Wednesday, December 08, 2004

FAITH AND UNCERTAINTY IN SCIENCE AND RELIGION

Science and Religion have always fought a relentless battle based on methods and convictions. Many people devote a good deal of thought and time trying to think of ways that could weed out differences between them. The issues of contention are manifold and profound; certainty, faith, belief, and rationality. I don't know when these differences between two fundamental edifices, one of nature and the other of human creation, will be resolved, if ever. The debate is really between rational people who are critical and those who essentially subscribe to dogma. In recent years, instead of arguing about the discrepancies between science and religion, the dogmatists have sought a clever way out- to try to demonstrate that science and religion in fact have common goals. This would be a minor nuisance at most, if they also did not insist that science and religion also share the same philosophy and methodology. I think that more than anything else, opponents of science use two weapons to make people believe that scientists are just like them-faith and uncertainty. Their way of 'reconciliation' is to try to prove that fundamentally, there is no difference between science and religion, or pseudoscience in general.

Many religious people still assume that certainty is the hallmark of science and that a lack of irrevocable faith is what distinguishes scientists from pseudoscientists. While this assumption is fallacious in the first place, to counter this point, they usually make the following arguments:
1. Modern science is replete with theories that are uncertain, the archetypal and most overwrought examples of them being supposedly Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and evolution. Evolution is probably the biggest area of contention for the pseudoscientists. They are glad of pointing out the lack of 'experimental' data for many of the axioms of evolution. Thus, they say that there is no difference between evolution and creationism because both are tentative 'theories'.
2. 'Faith' is another word which has been abused by them. They say that every scientist has faith in the rational method. There is no possible reason (except perhaps induction) why the 'rational method' should work all the time. Hence, they conclude, scientists are just like themselves, mostly advancing their case based on personal faith.
Both of the above misleading arguments are used by pseudoscientists to try to 'win scientists over', and to demonstrate to society that both are in fact birds of the same feather. Let us take a critical look at each of these points.

1. Uncertainty: As far as this is concerned, the pseudoscientists are absolutely right in their preliminary evaluation. Science has always been a tentative process. The history of science is full of examples when someone came along and refuted a previous theory. Copernicus refuted the geocentric view of the Universe, Wohler refuted the 'vitalism' theory of biology, and probably most profoundly, Darwin refuted the biblical 'theory' of creationism. In the twentieth century, physics provides the most striking example. Relativity and Quantum Theory both changed our view of the world, and annuled many previous ideas, the most significant being the existence of the 'luminiferous ether'. The pseudoscientists claim that since this has always been the trend, why shouldn't it be possible to accept the existence of God and creationism sometime in the future? Well, the answer to this question depends on an understanding of the scientific method itself. First of all, the meaning of a 'theory' in science is completely different from, say the meaning of the 'theory' of creationism. Science starts with a set of assumptions and then makes hypothesis regarding particular phenomena. If observation supports the hypothesis repeatedly, then it is accepted as the best representation of the world at the moment. Many such hypotheses, combined with many many observations supporting them, finally become a theory. The other hallmark of a theory is that it is not self-contradictory, and it makes use of logical steps which can be deduced from the assumtions. Note that we are not saying anything about the assumptions themselves. They are true only insofar as the hypotheses derived from them are supported by observations. Another way in which a theory is confirmed in science is by cross-observations from many different systems. For example, if one wanted to verify Newton's laws of motion, a compelling piece of evidence would be their veracity in many diverse systems, for example, for a ball rolling down an inclined plane, for the motion of the planets, and for water flowing downhill. Very importantly, it may happen that a particular observation does not support a hypothesis. However, that does not necessarily obviate the theory. There may be an experimental error made, or maybe that observation is related to an assumption assumed, but not actually present in the theory. Conversely, the assumption may not hold in the natural system at all. For example, if one notices that the volume and pressure of a gaseous system don't have an inverse relationship, it probably would be because the temperature is not constant, which is an implicit assumption in Boyle's Law. So when checking the applicability of a good theory, it is important to note that the system under observation lends itself to the same assumptions that the theory makes. Anyway, so the other characteristic of a good theory is its generality. The more general a theory is, the more convincing it becomes. Again, the generality should be consistent with the assumptions and these must be clearly laid out. Falsifiability is another criterion for an accepted theory. One should be able to think of possible, well-defined experiments that could refute the theory if it fails these tests. If the theory passes these tests, its credibility usually increases.

