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Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

Monday, June 22, 2015 @ 11:06 AM
posted by Roger Price
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Credit: Yale

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.” 

Speaking in 1961 (CE), Schneerson stated that “our world came into being 5721 years ago . . . .” (In mid-2015, that would correspond to the age of Earth being 5775, according to the traditional Jewish calendar count.) He recognized that it would be “impossible to cram within a period of 5722 years a process of evolution . . . which . . . would require  . . . billions of years.” (Emphasis in original.) But he disagreed with evolutionary cosmological theory and considered the traditional annual dating to be “historic” based on the language of the Torah which was reaffirmed by Halakhah, that is, traditional Jewish legal principles expressed in accepted writings like the Talmud. For Schneerson, the test of “the matter is Halachah. Where Halachah is concerned there can be no alternatives, for the rule of Halachah is the rule of reality.”

Such language tends to light the already short fuse of a group known as the New Atheists.  One of the more prominent members of this group is Richard Dawkins, a biologist and professor of science at Oxford University in England. Dawkins considers the kind of faith displayed by Rabbi Schneerson to be a great evil. “Faith is an evil,” he contends, “precisely becauseit requires no justification and brooks no argument.” (See The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2008) at 347.) Worse, teaching children that “unquestioned faith is a virtue primes children  . . . to grow up unto potentially lethal weapons for future jihad or crusades.” (Id. at 347-48.)

Another New Atheist leader, Sam Harris, concedes that humankind cannot live by reason alone and acknowledges with favor “spiritual” and “mystical” experiences.  (See The End of Faith (W. W. Norton, 2004) at 43.) But he, like Dawkins, criticizes “faith,” defined as the kind of unreasoned life orientation toward “certain historical and metaphysical propositions” that has motivated many for millennia.  He compares this kind of faith not just to ignorance, but to mental illness and violent fanaticism. (See Id. at 64-65, 80-107, 131.)

Is there a third way, one less rigid and that disparages neither science nor faith?  Another approach, often articulated by “faithful” scientists, attempts to bridge the divide by arguing that science is, at its core, no different than faith.

The late physicist and astronomer  Charles Townes (1915-2015) won a Nobel prize in 1964 for his part in the development of lasers and subsequently was one of the discovers of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. He was also a devout Christian. Townes thought that religion and science were two methods which could be used to understand the universe and, moreover, were complimentary. More specifically, he claimed that faith is a part of science. He said that science has “postulates and we believe in them but can’t prove them.”

Paul Davies, another physicist and director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University, has made similar statements. In an essay first published in 2007 by The New York Times, Davies took aim at the conventional argument that science is seen as based on testable hypotheses, and asserted that science is based on faith. That is, according to Davies, “science has its own faith–based belief system.” “All science,” he wrote, “proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.”  Indeed, in Davies’ view, to be a scientist, “you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find . . . the speed of light changing by the hour.”

In Davies’ view, both religion science and religion rest “on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.” He says, “(c)learly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith . . . .”

This third approach is far from clear, however, and hardly satisfying. Indeed, the argument contains a least two fundamental flaws, one an overstated premise and the other a conclusion of false equivalence. First, the premise “all” science proceeds on an assumption of “ordered” nature, and that the ordering is “rational” is not at all obvious. The formulation smacks of intentional design and the presence of some controlling and sensible Orderer. It does not account for a universe that is replete with seemingly random acts, some of which are not so kind. Supernovae explode. Galaxies collide. Comets hit planets. Volcanoes explode.  Plagues spread. Genes mutate. Quantum events occur, by definition, unpredictably. In short, stuff happens far and near and there are real life consequences. Science may be able to explain specific events to a degree, even a significant degree, by reference to certain laws of physics, chemistry and biology, but explaining any such activity is not the same as determining it to be “rational” and “ordered.” Second, the conclusion that both religion and science rest on “faith” is based on a distortion of both the word “faith” and the essence of science, or, more precisely, the scientific method.

