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sciencevsreligion v03

At the moment that you claim to “know” something, you are in the realm of epistemology.

At the moment that you claim to know with certainty, beyond any doubt, and are no longer open to either defend your positions or entertain any opposing arguments, you may be flirting with dogmatism.

And if you situate an epistemological conversation about knowledge exclusively in the language of science versus religion, you are missing the central plot.

I recently noticed a comment on an essay written here on philosophy of science and thought I would make a few observations as the general argument is a common one.

People spend a lot of cognitive fuel arguing on the topic of religion versus science. There are very good reasons for why that would be the case. After all, religion (and its various truth claims) is the 800 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to truth claims and science is the best method that we’ve ever invented to evaluate and investigate truth claims. Given the near ubiquity of metaphysical beliefs under the banner of religions of various colors and stripes, it’s no surprise that religion would often be pitted against science.

Many people are religious (the understatement of the century). Many of these people find religion to be the cat’s meow when it comes to a fundamental belief system. And then there are many people who have a distaste for religion. There is a spectrum of views from total indifference to tolerance to utter disdain from those who find it harmful on the whole.

Some people are science advocates or actual working scientists. They think science is “better” than religion as a basis for forming beliefs about the world and their place in it.

Therefore, it does not take a genius to expect normal tribal conflict to emerge and form around these two often conflicting metaphysical worldviews.

Granted, this is not to claim that these are mutually exclusive tribes or beliefs. This is clearly not so. The vast majority of people on the planet embrace science, medicine and technology, even if unconsciously, in every aspect of their lives, despite possibly rejecting certain scientific positions which clash with other more fundamental religious or moral views. And holding religious views does not necessarily imply that one is “anti-science.” A great percentage of scientifically literate individuals and even scientists themselves hold varying degrees and types of religious beliefs.

I would argue that the science versus religion meme is the ultimate red herring.

Why? Because, even if science did not exist as a method, an area of inquiry and a body of knowledge, it would not render religious claims true, by default.

Even if one were to concede, therefore, that science is completely wrong, that would do nothing to prop up or support the veracity of religious claims.

If the science versus religion debate is nothing but a red herring, what is the actual and central disagreement here?

The answer is that it is an epistemological debate; a philosophical dispute.

There is, for example a real debate between religious advocacy and its philosophical polar opposite: atheism, writ large.

It’s also important to define religion in its institutional context (nominal religions) for this argument and atheism as the rejection of these nominal religious claims.

Spirituality is another discussion. In other words, both a religious person and an atheist can be “spiritual.”

Here is the comment that inspired this post. Sadly, this person’s rebuttal to my comment was quite hateful and disturbing. He threatened to effectively stalk my posts and document any further attacks against him and was promptly banned to avoid further problems. A bit extreme, to say the least. I think my response was quite balanced and fair.

“Hey, your Religion and mine are completely different in scope and in qualities,…

I have done extensive studies of all Major Religions and a fair proportion of the not so popularized ones and along with the Ancient Mythologies (some say all Religion is Mythology, past and present) so I assure you my derived concepts are unique, and that changes daily

Key is to never let your Religion interfere with the Science, but also never let the Science interfere with the Religion in that they are indeed not mutually exclusive,… but to put Science over Theology, that is indeed a folly of types as well,…

Hey, it’s called having an “Open Mind” and to profess anything as not valid, well, show me your proofs and I will study em,… not saying I will accept them, saying I will give it an eye and an ear

Hah,… to say Science is the superior of the studies,… I beg to differ, Science without Morality is one of the most dangerous commodities on this Planet, just look at the War Making Technologies,… how’s that for a bitter Pill, Drink and/or a bitter Herb all wrapped into one foul package,…

You do your thingies, I will do mine and well, time is short for any of us from the day we wuz-born,… use it wisely and fairly, we don’t get a whole heck of a lot of it on this Plateau,…”

Here is our response:

There is a lot of fallacious reasoning in your argument. The discussion should not be about science vs. religion. It should be about epistemology. What can we know and what is the best method to go about getting at a probable or more likely account of how things actually are.

One might argue that they are not interested in trying to learn how things really are. But what are the consequences for that attitude in terms of the survival and well being of our species? I would argue that we “science” by virtue of the type of animal that we are. We have evolved as intelligent problem solvers and pattern matching animals. We could even argue that all of biology is effectively evolved to problem solve in some capacity: to seek out sustenance, avoid threats, find mates, etc. So, the question of whether or not the truth is important might be a moot point. We are simply built to look for answers. And when we don’t find good or satisfying ones, we are probably built to convince ourselves that we have them.

Rationally speaking, having an open mind is generally a good thing so that we do not close ourselves off to dogma and motivated reasoning. That is what the scientific method is designed to minimize, in a way that religion is not. “Keep an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out” is a quote which reminds us that excessive open-mindedness also has its risks. People are prone to make the false dichotomy fallacy – either this or that. More often than not possible answers do not present themselves in binary form.

An example of that false dichotomy fallacy is the presumption that science, as an epistemological approach is not constrained by “morality.” That would simply be a misrepresentation of how things work. There are a host of institutions, agents, norms and values in society that constrain the application of science, not the least of which are moral philosophy, ethics committees, international law and various oversight institutions. One can point to a host of norms in society that guide and constrain the types and methods of scientific research that can be conducted – constraints on animal and human research, international law, treaties and ethics boards.

We’re open to more effective epistemological approaches to getting at how things actually are, but to date, we’re unaware of any better method than an evidence and logic-based approach.

As for “Hey, it’s called having an “Open Mind” and to profess anything as not valid, well, show me your proofs and I will study em.

That belief suggests that the burden of proof should be on those who do not accept positive claims for lack of compelling reasons. That approach implies that we should accept all possible things as being true, by default. That is not a dependable or practical pathway to knowledge. The onus is on the one claiming to know, not on the one who is not convinced by a lack of evidence or reason. Should we assume that leprechauns, Santa Claus and telekinesis are true void of evidence? Or should we rather focus our limited cognitive capital and resources on those claims that provide good positive reason and evidence to suggest they might be true. Burden of proof and null hypothesis seem to be a more dependable pathway to knowledge, not faith, gut or assertion.

Original post: Science, Critical Thinking and Skepticism, June 10, 2016

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