Can science and religion coexist? Can an inquisitive mind adopt any religion? Are faith and scientific inquiry incompatible? Is religion a set of dogmas and hence closed to scientific investigation? Is scientific investigation as objective as claimed? Is reality limited to what science discovers?
These and similar questions have occupied philosophers, scientists, and people of faith since the Renaissance. If religion were the 'opiate of the masses,' we could not expect an inquisitive mind to adopt any religion. But countless critical thinkers and scientists believe in a God that hears and responds to their prayers.(1)
What we mean by religion and science affects how we answer such questions. Therefore we must agree on common definitions. A study of the scientific method, where and how it is applied, is likely to shed light on the perceived conflicts between science and religion.
In broad terms, science is a systematic way of exploring the universe. The scientific method helps us discover facts that can not be directly observed. As described in SGNA: 'Though we may be unable to observe an aspect of the universe directly, we may deduce its existence and its properties by observing the effect that it has on those phenomena that we can observe. In other words: by explaining the observed aspect of the universe, we go one step beyond that of mere observation, and we gain knowledge about something that we have not observed directly. This is the whole point: we gain information from sources other than direct observation. Use of the scientific method ensures that this information is accurate, and not influenced by the subjective points of view of a single researcher or the use of inaccurate instruments.'(2)
But there is a difference between accepting the scientific method's discoveries and accepting as truth only what science discovers. The latter, which Huston Smith called scientism, is 'the belief that no realities save ones that conform to the matrices science works with 'space, time, matter/energy, and in the end number'exist.'(3)
The successes of science and technology, and their applications, have created a kind of utopia where science, especially positive science, has become the source of all knowledge and wisdom. In the views of positivist philosophers like Hume, Locke and Berkeley, anything that cannot be measured does not exist. But closer examination reveals the oversimplistic nature of this view.
Many contemporary scientific theories talk about subjects that cannot be directly measured. Take the atom. Physics textbooks are full of diagrams depicting it as consisting of a nucleus with and orbiting electrons. The diagrams may be quite sophisticated, and the explanation of how the system works can be quite detailed. Yet nobody has ever seen an atom. The closest we have come is seeing their positions via a Scanning Tunneling Microscope. But this has not prevented us from discovering the details of an atom's inner workings.
When we want to discover new information about a subject, we first use direct observation, which has the highest degree of certainty. The scientific method establishes guidelines and procedures for objective, accurate, and systematic observation. The most dependable direct observation is the one that can be repeated and has known parameters. By repeating the observation under the same parameters, other scientists can verify a statement's truthfulness.
When direct observation is not possible or insufficient, the thought process steps in. We infer and deduce based on observation. We hypothesize and look for exceptions. Such verification is where the scientific method really shines: It brings an objective mechanism for testing hypotheses to the discovery process. It helps us decrease the degree of uncertainty regarding that which cannot be observed directly.
Controlled and repeatable experiments are the next best techniques, for they enable us to obtain objective and sound knowledge. While we cannot control, we still can observe and infer. However, our degree of certainty and accurate knowledge decrease as we move further away from direct observation.
The scientific method's main purpose is to decrease such uncertainty and to ensure that it is not affected by individual bias or equipment error. Our level of control while observing a phenomenon determines the level of our knowledge's certainty. While the media or popular culture label certain statements scientific, their scientificness depends on the nature of the verification process. Some so-called scientific facts are direct observations; others are theories that require a thorough testing.
Not all scientists agree on what constitutes the scientific method. Some describe it as the collection of all means and methods scientists use to investigate a phenomenon. Since this definition is too broad, we will focus on a narrower one accepted by most scientists: The scientific method consists of the following:
1. Defining the problem and making repeated observations to collect information
2. Forming a hypothesis to explain the observed phenomenon
3. Testing the hypothesis by matching it against other observations
4. Developing a theory consistent with your observations
5. Using it to make predictions
6. Testing predictions by repeated, preferably controlled experiments and/or further observations
7. Modifying the theory as indicated by your results
8. Repeating steps 5 through 7 as necessary
9. Reporting the research notes and results for professional review.
These steps can be summarized into three stages: observing, theorizing about underlying causes, and verifying through more observations. Theorizing is the key step. The other steps require hard work and can be done by any competent, knowledgeable worker. Developing a theory, however, requires an flash of insight, sometimes called intuition.
