The Two Cultures

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.

[ LJ Poll 855650 ]

21 Comments on "The Two Cultures"

  1. Paul, it seems that once again you are more than a little behind the times! The real scientists who accept the truth of God’s word have rescued ‘gravity’ from the hands of those godless commie “scientists” once again:

    KANSAS CITY, KS—As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

    See: America’s finest news source.


  2. You can be both a scientist and a Christian (perhaps not all kinds of Christian, but certainly some). But I’m pretty sure you can’t be both a Muslim and a Christian. (You could come up with some kind of syncretic combination of the two perhaps, but I’m fairly sure that you’d get called a heretic by essentially everybody.)


  3. Had an Anthropology of Religion course on this very topic last week… Everyone disagreed, it was shit! Anyway…

    1. It’s impossible to define ‘religion’. ‘Believing 10 improbable things before breakfast’ just doesn’t cut it; certain Buddhists don’t appear to believe anything much, we all have beliefs as to the nature of human nature, etc, and in lots of places people just aren’t sure about whether the ancestors they ‘worship’ have supernatural powers, or whether they’re just paying their respects to granny.

    2. Lots of the arguments as to science being like a religion are based on a rather dubious interpretation of Kuhn’s idea of paradigms within the history of science; within a paradigm, people aren’t actually questioning hypothesis but trying to find supporting evidence for them – and that’s like religion. Key problem is that the scientists are still open to the possibility that their foundational ideas (e.g. Newtonian physics) might change or not really be wholly right. Then again, religious doctrine isn’t actually set in stone; look at the end of limbo! Perhaps the key differentiation is that science considers the possibility that /anything/ can be superseded, whereas a religion has some basic core tenets that can’t be questioned (‘there is a god’) within that religion. But that’s still not bullet-proof…

    So I think we have to come back to methodological differences: science has standards for proof and degrees of error, whereas religions are prone to making untestable statements. [String theory’s testable in principle, right?] Religion also gets into the business of telling people how to live (morals, ethics, etc) whereas I maintain that science is an exercise in what’s possible. Science says “Yes, we have a 13% chance of making this 50-year-old woman pregnant, and the risks of XYZ are this:”; religion says “such medical invasion of the sanctity of life is/isn’t acceptable.” Problem is that we also have this beastie I call Public Understanding Of Science that does make moral judgements – and it’s hard to separate this beastie from Proper Science, where clearly science is culturally/historically influenced in what it chooses to research (e.g. nuclear power) and in thinking its methodology is the best one for producing knowledge in the first place.

    An argument I quite agreed with, by Stanley Tambiah, is that at root science and religion are two systems for explaining causality. Science endeavours to use rational logic; religion may explain things in other ways, but essentially these two models of causality are often incommensurable. Where the questions they’re looking at are not comparable, there’s sometimes no logical way of saying which one’s best – it is arbitrary whether you choose science or religion to explain consciousness, perhaps.


  4. Not having been raised religiously, I’ve also felt that my belief in “science” was similar to a religious belief. In both cases, there is a model of the world which you take on trust because someone in authority tells you “this is so”. There is little difference between believing that the world was created in 6 days because your priest says so, and believing that the universe was created in a “big bang” because your science teacher says so. In both cases, you choose your own world model, based on what feels “right”. The closest I’ve had to a “religious” relevation was on reading a Scientific American article on Chaotic Inflation – the theory was so elegant, and fit so well with my model of the world that I’ve chosen to believe it to be true, with no supporting evidence whatsoever.

    Of course, Scientists tell you that their story of the world is different, since you can apply the “scientific method” and test it for yourself. However, how many of us actually take this option? In practice, 99.9999% of people take it on trust. How is this any different than taking it on trust that Moses parted the Red Sea, that thunder is created by the Hammer of Odin, or that when we die we will be reincarnated as a dragonfly? And a lot of religions have equivalents to the “scientific method”: if we pray enough, or drink the shaman’s “special potion” , or meditate, or enter the cave that is the gateway to Hades, then we will have proof of their story of the world.

