Science and humility

Connor Wood

On this summer Saturday in Internetland, where everyone is an expert, here’s an image we could all benefit from:

Let's be humble

Source: Rob Brezsny,

Everybody, myself included, loves to feel right. This extends to religious people, atheists, scientists, and pundits (especially pundits). One thing that worsens this addiction to being right is becoming an “expert” – for example, earning a PhD or gaining public recognition in a field. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself over the years in my doctoral program.

As I’ve done more research, I’ve developed more ideas about what religion is and what role it plays in people’s lives, and my love of being right has only increased. In some ways, this is understandable and acceptable – after all, it’s pretty counterproductive when just anyone can stand up on a soapbox and act like an expert. This is why we have doctoral programs and rigorous exams – to make sure that the people who are experts are actually, well, experts.

And in my doctoral training, I’ve done enough hard work, research, and reading to have developed some strong opinions. For example, I think the evidence points clearly to an evolutionarily adaptive role for many religious practices. Synchronous activities – doing things in time with others, like singing together or even bowing at the same time toward Mecca – seem to bond people to one another, making them more generous more willing to make sacrifices for the group. Costly religious requirements, like circumcision and fasting, strengthen groups by serving as signals of people’s wholehearted investment in the collective. By binding people together into tight collectives, religion has probably helped many groups and individuals survive throughout history. A quote from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man sums up how  this could work:

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

…But I could be wrong. My view of religion’s adaptive role depends on group selection: the idea that evolutionary pressures operate at the level of groups as well as genes. This is a controversial position, and in contrast to Darwin, many of today’s evolutionary biologists reject it. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Richard Dawkins is one of them, and we all know how he feels about religion.) Of course, some very prominent biologists, including E.O. Wilson, Martin Nowak, and David Sloan Wilson, are on my side. These scientists have made powerful arguments that groups as well as genes can undergo natural selection, which then affects the genetics of group members. But that doesn’t change the fact that the debate isn’t settled, and we could still be wrong.

I could be wrong about other things, too. Religion might turn out to actually be bad for people, as the Richard Dawkinses and Sam Harrises of the world like to claim. While religion certainly hurts some people sometimes, I don’t think this will turn out to be true. But it’s vital for me to keep my mind open to the possibility.

The thing is, people often talk about Science (with a capital “S”) as if it’s a clear and perfect window into Truth (with a capital “T”). I don’t think this is true. I think science gives us remarkable tools to reflect on the world and come up with ways to test our ideas about it. But our ideas are always just that – our ideas. The world is, by definition, always bigger, badder, wilder, and more complex than our ideas could ever be. Map, in other words, is not territory. You have to simplify the world to create models of it. This doesn’t mean our models or ideas aren’t accurate, or useful – not at all! We used Newtonian mechanics to send rocket ships to the moon, for Pete’s sake. Something about science sure works.

But, of course, Newtonian theory isn’t completely correct. 60 years before the Apollo program, the Newtonian worldview had already been superseded by Einsteinian relativity. The speeds and masses involved in sending the Apollo ships to the moon simply weren’t large enough for us to need relativity theory. So we actually sent men to the moon using an outdated, and incorrect (or at least incomplete), theory of physics. Wild, isn’t it? Just because science works doesn’t mean it necessarily tells us the 100% truth about the world. And its success doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be humble – even radically humble.

This goes for scientist and non-scientist, religious believer and skeptic. No matter how strong our convictions, we should always leave room for reexamining our beliefs, for being open to the unexpected. Otherwise our ideas about the world harden into stone – and stone is opaque. I’ll leave off here with a quote from the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who would have wholeheartedly agreed:

Part company with preconceived notions, suppress your leaning to reiterate and to know in advance of your seeing, try to see the world for the first time with eyes not dimmed by memory or volition, and you will detect that you and the things that surround you – trees, birds, chairs – are like parallel lines that run close and never meet. Your pretense of being acquainted with the world is quickly abandoned.

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  • ValPas

    I, too, wholeheartedly agree with your position! I don’t think religion would have survived as long as it has if it didn’t have some beneficial (survival-enhancing) effect on those who practice it.

    Moreover, although the mythologies of the many world religions are very disparate, their ethics (“commandments”) are quite similar, and generally involve exhortations not to do harm to others (of the community). My view is that religions have served to bring under control the basically selfish (animal/human) instincts and to promote cooperation–from which everyone benefited.

    (BTW, I am a retired bio-medical scientist.)

