Science—the only way to view reality

Science is the investigation of reality. Reality is, by definition, everything. It is all we can see, all we can measure. It is, for all practical purposes, a god; it is omnipresent, omnipotent. The only tool that successfully measures and describes reality is science (including mathematics).

So why the desire to placate theologians and theocrats in scientific discussions? What can religion offer the exploration of reality?

The only thing it has to offer is a potentially consistent moral code; and that isn’t unique to religion. Religion can offer beauty, song, art, poetry, fellowship, but it cannot offer insight into physical reality. Those who say it can are either deceiving themselves, or deceiving others.

That isn’t to say religion is inherently at odds with science. Human beings are very capable of simultaneously holding mutually contradictory thoughts—it is indeed possible to be a religious scientist, but not if the carefully constructed wall between these magisteria falls. As soon as religious thought starts to influence scientific investigation (outside, perhaps, the realm of ethics), science is destroyed.

There is no way to “deal” with Creationism and other cults; there is no way to make the message of science more palatable to them. They don’t buy it. Telling them that six days could mean 3 billion years or that God isn’t susceptible to empiric investigation is lying to them and lying to ourselves. Anything humans can conceive of is open to scientific investigation, including God. Nothing is “outside science”. Some Creationists are susceptible to deprogramming—and that is the “wedge” for rational people to exploit.

Sure, we should be polite to people of (almost) all beliefs. Politeness does not include allowing them to destroy our school cirricula, compromise science, or change our secular Constitution.

God will not educate our children, cure disease, or fuel our society. It’s all up to us, and making nice with those who vehemently believe otherwise will only slow progress.

Scientists shouldn’t look to God for answers; God should look to science for answers.

Comments

  1. #1 L. Zoel
    March 26, 2008

    Under the definition “Science is the investigation of reality” theology would technically be a science, albeit not an empirical one.

    Like math, the study of God is traditionally held to be beyond the ability of the empirical sciences to investigate (no amount of experimentation can answer either that 1+1?=2 or that “Is there a God?”).

    Another similarity has to do with the fact that it’s practically impossible to do empirical science without math. Similarly, asking questions about empirical reality (the physical universe) without first asking questions about ultimate reality (God) is bound to lead to a good deal of confusion.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    March 26, 2008

    Wha?

    The question “Is there a God” is most emphatically not outside the ability of science to investigate. We can look for empirical evidence to support this HUMAN belief, and come up with an idea whether God’s existence is more likely than not.

    It’s the whole FSM problem.

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    March 26, 2008

    Well, it strikes me that this append has more intellectual arrogance and self-indulgent silliness than I’ve seen in a while. It also has a good deal of sense in it. I’ll just pick on one short paragraph …

    The only thing it has to offer is a potentially consistent moral code; and that isn’t unique to religion. Religion can offer beauty, song, art, poetry, fellowship, but it cannot offer insight into physical reality. Those who say it can are either deceiving themselves, or deceiving others.

    The only thing religion has to offer is a moral code? That assertion in itself is stunningly arrogant or ignorant or (probably) both. But you then go on to list a number of other things that religion can offer. Take about trying to have your cake and eat it too!!

    And even accepting your assertion that it’s “religion” that is offering “beauty, song, art, poetry, fellowship,” one has to ask about all of the non-religious “beauty, song, art, poetry, fellowship”. Is that offered by science? No?? Then where does it come from? Obviously not from “reality,” because you’ve granted science a firm grip on that.

    I could go, but why bother? I share your annoyance and concern about the ugly things being done by some parts of “religion” today, particularly in the US. However, it seems to me that you’ve allowed your anger to lead you into some awfully muddled thinking.

  4. #4 PalMD
    March 26, 2008

    To (I hope) clarify, ethics and aesthetics are not unique to religion, but they are a significant part of it. They just aren’t dependent on it.

    As to where it comes from, ethics and aesthetics, whether labeled as religious our not, are human constructs. Period.

    Of course science can investigate them.

  5. #5 decrepitoldfool
    March 26, 2008

    Of course believers would like the existence of god to be in a category of “things you can’t test empirically”; none of the historically-touted evidences for god have panned out. No miraculous healing, certainly no limbs regrown, no evidence that religious people are more ethical than nonreligious people, no confirmed prophecy, and the universe is a very different place than described by the prophets. With a record like that, who wouldn’t want their pet explanation for everything moved into “don’t touch this” land?

