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The Nature of Reality, and Vice Versa

Brian Horn

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.-- Philip K. Dick

It's no secret that the biblical account of creation is completely at odds with what science has discovered to be the case. There are two religious reactions to this conflict.

Moderate denominations tend to view the biblical account as allegorical, or as an attempt to provide explanations at a time when factual knowledge was limited. They sometimes suggest an arbitrary mangling of the meaning when necessary, such as assuming "day" really means "billions of years" in appropriate contexts. Such flexibility allows people to consider themselves members of the religion and at the same time accept the scientific view of reality.

Conservative denominations take the Bible literally. They believe God created the earth, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and people in six days about 6000 years ago. Unfortunately, such an interpretation doesn't allow the acceptance of scientific findings.

Trickster

Bible literalists go to great lengths to explain away contradictions with the literal biblical accounts. My introduction to this interesting way of thinking came during a lunchtime conversation with several co-workers a number of years ago. The lunch group included a fellow engineer, I'll call him John, who happened to be Mormon. Jurassic Park had just come out and some of us were skeptically speculating about the movie's premise that multi-million-year-old DNA could be sufficiently intact to be cloned into a dinosaur. John said our speculation about the DNA was beside the point--the main issue, he informed us, was the impossibility of dinosaurs living millions of years ago because the earth itself was less than 6000 years old.

That spawned much discussion. I was fascinated by John's only recourse to defend his belief, which was to portray God as being incredibly dedicated to tricking humanity. The lunch group contended that the millions of layers of sedimentary rock sliced through by the Grand Canyon show that the canyon was formed over the course of millions of years. John responded that God could have created all those millions of layers at once on the third day of creation, to make it look like each layer had been laid down yearly. After all, God is all-powerful, so nothing is too difficult for him. And, he could have made up skeletal remains of various now-extinct species and embedded the bones in appropriate layers to make it look like the animals lived a long time ago.

The lunch group was amazed. We asked about radiometric dating, which is based on well-established physics and shows earth to be some four billion years old. John said God could have made some rocks with isotope ratios that indicated the rocks had been undergoing radioactive decay for billions of years but were really just freshly created during the week of creation. Apparently, God had been willing to go to great lengths just to fool the physicists and geologists.

Based on this admittedly small sample of one, Mormons get around the gaping mismatch between literal biblical accounts and scientific understanding by portraying God as the ultimate trickster. Evidently God thought it would be fun to fool everybody by setting up the physical world such that it appears to be well described by scientific knowledge but actually was just made to look that way. I imagine that all Bible literalists must resort to something like this same reasoning--there doesn't seem to be any other way to reconcile the literal Bible with unimpeachable scientific evidence. And it is impossible to disprove the literalist arguments because no matter how difficult or improbable or convoluted God's actions might need to have been to square observed facts with biblical accounts, in the end it is possible because (and only because) God can do anything. But at some point, the necessary trickery becomes so elaborate and absurd that I would think no reasonable person could accept it.

Science

As mentioned, some religions have learned to live with science, even at the cost of having to water down much of their former dogma. But there are still a number of denominations that vehemently disagree with science in many areas. Why do conservative religious believers resist the overwhelming evidence of science when it contradicts their beliefs?

One reason for this resistance may be lack of knowledge of the science. That's understandable. Gaining a comprehension of scientific discoveries does require some effort. Also, many people don't seem to have much of an interest in science (although I think that would change somewhat if science were taught differently).

Fortunately, it's not necessary to understand in any detail what science has discovered in order to appreciate why its discoveries are the best explanations for reality that humanity has been able to come up with. It's only necessary to understand how the workings of science and religion differ in order to decide which one to believe when they are in conflict. Here are some of the main differences:

  • Religions' doctrines are typically dictated by a central authority.
  • Science's doctrines may be changed or augmented by anyone, a Nobel Prize winner or a starving graduate student, who presents sufficient evidence and reasoning to allow others to verify his or her findings.
  • Religious beliefs are based on accumulated traditions and on interpretations of a book written several thousand years ago.
  • Scientific beliefs are based on observations that can be repeated and verified, and on rigorous logical analysis.
  • Arguments that arise within a religion about its doctrine are settled by edict from its upper hierarchy.
  • Arguments within the scientific community are settled by peer review.
  • Those who question a religious doctrine are treated as enemies. Depending on the vigor of their questioning and the importance of the doctrinal issue, they may be criticized, ostracized, excommunicated, accused of blasphemy, labeled as heretics, or even killed.
  • Those who question a scientific doctrine are treated as valuable critics whose questions may lead to better understanding. (This is not to say there is no conflict in science--there often is. Scientists, particularly if they have invested a lot of intellectual effort and prestige in a particular school of thought, sometimes don't agree with new findings, and spirited arguments and formation of alliances can result. But sooner or later enough evidence accumulates to make the right answer clear to at least most of the interested parties, and past differences are forgotten.)
  • When a religion is successfully challenged, the result is a cleaving of the religious body. The original system remains basically unchanged, and a new system is created. The now-separate religions, although typically having a great deal in common, become enemies who accentuate their differences and engage in on-going conflict--perhaps just intellectual conflict, but often physical and destructive.
  • When a scientific area is successfully challenged, the result is a general adoption of the new beliefs, with concerted effort to see how the new differs from the old, resulting in a better understanding all around.
  • Religion tends to be exclusive. Each religion tries to convince its followers that it is better than the others; otherwise it risks being abandoned or absorbed.
  • Science is inclusive. Scientific endeavors are noteworthy for involving collaboration among men and women from all over the world; from all political systems, religious backgrounds and ethnic groups; and from humble to privileged lives. Use of an outside group's doctrine to support one's work is accepted and encouraged (as long as the contribution is acknowledged).

