The View From the Ground

Over the past two months, I’ve written about the differing epistemologies of religion – where the individual’s personal conviction is taken as a reliable guide to truth (“The Aura of Infallibility“) – and science – where the assumption is that individuals are fallible and should work as a group to correct each other in a spirit of free inquiry (“Self-Correction“).

The question I now want to turn to is this: How does a lay person tell the difference? Why should people who are not particularly educated in either religion or science – which is most people, after all – choose one over the other? More important, from our perspective, what reason do they have to make the right choice? Looking up “from the ground” at the two mountain peaks of science and religion, how can they tell them apart?

As we know well, science has far better evidence in support of its hypotheses. But to most people, examining both religion and science in the degree of detail needed to confirm that would be an enormous endeavor. And to what end? To decide an abstract philosophical point? It’s no wonder that most people stay in the faith they’re brought up in. Even if they wanted to find a different system of thought, just getting started might seem like an overwhelmingly difficult task.

From the outside, all belief systems seem similar. Creationists and other pseudoscientists often exploit this confusion. If they can put a man in a suit with letters after his name on stage, to argue against a different man in a suit with different letters, the audience will often assume both sides must be equally matched – even if what the creationist is saying is total nonsense to anyone who actually knows anything about the field being discussed.

So, what reason would a nonexpert have to choose science over religion as a way of understanding the world? I have three reasons to offer that even an outsider can appreciate:

• Science has a clear trend of progress. If, after several centuries or millennia, scientists were still divided into numerous squabbling camps, fruitlessly arguing over issues that had been in dispute since the beginning – then we might have reason to doubt that science produces an accurate view of the world.

But science, as any person can see, is not like this. Scientific disputes and arguments do occur, of course; but after enough time has passed and enough evidence has been gathered, they are settled, and science moves on. No camp of scientists is still arguing against quantum mechanics, or the heliocentric solar system, or continental drift. Those disputes have been settled, and science has moved on. (There is still a tiny minority of dissenters to the theory of evolution, but even here the exception proves the rule: these dissenters are motivated first and foremost by religious beliefs.) Today, scientists are arguing about the nature of dark matter, and whether Homo floresiensis is a separate species of human, and what the precise effects of global warming will be on the world’s climate. If history is any guide, then doubtless in a few decades these controversies will be settled, and scientists will be considering other new problems.

This progressive process, this building upon past achievements, is the unique hallmark of science as a way of knowing. Unlike religion, science solves problems. Rather than fracturing into perpetually warring sects, science over time becomes more unified, not less, as it steadily increases the number of areas in which consensus has been achieved. This alone should give us confidence that science is actually discovering something real – the true nature of the physical world – as opposed to enshrining the varying products of human imagination.

• Science has built-in methods of self-correction. It can’t be overstated that science has a way of overthrowing prevailing wisdom built right in. Everyone is free to submit their evidence and arguments to the review of their peers. There is no central authority who decides what scientists must believe, or what statements may not be questioned. This method has worked well since the scientific revolution, continually updating old and mistaken ideas with new and more accurate descriptions of the way the world works.

When religions undergo correction, by contrast, it is always imposed on them from the outside. Search history for an example of the theologians and authorities of a religious sect being persuaded through rational debate that one of their doctrines was wrong, and then agreeing to change it. I doubt you’ll find one. Instead, change in religion occurs when a small group of people declares that the prevailing wisdom is wrong. Inevitably, they are met with ridicule, suppression, and often violence from the established theological authorities. (By contrast, try to find two groups of scientists who went to war over some disputed theory.) Often, this process leads to the factioning of new sects and the beginning of a new round of religious warfare. (See last point.) Sometimes, when society’s consensus becomes too overwhelming to ignore, sects’ official dogmas do change – although, again, it’s usually the authorities who are the last to give way. This dogmatic attitude, unlike the self-correcting humility of science, is far less likely to detect whatever errors there may be in a sect’s view of the world.

• Science can demonstrate accomplishment. Even to the uneducated, it should be clear that science works. Through scientific research, we have produced a steady stream of inventions and achievements which people of a few centuries ago – or even a few decades ago – would have considered near-miraculous. In just a few centuries, science has taken the human species from wooden sailing ships to transcontinental flight and space travel; from flint and tinder to nuclear fission; from the four bodily humors to transplant surgery and gene therapy.

