Saturday, December 11, 2010

Life Lines 76


Science tries to understand the universe from the very tiny (atoms and their particles) to the very large (galaxies and their formation). It limits itself to the material world (the world that consists of matter and energy) and it uses reductionism as its methodology. This means it assumes complex objects can be taken apart into their components and reassembled to show that all of the components are accounted for. It works by a process called incrementalism – knowledge is built up bit by bit over generations to work things out that are very complicated like cells or macromolecules, or the means by which stars generate light and energy. It relies on technology because as humans we are limited to our senses and our eyes do not see as far as telescopes or distinguish the minuscule as effectively as microscopes. Nor can our unaided senses separate out molecules from one another as effectively as chromatography. Where possible scientists test things by designing experiments. They use reason as a tool to look for contradictions and construct theories from myriads of facts.

Religions attempt to relate how humans should live with each other and find meaning in the universe. Most religions invoke the existence of a God to justify that meaning or purpose in life. This requires a reliance on authority, sometimes scriptural (like a Bible or Koran) or the hierarchy of the religion (as in the primacy of the Pope for Roman Catholics). It also relies on tradition especially for the practice of rites or other obligations associated with the religion from clothing to foods to rituals. Those involved in a religious community accept these aspects through faith. Some features of the components of a religion are derived from revelation, a supernatural source of knowledge transmitted by conversation with the divine or from dreams and other sources. The totality of shared beliefs in any one of hundreds of different religions can be described as its creed or set of faith-based beliefs.

Religions and science collide when they discuss the origins of the universe, our galaxy, our sun, our earth, life on this earth, and human life. Most religions have some form of narrative of how these components of the universe arose. We call those narratives myths when referring to dead religions like those of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. They also collide when natural events (such as evolution or the individual life cycle) are interpreted by religions as being guided or drawn to some ultimate purpose. Science also interprets disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and volcanic eruptions by relying on factors such as temperature changes in the ocean, plate tectonic dynamics, the melting of a winter’s mass of snow and ice, and the erosion of rock by molten lava under pressure. Some religions prefer to look upon these as punishments meted out by God to chasten the unfaithful. All natural processes, to them, are reflections of a divine will. Science also does not invoke the miraculous or supernatural processes of any kind. Most of humanity can keep these two different systems as meeting different needs, which is one reason science continues to flourish and its practitioners are not rounded up to be burned at a stake. A small portion of humanity, alas, sees science as a threat to the faith of its future generations, a view that reflects its insecurity.

No comments: