Perhaps I should not quibble with what people choose to believe about life. After all, isn’t it remarkable enough that we are able to carry on living our busy lives under the shadow of our own imminent deaths, without demanding that we all view our predicament in the same way? Why say things that might add to that existential burden?
As one possible answer I might turn to a series of experiments documented in the PBS series “The Human Spark”, where it was shown that a trademark of very young human children is their innate and irresistible urge to show other children how to perform a task that they themselves had just been taught. We are natural “helpers” in this way. Perhaps that is why we are natural “evangelists” for everything from religion to the brand of toothpaste that we buy.
We are also naturally curious and deeply social. Listen to humans talk and it is most often a series of personal stories told one after the other, back and forth (and though women are marked as the most talkative in this regard, just see what happens when you get a group of men swapping “hunting stories”). We can’t, it seems, get enough of stories about ourselves and each other.
Is all of this simply a justification for my preaching the “gospel” of reason and science? Of course. But it is also an explanation. And explanation is precisely what science offers us. But is an “explanation” the same as an “answer” when it comes to our most basic existential questions?
Morality and ethics have long been the domain of religion and philosophy. Science is a rather unwelcome late-comer to that party, and has proved to be a sometimes awkward and ungainly guest. But I think that is because it has taken some time to come to understand the difference between the questions that religion poses and science answers.
To some these two fields are qualified to answer two different “kinds” of questions (and one shouldn’t even try to answer the other’s). Hence the popular notion that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (which is basically a gentlemen’s agreement that where religion leaves off, science takes over, or vice versa). Which is a way for the old guard of religion to tell late-arriving science to “Keep the hell off my lawn with your beakers and such!”. In this argument, the truths of the spiritual realm are held to be such that they cannot be measured by mechanical (scientific) means. They are super-natural, and therefore occupy an entirely different realm than that studied by science (they are, in short, granted an exemption from scientific scrutiny). The hard scientific view would be that anything that cannot be studied either does not exist or must await the invention of the means to measure it. (In practice, however, many scientists will publicly, at least, leave religion — and religious claims about reality — alone)
In my view such a fictional divide (often a very polite one) is much more about keeping the peace than it is about any actual dividing line. It is the position we take to not offend the religious powers that be. And that, I think, is am important hint at why the divide persists: religion is a powerful force, and folks don’t want to upset it so much that it rears its ugly inquisitional head once more (or on a more prosaic level, they don’t want to offend or hurt the ones they love).
But there is also this: when science first came on the scene (and here I include the social sciences), it began to suss out the causal factors of life and physical reality (and human behavior). But since such discussions had heretofore been in the realm of religion and philosophy (which is a “why” proposition) the “what” answers of science were naturally taken to be mere justifications for a range of human behaviors that ran afoul of commonly-accepted norms. This was not acceptable to many. Take the study of mental illness, for example: suddenly there were biological explanations for aberrant human behavior that did not involve questions of individual moral weakness or possession by devils. From the very beginning science began to encroach on historically religious grounds if for no other reason than religion had previously produced its own explanations of human behavior and natural phenomenon. Some sort of conflict was inevitable.
And so there was conflict. And there still is, despite the obvious achievements of science. The conflict continues because the encroachment into the magesterium of religion continues. We now know where the earth and the “heavens” came from. We know where humans came from. We understand how morality evolved in social animals like ourselves. And we know about the genetic foundations of certain physical and mental disorders, on the one hand, and the natural variations in human behaviors (such as homosexuality) on the other. We haven’t figured everything out — not by a long shot — but we have answered a good deal of the most basic questions to a reliable degree of certainty. And the answers turn out to be — in every case — better than the religious ones in actually explaining phenomenon. Religion, it turns out, is really really bad at science.
Religion — being based as it is in history — cannot renew itself through new discoveries the way that science can. Religion can adapt (as it has with quite a lot of success over the years), or re-form itself under new “brand names”. But it cannot be a source of new discovery like science can: “new” religions are always a recycling of the one basic religious genome, if you will. One reason this is true is that science is a study of existence that is based on experiment that can be verified. Religion is a sort of co-evolved parasite of the human consciousness that maintains a roughly symbiotic relationship with its host. For it to change radically would be to annihilate itself. Therefore it can only fight for its survival against the intrusions of science and reason.
