Science & Religion: A Dialogue

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry (France, early 15th century)

I was thinking more about the science/religion question.

Science is nearly certain about its basic truths—atomic, gravitational, evolutionary, quantum, relativity theories. If we add truths from logic and mathematics we appear to know even more. (Yes, we may live in a simulation or the gods may be playing with our minds, but otherwise, we can reasonably sure of well-established scientific theories.)

Suppose the scientific and mathematical truths mentioned above represent 1% of all possible knowledge; in other words, that we are 99% short of omniscience if we believed these things and they are true. Of course, there is no way to calculate this, but the argument doesn’t change if we know 10% or 0.0000001% of all there is to know. Unless one is a full-blown epistemological skeptic, we have some small bit of knowledge. Now for the theologians the less we know the better, for that leaves more room for the unknown which, according to them, leaves more room for their gods.

Now the question is: Is it better to live believing these relatively certain things, proportioning our assent to the evidence about other propositions, and being skeptical of speculation; or is it better to engage in metaphysical speculation, affirming without evidence that reality is good, that gods and heaven exist, etc.? Now let’s follow the conversation of two thinkers on this question:

Theologian – “there is so much you don’t know so there might be gods or souls in here or out there somewhere. Moreover, we might as well talk about all we don’t know–say about whether hope is justified and whether life is meaningful—since these topics are of such great importance to people. And people like the comfort we provide when we describe the mysterious in a favorable light. ”

Scientist – “let’s not go beyond a reasonable doubt and posit supernatural explanations for that is just speculation. Instead let’s use the only method that has ever provided humans with any knowledge at all and accept what we don’t know rather than speculating about the favorable or unfavorable light we might shine on what we don’t know.”

Theologian – “But people can’t live with that kind of ambiguity. Besides I feel confident that there are gods and they are good.”

Scientist – “Some people can’t live with ambiguity, but a lot of people do. Besides believing things without sufficient evidence is often harmful because one’s beliefs affect others. You have an obligation only to believe those things for which there is sufficient evidence.”

Theologian – “Why? We have to accept all sorts of things without sufficient evidence and I chose to accept there are loving gods, that life makes sense, that I am immortal, and that my hopes are justified.”

Scientist – “There is nothing wrong with optimism about things you don’t know, as long as you keep it private. But when you try to influence the public realm, you are open to the criticism that your ideas are not sufficiently supported.”

Theologian – “Well I’d rather be wrong and at least have speculated about the good nature of reality beyond what I know, than limit myself to your relatively certain but unimportant truths.”

Scientist – “Well I’d rather have my limited truths about which I can feel really confident, and then try to learn a little bit more with each generation. I can live with ambiguity.”

Theologian – “I don’t see how you can live like that, but I suppose we are just different kinds of people.”

Scientist – “I don’t see how you can live like you do either. I suppose we are different. And as long as you want to believe in private ok. But don’t try to bring your religious beliefs into, for example, our sciences classes.”

Theologian – “But your beliefs–in heliocentrism and evolution—have invaded theology. So you necessarily bring your scientific truths into religion. Galileo who started all this and now Darwin. You affect us as much as the reverse.”

Scientist – “Well we’re sorry but it turns out Galileo and Darwin were right. And you can either reject obvious truths like the fundamentalists do or modify your religious beliefs.”

Theologian – “That’s what we sophisticated theologians do; we accept geocentrism and evolution. They’re compatible with our sophisticated theologies.”

Scientists – “Ok. This means that your beliefs will slowly become more like those of science. And as knowledge grows you’ll have fewer gaps for your gods.”

Theologian – “I’m no “god of the gaps” theologian. I identify god with the anti-entropic life force that grounds being by attracting reality toward higher levels of being and consciousness.”

Scientist – “That sounds cool but I think you might be talking about cosmic evolution.”

Theologian – “I am.”

Scientist – “Then your theology is being modified by science.”

Theologian – “Of course. Just like Christianity was modified by its encounter with Greek philosophy.”

Scientist – “Sounds like your beliefs will evolve based on our scientific understanding of the world.”

Theologian – “Yes.”

Scientist – “Well then you’ll just have to wait for us to figure things out.”

Theologian – “As long as you don’t know everything there will still be a place for the gods.”

Scientist – “Weird. So you will stand on the sidelines for millennia—perhaps as we become ex-humans—and continue to modify your speculations based on what we discover.”

Theologian – “Of course because none of us can put into words what explains all this.”

Scientist – “Suppose we someday explain everything or almost everything?”

Theologian – “You just can’t.”

Scientist – “But we’ll explain more and more and if there is no room for your gods in those explanations then will you give up believing in them?”

Theologian – “I don’t think so. ”

Scientist – “Ok. I have to get back to work actually figuring something out.”

Theologian – “And even if you explain everything we want to know what explains that!”

Scientist – “When we have explained enough nobody will listen to you anymore. Like I said I have to get back to work.”

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