The Scientific Worldview

The ancients answered unanswerable questions by saying “God (or the gods) did it.”

Questions surrounding the mystery of why people got sick, comets flew inexplicably across the sky, and volcanoes blew their tops, and so on, were explained through an appeal to mythical and religious narratives. This appeal reflected the very human need to address uncertainty by exerting, however ineffectual, some modicum of control over the external world. Human nature has not fundamentally changed (so people continue resorting to magical thinking and metaphysical handwaving in the present day).

As it turns out, what the ancients lacked wasn’t control but knowledge and an effective methodology: they lacked the techniques, critical thinking, worldview and technology required to leave the safety of the cave and emerge into the light seeing the world as it is as opposed to how it ought to be.

Science, the scientific method specifically, reveals we get sick due to disease carrying pathogens (not demons); comets are not harbingers of doom but conglomerates of rock and ice orbiting the Sun with clocklike precision; and volcanoes don’t blow up because the god of the underworld demands a virgin as sacrifice (it erupts due to a series of naturally occurring geological processes).

Religion gave us formulaic reasoning like “God did it.” Not particularly informative or descriptive.

Science gives us dynamic reasoning like “X happened due to physical factor A, B or possibly C.”

Science has shaped us socially and morally, in that, we make moral decisions (in the West) based on appeals to experience and practicality rather than to prescriptions like the Ten Commandments; and socially we have, and continue to develop, new relationships with one another through rationality in the form of democratic institutions, the necessary separation of Church and State, and establishing societies governed through the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of caprice).

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A Conversation with Andrei

The following exchange took place between myself and a Facebook friend. People who are even a little bit interested in religious belief or the history of religion will get something philosophically out of the exchange.

Andrei observed: “Theology is based on sheer belief?”
Yes and no. Jesus certainly existed. Some argue he didn’t (but the ones who make such an argument are, in my mind, just a bunch of gainsaying pyrrhic skeptics). Jesus’ teachings also reflect a worldview steeped in an understanding of the God of Israel (as it existed in 1st century). Yet, while theology is sometimes based upon some things that are demonstrable, e.g. a historical Jesus existed as did a subsequent Jesus-inspired community who believed in the God of Israel, etc. the most important parts of theology—resurrections, original sins, the existence of God for that matter—are most certainly not. You believe in them. This is one of the reasons why creeds end with “Amen” (I believe) versus “Nosko” (I know). You don’t know any of it. Revealed truth, or revelation—and I mean no disrespect by this whatsoever—is inherently untrustworthy.

Andrei said: “Yes it is quite impossible to conduct repeatable experiments on trinity, and observe a material process. But I don’t care about a monotheistic God, or a Creator, or an Intelligent Designer, like the Discovery Institute argues for (I think that’s what they argue for). I care about the revealed God of the Bible, and the death and resurrection of Christ.”
Well, I think that the Discovery Institute’s fellows likely share your honest conception of a God revealed in scripture; this is who they’re trying to defend after all against those awful materialists. Nonetheless, we are leaving behind science and entering the realm of metaphysics (theology). There’s a genuine risk, whenever we’re relying upon the exercise of pure reason (revelation), of simply inventing reality and/or postulating things into existence, e.g. Plato’s perfect forms or St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God immediately come to mind. I get the impression that the “revealed Christ” gives you hope (which is a hope I share incidentally); however, our hope in this revealed God (or the revelation itself) is not evidence of His existence. Belief or revelation or feelings, in other words, does not a thing make, i.e. God exists quite independent of a theist’s assent or an atheist’s ardent denial. This has some implications for faith that I’d rather leave for a separate discussion if you are so inclined.

Andrie observes: “These [revealed truths] might be impossible to repeat, but they have to be real events to have real implications for my daily behavior.”
Completely understand and appreciate what you’re saying here. Yet, the funny thing about faith in my experience is it always reveals more about the individual adherent’s assumptions about what God is or what God is not as opposed to revealing something actually accurate or meaningful about God Himself. For example, many Christians have problems accepting the theory of evolution because it seems to suggest there’s no need for a creator or a special act of creation (like the one presented in the Book of Genesis). Therefore, some Christians dismiss the theory of evolution out of hand because they don’t like the potential implications for their strongly held beliefs (really, assumptions). One of my better friends actually articulated it as follows: if I have to make a decision between the God of the Bible and science then I’ll side with God 100% of the time. Here’s the rub: it is possible for God to exist AND for evolution to be taking place at one and the same time. I’m not saying that is an easy dichotomy to maintain but it is an option. The knee jerk reaction some theists have to evolution does not actually reflect God’s limitations or potential permutations; rather, it reflects the insecurities, convictions, education, assumptions, etc. of the individual adherent.