By contrast, the accomplishments of religion are non-existent. What advances have come about in two millennia and more of prayer and theology? More potent faith healing? More effective prayers, with a markedly improved response rate? More and better prophets who can do more and better miracles? Forgiveness for sins that could not previously be forgiven? No, religion is in the same place it always was, and is still offering the same explanations for why its beliefs and practices fail to have any measurable, tangible effect on the world around us. If religion had anything like the level of accomplishment of science, people would regularly be flying to Heaven and visiting God in person by now.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    And if I were a theist I would ask you to demonstrate that progress is good or something to be desired.

  • Rob~N

    I imagine the religious response to an argument of this type would be: “Our religion was perfected from the start. It needs no advancement.” Religions and religious people, as you said, tend to ignore criticism.

  • misterkel

    I agree with the above comment. I don’t believe in God, but ‘progress’ is a questionable assessment. It is science that has made possible the destruction of the Earth through greenhouse gasses, after all. People are measurably less happy in the most advanced societies, as well. Primitive tribes have a far higher degree of personal satisfaction than Americans, for example. At least, science says so.
    Also, I am a Buddhist, and an atheist, and I wonder about your opinion on my particular religion. I have written an article called Buddha is an Atheist and am considering a longer work.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    This is post is so eloquent in explaining why one should choose science over religion that I’m thinking of sending it to my mother.

  • Jim Coufal

    Well said and helpful even in trying to separate one scientific viewpoint from another. I am currently involved in a situation where an eminent scientist is challenging many facts of global warming (he doesn’t necessarily accept them as “facts”). Lay people are bombarded with such facts and with strong suggestions on how to change their lifestyles to reduce human impact on global warming (better yet, global climate change). How do they choose? More important in many regards, policy makers must make decisions even in the face of scientific uncertainty, which itself plays into the hands of those who want to maintain the status quo. How do they choose?

    I’d sincerely be interested on your thoughts on these kinds of issues.

    Jim

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Ah, it’s good to be back. :) Let me address some comments:

    mcv:

    And if I were a theist I would ask you to demonstrate that progress is good or something to be desired.

    This point isn’t about goodness or desirability, but rather, about truth and effectiveness. The argument is that scientists, as a whole, are not divided into endlessly squabbling sects the way religions are. There are no rival sects of Newtonists, Einsteinists and Planckists still at each other’s throats after a few hundred years. These debates have been settled, scientists worldwide are more or less in agreement, and the debates have moved on to new issues. And this process occurs steadily over time in every scientific field.

    To my mind, there’s only one way to explain this: Individual scientists, by using the scientific method, are discovering the true nature of reality. The only reason they agree, and continue to map out new areas of agreement, isn’t because individuals from every race and culture just happen to be independently coming to the same opinions. (Scientists are a contentious, contrary lot.) It’s because their positions are based on evidence and testing, which have cut away the incorrect ideas and revealed one theory that is more reasonable and better supported than all its competitors.

    But religion is not like this. After hundreds and thousands of years, most religious disputes are no nearer resolution than they ever were, and in fact new sects and denominations continue to appear. Rather than a process of steadily increasing agreement, there’s a process of greater divergence. This is the pattern you would expect if these beliefs were not based on external reality, but on the imaginations of their holders.

    Rob~N:

    I imagine the religious response to an argument of this type would be: “Our religion was perfected from the start. It needs no advancement.”

    Yes, every religion’s apologists do say that. But that conclusion, as above, is not based on testing and evidence to which anyone can appeal. It is based on tradition, private faith, and the acceptance of handed-down dogma. As such, it can have no persuasive power to anyone who does not already accept it. Given the vast number of squabbling religions, and given that every religion’s defenders believe that all the others are false, why should an outsider believe any one of them over all its competitors?

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Excellent post. It’s great to have you back.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse, great post. Progress is a self-evident tautology: “Any improvement is better.”

    The anti-progress argument seen in a couple of comments here is completely specious and beyond tiresome. It’s misanthropic.

    Sure, people have often abused the tools given to them by science. All life has a rapacious nature as well as a self-transcending one. It is up to us to devise systems to channel the intersection of progress and human nature into positive outcomes. If we do not and allow some groups to exploit the earth at the expense of others, that’s an indictment of the legal/political framework that allows it. Put a price on externalities and this problem will go away. Start with a price on carbon emissions.

