Thursday, March 31, 2005

Religion and Science....

Joe Carter's site often provides grist for the mill, and today is one of those times when Carter deserves a response not just from a Buddhist perspective, but from a scientific/engineering perspective.

Claiming that there is a “gap” between science and religion, for instance, is generally a sign that a person knows nothing about either science or religion. That appears to be the case with Pinkerton. He correctly notes that Christianity is based on revealed metaphysical truths. What he fails to recognize is that science is also based on revealed metaphysical truths.

Take, for instance, one of the most basic foundational assumptions necessary for scientific inquiry: the universe exists. That statement is revealed (we know it is true because it is revealed to us by our senses), metaphysical (based on an ontological assumption about existence) and true (if it weren’t true then science would be futile). In fact, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the history of science knows, religion provided the foundation for scientific knowledge to take root and flourish.

But this is merely picking the straw from his strawman. The clash of worldviews is not between “scientific” and “religious” worldviews but between a selectively applied utilitarianism and other non-utilitarian moral theories. A purely “scientific” worldview would, of course, be neutral on the Schiavo case since science makes no claims about what is and is not moral. Even if it were used to inform ethics, however, the scientific facts are rather clear. Schiavo is a living being who can continue to live with the use of medical technology. There is no “scientific” justification for removing her feeding tube.

Carter's viewpoint is wobbly creaky all around it seems:

  • Sciences' basis in "metaphysical" truths is, from the standpoint of science, largely irrelevant. Science is phenomenological: it deals with phenomena - observed things. There is perhaps the "metaphysics" in assuming "science works," i.e., that a repeated observation/experiment will yield consistent results when there are no unaccounted for variables, causes, etc., but other than making sure everything is controlled, there is no great deal of attention that needs to be paid to this metaphysic other than acknowledging that it exists. As to why this metaphysic is true, from a scientific viewpoint, who cares?

  • Carter's use of the word "revealed" needs to be explored. ("Christianity is based on revealed metaphysical is also based on revealed metaphysical truths.") Carter is making an equivalence between the "revelation" of scripture and the eyes and ears and nose and tongue and body and mind. This should be profoundly disturbing to anyone with a scientific background: Anybody could claim a revelation from anything on a par with "eyes ears nose tongue body and mind. Take your pick: Ramtha, Joseph Smith, Pope John Paul II, Joe Carter. One side note: we Buddhists don't really talk of such "revelations," we are lamps unto ourselves. But more on that below.

  • As far as "truth" of science, again, science is phenomenological, and so statements of "truth" are always contditional, provisional, or tentative. Scientists don't do ontology, and engineers as applied scientists don't even go near words like that.

  • Carter's statement about what "science" would have to say about "Terri" would apply to a piece of skin I might cut off while chopping onions; the deeper question is what science, as we know it today, would leave unsaid or unkown. We are pretty convinced, based on the evidence, that there's a connection between a lack of conciousness and the CT scans we've seen. Carter left that out, and that's the nub of the argument: when does a human being transition to/from a clump of cells that may/may not ever be human? This may be a scientific question, and that's what Pinkerton was pointing at, and that's what probably really disturbs Carter.

That said, what about "science" and "Buddhism?"

My physics professor in school (where all students studying physics were engineering stucents), when asked how specifically charge was a property of the electron (decomposing an electron into quarks only really pushes the question one level further on the stack) replied, "Who cares? I'm a plumber."

And so were we being trained to be plumbers: we were taught that it is good to teach yourself enough to understand a problem in as much depth as expressible, but to provide solutions with maximum efficacy. And so, by and large, are Buddhists: we have a lot to do, and we can't afford to go down tangents that lead to things that will wind up as clutter rather than be used.

There's folks around who'll claim that Buddhism is "most scientific" of the religions, and I will admit to cringing at that. Why? Because even if it's true (and I think based on epistemological reasons alone a good argument can be made for its truth), it's irrelevant. I don't practice Buddhism because I'm an engineer, I practice Buddhism because I have experience with its transformative power in regards to suffering. I stop practicing Buddhism, I think, if I get into the game of "my religion has deeper truths, and is more 'scientific' than yours!"

Besides, my son will be up soon, and very skillful means must be used to rouse him without feeding into an expected temper tantrum from him...


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