  • Thin-ice

    I’m no academic, just someone with a theology degree who de-converted after 46 years of fervent religious belief. My observation is that genuine science already says “we could be wrong” and invites all comers to disprove a likely hypothesis. It is the part of the basic foundation of scientific research. (While not denying the personal conviction of many highly-educated and ego-burdened scientists that their view must be correct, as you say that you have experienced.) The same cannot be said of fundamentalist religion, which posits that it is true and correct, and cannot be wrong. In the spectrum of religions, however, there are those that will say “we could be wrong”.

    I guess what I resent is your implication that science (as a whole) and religion are equally guilty of refusing to say “we could be wrong”. I don’t think that is the case at all.

  • connorwood

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that someone could find something to resent in the most non-confrontational article I’ve written here – this is the Internet, after all. Science is supposed to function on the “we could be wrong” platform, but in reality it often doesn’t. This is because trying to separate scientists from science is a fallacy – science is something PEOPLE do. And as people, scientists are often just as attached to their views, if not more so, than everyone else. Fundamentalist religion, of course, is just as bad. But most religious people aren’t fundamentalists, even in the US. And many of the religious people I know are quite tentative and humble in their views. At any rate, regardless of who you think is the greatest offender, the need for humbleness applies evenly across the board – to believer, scientist, and skeptic alike.

  • connorwood

    Thanks for reading! I’m glad to know others see this in the same light that I do. Still, we could be wrong – right?

  • connorwood

    Thin-ice, I’d like to add to, and amend, my previous reply. Someone just commented on the FB post at Patheos for this article, saying:

    “It isn’t humility that says “we can’t know, we could be wrong”, it’s arrogance. The ultimate arrogance that we know better than what God has already declared in his eternal Word.”

    That comment made me realize that you’re absolutely right to point out that the religious could use a dose of humility, too. Sheesh.

  • Katie

    While a general awareness that we could be wrong is always good, I don’t think that, on a day-to-day basis, it’s the most important aspect of humility. Humility means knowing our limits – knowing where we’re probably right, as well as where we might be wrong – and having an awareness that there’s still more that we don’t know. That awareness that there’s always more to discover – that’s the sort of humility that is needed constantly in both science and religion – and it’s in exploring those limits that both can be the most fruitful. It’s also something that, at least in my experience, makes the difference between being willing to listen to people (because they can help you discover something new) and not being willing (because you’ve got it all figured out already).

  • Quid

    There’s a dichotomy between religion and science which is at the heart of the matter. Properly, the two should never contradict each other because they’re addressing different issues. Science oversteps its bounds when it becomes an ideology, and claims to understand everything about creation, and religion oversteps its bounds when it starts making scientific claims based on no empirical data at all (like that the earth is 4000 years old)

  • connorwood

    > Properly, the two should never contradict each other because they’re addressing different issues.

    This is the point that Stephen Jay Gould made when he called religion and science “non-overlapping magisteria.” I actually disagree, though; I think both religion and science are trying to get at Reality (yes, with a capital “R”), which we presume is unitary in some way. This is why I don’t think it makes good sense to leave our discussion of real values in one room and our investigation of real facts in the other. People aren’t wired for that kind of compartmentalization when it comes to the big issues of real life: how to live, what’s important, what the world is basically made of, etc. In actuality, people will always use their scientific beliefs to bounce off their religious ones, and they’ll use their religious convictions to interpret and constrain their scientific views. Asking for non-overlapping magisteria, therefore, is an interesting philosophical solution to the religion-science divide, but unfortunately one that doesn’t take into account human psychology and its need for a integrated cosmos. In my humble opinion.

  • connorwood

    Thanks, Katie – good points. Again, I’m reminded of Heschel:

    “The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words or notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.”

  • BillYeager

    Ah, yes! The ol’ call for Science, with a capital S to show some Humility, dammit! There appears to be a great deal of intentional conflation in this article, and others like it, between science as a process (‘The Scientific Process) and science as practised (The Scientist(s)).

    Oh those awful science people, so arrogant and lacking in humility, they are *just* like religious fundamentalists, aren’t they, I mean, really, truly awful people. How *dare* they make statements which exclude the notion of wonder and miracle that *is* our Universe, one which we CANNOT POSSIBLY know of in any true sense, not completely, I mean. After all, a Creator could be hiding anywhere, right? Such a Creator could even be outside our Universe, right? So who are these infuriatingly arrogant science-types to make statements that don’t allow for inclusion of The Almighty? Oh, and Harry Potter, I like him too, they should include little Harry as well then. Not the older Harry, he’s just too loaded with testosterone and unpleasant thoughts of doing things a Creator might disprove of, so they, the science-types I mean, need to stop arrogantly proposing hypothesise, making assertions and empirically testing, ummm, things, until they agree to stop being so irritatingly arrogant and agree to allow for the possibility, just the possibility mind you, we’re not making unreasonable demands here, of working in the notion of a Creator somewhere in their studies, and the young Harry Potter as well don’t forget.

