Penn, Science and Religion

“If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.” –Penn Jillette, author of God, No.

I should begin this by stating that I generally have a lot of respect for Mr. Jillette, and I think he’s done a lot of good for the concept of critical thinking, which is sorely lacking in modern America.  That being said, his determination not to believe in things sometimes blinds him to things that actually do work, but are either poorly-understood, or difficult to adequately communicate.  Like most libertarians, he sometimes says things which I find profoundly true, and sometimes things which I find mind-bogglingly wrong.  In this case, while nothing in the above claim is factually incorrect, the entirety of it is deeply erroneous and disingenuous.

1. Mr. Jillette starts out wrong by playing into the very modern idea of some sort of conflict between “science” and “religion”.  This is based on an absolute abuse of epistemology.  “Science” is a method(s) of studying physical phenomena.  Religion has nothing to do with physical phenomena.  Mythology certainly makes physical claims which are contrary to history, but to assert that as an error is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of mythology–and in any case, mythology (stories) are not religion (practice).

2. Religion is not “nonsense” unless one examines it with an inappropriate criterion (such as predictive power).  Under such circumstance, science is also nonsense.  For example, there is no compelling scientific argument to do any good thing.  Absent a higher moral force, the only compelling argument is not to get caught.  

3. The overall claim that the total erasure of religion would delete it, but the total erasure of “science” would only cause the process to begin again, is false for several reasons, primarily because both “science” (by which I assume he means knowledge derived by use of the scientific method) and “religion” (by which I assume he means any number of beliefs about knowledge which cannot be approached scientifically) are based on models

     A. While physical investigation into the universe would likely begin again after the eradication of “science”, there is no guarantee that the same models would be derived.  Nor are our models finalized; the one certainty of scientific models is that they will eventually be found false and replaced.  (If you think quantum mechanics is safe in way phlogiston was not, remember that it is completely incompatible with general relativity).  It is (remotely) possible that our scientific knowledge to date is based on a deep initial error, or (more likely) that there is an end-state of physical knowledge which could be arrived at by generating a completely different set of models than we currently use.

     B. Mythology is a symbolic representation of universal psychological truths.  Specific religions adapt these truths into cultural-normal practices (marriage ceremonies, funeral rites, etc.).  That these practices were universal 10,000 years ago strongly implies that they will continue to be universal 10,000 years from now. The truths get adapted to cultural specifics, but that hardly makes them “some other nonsense” any more than the luminiferous aether was “some other nonsense” than quantum mechanics.  Physics has evolved, but it’s still physics.

     C. Also universal are shamanism (the initiation of individuals into a “spirit world”) and mysticism (the experience of dissolution of the subject/object relationship).  Regardless of one’s feelings about extra-physical reality, the universality of these experiences and practices strongly indicates that something very real is happening (even if it is misinterpreted by the participants), and it will contintue to happen in the absence of currently-evolved belief systems.

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15 responses to “Penn, Science and Religion

  1. 1) Science is not limited to physical reality. It is simply a way of working and thinking. You can also use the scientific method to non-physical ideas, if you want to.

    2) I get tired of this nonsense. All the believers claim that there can be no morality without god, doesn’t that get boring? There is no absolute morality, correct, but that doesn’t mean that there are no arguments for specific forms of non-absolute morality, there are enough of them. By claiming that you don’t find them compelling, you allow us to have a look at your character, nothing more. And of course, when looking at a religion, you never see this “absolute morality”, in many cases it seems to be well hidden behind high walls of cruelty.

    3) While it may be true, that the next iteration of science may skip some steps or add other ones, the basic picture at some point will be quite similar, as some theories (like aether) simply don’t work, while others do. On the other hand, no specific religion is likely to appear again. So, while there probably will be an understanding of gravity, the idea that god started out by being in some kind of love-hate relationship with the jews, will probably not be around anymore. What will surely be around again are things that we know work well enough. The only chance not find gravity is to skip this step and get to the next step immediately (but of course, this step will, very likely, include all the working parts of the gravity theory).

    I agree, that there will be some other forms of religion and that these forms will come as a result of human psychology, no doubt about that, but specific religions will vanish. But of course, I would bet money on the idea that there will be a sun god again.

    And shamanism may be common, but that doesn’t prove that there is something “real” going on, just that people like to see patterns everywhere, which leads to spirits and gods. The only real thing you can conclude from that is that the brain is not perfect and you have to be very careful about your methods, otherwise it will lead you astray.

