Science and Religion Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Zodiacal Light and Milky Way  Image Credit & Copyright: Babak Tafreshi (TWAN)

Zodiacal Light and Milky Way
Image Credit & Copyright: Babak Tafreshi (TWAN)

In a dark night, a torch’s light pierces through the darkness, and illuminates the way. As it reveals the way forward, it also produces more darkness. More precisely, light made darkness  ‘darker’, while darkness made light ‘brighter’.  This, in essence, captures the relationship between science and religion. The light represents science, while darkness is religion.

A superficial way of seeing this light – dark analogy is to say that science and religion are, by nature, irreconciliable, because philosophically and historically, they are two dialectic forces. In other words, they are two archrivals; one loses, the other wins and vice versa. Light and darkness cannot co – exist because there is one absolute truth. In the Middle Ages, monks saw compass as a Satanic work. By always pointing to the North, it tempts humans to peep into God’s mind and hence to challenge God’s power. In this case, either the scientific explanation about magnetic pole prevails, or the religious explanation about Satan’s work should triumph. 

Unfortunately, this kind of ‘either/or’ explanation is over-simplistic, if not naive. I believe that as science discovers how nature works, it only serves to deepen the mystery. By the same token, religion inspires awe and imagination that powers science to solve the mystery. Science and religion work hand in hand because each reinforces the other. That’s why light made darkness ‘darker’, while darkness made light ‘brighter’. Let me explain.

Earth's mass causes the warping of space and time

Earth’s mass causes the warping of space and time

As scientific theory finally solves one natural mystery, another mystery always arises. With simplicity, Newton formulated the three laws of motion that predicts, with remarkable precision, how gravity behaves.  However he never explained what gravity exactly is. Einstein shocked the world when he said gravity is the warping of space and time. He told us that on top of the ordinary three dimensions (up – down, right – left, forward – backward), there is an additional time dimension that we are not aware of. In other words, there is actually four dimensions in the Universe.

That’s not the end of the story. Einstein presumed that space is smooth like a piece of blank sheet. Quantum mechanics destroys that assumption when it reveals that space is dominated by violent undulations of particles. Recent years saw the rise of string theory which tries to resolve this conflict by seeing particles not as infinitely small ‘points’ but as strings. However full – fledged string theory requires nine space dimensions and one time dimension – a total of ten dimensions.

These discoveries inspire a profound awe about the nature. This awe is simple and uncomplicated. It is similar to the surprise when you look at the sky, and find a beautiful sunset, or discover a rainbow. Whenever you express this kind of wonder, religion is already at works.

Science refines this awe into having a deep sense of connection with the Universe. As Einstein revealed there is an additional time dimension that we cannot perceive, he has done more than just explaining a natural phenomenon concerning gravity. He showed us the deep underlying aspect of the Universe and provoked us to question where we stand in the Cosmo.

However Einstein’s illumination only serves to raise more questions and made the mystery still more mysterious. Quantum mechanics, in its own right, found many interesting answers to difficult scientific questions, but it ultimately clashes with Einstein’s theory. Physicists held high hope that string theory can shed some light, and it did, but as the cost of creating still more mysteries, one of them being the ten dimensions.

Calabi - Yau Shape gives a rough sense of the 6 additional space dimensions

Calabi – Yau Shape gives a rough sense of the 6 additional space dimensions

One additional time dimension is already hard enough to swallow, let alone ten. The time dimension stimulates the awe I just described and by doing so, it works as an engine that powers physicist to find the answer which will, in turn, fire still more mysteries. The extra six space dimensions that string theory proposes is unprecedented and truly mind – blowing. The Calabi – Yau shape on the right can give a very rough idea of how it might look like.

In this discussion, I see religion as something very simple. It is a feeling of having a connection with Cosmo. Awe, wonder and marveling are examples of that feeling. Our very bodies are an embodiment of that idea because the elements that made us up – iron, carbon, hydrogen – are the ones that made up the stars. When we sing ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ as children, we are unaware the faraway stars in dark night are made with the same matter as we are. In the very near future (in cosmological scale), the Earth will be destroyed by the expansion of the Sun. The particles in our bodies will gather into a dust cloud to be ‘recycled’  to form into another star.

We are made up of matter same as the stars

We are made up of matter same as the stars

I am trying hard to avoid using any ‘religious terms’ but reincarnation is the best word that describes the process. Stephen Hawkins amusedly speculated in The Brief History of Time that an astronaut falling into a black hole can achieve a bizarre immortality. His/her body will be torn apart, for sure, and his/her mass absorbed by the black hole. However the black hole will transform that mass into energy and will radiate it back to the Universe. The astronaut lives forever in the form of mass and energy.

To see the world without science is to give ourselves to the care of a blind man. To see the world without religion is to burn ourselves without knowing any meaning of life. There is no absolute light or absolute darkness. Light presumes the existence of darkness while darkness presumes the existence of light. Likewise, science and religion are inseparable and are two sides of the same coin. They are part and parcel of the Cosmo.

