Allan Powell: Science and religion can and should get along

July 05, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

For those who would like to get a “nuts and bolts” look at what scientists do, what kind of ideas they think about and their attitudes about the world, there is a compact source available. Author and science columnist Natalie Angier, in “The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science,” gives her perception of the insights about the “hard” sciences: Physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy are the subjects. Angier should be congratulated for her competence and range in the production of this publication.

But a bit more needs to be done to show more about what we mean by “science.” When we filter out the essence of science, it is readily seen that we mean much more than large collections of knowledge in the various realms of research. Three important elements of science should include method(s), attitudes and assumptions. Each of these is required to fully understand how scientists accumulate these bodies of reliable knowledge.

When writing about the methodology of science, it is customary to mention observation, experimentation and verification and then describe this as “empiricism.” While this means that this approach uses our physical senses for discovery, it implies that very sophisticated technology is used to extend and make more accurate what is found about the natural world.

Scientists use reason, intuition and ordinary elimination to uncover the secrets of nature, but the process, from beginning to end, is checked by sensory confirmation. All of this makes the scientific method so remarkable: It is the only self-correcting method known to man. There are missteps and miscalls that cause temporary setbacks, but, because science is open for inspection by others, mistakes are made right and the scientific community moves forward.

One method will illustrate the general idea of “method.” The method of difference states that “the investigator will make a difference to see if the difference makes a difference.” Accordingly, the investigator varies one of several variables at a time to see the various results. This controlled separation shows the connections which are being studied.

The second basic consideration is the attitudes required in scientific studies. The one most frequently noted is that of objectivity. Scientists are expected to restrain from permitting their personal tastes, preferences and dislikes from influencing the interpretation of their findings. This is actually hard to do and bears watching. It is known that one as prominent as Sir Isaac Newton was fascinated with alchemy.

With regard to the point that scientists make assumptions that are taken as “given” or “constant” as a starting point for their thinking about the way nature works, two will be sufficient for illustration: causality and naturalism. In science, it is assumed that as a very high probability that when there is an invariant connection between an “A” event and “B” event that a causal relation exists. This makes events in the physical world predictable.

Naturalism is the view that all physical events are the result of regularities uninfluenced by external unknowable or higher powers. A scientist has the personal freedom to believe otherwise because of personal hopes and values, but that scientist is surely aware that his or her extrascientific point of view is not compatible with what the large community of scientists support.

This brings up the inevitable issue of the so-called war between science and religion. There can be little doubt that collisions wax and wane over claims made by both parties. My own view is that while the opportunities are there and that a history of these confrontations show a willingness to engage, conflict is not necessary. Hostility could be avoided if each of these two institutional giants will be humble enough to recognize their limitations.

Scientists must recognize that they lack the capacity to make pronouncements in those very important areas known as values and metaphysics (the spiritual world). Likewise, representatives of various religions must accept the fact that, when they make dogmatic statements about the physical world that are in direct conflict with known and verifiable evidence, they will be asking for tension.

The larger view of science opens the door to a rapprochement with religion on the grounds that there is adequate room for both, perspectives to cohabit the earth because both perspectives are valuable to human well-being.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus in philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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