The Magical Powers of Science
“The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.” — Bertolt Brecht. Life of Galileo.
“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
A friend of the family, a senior Silicon Valley executive, was in our back yard for a party recently. Long after dinner, when only a few guests were left, the discussion turned to theology. I’d recently published a few blogs on the topic (On Dogma: Belief without Proof, Nation of Reason: Coming out of the Religious Closet Together, Losing My Religion: A Tale of Grumpy Old Men) and he wanted to tell me why I was wrong. For the record, I’m an atheist and he is fairly religious. You can imagine the back and forth arguments so I won’t bore you with the details.
As can be expected, we spent a good hour or so talking past each other. He argued that belief in a higher power is the only thing that sustains us spiritually and that the promise of an afterlife and a judgment day are the main reasons why we have become civilized over the past two millennia.
I pointed out fallacies in his logic using historical data points and questioned the magical nature of his belief in the supernatural. I thank all the major religions for what they’ve done for us for the past few millennia but I fervently believe the time has come for us to abandon these belief systems now that we know better.
What surprised me was the fact that he eventually threw up his hands, giving up in exasperation, and exclaiming loudly: “What do you mean ‘Why do I believe?’ I just do. There is no why!”
He didn’t seem to think that was an odd statement to make. He had managed to distill all my problems with God and religion into a few words, the same argument I’ve heard dozens of times: “I don’t care what you say, I just believe and there is nothing you can do or say that will change my mind.” Logic had absolutely nothing to do with it. I wondered if he could think of any other situation in which he could have used that line of reasoning or whether he would have accepted that response from one of his employees.
A few minutes later, one of the other guests spoke up in an attempt to bridge the gap between us: “I don’t believe in God or organized religion but I do believe in a spiritual world. I believe there is a force in the universe above and beyond all the things we see, a force for good that compels us to care for one another and for the animals around us.”
As poetic and romantic as this vision seems, I had to argue against it. I pointed out that if such a force does indeed exist, it would be just as likely that an equivalent and opposing malevolent force also exists in the universe — otherwise, how do you explain Hitler and Ebola, famines and earthquakes? Why would you only believe in a positive force? And, with that, once again we’re back to a belief in magical forces and the supernatural.
How can we reconcile the scientific world around us with our ability to completely ignore scientific and logical arguments when it comes to God and religion? Why do we have two sets of rules for how we live?
Why, you may ask, am I trying to use science and logic to answer metaphysical and moral questions? Richard Dawkins, one of my heroes, was recently asked this same question. His response was so simple and disarming that I can’t improve upon it: “[Science] works! Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. It works.”
Science is just a tool in our tool belt that we use to interrogate the universe around us, nothing more and nothing less. After all, what’s the alternative for accomplishing that task if we don’t rely on science? Poetry? Philosophy? Dogma? Fiction? Gut feel? What other tool do we have at our disposal as human beings that has delivered one billionth the results that science has?
We listened to shamans for millennia and ended up with polytheism, the spirit world, the creation myths, and a belief in the supernatural. Then we listened to prophets for a few centuries and we ended up with monotheism: God, Allah, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Moses. Not a whole lot changed in the intervening years. We just replaced many gods with one god but the moral lessons were pretty much the same. For the next two thousand years, we listened to prophets, to men of God, men who had seen a vision and wanted to save us from ourselves.
And what did our investment, our two thousand year investment, get us? Guilt, shame, belief in the supernatural, suspension of disbelief, and blind obedience to dogma. It was only a few hundred years ago that we started using a new tool — science — to understand the world around us. And the answers we found were often diametrically opposed to the ones we’d been given by prior messengers.
I’d argue that men of science are our prophets today. How else do you explain Sir Isaac Newton discovering such amazing truths about the universe around us? Be it the law of gravity or that of optics, he just “saw” the answer and then spent years explaining them to us. He even invented a whole new language — calculus — in the process: a language now spoken by more humans than any other! A language that he used to deliver his other-worldly message to us.
