Monday, June 16, 2014

Belief and Theory: Exact Parallels to Religion and Science? (Part 1)

In ’Port of Call’ one of the Newsletters of Intertel, Thomas A. Nelson, Sr. presents an essay which attempts to parse science and religion in terms of theory postulation and belief, respectively.

 Here is how Nelson articulates the differences, beginning with his summary of science:

Science is bounded by a methodology that is both rigorous and almost ritual, and maybe more than ‘almost’ ritual, The method of science invites attack, disproof, or reinforcement – whatever the busy activities of its adherents want to bring to it. The proponent of a theory is usually the most rigorous examiner of it. Theorists are open-minded: they must be to devise new theories and destroy old ones”.

The primary problem I have with this is that in general, the destroyers of the old theories are not the same as those who devise new ones. Hence, the old theorists are not nearly so “open minded” because allowing a newcomer to destroy their original theory may well mean the sacrifice of decades of work. A secondary complaint is referring to the methodology of science as “ritual” or “almost ritual”. But this is exactly the take I’d expect from someone who doesn’t grasp how methodology varies from discipline to discipline. Sure there is a basic template, but also lots of room for variation. An astronomer, for example, can’t conduct experiments so one can’t hold him to the same methodology as a lab physicist!

 Anyway, one of the classic cases of old vs. new theories is in astronomy-cosmology: the clash between the Big Bang and the Steady State theory. The latter, by Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi, proposed that a hydrogen atom is ‘created’ in the universe on the basis of the perfect cosmological principle. A quantitative rate for the input-creation of new mass has been advanced by Jayant Narlikar ('The Structure of the Universe', Oxford Univ. Press, 1977) as:
4.5 x 10-45  kg m-3 s-1
This is taken to be the rate of new matter created per second within a cube - which is expanding at the rate H, where H is Hubble's constant. Then, 1 second later the side dimension of the cube will have increased by (1 + H)  and its volume will have increased to (1 + H)3 .  In this way, new matter is created within the 1 s interval with new mass: M = 3H r.
 And so,  though the universe is indeed expanding, it doesn’t change its appearance. So its density must remain the same.  (The additional space created by the expansion must therefore have the same density of matter, r )   In addition, because of the principle of “continual creation” it has no beginning and no end.

For many of us in the early 1960s, including yours truly who built a science fair project around it, it was the most satisfying theory one could have. It removed the gnarly issue of ‘beginnings’ especially – and so disposed of religionist fairy tales in one fell swoop.

But it was not to be. The Big Bang exploded on the cosmology scene by the mid -1960s and with the discovery of the 2.7K microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson, essentially signed the death certificate of the steady state theory.

But did the ‘old’ theorists go quietly into that good night? Hell no! For decades, Hoyle and his colleague Jayant Narlikar,  did their best to tweak the theory to try to make it competitive with the Big Bang. Despite valiant efforts, it was never enough.  But I would say this stubbornness discloses Hoyle was not “open minded”. (He was in other areas, where his own theories weren’t challenged so severely, e.g. as in the 'panspermia' hypothesis proposed with Chandra Wickramasingh.)

On the topic of religion, Nelson writes:

Religion exists as a prescription of elaborate rituals but has no methodology. The belief in religion is undertaken by decision, either deliberate or compelled. Its sustenance is driven by fear . Attacks on belief are not permitted and the attack itself and the attacker are received by believers with hostility.  No experimentation or observation is permitted. A belief consists only of conclusions defended by a barricade of emotion.”

In general, this is an apt description, though Nelson appears to forget – or perhaps has ignored – that many religionists invoke the Bible for “proxy” experiments and physical evidence. For example, I already mentioned in an earlier blog my class notes in Theology from Loyola which referenced “demoniacs”, e.g.
Notes on Demoniacs from Loyola University, 1964.
The notes in question, for example, cited assorted cases (mainly from the New Testament) that vitiated rationalist arguments based on the proxy evidence from the NT. These included:

1)     “Demoniacs always acted differently toward Jesus than the ‘regular’ sick did.”

2)     Jesus may have “cured” the sick but he had to “heal” the demoniac.

3)     Jesus himself inculcated demoniac belief, e.g. describing in detail the habits of demons who possess men (Matt: 12: 43-45) as well as the methodology to cast them out (Matt. 17: 17-20)

4)     Extraordinary physical strength and superhuman knowledge are manifested by demoniacs which sick people do not show.

 Not to be a heartless cynic and unbeliever, but one need only invoke the über retort: that for  all those cases, words were changed (or translations ) and descriptions were inserted into the good Book by either the original writers or by copyists. This is the general thesis of the Jesus Seminar and scholars like Bart Ehrman ('Misquoting Jesus')

Also we can refer to Catholic historian, Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter who notes in his monograph ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’, (1979, p. 17):

The Gospels were not meant to be a historical or biographical account of Jesus. They were written to convert unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or God.”

 In other words, the earlier pagan tracts and myths were copied to try to fulfill a Church agenda, not to disclose any historical or biographical truth. Hence, based on this and the evidence that nearly all the scriptures were subject to manipulation, it is more justified to reject the notion of demoniacs than to accept them.
In this regard, one must conclude that the proxy evidence derived from so called "sacred" texts isn't evidence at all but is indeed more about condoning a supernatural belief that doesn't admit of any practical validation.  In this sense, Nelson is indeed correct that: No experimentation or observation is permitted.
But he also makes the claim that religion itself is more about the psychological states of believers than any kind of objective reality, or sacred truths. We will explore this aspect and others in Part 2.

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