Monday, February 05, 2007

Rational faith 3: Grand unifying theory

The conflict between science and religion is a cliché. It's there demanding to be addressed by anyone who values them both but notes the inconsistencies. Ezra Taft Benson said:

Religion and science have sometimes been in apparent conflict. Yet, the conflict can only be apparent, not real, for science seeks truth, and true religion is truth. There can never be conflict between true religion and scientific fact. That they have occupied different fields of truth is a mere detail. True religion accepts and embraces all truth; science is slowly expanding her arms and reaching into the invisible domain, in search of truth. The two are meeting daily; science as a child; true religion as the mother. Truth is truth, whether labeled science or religion. "Truth is knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come" (D&C 93:24). Truth is always consistent. It can never be in conflict with itself.

This is a quote explaining an idea I've long been fond of. It jives with my sense that there's Truth out there with a capital T, objective reality plugging along despite our inability to pin it all down. I love the idea that ultimately there are answers for everything... things work. Proving existence of objective reality is burdensome (and somewhat ridiculous), so I just start with confidence in Benson's notion here.

However, the problem with interpreting Benson's quote is that it may tempt us to try to reconcile faith and religion now, as if we have the means to do so. This effort has been made in the past with some unfortunate outcomes. Churches have dictated what science is allowed to do, and dictated "truths" about the universe based on a presumptive reading of scripture. I'm of the opinion (and I think history supports me on this) that that's a bad way to go about things. I'm a resolute opponent of Intelligent Design masquerading as science, for example.

I see science and spirituality as two separate but effective ways of learning. They teach us about different things and we will be wise to use them only as directed. Science works terrifically for advancing temporal causes, but using it for spiritual pursuits is something like building a tower of Babel or seeking signs. That's not to say that reason isn't central, because I think it is inseparable from a genuine testimony, but the effort to prove religious principles can be antithetical to portions of the plan of salvation.

Similarly, intuition and unfounded confidence have to be checked in science. There's room for creativity and fresh ideas, but when it comes down to testing a hypothesis, aberrancies are wrought out and destroyed, precision is pursued with alacrity, and confounders are battled with vigilance. Holding on to any biases not supported by verifiable data is counter-productive. And, as I mentioned before, using doctrines or religious tenets anywhere in the scientific process is a bad idea.

Despite their differences, the effectiveness of both science and spirituality for their respective purposes is undeniable in my mind. As my previous two posts attest, they both work really well for me. It's just the inappropriate inter-mingling of the two methods that causes problems. Just as one should not combine the theory of relativity and quantum physics, the two systems of thought can't be mixed without coming up with some absurdities.

Is there a way to use both together to build a unified world view? Where's the grand unifying theory of science and religion? I'm working on my own version, but it has its problems. I do believe that some such combined world view is possible without resorting to being irrational. Perhaps it won't be provable (just as string theory attempts to reconcile relativity and quantum physics but can't be proved without a particle accelerator the size of a gallaxy) but that lack of proof won't make it automatically irrational.

Next time: my effort at a rational and faith-accommodating world view.

Index to series:
Rational faith 1: Science
Rational faith 2: Spirituality
Rational faith 3: Grand unifying theory
Rational faith 4: Creative calculus
Rational faith 5: Wrap up


David said...

I think a helpful exercise is to examine religious practice--as an outsider--by scientific sampling. I can't think of a way to measure a spiritual experience or document inspiration. You'd think it would be easy, but it sure isn't! What I can do is count the number of people around me who have found something to be true, and then ask then ask them what led them to find it to be true.

Examining religious practice over the history of mankind, there's wide variation, but also suspicious repetition and symmetry. The Buddha Issa and Jesus Christ are amazingly similar in their teachings. From what I've seen, the biggest difference between them is not the teachings themselves, but what the followers take home from it. Buddhists tend to forget His suffering; Christians tend to forget His joy. There's strong symmetry there.

The history of temple-cult worship, from Egypt to Druidic to Masonic to Mormon is frighteningly similar.

You say, "Churches have dictated what science is allowed to do . . . I'm of the opinion . . . that that's a bad way to go about things." I want to make sure I'm understanding your statement correctly before I respond: is what you're saying that religious thought ought not to register an opinion in matters that science is busy trying to measure? Are you referring to cases like Galileo Galilee? You mention historical examples and I'd like to hear what you have in mind.

-L- said...

It's easy to analyze world religions by scientific methods to determine a lot of different things... but most of the final questions aren't answerable that way. People can get fightin' mad about that or just accept that it's an internally consistent part of the deal. Spirituality (the way I'm thinking of it) will forever remain inaccessible to those who can't meet it on its own terms. It's not really a matter of referendum either, I think, although that might be a good place to start. It's all data.

There's a lot of shared history and a lot of shared ideals among world religions. I don't find that similarity "frightening" (except in the rare cases when religion has gone awry).

Galileo is precisely an example I was thinking of. There's also Aristotle and other philosophers attempting to reason about planetary orbits by drawing analogies to man's place before God (and consequently dictating that science affirm that the sun revolve around the earth). I might even have some of those details wrong, but there are plenty of examples through history. I think you've understood me.

I think religion can participate in science if they agree to obey science's ground rules and not appeal to their own. And the same goes for science (or a scientist) investigating religion.