Darwin did the same with the theory of evolution. Einstein did the same with relativity. I’m sure you can name a few others as well: the ones who revolutionized our understanding of the universe around us, based not on folklore and fantasies but rather on keen observation and logic. Their insights were revolutionary, not incremental, in nature. Much more so than the ones who came before them — and relied only on scripture and hearsay and folklore as their tools.
These new theories were so dramatically opposed to orthodoxy that almost everyone immediately rejected them. Each of these latter day prophets were then followed by armies of disciples (we call them scientists) who built on the initial vision, added to it, and applied it to our daily lives. Collectively, they have shaped and changed our lives in ways much more fundamental than all the prophets who came before them.
We rarely, if ever, think about science as a religion. But the parallels are startling. The biggest advantage that science has on its side is its willingness to abandon prior dogma based on new evidence — something earlier religions have been reluctant to do.
Yet, our infantile belief in the supernatural persists despite all evidence to the contrary. It is only if we view science as a religion, as a stepping stone in the evolution of man’s quest to understand the universe around him, that we start reconciling science and religion, that we start seeing science as a reasonable attempt to answer the same questions as religion — but from the bottom up and with rigorous proofs at every step in the journey.
It’s only when you look at the history of monotheistic religions as an extension of the earlier polytheistic and shamanic religions of our ancestors that you are able to extend that same line forward to its logical conclusion: Science. We didn’t know any better back then. Now we do. Now we have science. We can use it to answer our questions not just about where we came from and where we’re going, but also why we’re here and how we should act toward others — all the same questions that religion tries to answer.
Science is the only religion that admits it doesn’t know the final truth and doesn’t threaten to imprison, kill, or otherwise silence those who disagree with its beliefs. It’s also simultaneously the only one that won’t give up until it figures out the answer: through experimentation, through analysis, through logic. And it’s the only religion to give up its old beliefs as soon as better beliefs become available.
We don’t have all the answers but we won’t give up until we find them. It’s the best tool we have at our disposal. By comparison, everything else is fiction that we created when we got tired of thinking.
Science, if you’ll forgive the over-generalization, has been busy answering “what, who, how, and when” questions for the past five hundred years. We are, just now, beginning to ask the only remaining question of any significance: “Why?” And, with every answer to those “why” questions, we find nothing that points to a bearded man behind the curtain.
I’m sure I’ll hear back from those who will point out that we learn our morality — our humanity — from religion, from a belief in God and an afterlife, from belonging to a community. These are all excellent reasons to bind together. But why does that union have to rest on a fiction? On a story that we know is not true? Why can’t we all just admit that our earlier attempts at explaining the universe around us were good ones for their time but only got us so far, that now is the time to abandon those stories for the millennia ahead?
Richard Dawkins did say one more word at the end of his statement about science which I didn’t include earlier but shall now divulge: “[Science] works! Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. It works… Bitches!”
He said in jest. But he also meant it. It works! Deal with it. Can you do better? If yes, please show me your magical powers. If not, please step aside and let us lead. I can fly you to the moon, I can swim under water, I can fly in the sky like birds, I can predict disasters accurately, I can cure cancer and smallpox, I can see in the dark like a bat, I can talk to my friend on the other side of the planet. And I’m just getting started. My miracles are endless and occur daily. My name is science. What are your magic tricks? What are your miracles? Can you reproduce them reliably, on demand, or did you just hear about them when you were a kid and continue to believe in them long after you’d realized that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy were not real?
I’m also sure I’ll hear from those who’ll call me foolish: These are metaphysical issues, Ben. We can’t understand God by using science since science is only applicable to what we observe around us using our senses. He’s outside the system, so any attempt to explain him through science is doomed to fail. You can’t attempt to understand the creator from within the Matrix.
I’m not even asking that we attempt to understand God through science. All I’m asking is that we apply the same rules of logic to our metaphysical beliefs as we do to everything else that surrounds us. Use the tools that science has taught us to seek the answer. Nothing else works.