October 24, 2018

Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “>revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the “>Halakhah, that is, traditional Jewish legal principles expressed in accepted writings like the “>New Atheists.  One of the more prominent members of this group is “>Sam Harris, concedes that humankind cannot live by reason alone and acknowledges with favor “spiritual” and “mystical” experiences.  (See The End of Faith (W. W. Norton, 2004) at 43.) But he, like Dawkins, criticizes “faith,” defined as the kind of unreasoned life orientation toward “certain historical and metaphysical propositions” that has motivated many for millennia.  He compares this kind of faith not just to ignorance, but to mental illness and violent fanaticism. (See Id. at 64-65, 80-107, 131.)                          

Is there a third way, one less rigid and that disparages neither science nor faith?  Another approach, often articulated by “faithful” scientists, attempts to bridge the divide by arguing that science is, at its core, no different than faith.

The late physicist and astronomer  “>Nobel prize in 1964 for his part in the development of lasers and subsequently was one of the discovers of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. He was also a devout Christian. Townes thought that religion and science were two methods which could be used to understand the universe and, moreover, were complimentary. More specifically, he claimed that “>Paul Davies, another physicist and director of the “>Daniel Sarewitz, one of Davies’ colleagues at ASU, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist “>dissected the argument that science and religion both rest on faith. Quoting Princeton philosopher “>Little Orphan Annie may tell us that we can bet our bottom dollar that “>“hereditary information in humans and almost all other organisms.” The stories told by the analyses of both corroborate each other and lead to confidence in the shared conclusion:  modern humans, Homo sapiens, did not emerge fully formed within the last six thousand years. Rather, our order of mammals, characterized by placentas, opposable thumbs and relatively large brains, begat a smaller family of ape like creatures, Hominidae, which have such distinguishing features as thirty-two teeth and extended parenting.  About seven million years ago, give or take, that family generated two branches. One led ultimately to chimpanzees and bonobos, the other to a group collectively called homonims. Perhaps five million more years passed until the emergence of the genus Homo. Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared about 200-300,000 years ago.   (See Coyne, Why Evolution is True (Penguin Books 2010) at 4, 8, 190-212.)

The process by which science attempts to determine truth is called the scientific method. It consists of a series of discrete, though interrelated, steps that loop back at one or more points so that the idea at issue is constantly refined and, if possible, falsified or verified.

The process can be summarized as follows:

   1. Observe phenomenon

   2. Ask questions

    3. Develop a hypothesis

    4. Predict an outcome

    5. Test the hypothesis

    6. Gather data

    7. Evaluate results

    8. Falsify, modify or confirm hypothesis

    9. Share conclusions

Once we understand the nature of the scientific method, it is clear how different religion’s approach is to the resolution of perceived puzzles. Religion may begin with observations, but then its methodology departs from the scientific framework. Religion may, for instance, tell a story about how one person’s walking staff miraculously turned into a snake or generated sprouts, blossoms and fruit (see Ex. 7:10-12, Nos. 17:16-23), and you can choose to accept those stories as historical facts, unique and sacred, or as literary devices, but certainly the text contains no prediction that the outcomes would ever be the same if the incidents were repeated and no attempted replication is ever attempted.

Astrophysicist “>Hayden Planetarium and popular science communicator, likes to say, essentially, that “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It’s a “>is not truth, but a process for attempting to find truth.

And, as Tyson also surely knows, the scientific method has its limits. Sometimes our tools and techniques are not sufficient or are not used correctly and rigorously enough to measure natural phenomena accurately or completely. The geocentric model of the universe advanced by Ptolemy appeared to work reasonably well for centuries to explain the movement of planets and stars, and even successfully to predict events like eclipses. But it was a flawed model, and ultimately replaced by the Copernican view, which itself was refined by, among others, “>Newton who utilized calculus and “>here.) What this teaches us, however, is not that the scientific method is not to be trusted as much as that over time science tends to self-correct.

And to be fair, though Messrs. Dawkins and Harris and Coyne might not agree, religion can and sometimes does too. Judaism today is surely not the Judaism of the Temple periods, when the biblical stories were collected, redacted and canonized. Nor is it the Judaism of the Talmudic period, when oral conversations about a myriad of topics were reduced to writing and became precedential and even binding. Similarly, Judaism transitioned through its medieval and modern periods.

Today, some Jews may still follow Rabbi Schneerson in his belief in the literal truth of the biblical creation story, but not the majority.

Today most  understand that the story was not meant to assert a scientific truth as much as an allegorical one, that it was not meant to describe the origins of the cosmos as much as set the stage for a social and historical drama.

 In short, Jewish thought has evolved from the biblical perspective on everything from the grand question of the origin of the universe to the less cosmic but very serious issues of abortion and same sex marriage.[See, e.g., “>here.)  And it has done so not by hierarchical decree, because for two thousand years Jews have not had a High Priest or an accepted religious governing structure. Rather, Jews have developed their Judaism organically and for the last several centuries in the context of a European “>Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, accept that science and religion both “seek to decode mysteries,” but do so with different techniques and for different purposes, that  they are “different intellectual enterprises,” one about “explanation” and the other about “interpretation.”  For them, the “Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science.”  (See Sacks, The Great Partnership (Schocken 2011), at 284-85.) Consequently, for the overwhelming majority of Jews there is no need to rationalize the non-rational or to engage in contortions to conflate ancient stories and modern science. (See, e.g., “>here and “>here.) For now, let’s be grateful for a little clarity on the nature of religious faith and scientific confidence.

(A version of this essay appeared previously at