Sunday, November 8, 2009

Science vs. Religion

Science and Religion Are Not Incompatible, They Are Orthogonal.

The title “Science vs. Religion” uses “vs.” in the mathematical sense: science and religion plotted on perpendicular axes on a chart. Science and religion are not incompatible, they are orthogonal. In mathematics and linear algebra, orthogonality refers to two perpendicular coordinate systems or sets whose dot product is zero. That is, one space does not project onto the other. This may seem restrictive, but taken together, the single-dimensional x- and y-axes form a much richer space: a two-dimensional plane. Science and religion complement each other in the same way.

Science is utilitarian. It answers the question “how can I get what I want?” By observing the natural universe, scientists form hypotheses and theories that describe their observations. They test these hypotheses experimentally. If the hypothesis can predict the experimental outcome frequently enough and accurately enough, it is considered a scientific theory or law. A useful tool, the theory allows us to build technology to exploit the natural law it describes. In some cases, the technology is based on ad-hoc knowledge without formal science behind it (e.g., hitting something with a stone), but the knowledge is still utilitarian. However, science makes no ethical judgment about whether we should pursue the technology that the scientific knowledge provides.

Religion is ethical. It answers the question “what ought I to want?” It is incorrect to use religion to answer the question “how can I get what I want?” In fact, the latter question is the very definition of idolatry – taking God’s name in vain. It is not only proscribed in the Bible, it does not work, because that is not what religion – or God – is all about. Critics are quick to point out that religion is no better than superstition, because religion does not reliably give idolatrous practitioners what they ask of it, but that only proves that neither party understands the true purpose of religion.

Laypersons, as well as scientists and clergymen (both of whom should know better) often attempt to project the roles and truth-claims of science and religion into the same space, with predictable confusion. You probably already know the chaos that ensues when you confuse the x-axis with the y-axis, and you probably also understand how data is lost when you attempt to project the x-axis onto the y-axis.

The famous controversy between Biblical Creation and Natural Selection should help to illustrate the problem. From a scientific standpoint, Natural Selection is observable and testable. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species might not be entirely correct – when it was written, it was a preliminary hypothesis. Nevertheless, observation, experiment and repeatability can prove or disprove its correctness. Furthermore, any portions that are not testable should be rejected as conjecture. As the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection passes ongoing scientific scrutiny, it becomes an increasingly useful tool for scientists and technologists. Any religious pronouncements about it, beyond merely acknowledging its existence, are simply non-sequiturs.

Similarly, scientists should have nothing to say about Biblical Creation, except to point out that it does not describe Natural Selection – which renders neither Natural Selection nor Biblical Creation invalid. The story of Biblical Creation was intended to establish man’s relationship to God and to the rest of humanity. I do not think it was ever intended to provide implementation details about God’s universe, even though the writing style might suggest that. Rather, the story itself is primarily a mnemonic to help illustrate a point, just as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol illustrates a point. Few people really believe that Ebenezer Scrooge ever actually existed, or that he was visited by spirits, but we all get the point just the same. Similarly, Jesus frequently used fictitious parables and familiar stories as examples to help get his points across.

It strikes me as remarkably presumptuous of the religious community when they to attempt to constrain God’s hand by saying He could not have used seemingly random Natural Selection to arrive at higher life forms, including humans. Natural Selection might not seem at all random to God. Every time we humans learn something new about the universe, we stand in awe of its symmetry, its beauty and its elegance. We should not be offended if the facts that we uncover about it do not always seem to agree with our dogma, as it happened when Galileo discovered the planets orbiting our Sun. Our understanding of the dogma required adjustment in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence.

For those atheists who are offended by spiritual references to God, or who reject the existence of God, it might be helpful to visualize what some people refer to as God simply as the forces of nature that got us where we are today. However, to reject religion or a creator is to reject the ethical standards that make us principled human beings. We have thousands of years of Judeo-Christian heritage that shaped our culture and made it what it is – a free and tolerant society. It is not perfect, but a work in progress. We should not be too quick to throw that away. God is not finished with us yet.

For a very scholarly and rigorous treatment of this subject, please read Science And Faith: Understanding Meaning, Method, And Truth by William H. Chalker, Ph.D.


  1. I suppose this would make sense if people were on the whole unethical by nature. I do not agree that "God" is necessary for ethics to survive. Most expecially the alleged Judeo Christian one which established rules that are both good and psychotic by our standards today. Morals obtained by cognizant reasoning are most likely better in the long run than those taken from outdated texts. Read the bible then tell me it should be followed when following it requires such horrors as stoning people for working on the Sabbath. There is no evidence of "God" so it has no place in a conversation comparing the theory to one with actual evidence.

    1. I did not say God is necessary for ethics to survive. I said religion was intended to answer ethical questions.

      The Bible does not require stoning anyone for working on the Sabbath. In fact, the Jewish prophets constantly had to talk people down from high and mighty strict adherence to "the law" while ignoring the underlying reasons for it. And of course, Jesus is said to have died for our sins (not directly related to "the law", but still related to our innate inability to adhere to things like the Golden Rule). So nothing in the Bible compels anyone to do horrific things, although as the entire theme of my article was supposed to convey, people do seem to misinterpret the Bible all the time.

      The argument that the text is outdated seems like a rather odd conclusion to draw. Outdated from what standpoint? Of course the texts were from a culture that predates the scientific Age of Reason, and as such must be interpreted as people of that era would have done. You cannot read the Bible as if it were a scientific journal and expect to get an undistorted message from it. There is truth to be had, but one has to be in the correct frame of reference to get it.


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