This was the headline on a another blog site I frequent. It was in reference to Stephen Hawking’s latest book, in which he proclaims that because there is such a force as gravity, therefore the universe sprang into being through spontaneous combustion—er, I mean “creation.”
Okay, that was my sarcasm sneeze for the day. Glad I got that out of my system.
I questioned the meaning and context of the declaration that “science wins,” asking what was the field of contest and who the opponent. What, I asked, did science win?
Another poster informed me that science won the “prerogative of interpretation.” I requested further definition. In what context did science “win” the right to interpret reality for me or other human beings? I cited such critical human relationships as those with family and friends. Did science tell you who to love and how much?
My friend responded this way: “Most people I know do that in a rational way, more or less in unison with societal standards. Just imagine a good friend snaps and hurts someone—how far will you go in helping him? Same accounts for most decisions one makes in life. You think about them, and you try to model the results of the alternatives you have, and then you decide on a basis that you think is socially acceptable. Of course there are irrational factors, feelings, early imprintings of the psyche. Everybody has to cope with them, balance them with rational or categorical thought.”
He made me smile. The idea of people being “rational” about their emotions—choosing who to love, for example, or how much—is amusing. I’m not sure where our “snapping” friend came from, but I suspect that if a friend snapped and threatened someone’s life, their family, friends or property, they’d react reflexively and instinctively and logic, rationale, and science would have little to do with it.
But about science “winning.” If the context is cosmogony (Stephen Hawking’s field), then, again there’s nothing to be won. The only means we have for discovery in that realm is a combination of observation through the senses (either of natural phenomena or experiments that we devise), and interpretation of what we’ve seen—using whatever reasoning faculties we possess.
My friend suggested that there was no other means of discovery save through scientific processes of observation and repeatable experimentation. This assumes that the physical, sensible universe is the only place where discoveries are made. This is obviously not the case. So, of course, there are other modes of discovery. We’d be a pretty pathetic bunch of earth-bound mammals if there weren’t. Much of what we, as individuals, know has nothing to do with scientific process or repeatability. We operate from instinct and inspiration, we have blinding epiphanies, we dream. I’ve discovered and explored a number of fictional worlds and peopled them using these tools, which are the tools of inner or spiritual discovery. (I’d argue that ultimately this discovery is at least as important as the scientific kind, but that’s probably a different blog.) Here’s the thing: even scientists work from inspiration, then go about systematic observation and experimentation to gather evidence for a hypothesis.
Science today, in fact, is entering theoretical areas where no experiments are possible. Some of the theorizing I’ve read on dark matter, for example, rests almost entirely on premises that rely heavily on the imagination of the scientist and contain enough dependencies to make Friar William Occam blanch. (That wasn’t sarcasm—it was irony.)
I don’t try to keep scientific principles in a box apart from faith, because I think they are—as the Baha’i writings suggest—two parts of the same whole. Either can be approached rationally or irrationally with varied results. Religion, for example, tells us that we ought to treat even the least among us with great kindness—as if they were members of our family, as if they were US—and that that principle trumps all others. We can accept that as a rational axiom and refuse to allow selfish motivations to cause us to deviate from that principle, or we can deviate from it and seek to excuse our deviation through rationalization.
Science tells us that we have evolved from a common ancestor. We can approach this rationally and conclude that we are members of a single human family (sound familiar?), or we can conclude—using the same faculty—that some of us have evolved to be better than others and seek, through repeatable experiments to, say, create a super-race by excluding “lesser” genetic material.
Historically, we can see how both religion and science have been subverted by human desire for power, control, resources … in short, the human desire to WIN.
So, back to the statement “science wins.” It’s a lovely sound bite and might provoke me to say, “Yeah! Go science!” but it doesn’t really mean anything. Something I know (though not through scientific experiment) is that even empty words have the power to evoke strong emotional responses. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, of course, and which it is depends on the motivations and goals of the person uttering the words.
Let the reader understand that I believe science represents, as the Baha’i writings say, “the highest attainment upon the human plane….” That’s from a talk that Abdu’l-Bahá (son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith and the appointed interpreter of His writings) gave in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1912. He spoke often about the relationship between science and religion. This is part of one of my favorite of his talks on the subject, in which he expresses it as the fourth tenet of his Father’s faith.
Now, these forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion. The outcome of all this dissension is the belief of many cultured men that religion and science are contradictory terms, that religion needs no powers of reflection, and should in no wise be regulated by science, but must of necessity be opposed, the one to the other. The unfortunate effect of this is that science has drifted apart from religion, and religion has become a mere blind and more or less apathetic following of the precepts of certain religious teachers, who insist on their own favourite dogmas being accepted even when they are contrary to science. This is foolishness, for it is quite evident that science is the light, and, being so, religion truly so-called does not oppose knowledge.
We are familiar with the phrases ‘Light and Darkness’, ‘Religion and Science’. But the religion which does not walk hand in hand with science is itself in the darkness of superstition and ignorance. Much of the discord and disunion of the world is created by these man-made oppositions and contradictions. If religion were in harmony with science and they walked together, much of the hatred and bitterness now bringing misery to the human race would be at an end.
Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion? I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance! — Abdu’l-Bahá, from a talk given at Rue Camoens, November 12, 1911
The assumption that science and religion are locked in some epic battle for the hearts and souls of man is based on a false premise—that science represents pure, cold rationality untouched by morality, ethics, or human virtues and that religion, conversely, represents blind faith untouched by reason.