You said that “events have to be real” in order for them to have “real implications for your behavior”. You’re making an argument from consequences here (which is fallacious). In reality you can have the appearance of an event being real, e.g. Saddam Hussein possessing WMDs, etc. that can really influence decision-making and action-taking, e.g. the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As it turns out Hussein had no WMDs. There was still an invasion though. What is a theological equivalent of your argument from consequences? Probably Anselm’s ontological argument, e.g. I can conceive of the most perfect being; since I can conceive of this being it necessarily must exist. Anselm was successfully refuted by William of Ockham about a century later when Ockham observed “I can conceive of the most perfect unicorn” but does this necessarily mean unicorns exist? I suppose there’s a reason why Anselm is called a “saint” while Ockham was continuously in trouble with Church authorities and the stake was never far away. Anyways, Andrei events do not have to in fact be real to have real implications for your behavior. You simply need to believe these things occurred and then act accordingly. We all do it.

Andrei said: “And from the revealed word of God we can start to argue and decide on issues. But it has to be grounded in history and passed on by reliable witnesses.”
David Hume probably has one of the better responses to what you’re saying here with respect to “reliable witnesses”. He argued that if people never lied and were never lied to; if they were never deluded or practiced self-delusion or made errors of judgment etc. then we might be justified in taking what people say at face value. The problem, though, is it is unwise to give anyone (including ourselves), anything, or any source of information, etc. unqualified support (no matter how comforting unqualified acceptance of that thing, person or source might be).

Andrei asked: “And is there a place for falsifiability in religious practice and belief?”
I would argue there is a place for falsification in every discipline worthy of the name; moreover, you could make the argument that at the Council of Nicea when Athanasius and Arius’ supporters were debating the nature of the Incarnation that they were utilizing a type of falsification. I would argue, though, that both Athanasius and Arius’ followers were arguing from competing metaphysical claims (and not from something objective as defined).

This reminds me of something I read in “Five Stones and a Sling” (a book written by philologist and theologian Michael Goulder). Goulder was something of an outlier in the theological community because he didn’t pay lip service to science or scientific objectivity. He lived it and this is likely what led him eventually to a position of agnosticism. Goulder observed biblical scholars do not practice objectivity but go into their studies with certain fundamental assumptions already in mind. On page 28 of “Five Stones” Goulder remarked: “My disappointment was due in large part to my inexperience.  I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome.  This however is only partly true.  Before new ideas come, scholars have [already] reached a consensus, and their position as authorities depends upon their agreeing with that consensus.  Their teachers, whom they normally honoured, had taught them the consensus; they had written their books assuming it, and therefore, to think that they and their fellow experts had been wrong and that a new scholar, of whom they had not heard, was in a position to put them right.  But there is another problem: most scholars of the New Testament have religious loyalties [going into any study]: they want the text to be orthodox, or historical, or preachable, or relevant.  So any new interpretation which does not fulfil these conditions is not likely to be approved.”

Andrei begins his conclusion: “So now we come to materialism and how you said that fundamentalist Christians are inconvenienced by physicists un-weaveing the rainbow (did you say that?).”
When I was referring to the “unweaving of a rainbow” I was actually alluding to a poem by John Keats (early 19th century). He lamented the fact that science seemed to pluck the mystery of out nature and he castigated the Newtons of the world (scientists) for replacing a world of beauty with one that is cold, hard and sterile (a purely material world).

Andrei asserted: “I would say scientific enterprise (eg. discovering the laws of the universe) needed monotheism and suffered under the polytheistic pantheon.”
Demonstrably false my friend. Science was born out of Greek rationalists who saw gods abounding everywhere. In his book “Cosmos”, Carl Sagan describes the fertility of thinking as it existed in Greece (6th to 4th centuries BCE) through the likes of such thinkers as Thales, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, and Democritus. With that said, you are sort of correct by observing science suffered under the polytheistic pantheon, e.g. you’re alluding to the Pythagoreans persecution of the rationalists in ancient Greece. If you didn’t know about this persecution, you successfully intuited it (or learned some version of it from a teacher likely). I’ve completed some courses online related to these early thinkers, etc. and the Pythagoreans looked at the rationalism of Thales et tal as leading necessarily to atheism (atheism in this case as inspiring disbelief in the Greek pantheon, i.e. the rationalists after all explained that volcanoes didn’t blow up because gods were angry but it was a reflection of some sort of natural, observable, definable process). So these rationalists were eventually supplanted because they were irreligious; and, I think, you’re sort of right when you observed the scientific enterprise “needed monotheism” to come to be, e.g. it was the Catholic Church that established the university system in northern Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries that eventually gave us the renaissance, reformation and Enlightenment/scientific revolution; the Church didn’t intend for these changes to occur; however, however, interesting things happen when you grant genuine intellectuals the freedom to inquire and study; it was also the Catholic Church that destroyed the library of Alexandria in the5th century in an effort to stamp out the so-called heresies of Thales, Democritus; it was a science hating Christian mob that murdered Hypatia (the last curator of the library). Hypatia made many enemies when she asserted that all formal dogmatic religious are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.

