Thursday, August 24, 2006

Religion and science

You know... I don't always agree with the writers at Pandagon, but god damn, they have some interesting discussions brew up there, and that's enough.

In one such discussion, I got to bring up something that's precious to me. See, I've been happier since I recognized that there was a scientific way to deal with religion.

No, really.

But first, you have to understand what science is. Science is where people try to create models that they hope mirror reality. Now, some people think they're on a quest to discover truth, but really, good scientists know that they won't find truth. They'll find a good model, one that they hope models the truth... but they're finding the model, not the truth. I sometimes wonder if a better understanding of this would have helped the early folks studying quantum mechanics... because there's a lot of QM where you have to ignore common sense, and just hold to the model, to get the results, even if they don't make sense.

(Actually, more often than not, they do. For example, you know that bit about "the act of observing affects the observed?" Well, see, if you look at a person across the room, you're not really affecting that person; you're seeing light that would be bouncing off their body anyway. But when you try to observe an electron, which is so small and light that it just barely exists at all, you have to do something to it. Light doesn't just bounce off of it like light bounces off of a person; when light hits an electron, it moves the electron, which means the electron is not only somewhere else, it also has a different momentum. Congratulations, you now understand the basic idea that led to Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty. (Okay, yes, I know, some of you knew it already. This parenthetical passage is too long already!))

Anyway: science is about models. And that's important to those people who think that rejecting "Intelligent Design" means rejecting God, or even rejecting God as the creator. You see, no matter how life came about, the best model we have suggests evolution was the cause. If God created the heavens and earth in 144 hours (and on the seventh day, rested), he did so in a way that made it look like life had evolved through natural selection.

So, evolution and natural selection, that's the best model. Intelligent Design doesn't make the model any better, so it's not science, and shouldn't be taught in science class.

Damn, got on one of my hobby horses, and lost my point, didn't I?

Science is about finding the best, most useful model, and working with it until you find a better model. When it comes to science, you can use the scientific method to determine when one model is better than another.

Now, that's where science and religion diverge... there is no way to apply the scientific method to a religion. You can still recognize that each religion is a model of what's "out there"... and you can look at each model, and determine what use it holds for you. What does it allow you to do, that you couldn't do without it?

This is one of the many reasons that I feel sad for the state of Christianity, at least in the United States. I reckon if you took a poll of Christians, the number one reason to be a Christian is to not go to Hell. I hope that wouldn't be the majority response, but I'd bet that it would be the highest vote getter.

Now, not having an "all loving, supremely good" deity torture you for all eternity isn't much of a gain, since truly loving, good deities don't do that whole "torture for all enternity" bit. (Yes, I just said a lot of Christians misunderstand the nature of God. Deal.)

I think Christianity can be a truly wonderful religion; my take on it is that Jesus told his followers to transform themselves through love, and by understanding that this life is not all there is, that there's something more important. I think that transformation is an amazing and wonderful experience, one that would be a truly great thing that Christianity could give a person. All too often, I think Christians are cheated of the chance to attain that, by people who don't understand the message and the mission.

I think that this vision of Christianity, where it calls you to transform yourself through the love of what is good and right, and love of all of humanity, gives you a heck of a lot more than the "get out of Hell (almost)free" vision of Christianity. So I think it's better, in all ways.

But it's not the model that works best for me... so I've chosen another, because it brings me closer to the divine. The model I've chosen gives me a better model of what's "out there" and a better model of my relationship with what's "out there", than the other models. So that's what I've chosen to follow.

Because, you see, everything is a model. We don't see reality ourselves; we see a model of reality constructed by our minds, and all of our minds are different. As such, we each need different models to best understand the nature of reality. Some people will need different models of what's "out there" to gain a better understanding. Heck, some folks will be perfectly satisfied with accepting a model that says there's nothing out there.

While it's nice to think that there's a "one size fits all" religion, the fact of the matter is, people see everything in subtly different ways, and that gets even more obvious when you start thinking of ephemeral (but essential) things like ideas about justice, good, evil, and our place in this world. How, then, could any one set of ideas work for everyone? People who seek the truth, will find the truth, if they seek it with a willing spirit, and an open heart and mind. It might not seem that way to someone with a different heart, mind, and spirit... but then, why should it?

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