    Back to the point of progress, knives can be used to prepare food or to slit someone’s throat. That does not mean they should not have been developed or should be banned.

    Science simply gives humanity more knowledge and more choices. With this increased power comes increased responsibility. There is no going back. I always laugh when I hear people whining like scared children about progress. It’s like they want to freeze time, which is not possible. Short of locking up all the scientists, how would a society prevent discoveries from being made?

  • 2-D Man

    Science has built-in methods of self-correction. It can’t be overstated that science has a way of overthrowing prevailing wisdom built right in. Everyone is free to submit their evidence and arguments to the review of their peers.

    “Bueller…? Bueller…? Beuller…?”

    There are other examples, but this is the most publicized of recent religious attempts to muddy these waters.

  • Karen

    The anti-progress argument seen in a couple of comments here is completely specious and beyond tiresome. It’s misanthropic.

    I agree with you. Yet it seems a hallmark of a certain set of post-modern, liberal religious believers to deny the benefits of progress and to point out that the atrocities of the 20th Century were made possible by advanced weaponry, nuclear capability, etc.

    I think of them as the “anti-Enlightenment” crowd, and I only wish they had the option of living in pre-Enlightenment society for a just a week or so to see if they like things better back then. ;-)

  • Matt R.

    There are those Christians who assert that Science deals with a different realm than Religion and that the two can be compatible. That is, science can tell us about the natural world, but religion tells us about the spiritual one. This idea only works with theists who are intent on maintaining their religious beliefs while still accepting mainstream science. Obviously it can be rejected because there is no spritual reality. Furthermore, if there were, it seems that the processes and procedures of science should be able to be used to explain it.

    I also think that it is important to note the lack of progress of religion. It seems that religions are no closer to coming to one description of the divine. So….good point.

    I think the apologetic which I mentioned above could be difficult to get around, not because is is necessarily grouded in sound reaoning or evidence but because it is so widely and dogmatically preached. The second we try to pit science against religion, the religious person will say that this is unnecessary and that the two systems are complimentary. Actually, if God did exist, they probably would be. On one hand we would be exploring the world that is, and on the other, God is revealing information about the world that is. The only problem is that the information “revealed” by God is often fallacious and must be explained away as metaphor or through convoluted apologetic acrobatics which continually astound and amuse us all.

    Matt

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Ah, the NOMA argument. Dawkins had an interesting thing to say about that, however, in that when theists think that science somehow supports their position, NOMA goes out the window. But, when science doesn’t support their view, then it’s NOMA all the way.

  • Dennis

    I think in terms of accomplishments, theists would point to good deeds. This, we know, is not dependent on religion. Also, I think they would state their accomplishments are saving souls from Hell (if they’re not Calvinists). Coincidently untestable though.

  • kraryal

    Hey, if you want to claim saving souls as an accomplishment, that’s nicely testable in the number of adherents, or proportion of believers for any religion for proxies. Hm… no religion has even achieved a majority proportion yet, and they’ve had centuries. Oops!

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Also, I think they would state their accomplishments are saving souls from Hell (if they’re not Calvinists).

    Actually, I know some Calvinists that think that god wants to use them as the instruments for forcing others to believe, behave, and become chosen. So, it’s technically god’s accomplishment, but they are the instrument that god uses, so they’re sort of part of it.

  • http://troyjordan523@att.net Jordan

    Your suggestion that global warming is among the disputes that have been settled is flat wrong. Disputes are settled by evidence. I would not assert that the evidence for global warming is as scanty {actually non-existent} as that for the existence of a diety. But I do assert that the evidence that it is significant or that it poses a problem for mankind is far from convincing. In fact, much of the surface temperature data has been proven to be not only wrong but rigged to create a climate record that comports with the thory of catastrophic change. In addition, the atmosphere is not behaving as the theory predicts. Most troubling, the proponents of global warming have assumed the attitude and methods of the religionists. They resort to ad hominem attacks and argument from authority when a skeptic dares to question their pronouncements. Good scientists welcome skeptics. Most of the global warming proponents most emphatically do not. They are the modern day eqivalent of the flat earth clerics. They cling to a their belief long after the evidence has rendered it untenable. I will leave it to the reader to divine why this is so.