  6. #6 Vagueofgodalming
    March 26, 2008

    I would say one of the answers to this:

    So why the desire to placate theologians and theocrats in scientific discussions? What can religion offer the exploration of reality?

    lies in this:

    Some Creationists are susceptible to deprogramming—and that is the “wedge” for rational people to exploit.

    It’s true that ‘science’ can’t compromise with ‘Creationism’ – not surprisingly, since both are sets of ideas without volition. How scientists (and people who accepts the findings of scientific enquiry) deal with creationists is altogether another matter. People are people, and interactions (I was going to say ‘strategies’, but that’s already falling into the trap of objectifying our intellectual opponents) will be varied and, above all, individual. They may well involve conciliation.

  7. #7 PalMD
    March 26, 2008

    OK, let’s examine that idea. What kind of “conciliation” is proposed?

  8. #8 Jake Lockley
    March 26, 2008

    First, don’t confuse religion with the existence of God. Religion is a social control mechanism instituting methods of worshipping God. God can have many definitions, the most empirical of which is infinity. What most people have a problem conceiving of is God as a conscious entity, but few have a problem conceiving infinity even as the boundary for human knowledge. Science approaches but can never reach infinity (by definition). The scientific method after all was devised by monks to prove there is (always) a greater power at work that is beyond human understanding. To debunk God is easy – all one is doing is disproving their own definition. Try disproving infinity. Also, based on infinite knowledge, one who says God can’t exist is proposing to know the limits of human knowledge and making statements that assume they know more than any human being who will ever exist. God by definition exceeds the boundaries of physics which most people try to use to disprove or debunk the idea of God. This logically makes no sense because if God created the universe then God is not bound by the laws of science and knowledge that man is. One can disprove God only insofar as they can disprove their own existence. Similarly grasping or proving the existence of God as a conscious being is just as difficult as proving oneself to be a conscious being. In the end, the race is toward reaching and understanding infinity, which of course is by definition unachievable. For the record some people do not believe in infinity because it cannot be reached, even though it serves as the outer boundaries for all math and science.

  9. #9 PalMD
    March 26, 2008

    What most people have a problem conceiving of is God as a conscious entity, but few have a problem conceiving infinity even as the boundary for human knowledge. Science approaches but can never reach infinity (by definition).

    What a bucket of tautological bullshit. Gimme a break! Don’t you even recognize the error with your reasoning?

  10. #10 bradm
    March 26, 2008

    Speaking of tautological bullshit …

    Step 1 – Define science as the investigation of everything.
    Step 2 – Define “everything” as “all we can see, all we can measure.”

    I hope you can see this is about as circular as it gets.

  11. #11 Jane
    March 26, 2008

    Whoa, folks! The phrase “science is the investigation of reality” may be restated as “if you are doing science, then you are investigating reality”. However, the converse does not necessarily follow. One may be investigating reality (through, say, simple use of the senses or geographic exploration) and not be doing science. Unless we seriously broaden the definition of “science”, the statement “if you are investigating reality, you are doing science” is false. Therefore, science is not the only way to view reality.

  12. #12 LPS
    March 26, 2008

    I have some questions (raises hand).

    Do you consider all religion pernicious? (I’m an atheist by the way).

    How would you regard animism among hunter-gatherers? (It doesn’t matter that you and I are not hunter-gatherers… we may be yet.)

    Do you think that all religions have a person-like god deity thingy? Or, maybe, is that just the kind of thing that itself was subject to the vagaries of cultural evolution and has now become more prevalent–since that is by no means universal?

    Do you really think that science will “solve” our fuel crisis, if it also does not “solve” our population, food, water, and topsoil crisis?

    What does “solving” the fuel crisis mean?

    Should science encourage the continued mining of minerals essential to certain alternative fuels?

    Is science itself completely divorced from the religious milieu that justifies and legitimizes our current cultural trajectory, beginning with the origins of agriculture?

    Just asking. You seem like a reality expert.

    I have more questions.

  13. #13 PalMD
    March 26, 2008

    All religions have a god-deity thingy, or imbue the natural world/inanimate objects with supernatural characteristics.

    Science will not necessarily “solve” all human problems—any problems that are solved will be solved by humans, examining the real world with science. God doesn’t build bridges or fix fuel injectors.

    Unless you want to get involved in a complete bullshit stoned after 3 am college freshman philosophy debate, reality is actually reality. Definitions are a part of the process of logical thinking and argument.

