No, Daniel Sarewitz, Science Does Not Have To Give Way to Religion

Articles declaring that science is just like religion, or that science must not address religion, annoy me. Partially because they’re wrong, but mostly because they tend to thoroughly and willfully misunderstand both science and religion, to the detriment of both.

Exhibit A: Sometimes Science Must Give Way to Religion, a column appearing in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

Daniel Sarewitz, a graduate of Cornell’s geological sciences PhD program, begins by contemplating the deep similarities between religion and science as he mulls over the Higgs boson on a trip to the Angkor temples in Cambodia:

The Higgs, of course, has been labelled the “god particle” because it accounts for the existence of mass in the Universe. But the term (coined by physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, perhaps to the regret of some of his colleagues) also signals the ambition of science, or at least of certain branches of physics, to probe the origins and meaning of existence itself — which, to some, is the job of religion. Science may seek a theoretically and empirically sound explanation of such origins and religion may not. But this distinction is less clear than it seems.

It’s a common rhetorical tactic in pieces like this to characterize scientists who are sympathetic to religion as the victimized minority, subject to discrimination and dismissal by their colleagues. But Leon Lederman originally wanted to call the popular science book which gave rise to the particle’s moniker “The Goddamn Particle” for its penchant for avoiding capture and incurring expense. How does that square with Sarewitz’s earnest attempt to blend science and religion?

Furthermore, the other reason Lederman gave for his title was that the particle is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” In a sense, Lederman is replacing God with the particle by defining the Higgs boson with designations usually reserved for the divine. If providing the vital underpinning of the universe that makes existence as we know it possible is the job of a particle, why bother with god to explain mass and gravity?

Of course, other definitions of God exist, which give him/her/it different roles, but Sarewitz is taking the God of the Gaps idea and flipping it around, arguing that by the mere fact of science’s answering questions that religion also tries to answer, it is fundamentally like religion.

If that’s true, though, then one could easily say “But the term abiogenesis means ‘the beginning of life’… since that evokes the Bible’s first words, it must signal the ambition of science (or at least of certain branches of biology) to probe the origins and meaning of life itself — which, to some, is the job of religion.” Religion was once used to explain everything about the world, natural and supernatural alike. Can science investigate anything then without being accused of treading on religion’s turf? It’s really not the fault of the scientific method that Francis Bacon was born somewhat after the pre-historic Jane “floods mean the gods are mad at us” Doe.

Clearly, the hat brings the knowledge (via Wikipedia)

Sarewitz continues:

The overwhelming scale of the [Angkor] temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.

Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it.

This is where I marvel at the fact that Sarewitz has become a scientist despite his narrow and uninspired view of science. Why would scientists ever go to work in the morning if they did not feel a sense of awe and beauty in the world they are exploring? Why would non-scientists stay up until the wee hours of the morning to watch a car land on Mars if it weren’t really freaking cool? Why would Neil deGrasse Tyson be a celebrity if the immensity of space and the known universe did not simultaneously terrify and enthrall us? (Besides the fact that he’s such a boss).

The difference between scientists and the priests of the Angkor temples is that scientists do not worship their own ignorance; they seek to conquer it. They take joy in the merely real. They see in truth more grace than in blindness.

Heck yeah! (via inspirationalfreethought.wordpress.com)

Certainly, for those who believe in God, God is Truth. But Sarewitz wants us to be inspired by a universe which evades comprehension instead of one which we have the unimaginable luck to seek to understand. He thereby mischaracterizes the goal of both science and religion in one fell swoop.

That such scientific understanding [for a rational explanation for the universe] provides a challenge to religion is an idea commonly heard from defenders of science, especially those in more militant atheist garb. Yet scientists who occupy that ground are often too slow to recognize the irrational bases of their own beliefs, and too quick to draw a line between the scientific and the irrational. Take, for example, how we come to know what science discovers. Most people, including most scientists, can acquire knowledge of the Higgs only through the metaphors and analogies that physicists and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically.

Ah! The hugely sophisticated gratuitous-but-obligatory jab at “militant atheists” who think that God being an unnecessary explanatory factor might make his existence less likely. Awesome. But even worse than that, Sarewitz is making an equivalence between religious people who claim that God is the ultimate answer to all of our questions about the universe and scientists who use metaphor to understand parts of the universe which are almost queerer than we can suppose. The difference, which appears to elude Sarewitz, is that scientists don’t believe their metaphors are true. They believe that they are useful.