  • hb531

    I think the typical layman considers science a respectable method for ‘improving’ society, and religion is thought of as ‘much bigger’ than science. It’s like religion is set on this pedestal that is beyond reproach and science could never possibly understand it. It is presupposed to be the answer to the meaning of life and the universe. Remember, we’re talking about laymen here.

  • random guy

    The “progress is destructive” line is one I frequently get tired of too.

    Here is the best refutation of the argument I’ve come across.

    Steven Pinker: A brief history of violence

    His basic point is that the number of human beings that are being killed goes up over time, but at a much slower rate than the growth in the general population. That combined with the media’s improving ability to report on modern violence, and our rising standards of acceptable behavior gives us the illusion that violence and atrocities are increasing, while in fact the world is becoming much safer and kinder.

  • Lyn

    Being able to distinguish falsehood from truth is a key attribute of wisdom. Its better to have no particular beliefs or opinions than to believe falsehoods. False beliefs can cause more harm than no beliefs. There is one objective reality, one objective “truth” but there are many subjective realities which are constructs of the human brain. Subjective realities such as knowledge, virtue, truth and honesty, the past etc, exist as subjective realities, but do not constitute objective realities.

  • Steve Bowen

    Much of the general public’s mis-understanding of science can be laid at the door of popular media and news reporting, which consistently fails to present cojent explanations of why scientists agree on certain things,and frequently presents contrary opinion as being “the other side (implies equal)of the argument”. This is evident in the U.S in the creationism vs evolution debate, it was a constant source of annoyance for me over the MMR vaccine controversy and still impedes the wider understanding of global warming.

  • HairTonic

    Good to have you back ebonmuse.

    Science today is the culmination of reasoning and logic via observation, hypothesis and expermentation for thousands of years, with a solid base of premises to explain our world as result.
    Religion is the polar opposite, with rigid beliefs, resistance to change and supressive of people the deviate from standard practice. It is supported upon a controversial and contradictory base, with little to show other then being a lightning rod for conflict throughout history.

    HairTonic

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    No camp of scientists is still arguing against quantum mechanics

    In a strict sense this is true, that more or less since Bell’s experiments were published in 1964, no one still argues about quantum mechanics. But in a broad sense, a lot of people believe that QM will be subsumed into a so called ‘grand unifying theory. ‘ Einstein never accepted QM (Bell came after his death,) and spent the last 35 years of his life looking for unified field theories which would combine his General Theory of Relativity and QM. This project has more or less died, but efforts still continue today in looking for a theory that will combine GTR and QM.

    Others think QM all there is, and GTR will someday be folded into QM, etc. But I would not say at all that these issues are settled.

  • terrence

    WHAT??? No bodily humors? Got to see my doctor immediately. OMGF reminded me of two classic examples of when NOMA went out the window – the “discovery” of the James ossuary, and the pre-carbon dating period for the Shroud of Turin. On the other hand, the image of the Blessed Virgin DID appear on a Chicago expressway underpass, hmmmm…….

    Who was it who said “Name one example of a natural phenomenon for which a scientific explanation was replaced by a supernatural explanation”

  • Chris

    This point isn’t about goodness or desirability, but rather, about truth and effectiveness.

    Sure, but the assumption that truth and effectiveness are preferable to illusion and ineffectiveness is itself an Enlightment viewpoint. Maybe, as misterkel suggests, people would be happier huddling in caves – at least, the ones that hadn’t died of (now) easily preventable diseases *yet*. At least, with all the deaths from disease, childbirth complications, climate, and predators, there’d be plenty of food for the survivors. You too could escape having to work all day by living in a more primitive society, and you only have to give up the half to two-thirds of your family that would be dead without the benefits of civilization.

    I think this illustrates how difficult it is to break into an epistemological system from the outside. Even the idea that you should decide truth by looking at the world is rejected by some theist belief systems – let alone that a belief system that leads you to be able to control the world better must be one that correctly understands that world.

     
    You seem to be assuming that someone will be starting on the “ground” (without any preconceived belief system) with the capacity to choose their belief system. In real life, most people are indoctrinated with a belief system *before* they develop the capacity to choose one for themselves, so that in order to change belief systems, they have to first be capable of rejecting the one that was thrust upon them as a child.

  • terrence

    Just remembered who said that, it was Greta C. –KUDOS for one of the coolest lines ever.