    • Science is absolutely limited to physical reality. The scientific method requires observation, measurement, and repeatability. That only works with matter and energy.

      The Truth is never boring to me (although “believer” is an inappropriate nomen). I’ve dealt with this more fully on another post, but there are really only two moral possibilities: either there is a moral force higher than humanity to which we are accountable, and in accordance with which we are moral/immoral, or humanity is the highest moral force. If the latter, there is no gauge for marking one person as more moral than another; we decide our own morality, which is therefore our own nature. If our morality is the same as our nature, we can never act immorally, and morality is meaningless.

      Actually, luminiferous aether worked VERY well, which is why Einstein had to go through such pains to disprove it, and it was such a shock to the scientific community. In fact, Aristotelian physics works very well for explaining 99% of physical phenomena observable by the naked eye in the real world (I.e., not in special lab conditions). And which “gravity” are you talking about? Newton’s? Einstein’s? Super-gravity? All of modern science is the result of 3,000 years of rebuttal to Aristotle; with that source material removed, human investigation could take a completely different form. Especially without the Christian environment which gave rise to science…

      However, even given the most secular possible version of the universe, every culture believes that it has a special relationship with the divine. So there is actually very little question of mythology arising in which the Jews are favored by God; as long as the rest of their culture remained unchanged the end product might be quite similar (but who knows, missing the original Mosaic Law?). The real question is, would it be as influential on the second go-round?

      Shamanism is not “common”; it is actually experienced by a tiny portion of humanity. But it is UNIVERSAL; it has existed in every culture around the world and throughout history, and the reported experiences are strikingly similar. Nor does it have to do with “seeing patterns”; what you are thinking of is called ” magical thinking”. Shamanism involves entering an altered state of consciousness and experiencing a richly symbolic version of reality. Which could be chalked up to hallucination, except for the strikingly similar nature of reported experiences from practitioners far separated.

      • Science works with everything that has any influence. If it doesn’t have any influence, correct, science has nothing to do with it. But then, as it has no influence, it can be assumed as not to exist. There could be an infinite number of things that don’t influence the universe at all – but there also could be none. If some non-physical phenomenon existed, it would either somehow influence reality or not. If not, we can ignore everyone claiming that it exists – no influence means that he’s making it up, as he cannot sense it – and if it has influence, we can go at it with scientific methods.

        Moral is a definition, so yes, you can say something is more moral than anything else. But of course, that depends on the moral system used – but fortunately, you can compare moral systems, for example by how well they allow individual freedom or stable societies. All of these basic ideas are, of course, viewed from an absolute viewpoint, arbitrary – but the result isn’t. Anyway, it’s surely neither absolute nor perfect, but it’s better than religious dogma, that only claims to be absolute morality.

        And it worked then, I doubt that it would work for today’s purposes. If we imagine two iterations of scientific progress, we can of course always find two random spots where they are completely different, no doubt about that. But we can also be quite sure, that theories like the aether will be thrown out sooner or later, as they simply aren’t good enough. Same with gravity, we can be reasonable sure that science will encounter Newton’s version and will find out later, that it’s good enough for many purposes, but not perfect. It could be, that Newton’s version is skipped, but quite unlikely. Specific religions on the other hand, do not depend on their usefulness or truth. It really does not matter at all if god exists for the success of Christianity, perhaps his non-existence is even a little bit better, as he can’t do anything to mess it up then…

        And sorry, I thought you were talking about the shamanistic/animistic worldview, not the actual practice. As technically everything is experienced only by a tiny portion of humanity, that alone doesn’t say much. But again, the similarities can be explained quite simply, without having to assume that the experiences are real, by simply assuming that this is how the brain works under certain conditions. Being drunk is also similar for many, many people – that doesn’t tell us anything besides the fact that our brains are not so different…

  2. Great post. I think what you miss is the aims.

    Science *aims* to find the truth and that’s why it updates itself all the time. It will constantly be trying to find the truth + Penn is saying that this is the whole point of it.

    Whereas religion simply defends the same stale way of thinking about the world + doesn’t try to discover the truth. It simply says “these stories are true” with no justification whatsoever. Take creationism – no attempt whatsoever to accept the facts that science has shed light on; it just clings to this outdated way of thinking despite its illogicality. And therein lies the problem with religion that Penn is highlighting.

    • Actually, no. Science does not aim to find the truth, it aims to build predictive models (otherwise we would use it to solve court disputes). If science aimed “to find the truth”, one would create an hypothesis and then try to find evidence to support it. Real science creates an hypothesis and then tries to disprove it. What survives is utilitarian, but that is not the same as true.