See? Not precisely accurate, but useful. (via Wikipedia)

If you find the idea of a cosmic molasses [the metaphor used by the New York Times] that imparts mass to invisible elementary particles more convincing than a sea of milk [a concept in Hindu cosmology] that imparts immortality to the Hindu gods, then surely it’s not because one image is inherently more credible and more “scientific” than the other. Both images sound a bit ridiculous. But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

Wrong. Wrong on all levels. The question of whether physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests on questions pertaining to physics is not a matter of inherited societal judgment. It is a rational assessment of the kind of tests and requirements in place to ascertain someone’s knowledge of advanced physics. If rationality meant figuring out everything yourself, we’d never learn anything. Rationality means an expert opinion should adjust your probability estimates for something being true, or there would be no point in having experts. It is certainly more rational for laypeople to trust physicists, who do understand the mathematics, than for them to trust Hindu cosmology, which did not correctly predict the existence of a subatomic particle 40 years in advance of its discovery, or Daniel Sarewitz, who doesn’t understand rationality.

Science advocates have been keen to claim that the Higgs discovery is important for everyone. Yet in practical terms, the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle. By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown. At Angkor, the genius of a long-vanished civilization, expressed across the centuries through its monuments, allows visitors to connect with things that lie beyond their knowing in a way that no journalistic or popular scientific account of the Higgs boson can.

That just means that religion has a better public relations team than science. It doesn’t make it more true. And there’s no reason, as I said above, why science can’t be just as beautiful and inspiring.

Why does this matter? Challenges to the cultural and political authority of science continue to rise from both ideological and religious directions. It is tempting to dismiss these as manifestations of ignorance or scientific illiteracy. But I believe instead that they help to show us why it will always be necessary to have ways of understanding our world beyond the scientifically rational.

I am an atheist, and I fully recognize science’s indispensable role in advancing human prospects in ways both abstract and tangible. Yet, whereas the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence, a walk through the magnificent temples of Angkor offers a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.

Riiiiiight. I’m sure Todd Akin’s dangerously poor understanding of human biology, Republican denial of accepted climate science, and — unbelievably — the still-present support for evidenceless abstinence-only sex education comes from science’s lack of awe, rather than politically-motivated reasoning and a misunderstanding of the nature and goals of science. A misunderstanding, I must note, that this article only deepens.

Religion may have succeeded at being beautiful, in some sense. I’ve written before that it gives me that sense of awe. But science’s goal is not to be beautiful; it is to be true. Wonderfully, it manages to accomplish both. Science popularizers, science bloggers, and science writers have all begun a path (one, I might add, religion had a four thousand year headstart on) that will lead to sharing that beauty with all of humanity.

Before you claim that science is incapable of providing the wonder that religion does, give it a chance to get its pants on.

About chanam

Chana is a fourth year mathematics major at the University of Chicago. She is a vegetarian Jewish atheist feminist, and is thus usually angry about something or other. She also blogs at www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com

  • Drew41

    Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. –Max Planck

    It’s idiots like these guys…

    • http://profiles.google.com/benjiman.blanchard benjiman blanchard

      I’m a bit confused by what you are saying… 

    • Douglas Packard

      Well that’s just totally false. Count me as one scientist without any faith.

  • Troy Truchon

    I’m sick of the phrase “Militant Atheist”. How is it that an atheist is labeled a Militant for opening his mouth to tell a theist he’s an idiot. In what way is verbally expressing ones viewpoint similar to Militant Christians, Militant Muslims, and Militant Jews who actually take up arms and kill people (Like those who started showing up at town meetings armed a few years ago here in the US)? Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was a Militant Atheist, Richard Dawkins is not.

  • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

    I think I get Sarewitz’s underlying point. That doesn’t mean I agree with it, mind.

    What I’m gathering here is that Sarewitz is ultimately terrified of not existing. He wants there to be an afterlife, so he allows enough room in his calculus for religion to be “right”, at least as far as the question of existence goes. I would surmise that his day-to-day involves science done correctly and with integrity, but that underlying fear has forced him to express himself in hopes of justifying some kind of certainty that consciousness continues after death.

