Sunday, December 24, 2017

What is the difference between a science and a religion? Really.

What is the difference between a science and a religion?

This is a difficult question, which has been igniting many heated discussions.
If you read various publications on the matter you see that the most of the authors boil their views down to one statement: “A science is evidence based, and a religion is faith based” ("evidence" or "experiments" v. "faith" or "beliefs" is the most common dichotomy).
For example, the following quote represents an example of a very common sentiment on the difference between a science and a religion:
“The important difference between science and religion is that religion comes with ABSOLUTE statements, that neither can be proved or disproved, and science evolves from relative truths and statements, that can be testified and proven false (which means: science has to develop, in order to replace (partly) untrue theories, and replace them with better ones). Science does not claim it has absolute knowledge on anything. Religion claims it has.” (Reference https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/difference-between-science-and-religion.2248/).
This statement is not incorrect, but it is missing a very important part of any actual (developed, true) science.
When I have a "science v. religion" discussion, the conversation does usually boil down to "science is based on a proof, but religion is based on a belief" statement. In that case I like offering the following logical chain: if "science = proof", and "proof is something other people can accept of deny", and "other people accept or deny the proof based on their beliefs", hence, "proof = beliefs", hence "science = beliefs", hence "science = religion". The first reaction to this logic is negative: "there might be something wrong with it!". In realty, it is absolutely accurate!

Every science is also based on absolute statements (beliefs). Those statements represent such statements in which every scientist deeply believes without really having them logically derived from indisputable evidence.
In other words, every scientist has a faith. And for every scientist that faith includes several universal absolute beliefs.
Every scientist has a faith in that:
* The world (a.k.a. the universe, a.k.a. the nature) exists (and we all should be thankful for that - in my opinion).
* The world may have to entities - natural and social. The existence of the natural world does not require a human presence.
* The functioning of the natural world has certain patterns (under similar circumstances objects undergo similar processes). Those patterns do not depend on the existence of intelligent species.
* Humans are intelligent enough to uncover and understand the patterns governing the world (a.k.a. laws).
* I – a scientist – am intelligent enough to uncover and understand the patterns governing the world (otherwise, why would I be going into doing any science?)
Diving into a specific science, like mathematics, or physics, or chemistry, shows that all those sciences are also based on an additional set of absolute statements, although in each science those statements are not called commandments, but postulates or axioms (it is why it is very important to study math, physics, from the point of view HOW they have become to be a science).
Those postulates cannot be logically derived from certain observations or experiments. Yes, they are related to certain observations or experiments, and during the search for those postulates some reasoning, of course, have been used. However, the final formulation of a postulate is usually a result of an insight. Then, after the postulates had been formulated, scientists use logical procedures to derive various consequences/predictions (!), and if those predictions are consistent with observations and experiments that gives the scientific community the confidence in the truthfulness of the postulates.
There are many good books on a logical structure of science (just run an Internet search on “structure of science). Here I would only point at one of my favorite examples, namely, Albert Einstein’s postulates of The Special Relativity Theory.
In conclusion, we cannot say that a science does not include any faith at all: there is a faith in a science, but just different one from a faith in a religion.
If the difference between a science and a religion is not based on the presence or absence of a faith, then what does make them different? The #1 answer is – people.
A science and a religion are just two of many human practices. Both - science and religion - is a byproduct of human brain activities (this is what the have in common).
The most important difference is between the people practicing those practices.
A person who practices a science – a scientist – does not claim that his knowledge is absolute and cannot be changed. A scientist is not the one who knows everything and is always right. A scientist knows that his/her knowledge is limited, can and most probably will be changed in the future (even the postulates, and paradigms), and because of that a scientist is always ready to be wrong (at least, a true scientist).
People practicing religion will never accept any possibility for their postulates to be wrong, they practice a dogmatic thinking.
The shortest illustration of the difference between science and religion is demonstrated by the difference in the positions of a scientist and a religion person toward the currently established knowledge: the motto of a true scientist is "question everything (meaning - everyone!)"; the motto of a true religious person is "never question a thing", meaning "don't ever question an authority".
To be fair, some people who call themselves scientists also practice a dogmatic thinking. Maybe this is why Max Plank said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
I would like to finish this piece with presenting a definition of science. In science, when an object has a definition (“that thing is …”), every object in the world can be compared with it (at least, in theory), and identified as "such thing: or as "not such thing" (the #1 function of a definition is to allow to classify all objects into two categories: "this IS ..." and "this is NOT ..."). Sometimes, it is not easy to make a statement whether or not some object fits the definition, hence can be called “that type of object”. But it is usually much easier to make a statement about something which does NOT fit the definition. If the comparison violates at least one of the parameters of the definition, that object is not “that thing”. That is why definitions are important. And that is why definitions must be operational, otherwise it would not be a definition (maybe, just a description).
When I ask scientists (i.e. people doing science) to give me a definition of science, usually it comes down to four things: data, patterns, logic, hypothetical thinking. However, a religion also can include all four those entities. Hence, that description does not allow to differentiate between science and religion, hence, cannot be used as a definition!
Not having an operational definition of science would mean that scientists would be doing something they don’t really know what they do.
According to my definition (shared with many other scientist): Science is a human practice which mission, goals, purpose, sole existence is providing reliable predictions.
Usually, those predictions are related to a certain type/group of phenomena, and the corresponded activities form a specific scientific field.
Data (what for many people represents evidence), patterns (stable correlations, laws), logic (naming, defining, establishing rules), hypothetical thinking (developing weighed expectations based on the experience), and other elements of scientific practice play their roles, and take their places as devices, components, abilities, organs, functions required for science to exist, perform, and achieve its goals, fulfill its mission.
No predictability – not yet a science (but already a scientific field -maybe).

Religion is a human practice which mission, goals, purpose, sole existence is providing a dogmatic faith in the facts and rules.

All religions are based on the acceptance of the existence of some kind of a superior force, of something - what or who - that is bigger, more powerful than any individual: called Gods, or the God. That superior force defines the existence of everything and governs the evolution of everything. And within every religion there are two major factions. One faction can be called “superiors” because people in that faction believe that all other religions are fake, fraudulent, do not have the right to exist. The second faction can be called “tolerant” because people in that faction accept the existence and legitimacy of other religions. For the “tolerant” faction the fact that other people believe in the existence of the superior force is more important than the type of that superior force (“I believe in my God, you believe in your God, but as long we both believe in the existence of the God we can coexist”).
Atheism is also a religion, in a way, because it also is based on a belief (like science!). Atheism also has two factions. On faction can be called “deniers”, because those people just deny the existence of any superior force (they believe in the absence of God). The second faction can be called “naturalists”, because people in that faction do not believe in the presence of the God as a person, but believe in the existence of something bigger and more powerful that humans, called the Nature, the Universe, the World. They believe that the world (at least its natural part) exists on its own, does not need to be created, and is governed by its own laws. That type of atheists also could be called “scientists”. 
How does the question of morality fit into the “scientific” point of view is a complicated question which requires a different discussion. 
And BTW, the last note on "evidence v. faith" discussion: religions also use experimental proof, a.k.a. "evidence", a.k.a. "a miracle".

Appendix:
To get to know me better, I would recommend to check the following three web-links 
(would not take more than 20 minutes of total time):
https://youtu.be/xd3IM1cSASQ


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