    Besides, some religion spoke of avoiding certain unhygienic practices in handling food, so they *must* be right about other stuff too if they were right about things what science went and dun proved were sicknesses caused by little godless mini-beasts running around the place and getting in us through bad/evil food-stuffs. See, check-and-mate anti-religious science!

  • David_Evans

    “(of the community)”

    Ay, there’s the rub. From the ancient Israelites (who were allowed to enslave members of other tribes but not their own) onwards, some religious groups have been very willing to do harm to heretics, witches, pagans, gays, kuffar and others not of their community.

  • connorwood

    David, you’re right that religion is often very parochial, but the story is more complex. Some religious rituals and practices actually expand people’s circle of moral concern BEYOND the tribe. Here:

  • connorwood

    > they, the science-types I mean, need to stop arrogantly proposing hypothesise, making assertions and empirically testing, ummm, things,

    BillYeager, I’m almost sure you didn’t read my actual article. If you had, you’d know that I’m specifically evaluating an empirically testable hypothesis about levels of natural selection in evolution. The question about group vs. individual selection is a scientific one, with heavy-hitting biologists lining up on both sides of the aisle.

    So my article is about science and how to make it work better, not about replacing science with religion (!). I think you may have been responding to a different article by someone else – or else the article you imagined you would encounter if you actually read it.

  • autolukos

    You find that sentiment surprising?

  • David_Evans

    I’m aware of that. Some of my best friends are Quakers, who put me to shame with their charitable activities here and abroad. It’s too easy to get confrontational in comments. I shall try to do better.

  • connorwood

    Wow, thanks for…being humble! I’ll try to follow your example in my future comments, as well.

  • connorwood

    I spend a lot of my time in the company of people who are very skeptical of or hostile to religion (read: academia in Boston), so yeah, I find that I’m actually predisposed to rise to religion’s defense. But playing this role makes me forget that religious believers can be just as impossibly frustrating and self-righteous, and so this FB quote was a good reminder.

  • BillYeager

    Your article is about science and how to make it work better? Really, which bit of the article and which facet of science?

    Is it a call for scientists to be open to new discoveries changing the currently accepted landscape of a particular theory? Is it a call for scientists to not demand special-pleading, that their work not be challenged?

    If so, why? A scientist *has* to accept that valid new data may result in the development of hypothesise that end up replacing existing theory. Otherwise they are shitty scientists and are being dishonest to the scientific method.

    I do understand, of course, that your particular Phud is in Theology and that you are likely to want to express opinions that you can eagerly mix in with the actual sciences, but it doesn’t work. You don’t actually have anything useful to say because, if you did, I would have expected to read something that was useful. This article was not useful, in any way, even though you desperately tried to set up a grudge-match football-team of ‘sides’ being taken, nobody really gives a shit as to how ‘Religion’ with the capital R could be crow-barred into evolutionary science studies. It simply smacks of you wanting to be in the big-boys club.

    But, then, a simple scan over information which may help one to understand why you, a) Think this article is useful and b) Think this topic is worth committing your life’s study to, shows that you are just yet another yawn-inducing shill for the Templeton Foundation. That oh-so-desperate, yet wealthy, don’t forget the wealth, pseudo-intellectual group who simply *must* find a way for religion to be justified by, of and for, Science!

    Don’t forget to feed that invisible dragon in your garage. It lives on mumbled incantations and special hand gesticulations. You *know*, in your heart-of-hearts, that it’s there, screw those scientists!

  • Jerry Lynch

    “Wonder or radical amazement” is a major part of the humility you speak of and when that is missing, we get the stuffy armchair rightness or the sword of rightness.

    Yes, “we could be–not just wrong but radically-wrong” about almost everything. We have no previous explosive singularity and resulting universe to which we can compare. Is such a thing “the norm”? Can such a thing occur without “help”? The sheer genius of Evolution is what gets me. It seems to defy the notion of “unaided” natural processes.

    Inanimate objects coming together and proving to have a brilliance and creativity far, far beyond the comprehension of our greatest minds or imagination. (Just the existence of water to me remains profoundly amazing.) To say with any certitude one way or the other about the existence of a Creative Intelligence would require more information than will ever or could ever be available to us.

    Evolution seems an undeniable fact but that we can explain much of the origins and processes does not necessarily exclude the divine. That many religious refuse to believe in it only comments on their thinking, not on the possible existence of the God they believe in.

  • connorwood


    First, you have spelled the plural of “hypothesis” wrong several times. It’s “hypotheses,” not “hypothesise.”

