Last weekend, I caught my eye on a debate between Chief online editor of Nature magazine, Ananyo Bhattacharya and Senior Research fellow at the School of psychology Cardiff University, Chris Chambers over Twitter.
”Sometimes science must give way to religion.” The article that subtly shovelled the shit into the fan.
Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University wrote an article in Nature pondering the similarities between science and religion.
His holiday to the Angkor temples in Camodia made him think about the research being conducted on the Higgs Boson at CERN ”The Higgs, of course, has been labelled the ‘god particle’ because it accounts for the existence of mass in the Universe.. to probe the origins and meaning of existence itself – which, to some, is the job of religion.”
To which a commenter replied ”Leon Lederman did not want to call it ‘The God Particle’, just the opposite ‘Goddamn Particle’. The publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might me a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”
Sarewitz continued to explain that most people acquire knowledge of complicated scientific research ”through the metaphors and analogies that physicists [regarding Higgs] and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically.”
He follows this by saying ”for those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”
To which another commenter replied, ”believing the Higgs Boson is faith if you can’t follow the mathematics is akin to Creationists who say, ‘Well, no one was around when the universe was made, so our explanation is as scientific as yours, and evolution is religion.’ You can teach someone the mathematics to understand the Higgs Boson. Absolutely no faith is required. You can begin studying the very foundations of physics, the work forward, step by step, to see the process which led to theorizing the existence of the Boson, of formulating tests to determine if it existed, to performing those tests. At no point in the process do you need to have faith.”
Sarewitz continues to express the power of the Angkor temples ”the genius of a long-vanished civilization, expressed across the centuries through its monuments, allows visitors to connect with things that lie beyond their knowing in a way that no journalistic or popular scientific account of the Higgs Boson can.”
Chris Chambers was first to comment on Sarewitz’s article. He believes that his arguments are” weak and deeply flawed” ”the writer argues that ‘for those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.’ This is simply absurd… My belief is rational because (a) their method of obtaining the interpreting the evidence is itself rational; and (b) their method has revealed vertifiable truths in the past. In short, they have earned my trust. This is no more an act of blind faith then believing Moscow exists even though I have never been there.”
In response to Sarewitz’s visit to the Angkor temples in Cambodia, Chambers claims; ”Here the argument is that an ‘authentic personal encounter’ has more intrinsic value then actually knowing something about reality.”
Chambers concludes by stating that science is the best way for understanding reality as it refuses to accept the unknown. If science were a person he’d be the most straight laced, pedantic fecker you’ve ever met. ”Does religion give us an insight into the ‘unknowable and the inexplicable’, as the author concludes? Of course not. It provides no knowledge, it obtains no evidence. It can only pontificate and seek to emotionally impress. Religious faith provides comfort, control, and social reinforcement for animals that are cursed (or blessed) by the knowledge that they will die.”
In response to Chambers comment on Sarewitz’s article, Ananya Bhattacharya defends Sarewitz and the role of religion in understanding scientific study. ”It was here, in their rush to defend the walls of reason from the barbarians at the gate, the scientistas unwittingly took their cue from the logical positivists and came rather embarrassingly unstuck. It is as if, given an excellent Philips screwdriver, someone had concluded that only cross-head screws are of any use. Or worse, they are the only type of screw to exist.”
Bhattacharya argues that religion may have a role to play in understanding complicated stuff like, why are we here?
The philosopher of logic, mathematics, mind and language, Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that ”ethical convictions, values and metaphysical ideas… were the most important concerns in life”
In Wittenstein’s autobiography, Rudolph Carnap describes ”His point of view and his attitude toward people and problems, even theoretical problems, were much more similar to those of a creative artist than to those of a scientist; one might almost say, similar to those of a religious prophet or a seer”
Bhattacharya claims that ”Sarewitz was right that accepting new research requires not blind faith but ‘belief’, and most dictionary definitions of the word are perfectly consistent with his argument.”
In continuing to defend Sarewitz against the critisisms of commenters like Chambers, Bhattacharya says ”Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved, outside of scientific context, the scientistas happily dismiss culture without a second thought.”
Is Bhattacharya arguing that religion can explain phenomena better than science or his he merely defending the argument that science is not the only explicable way of understanding our existence?
Is the aim of this argument to find real facts or to provide a comfort in understanding or even to favour a more creative way of thinking like Wittgenstein?
It seems that the argument is slightly misunderstood, surely the temples in Cambodia can give one a sense of awe of the ability of humankind to build such beautiful structures, but was the aim really to communicate the actual meaning for our existence? Religion provides comfort, science provides an explanation.
Commenter:”I have confidence in the scientists researching the Higgs mechanism because they require 5 sigma accuracy before announcing a discovery and because they have a peer review process that, over time, will enforce a convergence to more and more accurate results. To try to make that equivalent to blind belief is nonsensical and is a disservice to the men and women who dedicate their lives to discovering and elucidating new information about the real, and wonderful, world around us.”
Chris Chambers’ response to Ananya Bhattacharya’s response to Chris Chambers’ Response to Daniel Sarewitz article (are you still with me?)
Chambers explains that knowledge can be acquired in different disciplines (e.g. history) using different techniques i.e not just the Scientific Method of testing the hypothesis. But certainly not religion!
Chambers ‘’I said that science is not just the best way of understanding reality, but the ‘’best and only’’. I agree that the use of ‘’only’’ here is debatable, and whether others agree or not may depend on their definition of what science is… the scientific method is by no means the purview of the traditional sciences, many disciplines in the humanities (e.g. history) adopt what I would regard as a form of scientific method.’’
Bhattacharya’s twitter response to Chambers’ response to Bhattacharya’s response to Chambers’ response to Sarewitz’s article (that’s enough!!)
AB: I’m not going to get into quails and the rest. The point is unless your definition of the scientific method includes things like…
AB: for example Wittgenstein’s description of language or Marx’s theory of history, your statement on science being the only or best
AB: description of reality is simply wrong. There are different modes of description available! Marx’s theory is not ‘right’…
AB: in any scientific sense. But neither is it ‘wrong’. It’s a useful way of analysing, critiquing, understanding history. ie reality
AB: but it IS NOT science. Certainly not in any form that most people would recognise it. Thus your statement is incorrect. End of.
CC: It’s dangerous to assert what most ppl think is and isn’t science. Many I know agree w/ this by @Neuroskeptic
– ‘’ Outside science, people use all kinds of methods as well. Historians have their set of methods, economists have others, all tailored to the particular demands of the case. ‘’
AB: yes i like the post too+agree you can define it widely. but are you REALLY saying you’d include Wittgenstein+Marx in there?
AB: Many thinkers have concluded similar things about the sci method but at some point, if you widen a concept too much, it becomes meaningless
CC: Yes that is one thing that I take from this debate that makes me think…
AB: For those still thinking about Wittgenstein, reality, science, religion etc, here’s a quote I just came across to stir the pot ;-)
“Elementary particles are not real; they form a world of potentialities and possibilities rather than one of things or facts” W. Heisenberg
To conclude, Science might be a broader topic then your typical Biology, Chemistry & Physics, but is there room for Religion?
I wouldn’t go as far as science being the ‘best and only’ way of finding real answers, however, I can understand the beauty of religion that could inspire a person to search for knowledge. But, unless religious texts can make their way past the peer review process, I’d be hesitant to change roles.