It would be easy to say that religion is, therefore, fighting a losing battle. But that hardly seems to be the case today. Belief in magic is increasing, even as science shows us more and more of what is really going on behind the wizard’s curtain. But perhaps the last hope of religion — crap as it is at being science — lies in its hope that science is equally bad at being a religion.
It seems clear — in the popular mind at least– that science has not yet answered the “why” of life with its “what” discoveries (at least to the satisfaction of those used to the answers of religion and myth). But here is the fulcrum upon which this question tips in favor of science: for perhaps the most important discovery of science has been that there turns out to be no “why” in nature beyond the “what”. The “what” is, in essence, the only meaningful “why” we have available to us. There is cause and effect, yes, but once you exclude intelligent terrestrial creatures, the vastness of physical reality that remains is mindless, thoughtless and devoid of the kind of intention that is essential to create a “why”.
Why am I here, then? Well, on the most basic level, because I’m here. But who made that happen? No “one” made it happen. We have now explained all but a few of the physical processes that led to my existence (a stunning mix of chance and inevitability). Science adds to that the facts that I am a mammal (a primate) that is a species that evolved from earlier life forms, most of which did not physically resemble me (at least in a superficial way — my ancient body plan was present in my fish ancestors even if my blue eyes and soft hair were not). The chemicals and minerals and elements of which my body is built are those which were present on the planet I evolved on. The elements were formed, first, in the death furnaces of ancient stars that were themselves birthed in the “big bang” that began our universe, space and time.
Compare this answer to that given by the first chapter of Genesis for sheer explanatory power.
The religious believer will almost invariably ask at this point: “Okay. Say that is all true. Who made it all happen?” Who? Who? At a certain point you come to realize that the question is a switch-up of apples for oranges (or oranges for orangutans). What single thing about reality justifies the call for an intelligent designer “making” it all happen? “Why” turns out to be our question, not the universe’s.
In the end, I believe, science provides us answers to the questions that can be answered. That may sound like I’m leaving wiggle room for religion to answer the “other” questions. But that is my point: I don’t think there really are any other questions. If, that is, that we only accept as valid a question for which an answer can actually exist. A question with no answer would seem to be something else: a trick, a diversion, a waste of time (like Bertrand Russell’s “celestial teapot”).
And that’s where I’ve come to regarding magical metaphysical answers for natural phenomenon: I don’t buy them as answers because I don’t buy them as questions.
Philosophy retains its place as it is the study of the “how” of human thought — the way in which we take reality to heart and make sense of it in our own hearts and minds. Philosophy, I think, deals with the anguish caused by the question “why”, but does not attempt to answer it. It accepts that “why” is a part of the way we think — the way we have to find a story to tell to ourselves about the things that happen in our life.
For me, gradually coming to understand that “why” was the wrong question all along did, indeed, help to answer it. It told me I was asking an unanswerable and, therefore, un-ask-able question.
And once I understood that, I was then freed to find a much more nutritious diet of existential nourishment from science than I ever could from religion. How? Because science gives us more than just data. Understanding that a genetic mutation has set one up for mental illness or heart failure does not make everything alright, for example. It does, however, offer some hope of helpful scientific and medical intervention to improve one’s chances at a decent life. But it also does something else that is important to a sentient being: it removes the self-questioning doubt that religion has always placed upon the sick, the odd, the different: it removes the stain of personal sin or failure as a “why”. And in that sense modern science takes one more giant step into the hallowed temple of religion by offering comfort to the troubled.
Dumping religious dogma in favor of the more trustworthy data of science is a nearly impossible act for many humans. It can feel like leaving behind something noble, trustworthy and beloved for something cold, confusing and brash. Something like trading in your familiar horse and buggy for an loud and unfamiliar automobile. But we are long past the age of scientific “Model A’s”, and those that hold on to ancient buggies when modern, reliable cars are available seem more and more out of step with reality.
Scientific knowledge, it turns out, can offer the religious and philosophical benefits of genuine consolation and comfort without the awkward cognitive price of irrational belief. We can finally understand the “what”, and stop worrying about the “why”. And that, I can tell you, is a good place to be.