Is it science? or religion?

In a book published this year, the philosopher Evan Thompson says, “When science steps back from experimentation in order to give meaning to its results in terms of grand stories about where we come from and where we’re going — the narratives of cosmology and evolution — it cannot help but become a mythic form of meaning-making and typically takes the structures of its narratives from religion.” — Why I Am Not a Buddhist, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2020), p. 18.

What Thompson says is akin to what Hannes Alfvén said back in 1984, in his paper “Cosmology: Myth or Science?” Alfvén argued that “there has been — and will perhaps always be — an oscillation between mythological and scientific approaches.” He further documented what he felt was a mythical orientation in the cosmology of 1984: “In a true dialectic sense it is the triumph of science which has released the forces which now once again seem to make myths more powerful than science and causes a ‘scientific creationism’ inside academia itself.”

And these days, I’ve heard apparently well-educated people saying things like, “I don’t believe in religion, I believe in science” — thus ignoring or passing over the fact that scientific models are not matters for belief, they are intended to be checked against empirical evidence through multiple investigations, and they are subject to a constant revision that is not compatible with what is generally meant by “belief.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to turn science into a religion, and it would be better to find one’s mythic meaning-making elsewhere, maybe in poetry or music or paintings or novels or even religion.

3 thoughts on “Is it science? or religion?”

  1. I think there’s another interpretation of the phrase “I believe in science” that makes this phrase more reasonable. In general, it is impossible for any person to be an expert in all areas that might be encompassed by science — even if a person is one particular type of scientist, say a chemist, they are not going to be an expert on physics, or vice versa. And even within chemistry or physics, a person will not be expert in all the sub-fields. So, at some point you need to decide who you trust: do you trust the science consensus in some field or sub-field — or do you trust the fringe views?

    I think the position that “I believe in science” can be viewed as I believe that the theory-empirical evidence interplay that leads to a consensus can be trusted, even though I may not myself have personally verified the evidence. “I believe in science” means I trust the expert, scientific consensus as the best basis for making decisions in the here and now

    In my view, in the many, many areas of economics in which I am not expert, and the many areas of the other social sciences and the natural sciences in which I am not expert, I will default to trusting what the scientific consensus is, knowing that it is sometimes simply wrong, and even when it is “right”, may at some later date be superseded by a broader and more comprehensive understanding.

  2. Tim, what you say makes sense, up to a point. But from a philosopher’s perspective, the word “belief” is problematic. We can trust in the scientific method, but we should never have blind belief in the scientific method. The scientific method itself must be subject to constant testing and critique. One obvious area is in gender representation and racial/ethnic representation in the ranks of scientists: if we see that scientific consensus says there’s no hold on scientific ability by white males, and yet white males are over represented in the ranks of scientists, then we suspect that scientific merit alone does not account for success in science, which should make us investigate whether white-male-dominated science is ignoring some key topics. And that in fact appears to be true, in many areas of medical research where women’s problems are ignored; we could also throw in information technology (which is technology, not science, but still) that prioritizes solving the problems of twenty-something white males. These are critiques that we all know well. So I’m not going to say that I “believe” in science, when there are aspects of science that make me extremely skeptical.

    Another area where science is problematic is explored in Thompson’s book “Why I Am Not a Buddhist.” He points out that Buddhist modernism gets special treatment by science that is undeserved; claims of “Buddhist science” or mindfulness as “mind science” are, according to Thompson, misguided and “incoherent.”

    And Hannes Alfvén is quite convincing to me when he says that when science gets into cosmology, it starts to sound a lot like religion. If I “believe” in science, and I know nothing about theoretical astronomy, I’m going to blindly accept the scientific consensus regarding the Big Bang theory — and I know plenty of Unitarian Universalists who do just that, and it’s quite common to hear Unitarian Universalists say something like, “I don’t believe in the story told in Genesis, I believe in the Big Bang.” Equating those two stories is only possible in a modernist mind-set that sees religion as some kind of primitive form of science; even though that’s imposing the modernist mind-set back on pre-modern times, and thus an anachronistic reading of human history. Equating those two stories also ignores the fact that it’s treating the Big Bang theory as a story, not as science. That’s going far beyond trusting the scientific consensus in areas where one has no expertise; it’s very close to treating scientists as priests….

    Again, what you say is true up to a point. But in practice, I see people saying they “believe” in science, and their “belief” sure looks to me to be religious belief.

  3. Here, in the Midwest, those who say “I believe in science” often deliberately choose the word “believe” to counterbalance the skeptics of science who tout “belief” in religion, and oppose that to science. It’s a hazy use of “believe” to be sure, but it’s often the only word religious folks understand, and can (as the kids say) relate to. When I say “I believe in science” I don’t mean it as a religious belief, but rather a sturdy set of principles that clearly explain phenomena.

    That said, it’s tough to counter religious belief — of the fundamentalist sort, that views science as a work of the devil/left/Democrats/etc. — at all. So, perhaps not using “believe” would be better. I don’t really know.

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