Friday, January 9, 2009

Searching for Answers? Science Converges, Religion Diverges

"In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. ... It happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion."
– Carl Sagan
An article in my local newspaper starts with this amusing sentence, which illustrates the fundamental flaw in religion:
"Modern Christians are used to a world in which there is a seemingly never-ending supply of branches of the faith."
This simple sentence, and Sagan's insightful quote, shows the basic difference between science and faith:
Science Converges, Religion Diverges.
Faith and religion have no facts that can be tested objectively. You can't design an experiment that would test Christianity against Islam, and after careful research, discover that one was correct and the other wrong. You can't do an experiment that will prove God exists, or that Jesus was His son. You can't demostrate convincingly that Siddhartha Guatama really achieved enlightenment and became the Supreme Buddha. There's no objective way to prove that Muhammad was receiving Allah's own words. All of these beliefs are just that: beliefs, not objective, provable facts. They must be taken on pure faith.

This is why there are thousands and thousands of different religions around the world. Anyone can claim anything, and many do. Church leadership takes a stance on some moral issue, the congregation starts arguing, and pretty soon there are two churches. A new "prophet" comes along, and pretty soon you have a whole new religion.

It is very rare indeed to hear of two churches uniting, settling their differences, and discarding some of the "truths" they once held dear. In fact, the link to my local newspaper's article above is about a group that is trying to heal the rift between the Roman and Orthodox (West/East) Catholic Churches, caused by the "Great Schism of 1054" the split the church in two. I suspect they won't have much luck.

Science is just the opposite. A couple of days ago I wrote about the Clovis Comet hypothesis, which shows why science is exactly the opposite of religion.

The disappearance of the Clovis People was a mysterious event, one that inspired a number of well-conceived theories. Scientific interest, competition, and probably egotism, spured the scientists to investigate more, learn more, and get closer and closer to the objective truth.

And that's the difference: Scientific debate converges on the truth, because as we learn more and more, incorrect theories can be discarded, new theories can be proposed, and good theories can be made better.

Many scientific theories, such as Einstein's Relativity and Darwin's Evolution, are so well proved and so widely accepted that it is fair to call them facts, not theory. These are the endpoints of scientific debate, the "adult" theories, the questions for which science has converged convincingly on the objective truth. By this measure, the Clovis-Comet theory is still a "teenager," mostly grown up, getting serious attention, and overshadowing the competing theories, but still not convincingly proved.

Compared to these scientific theories, religion is not even a baby. It's not even in the game. Science will continue to expand our knowledge, to refine our understanding, to converge on truth. Religion will continue to diverge, to split, to wander. The task of religious philosophers seeking truth about their god or gods is hopeless.


  1. I think there's something very interesting about your theory that one is convergent and the other divergent. It really makes a lot of sense. Yet by this definition it makes clear that religion (or at least the fundamental process it represents, not necessarily the institution) would allow divergent behavior to develop that can converge on further outcomes not available in a system entirely dependent on converging at all possible junctures through science.

    I've always found that never/always statements are never true, and the same applies to the grudge match between institutionalized reason and institutionalized faith. These larger conglomerates of individuals are incredibly less likely to admit fault, when fault is exactly what we need to see to learn. The most exciting thing in science or religion would be to understand something in a way that allows us to take graceful steps backward then gracefully step to greater heights.

    I think the real problem is that Faithdumb hardly understands its area of expertise in consciousness (by which their converts were able to transcend the conflict of physical/psychological stress) and frequently wages war on reason while Sciencedumb hardly understands the inner workings of self awareness and is unwilling to recruit help from its intensely subjective, metaphysical nature. It's like they are both canceling each other out rather than multiplying.

    I think visionaries are people who have a healthy relationship between their inner faith and natural reason. We must use both faculties in our everyday life, but the misuse of one seems to lead to misuse of the other.

  2. Millsey, thanks for your insightful comments. You make an interesting point that allowing divergent behavior is a way of generating new ideas, some of which might contain the core truth that is being sought. But I disagree that religion has a monopoly on this. The scientific method actually encourages exploration of the "solution space," and scientists are no different from their religious counterparts in their creativity, perhaps even more so because they're an egotistical lot (religious people's egos are often moderated by theological beliefs).

    The difference between science and religion is that once all of the ideas have been proposed, science has a solid, proven methodology for winnowing out the wrong ideas and converging on the correct ones.

