A Sideway’s Glance with Richard Bogartz: Science and Religion: Part I: Science

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

The pandemic stirs science deniers and their foes. Scientists are attacked by government. Neighbors, perhaps, assuming the Bible contradicts science so science must be wrong, reject science-based suggestions, including prescriptions of mask, distance, crowd avoidance, and avoidance of extended indoor visits. The virus, unacquainted with Bible or science, grinds on.

So, what is science? Science is what scientists do. What’s that? Scientists strive to understand the observable universe and everything that occurs therein. Some scientists say they are seeking a theory of everything. How did the universe come into existence? When? What is it made of? What is it doing? What are the largest things? The smallest things? What is time? Space? How do things change? Does anything ever stay the same? What are animals? Plants? How do they work? What are we? How do we work? How do we know things? How do minds work?

If it’s in the world, scientists want to know what it’s made of, its relation to other things, and how to formulate rules, principles and laws that describe relationships between things or events, such as how things fall, why they move the way they do, why magnets work, how food becomes body activity, why oceans wave, why water is transparent but bricks aren’t, why steel scratches lead. Some scientists seek fundamental particles and the rules that govern how they combine to make everything.

Religions, too, sometimes describe the creation of the world and give explanations for lots of occurrences. Some such explanations involve an intervening deity or the occurrence of miracles.

How do scientific explanations differ from religious ones?

Two requirements virtually dominate how scientists play the game: empirical evidence and falsifiable hypotheses. Description of the world might only involve the first. Theorizing involves both.

The first requirement: claims about how the world is, or how it works, require support based on evidence gathered by observing the world. Conjectures about how the world is, hypotheses, can come from anywhere, even dreams or religious scriptures, but when it comes to evidence, even the opinions of the most wise and authoritative, even assertions claimed to be the word of God, are not evidence. For the scientist, evidence requires looking at the relevant parts of the world. To scientifically know what you are talking about you must directly or indirectly observe what you are talking about. Conjectures stand or fall, not on the basis of authority or reputation, but on the implications of observable evidence and only such evidence.

The Elder Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” seems to capture the idea with “... in science only that which is subject to the senses.”

The second requirement: for a hypothesis to be scientific, it must be possible to observe evidence that would disprove the hypothesis. The conjecture that all swans are white can be a scientific hypothesis because observing one black swan would disprove it, but the conjecture that God is everywhere, although fundamental to some religious belief, cannot be a scientific hypothesis because without knowing how to observe God’s location the conjecture cannot be disproved.

Scientists present their reason for asking nature a certain question. Then, they describe their observational methods; report their data and the methods they use to analyze their data; discuss their results; and finally indicate their conclusions, such as why the results support or do not support some theory of how the world works. In principle, all of the data-gathering and analytic methods are described so that another scientist with comparable training and resources could replicate the inquiry.

Consider answering the question “How old is the world?” The religious method might be to consult a creation story in a scripture. Analysis of various statements in the scripture might lead to the conclusion that the world is about 6,000 years old. A scientific method might use radiometric dating of actual parts of the world to arrive at an age of about 4.54 billion years.

When it comes to the universe, cosmologists extrapolate back from the distance of the oldest stars, using the rate of expansion of the universe and arrive at about 13.8 billion years. The crucial difference is not the numbers but how the numbers are obtained. One involves looking at scripture; the other involves looking at the world.

In Part II, A Sideways Glance at religion will consider a perspective that neither endorses nor rejects usual religion but leads to Part III’s suggestions toward a more realistic approach to understanding all that exists by melding the core of religion with science.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.