Monday, May 12, 2014

Science against Religion

Has there ever been an instance when religion and science came into conflict and religion legitimately won?  Imagine the reverse of the flat-world idea, e.g. science posits that the world is flat and religion argues it is round.

I think this is an unfairly loaded question.

Science, on my reading of history, exists as thoughts that people hold in a certain way. To put it crudely, the thoughts of a scientist that constitute Science are thoughts that can be transmitted clearly from one person to another and that can be proven false upon critical observation. I am annoying to some real scientists (and almost all science journalists) because I don't believe in scientific truth: for me the process of science is an accumulation of skillful lies about reality, skillful lies which exist as we become aware of our fundamental ignorance about how things work in a particular environment and learn to make that ignorance minimally poisonous. The theory of gravity, to my mind, is a skillful lie about how bodies relate to one another in space. It is skillful because its precision allows us to notice clearly where it ceases to work (e.g. in very small spaces). Much that passes for Science in the popular mind, and even in scientific journals, does not rise to this level of rigor (and skillfulness). This is particularly true of modern scientific publications dedicated to medicine and soft (not to say hopelessly squishy) sciences like psychology or economics (which latter I regard as the modern version of ancient astrology).

Religion is different from Science in comprising more (and more incongruous) things. Historically, scientists practice religion (along with other mortals), which is just a kind of organized human behavior that is more often than not explicitly irrational. (Why are we met on this field to sing at the top of our lungs, dance naked, and drink beverages that might make us live longer or kill us quicker, depending on which scientist we want to believe? That is a question that only an idiot would think he could answer definitively, it seems to me. And yet you will find some scientists--the ones I scoff at--trying to give definitive answers, explaining how the history of the universe makes rock concerts or Catholic masses inevitable.)

More often than not, what we call Science arises out of people reflecting on Religion (asking what we are, how we exist, what happens when we get drunk together, etc.). A more honest assessment of the relationship between Science and Religion, to my mind, would be that people generally have ideas (more or less clever) about what the heck Life is, and that some of them then go on to make these ideas falsifiable while others follow an opposite trajectory. Neither group of people (the generally skeptical or the generally dogmatic) argues pure Science or pure Religion (historically never simply theology, which is to Religion proper what Science is to medicine). Both tell clever lies, and both live a Life that refutes their lies constantly, whether they choose to notice or not.

Now, in light of all this, I come to the question: has Science ever gotten wrong what Religion got right? If we limit Religion to theology, historically a kind of Science (as I just noticed), then the answer is probably not.  But let this be no comfort to thee, Science, for (as just noted) Religion contains much more than just the rambling thoughts of a Plato or a Thomas Aquinas (let alone hacks like Ken Ham). It also includes years of practical experience, which is often incredibly wise where Science is naive and stupid.

Some of the most telling examples of Religion winning against Science occur in the area of diet and exercise. Religion gives people seasonality (rest at least once a week, observe holy days), where Science gives them lab schedules (work 7 days a week, night-shifts, etc., and when you get sick we'll hook you up to a fancy CPAP to see what the heck is wrong). Religion gives people fasting (the real secret behind many "miracle diets" that look great when native cultures practice them and terrible in clinical trials), where Science gives them whatever idiotic nonsense the US Department of Agriculture and the American Medical Association are currently shilling. I don't level the charge of nonsense lightly. If you care to dig into real Science, i.e. medical research, you will find a growing field in the study of iatrogenics, which reveals that much "cutting-edge" medical science (particularly in the realm of diet and exercise, and the cure for things like obesity, metabolic syndrome, and CVD) is dangerous bullshit.

If we move outside medicine to say, economics, we have Science offering people complicated mathematical formulae "proving" that debt is safe, whereas Religion tells them it is evil. In light of recent events, I am personally inclined to give this one to Religion (though others, notably economists, politicians, and bankers, will put in a bid for Science--and demand taxpayer money for further trials of their beautiful theories).

1 comment:

  1. The real problem that I see here is one that resists reduction to a convenient dichotomy between science and religion. Groups of people have a tendency to exist, and to enforce themselves violently and unnecessarily on others, employing various pressure-tactics that will always be questionable (the same way every insight we have is questionable, whether or not we become what the world would call scientists or priests). I don't believe naively in the safety of the mob that screams "Science!" (and tries to force people to eat "heart-healthy" food) any more than I believe naively in the safety of the mob that screams "Religion!" (and tries to force people to eat "spirit-healthy" food). I don't believe in forcing people to eat food. Period. I doubt the existence of objectively optimal diet (as something to know definitively for a large population, e.g. the religious or scientific community as it exists in a village or a nation, let alone the whole world).