    Although I admit I’m wild-ass guessing this I’m offering it as an explanation because I used to feel the same way. I have a (now quite out-of-date) background in science, but at the same time I was completely freaked at the idea of not existing. That caused me to be dishonest with myself, and I used confirmation bias and compartmentalization with wild abandon to grant me certainty (such as it was) that there was an afterlife. But that was the only thing I looked to religion for – I felt, and still feel, that all of the other trappings of theism are nonsensical and embarrassing. My suspicion is that Sarewitz is doing pretty much the same thing.

    • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana Messinger

      That’s a really interesting interpretation, but Sarewitz says in the piece that he’s an atheist, so I’m not sure that’s what’s going on.

      • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

        Atheism doesn’t automatically preclude a desire for an afterlife. Note I wrote “desire” – which is quite different from “a belief in”. I’m definitely an atheist, and a skeptic, so at this point in my life in the absence of objective evidence for an afterlife I live my life as if there isn’t one. My skepticism doesn’t stop me from *hoping* for one, though.

        • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana Messinger

          You’re right about atheism, but he also says, ”
          he allows enough room in his calculus for religion to be “right”, at least as far as the question of existence goes” which doesn’t seem particularly atheistic.

          • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

            Yes, because it’s clear he’s giving weight to his experiences around and in Angkor Wat when it comes to expressing how he feels religion and science conflate and clash. He could still be an atheist while failing to be a skeptic when it comes to beliefs that are motivated by fear.

  • RobMcCune

    Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it.

    As an explanation for objective reality, not in regard to the human experience.

     

    Most people, including most scientists, can acquire knowledge of the Higgs only through the metaphors and analogies that physicists and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically. 

    Then wouldn’t the understanding be mathematical not metaphor? I didn’t understand classical physics until I learned the math.

     By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown.

    Does he mean the jungle and rocks? Also, were Angkor temples open to the public? I’m pretty sure his experience was due to tourism, and not religion.

    Yet, whereas the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence, a walk through the magnificent temples of Angkor offers a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.

    This guy is a scientist, he should use a bigger sample size.

  • Edmond

    But… but… the MAGIC!!!

    How, EXACTLY, does walking through a temple ”connect” people to things “that lie beyond their knowing”??  If they don’t KNOW what they’re connected to, then how can anyone be sure that they ARE actually connected to anything?  Couldn’t they simply be INVENTING their own idea of “connectedness”?  With doubtless certainty, everyone who wanders through such a place will feel connected to something DIFFERENT from what everyone else feels connected to.  Should we simply assume that this tells us that there are 7 billion different gods and afterlifes, a different one connecting to every different person?  Or can we jump to the conclusion that there’s only ONE god, and he’s just inconsistent?

    OH, if ONLY there were some sort of… METHOD… for studying and testing these ideas, which would allow us to identify and discard unsupported notions.

    Oh well.  I guess we have to rely on the remnants of an ancient (genius/vanished) culture for our connection to things that are obviously just WAITING to be connected to.  We can trust that they knew all about the “unknowable”, because they made pretty buildings and things.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so militant there.

  • http://twitter.com/dcrwrites Dave Robinson

    I see Angkor, or the Pyramids, and am in awe of the humans that did it, of the engineering marvels constructed by human hands and human minds. Every human construction is a testament to understanding over mysticism.

  • Ibis3

    Jane “floods mean the gods are mad at us” Doe.

    Since men have historically been the ones in control of constructing and propagating these myths (often enforcing profession of belief in them by acts of violence), I think that should probably read John “floods mean the gods are mad at us” Doe.

    • http://www.themerelyreal.wordpress.com/ Chana Messinger

      Haha, fair enough. I intentionally used Jane because I’m sick of people talking about the past and about history as if only men existed in history, but your point is also true.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    “the ambition of science…to probe the origins and meaning of existence itself — which, to some, is the job of religion.”No. No, no, no.
    Religion never probes these things. It just tells us what to believe. The job of religion is to guess our origins and what angers the deities and to stick with it no matter what. Science does all the probing.
    Just because religion and science often deal with similar topics does not mean they have similar goals or similar ways of achieving those goals. I wish someone just stopped him right there and then he wouldn’t have had to write this horribly flawed column.

  • MV

    Further proof that getting a PhD does not always equate to intelligence, wisdom, or even education but rather time and perseverance.  I guess there’s a reason that it also stands for piled higher and deeper or referred to as knowing a lot about very little.

