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Monday, February 08, 2010

Popular Science: Not Always an Ultimate Authority

In science or in any field of study, things are not always tidy. Roughly a century ago, as some scientists were feeling that the laws of physics were well understood and tidy, along came quantum mechanics with the complex and initially disturbing model of particles having dual natures, sometimes like waves and other times like particles, further compounded by numerous puzzling characteristics, apparent contradictions, and even mathematical absurdities. While the smallest aspects of matter began throwing science for a loop, larger-scale aspects were doing the same as relativity came into play with its conundrums and puzzles.

Today it’s all the crazier as science has determined (tentatively, anyway) that the matter and energy we can detect and analyze must be only a small fraction of what actually controls the motion of the cosmos, for there must be large quantities of mysterious “dark matter” adding gravitational mass and also there must be vast amounts of “dark energy” counteracting the gravitational pull of the galaxies, driving the universe apart when science expected it that it should be pulling itself together due to gravity. Our best estimate now is that 96% of the matter-energy of the cosmos is taken up by dark matter and dark energy – by things we can’t see or understand, yet whose influence apparently must be there. 96%.

Science is not necessarily clear, straightforward, and based on observations made with our reliable senses. Just as it becomes comfortable with how well everything is understood, whole new paradigms arise and that which was once simple is seen to be vastly more complex than ever, governed by strange new laws across unimaginable dimensions and pervaded with mystery upon mystery–and something tells me we’ve only just begun the journey into marvelous mystery. I suspect that some of our petulant complaints about God not telling us the full story are because we don’t have the tools to even begin to make sense of the answer.

All the work that has gone into understanding the laws of matter and energy that govern the universe turn our to describe just 4% of the cosmos, at best. But if you tried to explain that to someone twenty years ago, it would sound ridiculous beyond words, unimaginably unscientific, just as germ theory or quantum mechanics or nuclear fusion would have sounded to Aristotle, as brilliant as he was. Science is forever tentative, and tells us only a few things with certainty, which may need complete revision next week. The healthy approach, both for science and religion, is to always recognize that what we understand and think we know may be incomplete, and not to fly to pieces when more knowledge shakes things up in the future. Popular human knowledge or even state-if-the-art knowledge is not always a reliable authority. Likewise, some of our own religious views, especially those things that are extrapolations of revelation, may be based upon popular assumptions that are incomplete or untested, and may need revision as we learn more. I think the safe way in science and religion is to never assume that we have somehow approached omniscience or even perfect understanding in any single area. If we leave that to God, we'll all be better off.

Update: The title refers to the generic concept of popular science, not the magazine.

Update, Feb. 9: Religion has its limits and human science has its limits. They are tested in various ways, leading to revisions and progress or painful paradigm shifts. Neither has a monopoly on truth.

The fun thing about loving science and the LDS religion is that our religion expressly teaches that all truth can be brought together in one great whole. As religious and scientific knowledge advance, they will eventually be in harmony. Along the way, we will have to discard or revise many naive assumptions, many misinterpretations of data and scripture, and many artifacts of tradition (LDS or otherwise), sloppy thinking and poorly considered experiments (not to mention Climategates of various kinds). But with time and faith, we'll get over it and become wiser one day, if we remember we don't know it all now.

20 comments:

C T said...

Totally agree. There's a reason why we focus on "Christ crucified" at church instead of where Noah's ark started its journey, curious as we may be on the subject.

Dan said...

Jeff,

"But if you tried to explain that to someone twenty years ago, it would sound ridiculous beyond words, unimaginably unscientific, just as germ theory or quantum mechanics or nuclear fusion would have sounded to Aristotle, as brilliant as he was. Science is forever tentative, and tells us only a few things with certainty, which may need complete revision next week. "

Um, but what has religion done during those twenty years to advance our thought to better understand that we only know 4% of what is out there? What efforts do religions make to better understand the world around us? Religions are very adverse to pressing the boundaries of what we know and into the unknown. We should be grateful we have scientists who take a risk, who make bold pronouncements, even though it may make them look ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

"Religions are very adverse to pressing the boundaries of what we know and into the unknown"

Hm, my absolutism detector is going off after reading that quote.

Mike Parker said...

Popular Science?

You mean the same magazine that's been putting the soon-to-be-produced flying car on their cover every year since 1964?

