Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What does religion say about the natural world?

[This is a repeat of a previous post. I've been adding labels to posts. For some reason blogger refused to add a label to the earlier version of this one.]

In the debate between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris (and in many other debates about religion) a central question often seems to be whether there is any "scientific" evidence for any of the supernatural claims religion makes. In my comments, I've made the point (somewhat implicitly) that this is the wrong question. Here I'd like to clarify this point. It seems to me that the important question is not whether secular human inquiry can confirm supernatural religious claims but whether religious claims can add anything to secular human inquiry about the natural world.

Most modern adherents of religion would say that religion can't add anything to secular human inquiry about the natural world. Only certain fundamentalists and other religious intransigents now claim that religion can compete with science or other forms of secular human inquiry in determining facts about the natural world. Religion no longer claims to have a position about issues such as evolution or whether the earth orbits the sun. Issues such as these are left to secular inquiry.

Recent attempts to measure the efficacy of anonymous prayer in healing illustrate the sort of question that might be used to establish a claim that religion can add to our understanding of the natural world. Studies about such effects were first published in reputable journals but later withdrawn. If this work could be put on a more firm foundation, it would provide evidence that religion has something to say about the natural world that is not accessible through other forms of inquiry.

On the other hand, if no such evidence is brought forward, then it seems to me that religion as a theory about the natural world is essentially impotent. One may believe it or not with no intellectual consequences either way.

Of course whether or not religion has anything to add to secular inquiry regarding the natural world, religious beliefs certainly affect how many people act. But that's an entirely different issue.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Russ,

Science (as you should well know - since you are a professor of Comp Sci) is about investigating the natural world. It is about finding facts and developing "theories" that explain those facts.

Hence this is not a scientific response but a philosophical response.

My own background is Engineering and Computing since the late 70's.

Supernatural events are not (by definition) part of the natural world, hence, the scientific method is not of use in investigating them. If there is an intervention by someone or something that exists outside of the natural world in the natural world, the natural world will be effected. This is a philosophical investigation not a scientific investigation.

Unfortunately, many people (including many who are considerd scientists by the general populous or by themselves) do not seem to be able to make a distinction between philosophical investigations and scientific investigations.

Some examples of philosphical investigations that have been miscontrued as scientific are :-

(a) Evolution - this is about a process of beginnings
(b) Creationsism - this is an opposing philosophical POV about beginnings
(c) Intelligent Design - another philosophical POV about beginnings
(d) Big Bang in all the variations - a POV relating to beginnings

Many endeavours are currently philosophical and not scientific, irrespective of whether or not they are considered science. This is because they are not yet subject to the scientific method, but are studied based on a particular philosophical (religious) POV. The "facts" are coloured by this POV and not really facts but opinion about how or what.

Your underlying philosophical POV will (in many cases) colour how you view the facts found in your investigation of the natural world. If you are an atheist, you will see it one way, if you are a buddist, you will see it another, if you are a muslim, yet another, if you are a christian, yet another.

In my case as a disciple of Jesus Christ building a relationship with Him, it allows me to marvel at the wonder of the universe and see it as an environment to study and comprehend as much as possible to understand His nature and Love for mankind.

One point, religion is about what you worship and what is the centre of your life, what is really important to you.

So your religion is based on your fundemental belief system, whether you are an atheist, communist, humanist, muslim, budhist, christian or any of the other religions followed by the people of this world.

Science (at present) really cannot deal with the emotional and spiritual aspects of humanity and any attempts to do so get mired in philosophical disputes.

Yet the real effects experienced in the course of ones religious life and beliefs cannot be subject to the study by the scientific method as these events are for all intents and purposes not subject to repeatable experiment.

Your religion can say much about the natural world, it just says it in a way that may not be subject to the scientific method of study. It may be true and untestable and it may be false and untestable. There are many beliefs hald by intelligent people that cannot (as yet or if ever) be testable, this in itself cannot make them false, just as in itself cannot make them true.

You are a part of what you call "the reality based community" but you are unable to scientifically prove your view of reality - it is a philosophical POV. This is the nature of the problem at hand.

Faith is something that deals with the unseen and is what drives you forward.

My faith in Jesus Christ drives me forward to have a relationship with my Creator and the Creator of the universe. It also helps me understand that His sacrifice is ultimately the only thing that gives life and that sacrifice was for all men whether thay believe or don't believe in Him. It also says that we each have a choice to accept His gift. But it is up to each of us to choose for Him or against Hum. Each of us is responsible for our individual choices and the consequences therein. This is something that He gives us - the freedom to choose, our way and the consequences therein or His way and the consequences therein.

Science is just one tool for developing understanding of the world around us and it cannot deal with all the situations that we experience in life (even if we truly want it to be so).

yours sincerely

Bruce Rennie
(God's Own Country Downunder)

Blue said...

Let's take your position seriously. "Supernatural events are not (by definition) part of the natural world, hence, the scientific method is not of use in investigating them. If there is an intervention by someone or something that exists outside of the natural world in the natural world, the natural world will be effected."

What is this really saying? There are events that affect the natural world that originate outside that world. What do you really have in mind when speaking of something that is outside the natural world? In what sense does something outside the natural world exist in the normal sense of the term 'exist'? Normally we think of existence as pertaining to the natural world. If you want to extend that meaning, it seems you are extending the domain over which we allow ourselves to quantify.

Logically there is nothing wrong with that. You are just talking about a large domain of discourse. So is your position that this larger domain of discourse is hidden from us for the most part except when events there effect events in the world we can observe, i.e., the natural world? Is that really so different from science these days? Much of science, especially fundamental physics, talks about things we can't observe. The standard good or bad example is string theory. Lots of work is being done in attempting to construct a string theory that would be consistent with the observed world. (Apparently there are too many of them.)

