When must science give way to religion?

When I saw an article titled ‘Sometimes science must give way to religion‘ in Nature on August 22, 2012, by Daniel Sarewitz, I had to read it. I am agnostic, and I try as much as I can to keep from attempting to proselyte anyone – through argument or reason (although I often fail at controlling myself). However, titled as it was, I had to read the piece, especially since it’d appeared in a publication I subscribe to for their hard-hitting science news, which I’ve always approached as Dawkins might: godlessly.

First mistake.

Dr. Daniel Sarewitz

At first, if anything, I hoped the article would treat the entity known as God as simply an encapsulation of the unknown rather than in the form of an icon or elemental to be worshiped. However, the lead paragraph was itself a disappointment – the article was going to be about something else, I understood.

Visitors to the Angkor temples in Cambodia can find themselves overwhelmed with awe. When I visited the temples last month, I found myself pondering the Higgs boson — and the similarities between religion and science.

The awe is architectural. When pilgrims visit a temple built like the Angkor, the same quantum of awe hits them as it does an architect who has entered a Pritzker-prize winning building. But then, this sort of “reasoning”, upon closer observation or just an extra second of clear thought, is simply nitpicking. It implies that I’m just pissed that Nature decided to publish an article and disappoint ME. So, I continued to read on.

Until I stumbled upon this:

If you find the idea of a cosmic molasses that imparts mass to invisible elementary particles more convincing than a sea of milk that imparts immortality to the Hindu gods, then surely it’s not because one image is inherently more credible and more ‘scientific’ than the other. Both images sound a bit ridiculous. But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

For a long time, I have understood that science and religion have a lot in common: they’re both frameworks that are understood through some supposedly indisputable facts, the nuclear constituents of the experience born from believing in a world reality that we think is subject to the framework. Yes, circular logic, but how are we to escape it? The presence of only one sentient species on the planet means a uniform biology beyond whose involvement any experience is meaningless.

So how are we to judge which framework is more relevant, more meaningful? To me, subjectively, the answer is to be able to predict what will come, what will happen, what will transpire. For religion, these are eschatological and soteriological considerations. As Hinduism has it: “What goes around comes around!” For science, these are statistical and empirical considerations. Most commonly, scientists will try to spot patterns. If one is found, they will go about pinning the pattern’s geometric whims down to mathematical dictations to yield a parametric function. And then, parameters will be pulled out of the future and plugged into the function to deliver a prediction.

Earlier, I would have been dismissive of religion’s “ability” to predict the future. Let’s face it, some of those predictions and prophecies are too far into the future to be of any use whatsoever, and some other claims are so ad hoc that they sound too convenient to be true… but I digress. Earlier, I would’ve been dismissive, but after Sarewitz’s elucidation of the difference between rationality and faith, I am prompted to explain why, to me, it is more science than religion that makes the cut. Granted, both have their shortcomings: empiricism was smashed by Popper, while statistics and unpredictability are conjugate variables.

(One last point on this matter: If Sarewitz seems to suggest that the metaphorical stands in the way of faith evolving into becoming a conclusion of rationalism, then he also suggests lack of knowledge in one field of science merits a rejection of scientific rationality in that field. Consequently, are we to stand in eternal fear of the incomprehensible, blaming its incomprehensibility on its complexity? He seems to have failed to realize that a submission to the simpler must always be a struggle, never a surrender.)

Sarewitz ploughed on, and drew a comparison more germane and, unfortunately, more personal than logical.

By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown. At Angkor, the genius of a long-vanished civilization, expressed across the centuries through its monuments, allows visitors to connect with things that lie beyond their knowing in a way that no journalistic or popular scientific account of the Higgs boson can. Put another way, if, in a thousand years, someone visited the ruins of the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs experiment was conducted, it is doubtful that they would get from the relics of the detectors and super­conducting magnets a sense of the subatomic world that its scientists say it revealed.

Granted, if a physicist were to visit the ruins of the LHC, he may be able to put two and two together at the sight of the large superconducting magnets, striated with the shadows of brittle wires and their cryostatic sleeves, and guess the nature of the prey. At the same time, an engagement with the unknown at the Angkor Wat (since I haven’t been there, I’ll extrapolate my experience at the Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, South India, from a few years back) requires a need to engage with the unknown. A pilgrim visiting millennia-old temples will feel the same way a physicist does when he enters the chamber that houses the Tevatron! Are they not both pleasurable?

I think now that what Sarewitz is essentially arguing against is the incomparability of pleasures, of sensations, of entire worlds constructed on the basis two very different ideologies, rather requirements, and not against the impracticality of a world ruled by one faith, one science. This aspect came in earlier in this post, too, when I thought I was nitpicking when I surmised Sarewitz’s awe upon entering a massive temple was unique: it may have been unique, but only in sensation, not in subject, I realize now.

(Also, I’m sure we have enough of those unknowns scattered around science; that said, Sarewitz seems to suggest that the memorability of his personal experiences in Cambodia are a basis for the foundation of every reader’s objective truth. It isn’t.)

The author finishes with a mention that he is an atheist. That doesn’t give any value to or take away any value from the article. It could have been so were Sarewitz to pit the two worlds against each other, but in his highlighting their unification – their genesis in the human mind, an entity that continues to evade full explicability – he has left much to be desired, much to be yearned for in the form of clarification in the conflict of science with religion. If someday, we were able to fully explain the working and origin of the human mind, and if we find it has a fully scientific basis, then where will that put religion? And vice versa, too.

Until then, science will not give way for religion, nor religion for science, as both seem equipped to explain.