Science and Religion: A Sympathetic View of Religion

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

I received the following comment from Alhazen, concerning my recent post “Letter from a Former Student.” This response agrees (roughly) with the independence model regarding the science/religion debate. While I reject most of what Alhazen says here, I reprint his thoughts, without further comment, for my readers.

I am not commenting here on the nature of the relationship between a student and his teacher. I wholly salute the well-intentioned and honest transfer of knowledge, skills, and attitudes between the two. This relationship, in my view, remains sacred and private. However, I’ll be commenting on the nature of the lesson learned by the student from the teacher which, in a nutshell, is; what science says about the world is true while what any particular religion says about it is false.

Science builds models of the world which, predict and can be utilized to engineer utilities. One obvious limitation of these models is that they tell you how and why within the confine of the model but inevitably hit two limits; first, the why of the fine structure of matter-energy and the fundamental laws of physics in the model prompting physicists to just say that they have found the universe to be so. And second, the why of the beginning or the Big Bang, prompting them again to say that there was just a beginning of time, space and matter-energy some 13.7 billion years ago.

“Laplace presented to Napoleon a copy of his work on the mechanics of celestial bodies. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of God and Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace drew himself up and answered bluntly, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Napoleon was greatly amused by this.

But of course, there is no need for God in the model. The model was designed in order to avert such a necessity.

However, nothing in the model can close those two gaps or dress those two wounds. Therefore, in my view, the true agnostic is not the one who is not sure if God exists or not but the one who is willing to not forget the gaps in the model, leaves them open and lives with courage with this unknowing.

Some scientists and philosophers escape from facing those two limits by claiming that such questions are not valid, which is true, but only in the sense that our model of the world was not designed to address those questions. However, those questions remain valid within themselves. Therefore, scientism which claims to answer all questions about the world is false in this sense.

Religion is also false by trying to answer questions about the natural world without evidence. However, the impact of religion upon man’s history goes far beyond providing an explanation of the natural world and should not be looked at from this angle. Bypassing logic and the established status quo, religion has had transformative effects on people. As an example I am familiar with, consider what the advent of Islam had done to the weak and scattered warring tribes of Arabia. With it, the tribes united to forge a great force of transformation in world history. The same can be said about many other religions. In this sense the philosophies of the enlightenment are religions, capitalism is a religion, communism is a religion and scientism too is a religion.

Man has always been creating myths to close the gap between his experience of the impersonal universe and his need for some kind of meaning.

Those myths have the power to forge together a large number of people’s thoughts, literature, and actions in order to lift the community from a stagnant status quo to a new level of being with people finding meaning in their struggle or efforts to achieve a better end; Enlightenment is from irrationality of the dark ages to the rationality of philosophy and scientific thinking. Capitalism; from feudalism to free labour. Communism; from ruthless capitalism to socialism which eventually led to capitalism with a human face as in welfare states. Scientism; from myths and miracles to science as the grand explainer.

There is a baby in the dirty tub water of religion; don’t throw it away with the dirty water. Find it, take it out and nurture it, and only then throw away the dirty water. I don’t know what or where this baby is, but tentatively it appears to be close to the mystic and dogma-free paths which I see in some religions.

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7 thoughts on “Science and Religion: A Sympathetic View of Religion

  1. I applaud Alhazen’s comments and you John for publishing them.

    I just came across the following take by A. Einstein on religion.

    Einstein says that to be religious is to have found the answer to the question:
    What is the ultimate meaning of life? And faith means trusting that meaning.

    My religion, or answer to the above question is that such ultimate meaning or purpose for me is the loving Service of God and of my fellow human beings.

    My faith is that I have trust in this ultimate meaning.