      As for religion… well, first, what you are actually describing is mythology. Hero-stories. Religion is culture-normative action (weddings, funerals, etc.). As for mythology being true, it is–but it’s truth is not of the empirically testable variety. Mythology is true because of what it teaches us about ourselves. Creationists and atheists both make the mistake of trying to force mythology into the role of history or science; from either direction, this results in psuedo-scientific nonsense.

      Accept mythology as mythology and it is true; try to make it history and it is false. Accept science as best-practice for prediction of physical events, and it is useful; use it as an arbiter of “truth” and you are lost.

      • To name but one series of religious texts, the Bible claims to be true and calling it metaphoric myths is one interpretation but then where do you end calling it metaphoric. You just end up cherry picking which bits you want to be metaphor and which bits you want to be real.

        As for your musings on science, there are many ways to educate yourself about the scientific method and you can find those yourself. Suffice to say the solution to your misunderstanding here is education. perhaps type in scientific method’ on Google and learn about the ways scientists validate their claims.

      • “the Bible claims to be true”
        Oh? Where? It is an anthology, after all…

        “then where do you end calling it metaphoric. You just end up cherry picking which bits you want to be metaphor and which bits you want to be real.”
        No, I study of the language and culture from which the books of the Tanakh and Peshitta were produced. Just as a first-century Armaic Jew reading the novel Star Wars would not understand the reference to a lightsaber, and would be mistaken to take such writing at face value, a modern reader presented with the stories of first-century Judea must understand what he is reading. This is magnified by reading in translation, which results in a loss of many of the implied meanings and cultural symbols of the original Aramaic.

        “the solution to your misunderstanding here is education”
        Ah, yes. Since we disagree, I must be uneducated. Tell me, do you believe that both general relativity and quantum mechanics is “true”? If so, then how are they mutually incompatible? And would you have felt just as surely that the luminiferous aether were “true” if you had been born 120 years ago, and all scientists agreed that it were?

        http://explorable.com/truth-and-theory.html

      • Hi I am on my phone and about to leave the house so I can’t reply fully yet. I will just say one thing: I am no scientist, have no idea what quantum mechanics has to do with religion and the fact scientists have changed based on new evidence is a good (not a bad) thing. Not changing when new evidence disputes previously held convictions is a problem with religion, not science.

      • “have no idea what quantum mechanics has to do with religion”
        Absolutely nothing.

        “the fact scientists have changed based on new evidence is a good (not a bad) thing”
        I couldn’t agree more. That is the nature and purpose of science.

        “Not changing when new evidence disputes previously held convictions is a problem with religion”
        There cannot be a conflict between science and religion. There is only conflict between science and psuedo-science.

  3. “But then, as it has no influence, it can be assumed as not to exist.”
    –Do you believe that “the number one” exists?

    “All of these basic ideas are, of course, viewed from an absolute viewpoint, arbitrary – but the result isn’t.”
    –But guaging the result is the definition of morality. You have just stated that, without recourse to a higher moral power, morality is arbitrary. Which is what I said. The freedom and stability you esteem are anathema to others, and without a higher moral power you have no recourse to assert the superiority of your view. Note also the U.S. Constitution, which posits our rights as being “endowed by our Creator”. There is a reason for this: any “right” which is simply provided by a government is, in truth, simply a revokable privilege. Only by placing our rights as the providence of a higher moral power can the be kept safe.

    “But we can also be quite sure, that theories like the aether will be thrown out sooner or later, as they simply aren’t good enough.”
    The point is, science has nothing to do with “truth”. Science is about creating predictive models. There is no reason to believe that the models we have created in our search for greater predictabiliy are the only way of achieving that predictability. Nor, in fact, is there any reason to believe that the universe is actually subject to rational investigation–unless you believe that it was created under the influence of a rational ordering principle…

    “Specific religions on the other hand, do not depend on their usefulness or truth.” Actually, they do. Empiricism is not the only standard of measuring either value.

    “as he can’t do anything to mess it up then”
    That is a rather immature understanding of the nature of God. In fact, what you are describing is “a god”–a supernatural anthropomorphization of some natural force. It is a category error to confuse the two.

    “by simply assuming that this is how the brain works under certain conditions.”
    If that were the case, then anybody could be a shaman. It has been demonstrated in every shamanic practice of which I am aware that initiation as a shaman is only possible for a few–yet this ability (which does not come without initiation), has existed in every population.

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