Science vs. religion: the eternal bar fight

By: Grady Means Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, summarizes the argument that the universe could have been created … Continued

By: Grady Means

Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, summarizes the argument that the universe could have been created out of nothing and is held in a balance to keep it from collapsing back into nothing. No God is required at all to explain these phenomena.

And yet, we are still stuck with the probability that humans are spiritual and that there is a God is, precisely, 50%; and the probability that doctrinal religion or science can inform us usefully on this subject is still, precisely, 0%.

Doctrinal religion is the easiest to start with. While there may be a God-creator and humans may be spiritual, doctrinal religion is useless in understanding these issues. It is transparently political, exclusionary, triumphalist, self-righteous, mythical, and cynical.

Most importantly, religion is contradictory. It says humans have spirits and then proceeds to speak for God and provide human rules to control and judge behavior – all of which is anti-spiritual and anti-God.

From the perspective of scientists, such contradictions are like shooting fish in a barrel. And each new scientific discovery in archeology, history, evolution, genetics, neurophysiology, astrophysics, etc. undercuts some religious/doctrinal claim or belief.

And so, science marches on, applying Occam’s Razor, not really disproving or proving the existence of God and the spirit, but, certainly, proving “what they are not” … they are not doctrinal religion. The earth is not at the center of the universe or solar system, God never gave one tribe an exclusive franchise on truth or the “Word of God,” humans evolved and have a genetic code only slightly different from other animals, the “Big Bang” creation of the universe – and much that happened “before” – can be understood and simulated, etc.

But, the logical problem which science, somewhat disingenuously, overlooks, is that proving “what God and the spirit are not” is not the same as proving that “they are not.”

The problem for science is that any “real God” or “spirit” would not exist within the realm of time or space or physical principles, and thus they would not be measurable. A subtle issue here is “timelessness” as opposed to “eternity.”

Religions, too, confuse the “eternal”/”supernatural” with the “timeless”/”spiritual,” which, again, makes religions sitting ducks. The religious material, anthropomorphic visions of God, heaven and hell, miracles, death, and the spirit suggest that they exist in some “supernatural” state (which is still material), with an “eternal” narrative and timeline of some sort, going on forever and ever. Aside from being mundane, banal, and very depressing, these are also anti-spiritual ideas – simplistic physical extensions of material life, which could in no way represent the essence of the spiritual. All religious doctrine can be discounted for this one, obvious flaw. A “timeless” God and spirit, which never change, are very different from the always-changing, “eternal” versions in religious scripture, literature, art, and ritual.

And, for many Gordian Not-Heads of Science, this, too, is the double-edged sword.

Science cannot, ever, measure or inform the spiritual or the “timeless.” Science will never understand how the spontaneous forces of the universe came into existence; will never be able to determine if people have “souls;” will never be able to disprove the existence of God. “In vitro” is not the “god-like” act it is sometimes portrayed as. Anti-matter is not a “God particle.” Science makes huge strides in human knowledge and is a huge benefit to many people, but it is wholly material and not “god-like.” To claim otherwise is conceit … much like religion representing itself as the “Word of God.”

And so, the probability remains 50%. It all comes down to a matter of choice. Over 80% of all humans are members of a religion. Leaders of the Enlightenment and the founders of America were deists. To the degree that they chose/have chosen to believe in God and the spirit, they are not wrong. To the degree that they believe in a particular religious doctrine they are 100% wrong. Interestingly, in a recent Pew poll, over 70% of members of the various religions in the United States said that they do not believe that their religion is the exclusive route to “salvation.” So, most people are trying to be spiritual and “reasonable.”

At the other end of the argument, a large proportion of scientists call themselves “atheists,” which may mean they do not believe in God and the spirit, or it may mean that they do not believe in any religious version of God and the spirit. They are not wrong either.

There is no contradiction at all. The premises are simply wrong.

Grady Means is an author, former manager of several management consulting firms, and a former White House staff member. He has written several books on economics and management. He has also written many articles on politics and religion. His new book is The New Enlightenment.

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  • ronkrumpos

    In “The Grand Design” Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same “eternal” event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the “seeing” which differs. In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from my e-book on comparative mysticism]

  • RyanWilliams

    Cool article, Grady, but your logic about the various probabilities is flawed. It is incorrect to say that because there are two choices and no one knows for sure which is correct, that each choice is *equally* likely to be correct. Most religious people would assert that the probability that God exists is greater than 50%, and many other people would argue that it’s less. Asserting that it is “precisely” 50% is a value judgment that most people, religious or not, would disagree with.For example, you may believe that the probability that I get struck by lightning tomorrow is 50%, since I either will or won’t. However, based on my own observations about the world, I believe it is 0.001%. Neither of us is definitely incorrect at first, but after 10 days of me not getting struck, there is less than a 0.1% chance that you are correct, whereas there is still a greater than 99.99% chance that I am correct. Unfortunately we cannot repeat or simulate whatever process created the universe and either caused a God to exist or not, so we can’t directly infer how likely it is that God exists in the particular universe we find ourselves in; instead, each individual must decide how likely the world as they know it would be to exist in a universe with a God vs. without a God, and back out their own probability from there.Another problem, which you alluded to, is that science can only deal with falsifiable statements, and the statement “God exists” is unfalsifiable, so science can never prove that God doesn’t exist. To me this underscores the fallacy of believing in unfalsifiable statements (at least while simultaneously claiming to have an interest in learning about how the world actually works), but many people are happy making that tradeoff for a number of reasons, for example because it is comforting. A more rational way to approach the uncertainty about whether God exists would be to start with the hypothesis “God does not exist,” since if you are in fact wrong there are an infinity of conceivable scenarios where your mistake would be made evident to you (namely, any “Act of God” would do the trick), allowing you to revise your world-view. Recognizing that it’s impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist but deciding to believe in God anyway implies that your aim is to believe in God, not seek truth.