Science as a god

Science can only be a tool the human animal has invented to deal with a world it cannot fully understand. John Gray

Yes, your god perhaps, but not theirs. Saramago

I don’t know if I have strong beliefs. There is no god, so far as I can tell, but I think I’d be okay if they revealed themselves to me tomorrow. There’s this Unitarian speech about how god is waiting to be unshrunk from the trap of our language, which feels true, but belief feels like too strong of a word most of the time. The truths I’ve managed to glean of the universe are more felt than believed.

Maybe — and I’ve said this before — I believe in science. I hear a lot of people, especially atheists, say they believe in Science, but they capitalize the S, which means for me that they believe in science the way religious folks believe in a god or gods. It feels kind of like a worship of our accomplishments as human beings in place of a worship of a deity, therby making a deity of Science. I’m reading John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, which is making me realize that this form of atheism, the Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrass Tyson style of atheism that speaks of Science in hushed tones and with reverence, and is, in fact, evangelical in that it insists it’s the only way to see reality, is fairly new on the scene and is a reaction to monotheism in general and Christianity in particular, and is still hung up on much of the moral universe of Christianity. This type of atheism only serves to replace one god with another, and still sees humanity as on a clear moral trajectory to bettering itself, which, given recent events in geopolitics, I’m reminded isn’t necessarily the case.

On the personal level, though, maybe that’s okay. Nearly everyone, myself included, needs something to worship most of the time: There are no atheists in foxholes, they say. And isn’t life, at least as it’s daily lived, often resemble a foxhole?

So the question becomes this: which god do we believe in, if belief is a fundamental human quality? I suppose that Science (capital S), with its rigor, its endless sceptical questioning and testing, is better for humanity in general and for my personal self in specific than a jealous and inconsistent god, as Saramago points out in Cain — the god of the Old Testament, at least, is obsessed with death and the complete submission of his people, though he gives nothing really meaningful in return.

But this Science still a god, that is, it’s still the final arbiter of objective and, more importantly, subjective truth. Viewing Science in this way requires adherants to believe in its rightness, its ultimate authority in all matters, from physics to ethics. What I like about Gray’s book is that he rejects that sort of belief, and traces the history of such a belief to its roots in Positivism.

The thing is, the universe doesn’t care what you know or don’t know about it. And science — small-s science — is only a method of inquiry to try and figure out how the universe works so that we know how to navigate around in it. There’s no other reason to do science — it’s a tool, not a philosophy, and it’s only concerned with the mechanics of things — how they work and fit together.

Religion, on the other hand, is a system of beliefs whose ultimate goal is to answer the question of why: why do we die, or why are we here at all, or why do bad things happen to good people, or any number of other existential questions. Its main concern is the purpose and meaning of things. Science and religion have completely separate aims, therefore, and really shouldn’t be intermingled. But they are, because we as humans need, for some reason, to have a reason for existance. I think that’s where the Dawkinsian atheism, what Gray calls evangelical atheism, comes from: they have an answer and that answer is right, so why shouldn’t everyone agree on it?

Life, and belief, aren’t that simple. The fact is, at least as far as I can tell, that everyone has a whole world inside their head and draw their own conclusions. The universe is a big unorganized collection of matter, even if, on the small scale, there are eddies of organization. There’s no purpose to any of it, it just happened. I’m not sure if someone or something made it all, but that’s something we’ll never be able to know for sure, so why worry about it? Religion becomes your own relationship to the universe, to its knowns and unknowns, inside and outside your self. And science becomes a way to coordinate to figure out the details of our shared realities, so that we can work together and live together and be together within our own universes, replicated inside each of our skulls. I think that’s my belief. It’s kind of a religion, but I wouldn’t use such a strong word.