  3. I respectfully disagree on this.

    I believe it is more accurate to say that religion (or more specifically, A religion in the singular) converges, while it is science that diverges.

    In religion they are always looking for facts (however flimsy) to support their predetermined conclusions written in their holy books. They make no allowance for diverging from "established" conclusions, anything that can be construed to support their version of events, is. Look at all the young-earth creationist theories. Every time science discovers or postulates a new concept such as wormholes or time dilation, they use this (often without any knowledge of the theory in question) and say "See! This means it COULD have been our way!" While, maybe, highly unlikely, but yes it could, this is not true scientific reasoning. This is desperately wanting to reconcile the facts with one's own version of reality.

    Science, on the other hand, has no such attachments. As an example, I'll use relativity. Before relativity, everyone thought gravity functioned essentially in a Newtonian way. Einstein, however, was able to come into the picture and say, pretty much, "No, you're all wrong. It actually works like this:" and then when asked to demonstrate "this" is not only able to do so but can also show how "this" accounts for things Newtonian mechanics fails to explain. Relativity is contra to common sense and intuition, but that doesn't prevent it from being right. Simply being contra to established (WELL established I might add) Newtonian mechanics did not make relativity wrong by default (as is the case with most religious reasoning). Science diverges because it is open to new hypotheses and ideas AS LONG AS those hypotheses are verifiable and USEFUL.

  4. Anon -- I see what you're saying about the religious half of the argument. Indeed, if you look at any one religion, especially as you narrow the definition down so that it encompasses a smaller and smaller group, then that group does tend to converge on a specific set of beliefs. My point was that religion as a whole diverges, because every time there's a disagreement, you get another fragmentation, another splinter group that defines a new "truth."

    On the other hand, I don't agree with your argument that science diverges. In fact the Newton-versus-Einstein argument actually illustrates how science converges. Einstein did NOT overthrow newtonian mechanics. He just refined it. You can still use Newton's equations to calculate the orbit of Pluto with extreme accuracy. It's only when you try to calculate the orbit of Mercury that you need to employ relativity, because of Mercury's close proximity to the sun's strong space-warping gravitational field.

    So Kepler figured out that planets have elliptical orbits, Newton figured out the gravitational equations and calculus that refined Kepler's data. Then scientists discovered tiny errors in Newton's predictions about Mercury, and Einstein further refined our understanding of gravity.

    I'd call that convergence.

    It's VERY rare for one scientific theory to be completely overthrown, except in the very earliest days of research on a brand new branch of science, when theories abound and data are scarce.

  5. Craig, it's my understanding that special relativity DID completely discard fundamental Newtonian axioms such as universal time and an infinite possible speed.

    I think our disagreement is more a confusion of terms. I've got no quarrel with the idea that science "converges" on the truth - given enough time for informed and enlightened debate, scientists will reach a consensus on "truth".

    I do however stand by my statement that the path towards this proof need not be a totally one way street. The quote from Carl Sagan, where a scientist will if appropriately convinced, say "You're right, I'm mistaken" - I just view that as a divergence from that individual's established belief.

    SCIENCE as a whole converges. ScienTISTS as individuals diverge (from themselves) as necessary. There we go.

  6. Hi there! I would like to just note something really quick. When you mentioned ""You can't demostrate convincingly that Siddhartha Guatama really achieved enlightenment and became the Supreme Buddha."

    For one thing, buddism is not a religion. es it is spiritual, but keep in mind, Buddha is not a god. He was a man that lived and died. He was however a prodigy of consciousnesses. He figured it all out.

    You CAN demonstrate convincingly, but its kinda hard. You have to dedicate yourself to intense meditation and gain enlightenment (the shedding of ego). not easy, but there is a direct line of people leading from the Buddha to today that have proved that enlightenment is possible and do-able.

    I think if you speak to a buddist who knows their stuff, they would agree that the re-discovery of the dharma would be possible if it was ever lost (through a global plague, world catastrophe, etc).

  7. Anon. What you speak of is simply objectional knowledge. Science can do this just fine. When you shed your ego, you're essentially not taking into account the knowledge you've learned about who you are and focusing on the fact that you are just a life form struggling to survive. Yes, it does free you as far as any inhibitions derived from your identity, but it does not grant you any new information you don't already have stored in your subconscious.


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