With many years of such stringent testing, a theory finally becomes well-accepted. However, it is still possible, although the possibility is extremely low, that we find a system in which all the assumptions and hypotheses of the theory hold but still the theory's predictions are not true. Two things may happen then; the theory may have to be modified and further hypotheses introduced, or it may need to be discarded. Now here, I am not using the word 'discarded' in its usual sense. I don't mean that, suddenly, because of one anomalous observation, they theory completely breaks down. Certainly not. It still keeps on explaining all those phenomena which it had explained earlier. A common misconception is that quantum theory toppled Newton's theories. That's not true as far as everyday phenomena are concerned. We can still perfectly explain most phenomena in everyday life using Newton's laws. It is only in the domain of the subatomic world that these laws break down and have to be explained using unusual probabilistic concepts. So, even today, Newtonian physics is still anything but obsolete.
Lastly, and most importantly, the real value of a theory lies in its predictability. It should be able to make reasonable predictions about as yet unknown phenomena or undone experiments. Again, that does not mean that it should be able to explain anything and everything. Sometimes, the current level of sophistication just does not allow that kind of prediction and explanation. For example, technically, all of life can be explained if we know the laws of physics and chemistry, because all living systems are built from molecules, and finally from atoms. Centuries after the first postulation of the existence of atoms, and many years after incredible advances in molecular sciences, the puzzle of life is still standing, and probably will be so forever. That does not mean there is a problem with the laws of chemistry. It just means that we haven't yet reached the degree of sohistication required to 'explain life' using them.
Finally, it is almost a truism to note that the true judge of any theory is experiment. As Richard Feynman says, if a theory does not agree with experiment, it's wrong. Period. Again, we should be sure of the accuracy of our experiments. Corroboration from many sources from different parts of the world, and repeated observation, helps in deciding this.
To summarize, science is a complex network of assumptions, ideas and theories, all of which are synergistically reinforced, and in turn help to reinforce experiment. The requirement for self-consistency and agreement with experiment is very stringent. No wonder that many scientific theories never make it past the drawing board.

Now let us look at some of the 'theories' developed by the pseudoscientists. First of all, it is interesting to note that for every unexplained observation, every profound phenomenon, they seem to have a theory. Evolution, UFOs, telepathy, psychokinesis and life itself, every one of these and more have fallen prey to intricate deconvolution by them. The reason is simple. They don't bother to do experiments, and in fact they don't trust in experiments, at least the kind of experiments that are known to science to be decisive. Actually, this is a very easy way of theorising and the pseudoscientists don't demonstrate any high degree of intelligence in doing this. If I wanted to explain digestion, and I did not know a thing about enzymes and the anatomy of the digestive system, what is going to stop me from postulating that digestion takes place due to the presence of little dwarfs running around in my stomach with sickles, chopping up particles of food? No matter that I am simply engaging in armchair speculation, and that any number of experiments could immediately prove me wrong. The pseuodoscientists simply don't bother about controlled experiments. Sometimes they do do 'experiments', but ones which could be interpreted exactly the way they want. I remember the old joke about the scientist who cuts off all the legs of a cockroach, and then seeing that it wouldn't walk anymore, concludes that cutting off the legs led to it becoming brain-dead! The answer to such fallacious conclusions is simply more experiments, including controls, which are a hallmark of science. But the pseudos don't care about experimentation. They start with a random assumption, and then derive conclusions based on them which explain a fact. Sometimes they even do it 'logically' and claim that they are using the 'scientific method'. Again, that's not difficult to do at all. If I start with a false assumption in the first place, then it is possible to derive anything I want from that assumption using 'logical' arguments. Consider the following argument: 'All men are ants. Socrates is a man. Hence Socrates is an ant'. Perfectly logical, except that the initial premise is completely false! However, when the pseudoscientists are challenged about this, their specious reply usually is, 'Even in science there are assumptions which are not justified. What about 2 + 2= 4? What's the proof of that assumption?'. True. Except that they forget that even though that may be an axiom, almost every one of the hundreds of thousands of hypotheses and the conclusions drawn from that assumption have been tested and retested and cross-tested by experiment. It is extremely unlikely (and I am not saying plain 'false' only because I am a student of science) that the assumptions underlying such a universal system of explaining reality which has consistently worked for centuries would be 'wrong'. What the pseudoscientists don't realise is the cohesive nature of science. It's a package. You can question axioms indefinitely, but it's impossible to question the entire system, which in fact they are doing (Unless of course, you decide to question experiment itself, including what you see, hear and measure, in which case I would stop arguing with the pseudos and start completely ignoring them).