  14. #14 LPS
    March 26, 2008

    Then, by definition, reality is only as you, or science, define it. Sounds a little circular. Animism itself defines its own reality. Which is the “proper” reality? You set yourself up for your own silliness. Yes, you have initiated a philosophy discussion, but haven’t quite figured that out yet.

  15. #15 PalMD
    March 26, 2008

    Look, doofus…to contruct logical arguments, you have to define the terms you are working with. Definition is of course circular, in it’s own way, but that does not constitute a circular argument. To say that “one” is defined as the first positive integer is not a logical argument, simply a definition that allows further discussion.

    The same is true of reality. Reality is generally defined as all that is. Don’t like it? Tought shit. Enjoy your world where reality is whatever you wish, a world where an invisible pink unicorn if DEFINITELY nibbling your lawn.

    When reality is defined as all that is, then all that is can be investigated.

  16. #16 Kagehi
    March 27, 2008

    Jake… The key problem with your argument is that you are claiming that God *does* exist, and that by definition it lies outside of the bounds of possible observation, therefor somehow science will never see it. Well, the first problem here is that you can’t start with the premise that something exists without some sort of **observable** conditions for which it *must* be one of the possible causes. Pray tell.. What precisely would that be? Careful, we have mathematical models that are actually testable that suggest the *other* sources for the universe, all we have for God is the assertion, “Well, the universe is here, isn’t it?” The same silly argument was used for the “face on Mars”, which NASA stupidly tried to make a joke with, only to have the wackos and nuts turn it into a conspiracy theory. The other problem is that you suggest, again without evidence, that infinity exists, and there is some practical limit of observation. Well, yes and no. Its probably quite true that simple time constraints will make “perfect” observation an impossibility, for as long as humanity is around to look. That is a scaling problem, not a scope problem. Its, “I only have a bucket to sift with, and 24 hours to do it, but there are 900 beaches to sift.” This is “not” the same thing is infinite. To propose that “infinity” exists, you have to provide some logical reason why, if we have equally infinite time, and an infinite number of observers, we couldn’t “see” all of infinity.

    Put simply, your are equating a “practical” limitation, with a “functional” one, suggesting that because we can’t, within the limits we have, we also couldn’t *ever*, even if we found some means to overcome some or all of those limits. Well, some stuff we can be sure that is true for, but the reason is **not** because those things are outside the limits of the universe, or under the control of god.

    Worse, the only definition of god that fits, when you start making such silly arguments, is one so indistinct that its “nothing” remotely close to anything we would recognize as one, nor one who we would bloody care existed or not anyway (or vice versa). It absolutely can’t be one that hands down great wisdom, personal advice, or makes appearances to tell people what to do, or how to *be* anything.

  17. #17 wonderbird
    March 27, 2008

    I am a religious biological scientist – no, it is not an oxymoron. I believe religion and science can coexist peacefully, believe it or not. I am not a creationist, nor do I endorse “intelligent design” or those with intransigent beliefs, on either side of the debate. I subscribe to evolutionary theory with the caveat that G-d had a hand in the beginning and the process. I do not understand how you could define reality as “G-d”. Did it ever occur to you that there are things in the universe that you as a human being are INCAPABLE of understanding???? If I felt I that man were truly capable of understanding EVERYTHING in the universe I’d be pretty nervous, considering how much we screw up.

    Your post brings to mind a great quote I found a long time ago. I don’t know the author, it was apparently graffiti. Someone had written on a wall “G-d is dead. – Nietzsche.” Someone else wrote below it “Nietzsche is dead. – G-d.”

    Think about it.

  18. #18 Jane
    March 27, 2008

    In many forms of Buddhism, particularly Zen, gods play a secondary role — or none. There are some supernatural beings — boddhisatvas — but, as far as I know, they’re fairly peripheral, more role models than anything else.

  19. #19 bob koepp
    March 27, 2008

    The idea that “science”, by which I assume you refer to a grabbag of finite procedures for arriving at “best guesses” about some matters of fact, can provide an exhaustive account of reality is bonkers. Indeed, the notion that “reality” consists in what can be seen and/or measured is bonkers. When philosphers arrogantly demonstrate their ignorance of empirical science they are rightly taken to task. When empirical scientists behave in an analogous manner, they too should have their noses rubbed in it.

  20. #20 PalMD
    March 27, 2008

    Clever sound-bite. What else is there besides reality? Or are you re-defining the term, which is your right?

    If you are going to posit that reality does not encompass all of, er, reality, then you better have a better explanation lined up, and if science isn’t the best way to examine reality, you’d better have something else lined up.

