Sunday, February 11, 2007

Religion v. Science

(Today is "Evolution Sunday," and the 198th birthday of Charles Darwin, and so I wanted to republish my commentary on creationism, evolution, religion, and science, which I originally posted on 10/2/2005 on my "Thoughts" web page.)

I made up my mind years ago about the "conflict" between evolution and what is sometimes called "creationism," and in the process I developed a new way of looking at religion and science and the differences between them. I always expected that someday I would hear or read of someone who had reached the same conclusion, but I never have so I guess it’s time to explain my view and the reasons for it.

What appears to be a conflict between religion and science can be resolved quite easily once you understand that there is no conflict. There is no conflict between religion and science because they answer two completely different kinds of questions. As long as they can’t both answer the same question, they can’t be in conflict.

Science can really only address the question of "how." How were stars formed? How can we predict the movement of the planets? How are diseases transmitted? How do birds fly? And so forth. Science investigates and explains the chemical, mechanical, electromagnetic, atomic, and other processes by which things happen.

Religion can really only address the question of "why," which is a very different question because it goes to the meaning or purpose of the way things are and the things that happen.

Unfortunately, scientists sometimes think that by explaining how something happens, they have explained why it happens, which is where a lot of the confusion and conflict comes from.

To illustrate, consider the "debate" between "creationism" (or another other religious view of the origins of mankind) and evolution. A Darwinist might think that he (or she) has explained "why" man evolved by explaining that a process of genetic mutations and natural selection resulted in the evolution of modern man. But why did the process of natural selection lead to mankind and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that natural selection occurs because some animals are better suited to their environment than others. But why was there an environment that lead to the evolution of man and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that the climate on earth a million years ago was favorable to the evolution of man. But why was there a climate a million years ago that was favorable to the evolution of man?

I hope you can see where this is going. Every "answer" can be countered with another "why" and, just as a parent eventually tires of answering the repeated "why" of a three-year-old, eventually the Darwinist will have to say either "That’s just the way it was" or "Because I say so." And neither of those is really an answer.

Many scientists will dismiss what I’ve just said with the explanation that they simply don’t have all the answers yet. But that simply means that they don’t yet understand the problem, because it is becoming increasingly clear that science will never know "all the answers." Every new discovery brings more questions and so, the more scientists learn, the more they find how little they’ve learned.

Even more importantly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are some things that are simply unknowable. For example, one of the fundamental principles of quantum physics is that you can’t know the energy (or speed) of a subatomic particle at the same time that you know it’s location. The more precisely you know a particle’s location, the less you know about it’s energy, and vice versa. This is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and it’s not something you can solve with better equipment of more sophisticated experiments. It’s a fundamental limitation on what is knowable.

Because there is this unavoidable level of uncertainty, the interaction of atomic particles is often completely unpredictable, and this was a shock to scientists. The classical, Newtownian view of the universe was that it was predictable, almost like a giant machine. If you knew where something was, where it was going, and how fast, you could predict where it would be in the future. If you knew where everything was and where everything was going, you could (in theory) figure out the future of everything. In quantum physics, that predictability fell apart and suddenly the future was very random.

Even the brilliant Albert Einstein tried to reject this aspect of quantum theory, stating that "God does not roll dice." What he (and others) overlook is that our inability to predict the future does not mean that God is "rolling dice." The fact that it looks random to us does not mean that it looks random to God (or even that it is random).

Another example of unknowability is chaos theory. One of the initial discoveries of chaos theory was that sufficiently large and complicated systems (such as, say, the weather, or life on earth) are inherently unpredictable because very small events can have very large consequences over time. The classic example is that it is theoretically possible for the flutter of the wings of a single butterfly to change the atmosphere in such a way that a month or more later a tornado that was going to form, doesn’t (or vice versa).

If small events affect large events in ways that are unpredictable, and the smallest (i.e., molecular) events are inherently unpredictable, what does that tell us about how well scientists can predict the future? Over the short term, and for most of the things we can see, scientists can tell us the rules and can predict what will happen fairly accurately. But over longer periods of time (say thousands of years) and for smaller objects (say the genetic material in cells) things start to get very unpredictable, and there is often no good scientific explanation for why one thing happens and not another.

Now let’s look at the religious point of view. Ignoring the Bible (I’ll get back to that later), a belief that God created man in His image does not require any particular method of creation. If God had a choice of two or three different ways of creating man, who are we to criticize His choice?

So let’s assume that God had a choice between snapping His fingers and having mankind appear instanteously, out of thin air, or having mankind appear slowly, first in the form of protoplasm, then single-celled organisms, then multi-celled organisms, then fish, then reptiles, then mammals, then hominids, and finally homo sapiens (mankind). Do we really care which method God chose?

As far as the Bible is concerned, it contains some very interesting and profound thoughts of some very wise people, but those same people also didn’t understand the chemistry of fire and so the chances of them guessing right on questions of genetics can summed up as "small."

Another problem with the Bible is that there are actually two different creation stories in the book of Genesis. The more familiar story is the one that starts at Chapter 1, verse 1, and describes the creation of the universe in seven days, with God creating "humankind in his image, .. male and female he created them" on the sixth day. Gen. 1:26-27. The other creation story appears in Gen. 2:4-25. In this second version, the earth and the heavens are made in one day, and God created a man out of the dust of the ground, and then created a woman from one of his ribs.

Can anyone really claim that the Bible is "right" when it can’t even tell the same story twice without changing it?

Where does that leave us? Science is interesting, and it’s valuable. It provides better ways of living and interesting toys. So I want scientists to continue to tinker. But scientists are not much more than plumbers or electricians installing new appliances and fixing the shorts and leaks in the universe that God built. As useful as they can be, they can’t tell us why we’re here. They can tell us how we got here, but not why we’re here. When we want to ask questions like "why," we need to talk to God and listen for that still, small voice.

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