Science, Religion and Politics

I am a person of Faith: I believe in a Divine Creative Force that put this universe together, and that we human beings are an intentional component of that creation. I am also a person of science that trusts the process by which we discover how our universe works. I live comfortably with both, and so I am often surprised and dismayed by what some would put forth as a fundamental conflict between two disparate world views—one held by religious folks, the other held by scientists.

I hesitate to call myself a scientist since I’m not actively involved in research, but I work with scientists, and I have a well-rounded (if perhaps superficial) educational background in several fields of scientific endeavor. I find that most general media sources (e.g., newspapers, nightly news), at least in the US, are quite unreliable in the reporting of science-based news. The public-at-large seems to be increasingly ignorant of the fundamental scientific process and its results, which may contribute to the perceived friction between hard-line religious groups and hard-core scientists. The increasing politicization over matters of scientific inquiry by the current presidential administration has exacerbated the problem by blurring the lines between ascertainable facts, belief structures, and public policy.

I believe that where some religious groups have got it wrong is that science is not a belief system: it is a method of inquiry, a means of discerning how the universe works, through observation and experimentation. Occasionally science discovers a property of the universe which comes into conflict with the tenets of a belief system. Inflexible belief systems resist integrating these new concepts into their structures, but eventually they’re forced to find a way to accommodate them—usually after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. If belief systems cannot adapt to new discoveries about how the universe works, they risk becoming irrelevant, out of touch with the world around them.

Where I think some scientists have got it wrong is that science is not capable of answering every question: it’s much better at determining “how” than “why” (e.g., how does my body turn the lunch I just ate into the energy to type this blather? vs. why am I on this planet typing this blather?); as the scientific method depends on repeatability and observation for results, there are limits to what it can ascertain (i.e., things that are not observable or repeatable are beyond the grasp of rigorous scientific proof). Early in the 20th century, both physics and mathematics discovered a few of their own limitations, e.g., the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Gödel Incompleteness Theorem, respectively. And while it is true that science strives to be objective, it is also true that scientists have biases themselves: where data and observations are insufficient, gaps in theories may be filled in by intuition or past experience. However, theory must ultimately be supported by observation, or do better at predicting new behavior, in order to be accepted by a consensus of others in one’s field.

Where politicians seem to get it wrong is in choosing sides in scientific debates or distorting the scientific arguments for political purposes. Granted, a politician’s job is to take action, sometimes with incomplete information; but when more complete data come to light, it may become necessary to revise one’s opinions and theories, and new or different action may be required. The best leaders are those that make decisions based on the best data available, navigating uncertainty or confliciting information using intuition and/or past experience. If better intelligence comes along, then for all our sakes, PLEASE take corrective action. It should be dangerous business to stake one’s political career on the ever-shifting sands of unresolved scientific understanding. I find it reprehensible to distort or divert the search for scientific truth. To do so nullifies any value science may have for society because its results can no longer be trusted.

Beliefs are a choice. I choose to believe in a Deity in spite of what some would call a lack of direct evidence. This doesn’t make me unscientific (but I would be unscientific if I held beliefs that are contrary to direct evidence). But math and science never start with “nothing”: every proof or theory begins with a set of assumptions or starting conditions. We may each choose whether or not God may be a starting condition in our lives, and we should all be allowed to amend our own personal theories as we continue to live and collect new data.

Let us strive not to conform Truth to our will. Instead, let us be shaped by Truth as we continue to find its facets revealed to us. This is the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding journey. Or so I believe.

2 Replies to “Science, Religion and Politics”

  1. You have done an excellent job of explaining precisely how I have felt regarding this subject for several years.

    I learned something new today: It never really occurred to me before that science should not attempt to answer the “Why” as so many would force it to.

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