  • Jim Coufal

    Your suggestion that global warming is among the disputes that have been settled is flat wrong. Disputes are settled by evidence. I would not assert that the evidence for global warming is as scanty {actually non-existent} as that for the existence of a diety. But I do assert that the evidence that it is significant or that it poses a problem for mankind is far from convincing. In fact, much of the surface temperature data has been proven to be not only wrong but rigged to create a climate record that comports with the thory of catastrophic change. In addition, the atmosphere is not behaving as the theory predicts. Most troubling, the proponents of global warming have assumed the attitude and methods of the religionists. They resort to ad hominem attacks and argument from authority when a skeptic dares to question their pronouncements. Good scientists welcome skeptics. Most of the global warming proponents most emphatically do not. They are the modern day eqivalent of the flat earth clerics. They cling to a their belief long after the evidence has rendered it untenable. I will leave it to the reader to divine why this is so.

    Jordan:

    If your are replying to my earlier post, I was not suggesting that the global warming dispute has been settled, but rather asking how do lay people and policy makers choose ways to react in the face of conflicting scientific debate. Your post is full of assertions and I would appreciate links to the “evidence” you assert exists (e.b., rigged climate records). Further, are you implying some kind of widespread conspiracy among scientists?

    Jim

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I’d also like to see Jordan back up his assertions that the “proponents of global warming” “resort to ad hominem attacks and argument from authority when a skeptic dares to question their pronouncements.”

    Good science does welcome skeptics, but not skeptics that are only contrarians due to their a priori beliefs. I don’t consider Creationists to be skeptics worthy of advancing the cause of science. In the case of global warming skepticism, most of the skeptics that I’ve read have had their papers debunked, then gone on to tout the same information as if nothing had happened (i.e. McKitterick and his cohort whose name escapes me right now). Also, many are under the payroll of companies that have a stake in this, in the same vein that big tobacco funded scientists to say that cigarettes are not harmful. It doesn’t necessarily make their data wrong, but it does cause one to pause and consider the source.

  • Stephen

    misterkel:

    People are measurably less happy in the most advanced societies, as well. Primitive tribes have a far higher degree of personal satisfaction than Americans, for example. At least, science says so.

    Can you give some references for people in less advanced societies being happier than people in more advanced societies? All the surveys I’ve seen rank advanced societies such as those in Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands towards the top. Don’t forget that America is not a very advanced society by the standards of these countries. (Advanced technology yes, but not an advanced society.)

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    Millions have died from mechanized warfare.

    HUNDREDS of millions of lives have been saved (and odors improved) by advent of cheap soap and treated water.

    So yeah, I’m going to pick progress over, um, not-progress every time. Atomic bombs, global warming and the rest be damned.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    That’s another thing; I’m pretty damn sick of the “whatabouttheatomicbomb?” argument against “progress” and/or in the favor of the argument that science and religion both cause violence.

    1.) There is nothing at all in nuclear physics that requires it be used to kill people. By contrast, the Qur’an and the Bible both have numerous passages demanding and/or praising violence or death.

    2.) The development of the atomic bomb was a project undertaken by scientists, yes. But any number of them were religious Jews, Christians, etc. So too with the political and bureaucratic leadership that started the Manhattan Project. So too with the crew of the Enola Gay. The idea that the atomic bomb was just science and technology run amok and that if only “religion” had gotten involved it would never have happened.

    3.) Too, scientists–many involved in the Manhattan Project itself–were among the first to raise moral questions about nuclear weapons. Most notably, Robert Oppenheimer, who professed no particular religious feelings, spoke out against any future use of the weapons.

    4.) The 2 uses of atomic weapons in wartime killed about 250,000 people in Japan, if you include later deaths from radiation. But millions died in warfare before and since. The only reason that atomic weapons ever seem to raise so much moral concern is that they kill a lot of people quickly. Napoleon had several tens of thousands of captive Turkish soldiers executed with muskets. It took three days, but his poor troops got the job done. Are muskets therefore any less evil than atomic bombs?

    5.) Nuclear physics also made possible nuclear medicine and nuclear power. Admitting the problems with nuclear power, these developments have saved and improved lives.

    6.) At the risk of sounding parochial and nationalistic–and as someone who really likes Japan, Japanese people, and their culture (I’m studying the Japanese language right now)–those bombings probably shortened the war and saved lives on both sides.

