Sunday, 10 December 2017

Science and Faith: A Quaker Perspective

Image is divided on the diagonal. In the upper left is a view of the interior of a heavily-ornamented cathedral, while in the lower right is an image of a microscope examining a slide with a piece of leaf.
A popular trope these days depicts faith and religion as opposed to science. The logic behind this is simple – science is based on testability, reproducibility, and acting based on evidence. Religion by it's nature is considered to require actions based on faith, rather than evidence, and many religious claims are inherently untestable, or at least such tests as may be argued to be possible have factors that make such testing not reproducible; in terms of philosophy or science, the claims are unfalsifiable.
Anti-religion advocates also often point to religious persecution of scientists, as in the case of Galileo Galilei, or of religious authorities resisting the adoption or teaching of science, as in the case of evolution (for some time) or the attempts to have schools teach intelligent design as science. However, it is also true that many great scientists have been religious, such as the (Quaker) astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington, and the polymath Blaise Pascal. There are also cases of cultures and times where religion, even relatively authoritarian religion, has been a dominant feature of life, yet sciences have flourished – most notably the Islamic Golden Age.
The debate about whether religion in general is compatible with science will carry on in many places, especially online forums and blogs, for a long time yet. In this post, I will be addressing specifically the underlying assertion that faith stands opposed to reason and evidence, and applying specifically my own non-theist Quaker approach to faith to look at the implications.
It is true that religious claims are generally unfalsifiable, and thus not amenable to scientific analysis. Quakers love, in line with our general habit of using old phrases, to say that we know what we know, in terms of religion, “experimentally”. We must remember, however, that this word was not used, by early Friends, in its modern sense. In modern English, we might say “experientially”, instead. This is because of a shift in the word “experiment” to take on specifically scientific connotations, as the idea of scientific method became more prominent and everyday; formerly, it meant much the same as “experience”, and thus knowing something experimentally meant knowing it from your own observations without necessarily implying that they were in any way scientific.
Each Quaker, of an unprogrammed tradition, has experienced Meeting for Worship and, one would hope, has experienced something profound in that silence. We thus, each of us, know that there is that something to be experienced – though we may have different ideas about what it is. Thus, by Quaker tradition, we say we “know experimentally” that there is something to be found in silent worship. By this, we should not mean that we think our observation has empirically proved the existence of something; no matter how many people experience it, we cannot say, in the sense used in discussing science, that it is a reproducible observation. This is because it cannot be reproduced by an arbitrary person regardless of their inclinations or beliefs – we will freely say that it takes a certain metaphorical leap of faith to engage in worship, a seeking, and that it won't always be found. This is especially true for the novice. Thus we cannot have an arbitrary experimenter come and reproduce the findings, thus it is not reproducible. It is also purely qualitative, which tends to be less amenable to scientific measurement, but is not an inherent barrier.
Our statement is also not falsifiable, because it is a subjective experience. No-one could do anything to demonstrate that we hadn't really experienced what we claim to experience. This is related to the matter of reproducibility; if we asserted that everyone who followed some simple formula, entirely of externally-verifiable steps, would have a certain experience, that would be somewhat falsifiable. People would be able to take those steps, have others verify that they had followed those steps precisely, and report whether or not they had the experience. The only thing limiting the falsifiability is the subjective nature of the experience – they could lie about not experiencing it.
So it is that one of the most key religious truths of Quakers, one of the most practically important, is clearly not a matter that can be subjected to scientific enquiry. This is, of course, no criticism of Quaker beliefs; as a practising Quaker, who will be found in Meeting for Worship every week with only rare exceptions, it would be very strange if I were criticising it. There is something in our worship, of that I am sure. However, I cannot expect my certainty to sway other people, because it is entirely subjective. We could get into epistemological classifications of different sorts of knowledge – which would in turn depend on epistemological assumptions that differ between different paradigms and approaches – but the key differentiation here is what I will simply call subjective and objective knowledge (my usage may agree with that of some philosophers; it certainly does not agree with the usage of all, because philosophical uses of the terms is not entirely consistent). In both cases, “knowledge” implies certainty, but for matters of subjective knowledge, one does not expect that certainty to mean anything to another person. For objective knowledge, the same will apply to anyone and everyone, and can be objectively demonstrated. Thus it is objective knowledge that electricity works, that moving bodies follow Newton's laws (at least in the Newtonian limit – but don't worry about that, it's a physics thing), even that chemicals have certain properties in relation to one another. These things can all be demonstrated experimentally, not just experienced. Anyone mixing chemical A with chemical B in set of conditions C will get the same result, or near enough within reasonable experimental error; while a religious experience may give one a solid certainty about religious matters, there is not the same ability to demonstrate it to absolutely anyone.
This distinction of types of knowledge, categories of certainty, may seem less important to those with a perspective of faith that is not universalist and pluralist. With this idea of subjective knowledge, it is possible that I know one thing, and another person knows, with the same certainty, something that utterly contradicts my knowledge. With the idea of subjective knowledge, there is no contradiction here – there is no logical requirement that one of us be wrong. This doesn't just apply to religion; in the absence of absolutely reliable evidence (such as audio and video recordings), this is also true of “what was said in a conversation”; human memory isn't a tape recorder, we encode the things we remember, and when we decode them we will find that two people, both considered reliable witnesses, will have ended up with different results from that encoding–decoding process. If a recording shows that one of them has a more accurate recollection than the other, this is usually simply a matter of luck, rather than one person being more wrong than the other – or more mendacious. Subjective knowledge is related to an acceptance of fallibility, yet need not mean we do not feel genuine certainty about these things that we know.
