Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2019/ Science and Religion

Science and Religion

I believe science is the most effective way we know of to discover how the world works. I believe science is effective because it is a psychological trick.

We as humans are good at fooling ourselves. The scientific method keeps us honest. A hypothesis is a line in the sand. That hypothesis can be as wacky as we want; science doesn't care. But we have to make that hypothesis and stand by it, and then we have to design an experiment that would show that our hypothesis is false. If our experiment demonstrates our hypothesis is wrong, there are no backsies. That is great news, because it means we have learned something -- something we thought was true was actually false. Without the discipline of a falsifiable hypothesis, we can shift the goalposts, making up excuses and reasons why our beliefs are actually true despite the evidence before us. This happens all the time in pseudosciences such as astrology and health fad diets.

This does not mean science always works. Often science fails because we try to wriggle out of the evidence before us. We massage data and hack p-values to try and demonstrate we have conducted a publishable experiment, rather than accepting the outcome. Sometimes we do not understand the phenomenon at hand. Sometimes we misinterpret evidence, and our hypotheses are actually true after all. But even in this case there are things to be learned.

There are other ways I feel that science fails us, but those are topics for some other blog entry. For now I think it is not too controversial to claim that science is useful, and that part of the reason it works is because it keeps us honest.

Now let's look at religion, by which I mean the two religions I am somewhat familiar with: Christianity and westernized Buddhism. Many people mistrust religion. We often claim that we are "spiritual but not religious", and we often rail against organized religions (in particular the Catholic Church). Lately I have started to think that religion is not that different from science in the sense that they are both psychological tricks that keep us honest.

As far as I can tell, religions are good at promoting group fitness over individual fitness. Practicing the Golden Rule does not benefit me directly -- in the short term, I can benefit by ripping other people off and expecting them to be honest with me. But in the medium term people who violate the Golden Rule hurt everyone, including themselves, because they erode trust and make the group environment less cohesive and less efficient.

The near enemies of group fitness are social control and tribalism. Social control means that those who are unorthodox get punished and/or ostracized, which makes life miserable for them and robs the social group of new ways of thinking. Tribalism divides us into Us and Them, which leads to war and all kinds of other trouble. It does not surprise me that religions are disparaged in our secular society (except for westernized Buddhism, and I guess capitalism). But I think we should be careful about concluding that religions have no value.

At their best, religions keep us honest. They advocate moral principles we should live by, and we can measure our behaviours against those standards. If we do not measure up, we might realize that we are not living wisely.

The atheists will now jump in and proclaim that you can be good without God. Fair enough. Certainly there are some ethical and moral standards that atheists propose. Do atheists measure their daily actions against those standards, the way that religious people do when they are listening to a sermon or dharma talk or praying or meditating? Are these standards regularly reinforced the way religious standards are when we attend church or dharma talks? That is not my experience.

This is not to say that the moral principles religions ask us to measure ourselves against are necessarily good ones. Even saying this, many Christians find that wrestling against moral standards that are unintuitive often leads to better clarity about what is right and wrong. I think this is a tool that is easily abused (hello social control) but it is still valuable. Buddhist directives to "take what is useful from the teachings, and let the rest go" are another way to approach this problem. When moral standards are bad they can be fixed (notice how modern Christianity has retconned the virtues of slavery out of its morality) but they should never be so flexible that anything goes.

The other clear benefit of religion (and one Christians never tire of proclaiming) is that religion gives us a sense of place. Religions tell stories about who we are, where we belong, and what we should be doing in the world. Rationalists and atheists do not have comforting answers to these questions, and so many of us struggle with existential angst, and some of us (namely me) slide into the pit of nihilism. Westernized Buddhism mostly dispenses with reincarnation, but even it has a narrative: we are to become free of suffering, and to practice compassion for other sentient beings.

I often find myself envying Christians because their narratives are so comforting. Many of the Christians I know are kind, thoughtful people who genuinely seem to know what they are doing on this world. I don't think that avenue is open to me, because Christianity is both ridiculous and morally horrifying, but I often find myself wishing I was more religious than I am. Maybe salvation narratives are useful precisely because they are false; there are few things more disheartening and paralyzing than existential angst.

I think that arguing that religion has any use in our modern society is much more controversial than arguing that science has some use. But as I get old and unrational, I am beginning to believe in the utility of religion just as I believe in the utility of scientist, even though I am bad at being religious (or scientific!) myself.

Maybe there are good secular alternatives to the psychological tricks religion has to offer, but as somebody who is wallowing in a lot of existential angst these days, I do not know what they are. Marvelling in the wonders of the universe is not working for me. Bizarre rationalist utilitarianism alternately horrifies me and makes me feel worthless. Understanding that life is short and full of suffering does not motivate me to make the most of anything. What else is there?