31 August 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part II)

Science and religion, perhaps more than any other disciplines of the human mind, concern themselves with the search for truth. Sometimes they often come to radically different conclusions. Yes, they sometimes ask different questions, but their differing destinations can also be explained in large part by different processes of inquiry.

Science is based on empirical research. The process begins with a question, usually born of some set of observations made about the natural world. Humans are generally curious creatures and have long asked about natural phenomena. In science, these questions, which initially may be narrow or wide in scope, are later framed as testable hypotheses. Hypotheses themselves are usually quite specific. They are educated guesses about the mechanisms that create observable patterns. As an illustration (using my field of ecology), one might ask why a tree species is distributed only at certain elevations in a particular mountain range. Hypotheses are then developed: seasonal snowpack limits its upper distribution or competition with another tree species sets its lower distribution. One or more experiments (a set of observations or manipulative interventions) are designed so as to lend evidence to two or more alternative outcomes to the experiment. Ecologists like me love to do field work, so given the hypotheses mentioned above I might set up a clearing experiment to test for evidence of competition or add or remove snow to test for its effects on seedling success (a challenging experiment indeed given the size of the organisms of interest!).

Importantly, good experiments are not structured to automatically favor one alternative hypothesis over another. They are also most helpful when their results can be cleanly interpreted. My mountain experiments with the tree species would need to be conducted so that the experimental methods do not bias the outcome or so that my interpretation is inadvertently stymied by some confounding factor. Broadly speaking, science is not supposed to start with an a priori answer to which subsequent inquiry must be subservient.
Science is guided by a few other key principles. First, science proceeds as hypotheses are rejected. Technically, hypotheses are never proven, rather they are rejected. Second, data and conclusions obtained by good science are repeatable. Incorrect hypotheses will be repeatedly rejected by independent experimentation. A series of experiments testing the same phenomenon with the same approach and under the same conditions should yield the same result. If results differ, the original ideas need to be modified. There are limits to our ability to repeat experimentation, such as the impossibility of rewinding the clock to replicate the exact conditions of a previous time period. But if not for every tiny detail, there are abundant opportunities to verify the general phenomena elucidated by scientific inquiry. Third, science is based heavily on probabilities because it frequently relies on statistics to reach conclusions. Since probabilities govern interpretation, again, hypotheses are not technically irrefutably proved.

Finally, science is pretty democratic. By this I mean that the process of scientific inquiry and the discoveries of science are available to everyone. Limitations of access to expensive instrumentation being one exception, anyone can design and conduct an experiment or gather a set of observations to address a question of interest. Likewise, much of science is conducted in an open manner so that the results of experiments, mathematical models, and observational studies are accessible to all. Scientific results are often published following peer-review (an imperfect though workable process) and then are made available to other scientists and the public for scrutiny, further evaluation, rejection, or modification.

Those basics form the backbone of the scientific process. From here, there are minor philosophical variations on how hypotheses are treated and how science proceeds. Previous theory and data informs the scope of experimentation and the methodology used to address specific inquiries in science. However, the best scientists are open to new results that challenge their existing knowledge about the world. Data are always > theory. In this sense, science has less of a tendency to create a hierarchy of truth: a sound experiment that overturns a well entrenched idea would be accepted even if the original idea came from a scientific superstar. There are no prophets in science with an unassailable conduit to truth. Although incorrect paradigms can persist for some time in our understanding of the natural world (the rejection of continental drift in geology until about the 1960s is a good example of stalled progress), science can also be punctuated by paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that rapidly push forward inquiry by providing a new framework of understanding (1). Creativity, hard work, collaboration and intelligence are generally the main ingredients of successful science.

Empirical research, like any human endeavor, has limitations. One fundamental issue concerns limits to observation. Tools such as microscopes, telescopes, satellites, and high speed computational statistics extend our capacity to measure and model phenomena at smaller and larger scales than are possible with human senses, but they only extend perception so far. Another limitation to empirical science is that some concepts are largely untestable. “Hypotheses” such as the existence of supernatural beings or miracles cannot be adequately addressed with typical scientific techniques. Even for many natural phenomena rarities abound. It may be logistically impossible to repeat experimentation or observation of extremely rare events. Yet this does not mean that all religious claims about the supernatural are off the hook intellectually; the lack of ability to test certain religious ideas empirically also means that we can never reject natural explanations in favor of the supernatural.

Religion seeks knowledge by a wide diversity of means. In many religions, ancient scriptural texts derived through others’ interactions with the divine form the basis of acquiring truth about life, history, human purpose and moral responsibilities. Many religions place importance on a living authority – a prophet or teacher – whose role is to transmit divine information. Yet other religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, focus on individual experience with truth. Meditative practices enable direct communion between the religious student and the divine (truth). Mormonism has pieces of all of these basic means of discerning truth.

While religion can have deep inspirational value for human beings, its several pathways to knowledge each suffer from significant weaknesses. First, ancient religious texts have cultural biases and tend to have limited scientific rigor because they were composed in less scientific times. Add to these translation issues, indeterminable textual origins, uncertain dating, and incongruence between textual claims and empirical findings and their reliability as a source of infallible truth becomes very suspect. Moreover, we generally know nothing about the authors of ancient religious texts outside of the information presented in the works themselves; are these people reliable sources of information? Have their words and experiences been changed by others unintentionally or intentionally? At best, concepts in religious texts should be treated as hypotheses, subject to debate or scrutiny like any other claim.

