Friday, March 16, 2007

Science vs. religion

The above diagram, from WellingtonGrey.net, shows a fairly common understanding of religion versus science. It's sort of like the before and after pictures for weight loss, aluminum siding, home improvement, or whatever. Basically, religious people are ignorant, scientific people enlightened. Clearly, I want to be in the scientific category--who wouldn't?

There are a couple problems, though, with this analysis. I write about it not to criticize this particular website, for I commend these diagrams for their clarity in presenting the issues (and other, funny posts), rather to deal with the issue more generally.

1) Some of the best scientists are people of faith. The assumption that it's either science or faith is problematic. Sure the Christian church has been anti-science at times, but for every Galileo trial there are many more instances of the church promoting science. For an article on the alliance of science and religion. The view of religion as opposed to science is an outdated stereotype.

2) Making the world better. As presented in the diagram, and accurately so, science focuses on understanding the world... but it offers no inherent motivation for improving it. A scientist can learn what causes leprosy, but why do anything to help solve it? It's an intellectual problem with understanding as an end, not a means to something better. This isn't to say that scientists don't care about the world, rather there is nothing in the scientific itself that would motivate care.

3) Ethical science. While science has been used to do a lot of good, it has also been the cause of plenty of harm. For example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study allowed hundreds of African-Americans to suffer from syphilis for decades after the discovery of penicillin--though morally bankrupt, it was, strictly speaking, good science. From this and other ethical lapses, the scientific community has developed strong informed consent procedures, so this is not to imply that scientists have no moral center. Rather there is no basis for this morality in the scientific itself. Instead, it has to come from somewhere else, say religious faith.

Ultimately, comparing science versus religion is perhaps less interesting (and more prone to oversimplified, tired stereotypes) than is the integration of the two.

6 comments:

sarah said...

The other sad thing about this diagram's gross oversimplification of faith vs. science is that it does not accurately reflect the process that I, and I think many other believers, go through when confronted with a problem or contradictory evidence. In fact, if it did reflect the kind of dissonance and hermaneutical reflection (and action) involved in a life of faith, it might look vastly more similar to the science diagram than it does now.

Brad Wright said...

Yes, you're right... faith is a much more complicated process than displayed here, lots of starts, stops, and changes in directions.

I suppose that's the nature of stereotypes--to oversimplify other things.

Jodi said...

Very interesting! I agree with your comments here. Also, the whole science vs. religion debate seems a bit ridiculous given neither one will ever go away.

Brad Wright said...

I certainly hope that neither will go away... life would be quite a mess with only either one.

Jay Egenes said...

I'm curious if you've ever looked at Nancey Murphy's work on faith viewed through postmodern analytical epistemological holism (I think that's a complicated way of saying that whether you're thinking about science or faith, or anything else, your belief system is really a fairly complicated set of data points, held together by some theory that makes sense out of at least most of the data). In this sense, faith and science are really two different (and in our society often competing) systems of rationality. There's also good discussion of this concept in some of Leslie Newbigin's work.

Brad Wright said...

No I haven't read any of Nancy Murphy's work... just the name of it sounds rather intimidating. I am not much of a philosopher, by ability or training... I suppose that's why I like data. :-)