Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Limits Of Reason

Many individuals reject religion because it requires faith in things that cannot be proved. For many, the alternative to religion is “humanism” based on embracing reason. Reason and evidence can form the basis of a worldview that does not require faith.

But is this really true? Can humanism based on reason replace religion? Let’s consider what we mean by “reason”. It certainly seems reasonable to based one’s world view on reason. Reason is logical and basing our lives on logic permits us to avoid extremist viewpoints.

However, logic is no replacement for religion. Religion is about who we are and what we value. It is about the assumptions that motivate us in a fundamental way.

Logic, on the other hand, is more like a transportation device. With logic, we can start at some point A and get to another point B. A and B are not physical locations, but points in a journey of ideas and reason. Logic provides rules that allow us to combine ideas to get new ideas and insights.

Logic does not provide the starting point. If my ideas start here, logic can help my ideas get to there. But I can have ideas that are starting points. Logic and reason cannot help me with the starting points. There will always be ideas and thoughts that I simply have to accept, that I cannot derive from other ideas.

Many of the fundamental questions that religious people think about are ignored by humanists. Fundamental questions about why the universe exists, or what one should do within this universe, can be ignored. Pondering such questions might not help you in your job, or help you reach material goals. People who believe in the primacy of reason are well advised to steer clear of such imponderables.

There are those who will ask such difficult questions. The humanists will respond by saying “we don’t need to ask those questions, nor do we need to answer them.” Humanists are happy to ignore questions whose answers cannot be verified using logic. Yet, we cannot be sure such questions have no answer or meaning. I am not afraid to ask such questions, acknowledging that the answers may never be fully available. I am willing to consider questions that cannot be answered using reason. Certain questions about life may well be worth thinking about, even if the answers will remain elusive during our lifetimes.

The Supernatural in Science and Religion

An important aspect of the “religion versus science debate” is the acceptance, or not, of the supernatural. A “higher being” such as God is often viewed as a manifestation of the supernatural. To those who are strongly tied to scientific reasoning, supernatural beings are a problem. They don’t exist. Therefore, according to some scientists, religion is deeply flawed.

My book “Embrace The Infinite” does not dwell on this apparent conflict regarding the supernatural. This conflict is not fundamental to religion or science. Are spirituality and religion still important and “valid” in the scientific era? The answer to this question does not depend on the existence (or lack thereof) of the supernatural.

To illustrate my thinking on this point, consider the following scenario. Suppose one day a recognizable “supernatural” being appears in the sky. Perhaps this being is large in stature (several stories tall), complete with long flowing white beard and the ability to “float in air” without the aid of modern technology. Even the most diehard scientist would concede: if there is a God, then that’s it. This being then communicates with all humans in whatever tongue they are familiar with to admonish them or guide them towards religious truth.

Even if God visited according to the above scenario, many people would nevertheless maintain their skepticism about God’s existence. A significant number of people might assume the being that appears is either an alien creature from an advanced civilization, or a hoax. A core group of individuals would not believe that God had arrived and that we should listen to His message.

Now consider another scenario. This scenario involves a group of people who practice a particular form of worship. They do not worship a supernatural being, but rather they worship principles. Their religion is built upon a specific set of principles without reference to a supernatural being who created the principles. In this religion, the supernatural is not really considered much.

Is a religion built upon the worship of principles or ideas really a religion? Whatever your answer to this question, I think you will agree that such a religion (if it is one) need not invoke a supernatural being.

I believe one can have a religion built upon principles that does not invoke the supernatural. What makes this a religion rather than a philosophy is that religions require actions such as prayer, participation in the congregation, and moral behavior. Philosophy tends to be concerned with ideas under discussion, rather than a code on how to live. If one’s worship helps fulfill one’s sense of belonging and purpose, and leads to a code of behavior and practice, then that worship is part of a religion in my opinion.

All of this provides us a new way of thinking about religion. This new way is highly compatible with science. How about giving it a try and see where it leads you? If you are interested in the topics raised here, then consider obtaining a copy of my book “Embrace the Infinite”. You might find that science and religion need not fight each other after all.

The Method Called Science

Science is conducted using the scientific method. Does the scientific method teach us about the nature of reality? Is the scientific method taking over our lives and leading us astray?

In modern times, for many people their mantra is: “if I can’t verify it, I won’t believe it.” This mantra has come from belief in the scientific method. The scientific method is based on obtaining experimental evidence for one’s hypothesis or “guess” about a natural phenomenon. Absent this evidence, a scientist will not believe the hypothesis. Is the scientific method being applied too broadly in people’s lives?

Let’s work through a concrete example to illustrate what I mean. I see a bright shimmering light in the sky, and I wish to learn more about it. As a scientist, I build an instrument, launch it on a rocket, and send it into the light. The instruments on the rocket collect data, and the radio on the rocket sends the data back to me, providing lots of details about this beautiful light. I begin to form a hypothesis about what causes the light. I plan a new rocket launch with new experiments to test my hypothesis.

However, I notice there are gaps in the data. I come to realize that about half the light I am seeing is emanating from the places where there are data gaps. I am not sure why the gaps are there. I try to fix the problem by building and trying new equipment that is stronger and more robust. However, try as I might, after several more launches, the data gaps remain and I can never obtain data from these mysterious gap regions. Yet, much of what I see emanates from there.

It’s clear that because of the data gaps, I will never fully understand or describe what causes the beautiful light I am seeing. What am I to do?

My faith in the natural world tells me there is some natural explanation for the light, but I cannot figure out what it is. I can come up with many guesses, but I cannot obtain evidence to confirm those guesses. The scientific method can only take me so far but no farther. I am left with gaps in understanding what is happening to produce those lights.

This concrete example demonstrates that, as a method, science is limited in what it can reveal about “fundamental reality”. Thinking more broadly, we can understand that this particular example reveals a deeper truth. Science is not about discovering “fundamental reality”. It is about reasoning from the evidence we can obtain. When evidence is not available, science does not help us.

There are many important parts of your life for which science cannot provide evidence. The question you must answer is: do you care about these parts of your life? As a scientist, you wanted to know more about the light in the sky and understanding that light, yet the scientific method did not provide the understanding you needed. Do you ignore the phenomenon, or do you still care about it?

Science is a method that tells us certain things, but not other things. Can you really ignore all the things for which science cannot provide the answer?