Monday, March 27, 2006

I believe in science

Science is good stuff. Open discourse, critical thinking, unconventional approaches: all good stuff. I've spent a lot of effort over the past few years trying to promote science as the basis for how medicine is practiced and as a larger player in forming public policy (rather than merely economics--the king of all public policy).

Although I find 'intelligent design' arguments to be compelling and interesting philosophically, they are not science. There's a place for both philosophy and science in the public schools, but they should be appropriately designated (not masquerading as one another).

I suppose this division in my thinking also applies to religion and science. Mormonism, at least, operates with different assumptions than science, and so comparisons of science and religion are often erroneous from the start. For example, in science, natural laws are thought to be consistent everywhere and at all times. In religion, on the other hand, this idea is specifically denied, making miracles and other scientifically impossible phenomena (omniscience, omnipotence, separation from time and space) possible. You can't get valid conclusions when you are combining two different universes of discourse where the axioms don't match up.

Further, much of religion is presented in a metaphorical manner that is appropriate for a particular society, and making strong conclusions from the specific language of scripture leads to misunderstandings regarding the scientific veracity.

There have been times I've attempted to really understand some particular conflict between science and religion. There are professors all over the country looking at some of these issues--anthropological, physics, genetics, etc., and they bicker (sometimes in professional journals) about how it all relates to different religions. A little research turns up many resources claiming an impartial presentation of the facts on a given topic. However, the more I read the more I find rebuttals and rebuttals of rebuttals and eventually realize the impracticality of learning the issue well enough to really judge for myself. There's no easy way to tell when writers have an agenda that makes them less than candid. Conflicts of interest are seldom transparent. And the issues are often very very complicated.

'Appeal to authority' is a well known type of fallacy. You can play the experts against each other till the cows come home. So, my current plan is to not give the conflict between science and religion much credence. I don't have the time or qualifications to really weigh in on whatever issue du jour happens across my way. I also feel completely comfortable disregarding the army of pundits who get in my face and claim that "science has shown that..." or "there is undeniable evidence that...". I DO know enough about science to know that many of these people are disingenuous, or at best, idiots. So, I don't feel the need to justify myself.

Ultimately, as in the words of Bruce R. McConkie, "truth will never be in conflict with itself." We just have to be cautious and not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Both science and religion are clarified over time.

I love science. I revere science. And when science seeks to tell me something about religion, I seek to tell science to go to an unfavorable religious destination. Same goes for religion attempting to short-circuit scientific inquiry by asserting its various tenets as scientifically relevant.

There are genuinely difficult issues with stem cell research, cloning, animal research, and how morality in general plays into the scientific establishment. Here alone I feel compelled to find common ground in my own mind. And sometimes I don't find it. But luckily, as such problems relate to the whole of society, they can be appropriately codified into our laws when the need arises through public dialog and representative government.

14 comments:

Chris (hurricane) said...

L:

What does science tell us, as you understand it, about homosexuality?

-L- said...

Science, as an anthropomorphized unified entity, can tell us with some authority that homosexuality exists. Beyond that, it gets murky.

What exactly are you looking for?

Chris (hurricane) said...

As you understand it... whatever you want to tell me.

tbirdguy58 said...

Hi again, L. That's a good question, hurricane. I hear of gay behavior and hermaphrodism in nature, and it raises questions. Did God design that into nature or not? Does that imply anything for humans? My mom has brought that up many times. She's faithful LDS with a background in nursing and has dealt with "hermie" babies, and it causes her to have questions as to gender identity and God's role in it.

-L- said...

Well, when I say "science" I usually mean more theortically the process of open investigation and unbiased reason. When homosexuality is brought into the mix, openness goes out the window for many people, and bias is pretty much certain. I'll post later more about the "science" of conversion therapy, but that's too much for the comment section of this post.

As for hermaphrodites, they are an interesting topic. If sexual identity is eternal, why then are there people born "intersex"? People with ambiguous genitalia.

