Something In the Air: Science’s Supposed Superiority To Religion
by Tom Gilson
I got an email recently from “Loren,” who sought to inform me,
Science is knowledge of proven facts, religion is a belief system based on unproven theory. The matter is closed, science is alive and growing where as religion is based on ancient history.
That’s all she wrote. (I know both men and women named Loren, so I’ll take a random guess at it and use female pronouns. If I’m wrong on that I’ll make the correction, with apologies.)
I’ll say one thing for this message: it’s a marvel of pithy communication. In just two sentences it expresses a mood that pervades the very atmosphere of our modern Western world. It wafts through the air of our universities, rarely noticed, rarely questioned.
For that reason it calls for a serious response. It cannot be lightly dismissed, even though (unfortunately for Loren), there is almost nothing of substance in it. It certainly has little to offer by way of factual accuracy. I want to take a moment to explain why I say that, and then later, in a follow-up post, I’ll take a closer look at the mood of the message.
“Science Is Knowledge of Proven Facts”
I’ll start with with her description of science. Science certainly deals with proven facts (or at least it does for those who accept scientific realism and are willing to waffle on niceties like the way that, once upon a time, Newtonian physics was thought to be proven). To say that’s what science is, however, is to diminish considerably what science deals with. I don’t know of any actual scientist who would be happy with that as a definition. (Instrumentalists and other anti-realists would take particularly strong exception to it.)
Based on Unproven Theory
But maybe Loren wasn’t speaking definitionally. She goes on to mention what it is she thinks religion is based on, so maybe she means science is based on proven facts. Unfortunately that’s wrong, too, whether she means science is historically, methodologically, or theoretically based on proven facts.
Consider the historical basis of science. Its early development and progress were based on assumptions about the nature of physical reality: that it is knowable, that it is worth our spending time on learning it, that progress can be made in the effort, that reality is rational, that the material world is not evil. Most of us in the Western world could hardly imagine that anyone has ever doubted that, but in fact those assumptions originally came from a specific source: Christian theism…
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