If you are looking for an explanation of something, do you think you'll get the best answer--an answer that best describes reality--from a system that doesn't use facts and repeatable observations as a basis for conclusions, that doesn't utilize a verifiable logic structure, that is based on dogma that is not to be questioned, and that considers any disagreements with its teachings to be heresy? Or do you think you'll get a better answer from a system that accurately predicts the behavior of everything from stars at the farthest reaches of the universe to the electrons in your smart-phone chip?

Wrong again

Some people distrust science because of an impression that science's theories are frequently found to be wrong and have to be replaced. They worry about relying on something that seems too malleable.

Actually, the readiness to adopt new findings that correct or extend previous understandings is one of the greatest strengths of science. If new observations or new assessments reveal a shortcoming in an existing theory, and this new work is independently verified, it seems obvious that the relevant science gets more reliable and describes reality better by adopting the new findings.

Contrast this with the approach taken by philosophers and religious thinkers prior to the first stirrings of the scientific revolution, an approach that was based on intuitive arguments untested against facts and observations. The doctrines of that time were indeed stable--in fact, questioning them was suppressed, often severely. Such stability may have seemed comfortable, and the uncertainty caused by questioning and probing for better answers was avoided. But the result was a society saddled with flawed ideas that held sway for many centuries, a society that could make little progress to improve humanity's condition.

* * * * *

The impression that science is unstable because it frequently has to replace faulty findings comes from a misunderstanding of what really happens when science advances in a particular area. It is rarely the case that an established scientific theory is found to be no good and has to be replaced by something that yields different results. Rather, the old theory is typically realized to have been an accurate description of reality within the range of conditions under which it had been possible to test it, and within the theoretical framework known up to that point. The old theory and its descriptions and predictions remain just as valid as they ever had been; the new theory comes into use in previously unexplored or poorly understood areas into which the earlier theory did not adequately extend. So it's not a matter of tossing out the old; instead, the new theory extends or refines, and often provides a different perspective that opens the door to further understanding.

Newton's laws of gravity and motion are good examples of theories that were proven to be "wrong." Newton derived these laws in the late 1600's, and nothing better was known until Einstein's theories of relativity in the early 1900's. Newton's laws explained and allowed the prediction of everything from how an apple falls from a tree to the motions of stars, planets, and billiard balls.

But there were hints of some problems. Newton himself was bothered by the need to assume in his arguments some privileged inertial frame of reference. And more accurate measurements of Mercury's orbit made in the 1800's showed an anomaly that Newton's laws couldn't explain. Then came Einstein's theories of relativity, which described a whole new way of looking at reality that showed time to be a fourth dimension of the structure of the universe and explained gravity to be a result of a warping of this structure by objects that possess mass. These new theories did away with the need for a frame of reference for velocity and acceleration, they explained the anomalies that had been observed with Newton's laws, and they opened the door to a much deeper understanding of the universe.

That is quite an accomplishment. But let's look at the practical ramifications. The only discrepancies ever found in Newton's laws show up under extreme conditions, such as near the large gravitational fields of very massive objects such as a star, or when traveling close to the speed of light. After Einstein's discoveries, Newton's laws remained as valid as they ever had been; they are, and always will be, extremely close approximations to reality under most conditions. So close that scientists and engineers still use Newton's laws for their calculations when they must predict complex trajectories of space probes that are affected by interactions with the gravity of multiple planets balanced against the force of their engines. (But the refinements provided by Einstein are essential, to pick one example, to obtain accurate information from the Global Positioning System. The GPS requires extreme accuracy in the timing of the signals between its satellites and a ground device. The higher speeds and lower gravitational field experienced by the satellites relative to the ground device makes time pass slightly differently on the satellites, something that Newton's laws completely miss.)

The continuity and stability of science is also evidenced by the way we learn it. Students' first exposure to the laws of physical mechanics and gravity is to Newton's laws, essentially as he understood them more than 300 years ago. Einstein's theories are only needed and only encountered in more advanced studies, and are best appreciated by understanding the path that led to them.

So when a science commentator says Einstein proved Newton's theories to be wrong, I think "wrong" is the wrong word to use. A better phrasing would be that Einstein's theories extended Newton's theories, or that Einstein showed a more general and comprehensive way of looking at the phenomena that Newton described. But of course that's a bit long-winded and not nearly as catchy as "wrong."

A word of warning--we may live to hear that Einstein was also wrong. Even Einstein's theories fail under the most extreme conditions, such as those associated with black holes or with the universe just after it came into being. The other big amalgam of current physical understanding, quantum theory, does deal with things at the conditions needed to understand these extreme phenomena, but doesn't include gravity. Physicists have long understood that quantum theory and Einstein's theory of general relativity do not provide a complete description of the universe. Those theories must somehow be combined (or superseded) in order to answer questions concerning reality at very extreme conditions, and physicists are hard at work to do just that. So if sometime in the future you read that Einstein was wrong, don't worry that the edifice of science is crashing down; it will only mean that the description of reality has just gotten a bit better.

There are many other examples of scientific progress made by refining and reinterpreting rather than in some sense destroying what came before, for example in the field of evolution where ever-accumulating fossil evidence and breakthroughs in genetics have led to steadily better understanding. Science is ever diligent to correct and improve itself, which can hardly be considered a fault.

(This article is excerpted from Heading for the Light: Dispelling the Shadows of Religion, a free e-book available in pdf and e-reader formats at smashwords.com.)


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Published:
  2014-01-30

Categories:
  Science and Religion

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