So how is your extended world different from that?

Anonymous said...

Dear Russ,

Since this is now philosphy. The natural world is what we experience and what we can study. In saying this, we say nothing about anything that may exist outside of the natural world.

An example would be that we cannot define time in a physical sense, even though we use a term to describe the passing of events or the concept of motion. Does it have a physical reality or is it something that is unreal that we use to describe motion.

As one gentleman has put it, time exists as a physical thingee and what we experience as time is not the physical time. This relates to sub-atomic physics and and the linkage of electric and magnetic fields. I don't pretend to understand all the mathematics behind it, but he was able to use his theory to calculate nuclear binding energies closer to the measured values than current prevalent theories.

Science is about what we can measure physically and hence investigate physically (repeatably).

Philosophy asks questions about what we can't measure and see. It can ask and discuss about things that may be outside of the physical that we see.

So if there is something outside of the physical existance (which I do believe there is), it is feasible that it can interact with the physical environment.

A very simple example that demonstrates this in a very subtle way.

I have chosen to respond to you post and cause my fingers to move in such a way you finally get a message that you can read as that responce. Here is the crux of the matter, how did my thought to respond to you cause the very initial nerve impulses to start my body to react? This is an area of study for avery long time and the researchers still have no idea why it happens. There are so many different ideas and nothing has yet settled the matter.

Spontaneous healings (of which there are many recorded episodes but not repeatble and certainly not understood by the medical profession) are generally one off events, how many of these are initiated by something in the physical and how many are caused by something outside the physical.

This is an area of discussion - some believe and some don't believe. So be it. I have seen some fantastic things that have been "parlour tricks" and I have seen some not so fantastic things that have had no physical explanation.

I am alive because of at least one such event. The xrays were (and as far as I know still in existance) a disturbing anomoly for the Chief Registrar, the Senior Radiologist and most definitely for the attending doctor because as far they were concerned the event was not possible. Hey, things happen that have seemingly no explanation and cannot be invetigated because they are one off events.

Your comment "Normally we think of existence as pertaining to the natural world" is a philosphical POV and does not actually mean we can measure anything outside the physical. Nor is it even a normal POV. This may be a western POV but is certainly not the POV of people elsewhere in the world. Eastern POV's are much more spirtual in inclination and nature. As is looking at the world as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I have for many years been interested in what is the physical reality of our universe and it has become more obvious over time that we aren't even asking the simple question of what is the makeup of this stuff we call physical? The question is deeper than saying atoms or sub-atomic or even sub-nuclear particles. String theorists and their opponents don't even thread there as it even though it may seem that they do.

Is the larger discourse hidden from us? No - it is in fact the most basic questions that seemingly the vast majority want answered but become too difficult to fathom. Love, hate, life, why are we here, what is the purpose. To be able to even ask about such things demonstrates that it is an area for investigation even if we can;t use the scientific method to investigate these areas.

Much of science today (particulary the theorectical areas such as string theory) are philosophy masquerading as science (because of "techno-babble"). We have in essence lost the distinction between philosphy and science. Personally, I think scientists have been more influenced in their positions by political, monetry and of wanting to appear "right" and "conformist" than for any real desire to understand.

Our western thinking discounts the spiritual because we can't measure it, we can't test it and we can't repeat it on command.

Relationships cannot be put under the microscope as such (even though they try). People will and do make choices that are at odds with what is "reality".

Assuming you have children (which I do), if your child is in danger why would you risk your own life to save them? Why does one man choose to die to save his comrades from death when he reaalises he has stood on a jumping landmine? It is because there is more to existance than the physicall that we see and touch or measure?

In my opinion and experience, the physical world is only a part of all of creation and the minor part at that. What we can do with the physical world is less important than the relationships I have with my wife, children, grandchildren and other people in my extended family. Science does not help with the day to day living with people but the relationship I have with my Saviour Jesus Christ does. A bad relationship with Him leads me to bad relationship with others, a godd relationship with Him leads to a better understanding, care, love and relationship with others.

Anonymous said...

warhammer gold warhammer money warhammer accounts tibia money tibia gold tibia item runescape accounts buy runescape accounts runescape money runescape gold runescape gp runescape power leveling runescape powerleveling cheap rs2 powerleveling runescape equipment buy rs equipment runescape runes cheap rs2 runes runescape logs cheap rs2 logs runescape items buy runescape items runescape quest point rs2 quest point cheap runescape questpoint runescape gold runescape items runescape power leveling runescape money runescape gold buy runescape gold buy runescape money runescape items runescape accounts runescape gp runescape accounts runescape money runescape power leveling runescape powerleveling tibia gold dofus kamas buy dofus kamas wow power leveling wow powerleveling runescape questpoint rs2 questpoint Warcraft PowerLeveling Warcraft Power Leveling World of Warcraft PowerLeveling World of Warcraft Power Leveling Hellgate money Hellgate gold buy runescape logs buy rs2 items cheap runescape items Hellgate London gold Guild Wars Gold buy Guild Wars Gold runescape items rs2 accounts cheap rs2 equipments lotro gold buy lotro gold buy runescape money buy runescape gold buy runescape runes lotro gold buy lotro gold runescape money runescape gold cheap rs2 powerleveling eve isk eve online isk buy runescape power leveling rs2 power leveling tibia gold tibia item runescape accounts Fiesta Silver Fiesta Gold Scions of Fate Gold Hellgate Palladium Hellgate London Palladium SOF Gold Age Of Conan Gold AOC Gold ArchLord gold tibia money tibia gold runescape accounts runescape gold cheap rs2 powerleveling buy ArchLord gold DDO Plat Dungeons and Dragons Online Plat