    So no, I don’t view the WATAB (What About The Atomic Bombs?) Argument for the “evil” of science or “progress” to be smart or convincing in the slightest.

  • Kallan G

    Wasn’t the spark for the enlightenment and the subsequent ‘progress’ not a group of careering academics looking for the next Big-solution TM, but a bunch of rich, idle dilettantes with a vague sense of ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if we knew why X?’

    Forget progress for the sake of lives saved and think maybe progress as curiosity satisfied or questions raised. Give me the satisfaction of learning something new over complacency or self-aggrandisement any day.

  • bipolar2

    ** Indescribably divine makes for an ineffable nothing **

    Dealing with those mystically inclined, the ‘I-feel-god-in-my-heart’ crowd, and in general all irrationalist believers requires a different approach from dealing with rationalists.

    Their usual spiel: “I know that my god exists — but he/she/it cannot be described, or is beyond human understanding.”

    The philosopher Wittgenstein, in one of his seemingly cryptic utterances said, “A nothing would be as good as a something about which nothing could be said.”

    Spelled out: you claim that something exists, but no property (like, being blue) could ever be ascribed to it. This is the famous Western “via negativa” – negative path to god – also the “neti, neti” not-this, not-this of Hindu mystics. God is not blue, is not evil, is not good . . . .

    Logically, however, a claim that something exists does not ascribe a property to it — or, as you ought to have learned in logic class — existence is not a predicate. (Non-existence is not a predicate either.)

    Nobody can talk about Nothing. Who’s doing the talking here? (Nobody?) And what’s being talked about? (Nothing?) And what did Nobody say about Nothing? Zen Buddhism figured all this out long ago — hence, koans if you’re lucky or a hard slap in the face when you’re persistently obtuse.

    ‘A god exists’ seems to be saying something, but it is meaningless. You might as well be saying “bar-bar” or saying nothing at all. The Viennese novelist, Robert Musil wrote “The Man without Qualities.” The man who can’t be there. A nobody. Nothing.

    If a god “is a something about which nothing can be said,” then this putative something is equivalent to “a nothing.” So-called mystics in India, China, Japan, and even Europe apprehended that any *god* without qualities was nothing. And, they were right.

    bipolar2
    © 2008

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    The sad thing is that most people don’t recognise even these arguments for science. I hate to sound elitist, but the Sun-reading (or “National Enquirer” if you’re in the US, I guess) man in the street won’t be able to apply these concepts – I doubt one in five people outside the scientific community even understand the notion of “peer-review”, for example. As you say, one man in a suit with letters after his name appears much the same as another.

    Am I being too pessimistic? It has been said that I have a very negative view of humanity…

  • MisterDomino

    I doubt one in five people outside the scientific community even understand the notion of “peer-review”, for example. As you say, one man in a suit with letters after his name appears much the same as another.

    No, you’re right, yunshui. Somehow, many people tend to think that if a given thing is beyond their understanding, then it must not be true. I’m not sure they comprehend that they simply lack the necessary background information.

    I’ve had this argument turned on me by Creationists time and again; many assert that because I don’t understand God, I don’t understand Creationism/I.D. While it may not take evidence to understand something (Aesop’s Fables, anyone?), it does take evidence to confirm it. Just because I believe that I’m the greatest athlete in the world doesn’t mean that I am, unless I have the track record to back it up.

    Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Because a thing is difficult for you, do not suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper, assume that it must fall within your own capacity” (Meditations, Book VI, Verse XIX).

    Even a Neo-Stoic philosopher from Antiquity believed in the promise of progress, and they didn’t have antibacterial soap or painless surgery. If the Stoics can have a positive view of humanity, then we can, too!

  • Dennis

    I wish I wasn’t away for the past 2 days, there’s a lot of good stuff here. This is the exact topic going on at Pharyngula, where there is a clip of Ben Stein saying Science leads to killing people. I don’t know how many people read both blogs, but it it is astonishing what that man will say these days.

  • Christopher

    Misterkel,

    “People are measurably less happy in the most advanced societies, as well. Primitive tribes have a far higher degree of personal satisfaction than Americans, for example.”

    1. And drunk people tend to be much happier than sober people – does that mean that the drunks are better off?

    2. What is the criteria for “happiness” being used here? Remember – “happiness” to one may very well be “sorrow” for another.

  • HairTonic

    I see a lot of debating going on whether progress in Science has really brought benefits in mankinds.Someone even suggested cavemans might be happier.

