Monthly Archives: April 2016

Science and Religion, what are they good for?

Scott, the author of Skeptic Meditations, has made it clear that I need to more adequately describe what the relationship between the sciences and religions are in a situation where we use both as valid means of knowing about the world. He pointed out that there are conflicts between popular religious views and well-accepted scientific views — vaccinations versus faith healing, for example. I agree, there are conflicts between scientific findings and religious tenets, and I’m not advocating any type of relativism.

I think the source of this conflict between the sciences and religion frequently arises from the claim that religion or science (pick your favorite side) provides all the answers to all the questions we have. In other words, this debate stems from a misunderstanding of what an epistemic method is capable of doing for us. An epistemic method is a way of generating useful knowledge about how we experience the world. For example, physics has enabled us to mathematically understand gravity, which lets us put telecommunications satellites in orbit. Physics is an epistemic method, as is biology, sociology, or understanding foreign languages. However, I also submit that much “softer” subjects, such as literature, music, and religion are also epistemic methods. Each of these areas of study are epistemic methods, or tools, because we can use them to better understand our experiences of being human.

Now most folks don’t find much problem with the claim that each of these epistemic tools has its intended use. For example, I wouldn’t use my (limited) knowledge of Shakespeare’s sonnets to solve an algebra problem, and my algebra won’t necessarily help me understand the history of astronomy. In other words, each epistemic tool solves some problem very well, and it solves other problems less well, or not at all.

This directly applies to the debate between science and religion, the one that has scientific atheists and fervent religious followers calling each other nasty names. At least since Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic church for his astronomical observations, religion in Europe and it’s colonial descendants has been on the defensive, trying to maintain its control of many epistemic areas that are becoming more usefully described by branches of scientific investigation: astronomy, biology, geology, and their relatives are all able to tell us the story of how our universe has come to be the way it is better than religion can. I say “better” in the sense that the sciences produce knowledge about our experience of the world that is able to predict more and do more for us.

However, there are things that the sciences still don’t do very well. Despite using the sciences to harness nuclear energy or build a jet engine, the sciences don’t tell us what we should do with this new information and our new abilities. Ethics is an area of our knowledge that is recalcitrant to scientific analysis. Coping with suffering, pain, or loss is another area that the sciences can’t teach us how to do very well, as is making difficult and complex decisions. For these areas of human experience that can’t be captured by scientific analysis, we need a different epistemic tool.

Some folks claim that science will be able to describe these intractable problems, such as ethics and human subjectivity, but that’s the same sort of faith-based reasoning that these science-minded folks would like to see driven out of the decisions to vaccinate children against preventable diseases. In both cases — vaccination and faith in science’s epistemic powers — it is a mistake. By this reasoning, science loses its rigor, becoming little more than magic: anything is possible, because the argument assumes the consequent.

What I’d like to see in the debate between the sciences and religions is a recognition that no individual epistemic tool is capable of providing a complete explanation of human experience to us.*  By design, each field of science, as well as literature, philosophy, language, and religion has a limited area of study. To think otherwise requires the one who holds that opinion to explain why using a less-useful epistemic tool is preferable to a more useful one. It’s a fundamental tenet that we need multiple epistemic tools to develop a more complete understanding of the world

It’s an historical accident that philosophy and religion are old enough epistemic tools that they were catch-all categories for human knowledge over many centuries. But since the 18th or 19th Centuries, the fields of epistemic elaboration have been subdivided into smaller and smaller plots. Many branches of the sciences have supplanted religious traditions and philosophy as the epistemic authority on various problem sets.

Is there a problem in accepting that we need multiple tools to make sense of our experiences? I suppose the problem lies in deciding which epistemic tool set is sufficient for building our knowledge. That problem is a towering one, and it’s certainly going to take more space than I have left in this blog post.

However, I’m curious as to why we ought to eschew religious traditions, in context with the arts and sciences, as part of our epistemic tool box. It seems to me that we ought to retain all of our epistemic tools, since they don’t weigh anything, and they might still prove useful, as long as we recognize that they each have limited utility.


