Science vs. Religion

Science and religion have done an enormous amount to make our society and our everyday lives so much better. Imagine what it was like in primitive times with no social order and no home comforts. Religion and science have created the best of our society and our modern lives. For many centuries, science and religion have vied with each other to gain supremacy. And as with all revolutions, the winning revolutionary becomes the old tyrant with a different coloured hat! We first look at the negative aspects of religion and compare these with modern science. Actually, some of the examples are very old. Current examples tend to be highly emotional, and it is difficult to study them objectively. However, by examining the old and not so old examples, we can more easily look at present times with a more rational, sensible outlook.

Religion is

  • Authoritarian - based on fiat
  • Based on faith or belief not observation or reason.
  • Does not permit counter-theories
  • Unchangeable - cast in words of stone
  • When confronted with counter evidence the religionist does not give up his or her theory.
  • A closed shop - if you aren't a card carrying member, you aren't welcome!
  • Intolerant of disbelievers.

In history, and today we hear of people who are persecuted because they believe in another religion, or because they are heretics. Religion is sometimes tolerant of other religions, but never of heretics.
Science can be compared and contrasted with Natural Science, and Psychology can be compared and contrasted with Applied Psychology

The characteristics of science:

  • Observation
  • Classification, naming and defining
  • Collection of data
  • Observation of Patterns
  • Formation of theories and formulae
  • Testing of theories
  • Provisional acceptance or Rejection.

The essence of science

In essence, science is concerned with the outside world. Scientific statements say something about reality. They say that reality is such and such. They do not merely say this. They say it such that it is related to reality in a special way. They say it in a way that is provable. To be accurate they say it in a way that is disprovable, because you cannot, strictly speaking prove a scientific statement. If a statement says something about reality, it must be possible for reality to be different. If I say, "Unicorns play on everyone's lawn at sunrise and sunset.", we can safely dismiss it as nonsense, especially if we observe our lawns and do not notice any unicorns. And especially as we do not notice unicorns anywhere - on lawns or elsewhere.

The statement is however a scientific statement. We can disprove it. In this case we can disprove it easily.

  Scientific Non-scientific
Nonsense Unicorns play in my garden. Only empirically verified statements are meaningful. Everything else is non-sense.
Sensible Sodium is solid at room temperature. A noun is a naming word.


The above matrix shows that statements can be scientific or non-scientific, and these can be sensible or nonsense. The statement about the unicorn was nonsense, but was scientific, because it can be disproved. The statement about nouns is sensible, but not scientific. However, it is not unscientific because it wasn't intended to be scientific. It is about definitions and language, and not about empirical reality. This is important. You cannot apply a standard to something that is not in the category to which that standard applies. Not all non-scientific statements are nonsense. Or unscientific. The law for example is not science, but it isn't un-scientific. Poetry is not scientific, but it isn't un-scientific. It could be bad poetry, but hardly bad science! The statement 'Only empirically verified statements are meaningful. Everything else is non-sense.' is not evidently nonsense, but it is when you think about it. The statement itself is not empirically verifiable, so it is by its own standard, nonsense. Hence it is not true.

Science and Natural Science

What we now call 'science' was once called 'Natural Science' to distinguish it from other sciences. The science of literature may sound strange to us nowadays. However, it means the reading and classification of literary works, the observation of patterns and the formation of theories and formulae to describe how to produce certain literary effects. You can test these theories and produce evidence and counter-evidence. Natural Science would involve the same sort of thing, but be directed at the physical or natural world. Further Natural Scientists would carry out experiments in the physical world which the other 'scientists', such as literary scientists, or legal scientists, would not.
The value of science

Facts are determined by observation, not argument

There is a story that one evening, at a meeting of the Royal Society, they spent the whole time arguing why a live goldfish weighed more than a living one. One member went home afterwards and weighed his goldfish, killed it, and weighed it again. The weights were the same. The Royal Society had wasted the evening try to determine something by argument, when what was required was a physical experiment. (I think he was cruel to kill his pet goldfish, too!)

Although science requires experiment, not argument, so do other areas of study. Did Bacon say 'A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?', Or did Bishop say 'The pen is mightier than the sword'? You cannot settle these questions by argument. You can only settle them by looking at the original works, or books of reference.

Scientists make very careful observations, and, if possible, measurements so that they can find answers to questions that they could not find by reasoning.
They make reports of their discoveries that are clear enough for another scientist to read them and reproduce the experiment and test the results. The scientific community accepts the results when scientists in many different institutions have duplicated the results of the original experiment.

The limitations of science

This is not an attack on science. We acknowledge that science is one of the great pillars of human achievement. What we wish to do is to point out a human tendency that exists in science as it does elsewhere, such as in religions. Although we compare science with religion we are not suggesting that this hierarchical disease is an essential part of all or even any religion (or science). But it has been observed in religion, and many of the words used to describe the phenomenon such as heresy, ex-communication, and dogma, are taken from religion. The examples taken are largely taken from a previous time. This follows the academic tradition of studying old books rather than today's newspaper. When we study today's newspaper the facts and the arguments have not been established. We do not have the advantage of looking at things without raising strong emotions that detract from the point that is being made. The purpose of the examples is to sensitise the reader to the hierarchical disease and to be alert to examples in the present day. Beyond this, we wish to make the point that science, like all human endeavours, has presuppositions that are held for mainly emotional reasons. These presuppositions, on the positive side, bring order to the subject, and prevent strange beliefs being accepted. On the negative side, they also limit the subject, throwing out the baby, and retaining the bath water Science deals with part of knowledge, not all knowledge.

For example, the statement, 'Every scientific statement must be capable of verification' cannot be verified by scientific method. It is therefore, not scientific! Also, science deals with a pure realm, and its application in life, though often immense and valuable, is not is not always possible. For the following reasons.
Scientists try to eliminate all variables except the one being studied. In life many other factors are present, and the effect of these is unknown.
Though scientists carefully study the effects of drugs, they cannot study the effects of all combinations of drugs. A drug may pass the safety checks, yet when used with another drug have bad side effects.

I believe that the limitation of science at present is that it draws conclusions from limited cases and tries to apply them to the real world, where other, unstudied factors may alone or in combination produce quite different results. Scientists sometimes study phenomenon under highly controlled conditions, because this is easier than studying the real world in its complexity. See Nazrudin.

  It may be true that we have not developed our scientific knowledge sufficiently to tackle certain problems, or it might be that our concept of science needs to be radically changed.

The next articles look as science more as modern man's religion (or superstition!)

Modern Man's Religion

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