Science vs. Religion – An Epistemic Cage Match

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In this post I’ll be discussing the value of the scientific method when coming to conclusions as compared to the religious method.  It is split into two complementary halves.  The first half is in a basic discussion format, while the latter is in a syllogism format that might be more enjoyable (and easier to critique) for the philosophically inclined readers.

Wrong-Distance-Estimation

Image from Topbow.net

Discussion

How important is accuracy?  Well, I suppose it depends on what your target is.  If it’s a series of circles like in the picture above, it’s probably not a huge problem if you miss.  You can just keep practicing.  If your target is something that’s trying to kill you, however, your ability to reliably hit your target becomes crucial.  The same could be said for the accuracy of your beliefs.  If the question is whether the Taco Bell down the street is open for breakfast, the accuracy of your belief that Taco Bell is open for business probably isn’t that crucial.  If it isn’t open, you can just drive over to a restaurant that is open for breakfast.  Likewise, if the question is whether to devote your entire life to the service of an invisible all-powerful deity, the accuracy of your belief about the deity’s existence (and commands) becomes crucial.

Given the above, I think it’s fair to say that the importance of accuracy increases as the importance of the target increases.  Hitting a target with a bow and arrow is far from easy.  It takes time and a great deal of practice.  Arriving at beliefs that accurately describe the world around us is similarly difficult.  For, as physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We are, indeed, very good at fooling ourselves.  Our species is well known for arriving at conclusions that confirm what we want or expect to be true (also see “motivated reasoning“).  We are very good at ignoring anything that conflicts with what we have already concluded.  And if we do become aware of something that suggests our conclusions may be questionable, we can even continually deny it outright such that – over time – we can begin to internalize and actually believe our denials.

I’ll take it as a given that, in principal, none of us want to fool ourselves.  So how do we avoid it?  How do we safeguard our beliefs from inaccuracies, or at least reduce the number of inaccuracies ?  The best answers so far come from psychological studies like those linked above, as well as from the hard sciences.  We’ve learned that we have to first be aware of our biases and then figure out how to lessen their effects.  We have to develop a method that makes it very difficult for our biases to affect our conclusions.  This takes work.  And the more important the question, the more important it is that we put in the work to make sure we’re getting as close to an accurate conclusion as we can.

Thankfully, psychology and the hard sciences have gifted us a variety of tools that make this process much easier.  Firstly, knowing that our biases can affect us without our being aware of it, we should always give provisional acceptance to any belief.  That is, we should always be willing to revise or discard a belief if we later find better explanations.  Secondly, our beliefs should be predictive of other ideas.  The more specific the predictions the better, as this allows us to more easily observe whether our beliefs actually pan out* in reality.  Philosophers often call this process falsification.  When we do this, we are much more likely to arrive at a consistent set of beliefs.  Thirdly, we should expose our beliefs to the marketplace of ideas.  Oftentimes, other people are much better at seeing our biases than we are.  Lastly, we should follow the advice of William of Ockham (see Occam’s Razor, or the Law of Parismony), who advised that we not add unnecessary elements to our explanations.

After reading the above paragraph, try to think about the last time you encountered a scripture or heard a modern religious leader that encouraged any of the above methods?  If you can think of many, then that’s awesome!  Leave a comment and let me know which scripture or religious leader this came from, as I’d be genuinely interested!  If you can’t think of many (or any), then ask yourself why this is.  Why wouldn’t our religious traditions encourage this kind of accuracy in how we form beliefs?

And as a follow-up question, I would ask you to think about how many of our religious traditions threaten punishment for those who openly doubt or question them.  Does the western religious concept of Hell ring any bells?  Everlasting torture** for those who are not convinced of God’s existence?  Ever sat through a sermon about “Doubting Thomas,” or listened to someone describe how the Devil works to deceive us into questioning God’s word and losing our salvation forever?  Ever heard Pascal’s Wager, in which we are strongly encouraged to bet on the existence of one particular version of God so as to avoid His punishment and enjoy salvation?  These kinds of threats aren’t just a failure to encourage good methods for arriving at beliefs.  They aren’t neutral.  They are, in fact, actively opposing the kinds of methods that help us weed out inaccurate beliefs.  Ask yourself why that is.  Why would anyone develop a religious tradition that encourages its members not to carefully assess their beliefs.

When you’ve arrived at your answer, I suspect you’ll have a very good sense for why religious methods for assessing beliefs should be discarded in favor of the scientific method.

And now for something completely the same: the syllogism half of this post.

Syllogism

Premise 1:  All beliefs exist along a scale of accuracy, with “Increasingly Inaccurate” on one end and “Increasingly Accurate” on the other.

Belief Accuracy

Premise 2:  It is preferable to hold beliefs that fall more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Premise 3:  Some epistemological methods are more successful than others for arriving at beliefs that fall more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Conclusion 1:  Therefore, it is preferable to revise or discard epistemological methods that are found to be less successful for arriving at beliefs that fall towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale when compared to other known methods.

 

Premise 4:  Religious belief is a kind of belief.

Conclusion 2:  Therefore, it is preferable to revise or discard religious epistemological methods that are found to be less successful for arriving at beliefs that fall towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale when compared to other known methods.

 

Premise 5: Due to its strong emphasis on provisional acceptance, predictive power, bias mitigation, observation, falsifiability, consistency, and parsimony (see Occam’s Razor), the scientific method is demonstrably the most successful method currently available for arriving at beliefs falling more towards the “Increasingly Accurate” end of the scale.

Premise 6: Religious epistemological methods are not required to incorporate any of the above characteristics of the scientific method noted in Premise 5.  (In fact, they are often diametrically opposed to the characteristics noted in Premise 5.)

Conclusion 3: To the extent that they fail to incorporate the characteristics noted in Premise 5, religious epistemological methods should be revised or discarded in favor of the scientific method.

 

 

*A hypothetical example: If I arrive at a belief that gold reliably forms alongside a specific type of mineral (let’s say calcite), I can then more easily determine how accurate my belief is.  I merely need find some calcite deposits and look for gold.

**or utter annihilation,  depending on the religious tradition.

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