Category Archives: Science

Science, Religion, and a Messy, Messy Universe

Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury
Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

It is an almost unspoken truth in the West that there is a necessary conflict between science and religion. Western religion (historically, Christianity) says that the nature of the universe can be understood by, in an anthropological sense, listening to our elders.

Western science, on the other hand, says that we can understand the universe through observation. How could these two views not be in conflict? These are two very different approaches to what “truth” is.

By extension, they end up also being very different windows into the natures of people, the universe, and knowledge itself. But a question we need to ask ourselves is: “is there only one way to understand something?” An underlying assumption of both systems of thought is that there is one, and only one, “best” way of knowing.

The Rise of Science

It has been argued that Science has been growing in the West since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It has, in some respects, replaced the authority of the Church in Western culture. Belief in the power of science has become (perhaps ironically) a status marker.

We’re all very familiar with the observational part of science — the root of experimentation. But the second part of science, which we often either take for granted or ignore completely, is the collaborative part of it.

Science, as a way of building knowledge, depends on both observation and collaboration. Sometimes we talk about science as if the observational part were the whole of it. “Scientists have discovered” say the headlines, as if science were wholly a journey of discovery, and not discovery followed by careful collaborative work.

Scientific research, then, implicitly argues that “we can all agree…” on whatever the evidence shows. This aspect of science allows for the testing of theories across different times and places.

After all, if my scientific observations and yours don’t match, it’s clear that we’re going to have to further develop theories so that all of the data can be explained. Science doesn’t depend on the work of lone experimenters slaving away in laboratories, but on their coming together to agree.

Western Science, Western Religion

Back when Science was getting started (going back to 1453), there certainly was a need to cast off the “old ways” of knowing , especially in the domains of knowledge where science was beginning to assert itself and the Church (the big authority on Truth at the time) was saying “nuh-uh.”

Christianity, after vanquishing the pagan ways of knowledge of the Roman empire, had spent more than a millennium enjoying its day in the sun in Europe. It wasn’t until the rise of science that it it experienced any serious challenges to its way of seeing the universe.

This “struggle” between science and religion is ongoing. Sometimes this conflict between scientific and religious followers simply comes down to different assumptions about the nature of the universe. Scientists as a group generally argue that the universe is understandable through observation, measurement, and collaboration (with other scientists). The proponents of religion (in a very Western sense of the word) have a very different view of truth and authority.

The two “opposing” systems still duke it out from time to time, but the official decisions of the government and the upper strata of society are much more in line with scientific knowledge. The easiest way to be certain of this is to “follow the money” and determine whether, in a market sense, scientists or theologians get paid more.

But It’s a Messy, Messy Universe

The argument between science and religion is a little like the conflict between Coke and Pepsi. Both contain an underlying assumption that they want us to swallow. In the knowledge wars, like the cola wars, the assumption is that we should be drinking either exclusively!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas

The War on Christmas is a shorthand for one front in the West’s “culture wars,” which address a number of cultural bones of contention. The central question of this war could be framed “Is the West primarily Christian?”

If we think about Western Culture as the thread of belief and knowledge that has come down to us through history, stretching from the Greeks and Romans (and the Ancient Egyptians, though they got short shrift in my middle school history books, and probably yours), then the West is Christian.

Historically, the Christians fought a battle for political supremacy in the first handful of centuries CE. They took over the Roman Empire and set the religious and scholarly tone for our culture. In short, they won.

The victory of the Roman Christians for political influence meant that power resided either in the hands of the Church (or one of the divisions that came after the Protestant Reformation), or in the hands of people at least nominally beholden to the Church. That lasted, in many ways, until the end of the European colonial era.

The West isn’t the West Anymore

Since the end of World War 2, however, something else — something critical — happened to the West. It stopped being the home only of Westerners.

Starting with the Age of Discovery, which began around 1492, there was increased trade and influence passing back and forth between the West and the rest of the world. For Europeans, the world got a lot “larger” as everyday people came into contact with thoughts, ideas, and people from around the globe.

The European colonial era came to a dwindling end around the close of World War 2. What arose in its place was a postmodern world, where the flow of people and ideas became more and more rapid, and where people of non-European descent could “take their place at the table.”

Human Rights Are for (All) Humans

Sure, there were many non-Westerners in America before the mid 1900s. But those groups lacked many fundamental rights. They were not, legally or culturally, seen as equals. They lacked many of the freedoms enjoyed by nominal Westerners.