* I suspect this is due to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems applying to our epistemic endeavors, certainly within the formalizable sciences, but the formal proof of that suspicion is beyond my mathematical abilities.

Science vs. Religion — a false dichotomy

I was raised in a non-religious family. We didn’t attend any sort of organized congregation, and we celebrated Christmas and Easter as cultural events, rather than ones with any religious significance. In high school, I was well-trained in physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry (for a high-schooler), a I began to wonder what all this religious stuff was really about, and I started reading.

Fast forward a number of years — I’m still reading, and I’ve completed some degrees in an attempt to help figure out what all this religious stuff is really about. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do have better questions on that subject.

As you know, the internet is full of many angry monographs and diatribes for and against science and religion. Those kinds of articles and discussions are tiring to read. This is not one of those. I am primarily interested in what sciences and religions do for us as people and communities.

It’s a common to teach that philosophy (e.g. Natural Philosophy, or the sciences) replaced popular religion as the tool of knowledge in Ancient Greece around 400-500 B.C. But it’s interesting that any historical account of later years — Seneca, St. Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, yesterday’s newspaper — includes a discussion of the local religious practices. Religions are alive and well in societies around the globe.

It’s true that we, as a society, no longer hold sacrifices and pray for good weather in the coming year for a healthy crop in Iowa, like the ancient Anasazi, Greeks, or Mesopotamians did: instead, we apply fertilizers and plant seeds developed by the biologists and chemists at Monsanto. Empirically speaking, this seems to yield more consistent results than the sacrifices and prayers have done.

Similarly, we don’t try to exorcise demons when someone falls ill. We go to the doctor for diagnosis with various imaging tools, medicine, and perhaps surgery. Again, surveys show this appears to help us live longer than the previously accepted practices.

Despite, religion’s diminished role in some important aspects of our lives, people still rely on religions for many things in their lives. Why? Atheists and Logical Postivists would have us give all that up as mumbo jumbo — or at least acknowledge this behavior as irrational and silly. Yet, many people are still deadly serious about their religious beliefs. When someone is willing to die for something, and kill you alongside them, there’s nothing silly about it. We need to understand what’s going on here.

Even in less deadly and more uplifting situations, religion plays a big role in life. Coming of age celebrations, annual change of season celebrations, and mourning rituals help people mark the passage of our lives in a way that science fails to do. There is an internal, personal, and intangible aspect to our lives that is private and yet shared with others in social settings that religions help us foster. Moreover, this need not be in contest with scientific projects or values.

In this role, religions could be viewed as a practical or pragmatic type of psychology, or social psychology, and if we ignore this role that religions play in our cultures, we may end up with violent situations like religious extremism, where people lash out in order to protect values that they feel are in danger.*

Rather than viewing sciences and religions as somehow competing for the dominant explanation of what exists in the world (i.e. ontology) or what we can know about the world (i.e. epistemology), I’m interested in exploring how science and religion function in our cultures to shape the ways we interact with each other and the broader world we inhabit.

Many debates about sciences and religions focus on ontological and epistemological issues: Does God exist? How do we know whether God exists? How old is the world? How do we know how old the world is? etc. These debates aren’t particularly useful for anyone, because the combatants are entrenched in alien ontological and epistemological positions. Changing one’s mind through conversation is unlikely.

Moreover, most people don’t have such monotonic philosophical views. Most of us accept at least some scientific findings as useful (if not true), e.g. we take ibuprofen for headaches or we use machines designed using an understanding physics (reading glasses); and most of us can understand at least some religious tenets as metaphorically acceptable, e.g. the Old Testament’s description of the Universe’s and the Earth’s creation as a metaphor for the longer, geological and ecological development of the Universe and the Earth.

It’s this mixed ground that I find interesting and useful for discussing the sciences and religions. In this mixed ground, I find that religions and sciences are often investigating similar problems: applied psychology and various types of religious ministry are an easy example. The tools each discipline uses to help someone deal with the loss of a loved one may be different, but the problem is the same. I believe there is some useful things each can learn from the other in this mixed situations.