    However, now I’ve spoke to various religious people, I’ve realised that the “story of how the world is” is only one part of a modern religion. There is also the “how we should live our lives” (eg morals / “christian values” / burning the heathen etc), the “day-to-day worship” (eg not mixing meat and milk / eating the symbolic body of god / sacrificing goats to ensure a good harvest / etc), and the “what will happen if you’re bad” (eg go to hell / lump of coal in Xmas stocking / perpetually pushing a boulder up a mountain).

    Science represents the “how the world is” aspect of a religion. As a non-religious person, that aspect of a religion is what you are taught at school, so I naturally felt that it was the most important part of a religion. However, speaking to various current (and ex-) religious people, I have found that a lot of them equate “religion” with the “day-to-day worship” aspect, and ignore the other aspects. Others talk about the “how we should live our lives” aspect. However, a moral code cannot be the entirety of a religion: most western “non-religious” people live by the same moral code as western Christians. And this moral code is a lot different from the moral code of earlier Christians (“burn them, God will know his own” etc).

    In summary, I feel that science has some aspects of religion. I also feel that the vast majority of people take science “on faith”, in the same way as we might take religious teachings “on faith”. However, science doesn’t have the “day-to-day” aspects of a religion, which many religious people identify as being the core of their faith. Neither does it have a set of moral values, nor a “what will happen if your’re bad” viewpoint. As to which parts are necessary to form a religion, I don’t think that it’s possible to make a firm line in the sand. Many so-called “religions” are missing one (or more) of the above aspects, making classification as a “religion” a matter of semantics.


    1. I don’t know you, but I really like this comment. Science isn’t a religion, but it sometimes behaves like one, particularly when the actual thing practised by scientists and the scientific establishment diverges from the ideal of what Science should be. Certainly, I have no hesitation in classifying Dawkins’ dogmatic materialism with a smattering of communal cohesion as a religion, and a rather dumb one at that.

      pw201, have you come across Peter Lipton? You seem to be a bit inclined towards attempting to align your beliefs with those of the most intelligent person you can find, and while Dawkins is undoubtedly intelligent and an excellent communicator, he is also pontificating (and I use that word deliberately) about things that are way outside his field. Philosophy of science is Lipton’s actual academic speciality, and he is personally religious, both of which I think make him better qualified to talk about religion than an evolutionary biologist with ego issues. And don’t be scared off by the idea of reading high level academic philosophy; Lipton is extremely accessible.


        1. I think we must be talking about different people; I am nearly certain that Lipton was not a PhD student 10 years ago. Even a genius doesn’t go from PhD student to head of a department of Cambridge University in 10 years. I moved to Cambridge in 1996 and I’m pretty sure he was already faculty by then. Googling suggests he was appointed in about 1991.


      1. Thanks for the reference to the Peter Lipton essay. He lost me a bit in the middle but as far as I can summarise his argument it went something like this:

        – religion and science can provide different ways of looking at things.
        – sometimes they contradict each other
        – this is a problem for someone who is trying to hold both viewpoints

        He goes on to discuss how, then, one should read a religious text in the light of scientific knowledge.

        After exploring a few different options he comes to the conclusion that the best solution is immersion – that is, suspending disbelief and immersing oneself in the world of the text. A bit like reading a novel, say.

        I found this quite interesting because someone had recently suggested it to me as a way to read Buddhist scriptures. It seems a more satisfactory solution than simply ignoring all the bits you think are unlikely (as Lipton points out) resulting in a text full of holes.

        His last subtitle is “Religion without Belief”. This is certainly possible and even necessary in Buddhism. Traditionally, one of the “fetters” that must be broken in order to gain awakening is that of “fixed view”, or dogmatic belief.

        I’m not sure how it applies to other religions, though. Christianity or Islam without belief sounds unlikely.


      2. I had a look at Lipton’s paper. Here’s an only-slightly-unkind executive summary:

        1. Science and religious belief are in conflict.

        2. We could deal with this by abandoning one or the other, but I don’t want to.

        3. Instead, what we can do is to preserve the *content* of religious belief but change our *attitude* to what it says. In particular, I’ll keep all the religious teachings but adopt an attitude of disbelief instead of one of belief to some of them, thus solving the problem.