For instance, in many cases, non-Westerners in America could not vote, have full citizenship, own land, or marry as they chose. More important for consideration of Christmas, their religions were not recognized.

However, since the second half of the 20th century, a new spirit of religious freedom has enveloped America. It’s an era when the ideas of human rights, which had historically been only applied to white Westerners, were applied more evenly. Non-Western, and non-mainstream Western, populations now have an expectation that the separation of Church and State means something.

The War on Christmas

So it comes down to this: the “War on Christmas” is actually a push to make human universal rights, well, universal. It isn’t a silly argument, though. It’s a full-blown struggle to define “the West.”

Is Western culture just the Christian descendents of an ancient line of thought? Or is it more beholden to these new ideas of equal freedoms for all?

…Now with the Power of Science!

I ran into a funny piece of advertising recently. It was for a facial cleaner or some similar product, and the product read, in big friendly letters (as part of the advertising on the front of the package):

Now with “science-y jargon blah blah“!

Okay, so I’m just paraphrasing the semantic meaning here. But, I’m pretty sure that we weren’t supposed to understand what it meant, just be impressed with its efficacy.

Science As Authority

Luckies Doctor
If “Science” says it, it must be true!

Using the idea of “Science” (the cultural construct) as a way of establishing authority in ads isn’t anything new. Even since science started being something that we listen to, instead of something we learn to do ourselves, marketers have been using it to affect our decisions.

Remember, in a perfect world, scientists have every obligation to share their data with other scientists. This is done for the sake of improving the world of science — to strengthen the academy. But for those of us on the outside — and with the incredible complexity of scientific research today, that’s almost everyone — we just have to take their word for it.

The New Alchemists

Gold Bars
Can science navigate the shoals of temptation?

The majority of scientists today work outside of the academy. They are in the employ of (not to put too fine a point on it) merchants. These merchants are themselves in the employ of shareholders, themselves. There are times, we can imagine, that this might present conflicts of interest.

It’s a trade-off. With much of research funding coming from private hands, and those hands being bound by (fickle) shareholder obligations, we’re making great strides in areas like consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals.

Patent wars are the result. And patent litigation is probably desperately against the scientific method at its core. The scientific method, at its root, is a collaborative method; that is its power.

But “scientists” working for private ends have a business model of making their patron happy as they try to create wealth through their knowledge. We’ve seen this model before — it’s the way that alchemy functioned in the pre-scientific era.

A Brief History of Navel Gazing in the West

The West has long had poor respect for what is sometimes jokingly called “navel gazing.” Western culture, by and large, hasn’t been terribly interested in self-knowledge and self-reflection until relatively recently. Only in recent years have we begun to “create” understandings of the world that look inward as much as outward.

The West and Self-Reflection

Bhante Vimalaramsi, founder of the american buddhist forest tradition
Understanding the “self” is not a new idea.

When we go out in search of the truth, we don’t go alone. We bring with us everything we’ve already learned, starting with what we were taught as part of the process of enculturation. Whether we rebel against the things we’ve been taught or build on them, it’s critical that we know where we’re coming from.

One of the basic tenets of the scientific method is that what we discover needs to be part of an “objective” reality. Science, in Western culture, holds the belief that a) there is an objective reality, and that b) we can access and understand that reality. Culturally, self-knowledge is often thought to be a waste of time — especially in the pursuit of a truth that is held to be external.

Importing Self-Awareness

The West didn’t create self-reflexive approaches out of whole cloth. The basis of these understandings came from other cultures.

Even where we didn’t attempt to import these approaches (which we did, through yoga, meditation, and the martial arts to name a few), we still were influenced by underlying ideas about the nature of self and perception. We all picked up a little bit of Eastern philosophy as it was absorbed into Western culture.

The importation of Eastern” thought has its own interesting history. By the end of the colonial era, the West had had developed a taste for all things “Eastern,” and these approaches gained a little attention in some circles.

It’s important to note that we didn’t just import foreign ideas to replace “Western” ones. The process was much more organic and tenuous. But our broadening world did force us to look more closely at ourselves. Our widening view of the world forced us to look farther afield.

Theoso-what?

Starting in the 19th century, the Spiritist and Spiritulalist movements had arisen on the fringes as Science struggled with the Church for cosmological supremacy. Though it was not their intention, they created a cultural space for the Theosophical Society (founded 1875).

Through their scholarly work, this small group of culturally fringe believers (Atlantis, the World Teacher, and Ascended Masters) gave the West a window on whole new ways to view the self. In fact, the whole of the New Age and Self-Help movements come at least partially out of this tradition — as does anyone who says “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” whether they know it or not.