    Second, as you should have been able to extract from the content of the article, I am interested in the evolutionary development of religion, especially but not limited to rituals – which are a human universal. A species-wide trait indicates some sort of evolutionary grounding. The most important current debate is whether religious practices are an adaptive trait (like cheetahs running fast) or a non-adaptive byproduct (like the blind spot in our vision). I side with the former claim, but I acknowledge that the byproduct camp has good points. This is why I wrote the article.

    The larger scientific question, as I have already pointed out, is whether or not evolutionary selection pressures can apply at the level of groups. If group selection happens, then religion is much more likely to be evolutionarily adaptive.

    Fourth, my PhD will be in religious studies, not theology. Religious studies is the secular study of religion. If you do not know the difference between these two things, you should read up on it.

    Fifth, I will gladly accept money from the Templeton Foundation, but I am not a shill for them. My advisor, with whom I have written Templeton grants, disbelieves in a personal God and hopes to convince others not to believe, either. Your stereotype of who applies for and uses Templeton money is overly simplistic.

    Finally, you are being abusive. Please do not swear or use vulgar language on the comments in this blog, and if you’re going to attack me, attack my actual ideas instead of a straw man you have invented. I welcome your anti-religious views, but they must be presented in a non-hostile manner. If you continue to be insulting and abusive, you will be banned from the comments sections on this blog. Thanks, and have a good day.

  • connorwood

    > Just the existence of water to me remains profoundly amazing.

    Really cool sentiment, Jerry. And I totally agree. I wish everyone had the same ability to be amazed! Thanks for reading.

  • BillYeager

    Well, thanks for the spelling advisory, I’ll take note of that. I don’t intend to overtly offend with my colourful language, I am aware that a tone complaint is always a go-to for those with little else of a rebuttal to hand, but I guess even a little adult vocab is too much for some.

    The fact remains that, even taking into account your after-the-fact clarification regarding your studies, affiliations and intentions, you can’t avoid the cringe-inducing cheesiness of the picture you chose to illustrate the apparent ‘need’ to be humble.

    It doesn’t just smack of a fallacious ‘appeal to. . .’, it utterly reeks of it. I have to ask, what on earth do you think you are even saying in this article if it isn’t just the tired old mantra of “we can’t really be sure of anything, therefore God”.

    You don’t get to utilise a clearly theistic image and then innocently claim that your article is actually talking about something else. Because, if it is talking about something else, why use the ridiculous image?

    As for the long-term study of the whole religion/evolution thing, really? Would you think it worthy of serious academia to dedicate oneself to writing on pyramid schemes and evolution? Or find-the-lady-street-hustling and evolution? To then have the nerve to write an article which alludes to a dire need for us to be humbled by reality because science can be just so arrogant, smacks of stereotypical theist apology to me.

    Besides, as has already been said by another commenter, to claim that ‘Science’ needs to find humility in the same light as Religion is just vapid, just the sort of empty sentiment that theists lap up. It’s the age-old practice of dressing ‘Science’ up as some ego-driven arrogant and shrill manic force, in order to satisfy the anti-science crowd.

    So, I say again, what’s the point of your article? The picture, the words and your subsequent explanation of it don’t actually form anything objectively cohesive. That’s why I contend it’s typical Templeton Foundation fodder.

  • connorwood

    I chose this image because it’s actually quite ambiguous. Is it saying that we’re wrong about denying heaven or God? Could be. On the other hand, it’s just as possible to interpret the image as an admonition that believe in God or heaven could itself be wrong. The message is superimposed on an image of Dante, after all – it could easily be telling us to be careful about believing Dante as his word. I suspect that if it were a picture of the same words superimposed on an image of an atom with its various electron shells, you would take it as an attack on science. So really, I can’t win.

    I don’t know what you mean about “pyramid schemes.” You don’t seem to be familiar with contemporary debates about how evolution proceeds in groups. You need to cite some actual evolutionary biologists or recent publications. Start with Martin Nowak and EO Wilson at Harvard, DS Wilson at Binghamton, and Jerry Coyne at Chicago.

    I don’t mention God anywhere in the article, and what I think is interesting is that I’m actually claiming that I need to be humble about my conviction that religion is good for people. So if anything, someone with anti-religious leanings, such as yourself, ought to have approved of my message – which was basically tantamount to saying, “Hey guys, religion could be bad, and I need to keep that in mind!”

    Finally, you might want to seriously consider the possibility that the strength of your emotional reaction to anything that refers to religion may be blinding you to the actual content of the discussions you enter into. I’ve had the feeling that you’re fighting a demon in your own mind, rather than me, since you first posted. Consider taking a breath before responding.

