What Science Can Do and What It Can't

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Erin continues to write interesting posts exploring the intersection of religious faith and science and the frustration that hangs out at that crossroads :)

She refers to adherents of creationism who are upset by the lack of coverage creationism is receiving in the currently-running-but-still-to-be-viewed-by-me Cosmos.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has responded by saying that science will give creationism equal time as long as it goes first from its pulpit.  Nice :)

Erin then goes on to quote some things Ray Comfort, Christian apologist for creationism, has said about science and the bible:

You know, the word ‘science,’ it’s kind of a magical word,” Comfort said. “‘I believe in science.’ It just means knowledge, that’s all it means. There’s different areas of science, different areas of knowledge. When you say the Bible is not a science book, you’re saying it’s not a knowledge book? It tells us how God created the Earth!

... It gives us the basis for all creation, and it passes the scientific method,” he said. “It’s observable – Genesis – and testable. Evolution is not. You can’t observe something 60 million years old, but you can observe what Genesis says.
Now, I don't post this here so we can point at Ray Comfort and laugh and say what an idiot.  I'm tired of Christians being lambasted in the science field.  In fact, I'm tired of everybody being lambasted by everybody else in every field.  Disagree with what seems so obviously ridiculous to you, but do it respectfully.  You might actually teach someone something in the process, that way.

But it definitely betrays an understanding of what science is.  Scientific knowledge is a specialised form of knowledge.  It's a small and rigorous space where many things ~ which may actually be true ~ are not gained admittance because they can't be studied in that way.  Scientific results must be testable and provable.  I think many scientists are understandably frustrated by the seeming lack of understanding of this process.

But I think the reactions of some people, Comfort included, may also be fuelled in some measure by the frustration many people feel in a culture where by dint of the place we find ourselves in history, scientific knowledge is considered the only valid form of knowledge. 

That's an insanely small turning circle with which to conduct yourself in the world.  Only choose to believe as true that which is provable in a scientific context and you could quite possible - ironically, tragically - find yourself living as a fool.

This is a blind spot of ours.  It may seem curious or even tragic to those in the future.  We are constrained, like every other people, by our time and place and brave are those people who break out of it.  Which is what scientists are meant to do but are not always able, but by dint of being of a group which operates according to certain conventions of what is and what isn't, and who are funded by those conventions.

I'm fascinated by the politics of science and by observing how those internal politics are being and will be forced to change in coming years.  The area of science that most stresses its boundaries and its internal belief systems (yes, it has them) is surely that of consciousness.  This is where the changes from discovery are going to come in future years.  I can't wait.  It will smooth out some of those narrow dualistic distinctions we are still struggling within now.

I wonder if many people rail against science not because they aren't fascinated to know how the beautiful world works, what is "out there" and to explore it, but are rather railing against that constraining consensus that scientific knowledge is the ONLY valid and allowable form of knowledge in our western society.   In that sense I'm in agreement with them.  The idea that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge is a profoundly stupid stance to take, but it's an historical backlash that continues against the destructive results of empire Christianism with its imposition and control and ideas of faith being the only valid and allowable form of knowledge.   It's just that we've gone too far the other way.

I look forward to a greater form of balance.  I think that it's going to come via our scientific discoveries of the future. I think we'll begin to have greater balance between acceptance of other forms of knowledge as valid as our western conceptions of matter continue to change - that whether observable or not, it is essentially dead.  We live in a world that is dead to us in a way that would have been bizarre and creepy to people of other ages and cultures.  Perhaps the creepiest thing for them, if they could have crept inside our cultural heads, would be the chilling realisation that it would be so very difficult for us to see that the potential destruction of our world would be birthed from the same thinking that birthed our great understanding and great knowledge.  Our great scientific achievements have stunted us in other ways.  We are Icarus, with the destruction of the earth the rotting core of the fruit of our scientific success. 

This is a hard thing to understand and to take in a culture that does not understand very well the rhythms of life, the yin and the yang, the limits.  I mean, we don't even readily accept death in our culture so what chance do we have!  We shut it away in nursing homes.  We are the perfect people to fail to understand decline and decay and therefore to understand the renewal that comes after the decline and the decay.   We live, and yet we still do not very easily understand how life~death~life works.  But I think we are beginning to.  I see green shoots.

Maybe as this bigger, more beautiful and expansive view of the world comes into focus, people like Ray Comfort will disappear.  We will not need to slice ourselves in two so as to preserve our myths in wholeness.  I look forward to that sort of renewal.


