Friday, June 01, 2007

Church and State

So here's where I shear myself away from some of my fellows. A lot of them (in mailing lists and in journals) are comfortable with the idea that science and religions are opposites. Black and white. On and off. Thinking and feeling. Up and down. One cannot exist in the presence of the other.

Actually, I think of them as salt and pepper, which can be combined (in various amounts) but really two completely different things, and have completely different paths to your kitchen table. Salt is a mineral, an edible rock that appeals to certain parts of your tastes, while pepper is a plant (a dried fruit of a flowering vine, actually), which appeals to other regions of one's taste buds. To say that the two are polar opposites is kinda silly, and in the same fashion I think the science/religion split is a false dichotomy as well.

In fact, the two work together better than working apart. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been Biblical stories that have benefited from scientific support. As a lad, the Great Flood was a "bible story", a religious tall tale with a moral ("Don't cheese off the Lord"). Yet over the years archaeological thought has moved from "was there a Great Flood?" to "Was there a single flood or a series of localized floods?") Indeed, discovery of previous legends, like that of Deucalion, act to support the existence of a biblical flood, not diminish it.

Similarly, faith has supported science over the years. Gregor Mendel (genetics), Roger Bacon (scientific method), and Copernicus (astronomy) were all men of the cloth and received encouragement from their church. There are the monks in Ireland who kept knowledge alive in the wake of the fall of Rome, and the flowering of Islam brought new concepts, even new words (Algebra, Algorithm, Alchol) into European thought.

I think that both science and religion are spectrums as opposed to absolutes, and when we have a hard orthodoxy in control in either case, there difficulty for the rest of us. In religion we currently seem to be under the sway of the orthodox forces, but not too many years ago we were in the porgressive grips of Vatican II and the Ecumenical Movement. In science we have seen where the hide-bound individuals who control the mechanisms twisting vital research for their own ends (Gallo and the HIV virus comes to mind). Yet in both cases it is moving across a spectrum (of course, in both cases, the installed orthodoxy wants to KEEP their power, and to that end seeks to exclude others who might disagree. The spectrum becomes a single wavelength).

There is pseudo-religion and there is psuedo-science. Both science and religion can have bad ideas, false leads and dead ends. The Catholic Church, seeking to answer the question - what happens to the unbaptized innocent? - ended up with the concept of Limbo, which was recently abandoned. Science similarly has a long history of mechanisms created to make the theory work - Ether (if light is a wave, how does it travel through a vacuum?) orphlogiston (what is that makes stuff burn?). Now dark matter and superstring theory are similar constructs. Both science and religion have a tendency to pick stuff up, examine it, and discard it if it does not work. In both cases, problems show up when the thought process becomes rigid and rejecting (Papal infallibility, corporate-paid research think tanks), seeking to exert temporal power as opposed to seeking knowledge, comprehension, and understanding.

Science and religion are playing fields, where conservative and progressive forces move back and forth. Orthodox forces in both seem to limit both what is going out (in the way of sharing understanding) and what is coming in (as far as believers or theorists who may hold contrary views). While it is very easy to identify an established extreme as an enemy, it is not representative of the entire spectrum. Indeed, calling all scientists heretics and all faithful people ignorant supports those orthodoxies by restricting the number of participants that need to be controlled, exiling those non-, un-, and wrong believers into some sort of darkness where they may be ignored.

The answer for both spectrums is "more light". More thought, more discussion, more examination of both science and faith. Because only then can either sphere move forward.

More later,