For someone whose religious perspective is exclusive, however, the idea of subjective knowledge is harder to grasp. They may be utterly certain over some matter of religion, and thus anyone whose knowledge is different to them does not really have knowledge – they have errors. They are wrong. But any scientist who is also strongly religious absolutely must accept the idea of subjective knowledge, or else live with significant cognitive dissonance – a feat humans have repeatedly demonstrated they are frequently capable of. This is because there is such a significant difference in the quality of scientific knowledge and religious knowledge, the only way to avoid the cognitive dissonance is to confront it and construct an understanding similar to the one I have outlined. I would imagine that this makes religious scientists more likely to tend to the less-dogmatic end of the religious world, especially when they live in a religiously pluralistic society – exposing them to a wider range of religious truths. I have, however, no data to base such a supposition on; it simply flows from reason, which is a very poor way to make conclusions about the world.
It is worth a quick digression at this point to consider the differences between the physical or natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics etc.), the social sciences (sociology, at least some elements of psychology, and various specialist areas like educational research), and other numerate disciplines (such as mathematics or computer science). The principles of experimentation and objective knowledge are most well-defined in the natural sciences, as they are full of things that can be studied in properly constructed experiments that reasonably control or eliminate potential confounding factors; the inability to do so often in social sciences leads to a much larger proportion of subjective knowledge propagating and competing in such disciplines (I say this speaking as one trained and experienced in social science), and as such the meat of this post is less applicable to them – though not completely inapplicable. Mathematics is a rather special case. Speaking as one trained in mathematics, a lot of laypeople don't realise the extent to which mathematics is a constructed discipline. The fact it leads to real-world results of some reliability confuses many into thinking that it is a science, but really it is a very specialised branch of philosophy that happens to have been found to be of more reliable everyday use than most of the rest of philosophy put together. As a constructed discipline, it is possible to absolutely demonstrate certain things as true – but only given the fundamental axioms of the area you are working in. Computer science, speaking as one trained in the discipline, is a weird mishmash of different sorts of science; very occasionally there's a bit of physical science, but it's mostly elements of constructed discipline mixed with social science.
Those who are not scientists, however, are far less likely to be confronted with the inherent difference in these sorts of knowledge. This is because they acquire knowledge about scientific things in largely the same way they acquire knowledge about religious things; what is, to human society as a whole, objective knowledge is, to them, subjective knowledge. They could reasonably be said to have objective knowledge about a few things they have seen experimentally demonstrated – or been able to try for themselves – in science lessons, but otherwise their knowledge of science comes from books, and from what a person they are expected to trust tells them (or from popular media, including fiction, leading to unfortunate results far too often). This is, of course, much the same as where their religious knowledge comes from.
The same is true to a scientist, to a certain extent. It has been a long time since it's been plausible for a single person, over the course of an education and a working life, to witness or participate in experiments that cover all known science. Nowadays, that would not only take an implausible amount of time, but it would take a phenomenal amount of money; experiments demonstrating any sort of recently discovered physical science – by which we're looking at around 100 years, at least – tend to be expensive, either in terms of materials and equipment, or because they require some sort of unusual circumstance, like a total solar eclipse. At some point, you have to trust those who have performed the experiment. This is made easier by the fact that, for some principle to make its way to the scientific canon, it must be demonstrated by repeated results, from different experimenters. It is subject to significant scrutiny from the community of the discipline in question, with mostly good-natured attempts to pull down one another's work. This is not done out of enmity (at least, not all the time), but because it is necessary that the work must be harrowed in order to bear fruit. This is not, in most religious communities, how religious thought is treated.
It is because the religious scientist can separate these sorts of knowledge that they can be faithful to both pursuits. I do not say all can do it; I'm sure many live with cognitive dissonance, especially those occasional scientists who pursue science professionally while also advocating the teaching of intelligent design as part of a science curriculum. Some in the atheist/sceptic community, seeming to almost deify science, insist on the idea of scientific, objective knowledge as a gold standard, and thus criticise religion, all religion, for its non-falsifiability. Few of them extend this to the arts, however; they are happy with the idea of “I know it when I see it” in artistic appreciation, implicitly accepting the idea of subjective knowledge as valid in such a context, especially given the great divergence of opinions as to when a TV show, or play, or painting or poem is good. It is, perhaps, only the fact that some religious people put forth their beliefs as objectively correct that leads the sceptic community to have such negativity towards religion in general.
Of course, the religion that intrudes most on the general awareness is the religion that holds itself out as objectively true – especially because such beliefs are more likely to lead to proselytism, to standing up in public proclaiming those beliefs and calling on others to join you in them. Perhaps if the religious positions people saw publicly did not so often tend to the absolute, it would be harder to assume that such things are inherent in religion itself. Perhaps if groups like the Unitarians (or Unitarian Universalists, in North America) and liberal Quakers were more visible, more heard from – and on religious subjects, rather than on social issues – people would be more likely to realise that there are religions that embrace the idea of subjective knowledge, and more people would grow to understand the concept, even if they never use the term. More people understanding epistemology would be a good thing in itself, but subtly breaking down the perceived adversarial relationship between science and religion, replacing it with an understanding of the difference in approach and applicable domains, would be a marvellous result, much to be desired.
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