Anonymous said...

Jeff's update clarifies: not the magazine.

Groggy Drop said...

Religion has done a lot to advance our knowledge of science - well, almost as much as science has advanced human morality.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LuckyMatt said...

I love this post. I have long held the argument that atheists who cling to their human senses in an attempt to explain everything in the universe must all end up needing a LOT more faith than those of us who accept the reality of God's hand in creation. Isn't 96% "dark matter" or "dark energy" just a creative way of giving a name to something that is currently a total mystery to us? In other words, something whose reality we accept without being able to see or prove using our current knowledge? In other words, "faith?"

The same huge leaps of faith are requird to assume the universe operates without a God, whenever you take it to the extremes--at the Big Bang, or to the microscopic level when Life supposedly sprung from nothing. Science provides plausible, wonderful models for much of the "observable universe," but really gets backed up against the wall of faith when you push it to the limits. In my opinion, it takes a lot less faith to believe that there is a God with power over the cosmos and the elements and everything in between.

That is why I am so grateful to belong to a church which does--and always has--advocated having an open mind, ready to accept ALL truth, whatever source it may come from (and which advocates the continual advancement and revelation of that truth!). As science advances, it does not threaten my faith; it merely helps me to understand which passages of scripture are more likely meant to be interpreted figuratively instead of literally. Likewise, my faith gives me a framework from which to operate when striving to incorporate new information as it comes. A skeptic of my beliefs from either the scientific or religious communities will surely have a heyday with this mode of operation, but that doesn't change the validity of it--all truth exists harmoniously and light shed by different angles and sources merely helps me know better how to interpret the bigger picture.

Matthew said...

Yikes! While science may not be an 'ultimate authority' bashing it for not knowing everything is just plain silly. While there is tons we don't know this sort of an accusation used to tear down the way people trust science is crazy especially if you're going to put religion on a pedestal next to it.

For every scientist you can meet that has a hairbrained idea (even a popular one) you'll meet another that things his idea is hogwash, but despite their disagreements they will both whole heartedly agree on any number of better known scientific principles. Focusing on theoretical physics and cosmology is, in my mind, setting up a straw man. Focus on the flaws of science all you want but it still has an amazingly better track record for verifying it's theories then religion will ever have.

I would agree though that the assumption that science will teach us all we need to know in life is a strange idea. The honest truth seems to me that for many aspects of life there simply is not a 'right' or 'true' answer. There are just a lot of different approaches that one can take to them. Can science tell me whether being a musician is better then being an accountant? No! Why should it?

One can make jabs at wild theories all they want but I think nearly all scientists that are good at what they do are not going to assume that a concept is certain until they have good evidence and reason to do so. This is a very different approach to the one that is taught in a Sunday school class, IMO.

Again, religious ideals can be tremendously positive and good, but saying that religion and science are on an even keel as far as their reliance on faith is tremendously silly.

LuckyMatt said...

Matthew, I'm not sure where you read into the original post or anyone's comments that anyone here is "bashing" science or "tearing down the way people trust science." On the contrary, the opinions expressed here are *very* pro-science. I trust science with my life every time I ingest a medicine or get into a vehicle. I am fascinated by science and love to learn all I can about it--even the latest and greates "wild theories," because I believe that at least some of them will contain some truth in them.

My experience in the LDS church is that there are as many pro-science folks here as you will find in any religion, precisely because we are not threatened by science or new discoveries.

So there is no quarrel with science here. But there certainly is a rebuttal for atheism. My point about faith and science is that the universe came from *somewhere* and life started *somehow* and if you think science has the answers to these "big" questions then you surely are deluded--there is as much, or more faith required to believe in random chance producing the observable universe as there is to believe in a Supreme Creator. Science simply leaves a huge, vacuous hole as far as the fundamental questions of creation, life, and its meaning go. And nature abhors a vacuum--you can't ignore these issues, which is why atheists try to explain them away using "logic" and "facts" that science simply can't deliver. These arguments, when taken to their final conclusions, really are ridiculous and require a huge suspension of belief--much more "faith" than belief in God.

Matthew said...

@LuckyMatt,
I agree that science does not have all the answers. It is, in my experience, the orthodoxly religious that make claims that atheists and scientists claim to know everything. I've met plenty of atheists that don't claim to know how or why our world is the way it is. Merely that the proposed concepts of 'God' in their current incarnation don't seem to fit in with what we observe on a daily basis.

