Demarcating Science and Religion
Science has always been an important part of my live. From the science kits I got as a child, through my college coursework in chemistry, physics, and psychology, to my doctorate in Clinical Psychology and beyond, I have gained both respect and competency in science. But this has never caused a crisis in my religious views. This is largely because Science and Religion don’t actually conflict when both are used properly, their conflict only emerges when people don’t recognize the boundaries each has. But when someone understands and respects the boundaries of both Science and Religion, the two can and will enable and support each other. As such, by using Science to examine Religion constructively, I hope to show there can be a positive relationship between the two. But more importantly, I also am using Science because, when its boundaries are properly respected and applied, the knowledge found within these boundaries is extremely powerful, and rejecting Science, when held within its context and boundaries, is the easiest way to lose touch with reality. However, if we are going to start this properly we have to outline an understanding between Religion and Science in a way that includes an understanding of the boundaries involved.
The power of science lies in its focus on what is externally observable, measurable, and verifiable. Theories are generated by describing the world in concrete terms, establishing theories about causal relationships, and then using concrete measurement to test the relationships. To insure that all this is done in a way that the conclusions truly reflect what is happening in the world, Science has established a number of important boundary concepts:
Scientific Definitions – A definition can only be considered to be scientific if it is concrete and reflects how the subject really appears in the world. To be useful to science, a definition must be concrete and capable of being operationalized. It must be capable of being measured discreetly and objectively, and it must be able to be manipulated. To accurately describe what is being studied, the definition must also be valid, and must encompass how the concept exists in reality. For concrete things, definition is easy. Water can be defined by its physical qualities, and accurate measured, for instance. Abstract concepts, however, are more of a challenge. We can’t weigh love, and there are no objective love units. We can ask people to rate their experience of love, but when we do, we can’t call that love, it’s just a small portion of the whole concept, and we need to define it as such, or we lose construct validity by incorrectly reducing our scope of understanding.
Verifiability – For something to be considered scientific, it must be capable of being verified by others. If something is to have weight in science, then other scientists need to be able to reproduce the result of experiments or have similar findings. One method that Science has created to aid in verifiability is “peer review,” a process in which findings are subjected to scrutiny by the community as a whole so that individual beliefs can be filtered away so the actual scientific findings remain. Another method is found through the application of the concept of reliability, in which a finding not only has to be found, but it has to be found repeatedly and consistently.
Formulating Theories – Theories must meet a few requirements to considered to be in the realm of science. First, they also must be able to be operationalized. You need to be able to measure and manipulate parts of the theory in a real and concrete way, so it has to be formulated in a way that is very specific to allow this to happen. Next a theory must be capable of making a prediction in a very real and definite way. Finally theories need to be falsifiable; they need to be defined in such ways that it is possible to prove it false. With falsifiability, the theory must have built in conditions in which it admits to being wrong.
Strengths of Relationships – First, relationships are determined via statistical analysis. Because there are often many complicating other variables, often referred to as “noise,” rarely is anything ever shown to have a direct 1:1 relationship. Instead, we look for strength of relationships, keeping an eye on co-occurring variables, outliers, etc. If A exists where B exists only, there is a strong relationship. If A exists whether or not B exists, there is no relationship. If A exists mostly where B is, except for a few outliers, there is still a strong relationship, but the outliers need to be explained. If A sometimes exists where B exists, the relationship is weak, and there are other factors involved. Sometimes, however, A and B can exist together with no direct relationship, because there are additional causal variables that influence them both.
Determining Causality – There are a number of ways science can determine causality. The first is through direct experimentation. If A causes B, then manipulating A will change the value of B. However, we don’t always have the opportunity to directly manipulate a subject of study due to morality issues or availability. In these circumstances, we can create naturalistic experiments, looking at instances where variable A does or does not exist, and how that effects the existence of variable B. However, this in itself only shows correlation, not causation, and to be able to establish causation, you need something more. A mechanism of action must be added to show how A influences B. This mechanism only has explanatory power if it is shown to exist in the AB relationship, and if it has been validated by other experiments in other conditions. Global warming is a great example of this process. We cannot do a randomized controlled experiment on the Earth to prove global warming can occur. We only have access to one Earth, and few people will want to kill a planet to make a point. We can, however, show the relationship between greenhouse gases and global climate change, and we can determine through direct experiments the mechanism of action, the greenhouse effect, exists and is a characteristic of the greenhouse gases.