It’s so easy to critique the Theosophical Society’s notions of a universal religion as misguided, colonialist, and racist that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. However, the efforts of their scholars to make serious translations of many of the major religious texts of Asia had a profound impact on the West.

Nearly a hundred years after the founding of the Theosophical Society, these questions had found some acceptance and become more relevant, or at least more popular, in the West. While the scientific community didn’t devolve into meditation and spirituality, anthropology was the best bet for asking and answering in a scientific way the questions raised.

“How do we know what we know?” “What is the relationship between the self and society?” “What is the self?” These kinds of underlying questions leaked their way from popular culture into research topics. It was these deep, meaningful questions that helped give rise to such theoretical perspectives as postmodernism.

Yet the answers that developed came from the Western intellectual tradition. And the answers have been hard to swallow. It’s terrible to discover that we know much less about the world than we always thought. But hey, that’s science — we’re looking for some truth, not just a feel-good affirmation.

The “hard” scientists, who by their very topics of exploration have the ability to ignore the “self” in their research, have sometimes scoffed — or even claimed that anthropology isn’t a science — but science isn’t a popularity contest.

Anthropologists Aren’t Zen Masters

In seeking the “Truth,” the West has become more aware of the importance of self-knowledge in the past century and a half. While we can trace the Western tradition of self-understanding all the way back to Socrates’s “Know thyself,” it fell out of favor for a while. First, it was replaced by Christianity’s focus on knowledge of God and Jesus. Later it was replaced by scientific objectivity, which was required to hold the “self” as a constant to get any decent results.

Yet these pesky “new” questions, raised by those who looked (and look) more deeply into the nature of self, remained. As anthropology has looked at other cultures’ ways of understanding the world, these questions have grown in importance.

That doesn’t mean that all the anthropologists have gone on to study as Buddhist monks or the like, however. Because of its subject matter (people), anthropology has been forced to address some of these same questions about the nature of self. However, because the field comes out of the Western tradition of science, their methods of exploration are scientific and (relatively) objective.

So while some might dismissively call anthropology “navel gazing,” that’s not really the case. Instead, anthropologists are engaged in trying to answer these age-old questions about people without relying on religious constructions. The field works to answer these questions without wholly abandoning the Western value of objectivity.

Anthropology has been forced to address some of the questions (“What does it mean to be a person?” “What is a person’s relationship with society?” Even “How do we know what we know?”) that we can say were first popularized in the West by the Theosophical society and then by the New Age movement. But the truth is, these are questions that we need to address as a culture.

As travel and communication have become faster, cheaper, and easier, all of us see a lot more of the world. Anthropology is the West’s means of addressing these increasingly relevant questions through science.

To come back to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Or, to put it a bit cheekily, admitting that navels exist isn’t “navel gazing.” It’s just understanding the ultimate tool of measurement needed for any anthropological exploration — the self.

Belief, Knowledge, and Culture

Carl Spitzweg's The Alchemist
Why are those who seek knowledge such romantic figures?

I’d like to return briefly to the topic of science, and explore further the difference between “science” as in “what researchers do” and Science (with a capital “S”) as in “what researchers have told us.” The first is a way that we learn, gather data, and test it. The second is the collective wisdom of a certain part of our culture.

What I’m saying is that science is two different things in culture. There’s “science is what scientists do” and “science is what scientists say.” The first category helps build a trove of knowledge that is like nothing the world has seen before. The second category is built from the first, but it has a level of cultural interpretation built into it.

An Example

Science, unlike some other forms of knowledge, isn’t designed to tell us how to guide our lives. For example, one might argue from a genetic perspective that the whole purpose of life is based around perpetuating one’s own genes effectively. That makes sense, right? It’s a useful tool of analysis.

However, living with genetics as the sole guiding principle of one’s life misses two things:

  1. everyone kinda knows this already — it’s why there’s so much sex on TV, and
  2. people are not rational, culture-less beings who live their lives according to decisions they make.

Remember, we’re primates, right? Anyone who truly and wholly tried to live by these genetic assumptions, while holding onto Western notions of culture, ethnicity, and the individual, would be setting themselves up to emulate racist, sex-obsessed sociopaths.

While science might analyze our actions based on genetic closeness between individuals, that doesn’t mean we should use such data proscriptively, to guide our decisions.

But Scientists Say…

Most people in Western culture are not scientists. According to InsideHigherEd, only 17% of college graduates earned their bachelor’s in STEM topics. And that’s only the percentage of the total group who attended college. For graduate degrees, the number drops to 13%.