While there are plenty of people that may be devout members of the church and scientists as well (I have met many) the air of this post was rather opaque in it's tone. Perhaps I'm misreading things though. To suggest that religion would be closer to an 'ultimate authority' on the way our universe functions is not a substantiated claim in my mind. I'm just not seeing any innovation or change in religion except when it is strongly encouraged by outside influences to change.

Again, Science is not a good way to base one's morals upon, but then again I don't see a lot of people doing this.

I may be projecting a lot on Jeff's post but I've had one too many people tell me in the last few months that "science is just as faith based as any religion, in fact it requires even MORE faith to not believe in God!" The statement is just silly to me. The only way this would be a valid statement would be if this was in regards to a person that claimed to KNOW (via scientific procedure) that God does not exist. That would be a silly claim. The one I see more often is that people simply don't lack any reliable reason to believe that a deity exists as advertised. Claiming to be a gnostic-atheist would make about much sense as saying that one knows with certainty that there is not a teapot orbiting our sun halfway between earth's orbit and Mars'. You can express reason's for why this would be improbable (in fact so improbable that to entertain such an idea is silly) but you can't say that you have science proving that such a thing does not happen (at least not with our current technology, but even if tech progresses you can always throw in the caveat of, "oh, by the way, did I mention that the teapot is invisible and undetectable by earthly instruments?"

Basically what I'm saying is that most atheists that I've met usually have an attitude of skepticism towards all ideas of deity that Mormons have towards all concepts of god other then their own. I've also found that they generally tend to be just as skeptical of any theoretical scientific principle as they are about the existence of god. These are all anecdotal arguments though so take them with a grain of salt. Mileage may vary! ;)

J said...

"Religions are very adverse to pressing the boundaries of what we know and into the unknown"

Wow. I guess people don't know that religion was one of the primary forces driving scientific progress and discovery for most of history.

Religion also is not adverse of pressing the boundaries of what we know and don't know.

That's the beauty of revelation. When God shares his wisdom with his Prophets, it sheds a little more light on what we didn't know before.

Dan said...

Religions don't ask the most important question to ask in an attempt to understand something: why. Religions want you to take things on faith, that things happen because that's the way it is supposed to be. That doesn't help in gaining a better understanding of the central question of life: why.

Matthew said...

J said: "Wow. I guess people don't know that religion was one of the primary forces driving scientific progress and discovery for most of history.
"

Are you referring to the large number of scientists such as Mendel that were in monasteries? This is a pretty ridiculous argument. Think about it for a second and the answer becomes apparent. In many areas of the world life is much tougher the the kooshy existence we have in the Modern USA, yet the catholic church and other churches have always had plenty of money coming in making life in a monastery one of the few places where a person had the luxury of examining the world around them and discovering new things.

I would agree that a lot of scientific progress came about from people that were in religious organizations but the push to innovate and change our understandings of life and the world were not being encouraged by these institutions.

LuckyMatt said...

@Matthew,

I don't know many atheists, but I have heard enough of their opinions expressed in textbooks, in the news, and read enough of their words on blogs that my impression of them is quite different than what you describe.

The atheists that are noisy enough for people like me to hear them tend to usually be adamant--even verbally militant--in their denial of God. It is those, who claim to be so "certain" that God doesn't exist, who in my opinion are backed up against a higher and hotter wall of faith than those of us who know that God lives (and He does).

If your common experience with atheists is one of healthy skepticism that most of the current notions of what God is, or what God is like, don't make much sense, then I probably agree with them. Many of men's interpolations of scripture have twisted the definition of God into something so illogical that I would certainly be skeptical too, had I not found what I believe to be the truth about God.

As Jeff said in the original post, a healthy, open mind about science and religion does all of us some good. I suppose there are different ideas about what an "open mind" means. To me it simply means being willing to incorporate new knowlege into the Big Picture, rather than shunning whatever might not fit perfectly into my current understanding.

Anonymous said...

The analogy between science and religion only goes so far. Scientific authorities can be wrong while the methodology of science remains trustworthy, but in religion, authority is the methodology. Religious authorities are the source of truth in religion. If they can't be trusted, what's left?

