When I was a kid (eons ago) my father once gave me a very interesting book to read. The name of the book was 'In Search of Ancient Gods' written by a Swiss 'scientist' and 'archeologist', Erich Von Daniken. The book made the audacious claim that our earth had been visited many thousands of years ago, before the dawn of civilzation by intelligent beings from outer space. Not only were these beings superintelligent, but, as evidence of their arrival, they also planted indisputable proof of the event. To back up this claim, Daniken traveled all over the world, and collected 'indisputable' evidence of his tales, including drawings of aeroplanes, sculptures of 'spacemen', enormous cryptographic symbols carved in caves, and even 'runways' for alien spacecraft drawn out in fields and meadows. He also said that what we call Gods were actually these supremely mysterious and beneficient visitors. While much of the evidence was later deemed as misinterpreted, and even fabricated, fans of Von Daniken continue to abound (with a website devoted to him, and he is still a best-selling author and speaker. I confess that I was fascinated as a child, and it was much later that I found out that he was a pseudoscientific, persuasive smooth talker.
Why do people want to believe so much in religion, God (Actually this particular concept is vastly more convoluted and really even beyond my comprehension, compared to some of the others. So while I mention it in this post, I will meekly try to post some more coherent stuff on it later) astrology, creationism, crop circles, and other kinds of pseudoscience? My (initial) two cents on it:
1. All of us (except the most impassive hearted) are looking for sources of emotional and spiritual support in our life. Does science and rational thought offer this? Unfortunately for many people; no. All science offers is a current best, tentative picture of the world, riddled with uncertainty. Moreover, the methods of science are hard and difficult to master, involving much patience, hard work, and determination. And one cannot guarantee success even at the end of this arduous process.
Contrast this with religion or God or all such similar ideas. They offer a quick refuge to our mind; never mind that their existence cannot be proved. They offer positive hopefuls as opposed to negative certains. After all, it is better to do wishful thinking and believe in an all-beneficent deity whose existence cannot be proved, than believe in a reality generation system (science) whose results themselves don’t necessarily offer psychological comfort. So the argument is largely psychological. We all like to believe that there is someone watching over us, who would make sure that we don’t come to harm if we pray to him (This, in spite of the fact that praying to him does not always bring about good fortune; in that case it is easy to say that that happened because we are sinners!)
Secondly, nobody can deny that these stories make fascinating reading material, just like the fairy tales we listened to as children. So are we still children?
2. The other reason, I suspect has to do with sheer egos and complexes. People, who are deeply religious or believe in pseudoscience, nonetheless believe in the fruits of science; in fact, they cannot live without them just like others. They are using science every time they drive their car, use their hair-dryers, or watch television. In other parts of their day, they, in my opinion, seem to forego their beliefs in the results of science and technology and are going to church, praying to God at home, and consulting astrologers. This sometimes would appear schizophrenic (if not downright hypocritical). The best example of these are the so called ‘scientific creationists’ belonging to the Institute for Creation Research, who are required to have an advanced scientific degree in order to become a member. Many of them have PhDs. So in effect, these distinguished scientists are giving up their scientific faith in order to convert to religious faith, while still appearing to don the cloack of science.
Now I have no personal argument with such people. If they kept their ideas to themselves, people like me would be mildly amused. I am also not saying anything at all about the character of these people, in so far as that is concerned, they are just like you and me. However, I can definitely say that they are being ‘unscientific’. Please note that I am not making a judgment on whether what they are doing is good or bad, or right or wrong. I am simply saying that it is ‘unscientific’.
