The View From the Ground

The View From the Ground April 26, 2008

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.

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