    • Agnostic

      This statement I like. Scientists nowadays seem to be elevated to a god-like status. How much does an average peron know about science really? Especially in a country like US where 15 year old students rank 17/34 in science and 25/34 in maths according to OECD world education ranking. Scientists never tell us the assumptions they use in theories. They never tell us the circumstances that must hold in order to obtain cerrtain results.+10-10=0, but +10-10 is not equal to nothing. The universe comes from nothing- that one I must really think about.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Of course, the premise is utter rubbish (say I, as a professional scientist). There is absolutely no overlap between religion and science. Science doesn’t try to explain the “meaning of existence” for the simple reason that there is none. It’s not a scientific question, and IMO, isn’t even a meaningful philosophical one.

    Many people do get a curious feeling when visiting an ancient place like Angkor Wat or the Pyramids. I certainly have. For me, it comes from the weight of history, from contemplating the sheer number of human stories that have played out in these places, over a nearly unimaginable length of time when measured in human generations. There’s no real mystery… in fact, the same sensation can be induced with electrodes in the brain or with psychoactive drugs. The feeling is something that we have every reason to think science can fully explain- if not now, at some point. Religion, of course, is completely useless here. Indeed, it will be science that ultimately explains the nature of spiritual and religious feelings… and there will be nothing supernatural about them.

    Science is supreme in explaining every aspect of the physical universe; religion, none. The only questions religion legitimately deals with are philosophical ones… and it generally does this very poorly in comparison to secular philosophical approaches.

  • Jim_Lahey

    I think as a jounalist he is lacking in vocabulary and imagination. I suppose his visit was amazing and gave chills like the first time i felt the ‘holy spirit’. I have since felt it several times, knowing that it was my own emotions. It is hard to put into words, so inferring the supernatural probably suited publishable needs. AND it adds appeal to those who believe in the supernatural!

    My name is Jim Lahey
    and I am your trailerpark supervisor

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

     ”The overwhelming scale of the [Angkor] temples, their architectural
    complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting
    combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the
    fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose
    enormity and logic evade comprehension.”

    Oh boy…. the Derp runs strong in this one.

    The temples of Angkor, and I know as I have spent many months there, are in anything BUT a natural setting. The whole landscape is man made and was altered radically from what it was.

    The stone buildings that remain are merely the leftovers – Angkor was primarily a city of wooden buildings that are no longer there (where there are trees now once stood wooden buildings).

    And another thing – whilst in the early days of research it was assumed that the city collapsed due to wars and invasion, it is now accepted that the city collapsed due to man made stresses on the natural environment (such as the Tonle Sap lake) and water table that made the civilization untenable. They now stand as monuments to mans failure to live in harmony with nature on a sustainable basis.

    Of course, if like TweedleDumb here your only experience is the theme park like central complexes and you view the whole lot through rosy tinted theocrat specs then its no wonder you dont actually learn anything.

    If any readers are going the only way to see it properly is spend two or more weeks there and hire a local on a motorbike to drive you out to the temples still deep in the forests and rice paddies a long way from the central complex. They are just as beautiful, and all the more so for being in a real unspoiled setting and free of bus ferried tour groups. I spent several months there on different visits and still havent seen a lot of the outliers. A good guide book is also a must have.

  • Earl G.

    Nice take-down, Chana.  

    Since Sarewitz’s article is in Nature, I hope lots of other scientists will also rail about how terrible his logic is. 

  • EdStarr

    My question is: Just how do you go about getting so shoddily reasoned an article published in Nature?

  • Kotza

    Anyone trying to reconcile religion with science has an understanding of neither (although some leniency can be given to the deist or pantheist for example)

  • the_analyzer

    It seems the guy who wrote this article has taken the wrong message from Sarewitz’s essay in Nature. Sarewitz is not asking us to abandon empirical scientific methods to spiritual texts or saying that Hindu priests are somehow more reliable than physicists. The idea is that the view of the Universe that ancients had is not TOTALLY at odds with what we know today. The molasses and milk example is a classic one; the preference to molasses over milk has stuck for who-knows-what reason, but Sarewitz claims it is because people just take a scientists metaphors over a spiritualists metaphors just because the former knows better. The author of this post is merely spewing his personal venom against the religion he has seemingly come to despise personally without appreciating the sentiment of the Nature article’s author.

  • Todd Armstrong

    Truth is beauty. Beauty truth. Have we settled this one. Sincerely asked.