    Theology? I don’t know.

    I suppose people wonder “what is love” and such tripe. If that is the question, then explain how it is immune from empiric investigation.

  21. #21 bob koepp
    March 27, 2008

    What is there besides reality? Presumably, nothing. The problem is the assumption, wholly without warrant, that the methods of empirical science are adequate to the task of defining the extent of reality. Even in the much, much simpler “play world” of mathematical logic, we need to contend with problems of incompleteness. To think that empirical methods, which are intrinsically less rigorous than the methods of mathematical logic, could provide a complete account of everything is, well, bonkers.

  22. #22 DaleP
    March 27, 2008

    PalMD:
    “All religions have a god-deity thingy, or imbue the natural world/inanimate objects with supernatural characteristics.”

    For some definitions of religion, this is not true. As mentioned above, some varieties of Buddhist belief have no deity or supernatural characteristics. Nor, do many members of Unitarian-Universalism, and similar free-thinking denominations.

    In fact, I think there could be a definition for religion that corresponds to your “Science is the investigation of reality. Reality is, by definition, everything.” Something like, “Religion is the sharing of human experience.” It includes ethics, hope, aspiration, organization, friendship, and mutual support. I am reminded of PZ Myers post a couple of months ago, pointing out how the things that some people point to as valuable in religion, do not depend on deity or supernatural. That was a fine list of features of my definition of religion.

    Someone might say, I am just taking all the non-scientific good things of humanity and calling it religion. Well, yes, and I believe that this is consistent with the development of religion in human society. It has just proved hard for most (nearly all) organized religions to drop the (unnecessary) deity and supernatural features.

    By the way, this view of religion is not new. Look at the antecedents of Universalism and Unitarianism, which go back about 1500 years. These issues have been recognized and resolved for that long.

  23. #23 JimC
    March 27, 2008

    subscribe to evolutionary theory with the caveat that G-d had a hand in the beginning and the process. I do not understand how you could define reality as “G-d”. Did it ever occur to you that there are things in the universe that you as a human being are INCAPABLE of understanding???? If I felt I that man were truly capable of understanding EVERYTHING in the universe I’d be pretty nervous, considering how much we screw up.

    There are things humans are incapable of understanding? name one or two please. Seriously name something humans can’t potentially understand. And even if that was true what would it have to do with God?

    Your post brings to mind a great quote I found a long time ago. I don’t know the author, it was apparently graffiti. Someone had written on a wall “G-d is dead. – Nietzsche.” Someone else wrote below it “Nietzsche is dead. – G-d.”

    Think about it.

    All this shows is that your pretty much incapable of rational thought.

    Look at the antecedents of Universalism and Unitarianism, which go back about 1500 years.

    Longer than that actually. 4 of 6 original branches of Christianity where universalist.

  24. #24 Vagueofgodalming
    March 27, 2008

    OK, in the light of some of your more recent posts I think I may have misread what you wrote:

    So why the desire to placate theologians and theocrats in scientific discussions?

    If you mean something like “why do people desire to cede intellectual ground in the content of scientific explanations” (for example, giving a partial role for the Bible in describing the past of the Earth), then I think we are more or less on the same page. Clearly, if you are in the position of professional adviser to people like the woman suffering from parents with Scientology you have to be bluntly and, in a sense, mercilessly truthful, because it’s the only merciful thing to do. I don’t envy you that aspect of your work.

    What I was thinking of though, is that you might want to ‘placate’ someone, either because you want them to listen to you, or because you want their help. However, I realise that’s usually going to be beyond the scope of ‘scientific discussions’, narrowly defined. So if you are talking about the origin of the world or humanity with a Creationist, you’d presumably be explaining your evidence and so on. But if you were talking about, say, their religious experience, you might forbear to say that ethics and aesthetics are human constructs, period, precisely because you don’t want to clutter the field, so to speak, when you do get onto origins.

    I think the thing that triggered me to comment in the first place is that I think it’s important to try to get inside people’s heads, because however bizarre or irrational their ideas may seem to us, they seem well-reasoned and sensible to them, and they won’t give us the clues to how they think unless we stop to give them space to tell us, on the understanding that we have some level of sympathy, even though they know we disagree. Even if we express ourselves in sentences that are too long.

    Maybe that’s what you mean by politeness, but I think of it as something more.

  25. #25 PalMD
    March 27, 2008

    I appreciate your comments. I think I will simply begin a new thread to continue the thought. Thanks….