  1. Personally, while I get that our understanding of things is far too vertical and not enough horizontal or multi-planar, but I also think in the end science always explains that which we do not understand. Eventually. Do I experience connections or insight or emotions that do not necessarily fit into an empirical bubble? Yes. But I think the vast unexplored territory of the brain will explain so much of it. I think we need to expand our understanding of things in this way...we need to look deeper within the most important aspect of human existence...the brain.

    I'm curious...what other types of knowledge are there that you think we should be exploring?

    1. Yeah, I agree that science explains that which we do not understand eventually. Although perhaps we will be stymied and find that there are things we cannot understand. How frustrating that would be, haha :)

      But what a cool world, huh, where we ARE able to find explanations for how things work. That makes the universe appear to be quite a friendly one, to me :) I am so looking forward to watching Cosmos. It's a delicious anticipation - maybe I'll watch an episode tonight.

      I don't know if I mean so much that there are other types of knowledge that we should be exploring, but rather that there are other types of knowledge that are just as valid. Just because we can't correlate, measure, and have them come out as results from an artificial laboratory setting (the necessary setting for science to achieve its purposes but one in which none of us live) doesn't make other forms of non-scientific knowledge invalid. It just doesn't. I can find my way to knowledge of the world through intuition, through personal experience, through imagination, through kickass critical thinking, through myriad other ways that make my life rich beyond belief.

      I am not going to let anyone tell me that just because that stuff can't be measured means that it's any less important. That will dehumanise me. And the world has done that enough already, thanks very much :) I reject that implicit notion coming from the major mode of knowledge-making of our time. It seems to happen with whoever inhabits whatever the mod of the time is. In this respect I find it quite humorous and quite sad that the science of now and the religion of 300 years ago have people who would appear to smell almost exactly the same. Hubris. The hemerrhoid (sp?) of the species when we let ourselves be ruled by fear and anxiety :P

    2. I think the "stuff can't be measured" argument is interesting. I know that the social sciences had to fight hard to be seen as science, because somehow studying people, how they interact, how they think, etc, doesn't fit into the scientific method properly. But, here we are decades later, and the social sciences have a great deal of respect, even though research and experimentation is not necessarily performed in a laboratory.

      Still, I tend to be of the belief that science does, in fact, explain everything eventually. Sometimes we just have to reevaluate what we consider to be "science". Is that what you're saying?

  2. I think so :) It's just that science in its current form, where it's been co-opted by materialists, needs to change. And it will. I look forward to that.

    On the other hand, I wonder if we will ever be able to fully explain everything. Maybe we have not evolved enough yet to be able to ... it's a possibility. I hang on a pendulum between those two thoughts.

    I would like science to stop equating "mind" with "God." I mean, geez, how many centuries have to go by before we can let go our disgust at the Holy Roman Empire's religion? I don't want scientists to be scared of anything. I want them to face what is their and face down their own presuppositions and biases. I want them to admit that they have them. They don't. They are as hubristic as the priests of old. Put someone, anyone, in a white robe or a lab coat or in a parliament and they can't handle admitting their own biases, it seems :)

    Geez, I sound so judgmental. I guess that must class me in the pain-in-the-arse-as-human category as well, on some level :)

    Thanks for the conversation. I do so enjoy reading your thoughts on things.

  3. I enjoy discussing with you, too.

    Do you feel scientists are biased against God? That's what I think I'm hearing, but I could be reading you wrong. I think, full disclosure, I have veered away from my former concepts of the spiritual or mystical. I expect you and I probably aren't on the same page there. No worries, love all around. :)

    The more I study, the more science I read, the more I feel as though many (most?) of the things we attribute to the spiritual involve certain kinds of brain activity. There is a "God" part of our brain, one that encompasses our ideas of the spiritual, but it's tangible, visible, measurable. My biases are those of a conceivably significant need for explanations, however. Maybe this is why religion can't work for me. It's the way MY brain works. I struggle to accept anything that cannot reasoned with. I've also learned this vs. religion created in me such dissonance as to almost put me over the edge...and I've reconciled it by embracing the need for knowledge and understanding over the need for the mystical. I can experience awe and wonder without a spiritual explanation, but I also think that's not true of everyone. I also suspect it may have to do with personality type -- to a point.

    This is where I sit, anyhow. But I'm open to hearing more of what you think.

    1. Does religion work for anyone? What is religion except some sort of experience some people have had which has been stiffened up into concrete and control? I feel angry when I think of what it did to you, and of what it's done to countless millions of others.

