The Three Faces of Science and Religion

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to resolve disagreements between people using just logic and evidence?  I think there is.  I believe that the best way to form opinions about the world and the things in it is to use the scientific method, that is, to use evidence to test claims about truth.

Furthermore, I believe that religion and spirituality are specifically bad ways to form such opinions about reality, precisely because they do not provide a way to resolve disagreements.  The end game in religious disagreements is usually either “I agree” or “well, you believe whatever you want, we cannot say for sure.”  Or maybe things get really ugly and a fight breaks out.

Unfortunately for me, while making my case, I have noticed that “science” is a word that has three different meanings.

  1. Science:  The scientific method.  The use of reason and evidence to test and DISPROVE claims about the real world.  Also the method of communicating and describing such claims.  Using this method requires a willingness to reveal methods and data, if you want to persuade anyone else.  Note that science is NOT about proving things!  It’s about disproving them.
  2. Science:  the body of “knowledge.”  This means all observed and verified data and observations about the world, plus the accumulation of claims which have been tested by the scientific method, and seem to make accurate, verifiable and measurable predictions about the world which do not contradict available evidence.  A theory is disproven by showing it does not accurately describe the real world. Note:  items here are not “proven to be true” by the scientific method.  They just have not been shown to be false, they just don’t contradict any evidence, and ideally predict new evidence which subsequently appears as predicted.
  3. Science:  All scientists lumped together.  A “scientist” is a person who uses the scientific method.

When I say “Science is the best way to learn new things that you can trust to be accurate,” I am talking about science in the sense of the scientific method (category 1).  And I’m open to learning about better ways.  Anyhow, notice how I’m not saying “scientists are the best at learning” or “science has all the answers.”

When having discussions about the merits of using science,  I often hear the argument, “There are many examples of so-called scientific ‘knowledge’ being shown later to be false.  Therefore, science is seen to be a flawed method.”  This confuses the scientific method (category 1) with the body of scientific knowledge (category 2).  When things in category 2 are shown to be false, it is in fact done by the scientific method, and this is a vindication of science, not a repudiation of it.  Again, science is a method for disproving, not proving, claims.

Another argument I hear is, “But scientists are biased!  They believe in science like a religious person believes in religion.  Therefore religion is just as valid.”   But this confuses scientists (category 3) with the scientific method (category 1).  If a scientist is biased, and carefully uses the scientific method, she will discover her bias and correct it.  The assumption that scientists have biases is built into the method.

Interestingly, I find the same three categories to be found in religion:

  1. Religion:  The methods for confirming religious claims about reality.  There are four that I have noticed so far.
    1. Prayer:  ask “God” for help.  I put “God” in quotes because it’s a slippery subject.  Whenever I try to find out what God is, it gets crazy
    2.  Authority:  a trusted priest, high authority or book says it’s true, so it probably is.
    3. Emotion:  I feel good about this, so it’s probably true.
    4. Reason and evidence:  Sometimes religion tries to use reason and evidence to substantiate its claims.  However, reason and evidence that seem to argue against any particular religious belief are usually met with anger and hostility.
  2. Religion:  Religious belief, dogma, theory.  The practices and rules of religion.
  3. Religion:  The various sects and the people in them.  For example, one can speak of Islam or Mormonism to mean the people that believe in these religions.

The trouble as I see it with religion and “spiritual beliefs” is that category 1 relies on a flawed and broken foundation that does not produce consistent truth that can be tested by others.  Mormons and Muslims (category 3) share these methods, but heartily disagree about the nature of reality (category 2) in important ways.  Most crucially, they have no way to come to an agreement about which is correct.

I hope these distinctions are useful to others and can serve as a basis for further progress in discussing how to move society forward in good ways we can all benefit from.

I also look forward to corrections from sincere readers looking to improve this article.