    My challange is to keep growing this faith, for the deeper it becomes, the more I actualise my ultimate meaning/purpose.
    Why God? For two reasons: I experience myself as a most beloved child of God.
    Only God can love me as SHis favourite child and everyone else too, as there is no competition or scarcity in the divine realm. Scarcity is created by us humans on the material level because we don’t realise that only the divine unconditional love can make us contented so that then we lose interest in trying to fill up our inner emptiness by seeking high reputation, achievements and possessions.
    Then ‘enoughness’ on the wordly plane is sufficient. Once I feel fulfilled in my vertical love affair with God I can love my fellow beings on the horisontal worldly level without any strings attached. Secondly only God is able to love all collectively and individually at the same time
    Why my fellow human beings? Because it is only through lovingly serving them that I can experience God’s immense love for me.

  2. Your love for God seems to resonate with what two of the great Sufi poets said hundreds of years ago.

    First Rabia al Adawiyya, a famous Sufi woman who said;

    O my Lord,
    if I worship you
    from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
    If I worship you
    from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
    But if I worship you
    for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.

    She is also reputed to have said; “If I could I would put out the fires of Hell, and burn down Paradise so that people would worship not fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.”

    The second is Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, who said;

    O Marvel,
    a garden among the flames!
    My heart can take on
    any form:
    a meadow for gazelles,
    a cloister for monks,
    For the idols, sacred ground,
    Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
    the tables of the Torah,
    the scrolls of the Qur’án.
    I profess the religion of love;
    wherever its caravan turns along the way,
    that is the belief,
    the faith I keep.

  3. To Andris:

    Forgive me but a received a B in Evolutionary Biology. In my defense, it was not lacking knowledge and understanding of concepts, but I never could get the cranial cubic centimeters and prehensile grips associated with the correct Australopithecines. I only offer this as a foundation, in science, as to my understanding of the need for each of us to “love all of God’s children”. Humans are communal creatures and our perpetuation and continued existence depend on our ability to develop a social structure that promotes the such—not to slay others who at odds with a given religious disposition. That is not my opinion, just science. Andres, you give the impression that you are not one with the stomach for such evil, and I commend you. But do you ever catch yourself feeling that you have to express your commendable and innocent nature because so many are, at some level, at odds with your attitude? And is there a level where your religion tells you to “tolerate” others? Tolerance is a good character quality, but does a father need to “tolerate” actions of their child because of the child “sins”, or had you rather the father celebrate homosexuality or interracial love expressed by their child and be grateful that their child has found someone who loves them unconditionally and foregoes judgment? I would.

    Pretend for a moment that you live a godless existence. Image the rush you receive when you realize that life is finite and each and every moment could be your last. There is an understandable panic at first. No longer do you get to put off that apology because eternity is no longer in your favor and you want your existence to be peaceful and filled with joy and excitement for having had the opportunity to experience a relationship with a spouse, child, loved one, or a random person whose acquaintance you have just made—and hope for more. Try waking up tomorrow and not imagine they are with you for eternity; you might find the embrace you get and give has more meaning than before. But alternatively, you could decide to murder 10 million people also, but you can do that as a devout follower of most any religion; the only difference is that religion gives you a justification, but as an Atheist, it’s on you.

    (Addendum – Andris’ argument is the “I pick the good parts of my book and apply those to live a good life”, therefore I am good and the fanatics are the nuts. I would argue that the fanatics are much better at exercising their religion than you are because they execute scriptural instruction with vest and precision. I can dissect every ill in society and provide a link to some form of dogma without fail. It’s exhausting.)

  4. I waited a long time to write this response. At first, it was out of respect for Dr. Messerly and his blog. I’ve learned over the years that when I feel driven to respond based primarily on the reports of my amygdala, my responses are, in retrospect, misguided and needlessly acerbic. Then I saw a response from Dr. Arnold which was done with such grace and humility given his command of the subject, that I felt my reaction was surely disproportionate to the intent and the general reaction of most readers.

    Well, time has passed. The initial outrage has certainly cooled and what remains is simply this: a firm conviction that I cannot let such an egregious slight and misrepresentation stand without a full-throated rebuke. Dr. Arnold bends over backward to give you the benefit of the doubt and an undeserved charitable interpretation. I intend that my response will simply take you at your word and show the hypocrisy of your claims.