The neurological research surrounding prayer and meditation is another interesting mixed ground that the sciences and religions are investigating together. Scanning the brains of praying Catholic monastics and meditating Buddhist monastics have shown similar brain activity patterns. This kind of research may help us understand the similarities and differences of various religious practices, which could have important social and cultural implications for how people of different faiths interact with each other (for better or worse).

Rather than “Science vs. Religion”, we ought to refocus from this divisive approach. We ought to think of “Sciences and Religions”. It’s important to note the variety of scientific methods that exist among the different fields of scientific inquiry, as well as the variety of religious beliefs and methods used by the various religions in the world. The Scientific Method is often cited as a unifying aspect of Scientific Practice, but beyond “testing hypotheses”, what a clinical psychologist does in their daily work is almost unrecognizable as “science” when compared to what an experimental physicist does. Moreover, it’s plausible to claim that one could empirically practice a religion: conversion experiences could be explained as “testing hypotheses” of a particular religious system. The confirmation and falsification criteria of these different kinds of hypotheses and tests need further elaboration, but the language makes sense. What do you think, is there something to be gained from exploring this mixed ground in scientific and religious inquiry?

* This kind of violence is unacceptable, and I’m not defending it as a valid response to feeling threatened. Rather, I think there are ways to address this type of situation using a religious and scientific understanding of the world.

Early retirement goes big time

I’ve been struggling with the sales of the idea and practice of early retirement. The New Yorker recently posted a lengthy expose about Mr. Money Mustache, which didn’t paint him in the most complimentary colors. However, the points in the article bear consideration by folks interested in retiring early: the early retirement bloggers are beginning to sell some pretty luxurious experiences surrounding the early retirement idea.

Mr. Money Mustache and other bloggers on early retirement have organized an annual vacation opportunity in Ecuador. For a few thousand dollars, you can hangout with these folks. However, I wonder whether this whole plan is something of a profit-making machine that distracts its participants from what is ostensibly bringing them all together. The trip is somewhat antithetical to the concept early retirement, and it is certainly antithetical to the environmental conservation ethic that Mr. Money Mustache espouses: traveling to a developing country to spend a few weeks at a resort to talk about saving money and investing is a little ironic. Many folks simply do this on the internet forums of early retirement websites, saving the plane travel and assorted trappings. Traveling to Ecuador to meet Mr. Money Mustache and his blogging buddies seems slightly ridiculous when the premise of their message is to eschew living like a jet-setting celebrity in exchange for simple pleasures of life.

Now, I believe that it is everyone’s right to spend their money as they choose, assuming those choices are legal, responsible, and don’t harm anyone. (We’ll save the ethical analysis of those parameters for another time.) What bothers me is the marketing and sales tactics these bloggers use to capitalize on their readership. This feels like Mr. Money Mustache is talking out of both sides of his mouth. I wonder whether it bothers him that he is telling people to save money and the planet on one side, and to pay thousands of dollars to fly to Ecuador and hang-out with him on the other.

There is certainly money to be made on popular ideas, and early retirement is indeed a popular idea, judging by the readership of websites like the one run by Mr. Money Mustache. However, I expected those readers to be more immune to sales and marketing tactics than the average blog reader and consumer, given that early retirement is predicated on a desire to consume more selectively and save aggressively. Rather, it seems that folks who are interested in early retirement are still willing to buy products that make the early retirement process easier or more enjoyable. Tools like You Need a Budget and Mr. Money Mustache’s international convention are extremely popular and sold out, respectively. Perhaps everyone making the trip is financially secure enough to pay for the experience without going into debt, and they’ve rationalized the environmental costs of international plane travel, or perhaps not: I don’t know. At the end of the day, I suppose we are still predictably irrational.

I feel like there’s something ethically questionable about espousing financial responsibility and environmental conservation, and also selling expensive products or travel experiences that leverage one’s fame and celebrity, especially when the famous celebrities no longer needs the money! This feels like a perpetuation of the lifestyle that the early retirement movement seeks to change. Have I missed something? Am I being overly judgemental?