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The Unseen and Unknowable Has No Place in Science

Category: Religion

Posted on: August 23, 2009 9:00 AM,

by Eric Michael Johnson

Allow me to lay it out as simply as I can. It is my view that religion and science are incompatible in a very specific and important way. I say this as someone who previously drank the Kool-Aid and spent countless hours studying what was described to me as the Holy Spirit. I have been confirmed in the Lutheran tradition and have recited the Nicene Creed so often throughout my life that, as an adult, I no longer paid any attention to what the words were saying. They came out of me as rote, like a wind-up monkey who clapped his symbols at the turn of a crank.

 

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth.

of all that is, seen and unseen.

I came to realize that this mantra the church elders were making impressionable youngsters recite over and over again throughout their lives was little more than brainwashing kids into an irrational faith in imaginary forces. I asked myself, "Why should I pledge my belief in all things unseen?" How do they know there is anything unseen? Why not pledge my belief in all things unheard or, for that matter, unsmelled? Why should I believe anything just because they tell me to?

Naturally, my questions didn't go over so well in after school Bible study. I remember vividly Pastor Carl's frustration when he couldn't answer why, if every living thing was made for the benefit of man, do mosquitoes exist? He finally settled on an answer that, I would later discover, is an old favorite in shutting down inappropriate lines of inquiry.

"We can't always understand God's will."

But wait, I thought, you claim to understand God's will in all of these other areas. Why do you suddenly claim ignorance simply because I've noticed a contradiction? But I quickly learned to shut up. Certain questions weren't welcome and, at that time, I wasn't confident enough to rock the boat.

 

Where I did find these queries welcome were in my college science classes. There I would ask equally probing questions but, rather than being dismissed or made to feel like I was foolish, I would be rewarded with the response, "What a great question!" I was equally impressed that when my professors didn't know the answer they said so, and showed me tools by which I could find the answer out for myself. I've been using those tools ever since and have never looked back to the arguments from unreason that defined my past.

Faith, as Gary Whittenberger discusses in Skeptic magazine, has multiple common uses.

"Faith" may refer to a religion or worldview, as in "My faith is Islam." It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in "I have faith in my physician." Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which has 140 Hare Krishna centers in Europe and North America alone), has been up front that he denies the evidence of evolution. Why? He didn't argue that the methods employed may have biased the results and that he'll reserve judgment until the studies are replicated. He didn't dispute the sample size or suggest a separate interpretation of the observable facts. He completely disregarded the entire pursuit of such knowledge because it contradicted his faith in a prime mover. His faith told him that he is correct, regardless of what the facts may be. There is a word for that, when you prefer your own private fantasy to the real world. I think Richard Dawkins used it as part of the title to one of his more popular books.

Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn't mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don't probe too deeply into the foundations of a person's faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases. But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close (as it has for Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe) well, that's when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I'm sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They'll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.

So for those of you who grew up being taught to believe in unseen and unknowable forces but are now feeling like you've been hoodwinked, don't be afraid to say so. There's a growing number of people who understand where you're coming from. It can be a scary thing to let go of but, I can assure you, the confidence that comes with intellectual honesty and reason is far more rewarding than empty promises based on an unseen faith.

Related posts:

The Feeling of What Happens Liberation Ecology

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Comments

1

Wonderfully said. I strongly resisted the idea that teaching creeds to children was brainwashing or that it was appropriate to use the word delusion, but both have become inescapable.

 

The bible describes faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen". In other words, it is a stand-in for substance and evidence when there is no possession of fact and no perception of reality.

 

And before someone says we can't see electrons, am I correct assuming that you use the term; "unseen" to mean "undetectable by instruments" and "not falsifiable in the first place" as well?

Posted by: george.w | August 23, 2009 10:24 AM

2

@George: You are correct in assuming that. I refer you to Carl Sagan's metaphor of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire from The Demon-Haunted World. A phenomenon must make some connection with observable reality for it to be useful in science.

 

Posted by: Eric Michael Johnson | August 23, 2009 10:51 AM

3

Nice post. What really gets my goat is when religious apologists argue that sending impressionable children to, say, Camp Quest is just the atheists way of brainwashing their own children. As if, learning critical thinking skills is on par with learning how to say the Lord's Prayer.

Posted by: jdhuey | August 23, 2009 10:52 AM

 

4

I always assumed the "Unseen" part referred to Grues...

 

Posted by: Troy | August 23, 2009 11:08 AM

5

"Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."

Miracle on 34th st.

 

Posted by: Lorraine Coots | August 23, 2009 11:48 AM

6

@Lorraine Coots:

Just because something is counter-intuitive doesn't mean it is faith. Evolution is about as counter-intuitive as it gets.

 

Thanks for the great post.

 

Posted by: Braden McDorman | August 23, 2009 6:17 PM

7 Thanks, Eric.

@jdhuey: there is a fine line between teaching children what to think vs how to think. I might even go so far as to say the same techniques apply to both. As in: I was brainwashed into believing that paying attention to Reality and applying Reason to my problems is the proper way to think. Circular bootstrapping reasoning? Spiraling down the rabbit hole? I have no a priori axiomatic justifications for having that belief, but its utility is demonstrable. I guess the prime factor in choosing what to brainwash your children with is to whose benefit is the result: the kids, the parents, or the established power structure?

@braden: I have no memories of ever finding evolution unintuitive. Obvious, no, but definitely in the class of 'doh!', slapping head, once shown its workings.