And even if we look at the whole group of graduates as “scientists” (and, admittedly, if we only regard STEM topics as “science” — a debatable question right there), it’s hardly a majority of Americans. Most people are just getting by, not engaging in cosmological investigations at any level.

Even more, since scientists are usually specialists in one field or another, a whole lot of scientific knowledge is being propounded by people who have not done the research for themselves. Their belief rests on their acceptance of science’s authority. We don’t test gravity, we take their word for it.

Science: Rhetoric and Dialectic

In other words, most science is taught, used, and discussed outside of research circles; it’s not being shared by field research specialists. That transforms it from science — a way of learning new things and exploring the world — to Science — a way of viewing the world.

Is this a problem? Does that make the proponents of Science somehow wrong? The short answer to that question is “no.”

The longer answer isn’t “yes.” It’s closer to, “oh, now I can see the influence of Western culture on Science.”

Why? Because as soon as scientific knowledge moves from the realm of dialectic (discussion between scientists) to the realm of rhetoric (discussion between scientists and non-scientists), it lacks the surety that comes from the receiver being able to test the assumptions for themselves.

The rhetorical discussion of scientists with non-scientists is unlike the dialectical one between scientists. The point of rhetorical discussion is winning and strengthening social status, rather than synthesizing a more complete truth. Or to put it more simply:

Participants in a dialectical argument are, on a deeper level, working together. Whereas those engaged in rhetorical debate are much more likely to be working at cross purposes.

But to come back to the key point, the scientific method, and associated research activities — science with a small “s” — is (or should be) distinct from Science with a capital “S.”

The corpus of all the knowledge that humanity has learned, mixed in with a number of cultural beliefs that are accepted on Scientific authority, is what we call Science.When we add the big “S,” Science reflects our cultural values.

It is Science, not science, that argues there is no God, or that research will solve all the world’s ills, or that drinking eight glasses of water a day will protect you from harm.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 3)

Punk with a Strongbow
Science, like Punk, was once about challenging the status quo.

Science was originally just a method for seeking knowledge. However, it has taken on an important role of authority in Western culture. Science hasn’t only driven innovation and increased our knowledge of the universe — all while improving countless lives on the way; it’s also changed the way the West sees both itself and the world. Science has become a place where many of us look for Truth.

Science’s role has been shaped not only by its own assumptions and discoveries, but also by the West’s much older relationship with knowledge, education, and public service. But sometimes there is a gap between the scientific community’s self-perception and the reality of the part it plays in Western culture.

The last two posts have addressed both the revolutionary aspects of science as it has affected the worldview of the West and the role of knowledge in shaping scientists’ elevated position in Western culture. But the gap between how science presents itself and its actual cultural role can create a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

First, we need to distinguish between “science” as a method of research and “Science” as a symbol of cultural authority. In the laboratory (or any other research venue), a person uses science as a method for understanding the world. But once the knowledge leaves the scientific community, it becomes Science (with a capital “S”) — a tool of authority and rhetoric.

In the beginning, science was a challenge to old ways of knowing. It was the Punk movement of its day — a conscious revolutionary challenge to old ways of thinking and knowing. The attitude of “out with the old and in with the new” that sometimes seems to come with science — a preference for new ways of doing things in the face of tradition — is downright Punk. It’s a challenge to authority.

The authority of Science can be a very, very good thing. For example, knowing that we should wash our hands before we eat keeps us all healthier, and we don’t need to understand the details. We don’t need to understand germ theory, we just need to know that unwashed hands are “dangerous.” But doing things because Science says so isn’t “science.”

Science, the Rebellious Child?

The scientific community is a subculture of ideas and ideals. The members argue that to build a greater truth, they (and we) must create theories, test them, and share the results with one another. Knowledge that can be neither tested nor replicated is tossed in the wastebin of history.

However, as part of Western culture, the scientific community has gotten itself into an older game: the idea that there is one greater Truth — and that we can understand it. Science has long argued that in order to discover the Truth, we need to throw away the truths of the past. Under this schema, only objective, scientific truth becomes recognized as unchallengeable Truth.

Science’s response to other forms of cultural knowledge (based on non-scientific sources of authority) can sometimes come down to “I know what I’m doing” and “you can’t tell me what to do!” These aren’t scientific arguments, they’re rhetorical “appeal to authority” responses — albeit sometimes warranted ones.

