Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Problems in the Debate Between Science and Religion

Lead: Nick Copanas & Evan Czyzowski


Summary by Matt McLean:

The Search for Meaning

Science and religion, despite their differences, grow from a common root – the search for meaning in our vast and confusing universe. From that stem, the two grow in different ways. Science is seen by most as that which pursues mystery and gives us the "how" while religion is seen as that which pursues mystery and gives us the "why." Another way of putting it is: science is an empirical search for the ‘gears’ of the universe – the laws and properties of existence; religion is the spiritual pursuit to give us the big picture of what all of these laws and properties mean.

Do Science and Religion Conflict?

Contemporary culture tends to drive a split between science and religion, while most believe that they are both searching for meaning, they do so in conflicting ways. There have, of course, been a great deal of animosity between scientists and church officials over last five hundred years – it was not uncommon for scientists to be branded heretics.

Modern times have seen almost a reverse of history. Now, we call the period in which religious thought was dominant to be the "dark ages," a term indicative of ignorance.

Is There One Correct Truth?

Most will agree that there is a difference (even if it isn’t official and can’t be found in the dictionary) between religious truth and scientific truth. What is "true" for a scientist is often empirical data found through rigorous testing, what is "true" for a religious scholar is faith found through interpretation of scripture or through prayer or meditation. Is it possible that only one of these "truths" is the real truth?

Can Either Work By Itself To Explain Existence?

Few will say that science or religion is 100% right or wrong. The truth then, most likely requires that we explore both.

Nick told a story about his trip to the Salvador Dali museum. At the entryway to the museum was a woman handing out cassette players telling visitors "listening to the tapes will tell you what the paintings mean." Nick related his shock, saying that he couldn’t imagine how the meaning of a whole gallery of painting, much less just one painting, could somehow be captured on a tape.

Evan spoke of a recent Newsweek article regarding a study of mental activity during meditation and prayer. Scientists have noticed an almost direct correlation between spiritual experience and neurological activity – a certain area of the brain was always ‘active’ when their test subjects engaged in prayer, meditation or had what they attested to be a ‘religious experience.’ While the scientists are confident of their findings, they do not claim to have explained the mystery and awe of religious experience – only its biological workings.

Both of these stories hint at a difficulty in understanding the world when we look through only one lens.

Is Myth Explanation or Rhetoric?

Religious myths have been used for many purposes other than spiritual metaphor, as Professor Brockelman pointed out. This raised the question "Are creation myths just tools to legitimate power?" One student asked: "Why don’t we fix or abandon our religious myths that are no longer useful?"

Myth, it was argued, is by definition rich in meaning regardless of whether or not it is true. Myths do not need to be fixed since the interpretation of the myth is dynamic over time even if the story does not literally change.

Can Science "Replace" Religion?

Scientific explanation has, for many people, changed people understanding of how our planet, and the life that dwells upon it, formed and evolved through time. Can science overtake other realms of debate that have often been answered by religion in the past? It was discussed whether morality, often a subject that most people let religion answer for them, could ever be the domain of science. Religion, professor de Vries argued, provides us with stories that help us prioritize value in our lives – morality is independent of both science and religion, though either one of them can influence our values and thereby influence our morality.

Does Science Take Away Appreciation?

Religions generally teach the idea of intrinsic value – be it life, nature, virtue – most religions define something as good in and of itself that is to be valued. Professor Brockelman asked "Has war, acquisition and constant scientific mastery caused us to marginalize our appreciation of life? Are we looking at life as a "thing?" the universe as a "thing?" Can science give us an appreciation of "things" or can it only make them into objects?"

A few participants in the discussion agreed that science and religion allow us to explore ‘separate’ realities – they do not give us appreciation – that is up to how we interpret our scientific and religious discoveries

Professor Möbius offered his view of appreciation: "Science does not, by itself, block our appreciation, it gives us the details and allows us to put the appreciation in ourselves."

Where Do Science And Religion Coexist?

Scientists don’t live just as evidence gathering machines, Professor de Vries said, they live as people. And you can’t live your life with just religion, one student argued, religion is a way to describe your experience with the world, but you still have an empirical, hands-on relationship with the modern world that can’t be ignored.

Knowing and Mystery are not contradictory, Professor Möbius said, we can explore the world through scientific knowing and still enjoy the mystery through religious experience – he mentioned Albert Einstein as an example – he’s perhaps the most famous scientist in Western history and yet, he is also perhaps the most spiritual.

Both science and religion help us understand the world, even if they have different methodologies. One participant ended the discussion with these words: "Can we learn all the rules? Should we? Will knowing everything let us predict and control reality? Maybe – I can play with a small bit of reality, and even control it – but what about the whole big reality? Who’s playing with that?"

May 17, 2001