Sabine Hossenfelder wrote an interesting essay that I mostly sympathize with:
Second, she concisely summarizes and exemplifies some qualitative differences between science and religion.
Third, she tells us that many people tend to ignore religions' commonalities with science and benefits they bring. I totally agree with that. Science and religion differ in some important ways but they still share some roots linked to the the human emotions, amazement, and curiosity – things that make us more precious than most animals. And aside from things that directly contradict science, religion also says many things that may have helped the human societies and that don't contradict science.
Fourth, it turns out that Sabine's most important inspiration that religions may offer to the scientists is a tool that should speed up her expected completion of the scientific revolution and the death of the religions: the effortless methods by which religions have penetrated and still penetrate into billions of minds. Sabine says that scientists should learn to become good speakers and preachers who are not dissimilar to the most captivating priests.
It's perhaps a nice and intriguing plan. It may also be a counterproductive or impossible one. Which adjectives are right? ;-)
While my attitude to religions has never been downright hostile – like my attitude to leftwingers, anti-string crackpots, and several other groups – I have never been meaningfully religious in any sense. But for decades, I have been noticing certain advantages that the religious people enjoy in the society.
Centuries ago, they had the right to burn an ideologically inconvenient person at stake – as a heretic. This special right has pretty much survived in numerous countries of the Islamic Anticivilization. Even in democratic countries, religions of various kinds enjoy some protection of a sort.
In many countries, you may even face trouble if you mention that Jesus Christ may have been an ordinary person or ħe didn't exist at all. Or if you inform anyone that Mohammed was a jerk who was sleeping with underaged girls that made Silvio's Berlusconi Ruby the Heartstealer a mature woman in comparison. (Poor Silvio got 7 years.)
But even the freedom to talk about "less personal" aspects of science and religion may be restricted in various otherwise civilized countries because such a freedom could clash with the sensibilities of the religious folks. I have always been amazed that the scientific "belief system" has never enjoyed a similar kind of protection.
Now, the science ends up with many conclusions that differ from the axioms of religions. More importantly, it has a very different methodology how the truth is being chosen from the candidate truths. But from some viewpoint, these are technicalities. What may be more important is that science may be – and should be – taken as seriously as religious people see religions and their teachings.
To be personal, let me mention that just like a Christian may be offended when he hears some unpleasant stories about Jesus Christ, I am offended when I hear people saying dismissive things about quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory, or some other important portion of science. I would surely like most of these folks to be burned at stake if there were a humane and acceptable infrastructure for such things. ;-)
But scientific gems aren't being defended in this way. Lawmakers etc. seem to believe that only lies, superstitions, and similar trash need to be protected. The actual truth doesn't need to be protected, the consensus seems to say. I just happen to disagree. Note that while science has followed a completely different methodology to reach its conclusions about the truth, we have a much greater confidence in many of its conclusions than religious people should have in any of the pillars of their faith. But the prevailing opinion seems to be that the scientific truth doesn't deserve the protection.
Why is that? The methodology with which science finds its truths is different from the methodology of religions. Of course that I think that the scientific method is superior just like the religious people may think that the religious method is superior. I have already proposed to treat these differences as technicalities. Science and religions also follow different kinds of "spiritual leaders". While science marches in the footsteps of some of the smartest, most hard-working, educated, sometimes modest, sometimes self-confident, but uniformly curious people such as Albert Einstein, religions get inspired by a mixture of folks of many types with an important flavor added by loud bigots, mass killers, morons, and power-thirsty demagogues. Maybe this difference between the leaders is why the societies think that it's OK to insult scientific insights but not the religious sensibilities? Only jerks and their mindless bootlickers need some protection, right?
But I didn't really want to write a text suggesting that everything is bad about religions because I don't really believe so. My main point is different: I am frustrated by the fact that the immense wisdom that science has brought to the mankind – including the journey that has led to the insights (and that will lead to new insights in the future) itself – isn't passionately believed to be a set of precious gems that deserve to be worshiped. Almost no one seems to be passionate about science. Almost whenever I see someone talking about science to a broader group, soon or later (usually very early!) I have to witness a sourball who really hates science and finds it boring and despicable. Almost every layman thinks that any talk about science is a reason for frustration, something we should emit poisonous words about. It's literally everywhere.
Yesterday, I watched an interview with Lisa Randall. The host asked (here) whether it was true that – as he understands it – the extra dimensions are just some boring refined junk that science chooses to study because the simpler kinds of junk have already been thrown in the trash bin. Yes, this is what extra dimensions – or at least every genuine scientific theory that surpasses its less accurate and less complete predecessors (something we can't reliably say about the extra dimensions yet) – exactly is. And this is why it is so magnificently glorious. This is what science is all about. Science is all about finding ever better theories that succeed where their previously triumphant predecessors failed.