        4. More specifically, I’ll interpret the Bible literally and “immerse” myself in religious attitudes and activities, while understanding that much of what the Bible, and my religion, actually say is quite wrong.

        5. You might think this is hypocritical, but it’s the nearest approach to integrity I can find while preserving my attachment to both science and religion.

        Lipton writes well, and he’s obviously a clever chap and a pretty clear thinker. That he finds this sort of stuff acceptable seems to me an example of how religion can corrupt an intelligent mind by fostering an acceptance of the unacceptable.

        Here’s a representative quotation, the very end of the article.

        Some of the claims of religion may conflict with the claims of science. The immersion solution does not aim to remove that inconsistency, but by distinguishing acceptance from belief it finds a way to achieve consistency of belief with out effacing incompatibility of content. On this approach, we preserve content by adjusting our attitude towards it. We have literalism without fundamentalism; inconsistency without irrationality. There is conflict between some of the claims we invoke, but not in what we believe.To some this may smack of hypocrisy, but in the context of the relation between science and religion I myself think it is one route to personal and intellectual integrity, a route which tries to preserve as much as possible from both religion and science without ignoring the tensions between them.

        Lipton frankly characterizes what he’s offering as “religion without belief”. He wants to preserve the rituals and traditions and (some of) the values of his religion while not actually believing in (what someone more conservative might consider) its key teachings. Well, OK, but it seems very implausible that the best way to live is actually to immerse oneself in a tradition founded on falsehoods.


        1. Bizarrely, Lipton seems to recommend the same approach to the Bible as Dawkins does.

          In ‘The God Delusion’ Dawkins says that he thinks that the Bible (especially the KJV, everyone’s favorite) is important to our literature and heritage, comparable to the Iliad. He thinks everyone should read it, but read it like any other work of myth or fiction.

          Unless I’m mistaken, that’s what Lipton thinks too 😉


          1. He’s a bit more positive than Dawkins 🙂 in that he wants not only to read it but to live by it, kinda-sorta, when he considers it appropriate to do so, etc. What he calls “immersion”. But yes, he is basically abandoning religion as far as actual *belief* is concerned. A bit like Martin Rees (if Dawkins is to be trusted), who allegedly is a practising Anglican not because he believes Christianity is right but out of a sort of tribal loyalty. (The word “tribe” is allegedly Rees’s.)


      3. You seem to be a bit inclined towards attempting to align your beliefs with those of the most intelligent person you can find

        Heh. I don’t think that I’ve entirely aligned my views to those of Dawkins. The God Delusion contains flaws, some of which I mentioned in my review, others of which have been pointed out by other reviewers (while I don’t think Terry Eagleton’s “not my God” defence can be valid, he’s probably right to say that Dawkins is sometimes politically naive). The book is undoubtedly polemical pontification, but I think his main points hold.

        Lipton is an excellent writer, but at the end of it all I’m not sure what he has achieved other than a gutting of his religion (although he says that if you’re someone who cannot see the point of theism without God, his solution is not for you).

        I also don’t think his example about different ways of looking at liquids can apply to science and religion as differing theories, since in such cases you can show that one view is equivalent to another in the case you’re considering, and to choose one over the other is then a matter of convenience of expression and calculation (at least, one comes across this sort of thing all the time in physics, I don’t know about other sciences). I don’t think anyone is claiming that of science and religion (it may be that Lipton does not intend to use this as a strict analogy, either, but rather as an example of what immersion means in constructive empiricism).

        I think the Brights thing is silly, mainly because it lacks depth. Like their opponents who go on about how Stalin was an atheist, the Brights have the problem of trying to hold together a group of people whose only thing in common is something they don’t believe. I suppose Humanism is where its at if you want a community as an atheist (or possibly Buddhism, of course 🙂


        1. I think the Brights thing is silly, mainly because it lacks depth. Like their opponents who go on about how Stalin was an atheist, the Brights have the problem of trying to hold together a group of people whose only thing in common is something they don’t believe. I suppose Humanism is where its at if you want a community as an atheist (or possibly Buddhism, of course 🙂
          I don’t agree – the real potential win for the Brights is changing people’s view / reaction to people who don’t have a supernatural belief. Not so much in the UK but in the US such people are reviled just as homosexuals once were. I think it’s pretty clever marketing really. It makes me wonder what people thought when the homosexuals started to call themselves ‘gay’.