    To begin, you have insulted Dr. Messerly and his entire teaching career in a backhanded and insouciant manner that left me dumbstruck. I’d hoped it was some unintended artifact of translating thoughts to written words. I’d hoped it was a misreading or incorrect parsing of your words that led to my umbrage on behalf of anyone who studies under Dr. Messerly. I’d hoped. Hope, as Nietzche said, is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man. As such I must conclude that you took the opportunity to address his audience via comments and simply saw it as a platform to proselytize your brand of theology, however ill-considered and naively reasoned.

    You began by proffering false piety saying, “I am not commenting here on the nature of the relationship between a student and his teacher. I wholly salute the well-intentioned and honest transfer of knowledge, skills, and attitudes between the two. This relationship, in my view, remains sacred and private.” Well, how very laudable of you. “However, I’ll be commenting on the nature of the lesson learned by the student from the teacher which, in a nutshell, is; what science says about the world is true while what any particular religion says about it is false.”

    Not commenting on the nature of the relationship but on the nature of the lesson taught? As if the two were so easily separated. It seems to my untrained eye that the nature of the relationship consists of two parts inextricably intertwined — what was taught or learned & the specific methods and process by which this was accomplished. It’s praising a Platonic form but reviling its Aristotelian instantiation. I’ll not comment on “Triangularity”, it’s perfect.

    But the kind of triangles you make are actually pretty crappy…no offense. It’s like saying to a married couple, “I’m not going to comment on the institution of marriage, that’s sacrosanct. Rather, I’d like to comment on the actual content of your particular relationship. First, your children are morons and likely illegitimate and second, your relationship is built on a foundation of lies.”

    As if that weren’t enough you feel the need to add essentially this “In addition, I’d also like to completely misrepresent what you find meaningful about your relationship which, by the testimony of your student, has been deeply transformational. I’ll create a ridiculous strawman and congratulate myself for being so bright and insightful as I perform an erudite dismantling of something no one ever said.”

    It’s possible you did not intend this as an insult. It’s possible there is a teapot orbiting the dark side of Saturn just beyond the resolving power of our instruments. Fortunately, possibiliter ergo probabiliter is a fallacy and given the poor recounting of Dr. Messerly’s argument, I’d say the prior probability + posterior probability of this being an innocent remark is well below 50%. No, given the evidence, I believe you donned the vestments of the pious so as to defile the temple.

    Now, this is the relayed falsehood you attribute to Dr. Messerly: “What science says about the world is true while what any particular religion says about it is false.” Yet in the very next breath, you talk about science constructing models. Models are not claims of infallibility, of Truth, such is solely the realm of the deluded and the religiously convicted. You go on to make egregiously false claims throughout your comment about the metaphysics of science and label it not with its proper name, metaphysical naturalism, but with the pejorative “scientism”. You then compound the error and equivocate between this pejorative and Dr. Messerly’s world view and what it was his student learned while in his class.

    When you start out to challenge something as core to someone’s identity as teaching is to Dr. Messerly, the least you can do is an honest attempt at accuracy by attempting to “steelman” vs. strawman their beliefs.

  5. I struggled to understand TSEliot’s
    “ The men you are in these times
    Deride what has been done of good
    You find explanations to satisfy the rational and enlightened mind
    Second you neglect the desert
    The desert is not remote in Southern tropics
    The desert is not only around the corner
    The desert is in the heart of your brother”
    After reading all that has been said I think I begin to understand.
    We will do well to follow the Buddha’s “ Metta Karuna Muditha Upekka” Loving Kindness, Compassion, Altruistic Joy and Equanimity” Faith and Wisdom must go together like the two legs that help men walk. When one is weak or lacking men stumble and fall.
    Let’s also heed Kipling plea
    “ Far and far our worlds are set
    Across the Seven Seas
    Woe for us if we forget
    We who hold by these
    Unto each his mother beach
    Bird and beast and land
    Masters of the Seven Seas
    Oh Love and Understand”

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