These boundary concepts are what help to establish the power of Science. However, these same boundaries also create the limitations of Science. When working within its boundaries, the conclusions of science create knowable facts that are hard to refute unless Science itself does the correcting. But when taken outside of its boundaries, Science loses this certainty. Love, as mentioned before, is an example where this boundary gets crossed. As an abstraction, Love is a name we give to a set of personal experiences. Because Love can’t be physically touched or measured, it can’t, in its entirety, be operationally and concretely defined. Abstractions do have effects on the physical world, as people can describe common physiological or even psychological responses to the experience of love, but when studying love scientifically, you can only study those responses, and not Love itself. If you ignore this, and try to treat Love as a concrete thing, you violation the boundaries of Science, lose touch with the real world, and enact a specific logical fallacy known as “reification”.
Where Science focuses on the external and concrete, Religion focuses on the internal and the abstract. At its heart, religion focuses on the personal relationship between the individual and a higher power, a power that can be a Divine being, a social group, or the world itself, and the cultivation and investigation of abstractions like Love, Justice, Peace, and Mercy. The reason that religions are group oriented is that you cannot have relationships without others to relate to. The non-literal nature of religious scriptures and mythologies are meant not to present concrete facts to know, but create virtual realms to practice experiencing abstract ideas to better understand them. The story of the Good Samaritan, for instance, never actually happened, but is meant to create a virtual situation to allow people to explore the abstract concepts of mercy, compassion, and prejudice. Just because the incident never occurred, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be true. The Truth comes not from its historical accuracy, but through the conclusion drawn from the story about the truths understood of the realities of compassion and mercy, and the fallacy of prejudice. This wrestling with abstract values is what has traditionally empowered our greatest religious leaders to inspire our society to improve. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a reverend as well the archetype for civil rights and social justice, and drew his values from his religious life. Gandhi is the archetype for non-violent resistance and his non-violence stemmed from his Hindu beliefs. The Dalai Lama’s constant message is about the Buddhist concepts of peace and compassion. Unlike facts, these abstractions and relationships cannot be known, they can only be experienced and understood. Facts can be known because they are fixed and concrete. Facts don’t change. Abstractions, however, rely on context, interaction, experience and change constantly, so they can only be understood. What is true of peace, love and justice in your life today may not be true tomorrow, but this does not mean peace, love and justice don’t exist. The non-literal and relational aspects of Religion were designed to wrestle with the unknowable and build this understanding.
So here are the boundaries of Science and Religion. Science gives us the factual and empirical that is knowable, Religion gives us relational and the abstract that is understandable. They are Non-Overlapping Magisteria, as Stephen Gould proposed, and when their boundaries are respected, there is no conflict. But when one tries to supersede the other, they violate the boundaries of both. The first observation people make of religious individuals who do go wrong with religion, is that they have absolute certainty, that they know their beliefs as if they are factual certainty, and that their scripture is literal. And with the context provided, you can see the reason religious people go wrong in this capacity is that they treat religious belief as knowable and abandon the greater understandings. Their literalism causes them to violate the boundaries of Religion, reify the abstract, and wander into fallacy.
But it is not Religion itself that causes this boundary violation, but the violation that taints the individual’s religion. It is also not a violation that is exclusive to religion. One need only look at the frightening idea of eugenics to see how, in the past, horrors where created when the scientific violated the boundaries of science. In the modern day medical materialism that also violates these boundaries, some scientists are attempting explain human behavior in solely in terms of genes and hormones, but literally ignoring the effects of reasoning and intelligence. As a result, violence, infidelity, anxiety, depression, etc., are being defined in purely medical and chemical ways, ignoring the interaction between the body and the intellect, and stealing from us both our power and responsibility to wrestle with and solve related societal problems.
Religion then, can go wrong when its followers violate the boundaries of Science and Religion. But those who attack Religion, trying to usurp it with Science, are making the same boundary violations, and making the problem worse.