However, the most important way the pseudoscientists try to convince us of the soundness of their 'theories' is by making assumptions that simply cannot be tested by experiment. Creationism is a popular example. The general statement that there are little green men a million light years away playing hide and seek is another. There is no way to justify, or falsify these 'theories'. To reinforce their point, the pseudos make a case about theories in 'normal' science which are not justified. I think the best case in point is the field of astrophysics. We know that astrophysicists make predictions about black holes, quasars, and events occuring in remote galaxies. Many of these cannot be verified by direct experiment. Does that mean that these theories are any less 'scientific' than, say, Boyle's Law? Not really. Where they cannot be strong experimentally, these theories make up mathematically. The theory of black holes, for example, follows from Relativity, which itself has been rigorously justified. Moreover, let us again consider the idea of self-consistency, which I think makes a strong case for such theories. What would happen if the entire theory of black holes is wrong? That would probably also question many of the assumptions on which it is based which are derived from relativity theory. Again, it is extremely unlikely that the theory of relativity is fallacious, because its uncertainty would in turn lead to uncertainty in the assumptions on which IT is based and so on.
Evolution is probably the greatest debate in this respect. The fact is, except in certain specialized circumstances, we cannot actually demonstrate evolution as it happened on earth. The pseudos take this to mean that evolution is actually no more certain than any of the fantastic theories that they propose. However, there is so much data in support of evolution, including evidence from fossil deposits, made incontrovertible by radioactive dating, that it is virtually impossible to question the theory of evolution. The pseudos' argument is akin to asking for 'direct' evidence that a murder took place. No matter how much evidence the police collect, usually it is impossible to 'prove' that the murder actually happened. Nonetheless, when the weight of evidence becomes so large that a strong case can be made against the suspect, he is convicted and sentenced. It's a similar case for evolution, except that the weight of evidence is much more convincing here. Since the theory of evolution has not been 'proved' according to the pseudos, they don't see the harm in admitting their theories as valid descriptions of nature as well. It does not matter that clean and concrete evidence for their ideas is non-existent. The writer John Casti gives a nice analogy for this. He says that the pseudos are like racing enthusiasts who want to enter a car equipped with a jet engine into the Grand Prix, because after all, someday the rules may be changed to allow such a car in the race! By refering to a future but as-yet-unknown state of science, the cranks are in effect refusing to participate in the compeition. That would be all right if they didn't at the same time insist on entering the race. However, since the pseudos don't have a high regard for experiment and the self-consistent way of appraisal that lies at the heart of any scientific theory, they have no hesitation in equating their ideas with scientific ones. I have yet to come across a single pseudoscientist, who can give a theory for the existence of God that is self-consistent and that can be repeatedly verified by experiment. I guarantee that I will become a convert from a skeptical agnostic once that happens.

So what about uncertainty? This was what we were getting at all this time by describing the nature of science and pseudoscience, and by now, it is more or less clear. In science, there is uncertainty. However, it's not of the kind which demolishes an entire theoretical edifice. A great example is the Uncertainty Principle in quantum theory. It does not make life uncertain. If it were really that uncertain, we would not be able to do anything useful using quantum mechanics. The fact is, quantum mechanics has given us more accurate explanations of physical phenomena, and more practical applications than any other theory in science. If not anything else, nothing succeeds like success. So this is a very special type of uncertainty. It puts a fundamental barrier on our knowledge of the subatomic world, but not one which suddenly transforms the entire theory into a shaky foundation. The tentative nature of science has been grossly misunderstood by the pseudos. Tentative does not mean that I suddenly stop believing today what I believed in yesterday. It just means that I should always be ready to revise and revitalise my ideas about the natural world. Whatever I believe, the facts don't change. What we have is the current best model of the world. But for us and science, even 'current best' is extraordinarily good. Lastly and quite simply, lack of proof for a particular theory does not automatically imply the existence of another. 'Lack' of direct evidence of evolution does not mean the existence of creationism, as the creationists claim. For a true scientist, the lack of evidence means just that, that the matter has to be further investigated. Period. The bottom line is, uncertainty in science and uncertainty in pseudoscience have a completely different meaning. For a scientist, all of pseudoscience is uncertain in a fundamental way. The whole structure of pseoduscience is tinged with selfishness and personal bias. There is no objectivity in it, which can be confirmed or falsified even by other 'believers'. And talking about belief, that brings us to the second contentious debate, that of faith.