      But I also feel angry that so many people now see the outward effects of that horrible and revolting stuff and think they understand the experience of faith. There are bunches of people getting around critiqueing the content of faiths when they don't even know what those are. They see the outward form of the religion with all it's bastardisation of anything good and its co-opting of power to serve those people who have found themselves most powerful down through the ages for whatever reason. And they think they see the whole thing. What arrogance and ignorance that is. They mistake the shell for the content. Seems to be a bit of a problem of ours.

      But I digress :)

      I think some scientists have a bias against that realm which could conceivably be called "mind" or "consciousness" because it's a little too close to conceptions of god for their liking. I like what Thomas Nagel says - the concept of mind needed to be gotten rid in the years of our early science so that science could be free to do what it did and find what it found. But to think that it should never be put back in again is a mistake.

      Descartes has a bit to answer for with his dividing and separating. But we have more to answer for if we keep adhering to conceptions that had their place several hundred years ago but which are now causing some damage ... not least of which is restricting us from discovering more of what can be because of the inherent historical biases we don't seem able to readily admit to.

      I differ from you in thinking that everything can be correlated down into the brain. I think it goes further than that. I think some things can. I think some (all?) of what goes on in the mind can be seen in its effects in the brain but I do not think they are the same thing. There is an invisibility about the mind and about consciousness that the history of science causes many scientists to perhaps loathe and fear. I commend the ones that can't resist the exploration. It's the most fascinating of all areas to me, just utterly fascinating. A greater understanding of this stuff I think will just change our ideas about everything. It will, in some real and tangible way, make the world come alive for us in so many ways. It will bring a sense of real magic into the world once more - real magic, as in something captivating and beautiful but that has nothing supernatural about it. I believe that these new paradigms will bring our imaginations alive again.

      So I think you and I are in agreement on one level - that much of what is considered spiritual or mystical is actually a normal and everyday part of our universe and our existence. It's just where we locate it. I think there is something that goes beyond the physical, that we are "one" in a very real sense, which the mystics have long been banging on about, and that we are connected in a tangible and living way. We do not end at our skins. We do not simply reside within our own mind.

      At least, something like that. Sorry if I'm waffling on too much about how I see things. I do get carried away a bit sometimes.

    2. I think it's fascinating that, for years and years you and I see eye to eye on virtually everything (granted you are the artiste of this dynamic duo), but now we've found the thing where we maybe don't agree. Love the discussion, but it admittedly feels weird. :)

      But you are right, the idea that science can explain everything is arrogant, because there is a heft to that which we do not yet know. Cosmologists, astronomers, astrophysicists, every day they have some new discovery about the universe that doesn't fit into our current paradigm. I do, generally, feel that science will find a way, eventually, to explain the things we do not yet understand, but I also know the science we know today is so far removed from the science of 200 years ago...that we can not even imagine what the word will mean 200 years in the future.

      Just this week, they have discovered a new planet in the Oort cloud that we had no idea of. It's a small planet, but it has rings (I love rings). First of its kind in our solar system. But then, it behaves in such a way as to indicate that there is a much much larger planet out there that we also do not know about. Until reading about this yesterday, I felt we pretty much knew and understood the bodies that reside in our neighborhood. Right....

      So, in the same way, science just doesn't know everything even about that which it thinks it knows everything about.

      I'm not equating cosmology with all science...just using it as an example.

  4. PS: I hope you don't feel like I'm criticising your position at all. I know I can be a bit dogmatic at times but I would really hate if you went away feeling like I was castigating your views or anything. Please let me know if you do - it would be handy feedback :)

  5. PPS: Actually, I think what I mean is I hope you don't feel PERSONALLY criticised if I do happen to be criticising your views. That's what I really mean.

    1. You are totally fine. And the same to you.

      I actually find this conversation a bit humorous, because at the end of the day, we are so much the same. And in any case, we're probably just talking past each other more than disagreeing.

      Now, I suppose I'll find out you load your toilet paper so it unrolls against the wall. :)

    2. Haha! Is there anyone who actually does that, I wonder? :P

    3. I have a friend who is dating a guy who really seems to be a keeper. She says the only thing they disagree on is which way to roll the toilet paper. :)

    4. Haha! Well, that could be a gamechanger. I mean, how could you roll under and backwards? It seems to betray a misunderstanding of the greater efficiency and flexibility that goes with up and over frontwards. It seems so obvious that I must confess my bias in thinking that those who favour the backwards approach have just simply not thought it through. And I'm not sure I could countenance dating someone who does not consider these types of things :D


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