Perhaps we have gotten used to the fact that we can't crucify the host for his staggering blasphemy. But it's worse than that. There doesn't even seem to be a consensus that by this dismissive talk about the most universal essence, spirit, and indeed the very point of science, he is proving himself to be a completely uneducated, uncultural imbecile. Why? Do all the people really misunderstand that he is an imbecile or is there just some suffocating atmosphere in the society that tells us that we shouldn't even say these self-evident things?
You may rightfully object that I should have avoided these morally colored comments because the actual reason why people are this dismissive about science and its insights is not their being immoral; it's simply their being stupid. They can try to learn something but there are certain innate limitations that can't be surpassed and the missing desire to actually understand science is the ultimate reason why they will remain ignorant and unexcited, even about fundamental questions.
And that's the main reason why I tend to think that this whole dream about a religion-resembling, science-worshiping community of billions of people is a mirage. (It took me a few years to understand that not even scientology was the science-based church I was looking for.) There simply don't exist billions of people who are capable of genuinely learning about the value of science – I mean a sufficient learning that is enough to make them "feel" why "science akbar" (this is a variation of "Allahu akbar" – "God is greater" – but I guess you have only heard about "Allahu akbar": this shows something, too). On the other hand, everyone is intelligent enough to buy some infantile superstitions served by the religions. Those are the ultimate reasons why churches may have hundreds of millions or billions of members while "passionate science fans" can't become billions.
And even mass movements that sometimes claim to be about science – like the environmentalist movement (and perhaps the Marxist movement in general) – are more or less guaranteed to become just another irrational religion that finds itself in a fundamental conflict with science, its spirit, its values, most of its insights, and its methodology. The reason is that in such mass movements, other priorities that the generic people actually care about (need for egalitarianism; the dream about the return to the non-technological civilization) get in charge and these priorities aren't equivalent to science. In groups of people that are too inclusive, science is reduced either to a misleading sticker or to a slave serving someone more powerful.
These are tough facts but they are facts, anyway. We would love to see science as the fine angel that enjoys the love and protection from all the good people who are – as we like to hope – a majority of the mankind. People such as your humble correspondent who have a clear theoretical inclination in their attitude to the values of the world are passionate about the scientific truth and view it as a delicate pure spirit that should be loved. But most people just don't see anything of the sort.
There are still lots of people who know some science and technology and who benefit from it which is the main or only reason why they have some respect for it. After all, the whole human species has benefited from advantages relatively to some other species that could be summarized as their better skills in science and especially technology. But note that the actual reason why science has been important according to the evolution of life is something completely different than its being a pure angel linked to the Creator.
Instead, whether you like it or not, evolution sees science as the nuclear bomb detonating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The cavemen and early farmers have found similar but less advanced technologies that made them more competitive.) In this real-world optics, science has always been a source of additional powers, however indirect, and these powers could have made small groups of people (or the mankind itself) much more powerful than large groups of people (or other organisms) that don't have this power. The first two nuclear bombs were developed by hundreds of people if I count really everyone; they have killed 100,000 or so. Clearly, the ratios may become even more extreme.
I don't like to think – and I will never think – about science in this applied-research-oriented way. For me, science starts with the pure science, with the passion for the truth. But because the mankind has evolved according to the laws of evolution, it's more or less inevitable that most humans only see science through the lens of its applications that have influenced the evolution of life (and societies). So it's perhaps inevitable that an overwhelming majority of the people don't see any pure angels inside science. In my optics, they may be uncultural morons and dirty sciencewise infidels. I can't do anything efficient about it because by contradicting this fact about the majority's attitude to science, I would contradict an important scientific theory, namely Darwin's theory of evolution.
Science may be marketed as something that belongs to all the people but if you actually only count those who "sleep with science", it will always be a tiny elite – or let's say, more neutrally, a minority. This minority shouldn't really try to throw the pearls of science to everyone because it's mostly throwing pearls to the swines. I hope that the swines who like physics and who managed to read this blog entry won't be insulted by my decision to use swines as an insult. In fact, I tend to think that those who "sleep with science" should try to maintain a somewhat more exclusive access to the applications of science, too. We have gotten used to the paradigm that science (including its useful technological applications) should be spread for free but maybe this whole attitude is counterproductive because we're de facto artificially setting the market price of science to zero – the price of anything that you can have for free – and this could be one of the reasons why people aren't passionate about science.
I hope that you have understood that I wrote these ideas in a far more dramatic way than what I believe. But I do believe in the essence of what I have written, anyway. The tone may have been a bit provocative or humorous but the message I want to communicate is damn real.
