Reconciling science and spirituality is a fool’s quest. The peace-maker is confronted with antagonistic camps both convinced that they are in possession of truth. Telling the two camps that they are half-right means that both of them try to shout you down.
Scientists base their claim to inerrancy on their method of discovery. They argue that to understand the world, we must first describe it. Analysis of our records may reveal patterns of experience: for example, certain types of “clouds” may bring “rain”; other types of clouds do not. The scientist codifies those conjectures as falsifiable statements. For example, “strato-cumulus clouds do not bring rain.”
Now these conjectures are important to societies because predicting rainfall is essential to agriculture. Bad predictions are not just a philosophical matter: if grain is planted at the wrong time, the community may suffer, or even perish. Thus the sophisticated scientist receives social approval and perhaps power. This enables them to attract followers to aid them in extending the reach and accuracy of their predictions.
Scientists tend to forget that creative connection. Society does not reward scientists for discovering the truth. It rewards them because possession of understanding enables truth to be created. The community is grateful not because it understands clouds, but due to the increase in the overall yield of their crops.
When scientists argue, society can determine the truth of their claims only by running experiments. In a wise culture, sudden change is not often pursued. Rather, most grain will be planted according to established methods, and each scientist will be granted a portion to manage according to his theory.
Now comes the real difficulty: let’s suppose that one scientist plants his grain in rich soil, and the other plants in sand. Obviously, the yield will be affected by those differences. To prevent these other factors from confounding comparison of their results, scientists attempt to control carefully the initial conditions. Ideally, they would be granted alternate rows in the field.
But there’s another condition that is necessary to the success of science. Let’s suppose that the genetic code of plants was unstable. While the example is ludicrous, imagine that seeds taken from corn might sprout as apples in the next generation, and then as thistle. Or worse – what if the corn turned into thistles mid-way through growth?
The scientist might say “Well, that’s not what happens,” and go happily on his way. But the problem is that this is exactly how people develop. Parents do not produce duplicates, we learn from experience, and we change our view of the world as we age.
In part for this reason, scientists have come to distrust the evidence of their senses. The variability of human sensation means that two observers may see different colors, hear different pitches, and judge weight differently. These discrepancies become critical when scientific theories move beyond simple correlations to precise mathematical prediction of timing and effect (such as became possible with Newton’s theory of gravitation).
Furthermore, our bodies are composed of smaller elements, and obviously our senses cannot penetrate the mechanisms of their own operation. Understanding of those mechanisms enables us to design sensors with finer and more reliable operation than the human senses. Scientific instruments are far more accurate than the human senses.
The advocate of religion considers all of this activity, and while often grateful for the bounty that science makes possible, observes that it has absolutely no impact on human behavior. Worse, science amplifies the destructive capacity of predators. Because it is far easier to break and wound than it is to create and heal, science makes antisocial behavior far more deadly. The great wars of the twentieth century are proof of this thesis. In our time, we can see the effect of tyrannies that wage war on their populations in the developing world.
This is amplified by personal experiences that beset people that the scientist would consider to be “undisciplined” in their thinking, or perhaps just weak of mind. The scientist has tools for organizing his thoughts: logic, dispassion, and rigorous terminology. This makes him often immune to the experience of the scullery maid on the estate of the nobility. This was characterized for me by an Englishman who offered that servants were told “for their own protection” to turn to the wall when a great lord passed.
I had a related experience during my post-doctoral research, being invited to a meeting with a new employee. I found myself wondering “Why am I here? This has nothing to do with me.” The fellow suddenly turned to me, a look of wonder on his face, and my supervisor broke up the meeting. As he left, my peer said “Gee, thanks.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, having never met someone that was capable of turning my mind. Having “grown up” somewhat now, I refuse to dance with women under the influence of alcohol because they fall into me and can’t get out.
It is in their need for protection of their personality that the “weak-minded” turn to religion. They lean on the strength of the great spiritual avatars that emanate a protective love. Being told by a scientist that they are delusional is a complete contradiction of their experience of life, and in many cases attacks the basis for trust in the relationships that they depend upon for survival. Is it at all unusual that some among the faithful see science as a tool of the devil?
So let’s return to the original problem: how do we reconcile science and spirituality? The scientist finds power in controlling the parts of reality that lack personality. The religious leader finds power in preventing conflict among the population that does the actual work. In both cases, the society benefits not because the truth is known, but because new and creative possibilities are revealed.
Am I the only one that perceives mutually supportive endeavors? Without love, science destroys more then it creates. Without knowledge, religion cannot protect us from the harsh realities of nature.
The scientist allows us to make objects that would never be found in nature. The religious leader builds communities that work in harmony. In combination, they enable us to create a world that we can all live with. Why don’t we stop arguing and get on with it?