          I don’t think the Brights need to hold people together particularly, as you note there isn’t a good community that goes along with being a Bright. Perhaps it would be nice if there were, but there isn’t.

          BTW – thanks for that comment, it’s the first legitimate reason I’ve ever had for this icon 🙂


  5. The real split that the discussion revealed wasn’t between religion and science but some kind of deep philosophical split – demonstrated by the gravity comment.

    I don’t know enough about philosophy to label the different viewpoints. Can anyone help me out? Is F’s point of view postmodernist? What about ours?

    It seemed, as Paul says, a split between Maths/Science and Arts, but I’m interested in how our philosophies got so different that we couldn’t really communicate.

    My tentative theory is this. There are two ‘worlds’ in which we usually have to succeed – the world of physical stuff (mostly inanimate) and the world of human interaction. People’s beliefs don’t affect how most physical stuff behaves (e.g. the orbit of the moon, growth of a tree) but have big effects in the human world. Asking someone to do something for you, giving them gifts etc does wonders in the human world but the lightening tends to ignore you.

    If your education means that you spend most time dealing with one of these worlds to the exclusion of the other, you end up thinking that everything works like that. Extreme result – someone who thinks gravity only works if you believe in it or alternatively someone who is unable to relate to other people. Stereotype arts/science students??


  6. I can’t help feeling that a lot of people think too hard about this one. IME, religious views are generally based upon certain axioms that are accepted on faith alone. In pure science, there are no axioms at all: everything is just a theory, based on the available experimental evidence to date, and is subject to review in light of future experimental evidence. (Maths is another thing entirely: in maths, we make up our own axioms to create systems of reasoning, but our conclusions in those systems will be valid only where for scientific or religious reasons we believe our axioms to be appropriate to what we’re modelling.)


    1. I’ve never been a strong fan of Popper’s definition of science. The fact remains that for most of us, science is something taught in schools, and we never have the opportunity to test it for ourselves. “Research” is a different matter, but I feel that many professional scientists confuse the two.

      For myself, at least, I believe in “science” based upon certain axioms that are accepted on faith alone. Yes, these axioms might be subject to review, but the same can be true of religious axioms (witness the many “redefinitions” of Christianity at Ecumenical councils etc.

      What eventually dissuaded me from the “science” = “religion” viewpoint, was a conversation with scribb1e a couple of years ago, where I discovered that Buddhism does not come with a “story of how things are”. I have to wonder how much of our debate is polluted by a particularly Christian definition of “religion”. Don’t forget that the term includes everything from the worship of Artemis, to Taoism, to Sikhism, to the Shamanistic beliefs.


      1. Um…

        Buddhism does come with a “story of how things are” (worldview?) in some sense. But you’re not required to believe it.

        Firstly, there’s a very full account of why there is suffering, and what we can do about it. That is central to Buddhism. You don’t have to take it on faith, though – you are invited to “come and see for yourself”.

        Secondly, there is a whole lot of ancient Indian worldview that permeates the Pali canon and Mahayana sutras (and probably Tibetan in the Vajrayana sutras that I’m less familiar with). For example, endless cycles of rebirth, lots of different planes of existence containing gods and demons and mythical creatures, quite incredible timescales and a universe with no beginning and no end.

        Some people have described this worldview as a cultural accretion. There’s a certain amount of debate about where to draw the line between metaphorical and literal. For example, references to gods and bodhisattvas have been seen as metaphors for mental states for a long time among educated Buddhists. However, rebirth is seen as literal by many Eastern Buddhists but metaphorical by many Western Buddhists, and there isn’t really a consensus. My own view is that literal rebirth seems unlikely but it doesn’t really matter either way.

        I could possibly make the argument that Buddhism is a science, since it places great emphasis on investigating the Buddha’s teaching and finding out for yourself if it’s true 🙂


      2. Never having studied the history and philosophy of science in any great detail, I’d not heard of Popper until you mentioned him. Having looked him up, however, I find the conclusions I had reached myself seem pretty close to the way he viewed things.

