On Science, Religion, and Compartmentalization

Jul 08 2009 Published by under Science & Religion

Sometimes in the debates about whether or not it's OK to be religious if you're a scientist or somebody who accepts science, some will say that those who are scientists but also religious "compartmentalize".  The implication is usually negative, and sometimes is explicitly described as walling off your scientific good sense when considering religion, and walling off the doctrines of your faith when considering science.

Of course, such a simplistic picture is far from the truth.

The truth is, though, that physicists already compartmentalize, even within Physics! Consider fundamental physics. We have two extremely successful theories, which have stood up to every experimental test we've thrown at them: Quantum Mechanics (QM) and General Relativity (GR). Quantum Mechanics does a great job of describing the behavior of atoms, molecules, subatomic particles, solids, and so forth.  General Relativity does a great job of describing the behavior of gravitating systems, such as the orbit of the Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, and the Universe. However, we know that they can't both be right, because when you get into the regime where you need to consider both-- a regime where densities are so high that you can't ignore gravity even on small scales, and where you can't ignore quantum mechanics when doing gravity-- everything breaks down.

So what do we do?  We compartmentalize.  When dealing with gravity and the evolution of gravitational systems, we use GR, a continuous theory, and don't worry about QM.  When dealing with the interactions of particles that require QM, we don't include gravity in those interactions at all-- at most, we may do QM on a curved spacetime background.  And, we admit that we just don't know what happens where the two intersect.  There are some-- such as string theorists-- who are trying to work in the region where the two intersect, and, tellingly, there are other scientists who argue that what string theorists are doing isn't really proper science.

Given that physicists compartmentalize themselves, it should be reasonable to suppose then that a degree of compartmentalization is not only necessary, but eminently reasonable and rational when dealing with science and religion.  I don't mean "on Sunday, I believe God created humankind in its present form, and on other days I believe in evolution."  That's a pathological compartmentalization.  What I mean is that we know there are some things at which science excels describing, specifically the mechanisms of the natural world. And we know that there are some things addressed by religion, and by processes that cannot be described as scientific-- specifically, the existence of God (there being no scientific reason to suppose God exists), human spirituality, morality in the context of a traditional belief system, and faith. Religion may hold no meaning or use for some, and that's fine. But for people for whom it does hold meaning, there are clearly realms that religion can address which science cannot. Likewise, there are clearly realms that science addresses and which religion has tried to address, and where science has without exception proven to be superior.

So we compartmentalize. If we're talking about the processes of the natural world, we look to science, because science has proven over the centuries to be the right "way of knowing" to understand those processes, make predictions about them, and harness them. If we're talking about spirituality and faith, we look to religion, because the sorts of questions one asks there by and large aren't even meaningful scientific questions. And, unsurprisingly, there may be areas of grey overlap, areas where we aren't sure whether science or religion fully applies. As we understand these areas better, we may come to understand that something we once thought ineffable is in fact well within the domain of science. So we adapt, and adjust our compartments.

Just as it's entirely possible to be a completely consistent physicist while using both GR and QM, it's entirely possible to be a completely consistent rational person while accepting the roles of both science and faith in your life. The key is understanding where each applies, thinking creatively about how they overlap while understanding that it will be controversial and hard to decide, and being willing to adapt your understanding as the human race learns more.

8 responses so far

  • Patness says:

    All quite true, although to liken back to my original statement, *human beings* compartmentalize. I'd bet it happens with a lot of other animals, too, but one group's enough.

    Although I personally take issue with the size of the compartment religion gets, especially where it concerns the acquisition of new information, I think any human being is fair game for it.

    It is, however, something we should watch carefully. The issue is, if one chooses to exercise religious methodology over scientific (or vice versa) when new information is presented, what's the result?

    My (former) religious background has left me thinking that the skepticism inherent to the scientific process is far less forgiving to ignorance than the faith inherent to, for instance, Catholicism.

    There's a larger problem here, too: in all educational processes, we appeal to authority. Part of a good methodology should understand the need to defy authority. I side with science here, too, but I'm mixed as to how effectively it really does this.

    When the time comes to accept new information into the fold, which compartment will open up most readily? Which will more simply and elegantly tie that information into an existing body?

    It's certainly fine to hold both, but, I think, somewhat unfair to equate them.

  • Mary says:

    Eloquently put. I started reading your blog back when there was a big Science Blogs kerfluffle about religion and someone linked to you -- I thought you had the most sensible (and well written) take on the subject then, and I appreciate a voice of moderation.