In response to an essay by Professor of Science and Society Daniel Sarewitz, one of Davies’ colleagues at ASU, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne dissected the argument that science and religion both rest on faith. Quoting Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann, Coyne defines religious faith as an “’intense, usually confident belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.’”  Instead, the belief rests on “revelation, authority, and scripture . . . .” By contrast, “scientists don’t have a quasi-religious faith in authorities, books, or propositions without empirical support.” They neither proceed based on a personal revelation nor swear allegiance to a creed.

Does science assume that nature is ordered, as Davies has suggested? No, says Coyne, but scientists have observed that there is regularity in the universe. Does science assume that reason will lead to truth? No, but scientists use reason because it’s a “tool that’s been shown to work. . . . it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!”  Does science have faith “that it’s good to know the truth?” No, Coyne continues, but scientists prefer to “know what’s right because what’s wrong usually doesn’t work.”

Consider two examples. The first deals with the relationship of the Sun and Earth. Some may believe that the Sun will “come up” tomorrow because God wills it. And Little Orphan Annie may tell us that we can bet our bottom dollar that “(t)he sun’ll come out tomorrow” because, well, she’s a cockeyed optimist. But science will tell us that unless the Sun stops burning its remaining multi-billion year supply of fuel or Earth’s orbit or axis is altered, the Sun will certainly appear to rise tomorrow in the East as it has each and every day for billions of years.

Now consider the difference between thinking that the first human was fully formed out of a lump of soil less than six thousand years ago and thinking that Homo sapiens emerged after billions of years of evolution? We weren’t around for either event, so how can we know which, if either, is factually true?  The sole support for the first proposition is a religious text thousands of years old. You can believe it or not, but you cannot interrogate the author of the text or read reports of any witnesses. There is, in short, no evidentiary support for the proposition.

Support for the second proposition rests not on an unverifiable text, but on a reasonably well established, if not fully complete, sequence of evolution evidenced both by bones and samples of deoxyribonucleic acid (“DNA”), a molecule that contains the “hereditary information in humans and almost all other organisms.” The stories told by the analyses of both corroborate each other and lead to confidence in the shared conclusion:  modern humans, Homo sapiens, did not emerge fully formed within the last six thousand years. Rather, our order of mammals, characterized by placentas, opposable thumbs and relatively large brains, begat a smaller family of ape like creatures, Hominidae, which have such distinguishing features as thirty-two teeth and extended parenting.  About seven million years ago, give or take, that family generated two branches. One led ultimately to chimpanzees and bonobos, the other to a group collectively called homonims. Perhaps five million more years passed until the emergence of the genus Homo. Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared about 200-300,000 years ago.   (See Coyne, Why Evolution is True (Penguin Books 2010) at 4, 8, 190-212.)

The process by which science attempts to determine truth is called the scientific method. It consists of a series of discrete, though interrelated, steps that loop back at one or more points so that the idea at issue is constantly refined and, if possible, falsified or verified. The process can be summarized as follows:

  1. Observe phenomenon
  2. Ask questions
  3. Develop a hypothesis
  4. Predict an outcome
  5. Test the hypothesis
  6. Gather data
  7. Evaluate results
  8. Falsify, modify or confirm hypothesis
  9. Share conclusions

Once we understand the nature of the scientific method, it is clear how different religion’s approach is to the resolution of perceived puzzles. Religion may begin with observations, but then its methodology departs from the scientific framework. Religion may, for instance, tell a story about how one person’s walking staff miraculously turned into a snake or generated sprouts, blossoms and fruit (see Ex. 7:10-12, Nos. 17:16-23), and you can choose to accept those stories as historical facts, unique and sacred, or as literary devices, but certainly the text contains no prediction that the outcomes would ever be the same if the incidents were repeated and no attempted replication is ever attempted.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and popular science communicator, likes to say, essentially, that “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It’s a great applause line. But it is not quite right, as he well knows. Science, even at its best, is not truth, but a process for attempting to find truth.