Incidentally, there are even some details in the discussion on Backreaction where I totally agree with Sabine. Brian Clegg wrote:
I would disagree on one point - I think we are all born agnostics, not atheists, and that agnosticism is the truly scientific approach (even Dawkins has said that technically he is agnostic, not atheist). See http://brianclegg.blogspot.com/2013/06/of-agnostics-and-unicorns.htmlThis is a sort of a politically correct, fashionable softening of the terminology. If you want to be really smart, you don't say that you're an atheist. Instead, you're an agnostic. Well, I think it is bullshit, especially in this context. Sabine rightfully explained that an "agnostic" is someone who's been exposed to the idea of God, gods, or religion and he or she decided that the question is either ill-defined or its answer is unknown or undecidable.
But to switch to this status of an "agnostic", you must first be exposed to the idea of God, gods, or religions. This exposure doesn't occur before you're born which does mean that humans are atheists, not agnostics, when they're born.
Maybe the disagreement here is about something that goes beyond terminology and image. Clearly, religious people often believe that humans are born as God's babies. Because agnostics are in between the believers and the atheists, at least they claim so, they could also believe that there is some chance or some sense in which people could be born as God's babies, too – so they could already be born with some framework to answer religious questions, i.e. born as agnostics.
OK, perhaps, but if this is the question that decides about the difference, then I am an atheist, not an agnostic. According to science, people just can't be born with any special relationship to any Creator or any agent linked to the fundamental laws governing the Universe, so they may have no opinions about it, either. They're born as clever pieces of meat that is able to perform certain functions and learn many other functions as it gets older. They need to learn something before they may try to answer some questions based on the language, including religious ones. They need some empirical input to be even motivated to search for such answers. These things simply can't happen before they're born – and when we talk about any specific enough idea of God, they can't take place without an interaction with other humans because such an interaction is needed to communicate all the traditions and ways how all the ideas are conventionally framed.
In this sense, God (one close to any particular religion's God or gods) is a purely man-made construct. I may still be agnostic about some more general types of God but as long as I respect the insights that science has made, such a not-yet-excluded God simply can't have any special relationship with humans so humans can't be born with this relationship, either. They're inevitably born as Godless babies – as atheists.
Brian Clegg tells us on his blog that he is annoyed by suggestions that God is analogous to the unicorns. The latter may be ruled out (because they are material) but the former can't, he says. I think that this qualitative difference is completely spurious. From the viewpoint of evolving scientific knowledge, God is extremely analogous to the unicorns. All of them were originally "very clean, nearly holy" creatures that lived at a particular place and that had some nearly anthropomorphic properties. When the strongest versions of these hypotheses or beliefs were found incompatible with some easily accessible empirical data, people started to weaken (and are still weakening) the hypotheses, making God and unicorns ever more abstract and invisible. Of course, people wouldn't talk about something invisible if it had no impact so they're also strengthening the "powers and special properties" that these increasingly legendary creatures possess. The only difference between God and unicorns is that the former is still believed much more passionately than the latter – largely because It or He or She was assigned much more ambitious virtues and skills.
Arun mentions that
Islam teaches that everyone is born Muslim, until parents corrupt them.Well, nice. But that's exactly the type of statements that are agreed by the reasonable people to be nothing else than an arrogant medieval stupidity, a demagogy designed to demonize the atheists and believers in other faith systems. Only Muslims are the proper people, everyone else is a dirty renegade. The reality is exactly the opposite. Everything that is refined, clean, safe, deep, going beyond the basic material needs required for survival, and so on is a result of the human activity, patient refinement, and accumulation of wealth so we're not born with these attributes. Islam and its holy books are man-made products, too.
We're born nude, with bare buttocks, and relatively uneducated. We may still be cute when we're born but we're born just like all other animals – at least some of them are cute when they're born, too. Even the underwear and basic clothes are something we add after we are born, along with all the required exercises, work we have to do, and especially social traditions, habits, myths, and sometimes valuable knowledge, too.
This reminds me of the crazy comments that capitalism causes poverty, and so on. In Feynman's words, the idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there’s only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them. Quite on the contrary. People are born poor. They don't naturally possess anything beyond their naked bodies. The wealth is something they create and knowledge, know-how, man-made structures connecting the society, and accumulation of the capital are necessary conditions for the creation of wealth. But you won't be able to explain these basic facts about the inner workings of the world to Arun who is both an apologist for Islamic stupidities as well as an unhinged Marxist – a really explosive combination of two powerful (7th century and 19th century) delusions.
By the way, I also endorse Sabine's subsequent comments about the consistency of observations with science (and not religions) and about the non-existence of a "scientific culture" that would be an inseparable property of science in the human society and that would imply a limitation of science analogous to the limitations of the religions. Science doesn't have any limitations of this kind. People and groups of people may have limitations in their ability to think scientifically but science itself has no such limitations.
I will proofread this text later. The final episode of Circus Humberto is getting started on TV.