Different types of truth, part 3: scientific and religious truth

In my last two blogs I have discussed scientific truth and religious truth (sorry, haven’t worked out how to link back yet). I’ve used the analogy of a scientific model to explain how I was able to accept my growing faith intellectually as well as spiritually. The idea of a model is so central to my worldview as a scientist that it created a natural analogy for faith. The analogy works because their are similarities between these different ways of approaching things. But I do not want to give the impression that they are the same. In this blog I discuss the difference. 

Many of the arguments between science and religion seem, to me, to come from a lack of recognition of the difference between scientific truth and religious Truth (I add the capital not to imply a superiority of religious Truth, but to make a distinction and following the tradition of capitalising God). They are compounded by us not recognising that our scientific theories are models of scientific truth and our religious beliefs and practices are models of religious Truth. When we test religious models as though they were scientific truth or treat scientific models as though they were religious Truth we will never understand why we disagree with each other. 

First, and most obviously, they are searches for a very different set of questions. Science (particularly physics, my discipline) asks questions about the nature of the physical universe. It uses a scientific method of experimentation and observation, of developing theoretical models and using them to make predictions which can be tested. Science, at its best and ideal, is impersonal, independent of observer and is working towards agreement. 

Of course it is practised by human beings who can get emotional, personally involved and make mistakes. But the end aim is to get past that. That is achieved by scientific consensus – by bringing in more tests, more reviews, more theories. Now non-scientists often don’t get scientific consensus. It is assumed that that would imply nothing ever changes and because we know worldviews do shift (nobody believed plate techtonics or quantum physics when they were first proposed and now they are standard textbook stuff), the assumption is that scientific consensus has no more value than a religious truth.

When that assumption is made, it is fair to provide all points of view, to listen to the small number who disagree equally to the large number who agree. Anything else seems like invalidating the minority view or risking missing the genius.

Most scientists don’t understand that and get upset and frustrated by non-scientists going on about it. We know that scientific views do evolve over time. We know that there are step changes when someone sees things differently and gives others evidence they come to understand. Sometimes we will as imperfect people resist those changes, but I know many examples from my own career when I’ve argued with someone for months or years and then at some point we both “get it” and one of us admits we were wrong or we find a third way of looking at it. After that there is no more argument. Not because our beliefs have changed, but because we fundamentally recognise that one model is closer to scientific truth than the other. That’s because “is this model closer to scientific truth than that one?” is a question with a single answer for all people. We expect to reach consensus, even if we fight like mad on the way. 

Religious Truth does not have a single answer in the same way. That is because it’s not asking about how the universe works, but about how our relationships are with God and with each other. It is therefore as unique as each individual. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t patterns, or even a fundamental Truth that we are searching for, but all great religious thinkers from all traditions I’m aware of, seem to come back to words of Mystery, of accepting paradox and living at the edge, of Surrender (the Arabic word for Surrender is Islam, by the way), of emptying ourselves, of relationship, of Love. These are not ideas to explore using scientific methods. 

There have been attempts at making intellectually and philosophically robust theologies (which could be considered akin to treating models of religious Truth as models of scientific truth), but these, in my experience rarely in and of themselves bring people to that greater Love, to, from a Christian perspective, becoming more like Jesus in how he lived. When we treat religious Truth as scientific Truth we get arguments between Bible-literalists and atheists about the contradictions in the Bible or whether the Earth is billions or thousands of years old. Those arguments go round in circles, with no one persuading anyone and views becoming more polarised, more narrowly defined. 

We can investigate “falling in love” scientifically – it tells us why it helps the species, it tells us about people’s brain changes, hormonal changes and the behaviour changes (increased risk taking) these create. But it doesn’t really tell us what it feels like or what it means to those in love. For that we read a Shakespeare sonnet, or hear a great song.  (My love is not like a red rose. Human beings are animals and roses are plants and these diverged genetically billions of years ago!)

I am a physicist and I hate it when people think that whether climate change is real or not is a matter for discussion in the same way as what we should do about it is. But I also recognise that the people who do think it is have not seen the difference between scientific truth and other truths. 

I am a Quaker Christian. And I hate it when people reduce my faith to the limited questions that can be answered by the scientific method. But I also recognise that people who do think it is have not seen the difference between religious Truth and other truths. 

I’m not sure I’ve explained the difference well here, but it’s a start!

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