Individual experience and spiritual teachers are also common means of acquiring religious truth, but they suffer heavily from the vagaries of subjectivity. The experiences, thoughts and inspiration each religious seeker obtains are invariably influenced by culture, individual circumstance, and personality. Religious seekers and proponents can hold more ennobling traits like compassion, selflessness and mental discipline, but they can also be subject to greed, deception, the quest for power and jealously like the rest of us. In my view, I assume that spiritual experiences are principally cerebral experiences, so how can the inner thoughts of another person ever be verified? There is no ability to challenge spiritual interpretation that comes through authority the way that an open scientific process allows. For these reasons, accepting others experiences as divine truth of direct relevance and applicability to me, something I am hesitant to do.

Theoretically, any of the fundamental features of the scientific process – observation, hypothesis generation, experimentation, and replication – can be applied to some religious questions. In fact, in the Book of Mormon a notable series of passages encourages non-believers to “give place that a seed may be planted in your heart …”, a sort of experimentation with faith in religious concepts (see Alma 32:27-42). The reasoning is sound: if the religious claims are true, then they experimentation should yield consistent and positive fruits. But caution is still warranted: if in taking a placebo, I feel better, without careful scrutiny I would not know that there was some mechanism other than the substance of the pill itself that had its effect on me.

More to the heart of a skeptic’s point of view, there are instances where scientific approaches can be applied to religious claims. I find these exciting, because they are one way to evaluate the reliability of religious sources. The most prominent of these questions in Mormonism are specific historical events. Claims in the Book of Mormon such as Israelite journeys to the Americas and cataclysmic destruction of ancient cities are subject to verification by archaeology and studies of human phylogeny. A subject better left for its own post, scientific evidence seems relatively scant for many traditional Book of Mormon claims. DNA evidence, for instance, is highly unfavorable towards the popular LDS view that many of the Native Americans descended from Middle Eastern populations several thousand years ago (2).

Religion need not have antipathy towards science. Skepticism about supernatural claims is healthy. Unfortunately, some elements in religion are hostile to scientific inquiry. Some biblical literalists, for instance, hold that scripture comes directly from God, and is therefore intellectually unassailable. Scriptural teachings are like a perfect scaffolding around which other elements of truth must eventually fit. Such scaffoldings can often demand a lot of mental gymnastics. If they are not based on truth, they will eventually fall. In my view, science and religion best co-exist when religion humbly accepts that many questions about life and human experience are better addressed by empirical inquiry. Religion can be a powerful force in teaching ennobling ethics and encouraging the human spirit to flourish. It oversteps its bounds however, when it deals with evolution and not ethics, linguistics and not love.

1. See Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
2. Simon Southerton presents a very interesting discussion of DNA and the origins of Native Americans in this Mormon Stories podcast. Similar information can be found on his blog. The DNA issue, in my view, is extremely troubling for many of the traditional claims of Mormonism.


  1. Beyond all of the points and contentions you make in this post, you are a phenomenal writer. Coldly scientific, yet accessible. Smashing.

    So in man's search for those three missionary questions (where did I come from, why am I here, and where do I go when I die), are you suggesting that we go to only science for answers? The one problem I see with that is that theories are disproved frequently and therefore aren't always the most stable racks to hang your hat on.

    But religion frequently oversteps itself in terms of scientific discovery. We saw that historically when Copernicus' heliocentric model was thrown out by, but we see it more recently (as with your experiences with your mission president). When religion stands in the way of science, I believe it becomes a problem, but that said, I see no problem with using religion to corroborate scientific truths.

    Heck, many of the scientists we revere have ascribed their discoveries to genuine, God-given inspiration. Whether they're being genuine or self-servingly modest is not for me to say, but I think it leaves some room in the scientific world for religion.

    As per scientific evidence disproving religion and religious books of scripture (like the Book of Mormon), I guess I don't have any rebuttal. I admit that I am selective in what I give credence in my head. You may know better than I do, but is it doctrine that says Native Americans descended from Lamanites or is that mere Mormon culture? Is it possible that the Lamanites died out shortly after the Book of Mormon's record was closed and the Native Americans' ancestors moved in on their territory after that, or is that possibility refuted by actual doctrine?

  2. This is a really great post. I particularly like your exposition of science. You also come to really reasonable conclusions about how science and religion should interact and the pitfalls of some of religion's "pathways to knowledge."

    I was going to respond differently to one thing you say, countering that the point of religion is not to seek knowledge but meaning, but now that I think about your concluding paragraphs as you type this, it's fairly clear to me that regardless of what I like to think, "religion" in our culture does seek knowledge.

    Anyway, I was having a reaction like I often have to people whose statements seem to imply a belief that "religion" (however it's defined) doesn't matter; that objective observation should be enough to guide humans to "truth."

    It does guide to truth but gives no basis for _meaning_. Meaning is the fundamental goal of spirituality, I think, and it can be manifest in ways we think of as "religion" or as other ways. I think you're making the same argument I would be making toward someone like I describe in the last paragraph just from the other direction. I often find myself trying to convince "militant atheists" (sorry to use a silly stereotype) that they should not reject religion as useless because science alone does not provide meaning or values (i.e. ideas to value to guide action), and it should not be conflated with a search for values or you get a tyranny of "objectivity" which is actually not objective but someone just using the facts as a way to get what they want.

    You're saying here that religion can't use cheap methods to get at real "knowledge." I agree. These are both sides of the same coin. Science alone can't provide meaning. How do you feel about that? Do you agree? If so, how do you talk to people who try to get values through "objective observation"?

  3. Related to some of my thoughts about religion, I wanted to link to this article that I encountered today by Gary Gutting in the New York Times. It discusses religious agnosticism and makes the valuable distinction between religious understanding and religious knowledge. (Trev also gets to this point in his comment above.) The former epitomizes what I feel is the true value of religious teachings for society, while the latter - in its frequent clash with science or empiricial inquiry - is its principal weakness.