And, as Tyson also surely knows, the scientific method has its limits. Sometimes our tools and techniques are not sufficient or are not used correctly and rigorously enough to measure natural phenomena accurately or completely. The geocentric model of the universe advanced by Ptolemy appeared to work reasonably well for centuries to explain the movement of planets and stars, and even successfully to predict events like eclipses. But it was a flawed model, and ultimately replaced by the Copernican view, which itself was refined by, among others, Galileo who had a telescope, then Newton who utilized calculus and Einstein who applied the mathematics of relativity.  Then, too, sometimes scientific studies are not well designed or executed for financial or political reasons. The result is that many research findings are less reliable than they suggest. (See, e.g., here.) What this teaches us, however, is not that the scientific method is not to be trusted as much as that over time science tends to self-correct.

And to be fair, though Messrs. Dawkins and Harris and Coyne might not agree, religion can and sometimes does too. Judaism today is surely not the Judaism of the Temple periods, when the biblical stories were collected, redacted and canonized. Nor is it the Judaism of the Talmudic period, when oral conversations about a myriad of topics were reduced to writing and became precedential and even binding. Similarly, Judaism transitioned through its medieval and modern periods.

Today, some may still follow Rabbi Schneerson in his belief in the literal truth of the biblical creation story, but not all. Today most  understand that the story was not meant to assert a scientific truth as much as an allegorical one, that it was not meant to describe the origins of the cosmos as much as set the stage for a social and historical drama.

In short, Jewish thought has evolved from the biblical perspective on everything from the grand question of the origin of the universe to the less cosmic but very serious issues of abortion and same sex marriage.[See, e.g., here and here.)  And it has done so not by hierarchical decree, because for two thousand years Jews have not had a High Priest or an accepted religious governing structure. Rather, Jews have developed their Judaism organically and for the last several centuries in the context of a European Enlightenment in which science has been a dominant factor.

With some notable exceptions, Jews today, like British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, accept that science and religion both “seek to decode mysteries,” but do so with different techniques and for different purposes, that  they are “different intellectual enterprises,” one about “explanation” and the other about “interpretation.”  For them, the “Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science.”  (See Sacks, The Great Partnership (Schocken 2011), at 284-85.) Consequently, for the overwhelming majority of Jews there is no need to rationalize the non-rational or to engage in contortions to conflate ancient stories and modern science. (See, e.g., here, here and here.)

Nor is it necessary to engage in word tricks that define faith to encompass that which it does not. Rather, modern Jewish thought can respect both faith and science, even as it denies both that “religion holds a monopoly on virtue” and that science is the sole source of reality. (See Sacks, above, at 287, 289.)

Moreover, for Jews who respect and affirm science, Judaism today can be reality based. And reality based Judaism can be as vibrant and even more compelling than myth based, science rejecting Judaism.

But wait, Dawkins, Harris and Coyne might caution, what kind of god can there be in reality based Judaism? That would be a challenging question, but a fair one. Whatever the answer may be, it will not be a god who appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (See Ex. 13:21-22.)  Considering what kind of god might emerge, might be plausible, might be real, will have to await another day, however. That’s OK. Judaism teaches patience. (See, e.g., Prov. 14:29, and here.) For now, let’s be grateful for a little clarity on the nature of religious faith and scientific confidence.


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One Response to “Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science”

  1. Gnarlodious says:

    A more likely explanation is that both science AND torah are correct within their own sphere of extent. The problem is that their extents have been confabulated beyond reason by people expressing wishful thinking.

    Torah and its kernel of revealed truth is obscured by layers of tall tales, mistranslations, misinterpretations and obfuscations. And we don’t know which is which.

    Likewise with science, where it has largely been commandeered by anti-religion ideologues as an overreaction to millennia of spiritual totalitarianism.

    Between these two adversarial systems, both of which struggle for control of our every thought, we can’t decide which is true.

    Or as I like to say: “Decide or deicide”.

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