Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Religion and the scientific method

I've been finding it really interesting lately to see the argument made, in the course of the "science vs. religion" debate, that the problem with religion is that it's unfalsifiable - and thus is not open to correction.  This, the argument goes, is why science is far to be preferred.

And actually, there's quite a lot to be said for that; the scientific method is self-correcting, and has the ability to get at truth for that reason alone.  The bias of the scientist is easily swept away by the process of experimental repetition in the effort to duplicate results.

Not so, for ideas about God!   There's no question about it; thoughts about God are emphatically not testable.   We can infer certain things about God from creation, and we have what we take to be  revelation about God - but we have no way to test these ideas.

Which makes it all the more interesting, really, that religious and spiritual practices are in fact completely centered on the testing and correction of human thinking and behavior!    It's amazing to me, in fact, that this point isn't made more often - and that apparently people don't even recognize it to be true.

Because it's starkly plain in A.A.'s 12 Steps; these are entirely focused on the testing of thought and action, and the correction of self-defeating ways of living.  And the Steps came out of religion to begin with, and borrow heavily from - and openly credit - religious practices that have been around for thousands of years:
  • Prayer and meditation
  • Self-examination on a continuous basis
  • Confession
  • Reconciliation
  • Spiritual  direction
 Here's what Step 10 ("Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.") says about the process itself:
A continuous look at our assets and liabilities, and a real desire to learn and grow by this means, are necessities for us. We alcoholics have learned this the hard way. More experienced people, of course, in all times and places have practiced unsparing self-survey and criticism. For the wise have always known that no one can make much of his life until self-searching becomes a regular habit, until he is able to admit and accept what he finds, and until he patiently and persistently tries to correct what is wrong.

So to me it's really fascinating that (for instance) online atheists and anti-religionists have such contempt for religion itself - when in fact it makes heavy and central use of the very methods they say they admire in science!

Religious practices are, quite simply, the scientific method applied to the workings of the heart, mind, and soul.  And in fact, they are the only formal means of doing this that exist at the moment, as far as I can tell.

More on this topic later, I think....


Caelius said...

Yup. Old Testament prophecy is deeply analytical, for instance. The wisdom literature doesn't come out of a vacuum either. Etc. Etc.

Tangentially, Alister McGrath makes the argument that the scientific method came out of theology (as a scientist who can trace his academic descent to Duns Scotus, I know this intimately) and can come back to theology. However, scientific approaches to doctrine inevitably encounter the problem of authority. Science often derives its progress from looking for exceptions. It runs into trouble when "there are no exceptions" is the dominant truth claim in an area.

bls said...

That's interesting about McGrath! I'd like to check out what he says about that, and about the Duns Scotus connection, too; do you have any recommendations for reading that might help me there?

And actually, I find that the church has a real problem generally with "exceptions." In fact, I think that might be its central failing and most notorious sin. Perhaps we could really go someplace in thinking about that....

BTW, another really important and built-in corrective mechanism embedded in religious practice is alluded to in Step 5:

"The second difficulty is this: what comes to us alone may be garbled by our own rationalization and wishful thinking. The benefit of talking to another person is that we can get his direct comment and counsel on our situation, and there can be no doubt in our minds what that advice is. Going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous. How many times have we heard well-intentioned people claim the guidance of God when it was all too plain that they were sorely mistaken. Lacking both practice and humility, they had deluded themselves and were able to justify the most arrant nonsense on the ground that this was what God had told them. It is worth noting that people of very high spiritual development almost always insist on checking with friends or spiritual advisers the guidance they feel they have received from God. Surely, then, a novice ought not lay himself open to the chance of making foolish, perhaps tragic, blunders in this fashion. While the comment or advice of others may be by no means infallible, it is likely to be far more specific than any direct guidance we may receive while we are still so inexperienced in establishing contact with a Power greater than ourselves."

And of course, James Alison talks about listening to "Another Other, who is not part of the social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us." That is, getting reliable input from Christ, as corrective to our own faulty apprehension of the world.

Caelius said...

Step 5 is quite insightful. I should do what it advises more.

For McGrath, you should look for the epitome of his A Scientific Theology called The Science of God. It's short and should be quite accessible to you. I need to read A Scientific Theology in its entirety at some point.

bls said...

Thanks, Caelius.