Science vs. Spirituality: Round 2

Grant C. and I have been having a lively discussion about faith and science. I thought this response was worthwhile enough to merit its own post. If you’d like to catch up on our conversation, read the comments under “Partial Response to Someone Else’s Conversation.”

Well, Mr. C, I hate being accused of throwing in the towel, it’s just that it struck me that we seemed to both be digging in our heels, and I was reminded of a quote from a blogger I follow on Tumblr –

“I always end up disappointed in my searches for analysis of religion, atheism, and logic. It never fails to end up finding one side saying ‘THERE IS ONLY ONE OPTION! GOD DID IT! EVERYTHING ELSE IS ILLOGICAL!’, and the other ‘YOU NEED TO PROVE GOD. NO BELIEFS WITHOUT EVIDENCE!’ – (from liberalchristian)

While I’m not trying to prove to you that G-d exists (in fact I’m refusing to prove it to you on epistemological grounds), I am very familiar with this dynamic. I have argued my case on both sides of the debate over the past two decades or so, and I’m just not interested in a screaming match. Nor am I really interested in winning arguments. I have conversations like this in order to get to know people. Winning arguments and/or sliding into screaming matches rarely accomplishes that goal.

Since you want to keep talking, I’m game. You were right, I was a little sloppy in my use of the word “objective.” I looked it up on dictionary.com, and found two definitions that are useful for our discussion:

– 5. not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.

– 6.intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book.

You seem to be using the word “objective” more in the sense of #5, more like how I would use the word “empirical” – “provable or verifiable by experience or experiment.” (based only on facts, deduced from facts).

I was thinking of the word in the sense of #6, but I wasn’t really rigorous in the way I phrased it. What I meant was that G-d’s existence or non-existence is an objective fact – if G-d exists, then G-d exists outside of and independent of anyone’s belief. If G-d does NOT exist, then no amount of belief will change that objective fact. Somewhere out there is an objective fact about the existence or non-existence of G-d waiting to be discovered. Currently we believe different things about this fact (I believe G-d exists, you don’t). One of us is wrong.

You appear to think (correct me if I’m wrong) that the lack of scientific evidence is objective proof in support of your belief in the non-existence of G-d.

One of the things I’ve been trying to say is that something can be objective (having independent, non-imaginary reality) without being immediately empirical. For example, the existence of dinosaurs was objective fact for eons before humans discovered their fossils, so they had an independent reality before their existence became empirical. We didn’t think them into existence.

Now the dinosaur example is a little different than a spiritual example because no large population of people believed in dinosaurs before their physical discovery. The example was meant to illustrate that reality exists whether or not I am aware of it or believe in it.

So how can we know about reality? (We’re back to epistemology again).

I find it interesting that even in the definition of the word empirical, there is room for personal experience – “provable or verifiable through experience.” Personal experience also has legal weight: eye-witness accounts are permissible as evidence in court. It’s true that sometimes people lie, and sometimes they are mistaken. But multiple witnesses of the same event tend to lend credibility to the claims if their accounts are similar enough.

If we are putting the existence of G-d on trial, I am offering several thousand years of witness accounts, which will obviously include personal and cultural variation, human error, and gaps in reporting, but all with substantial common threads. Love. Compassion. Mercy. Mindfulness. Justice. Do unto your neighbor and all that jazz. And you are insisting that without fingerprints and DNA, all of it should be thrown out.

I’m not asking you to check your brain at the door, take us at our word and swallow the whole story without any critical thinking, but shouldn’t such a huge block of witnesses at least raise some reasonable doubt?

A lack of scientific evidence by itself does not prove that G-d does not exist. That outlook is neither scientific nor logical.

A lack of physical evidence combined with a huge mass of anecdotal evidence is conflicting evidence. It calls for further investigation, and while each of us must give our own verdict, the conflicting evidence also calls for respect and dignity granted to those who decide differently than we.

I admit that all my evidence and reasons for believing in G-d are ultimately subjective choices, made in keeping with my experiences of the presence of G-d.

All I’m trying to point out is that your choice for not believing in G-d is also a subjective choice, made in keeping with your lack of experiences of the presence of G-d, or your experience of the absence or lack of G-d.

And science cannot prove either of us wrong or right.

For one thing, there are vast areas of study that science has barely touched. Ocean rift life, for example. Or, it turns out, 95% of the universe is now believed to be made up of “dark matter.” (Shout-out to Jarrett for reminding me of this). Nobody knows what it is, what it does, or anything else about it. 95% of the universe is made up of this stuff. That means that the entire observable universe, that which we have been diligently studying for centuries, comprises less than 5% of what is actually there.

That’s a lot of territory that science hasn’t covered yet.

I’m not trying to rag on science. I’m a big fan of science.

But scientific knowledge is limited. We just now discovered that 95% of the universe is invisible to all of our current methodologies.

But even if science eventually plots out and describes dark matter all the way to the edge of the physical universe, I still would hold that G-d, by definition, must be bigger than the universe, and outside it, and beyond it (even if, as I believe, G-d also permeates the physical universe, reaches into it and through it to touch the lives of its inhabitants).

And so we come full circle (again) to the question of epistemology.

What is it that science can “know”? Things that are observable and demonstrable within the physical universe.

“Where” does G-d exist? Outside and beyond the physical universe.

You can’t fingerprint someone who has no fingers, so to speak.

Therefore, science is an inappropriate measure by which to judge the metaphysical question of the existence of G-d.

Trying to prove the non-existence of G-d by the lack of scientific evidence is like a blind person saying “I cannot feel color in my fingers. My sense of touch is what describes the world to me. Therefore, color cannot exist, and all your experiences to the contrary are worthless as proof.”

I’m not saying you’re blind. I’m saying that science is not all-seeing, and that admitting the things we don’t know is a sign of maturity, not weakness. I respect your choice to not believe in G-d. I’m sure it’s the most consistent belief when held against your life experience, and you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it, a trait I also greatly respect. I have no desire to put down your beliefs or take them away from you. I’m just saying that your non-belief is as subjective as my belief, because science, which is what you are holding up as a standard of proof, does not actually offer proof on either side of the debate.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Science vs. Spirituality: Round 2

  1. Helen

    You’re a smart gal; I liked this part:

    One of the things I’ve been trying to say is that something can be objective (having independent, non-imaginary reality) without being immediately empirical. For example, the existence of dinosaurs was objective fact for eons before humans discovered their fossils, so they had an independent reality before their existence became empirical. We didn’t think them into existence.

    Now the dinosaur example is a little different than a spiritual example because no large population of people believed in dinosaurs before their physical discovery. The example was meant to illustrate that reality exists whether or not I am aware of it or believe in it.

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