Coming up with new ideas is part of what makes a great scientist. Despite its being the basis from which all scientific work proceeds, we cannot study or explain this scientifically. We may call it a gut feeling, hunch, inspiration, or insight, but we still do not know its source and cannot schedule it. We can encourage and stimulate it, but we cannot control it. The scientific method helps us ensure that what comes out of intuition is sound and objective, but does not how we come up with the idea. So the scientific method really is about verification.
The main mechanism of verification is experiment and observation. While a powerful tool, verification is limited by its definition: If we cannot control a phenomenon or make proper observations, we cannot develop an idea into a scientific theory.
How do we establish a proper experimentation environment? First, we must set up a controlled experiment to control all the factors involved, except for the two factors whose relationship we are investigating. This involves a control and an experimental group. The control group is normal (basis for comparison), while the experimental group differs from the control in only one area.
We then allow for the experimental variable, defined as the one area of difference between the two groups. If we set up two groups of subjects with only one difference and our observation confirms a correlation between this factor and a result, we can safely say that that factor is a cause of that result. If we cannot establish two identical groups, the next best option is to try to average out the differences by selecting the group's members so that no factor is represented disproportionately. This is usually possible only when working with inanimate objects.
It is extremely difficult to control all involved factors, as well as to conduct repeatable experiments, when the subjects are people. Since all people and societies are unique, it is very hard to repeat any psychological or sociological experiment. Also, observing people often causes behavior modification. Thus, some scientists have debated whether psychology and sociology, and others, are really sciences.
Several essential questions of personal and social life fall into this category of phenomena: 'Questions about the origin of thought, about the origin of intuition or about creativity often lead into the realms of philosophy, if not existentialism. What makes the human mind work? Where does sentience come from? What is the 'I' that seems to live three or four inches behind my forehead and thinks it is me? And how are we ever going to apply the scientific method to answer these questions?'(4)
This leaves us with a dilemma: What should we do when confronted with an idea that is hard or impossible to verify scientifically? As noted in SGNA: 'In modern science, the 'scientifically correct' approach in that case is usually to reject the idea. As long as we can't prove that the idea is correct, it must be assumed to be incorrect. But that approach ignores the fact that the scientific method cannot be used to answer all questions.'(5) Science can tell us almost everything about our body-except Why? Why am I here? Who am I? What is the universe and why was it created? According to SGNA: 'Science has never really dared to tackle these subjects. The questions are labeled 'existentialism' or 'philosophy' and 'appropriately filed.''(6)
Now we begin to realize the nature of the perceived conflict between science and religion: The humanities contain issues that the scientific method is ill-suited to answer and yet is taken as the ultimate source of knowledge. Most religious commands and prescriptions deal with an individuals personal and social life that do not tolerate experimentation. The risk associated with failure in such experiments is too high. We can tolerate the loss of some inanimate objects during experimentation, but not the loss of even one person. This is where the scientific method is at its weakest, and where religious directives are numerous, comprehensive, and direct. Where the scientific method is at its strongest, as in matters related to physical laws and inanimate objects, religious assertions are fewer, indirect, and serve the main purposes of faith. The perceived conflict in these areas is minimal and usually due to misinterpretation of religious sources. Before discussing another aspect of the relationship of science and faith, lets review some additional factors that contribute to the friction. In its pure form and when applied properly, the scientific method is a very powerful tool to establish a theorys truth or falsity. However, objectivity can be compromised by a scientists own humanity, for no one is completely free of bias, prejudice, ideological or political concerns, or peer pressure when it comes to income, belonging, fame, and high social status. Even though scientists pride themselves on their objectivity, cases of scientific fraud and plagiarism abound.(7) Sometimes community prejudices and biases make scientists resist new theories and findings for unscientific reasons. The scientific community at first laughed at some of the greatest theories of the twentieth century. Peer review may hinder advancement, and theories and perspectives may go in and out of fashion. It is hard to oppose the whole society to defend new theories and findings. History is full of accounts where unscientific factors have affected scientific work.