  26. #26 Kagehi
    March 27, 2008

    Wonderbird, I think that, in general, there are bound to be things that humans, with limited reach, limited life spans, and limited tools cannot **practically** understand. There is however a vast difference between “practicality” and “capacity”. I rather suspect that, in most cases, the people arguing that humans “can’t” ever understand some things are badly confusing the two. Nor does if follow that even of no direct means exists to measure something, that there is also no “indirect” means, like with gravity, which we can, *very* accurately, even without being able to “see” the gravity itself.

    Suggesting that there are things we can’t know begs the question, “Well, ok, then what are they?”, and leaves you open to finding yourself in the position of every fool, through all of recorded history, who has made such a claim, based solely on their, or their own societies, ignorance of what *was* possible.

  27. #27 wonderbird
    March 28, 2008

    I would like to address 2 different responses to my previous post, as well as my initial response to the post by PalMD.

    To JimC: One thing that humans are truly incapable of understanding is the how the universe came into being. There are theories, physical and mathematical, that can explain how the universe potentially came into being. But in the end, they are just theories. You asked me to name one thing that human beings can “potentially” not understand. Well, I wasn’t talking about “potentially”. I was talking about conclusively. We can never conclusively prove anything about the way the universe came into being, anymore than I can prove to you that there is (or is not) a G-d. Also, please explain to me how the one comment I made on the nature of death in my earlier post proves that I am “pretty much” incapable of rational thought, and what universalist theory has to do with that.

    To Kagehi: I agree with you that there is a vast difference between practicality and capacity, thank you very much for bringing up this point, which I see now was sorely lacking in my initial post. In fact, I was addressing only capacity. I believe that scientists and mathematicians have the potential to ultimately explain 99.9999999…% of the scientific and mathematical phenomena in our world, but there will always be that 0.0000000…1% which we will never be able to explain. This is only a distant memory from when I learned physics in college, but I would like to use it as a scientific analogy to my argument. Apparently, with all the calculations of time measurement currently available to humanity, even the most precise measure of time can not account for the loss of something like .028 seconds per 100 years, or something of that nature. If anyone knows more about that, or can clarify this foggy memory I would very much appreciate it.

    I realize this is a very sensitive debate, and that ultimately, it started with a physicians’ completely understandable, extreme frustration with people whose religious beliefs prevented him from being able to save the life of their own child. This is tragic and almost incomprehensible to most people, including me. People with strong beliefs can raise very strong emotional reactions in those who oppose them. My first post was prompted a strong initial reaction to the end of the initial post by PalMD, although those are my beliefs. Maybe some of my beliefs are irrational, and I am always for questioning and debate. This is really the way we all learn.

    After having a chance to cool down and think about my initial reactions to PalMD’s post, I realize that I didn’t address the pain he was clearly in, and I would like to now express my symphathy, as much as I possibly can, and understanding of his feelings. I am very sorry I didn’t do this initially.

  28. #28 PalMD
    March 28, 2008

    I think you overestimate my ability to be offended and hurt.

    One thing that humans are truly incapable of understanding is the how the universe came into being. There are theories, physical and mathematical, that can explain how the universe potentially came into being. But in the end, they are just theories.

    The “argument from ignorance” is hardly a valid one. Substituting faith for scientific inquiry is also not a particularly useful strategy.

  29. #29 wonderbird
    March 28, 2008

    Fair enough.

  30. #30 Kagehi
    March 28, 2008

    Its not just a losing strategy, its quite likely dead wrong. There are *huge* numbers of things, up to and including formation of stars, that we don’t have the time, proximity, or practical means to understand *directly*, in the terms wonderbird is using to also imply that the initial state can’t be. This hasn’t stopped us from figuring those things out. Mind you, one issue is that even if you use particle accelerators to break things apart enough to provide credible evidence that some mathematical model is likely the most reasonable one for something, that doesn’t always mean it “is”. Making that sufficiently likely to be “right” takes using that information and model to produce results you couldn’t without the model and that new data. It may turn out that there are *several* possible sets of logically consistent starting states that *could* have, but while you still couldn’t say conclusively which one was right, you have still excluded a near infinite number of others, ranging from mathematically possible, to stuff someone made up because they couldn’t imagine it happening any other way.

    In the case of something like a sun, we could provide a model that *suggests* you need a precise set of materials, pressures, etc. to get one. That however says nothing about if the *specific* star coalesced, was produced by collision, or any number of other methods that might presumably have provided the needed *starting* material to make it happen.

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