It is remarkable how many people take offense if they are called unscientific! In hindsight though, it is not surprising. These people see themselves as successful engineers, doctors (and sometimes even scientists!), and in general people who take a rational attitude toward life. All this that they have done is surely ‘scientific’. So how dare can I say that this one action of theirs makes them unscientific?! Again, the explanation is psychological. People don’t like to be told they are unscientific. This is because of the aforementioned reasons; they are using the benefits of technology in their life, technology, which they don’t deny, is based on scientific principles, and suddenly there comes along some upstart who says that because they believe in God or astrology, they are unscientific; it hurts their ego. Maybe I should rephrase my statement to make it more precise. I should say ‘These people are unscientific when it comes to God, religion and astrology’ (I should make MY statement sound as scientific as possible!). I doubt whether people will accept even this cheerfully…(I suspect that their way out will be to say, ‘You cannot talk about a scientific attitude when it comes to God). This is also the reason why there is a science-religion rift in the first place. Religious people frequently see scientists (‘scientists’ here is used in the broadest sense of the term; I would include people like doctors and engineers among them) as self-aggrandizing know-alls who prophetically claim to have the answers to everything. In no small part due to the publicity by the press, many scientists are seen as ‘singular lights of rationality in a world full of darkness’ (something which they themselves don't claim to be). Now, if these people study even the most elementary of scientific knowledge in a critical manner, they will know that this is far from the truth. However, it is true that science and technology has provided us with explanations of many natural phenomena, as well as material comforts, to an unprecedented extent. In so far as that is concerned, scientists and scientific practitioners have a significant amount of knowledge about the world and they can use it to great results, good as well as evil. I think that because of this, many deeply religious people are caught between a rock and hard place. On one hand, they don’t want to adopt a scientific attitude toward everything in their life, and want to believe in some things on the basis of faith alone. On the other hand, they know that scientific knowledge is certainly not nonsense, and scientists may not wield power but they certainly contribute towards a deep understanding of the world and the well being of humanity. Many of them surprisingly also understand fully, that faith is not compatible with the scientific method in general. However, they don’t want to appear ‘selectively and conveniently scientific’, as this may lead to them being called hypocrites by many. The effect of such a situation is to make many religious people somewhat embittered against scientists. I don’t hesitate to say that to some extent, it is a situation similar to that of the fox and the sour grapes…
All this time, I have tried to put forth the situation as I see it, from the religious point of view. Now let me try to make a case for scientists (or scientific thinkers). First of all, it is almost a triviality to say that even they need emotional and spiritual support in their lives; we are all bound by this common yearning, which is unique to us as human beings.
Coming to the first point, the psychological argument is, I think well-taken. But the important question is, what do we really want from life? Do we want to be happy and live in ignorance, or do we want to face the bitter truth? If the goal is the first one, then I don’t think there is any contradiction in a scientist who invokes God before conducting an experiment, in the hope that God will make his experiment go right. He wants to be happy and this act makes him so. Once this stance of being happy is taken, it can essentially accommodate almost everything. In this case, even if the experiment produces wrong or discouraging results, the scientist can convince himself that had he not prayed to God before, it would have been much worse! The point is, if we want to be happy, then there is not much use in thinking about whether a particular action is rational, irrational, scientific or non-scientific. But is this attitude really keeping in tune with morality? Many times it is clearly not. For example, a man can be happy because he hears voices in his head (which he assumes is God speaking) that tell him to go and murder someone. He is happy to do that because he ardently believes in something. Does this make sense?
My point is, that it is better to face the bitter truth than live in ignorance.
Interestingly, does even science show us the way toward this bitter truth? Well, first of all, scientific truth should not be classified as ‘bitter’ or ‘favourable’ since whatever it is, that’s the way it is. There is no use trying to cloak the nature of scientific truth in human attributes. However, more importantly, science never claims to have found ‘the truth’, no matter whether it is bitter or not. I think this is an important point, which actually goes dead against what religious people think about the infallibility of science. There is no ‘truth’ as far as science is concerned. In fact, we don’t even know what the truth might look like. What we have are merely good and bad models of reality. Some of them (like quantum mechanics) are very good indeed (Although I still think it does not make much sense to ask whether they represent ‘the truth’). Others, like evolution, have some ambiguities in them, but still represent the best possible model under the given circumstances, and commensurate with the current evidence. Even though they may have certain weak points in their details, the overall argument is almost indisputable. This is a far cry from religion or astrology or creationism, where extremely general laws and entities, which are almost non-verifiable, are thought to control the lives of human beings. If it is anyone who claims to believe in ‘the ultimate truth’, it is religious people, and not scientists.
Therein rises the conviction that science is tentative. Frankly, I think that religious people have never understood the meaning of the word ‘tentative’ in this context. They think that because science is tentative, it is not a good representation of ‘reality’. So they think that their ‘models’ of reality like ‘God’ ‘creationism’ and ‘astrology’ may be better, or at least equally valid descriptions of reality. It is important to understand that there are countless things in science, which are supported by rock solid experimental facts. Because of this, it is almost impossible, if not impossible, that a theory like gravitation can be wrong. I do not deny the fact that there is a ‘finite, non-zero probability’ that apples will suddenly start rising up from the ground. However, there is so much experimental evidence to support the contrary hypothesis, that it is almost perverse to consider that as a valid possibility.
Most ‘models’ like God and creationism, are not supported by one iota of experimental evidence and are far from even being ‘tentative’. Now one way to circumvent this problem is to forsake experimental evidence itself and say that there would be a method different from ‘experiment’ that scientists had never imagined in their wildest dreams. If that is the case, then one must also be prepared to give up his belief in what he sees, feels or hears; in most cases, ‘experiment’ refers to nothing more complicated than recording and measuring what we see, hear, smell and touch. I doubt whether such a person will be judged a rational person by anyone, whether scientific or not! (Although I am sure that scientists attached to the philosophical interpretation of quantum theory will try to convince me that there are many such people among them!) The bottom line is that the usual argument made by such people is a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument, which is one of the most general tricks used by pseudoscientists to make their case, and in fact is, I believe, the reason for their valid existence in the first place. Simply hurl accusations at scientific theories without producing evidence of your own. Unfortunately, ‘guilty unless proved innocent’ may be a good strategy in the capricious court devised by the human judicial system, but it is anything but a convincing maneuver in the much more stringent court of scientific proof. In science, lack of proof for a theory does not, ever, mean proof for another theory. A theory is considered valid, if and only if definite, causal, unambiguous proof can be procured for it. Again, this is ‘merely’ a point that reinforces the previous simple fact about science; ‘It is not an easy state of affairs’. (Nobel Laureate Max Perutz even wrote a book called 'Science is not an easy life'!)