Human logic is a limited truth-seeking device, a machine with a mechanism, inputs, and outputs. Assuming the mechanism works perfectly, the output depends on the input. Hence two persons with different sense-related inputs may reach different conclusions by using the same logical mechanism. The logical mechanism may not always work perfectly. There are many examples of logical fallacies, among them wrong inference, improper generalization, false assumptions, and false analogies.(8) So when a religious jurisdiction is perceived as illogical and hence unscientific, it could very well be because of a limitation in the logical inference mechanism or in the subject knowledge. Philosophical reasons often cause friction between science and religion. Asa Gray, a faithful colleague of Darwin, was puzzled by Darwins atheistic proposals in the Theory of Evolution, for certainly God could use evolution to create diverse life forms. Darwin indicated that he had problems reconciling suffering with a merciful God, among other difficulties, and so had adopted an atheistic perspective.(9) Thus, he proposed an atheistic theory due to his philosophical problem with religion. But this is not the only relationship between science and faith. There are others, such as: Do science and religion live in orthogonal spaces? Do they present mutually exclusive views of the universe, thereby making themselves incompatible? But first of all, what is the role of reason in establishing ones faith?
By definition, religious faith implies belief in the Unseen. For many, belief is the culmination of a mental and spiritual effort transcending reading the Scripture and blind faith. Many religions command us to use our intellect. The Quran, in particular, emphasizes the use of reason in hundreds of verses. The pillars of Islam are shown to be evident truths for those who have intellect. Believers are encouraged to observe nature, reflect, and draw conclusions. To show how a logical process may lead people to believe in God or confirm their belief by reason, lets look at three pillars of major monotheistic religions: the Creator, life in the Hereafter and Messengers. Just like a work of art displays the artists skills, the universe can be seen as a huge collection of art by the Eternal Artist. The universe, as well as each human being, contains countless signs of organization and order. The human brain is immeasurably more complex than the most sophisticated computer. Since we could not attribute even the simplest computer to pure chance, how can we attribute the design of the human brain to a random process? These signs point to an all-knowing and powerful Creator. The human soul yearns for eternity and is not satisfied with any earthly pleasure. While all of our desires potentially can be fulfilled on Earth, leaving this critical desire for eternity unfulfilled would be a contradiction. Hence there must be an eternal life. It only makes sense for the Creator and Sustainer of this universe to communicate with the creatures who possess the most advanced intellect and the ability to communicate with language. Hence Messengers and revealed Scriptures make perfect sense.(10) This method of basing ones beliefs on observation and logical inference is essentially the scientific method without direct observation. A person whose belief is thus established can claim to be as scientific as a person studying anthropology or fossil zoology, for both deal with the available (indirect) evidence and logical conclusions. Although their objectives and foci differ, faith and science help us discover what is not directly observable. Sciences primary area of interest is the physical laws of the universe; faith is concerned with the personal and social principles that lead persons and societies to happiness in this life and the hereafter. Both appeal to our intelligence and our ability to observe. Believe suggests something not directly observable; Theory (in science) implies something not directly observable. If everything religion tells us were directly observable everybody would be a believer or, more accurately, an observer. If everything we needed to know were directly observable, the scientific method and scientists would be unnecessary. Nevertheless, non-believers may object by pointing out that having established their faith scientifically, believers may have to submit to religious directives that they may not understand or question. Inquiry is the basis for scientific advancement, while submission is an essential tenet of any religion.
The only sources that have satisfying answers for such questions as asked above are the major monotheistic religions. Science does not attempt to answer purpose or why questions, mainly because these questions imply an intelligent, wise Being behind creation. Since most scientists are reluctant to accept such an implication, they do not necessarily think that there should be a reason for existence other than a lucky accident. When people question the source of knowledge and become sure of its authenticity, and if they still have difficulty understanding, they must choose between their limited, imperfect logic and a source in which they have confidence. They do not stop questioning; rather, they change the nature of their investigation. Instead of rejecting immediately, they accept and investigate the underlying wisdom. So, believing scientists first base their belief on observation and reason and then explore the wisdom behind the Divine sentiments.
We live in an age ruled by science and positivism. The scientific method is considered the most reliable source of knowledge in almost every aspect of human life. In its moderate form, this worldview reduces superstitions and prejudices that have chained human reason in many societies. However, it also has the unscientific generalization of completely rejecting all other sources of knowledge and hence limiting inquiry into a purely material and quantifiable form. While friction among scientists was the norm for past centuries, harmony among moderates is establishing itself as we enter a new millennium. Today, it is possible to find scientists from reputable institutions who are willing to use the scientific method to explore subjects considered taboo for centuries, such as the role of prayer in physical healing. They do so despite the risk of being labeled as charlatans by their colleagues.11 This encourages us to think that one day the scientific method of inquiry could be used to investigate such essential questions as the purpose behind creation and signs of an eternal life without necessarily rejecting all religious doctrines. Open-minded and believing scientists are poised to show us that religion can coexist and is compatible with reason and science, which know their limitations.