On The Nature Of Scientific Theories

I was reading the delightful blog Ask A Mathematician / Ask A Physicist (in particular, this post), when I encountered this noteworthy comment (and this one) from one of that blog’s readers.

The post is about why the earth orbits the sun, and the essence of the two comments is that science is unable to explain some key things about the universe, and so God exists. The final few sentences of the second comment are:

Common sense and reason tell us to accept all these happening are the result of Divine Intervention. The One God! Yours and mine.

The entire smoke screen that goes by the name Intelligent Design (formerly known as Creationism) can be summarized in just the same way:

There are problems with the theory of evolution. Therefore God exists.

That’s right, Intelligent Design (ID) is just an argument for the existence of God. A fallacious one, since the matter can’t be proven one way or the other, and therefore holds little interest for me. But once one recognizes this, the debate about whether ID ought to be taught in school science classes as an alternative to evolution is instantly settled: No. We don’t teach Hinduism or Buddhism in science class, nor do we teach ID, and for the same reason. Teaching religion has its place, but it doesn’t belong in science class.

The way of science is to use observation, experimentation, and reason to understand the world. If observation and reason lead us to modify our cherished beliefs, then we do so. This is opposed to the fundamentalist religious stance, which is to select only the evidence that supports cherished beliefs obtained from authorities and to reject all other evidence that opposes our rigidly held beliefs, no matter how inconsistent with reality they might be.

A little scientific literacy would be of tremendous benefit for immunizing lay people against the specious arguments of ID proponents. There are problems with all scientific theories. All scientific theories leave some phenomena unexplained. There is no way around this; scientific theories are somewhat like works of art: Imperfect representations of some aspect of reality. But just look at how far our understanding of the world has developed thanks to our glorious imperfect scientific theories!

There are problems with Newtonian mechanics. This doesn’t stop us from building bridges, buildings, roads, and sending satellites into orbit, using Newtonian mechanics as a faithful guide. An imperfect theory that has definite problems is nevertheless extremely useful.

Using Newtonian mechanics as a foundation, we have constructed more advanced theories, such as special relativity and quantum mechanics. The new theories are not plagued by the problems of the old theory, but they have new problems of their own. This is unavoidable, as science is a human creation.

Using the new theories of special relativity and quantum mechanics (and also making use of theories of electromagnetism), our understanding of reality has grown tremendously, to the extent that we now know how to make MRI machines, MP3 players, everything to do with lasers, and many other wonders of our technological age.

Using the imperfect, problematic theory of evolution, we have tremendously developed our understanding of the biological world, including our understanding of disease and its propagation and alleviation.

And so it’s troubling that at this stage of our evolution as a species, we still have leaders conning people into believing that because a scientific theory has problems, we should reject it and believe instead in some holy book or other. It bothers me that people are still making such arguments, and it bothers me that so many people are ill-informed enough to accept such arguments.

There are people out there who are proudly, militantly, anti-science, and yet they take their ill children to a hospital to be treated by a doctor rather than to a place of religious worship to be treated by a religious leader. Does this make sense? If they are going to slam science and scientists as ungodly, unholy, condemned to hell, then does it make sense for them to drive cars, watch big-screen TVs, listen to iPods? Where do they think our modern way of life came from — a close reading of a holy book?

What’s the remedy? A little less vitriol and a little more nuance and empathy, I reckon. And a little more education.

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OK, now that the rant is over, here is a related question: Is it possible to be religious and still be scientific? Does one have to give up one’s religion to be scientific, and to enjoy the fruits of modern technology without being contradictory or hypocritical?

Absolutely it’s possible to be both religious and scientific, as many religious scientists do, but it depends on just what one’s religious beliefs are. And I recognize that we are all fearful humans, and so we need certain stories to comfort us and help us live with our terror. But if we believe too much just because someone tells us it’s so, we will have a hard time operating scientifically. If you believe that the world was created 6000 years ago in six days, because people you love and trust have been telling you so since you were a small child, then you will have a hard time approaching the world scientifically.

Many people, including scientists, are religious and find a way to operate religiously and scientifically in a consistent way. For example, one can understand the teachings of one’s holy book (including creation myths) metaphorically. One can imagine that when God created the universe, she just tossed all the ingredients into a sort of playground, set the basic ground rules, and is now happily observing the results. There are an unlimited number of possible belief systems that encompass religion and science consistently; if that be your pleasure, then you’ll find a way to do so in your own special way.

There are many atheists out there who are caring, compassionate, wonderful human beings. And there are some deeply religious people who are horrible human beings. Rather than emphasize the false dichotomy of religion vs science, why can’t we just all work towards being good human beings and learn to understand the world scientifically as well?

Religion is at its best when it helps us to make a connection with others, with the world, with something larger than ourselves. Religion is at its worst when it tells us to “Believe this,” and “Don’t believe this,” because “I told you so.”

Religion at its best is consistent with science; religion at its worst is opposed to science.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 21 January 2021.)