In my opinion, it is religious beliefs that are uncertain and science that is much more certain. It is ludicrous and perverse to gang up on the small amount of uncertainty present in scientific theories, especially when there is no certainty at all in pseudoscience. From the viewpoint of science, religious beliefs simply don’t make sense because they are unverifiable.
So what about the ‘emotional factor’ that we were talking about? All of us need a refuge, no matter how strong we are, which we can turn to occasionally. Sure. But why should it be God? I firmly believe, for one, that a strong and loving family can provide any amount of emotional support that a person needs. It’s a pity that in today’s indifferent world, this is not seen as frequently as it should be. If THIS is the reason that people turn towards God, I must say our world is in a sorry state of affairs indeed! However, I agree that even with such a family, many of us yearn for that missing spiritual ingredient in our life, which we turn to in solitude or when we are disturbed. It is heartening to think of an omniscient, knowing and smiling force, which would becalm us in such moments, and personally I see no contradiction in people turning to that abstract entity called ‘God’ in such moments. However, we have to ask ourselves how far we have to stretch this emotional buttress? Do we want to let it influence other parts of our life, and our very existence, not to mention that of others? The real problem begins when this entity starts to dominate our lives and our psyche to such an extent that we become slaves of our own state of mind. My question is, why can’t we turn to God only when we need him, just like how we go out into the mountains only when we need a vacation? Nobody insists on converting his residence into a vacation resort full of mountains, does he? So why do people have to insist on having God in every aspect of their life, dictating every small action of theirs, and finally trying to completely overwhelm their interactions with the rest of society? Why does God have to play a role in stem cell research, college and school education, political decisions, and health care decisions? I believe that one of the greatest problems has always been the constant efforts to unify church and state (something which the Christian religion itself forbids). Nobody would have a real problem if religious people kept their religion, beliefs and God to themselves (Of course, this is part of a much much greater problem, one of the greatest of the world's concerns, encountered since the dawn of the modern world; the Crusades, Israel-Palestine, Kashmir and the Christian-Jew conflict represent the tip of this humungous iceberg). I would respect a person who believes solely in God and simply does not believe in science, countless times more, than I would a person who tries to dress up God in scientific clothes to try to convert scientists to his creed. This situation is very different from appealing to God on a very personal, and an ‘available as per need’ basis. I once heard an illuminating quote from someone; ‘If God did not exist, man would have to create him!’ I think that this is a truism. The tragedy is that we have let the truism become a dogma.
The point of the whole argument is that we need God because that concept provides us with a virtual and comforting force that is ‘perfect’. We believe it is perfect because we don’t ask that its existence be verified, nor do we even think that it can be done. While such an attitude is ok for indulging our emotional insecurities (and I am not saying this in any derogatory sense; all of us have them and need to indulge them), it is a great tragedy if it is going to pit us against science and rationality, which has provided so many benefits to us and showed us the path to knowledge. I think that the whole argument is about the simple adjustment to harsh reality that all of us need to make. Science is not perfect, but it is the best thing we have. If we think that’s unfair and uncertain, we should understand that that’s the way the world is. It’s our problem if we cannot come to terms with it. While it is understandable in an emotional sense that religious people turn away from the harsh, uncertain ways of science, it is quite unforgivable that they are not wise enough to understand the beauty of scientific knowledge, the solace that it offers by providing many explanation that ARE largely certain. And it is the biggest tragedy of all, that they would put the world’s and our future generations’ rationality in permanent peril by compounding their disdain for science with a firm and frequently fanatic conviction in ‘their God’ and ‘their beliefs’. They want to oppose rationality simply because they don't like it or understand it. So, to counter the ‘psychology argument’, it suffices to say that we need to accept the harsh reality that is science and the world. Richard Feynman put it directly and plainly; “That’s the way nature is. You don’t like it? Go somewhere else! To another Universe, where the laws are simpler!”
P.S.: There is absolutely no personal offense intended in the above post. I have many great friends who are deeply religious people, and even if we have perpetual arguments, there is never anything personal in them. In all this debate, it is heartening to see that the basic mores and values of human relationship still hold strong and unscathed.
7 hours ago in The Phytophactor