Andrei further observed: “This is because monotheism gave society the confidence that inquiries and discoveries are repeatable, and that real laws can be discovered with certain implications.”
Actually, the way I’ve heard this articulated is that the Christian-Judeo worldview sponsored the notion started by the Greeks that truth was knowable, objective, and could be articulated. You don’t need monotheism for this philosophical underpinning of science. You just need rationalism and the pagan Greeks had it first.

Let’s Go to the Banca

If you need money then go to the “banca.” In the 14th century, when capitalism was emerging through the work of a growing class of merchant bankers in Italy, these bankers exchanged money at the “river bank” where they met traveling merchants to exchange currency. Hence, the name “bank” is a reflection of a centuries old Italian “riverbank” financial exchange. We are surrounded by words, ideas and concepts whose origins have passed into memory and then into complete obscurity; we presume they’ve always existed in their current form (a form we’ve inherited) giving our worldview an unjustified veneer of sophistication, meaning and purpose.

This is one of the reasons why knowledge and literacy are so important: knowledge increases a person’s awareness of where things come from (increasing the possibility of change and improvement) while literacy provides a person with the means to continue unlearning the nonsense their well-intentioned parents, teachers and parent culture taught them.

If You Seek Wisdom Drop Your Opinions

The Buddha observed that if you seek wisdom you should drop your opinions. Experience has taught me an additional truth: if you seek wisdom develop your capacity to empathize, perceive and see issues from someone else’s point of view. Specifically, just because an idea or issue isn’t important to you (or doesn’t affect you directly) this doesn’t mean that that idea isn’t worthy of consideration or that the issue isn’t important in principle.

Too many of us, without even realizing it, think and operate from a narrow position of egocentrism or self-interest; we think we’re informed, and we hold strong opinions, but–instead of seeing the 1s and 0s that make-up reality like Neo from The Matrix–we are ultimately just making things up as we go along. We are being arbitrary. This kind of thinking follows the formula: if I don’t personally approve of X, or if I don’t like X, I appeal to a combination of my dislike, and fundamental ignorance, as a sort of evidence in support of my opinion on X. The problem, though, is your like or dislike has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

I’ll explain.

I make mistakes in reasoning all of the time. I know for a fact I reach conclusions without having all the necessary information or without taking time for proper consideration. So why, I wonder, should I ever hold an opinion or view so strongly I am unwilling to change my mind? Moreover, should my experience ever be the standard by which everything else and everyone else is measured? I’m thinking, no.  I understand people are going to form opinions (that’s inevitable). Yet, isn’t it possible to form more thoughtful, nuanced, and principled opinions? I think so. But we must practice more empathy and more humility. We have to drop some of our opinions.

Former American Vice-President Dick Cheney was an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ community for decades. Then, suddenly, he changed his mind…when his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now he supports gay rights. Gay rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. The rights of people of color are human rights. Rights don’t just belong to my tribe. Cheney should’ve supported gay people, not because his daughter is gay (and he is now personally affected), but because reasonable people should seek to operate from a consistent set of principles and beliefs. If you do otherwise, you are just making stuff up as you go and living incoherently (worse still you’re imposing your incoherence on others).

 

According to the Buddha, when we form opinions we are creating not discovering reality. We construct a narrative that both makes sense to us personally and which agrees with whatever political culture we just so happen to belong to by the accident of our birth. Arguably, we need to create meaning; doing so helps us navigate and make sense of the world; nevertheless, in the process of creating meaning we would do well to avoid becoming a sort Dr. Frankenstein giving life to a monster (an opinion) reflecting our vanity on to an unwitting world; rather, we have a certain ethical responsibility to ourselves and others to think and contemplate well; and, if you can, give life to opinions reflecting principles that are self-evidently true rather than to ones satisfying the need to win arguments or mock others. In the end, there’s more that links us than separates. Perhaps if we forget some of the things we were taught, or that we’ve taught ourselves, we can in principle work towards building better and happier communities.