  • rknop says:

    Patness -- I think that part of the issue of deciding whether the science methodology or the religious methodology applies is the nature of the question. When a new question comes, I'm all for thinking about it in as many ways as possible. Given the amazing track record of science, if science comes up with a good answer to the question, then I'd go with that. If, on the other hand, science comes up with either a big shrug, or untestable hypotheses, then, depending on how "untestable" it is, I might consider it something science is unable to address.

    Consider quantum gravity. It's entirely possible that the interaction of quantum mechanics and general relativity will turn out to be something in Nature that is truly ineffable, where the observation that mathematics is the language of Nature and science is the process whereby it may be understood breaks down. I highly doubt this, however. So, while some believe that understanding how the moment of Bang happened may *never* be addressable by science-- that pre-inflationary cosmology becomes something ineffable, where mathematics no longer can describe it-- I do not believe that. String theory right now does not produce any testable hypotheses, but I suspect that it, or something else, *will* produce hypotheses that are testable, even if it will require a lot of technological advance to do so.

    However, if somebody believes otherwise, I don't think that that represents bad scientific judgment; I just personally believe they're betting on the wrong horse. If string theory *does* produce some testable hypotheses, and we are able to test them, and those people don't change their views, then it *is* bad scientific judgment.

    So, when a new question comes up, let's think about it in as many ways as we can. If we're honest, we admit that science doesn't comment on the existence of God other than to say that while there is strong evidence against some of the specific interventions that some religions propose (e.g. creationism), there's no evidence for the existence of God. As such, the existence of God as understood in a modern sophisticated faith is not something addressable by science.

  • TomJoe says:

    Good post Rob. I also enjoy your comments over at The Intersection. It's refreshing to read a voice of reason in the sea of irrational fundamentalism on both sides.

    At to Patness, I get the impression that you seem to think that science can buck tradition and defy established thought. That is not always the case, at least at the very beginning. The "Big Bang" theory (coincidently identified by a Catholic priest by the name of Georges Lemaître) was coined such by Fred Hoyle (you may have heard of him) who rejected the idea. New, better interpretations of scientific data are not always met with open arms. They can often be scorned, ridiculed, and harassed through the entire peer review process. As a matter of fact, most people who are not familiar with science seem to think the peer review process is bereft of bias, when it is anything but.

  • Michael Cohen says:

    Rob - I would say the fundemental issue with the metaphor you are making is that scientists continue to search for a grand unified theory, and yet (as you argue) there basically can be no such theory uniting science and religion.

  • rknop says:

    Michael -- there may well be a "grand unified theory" that somehow unites science and religion, but if so, it's going to be something that transcends science itself. That is, it won't be something that fits within science, because it will be able to address questions that science can't even begin to address. Things like "what is beauty"-- not "what is the biochemical and neurological response to the perception of beauty", which is clearly a scientific question, but "what is beauty", which is not even well-phrased scientifically, which is inherently not an objective question.

    A scientific "theory of everything" that unites gravity and the other forces of nature is something could conceivably be addressed entirely within the domain of science. Something that unifies science and other modes of human thinking would be something beyond science itself, not something merely beyond today's best scientific understanding. (Mind you, if we approach it in steps, we might still *call* it science, but it will be as different from what we call science today as today's science is different from the cosmology of Plato.

  • Faust says:

    Hey Rob, nice site.

    Have you read Eddington's comparison of a poem about water and an equation that describes wave function?

  • Patness says:

    TomJoe - I understand your position, but when Fred Hoyle disregarded the notion of a Big Bang, how was he seeing it? It occurs to me that evidence suggesting the Big Bang actually happened didn't come around until the late '20s or early '30s, around the same time as the great debate between Einstein & Bohr. Until then, it was only a hypothesis, and there was no reason to take it too seriously unless you were a person doing pertinent research in the field. There was nothing suggesting it was a "better" interpretation.

    It's perfectly in accordance with the scientific process to disregard an idea that is utterly lacking in evidence, and new information deserves to be roundly criticised. I don't see that as a flaw of the process, but a merit.

    The same holds true with global warming today as probably held with the Big Bang back then - there are plenty of people in a variety of non-geo backgrounds who think it's wrong. There's plenty to criticise about environmental models. We laughed Rachel Carson to stock when she wrote Silent Spring.

    As evidence gathers, that changes. It takes a while, and rightly it should.