How, then, does scientific truth interact with other sources of cultural truth? Oddly. But it does so through the same means as any other belief system: ideas are debated, or argued. Victory rests on the persuasiveness of an idea’s proponents.

The everyday understanding of the world that has developed from scientific research is encapsulated in every statement that starts “Science tells us…“. Under closer examination, such statements call on the cultural authority of “Science” rather than the weight of specific scientific research.

Science is great stuff. People, using the scientific method for research, have made fabulous gains in understanding the world and improving the lives of people. We might think of the iPod, but penicillin was much, much better.

Science seeks a more objective Truth. Their quest is stymied by two factors: science’s role as a cultural authority gets them involved in politics, and its dependence on funding controlled by vested interests makes people worry that their authority has been co-opted.

An examination of the way Science fulfills its role as an authority — as a purveyor of “the Truth” — is not a challenge to the scientific method. Science’s dependence on pleasing the people who hold the purse strings is. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 2)

Dergoumidas before the Grand Vizier - by Giovanni Antonio Guardi
“Dergoumidas before the Grand Vizier” — Knowledge is one of the currencies of power.

It’s very easy for us to think of Science as a discrete part of Western culture, yet somehow transcendent at the same time. Perhaps that’s true as far as it goes, but understanding Science means looking at more than just how it’s different from the previous times in Western history.

Seeing science clearly requires understanding that it is not only a new way of learning about the world, but also heir of a tradition that goes all the way back at least to Ancient Greek philosophers, and more likely to Ancient Egypt.

Science is more than a method of collecting and analyzing data; It’s also a part of Western culture. Science is not just a way of thinking that replaced Alchemy, but also is alchemy’s cultural heir. More, in some ways science is heir to the whole tradition of the Western educational system.

Science, the Heir

We’re very used to thinking of Science with its triumphal plot arc: led by men who broke from the past and created a new world of rationality and order. But to understand the cultural role of science, rather than just the method, we need to comprehend the part that knowledge has played in the West going all the way back to the beginning of Western civilization.

As described in my last post, Science (writ large) rose to cultural power in the times following the Black Plague in Europe. It was a time when the Church’s cultural and political power was, after a thousand years, sustaining serious questions to its credibility. But Science didn’t spring out of nowhere. More accurately, it was an outgrowth of the work of the scholars of the West.

The growth of Western knowledge of the world had long been limited in certain ways by the political and religious realities of the power of the Church. The rise of science came at a time when the hierarchy of power was being shaken.

Yet the institutions of Science did not develop in a vacuum. Instead Science built on preexisting infrastructure, such as the institutions of learning that had been associated with the Church. Such growth made them bedfellows with politicians and kings.

Like other teachers (Latin: Doctor) of knowledge, there was a responsibility to advise political leaders when called upon. We sometimes focus on research and the scientific method when we try to understand science, but it is just as important to understand its relationship to the rest of society.

Science, the Grand Vizier

Fiction is the new mythology, and it gives us a window into otherwise hidden aspects of culture. Have you ever noticed the way science is treated in Western fiction? For the most part, it’s not very science-y. Most treatments of science have little to do with the research role of the scientist, and everything to do with their social role.

Though books are more likely to take the time explaining it (and there are whole sub-genres of science fiction that treat scientific research and discoveries with some consideration), in most movies and television, Science is treated as a discipline of almost magical wonder.

In fiction, Science is the source of MacGuffins of wondrous power, the way characters turn “can’t” into “can,” and an almost miraculous heal-all. Even where fictional science is used to solve problems, it is presented in mythological terms. The way science is shown inverts the actual pattern of scientific research.

In the real world, science is used to explore the unknown. In fiction, by contrast, science serves to drive the plot forward. The “Scientist” archetype has less to do with Einstein, and more to do with Merlin. The fictional Scientist takes the role of the wise advisor who understands the nature of the world.

Science not only devotes itself to furthering human knowledge, but also serves society. It serves by advising leaders, using its superior knowledge of the world. This pattern places it firmly in the same tradition as a thousand stories of King’s Counselors and Grand Viziers. In the US, the National Academies fill this role.

By acting as learned advisors of kings (and presidents), the scientists have taken over the role that alchemists, astrologers, and other old scholars once held. This isn’t the scientist in the laboratory, but the scientist who stands behind the throne.

Yet the learned have often counseled the leaders of the world. In some ways, science ushered in a new era of knowledge, but in other ways, they have provided a new face to an old role: the wise advisors of beneficent leaders, helping them to make decisions that benefit all people.