    No thanks, but I’d rather bask in the benefits that progress in Science bring–longer, more comfortable lives, no fear of falling prey to predators nor the neccessity to scour for food with starvation as reward for failure. You see, cavemen had their own problems too. And Science is the humaniy’s quest to solving our problems.

    Religion does not do any of these.

    “The sad thing is that most people don’t recognise even these arguments for science.”
    -yunshui
    It dosen’t matter whether they understand or not. What matters is that the benefits of Science trickle down to them.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I am with Kallan — the benefits of science are nice, but I insist on learning as much as I can about that which interests me, i.e. the world, simply because I crave the joy that new knowledge and insight give me — for the most part. And if the knowledge I gain is demoralizing or disturbing, it would seem that it is that much more neccessary for me to know it.

  • OMGF

    No thanks, but I’d rather bask in the benefits that progress in Science bring–longer, more comfortable lives, no fear of falling prey to predators nor the neccessity to scour for food with starvation as reward for failure.

    Yeah, I bet running from dinosaurs really suxors! ;)

  • Christopher

    “Yeah, I bet running from dinosaurs really suxors! ;)”

    Been watching “Land of the Lost” lately?

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    “People are measurably less happy in the most advanced societies, as well. Primitive tribes have a far higher degree of personal satisfaction than Americans, for example.”

    Uh huh. Yeah, well, there’s also pretty good evidence that both individual Buddhists and ESPECIALLY people in majority-Buddhist countries are happier than adherents/countries of other religions, particularly monotheists. Sure, there’s a hell of a lot of other factors to consider before you can do an apples-to-apples comparison of, say, Israel and the U.S. versus Bhutan and Thailand, but it’s worth thinking about. I’d say it’s definitely nicer to believe one lives in an “impermanent” world rather than a “fallen” one.

  • Ingersoll’s Revenge

    Yeah, well, there’s also pretty good evidence that both individual Buddhists and ESPECIALLY people in majority-Buddhist countries are happier than adherents/countries of other religions, particularly monotheists.

    I disagree. Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world.

    Likewise, though, I find it hard to believe that primitive peoples who lead short lives full of struggle and pain have a “higher level of personal satisfaction” than someone who benefits from soap and clean water.

  • Samuel Skinner

    The happiest country in the world is Denmark. It is important to note that the happiness is mostly because of their attitude and not inherent well being. Still you can make people from poor countries unhappy and people from rich countries happy by showing them the others condition.

    After all, Americans might not be the happiest, but after spending time in a place with no sewers, they will sing a different tune.

  • misterkel

    Chris,

    –Maybe, as misterkel suggests, people would be happier huddling in caves – at least, the ones that hadn’t died of (now) easily preventable diseases *yet*.–

    I mentioned nothing about huddling in caves. I referred to more primitive societies and I am speaking of the strength of extended families and the like versus the breakup of the nuclear family. (I don’t remember where I read it, so disregard it.) Many people in the civilized West hate their parents. Certainly science and technology have done great things, but a cheery faced ‘Science is perfect’ attitude is delusional.

    Christopher,

    –1. And drunk people tend to be much happier than sober people – does that mean that the drunks are better off?

    2. What is the criteria for “happiness” being used here? Remember – “happiness” to one may very well be “sorrow” for another.–

    No, drunks are only happier when drunk, and often quite miserable when not. You are describing a temporary state of mind versus a life situation.
    For #2 – The criteria is, I assume, a psychological test. As you say, it is relative, but so is ‘benefits.’
    There is a massive insistence that science is incapable of harm, but it’s simply untrue. People may be weary of the arguments against global warming, but that doesn’t make them false.

    There is a good body of research on the so-called happiness center of the brain.
    http://www.crystalinks.com/medbrain.html Scroll down to Tracing the Synapses – it talks about science disproving God.
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/libby_purves/article1136398.ece states that scientists found that Buddist monks are significantly happier than other people. They don’t have running water or any material possessions. Many of them have lived (not huddled) in caves for years, and have no access to modern medicine, yet they live a long time.

    I’m sure this comment will get nailed for whatever reason. You can always find a reason to attack. All I’m saying is that science, as wonderful as it is, may not be the key to happiness, at least in its current manifestation.

  • Robin

    Science converges on reality. ’nuff said.


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