        I think part of the ambiguity here is that the word “science”, like “engineering”, has become rather corrupt. I have a computer science qualification and my business card calls me a software engineer, yet I would make no claim to have studied any real science during my course, nor to be working as an engineer today. What I do does not follow the basic, fundamental principles of scientific or engineering disciplines (though of course it’s not wholly unrelated).

        I think this is a rather different issue to the fact that for many people, science is something they are taught. I am not in favour of the increasingly theoretical/waffly science curricula taught in schools; they have about as much relevance without any understanding of experimentation and the scientific method as cookbook stats has to someone who doesn’t appreciate what they are — and aren’t — learning when they test a hypothesis. (Indeed, the course on electromagnetism in my maths degree, which began by stating Maxwell’s equations as facts and proceeding from there, with no justification or motivation at all, was the point that convinced me eternally that I have no interest whatsoever in applied maths.) Nevertheless, there is a qualitative difference between something you are taught that is experimentally observable (even if you’ve never performed that experiment yourself) and falsifiable, and something you are taught that is based purely on someone’s personal belief. The kind of faith you place in a teacher of science and the kind of faith that underpins religion are very different things.


  7. I think the real comparison is one to be made between historic Christianity and secular humanism (which Dawkins presents as science).

    These are the views which do try to describe the entirety of human experience so can at least trying to do the same thing, so can be compared.

    But I would argue they are quite fundamentally different as one requires a leap of faith, the other doesn’t.

    Secular Humanism starts, as Carl Sagan says, with “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” which is not a statement with any basis which could possibly justify it – it is just stated as an axiom from which to start working, so is effectively a leap of faith with no basis. It can’t be questioned.

    Whereas when historic Christianity states “And God did……” it is describing historic events which we can then investigate and seek to disprove or verify. Here belief in the Bible is always based in God’s revelation, so there is at least some basis for the Christian claims – and the faith required is not a blind leap of faith, but a faith expressing trust in the source of those revelations.

    Or course you could then throw the post-modernist view into the mix and say we can’t know anything about history, science, etc.. it is all just made up stories to explain the world. So believing anything is true is a leap of faith – but that’s another issue altogether….


    1. Hello, anonymous in Cambridge.

      I’m not sure of your assertion that secular humanism claims to describe the entirety of human experience. I don’t claim to be a secular humanist (although it’s possible I am one without knowing it, I suppose), so I’ve not researched the matter, however, if you can find such a claim in secular humanist literature I’d be interested in seeing it.

      According to the Council for Secular Humanism, among the main aims of secular humanism are questioning and testing things, applying reason, and looking for ethical principles. The page does go on to mention naturalism, I’ll agree, but also says that while they’d be sceptical about claims which seemed to be supernatural, they would not dismiss them out of hand. I bet they’d want to question and test such claims, in fact.

      I’d suggest that what’s axiomatic to a secular humanist view is that belief should be backed by evidence, and be proportional to the evidence.

      Sagan’s statement is certainly popular with the “why Christianity is right” websites. If you’ve been reading these people, you realise they’re nutters, right? Anyway, it sounds like a definition of what he means by cosmos, not an assertion of materialism (another page I read claimed the statement was inserted into the Cosmos series because it sounded poetic, not as a great philosophical statement). What about it do you disagree with?

      Your definition of historic Christianity (which sort is that a euphemism for, by the way? It sound like evangelicalism in practice) requires God’s existence as an axiom, and also the idea that the Bible is God’s revelation. Both of these are huge leaps of faith on very scant evidence.

      If God does exist, he’s pretty reticent about it, and so I conclude that either he doesn’t exist or maybe doesn’t want to be disturbed. He certainly doesn’t look like the Christian God, anyway.

      The Bible is an interesting book, but I really do hope that a book in which, to take one example, someone becomes a hero of the faith after sacrificing his daughter to God is not, in fact, God’s revelation. (I’ve also addressed another, factual, problem with the idea that the Bible is inerrant, in this thread, though it’s not clear you’re claiming that).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.