Douglas Addams flippant writings about the scientist who proved that god exists, thus causing him to vanish in a puff of logic, is perhaps the most significant and under utilized argument against religious *belief* as can be had, and yet I never seem to run across it in my admittedly limited reading about the issues related to religion vs. science, and particularly in view of attacks on science such as “Intelligent Design”, which has been so embraced by religious individuals.
It seems to me that the basic issue is not about whether science is right or wrong; it’s about faith.
There is, I believe, a well established theological principle that in order for a religion to function it’s primary tenants (the existence of a god, the voracity of its commandments, and so forth) must be based entirely on *faith*. Faith is emphatically NOT to be confused with *belief* – belief falls strictly into the realm of science and proof. To remain meaningful, items of faith must forever remain “un-provable”, though most of the strongly religious folks out there seem to think that faith and belief are identical concepts. This, of course, drives scientists bonkers.
The conundrum is this…
The fundamental choice presented to human beings by religions is to believe or disbelieve – this is often (and wrongly) expressed such that it is considered equivalent to making a choice to be good or evil. Systems of belief which are not characterized by this black/white, either/or mindset generally cannot be characterized as religious, and in any case seldom evoke the schisms that occur between different binary belief systems (though the practitioners of these non-religious systems are just as likely to be victimized by the determined proponents of the all-or-nothing beliefs).
Individuals who align themselves with a particular religious view are prone, wrongfully, to say they *believe* the information that they have embraced as truth, though what they must actually say if they are to honor their religious views is “I have faith”.
In the dominant religious systems (and I am, again, being forthright in stating that I am in no way a scholar of religion – I’m simply observing what I have experienced and learned in a mostly informal manner) the most important aspect of religious observance is choice – every individual chooses to have faith or not, to be good or (again by inference) evil.
And that’s a problem.
Religious conviction cannot exist without faith, and faith must exist without belief. If there was even a shred of actual proof in the existence of a higher power, then faith would be denied. If a deity is a de-facto, real entity, and IS watching your every decision and action, sitting in judgment, then you no longer have choice. You’re either sucking up to ‘the guy upstairs’ by being a good-little-follower, or you’re defying ‘his mightiness’ and deserve some ultimate punishment for it — though I think an interventionist deity would simply wipe you from the face of the earth in a sort of divine “three strikes and you’re out” policy rather than waiting for you to conveniently die of old age or in an unfortunate scuba-diving accident. After all, the supreme being who is proven to exist has no reason to “work in mysterious ways”.
We must then agree that the existence of an ultimate deity cannot be proven. Proof denies faith. Without faith there is no choice. And without choice, the entirety of Abrahamic religious systems falls to pieces. Having no choice means that the biblical god knowingly allowed Adam and Eve (however metaphorically) to eat the apple. I’ve no doubt that there is a large body of written material that debates this scenario, since it seems improbable that the omnipotent/omniscient god could have failed to foresee or intervene in that situation. Was he taking a nap?
Science, conversely, is about belief, based on rigorous study and analysis, and that makes the religious types rightly nervous, but perhaps not in the way that they should be.
There is no way to make science go away – science is a tool that we use to understand the most fundamental processes that govern the operation of the systems that make up our universe. Through science we advance ourselves and the species as a whole. Heck, we have the ability in this age to instantly communicate with virtually every other human being on the planet – how magical is that?
Whenever I come across Intelligent Design, I am forced to smile ever so slightly to myself. ID is a tremendously amusing idea, insofar as it is one of the most anti-religious concepts that the religious types have ever managed to come up with, and the fervor that many of them endorse it with serves only to prove how short-sighted and unthinking so many of them are.
The argument for ID is that some aspects of nature are too complex to have come into existence via the well established system of evolution by way of natural selection – they are irreducibly complicated (I will point out at this juncture that, when pressed to investigate, scientists have yet to find an actual instance of irreducible complexity). Anything which can’t be explained must have been “created” by an “intelligent designer”. For the religious members of the audience, ID is wonderful because they automatically insert their respective gods in the role of master engineer. They insist that failure to adequately describe the precise origin of any natural system is therefore proof in the existence of their higher power.
But that’s not the case at all.
Proof of Intelligent Design would disprove, for all time, the existence of supreme being. Period. Full stop. End of story.
If our existence were facilitated by an intelligent designer, then that designer cannot be a deity, because we would have PROOF that there was a designer. Proof denies faith – ergo, the designer is not a deity. The next step would be, by those inclined to belabor the point, to say that the designer was the product of a deity, and we are simply one step removed. But that doesn’t work either, because it simply places the burden of faith vs. belief on the theoretical senior designer – arguments amounting to “the designer is an intermediate directed by the supreme being” are simply infinite regressions into the same scenario. One must ask at that point if we are so distanced from this theoretical supreme being as to no longer be anything more than an unanticipated side effect.
