Friday, February 17, 2012

The Religion of Science

One of the most pervasive of all ideas of the last few centuries has been that of the ultimate triumph of secularism based on the mistaken application and understanding of scientific thought. The idea runs that since the Enlightenment a revolutionary paradigm has been created which is leading to the inexorable development of scientific thought over religious thought.

The rigourous application of scientific verification and the assumption of positivist ideology-the idea that knowledge is only valid if it can be rationally, logically and mathematically proved- is seen as superseding the very notion of religious practice.

Religion Seen as Opposing Science

Religion is seen as the arch enemy of the new rationalist utopia. The scientist and, more importantly, the social scientist is seen as a kind of brave hero, valiantly fighting against the religious dogma that holds back the development of science. But yet, the march of positivism is viewed as being inevitable. The challenge is to accelerate it so mankind can be better served and quicker.

Columbus, the Church and the Flat Earth

Indeed, a whole mythology has sprung up around this desire to challenge religion based on science. For example, the popular wisdom has it that the Church actively tried to hold Columbus on his trip because it believed the World was flat.

Whereas, as Umberto Eco points out in Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, it was actually the Church’s view that Columbus would perish on the journey because their estimation of the circumference of the Earth was far larger (and more accurate) than Columbus’. The Church was right. No matter, mud sticks and, this sort of myth plays to the gallery.

Science, the French Revolution and Secularism

Of course, the march of science doesn’t stop there. Its ascent is promulgated by the French Revolution and the breaking of the relationship between God and governance, via murdering the aristocracy. The consequences of which are a fierce anti-secularism in France which sees its influence-even today- in the relative development of the French colonial territories in North Africa. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are, arguably, more secular societies than Libya or Egypt.

Intellectually, scientism and secularism are seen as marching towards sweeping religion aside. Democracy is promulgated in the Middle East by the West, and wars are fought to encourage this, because it is seen as a way to allow its populace to supplant the ultimate reality of their religious lives via the horse trading process of political engagement.

However, I digress!

Science and Religion

The point of this post is to argue the case that the core ideas of the scientific movement are actually embedded in the very same beliefs as religion. The three great religions, of Christianity, Islam and Judaism all contain the same premise from Aristotle that history has a defined end and, our progress in humanity is to reach this end whilst we strive to uncover the secrets of a world that God created.

The question of where we came from, how and what is our role and reason in this world, immediately pre-supposes the idea that there is an over riding purpose which lies hidden to us. And that sounds very similar to a religion to me!

God Does Not Play Dice

It can immediately be seen that much of scientific endeavour is imbibed with the spirit of discovering absolute truths about the universe. As Einstein famously said God doesn’t play dice. Only it seems that, following developments in quantum mechanics, if he does exist, in fact all he does is play dice.  Scientists and social scientist do search for absolute truths and religion is seen as getting in the way of modeling these ideas.

However, science itself is misunderstood by the secularists!

As John Gray points out in Straw Dogs, Darwin’s theory of evolution –which is the gold standard shibboleth of those opposing religious thought- actually implies that that humans are no different from other animals, so the humanists have it wrong that humanity has a defined purpose. Moreover, the idea that humanity was puton this earth for a defined purpose is, in fact, an idea with its origins in religion. 

Similarly, Darwinism imposes a view of evolution as development from an initial primary source and, if that isn’t a case for religion that I don’t know what is! 

Kuhn and Popper on the Philosophy of Science

But the secularists err in other, more dangerous ways. In fact the two greatest philosophers of Science of the last century (Kuhn and Popper) both have arguments which detract from the positivist case. Popper in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’, rails against the mistaken appropriation of science and positivism. Indeed, for him, scientific development is in fact advanced via the falsification criteria.

A scientific idea replaces another when it is proved to be less false. Absolute truth is not the aim, because it is not achievable. In other words, which verisimilitude is less false than the other? Ultimately, Popper advocates a piecemeal approach to social science, in line with how he sees scientific development as working. For Popper, real scientists ‘know’ that there conjectures are tentative and likely to be superseded.

For Kuhn, science progresses via a sometimes random process of paradigm shifts until that reality is challenged via a new paradigm or through the discovery of evidence which discredits the original theory.  With Popper, science could be seen as developing in a more linear fashion, whilst with Kuhn there is more of a gapping effect to development.  However, in actuality, their ideas are complementary in many ways.

Why Scientism is so Popular 

Importantly, at least for this post, both approaches chip away at theassumed  notion (outlined earlier) that there is some kind of universal truth that exists out there by which scientist are trying to uncover. Those that argue that in there is an ultimate purpose and absolute truth to the universe, are actually stating a religious case.

Perhaps this is why scientism and positivism are so popular?  Maybe its because they rely on the same assumptions of the things (religion) that they purport to over throw, that it makes them so easily accepted?


Eco, Umberto ‘Serendipities: Language and Lunacy’

Gray, John  ‘Straw Dogs’

Kuhn, Thomas ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’

Popper, Karl ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’, ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’

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