Science As Faith-Based System

More evidence suggesting that humanism functions as a religion, not merely an ideology:

When feeling stress, or faced with existential angst, there are benefits to being a believer. A comprehensive way of making sense of the world, and our place in it, can provide consolation when it’s needed most.

For many people, of course, that belief system is religious faith. But new research suggests others have found a different source of solace: science.

“Our findings suggest that belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions,” reports a research team led by University of Oxford psychologist Miguel Farias. “Despite their different methods, both science and religion offer powerful explanations of the world,” the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “which may work at an intuitive level to provide comfort and assurance.

As Farias and his colleagues note, many studies have shown the psychological benefits of religious faith, while others suggest that such secular belief systems as humanism, or even faith in human progress, can play a similar role as a source of meaning and motivation.

They hypothesized that the same needs could be met through a “belief in science,” which they describe as seeing science “as a superior, even exclusive, guide to reality, and as possessing a unique and central value.” But would people with that conviction lean on it in tough situations, as the devout do with religious faith?

Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.

Two experiments suggest the answer is “yes.”

(emphasis mine).

What is religion? Does it have to involve a God? If so, then why do we recognize so many God-free religions (Buddhism, Confucianism*, Taoism – and even humanism, which is recognized as a religion in the US under the name “Unitarian Universalism“)?

Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a theologically liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”**

Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually, and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

What do we mean when we say “belief in science”?

Science is not something you “believe” in. It is a method. “Believing” in science is like “believing” in making egg salad – the statement is nonsensical unless you understand something unspoken (unwritten) about just what there is to “believe” in:

  • That it carries a particular meaning?
  • That it will end with or lead to a particular result?
  • That it has some sort of transformative power?

It appears to me that when people say they “believe” in science, what they really mean is that they believe that science both can and will deliver “the truth” (as in The One Real And Only Truth) about the universe & our place within that universe.

The problem with this is that it’s inherently illogical – science starts off with certain assumptions about the universe, and if you use an assumption to prove itself, your argument is tautological. It means nothing to say “A is true, therefore A is true.” (Everyone readily recognizes this problem when religious people try to use the Bible to prove there is a God; it’s also known as “begging the question“).

It is important to recognize that the scientific method was never supposed to be able to work with metaphysical truths, values, beliefs, opinons, subjective or faith-based questions.

The scientific method takes certain assumptions as a given. Two of these assumptions are particularly problematic for the idea that science is capable of answering questions outside of its domain:

1. The inherently material nature of the universe it is dealing with (which was never supposed to be “the” universe – just “a” universe).

  • This is another way of saying that we are starting from the assumption that all the relevant variables are going to have answers that are both physical and demonstrable.
  • The history of science shows that this assumption frequently leads to inadequate solutions when applied to human systems (for example, the materialist assumption led scientists to undervalue questions of human worth, dignity, emotional experience, and quality of life concerns throughout the 20th century – especially in the first part of the 20th century, when scientists aggressively discounted moral concerns on the basis of scientific assumptions).

2. Occam’s razor: the assumption that the “most elegant” explanation “should be preferred”. (Notice it does not say “is true” – just that it should be conditionally assumed to be true.)

  • The assumptions embodied in Occam’s razor are, in essence, another way of saying that, for the sake of the argument, we have to assume we have all the information we need to solve the problem contained in our starting data set.
  • It is impossible to both run an experiment while also accounting for the possibility that you might be missing relevant data; you have to choose one or the other.
  • Another way of saying the same thing: for the sake of the argument, you have to assume that lack of evidence equals evidence of lack.
  • It is demonstrably not true that the elegant solution is always the correct one:

Thalidomide … is an anti-nausea and sedative drug that was introduced in the late 1950s to be used as a sleeping pill, and was quickly discovered to help pregnant women with the effects of morning sickness….It was sold from 1957 until 1962, when it was withdrawn after being found to be a teratogen, which caused many different forms of birth defects….

These two assumptions (materialism and Occam’s Razor) are powerful for predicting how the physical world works. Sometimes the initial answer is wrong, but the wrong answer itself provides more data – from which a corrected solution may be constructed.

They have not proved very powerful at proving how anything else works. Despite decades of diligent effort, there’s still little sign that science will ever be capable of delivering on the big promises it made in the 19th century – that science would end poverty, injustice, inequality, etc.

The truth is that we really shouldn’t want science to keep trying – not in its current form – because the scientific method has no moral or ethical mechanism. That moral or ethical mechanism has to come from a tradition that is equipped for the task. Science is like a machine that assumes its goal is the acquisition of knowledge (with the implication that this knowledge is for the benefit of the person conducting the experiment, or his client). To “have faith in science” is like taking those values as the Prime Directive – that humanity exists for the purpose of gaining knowledge, and that this knowledge is the highest form of good, and that it exists for the benefit of the person conducting the experiment (with no protection for anyone else – the rest of us being reduced to potential experimental subjects or victims).

The early 20th century promise – that science would create Utopia – ended not in success, but in the “Utopias” of the 20th century – all of which have this in common: they promised to create a perfected world here on Earth, at the bargain price of a few human liberties here and there, and instead created a new genre of real life fiction.

A dystopia is a community or society, usually fictional, that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many works of fiction, particularly in stories set in a speculative future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization,[1] totalitarian governments, environmental disaster,[2] or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.

Dystopian fiction is the opposite: creation of an utterly horrible or degraded society, or dystopia. Many novels combine both, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of two possible futures.

*Wikipedia might want to check its Confucianism page for bias – “In other words, Confucian values were used to sugarcoat the harsh Legalist ideas that underlie the Imperial system” does not sound neutral to me….

** Formal Unitarian Universalist publications insist that UU is open to all, but in practice there are multiple reports of congregations struggling over the question of whether and how far Christians should be welcomed or even tolerated within the church, seeing as how their beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with core UU beliefs – including, ironically, “tolerance” and “freedom” (both of which have real limits, apparently).

The problem is both real and demonstrable: both tolerance and freedom sound good in theory, but can only exist in a universe where no zero-sum situations ever exist – a universe that is fundamentally incapable of existing in this world.

In spite of this freedom and diversity, there seem to be some basic theological/philosophical ideas which form a core of UU identity. UUs are often hesitant to articulate these basic beliefs because they don’t want to form or imply a “defacto creed.” However phenomena such as the uncanny accuracy of the Beliefnet religious survey in identifying UUs and potential UUs, and the number of people who call themselves UUs although they do not belong to UU churches suggests that there is a core of belief. Here is one attempt to formulate that:

1. The universe is a beautiful, intricate, complex place, the foundations of which are a Mystery. The “whole truth” is too large, and our minds/knowledge/intuitions are too small to grasp it all. Therefore, we cherish and learn from diversity. 2. If the Universe can be said to have a purpose, its purpose is for us, not against us, and it is for, not against, us all. 3. Given how little we can know for sure, our focus should be on this earth and life; beauty, justice, love. 4. We claim the rational, eschew the irrational, (contrary to reason) and question the non-rational (that which is neither provable nor disprovable by reason alone, i.e. life after death).

(emphasis mine).

What this means in reality is that the UU church embraces the humanist belief that identity should be constructed by cherry-picking from the history of the world, without concern for context (because the beliefs plucked from dead/pagan and living religions is going to be refashioned according to the needs of the real belief system, which is humanism).

In other words, you can believe whatever you like, up to the point where your beliefs threaten or challenge humanist core principles.