  • BillYeager

    Ok, breath taken, I’ve looked at your article again, yet I find myself in the same position. I’ve even tried to read it with a bias towards anti-religion that you claim is there and, you know what, I just can’t see it.

    Seriously, if you were to show that picture, with that, “Let’s be humble” message to most people, I guarantee you the first thing that will come to mind is a theist appeal-from/to-ignorance. You are basically declaring that, whatever we might think, we could be wrong, therefore God/Woo. Yes, I know you have patiently spent time replying to me that, no, you actually meant the opposite, but I promise you, the take-home message that is inferred from the image is pro-’woo’ and most of the text is an apology for religion with claims about how probably ‘good’ it has been for survival of social groups..

    Besides, how can you claim that the article is a ‘we should be humble’ anti-religion message when the only real statement you make towards objectively reasoned secular reality is: “I could be wrong about other things, too. Religion might turn out to actually be bad for people, as the Richard Dawkinses and Sam Harrises of the world like to claim. While religion certainly hurts some people sometimes, I don’t think this will turn out to be true. But it’s vital for me to keep my mind open to the possibility.”

    It just smacks of dishonesty. You want your article to read as if it were a nod to objective reasoning, but the call to ‘humility’ part is theism’s raison d’être. Science doesn’t really ‘do’ humility, in the same way that it doesn’t ‘do’ arrogance, contrary to common theist claims. Scientists as people, can be flawed, but their profession isn’t what the problem is, they are.

    So if your study purports to be a science, you don’t need to be declaring “hold on people, I could be wrong. I don’t think I am but I could be”. It’s taken as read that whatever you assert in your studies is to be supported by evidence or objective reasoning. Otherwise it’s not objective, measurable, observable, testable, science, it’s just subjective opinion.

    So which is it? If it is a process that employs the scientific method then you’ve no need to issue a call for humility and your article is still pointless. If it is subjective opinion then your humility still comes across as a disingenuous call for dubious equality by way of appeal-to/from-ignorance. “Nobody can really know/prove anything (but I don’t think I’m wrong) therefore [insert vapid conclusion here]“.

  • quickshot

    YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES and one more YES for good measure

  • Chris_Lisi

    I would say, instead, that humans, along with all social animals, have genetic moral (prosocial) drives (including inter alia empathy, fairness, reciprocity) along with more self-centered genetic drives such as survival and hunger.

    Science has shown us, for example, that those few people whose brains lack empathy — sociopaths — cannot be taught empathy, despite the best efforts of parenting and religion and psychotherapy. Clearly, for the rest of us, religions are working with an empathy drive that is already present.

    I would say that religions serve to reinforce and direct our moral instincts along with moderating and redirecting our self-centered instincts.

  • connorwood

    Well said, Chris. It’s pretty evident that religion doesn’t create morality, but instead shapes and modulates inherent drives such that the result is a more prosocial (within the ingroup) M.O. However, culture and genes interact over time – so it’s also possible that our empathic drives and prosocial instincts have been partly genetically molded by 100,000 years of living in religious cultures.

  • Chris_Lisi

    I would say that there might be some natural selection going on, over that period of time, to select for folks with stronger prosocial instincts. But that would be due to all the factors of living in societies, their culture as a whole, not just religion.

  • Collin237

    Look at your address bar. This is Patheos. Their motto is “Hosting the Conversation on Faith”. This is not a science blog. Nobody forced you to read and comment on anything on this website. You have every right to dislike faith and to interact with non-faith blogs. But you do not have any excuse for coming here and lambasting an essay for participating in a correctly advertised activity you had every reason to know you neither wanted nor needed to be involved in.

  • BillYeager

    Way to resurrect a dead thread Collin.
    Umm, perhaps you might want to look a little lower than your address bar and see the title of this blog AND the title of this blog article. Or, perhaps, you believe that football matches should be played in front of home fans only?

    Any particular reason why I am singled out for your gtfo snark? The very first person in this comment section responded with the same opinion of the weakness of this article, so how come I am so privileged?

  • Collin237

    You mean thin-ice? Thin-ice gave a rational objection, which I basically agree with. You, however, went on and on with nasty exaggerations that made the actual objection nearly unreadable.

    Rather than participating in the discussion, you tried to “bypass” it, like the performers Connor Wood describes in

    Do you really not see the difference between yourself and thin-ice?

    I’ve seen many rational discussions about science and religion on various blogs. I disagree with some comments, but I can see where they’re coming from. You, however, have singled yourself out with your unsportsmanly wild dramatic sweeps, which read like political agitprop.

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