2. Faith: Faith, in my opinion, is the 'raison d' etre' that religion exists. The very existence of people with fanatic faith in religion and God means that they have exhausted all other ways of convincing themselves to believe in these concepts. For a scientist, if experiment proves his theory, he does not need to put his 'faith' in it so ardently. The usual claim that is made by the pseudos is that scientists have faith in rationality and the scientific method. There is no reason, per se, why this should be so. Hence, since even scientists engage in a belief system of some kind, the pseudos conclude that there is no difference between them and scientific thinkers. This is completely absurd. Again, just as in the above example, the meaning of 'faith' for a scientist and a pseudo is totally different. The faith of the scientist is a product of many assumptions and tentative beliefs. It is not eternal and unchanging. He is ready to change his faith if the evidence demands it. From that perspective, his is not a 'faith' in the usual sense of the term. Moreover, his faith does not change the way nature is, whereas the pseudo's faith dictates his actions and their results. This is another piece of evidence that the pseudo has nothing but his faith to come to his aid. Is faith in rationality inappropriate? Does a scientist's faith in rationality make him someone not too different from the pseudo, who has fallen in love with his own philosophy? The pseudos seem to think, that precisely because one of the hallmarks of science is uncertainty and change, the scientist should be ready to abandon his belief in rationality too! This is another one of the pseudos' 'logical' arguments! Again, it's not too difficult to counter it. However tentative science has been, rationality is probably the only thing that has been consistent in science. Sometimes, when the current best theory does not give a rational answer to a problem, the scientist may think 'irrationally' but what he is really doing is thinking outside the box. When the puzzle is finally straightened out, the initial 'irrational' thought turns out to be a part of a perfectly rational scaffold. The illusion of irrationality exists only in our mind. For example, when Linus Pauling discovered his famous helical structure of proteins, he made a highly unorthodox assumption about the structure of the amino acids comprising the protein. 'Irrational' as the assumption may have seemed to some people at the time, in hindsight, it turned out to be a part of a consistent theory of protein structure, one that has been validated by thousands of examples. When certain nuclear transformations could not be explained in the 1930s, scientists postulated the existence of a third neutral particle in the nucleus, the neutron. This may have looked like a random hypothesis advanced by a pseudo, except that in this case, it was completely validated and became an essential component of all atomic theories, not to mention an instrument of far reaching consequences. So if a pseudo accuses a scientist of having 'faith in rationality', he is only fooling himself. It's almost a trivial statement. Yes, a scientist has faith in rationality, if not for any other reason, for the reason that rationality is the only way to think about a problem in the first place. And if we don't even think, how can we expect to solve ANY problem?

I am writing about all this because I feel concerned, just like many of you, about the rising fanatic religious and pseodoscientific sentiment in the world. After all, we are all trying to find a solution for all our problems. Can science provide a solution? Certainly not. However, I do think that religion has created more problems than it has solved ever since the dawn of mankind. More people have been, and are being killed, in the name of religion than in the name of any other human endeavor. I don't hesitate to say that that is not the case for science. Technology, yes. But not science.

We may not even be able to solve all our problems finally. We don't know what solutions are going to work. But what we do know is that we have to think rationally. Maybe in the end, it may not work. But at least we would have given it a try and can be satisfied with the effort. With religion, all we have is dogma which we follow mindlessly. In the end, our goal is to have a peaceful and content society. If religion can bring that peace, even on an individual level (and I don't deny that it has to many) I have no objection. But a system based on dogma always has the chance of easily going astray. We have seen this happen for religion and communism. To counter this, we need people who will dissent against dogma or at least always be skeptical of it. Scientists are the best candidates for this job, because their very belief system is free of dogma in the first place. The tentative nature of science makes it a wonderful instrument for creating change and social awareness. When I say 'scientists', I don't mean just scientific researchers. I mean absolutely everyone who can think in a reasonably scientific way, taking a balanced and rational approach toward situations. I dare say that that includes many of us, certainly enough to make a difference if we try. So finally, the real question is, can rationality save us? I don't know. But as Winston Churchill would have said, 'Rationality seems the most awful way of solving all our problems...until we realise the alternatives to it...'

2 Comments:

Blogger Sumedha said...

Ashutosh, it will take a great deal of time and thought to dare to comment on this massive post!!
(I just contradicted myself:-) )

3:50 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sumedha, let me thank you in advance for reading the post and commenting! And there's no question whatsoever of 'daring' to comment. At most, this post deals with random thoughts of mine; at worst, it will contain the ravings of a lunatic mind. :)

4:36 PM  

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