In the past, it has been customary for the parents to immediately assign a gender and surgery has been done right away. Now, increasingly, no gender is assigned until the child is old enough to decide for him or herself. How does that fit into eternal gender identity?

Your guess as to God's methods are as good as mine. Gender reassignment just seems a little wrong to me, but it's clearly necessary to assign one when none is clear! One could argue that God never makes mistakes--a person born with a clear gender should not change it. Alternately, one could argue that God knows the end from the beginning, and could have allowed a person to be born with a mismatched gendered body and spirit knowing that modern science and society can address it.

For faithful church members, it goes back to prophets, not science. You either believe the guidance that has been given, or you don't.

Chris (hurricane) said...

As for hermaphrodites, they are an interesting topic. If sexual identity is eternal, why then are there people born "intersex"? People with ambiguous genitalia.

As I understand it, hermaphrodites do usually have an essential gender identity, it just happens to be confused because of the ambiguous physical traits.

For what it's worth, I don't have any beef with the idea that gender identity is eternal. I believe that I am eternally male. I also believe that I am eternally gay.

For faithful church members, it goes back to prophets, not science. You either believe the guidance that has been given, or you don't.

But when it comes to gender identity and sexuality, for example, why should we trust the prophets, mostly untrained in matters of psychology, physiology, biology and sexuality, more than trained professionals and academics who study these things for a living? Do we trust the prophets more in other areas of science than actual scientists? Physics, engineering... we don't take our religious leaders' words as final in these areas, do we?

I don't understand this, and I never have, even when I was an active and faithful Latter-day Saints. Why do we take as authoritative the word of religious leaders on topics outside of the sphere of religion?

Chris (hurricane) said...

BTW, L, I have added a comment to the "tolerance" post -- I missed your last post there a couple of days ago.

-L- said...

In my mind, phenotypic gender IS gender. You can have XY chromosomes and be female. You can have XX chromosomes and be male. It's unclear only when the phenotype is mixed as in the case of ambiguous genitalia or diseases in which sexual characterstics of both genders are present. I failed to mention last time that some people are comfortable never choosing one gender or the other but happily stay in the middle. It's a very confusing topic, one that science doesn't have as much to do with as cultural and societal pressures do.

Why do we take as authoritative the word of religious leaders on topics outside of the sphere of religion?

I don't. Some people do. People who are enlightened in one topic generally have interesting things to say on other topics as well, but that's not always true. Gender identity as it relates to sexual roles and the eternal family, however, is well within the sphere of religion (for Mormons anyway).

Chris (hurricane) said...

Gender identity as it relates to sexual roles and the eternal family, however, is well within the sphere of religion (for Mormons anyway).

I won't dispute that. But it still seems to me that you are allowing the leaders of the LDS Church final say on a matter in which they have no paritular expertise and no real depth of understanding.

Put another way, they reject much of what the scientific community says about sexuality because it conflicts with their religious assumptions and theology. I see this as akin to accepting Joseph Fielding Smith's assertions about the age of the earth, which are based on a literal reading of scripture, over the assertions of geologists, which are based in the scientific method.

-L- said...

...you are allowing the leaders of the LDS Church final say on a matter in which they have no paritular expertise and no real depth of understanding.

This highlights the problem many people outside the church have with the whole 'prophet' thing. Because they don't accept the prophet as a prophet, they are offended when he speaks for God. God has sufficient expertise and depth of understanding to chime in. Axiomatic, hurc, axiomatic.

I won't completely ignore the many examples of when prophets have been confused and/or just plain wrong about something you and tbird have mentioned. Turns out quite circular, but it's still consistent to say that the prophet only speaks for God when he speaks with divine authority. How to tell when that is will have to wait for another post. Or for someone smarter than me to comment.

Chris (hurricane) said...

How to tell when that is will have to wait for another post.

Actually, isn't it quite simple? Aren't we taught to ask God and he will confirm the truth of what the prophet says for us?

-L- said...

Yeah. I guess so. But that's so easy!

Chris (hurricane) said...

Worked for me. ;-)

-L- said...

:) I knew you were going to say that!