Is Science a Religion?

Donald Sensing, posting at Winds of Change, introduces us to Michael Polanyi, a British scientist and member of the Royal Society. In his article: "The vital necessity of recovering scientific faith", Polanyi poses some interesting questions, and answers, that Sensing then relates to the current struggle between Islam and Western values.

Excerpts (courtesy of Dr. Sensing):

Any account of science which does not explicitly describe it as
something we believe in, is essentially incomplete and a false
pretension. It amounts to a claim that science is essentially different
from and superior to all human beliefs which are not scientific
statements, and this is untrue. To show the falsity of this pretension,
it should suffice to recall that originality is the mainspring of
scientific discovery. Originality in science is the gift of a lonely
belief in a line of experiments or of speculations, which at the time
no one else had considered to be profitable. Good scientists spend all
their time betting their lives, bit by bit, on one personal belief
after another. The moment discovery is claimed, the lonely belief, now
made public and the evidence produced in its favor, evokes a response
among scientists which is another belief, a public belief, that can
range over all grades of acceptance or rejection. …

The hatred against the discoverers of a phenomenon which threatened to
undo the cherished beliefs of science was as bitter and inexorable as
that of the religious persecutors two centuries before. It was, in
fact, of the same character….

Sensing adds:

Islamists are much more ferociously anti-science than even the most
rabid creationists in America. Science in the Western tradition claims
to investigate, discover and know the "really real." Over the last
century-plus, science has displaced religion as the arbiter of the
ultimate, according to Carl Sagan (in Broca’s Brain).  Sagan told the story of Napoleon’s complaint to the Marquis de Laplace about Laplace’s work, Mecanique celeste.
"Napoleon complained to Laplace that he had found no mention of God in
the text. Laplace’s response has been recorded: ‘Sire, I have no need
for that hypothesis.’" The idea that God could be hypothetical is a
product of modernity, says Sagan. People who ask him whether he
believes in God, he says, are really asking for reassurance that their
belief system is consistent with modern scientific knowledge.

And so, following Polanyi’s line, we have a culture that is
scientistic as well as scientific. Scientism is faith in science. As
the dominant world view of of the West, it is considered
self-validating. Scientism makes two major claims, neither of which,
however, are testable using the scientific method:

(1) only science reveals the Real and only science can discover truth;

(2) scientific knowledge of reality is exhaustive, not inherently limited, is holistic and sees reality as reality really is.

Early modernity’s mechanistic view of creation was originally
proposed as a way to preserve God’s agency. This view was soon
supplanted by the view that knowledge about the world beyond the self
was limited to what could be known through sense-perception of material
things. The materialism of the modern world view is its central
feature. Thus, the modern world view simply has no natural place for
God in it, as philospher of science Langdon Gilkey put it….

There are many points of contention and conflict between Arab Islam
and the West, but the chief religious contention between Islamists and
the West is not really between Islam and Christianity but between Islam
and Western scientific-materialism.

Because of the supremacy of the sciences in western thought,
Western culture has become caught in a cycle of ever-increasing
changes. Western societies contend with an exponentially increasing
pace of cultural changes. The pace and kinds of changes that we adapt
to (with greater or lesser difficulty, to be sure) are exactly the
changes that Islamists correctly believe would destroy basic structures
of their society which they believe are the divinely-commanded.

In their view, certain social structures (such as the status and
role of women) are absolutely essential, required by Allah’s command as
revealed in the Quran. Without those structures, a society is wholly
corrupted. We see them as hopeless religious fanatics; they see us as
godless and degenerate.

The tension between Islam’s historic traditions and modern pressures
of scientific modernity is found throughout the Muslim world. Many Arab
intellectuals know that their countries have fallen behind most of the
rest of the world. They want to gain the benefits of technological
society, but without the cultural baggage that comes with it. They want
to modernize their societies but not Westernize them. Their vision of
modernization is mostly technological, such as communications, medical
science, education, transportation, and consumer goods. They want our DVD players but not our DVDs. Even al Qaeda will accept the trappings of tecnology, they just reject the foundation.

The war between Islamists and the West is fundametally an
inter-religious war. It does not spring from grievances that can be
resolved to mutual satisfaction of all concerned. It is a dynamic
struggle between two irreconcilable world views and understandings of
Polanyi concludes,

are entering in this century into a period requiring great
readjustments. One of these is to learn once more to hold beliefs. Our
own beliefs. The task is formidable, for we have been taught for
centuries to hold as a belief only the residue which no doubt can
conceivably assail. There is no such residue left today, and that is
why the ability to believe with open eyes Must once more be
systematically re-acquired.

Dare I say that what we must recover is not merely "belief," but faith itself.

Read the whole post here.


2 thoughts on “Is Science a Religion?

  1. Axinar

    Science does not necessarily always reveal the entire truth right away.

    The distinction, however, between science and faith is simply that, in science, new compelling evidence can change what is considered “true” substantially.

    For instance, Newton’s understanding of the laws of motion are perfectly fine to, say, get you all the way to Jupiter at sub-light speeds, but, to deal with near-light speed conditions, it took the work of Einstein to clarify the behavior of fast moving objects.

    However, in religion, NOTHING can change the fundamental notions “revealed” by the “holy books”. One is expected to accept these things “on faith” (or, in Orthodox Judaism, the biggest stretch of the notion of “logic” one might ordinarily find imaginable …)

  2. Pam

    Oh, yes, it’s me again. Couldn’t resist this one. I don’t think one should confuse scientism and science — I can’t help but feel that it’s an apples and oranges kinda thing, and that the debate consists of words stretched in their meaning. I must admit that I cringed at the sentence ‘Good scientists spend all their time betting their lives, bit by bit, on one personal belief after another’. Personal belief? I don’t think so – perhaps many of us are studying a field that is personal to us, that we are passionate about – but what drives our direction is not a ‘personal belief’ but observations and data, numbers generated through numerous repetitions – numbers evaluated from numerous angles to access their validity. Science is about a process, an approach – it’s a tool used to ask and answer questions. I did go to the site, Winds of Change, and read through some of the many comments – and I’m more in-line with Alchemist (comment #18). Perhaps the only common ground between science and religion/faith is the power of discovery.


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