Jeff, correct me if I mischaracterize the point of this post, but it seems to be that we should approach religion more like we approach science. Contrast that with the previous post about the Flood, where in the comments section, the prophets are given wide latitude to make unscientific statements because the story of the Flood is not intended to be scientific. So we treat religion like science when it works in religion's favor, but not when it doesn't.

If by analogy with scientists, religious authorities are allowed to make mistakes, then by analogy we should be allowed to call them mistakes. But the average Mormon isn't willing to go that far. There is a general belief that prophets only make mistakes when the mistakes don't matter, which is an unscientific assumption. It's also demonstrably untrue. For example, early LDS prophets had a simplistic understanding about the origin of various races. They thought that descent from one person not entitled to the priesthood could be reliably predicted using racial characteristics, which is scientifically untrue. This led them to disallow people with those racial characteristics from having priesthood temple ordinances which are considered necessary for exhaltation.

Mormanity said...

Opaque and confusing - I think those are fair assessments of certain aspects of my post.

Religion has its limits and human science has its limits. They are tested in various ways, leading to revisions and progress or painful paradigm shifts. Neither has a monopoly on truth.

The fun thing about loving science and the LDS religion is that our religion expressly teaches that all truth can be brought together in one great whole. As religious and scientific knowledge advance, they will eventually be in harmony. Along the way, we will have to discard or revise many naive assumptions, many misinterpretations of data and scripture, and many artifacts of tradition, sloppy thinking and poorly considered experiments (not to mention Climategates of various kinds). But with time and faith, we'll get over it and become wiser one day, if we remember we don't know it all now.

Anonymous said...

Two travelers proceed in different directions and eventually meet--that's what's implied by the notion that religion and science will eventually agree. Science seeks to establish what is probable, while the objects of religious belief are necessarily improbable. The claims of religion must be improbable, or there would be no requirement for faith. How then will the two ever meet?

The ability to have faith and believe in things that can't be proven is a gift to humans that makes our lives richer. So my contention that science and religion proceed in opposite directions is not by any means a slur on religion or science. It's also true that our ability to conceptualize things plays a role in both science and religion. However, the two projects are ultimately different. I don't disagree that all truth can be circumscribed into one whole, but I do think we err to claim that science and religion will eventually lead to the same destination. Why not allow them their non overlapping magisteria?

I understand the motivation for trying to harmonize science and religion. Truth is truth wherever you find it. Yes, but there are some things that can't be classified as "true" or "false." Do we classify works of art as true or false? No, we evaluate them on a different continuum, as beautiful or inspiring. Religious "truth" likewise may refer to a different continuum, one which is orthogonal to scientific truth. We can derive value from religion. Our core value judgments are not derivable from science. Science can explain how our values came into existence through evolutionary psychology or game theory or whatever, but that doesn't make us feel the way we do about those values. Those feelings represent a kind of truth that isn't part of science. On the other hand, religion is all about those feelings.

I know that I won't find a very sympathetic audience among Mormons, many of whom believe that science and religion are attempting to discover the same kind of truth. I used to think that as well. That sort of belief may even motivate some people to become great scientists. However, it can also lead us to improperly conflate spiritual subjective truth with scientific objective truth, thereby devaluing both.

teddeler said...

If you're looking for a paradigm shift check out the electric universe at http://www.thunderbolts.info/home.htm

The debate surrounding it can be contentious and both sides tend to ridicule the other but the electric universe has the feel of truth to me as well as a greater potential for discovery and learning. At least I find it easier to believe than the 96% dark matter/energy theory the way it's been described to me.

As to whether science and religion will ever be brought together into one great whole - I think it will. But that's using my definition of 'science' and 'religion' (as a mormon). To me science is observed fact (and deductions therefrom) and religion is truth revealed by God. Sometimes in my (amateurish) scientific observations I see God more clearly and sometimes in my religious studies (particularly Hugh Nibley lectures) I see other depths to science - the teachings of cosmology by Abraham to the Egyptians as one example. I can see the two merging in a more perfect future. But I have had discussions with people online that view 'science' as only the peer-reviewed and generally accepted views of a professional scientific community and that see 'religion' as a rigidly structured hierarchy designed to pressure or force people to think only what they are told to think.

Um... I was going to say it's difficult to see those two merging but the way I worded it they sound too similar already. Maybe I'll have to rethink it a bit. :)

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