system — a/k/a capitalism, a term which has a negative aura because of endless propaganda. Correctly practiced (an important proviso), it flourishes in free markets and thrives on competition. The cumulative results of voluntary transactions peacefully resolve competition among products and practices by rewarding those which succeed and discouraging those that fail. The results speak for themselves in terms of rising living standards. Coercion, fraud, and political interference almost always guarantee failure or inferior results — as with government-backed cartels, and (dare we say it?) government-backed unions.

The problems in human affairs (mostly philosophical, religious, and political) are because those activities lack systems for: (1) rapid error detection; and (2) peaceful, verifiable dispute resolution. The Founders had it right — at least in the limited case of religion. Where there is no realistic error detection or dispute resolution mechanism, government must be forbidden to coerce acceptance of any doctrine. Except for the protection of an individual’s life, liberty, and property (the value of which really is self-evident), coercion must be renounced.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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7 responses to “Science vs. Religion and Philosophy

  1. O Great Hand of Correction, yet again I humbly approach you as a supplicant–but this time not for my own transgressions, but to seek mercy and correction for our Curmudgeon, whose fingers slipped a tad in the penultimate paragraph of his thoughtful and illuminating post, to wit:

    (dare we day it?)

    [*Voice from above*] Aaaargh!! It’s fixed.

  2. Megalonyx:
    Appears to my entrepreneurial mind that you should not have given that information for free. Likely, if asked politely, our Curmudgeon would have been quite happy to pay you a few gold coins for the labor you expended. Maybe you were intending to subvert the entire free market paradigm, and Curm fell for it?

  3. The great divide between the objective and the subjective.

    The subjective can never be made objective (really is vanilla better than chocolate) but emotion and propaganda can drag what should be objective into the subjective realm away from the evidence. The war on science and the war on free enterprise are really two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

    At least this is my subjective opinion.

  4. With religions, differences often result in schisms, which is why there some 40,000 varieties, sects, or flavors of Christianity alone. (Occasionally they result in wars and other mayhem.) This is because religions have have no good way to use evidence or reality to settle their differences. It is all based on belief.

    Philosophy got left behind, to gaze at their navels and to try to unscrew the inscrutable, some 2,500 years ago because of philosophy’s divorce from evidence and reality.

    And, as our SC notes, science relies of evidence and logic, which resulted in the scientific method. It is not surprising that science has left philosophy and religion behind in the dust of the millennia, crying, “But, but…we were here first!”

  5. I disagree that faith is benign. Practicing faith, while not unusually an imminent threat to life, directly contradicts reason, which is the survival tool of human beings. To practice faith, in fundamentals, is to commit suicide. (The more extreme the faith, the more obvious the connection – Jonestown, anyone?)

    It is worth noting that except under severe duress or threat humans are not naturally suicidal; they are naturally interested in staying alive. So to suggest that faith is just an individual attitude or practice totally removes context. Faith is always TAUGHT by someone whose morals are corrupted, someone who sees the prospect of “pure gold for those who promote it and make their living from believers”. Someone who deliberately lies to and manipulates entire populations for the purpose of exploiting them through altered behavior. Faith is not benign.

  6. “There are also a few — very few — intellectual areas where there’s little or no disagreement — arithmetic, geometry, and Aristotelian logic are the best examples.”
    Aristotelean logic is not a good example at all; just read what Bertrand Russell writes about it in his History of Western Philosophy:

    “I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be
    wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples.”
    As for arithmetic and geometry, the reason that there is no disagreement is that mathematicians don’t discuss if axioms are correct or not. They are only interested if a certain set of axioms results in a coherent theory. As a result I can convincingly show you today that Pythagoras’ Theorem is proven beyond doubt; tomorrow I’ll give you a simple counterexample that shows it’s totally wrong. I only need to change one axiom (straight lines not intersecting).

    “Philosophy and religion provide no reliable mechanism for error correction.”
    Philosophy has and it’s actually similar to math. Philosophy for instance has provided a list of logical fallacies. But yeah, it’s woefully insufficient for making positive claims about our reality. Good philosophers don’t hold that ambition anymore these days.

    “political interference almost always guarantee(s) failure or inferior results”
    Like this, you mean?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polder_model

    Then please tell which Dutch results are inferior to American ones. Health? Life expectancy? Amount of homeless people per 1000? Education? Btw Ina Brouwer, mentioned in the link, was a Dutch politician far more radical than Bernie Sanders.

  7. Couple things:
    1) @Coyote: Philosophy hasn’t been left behind. Systems of logic and ethics are derived by philosophical thought. And classical logic tends to be math-based. I think a lot of people associate all philosophy with the “deep thoughts” brand employed by pretentious college students.

    2) Unregulated capitalism works pretty well – for what it is intended to do. Curmy’s fallacy is that he somehow thinks a completely unregulated capitalist system would work for things it wasn’t set up to work for. Yes, we’ll get our widgets cheaper because of competition, etc. But we might end up living in a destroyed environment, with only 1% of the population healthy without that pesky government interference.
    3) There are religious people who will feel that their belief systems are consistent with their perceived reality. “Jesus appeared to me and told me to bomb the abortion clinic!” “When I was clinically dead, I went to Heaven and then God sent me back” Also there’s a lot of false data they can use to shore up their beliefs “Scientists have found Noah’s Ark, a human footprint next to a dinosaur,” etc.
    This is a phenomenon explained best by Confirmation Bias – something I bring up on this site fairly often. Business owners don’t want to lose money by changing how they operate, so naturally, the data against Climate Change looks more believable than the data in favor.