 

Posted by: Gray Gaffer | August 23, 2009 7:59 PM

http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2009/08/the_unseen_and_unknowable_has.php?utm_source=networkbanner&utm_medium=link

The Unseen and Unknowable Has No Place in Science

Category: Religion

Posted on: August 23, 2009 9:00 AM, by Eric Michael Johnson

Allow me to lay it out as simply as I can. It is my view that religion and science are incompatible in a very specific and important way. I say this as someone who previously drank the Kool-Aid and spent countless hours studying what was described to me as the Holy Spirit. I have been confirmed in the Lutheran tradition and have recited the Nicene Creed so often throughout my life that, as an adult, I no longer paid any attention to what the words were saying. They came out of me as rote, like a wind-up monkey who clapped his symbols at the turn of a crank.We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth.

of all that is, seen and unseen.

I came to realize that this mantra the church elders were making impressionable youngsters recite over and over again throughout their lives was little more than brainwashing kids into an irrational faith in imaginary forces. I asked myself, "Why should I pledge my belief in all things unseen?" How do they know there is anything unseen? Why not pledge my belief in all things unheard or, for that matter, unsmelled? Why should I believe anything just because they tell me to?

 

Naturally, my questions didn't go over so well in after school Bible study. I remember vividly Pastor Carl's frustration when he couldn't answer why, if every living thing was made for the benefit of man, do mosquitoes exist? He finally settled on an answer that, I would later discover, is an old favorite in shutting down inappropriate lines of inquiry.

 

"We can't always understand God's will."

But wait, I thought, you claim to understand God's will in all of these other areas. Why do you suddenly claim ignorance simply because I've noticed a contradiction? But I quickly learned to shut up. Certain questions weren't welcome and, at that time, I wasn't confident enough to rock the boat.

 

Where I did find these queries welcome were in my college science classes. There I would ask equally probing questions but, rather than being dismissed or made to feel like I was foolish, I would be rewarded with the response, "What a great question!" I was equally impressed that when my professors didn't know the answer they said so, and showed me tools by which I could find the answer out for myself. I've been using those tools ever since and have never looked back to the arguments from unreason that defined my past.

 

Faith, as Gary Whittenberger discusses in Skeptic magazine, has multiple common uses.

 

"Faith" may refer to a religion or worldview, as in "My faith is Islam." It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in "I have faith in my physician." Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which has 140 Hare Krishna centers in Europe and North America alone), has been up front that he denies the evidence of evolution. Why? He didn't argue that the methods employed may have biased the results and that he'll reserve judgment until the studies are replicated. He didn't dispute the sample size or suggest a separate interpretation of the observable facts. He completely disregarded the entire pursuit of such knowledge because it contradicted his faith in a prime mover. His faith told him that he is correct, regardless of what the facts may be. There is a word for that, when you prefer your own private fantasy to the real world. I think Richard Dawkins used it as part of the title to one of his more popular books.

 

Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn't mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don't probe too deeply into the foundations of a person's faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases. But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close (as it has for Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe) well, that's when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I'm sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They'll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.

 

So for those of you who grew up being taught to believe in unseen and unknowable forces but are now feeling like you've been hoodwinked, don't be afraid to say so. There's a growing number of people who understand where you're coming from. It can be a scary thing to let go of but, I can assure you, the confidence that comes with intellectual honesty and reason is far more rewarding than empty promises based on an unseen faith.

 

Related posts:

 

The Feeling of What Happens

Liberation Ecology

 

ShareThisFind more posts in: Humanities & Social Science

TrackBacks

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://scienceblogs.com/mt/pings/118231

 

Comments

1

Wonderfully said. I strongly resisted the idea that teaching creeds to children was brainwashing or that it was appropriate to use the word delusion, but both have become inescapable.

 

The bible describes faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen". In other words, it is a stand-in for substance and evidence when there is no possession of fact and no perception of reality.

 

And before someone says we can't see electrons, am I correct assuming that you use the term; "unseen" to mean "undetectable by instruments" and "not falsifiable in the first place" as well?

 

Posted by: george.w | August 23, 2009 10:24 AM

 

2

@George: You are correct in assuming that. I refer you to Carl Sagan's metaphor of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire from The Demon-Haunted World. A phenomenon must make some connection with observable reality for it to be useful in science.

 

Posted by: Eric Michael Johnson | August 23, 2009 10:51 AM

 

3

Nice post. What really gets my goat is when religious apologists argue that sending impressionable children to, say, Camp Quest is just the atheists way of brainwashing their own children. As if, learning critical thinking skills is on par with learning how to say the Lord's Prayer.

 

Posted by: jdhuey | August 23, 2009 10:52 AM

 

4

I always assumed the "Unseen" part referred to Grues...

 

Posted by: Troy | August 23, 2009 11:08 AM

 

5

"Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."

Miracle on 34th st.

 

Posted by: Lorraine Coots | August 23, 2009 11:48 AM

 

6

@Lorraine Coots:

Just because something is counter-intuitive doesn't mean it is faith. Evolution is about as counter-intuitive as it gets.

 

Thanks for the great post.

 

Posted by: Braden McDorman | August 23, 2009 6:17 PM

7

Thanks, Eric.

@jdhuey: there is a fine line between teaching children what to think vs how to think. I might even go so far as to say the same techniques apply to both. As in: I was brainwashed into believing that paying attention to Reality and applying Reason to my problems is the proper way to think. Circular bootstrapping reasoning? Spiraling down the rabbit hole? I have no a priori axiomatic justifications for having that belief, but its utility is demonstrable. I guess the prime factor in choosing what to brainwash your children with is to whose benefit is the result: the kids, the parents, or the established power structure?

 

@braden: I have no memories of ever finding evolution unintuitive. Obvious, no, but definitely in the class of 'doh!', slapping head, once shown its workings.

 

Posted by: Gray Gaffer | August 23, 2009 7:59 PM

 

 

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