October 29, 2006

I was part of an interesting discussion last night at a party. We got onto science and religion, and one of our number, who I’ll call F, was pretty steadfast in asserting that science and religion were the same sort of thing. Her reasons were partly that science grew out of religion, I think, and partly that both are engaged in a search for truth.

We got side-tracked a bit by trying to define religion in a way which doesn’t include ballroom dancing, say (funny clothes, weekly meetings, rituals… hmmm). Like the judge asked to adjudicate between erotica and pornography, we know religion when we see it, so we agreed that Christianity was a religion, say, so we could talk about that rather than religion in the abstract.

The scientists (or at least, people who’d studied science as undergraduates) argued that the methods that religion and science were the key difference between them. Christianity typically begins with the statements of the church or of the Bible, science typically begins with a hypothesis which is confirmed (or refuted) by experiment. While it’s not true to say that there’s no valid knowledge outside the scientific process, where Christianity does make claims about things happening outside people’s heads, those claims are susceptible to science, per Dawkins.

F made the point that we might eventually supersede the scientific method with something else, and that science might lead us to evidence for the existence of God. Both of these are things which are possible but haven’t happened yet, I suppose.

She also pointed out that people like Dawkins would want to exclude bad or fraudulent scientists from our definition of science, but were happy to rail at the worst of Christianity, people who most Christians think are crazy. In other words, Dawkins is aiming at straw men. I didn’t get a chance to think about this properly, but in the Dawkins case, his argument in The God Delusion is intentionally very broad, and takes in the mainstream version of Christianity as well as the fundamentalists. I’d also add that science is better at correcting for bad science than Christianity is at correcting for bad Christians, precisely because it is actually possible to show someone’s science to be wrong.

We then talked about reality as a construct and F said that maybe there wouldn’t be gravity if people didn’t believe in it. Nobody was willing to jump out of the window and try this, although someone did drop a cracker on the table to confirm that they even keep it on at weekends. We did say that it was easy to see how that might be the case if solipsism were true, but it was hard to see how many minds agreed on a reality if each of them had the power to change it (which sort of begs the question, since we were assuming that people do agree). I mentioned that people on uk.religion.christian who think that matter arises from consciousness, and not vice-versa, who might believe something similar to F.

At the end of it all, scribb1e and I were struck by the failure of the majority, who were scientists or mathematicians by education, to connect with F, a liberal arts person, and vice-versa. I hope F didn’t feel too put upon. More than that, though, I wondered how many people hold similar sort of views to hers, who I never meet because I mainly have these sorts of discussions with scientists.

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