ID is not science by any stretch of the imagination – it is at best a wild conjecture invented by ill-informed individuals in pursuit of justifying their particular beliefs. But as a tool to prove the existence of a divine creator it is downright dangerous to their very beliefs, simply because there is some small possibility that it might be correct.
As an aside, while I do not for a moment believe that life as we know it is the direct consequence of intervention by an entity that exists external to this universe, I can easily conceive (though it is a concept that lives entirely in the wildest science-fiction conjecture) that there may come a day when humanity is capable of creating entirely new universes, perhaps fulfilling the role of intelligent designer ourselves. We might even live within a created universe, though if we do I very much doubt the creator is even aware of our existence, nor would such a creator likely care.
And so ID fails religion in every conceivable way. Any individual or group that pronounces “proof” of the existence of a divine being, through any means, immediately denies its right to be called a religion.
Thus we come to the argument that SHOULD be embraced by every religion, the simple and elegant argument for “The Perfect Deception”.
It goes like this…
If there is a divine power, and if that deity is omnipotent and/or omniscient (one or the other of these qualities is a fundamental requirement of godhead), and we choose to have faith that this deity created the universe, and this world, and us; then that creator also gave us the ability to use tools, and ultimately science.
This supreme being, having granted us the means to examine and understand the physical world, must therefore have known the consequences of providing this ever flowering “tree of knowledge”. The deity would therefore be forced to make the entire universe “internally consistent” in order to insure that there no physical proof of its existence could ever be uncovered – again, without faith there is no choice, and without choice there is no point in religion.
What is the consequence of this? It means that every aspect of the created universe must behave as if it were not created – it must appear to have, on even the closest examination, an explanation for its existence which does not require a deity. It must, in every way, be The Perfect Deception – designed to fool those who can turn even the most sophisticated investigative tools upon it.
For an omniscient creator, this is doable, because that creator can see all outcomes in all futures, and can insure that the evidence required to “fool the yokels” into believing a natural cause for all things is strategically placed where it needs to be right from the beginning. The scientists always find the proof they seek, because it’s there when they go looking for it.
For an omnipotent deity, this is doable, because that creator can instantaneously alter things so that observers simply see what they would expect to see in a “naturally evolved” world. This results in an endless series of “reverse miracles”, a deity working tirelessly to conceal the existence of itself.
If we are to accept either of the two previous statements, then what is the consequence to our scientific exploration of the natural world?
Absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip.
The result is that you either believe a theory such as evolution by way of natural selection because it is scientific truth, and a deity had nothing to do with it. Or you have faith that it is a system that was put in place by a higher power to insure that humans did not accidentally prove the existence of a supreme being, and thus deny faith.
It doesn’t matter whether we evolved from lesser species or not – either we did, or a higher power made sure if we looked closely enough that, for all intents and purposes, we would have no choice but to come to that conclusion.
And what does this mean to the faithful? It’s pretty simple really – there is no point, and there has never been any point, to arguing the validity of science. For the religious individual, the only answer to the ever growing scientific knowledge of our species is “our creator made the world in such a way as to never allow the existence of our creator to be proven”.
And if that’s the case, then the world (and indeed the entire universe) must behave in a way that is entirely natural, and entirely explicable in human terms. Science exists entirely separate from religion (though quantum uncertainly feels uncomfortably close to “faith” in some ways).
If there is a higher power, then that deity has insured that whatever examinations we make into the universe will not reveal a creator’s hand in its creation or continued existence. If there is no higher power, then the universe operates in a perfectly deterministic manner.
What is left, then, for those who are drawn to faith in a deity’s existence? Well, to put it bluntly, faith. The religious individual must choose faith above all – the job of the pious is not to argue the validity of science, but to embrace it with a calm shrug of the shoulders and say “well, that’s all well and good, but I still have faith that my creator made it that way”.
We cannot all be scientists (as much as I wish that were not so) and perhaps religion in this context remains a valuable component in our society, giving those without the depth of understanding a simple way to understand and come to terms with the world around them.
Sadly, I do not believe that any of the world’s major religions have the capacity in their current forms to “turn the other cheek” to science, and I know the fundamentalist variants are utterly incapable — fundamentalists seek proof and belief, attempting to deny faith, and I suspect that very pronounced schizophrenic desire is what drives many of them seem so bonkers – they simply lack faith, so try at every juncture to substitute proof by ramming their beliefs down the throats of everyone around them.
And anyone who doesn’t agree? Well, they need to be strung up and made an example of.
Silly, silly people.