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12 thoughts on “Science and Religion Are Not Mutually Exclusive

  1. 山中 says:

    Are you sure? Although science does create more mysteries as it progresses. it explains the current mysteries really well. On the other hand, religions doesn’t explain anything; they just assume they have the right answer. To put it in a simply analogy, science is like a homicide detective at work, who never claims to know who is the murderer right off the bat and proceeds to discover the murderer’s identity by following clues and evidence. Since murder never ends, he works his new cases following the same method. Where as religion is like a very lazy person who claims he knows the true identity of the murderer, despite now knowing any evidence and never change his mind should evidence goes against his assumption. They are incompatible and not reconcilable If our goal is to further our understanding of this universe. One cannot pick the scientific method to do theology and vice versa.

    • This is itself an assumption about the nature of religion. You are essentially seeing white robed idiots who go around chanting all day, never considering any ideas. Religious people don’t live in cloisters, they exist in the real world. They took biology and physics in high school and college, and one in fact is writing to you on this internet.

      To be religious does not mean to be cut off from scientific ideas. It means to examine them under the lens of one who has seen and heard things that cannot be dreamt of in cut and dry terms. I use reason and logic, the same as any scientist, and test my thinking against the nature of this world. If something doesn’t add up, I discard it.

      You know what particularly doesn’t add up, most of all? The idea that a universe can be Creator-less. The level of complexity, first off, the level of sheer perfect situations (there are over 100 criteria a planet needs just to sustain life and not be destroyed by a meteor, and in all the universe of millions of planets we are the only one so far to manage it, this makes it beyond the level of a random chance), and the fact that existence exists at all. Not only complexity, but the idea that we are beings that largely have free will. I’ve written computer code. Most code is only enough to give simple routines, and no deviation once programmed.

      Most of these codes are incredibly resource consuming, because they require weighing of information. You want to tell me that “by accident” life forms were able to develop a simple brain to do it with no added overhead?

      You know what else doesn’t add up? This world is not the one scientists think. Yes, there are rules like gravity and force, but there are also an endless number of oddities, from small coincidence, to romantic connections which are themselves connected to other things, to freak events.

      Whether a traditional YHWH fellow is God, or something far more akin to Einstein’s notion, the fact remains there is something going on that is far different from a bunch of simplistic science equations.

  2. mrtso1989 says:

    The assumption behind the analogy is that there is one true answer, as to the identity of the person and so either science or religion could have arrived to the true answer
    But this is exactly the kind of ‘either/or’ explanation that I believe is too simple. Monotheistic religions, like Christianity, Islam and Judaism, stipulate one absolute truth and so anything that deviates from it must be false. This, then, clashes with science which professes to have discovered the laws of nature.

    However, that’s not the kind of mindset I am having. Monotheism is but one branch of religion – it’s not the religion. Other branches of ‘religion’ like Daoism and Buddhism do not necessarily hold the conception of an absolute truth. It is the mysterious ‘Way’ or ‘Dao’ in which everyone practicing in that religion can have arrive to through different feelings and realizations. In that sense, religion and science are not incompatible, and may be even complementary to each other.

    In the above, I have cited stars and black hole as scientific ideas that closely correspond with the idea of reincarnation. Spiritually, I don’t think the spirits behind the scientific disciplines and religious teachings are as vastly different as you said about in your murderer analogy. Both, science and religion, wish to know the Way, but each in different yet complementary methods.

    • 山中 says:

      Ah, but Daoism and Buddhism are more like philosophies than religions (the former was actually a philosophy). Nonetheless, the problem is that most religions claim they know the truth (their truths) and demand others to live according to their doctrine. In addition, they make factual claims about the physically world. Science, on the other hand, does not do that. It makes factual claims but those claims are usually supported by evidence, and if it’s got it wrong, it will admit that it is wrong. Falsifiability is the fundamental difference between science and religion.

  3. mrtso1989 says:

    Indeed, religions demand people to live in a certain ways or to act in certain manners in order to realize the Way. However those practices are not fixed. Zen, for example, demand people to contemplate the Way in normal daily life, and not through any monk – like devotion.

    Beside, I don’t think religions claim to know the ‘truth’. Religions only claim there is the Way which is destined to be mysterious. No saint can tell what the Way is and it must be achieved by individuals in many different ways. It’s a great oriental tradition that many allegories are used to demonstrate what the Way might be but never say what it is. 莊子’s works fall in this genre. Hence religions claim there is the Way but not what the Way is.

    That goes on to whether religions make any factual claims.To me, I don’t think religions make any factual claims. Of course, many fundamentalists believe that the Earth was really made in 7 days and that Earth’s history was a mere few thousand years. Those are people drunk in their faith. What I am proposing is that the myths or stories in the sacred writing served more as allegories than hard facts.

    If you have time, take a look at Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. By examining and comparing the world’s myths, he found there is a pattern in them. This pattern has a spiritual dimension that tries to tell people how to overcome difficulties. In other words, myths are not ‘regressive’ or ‘progressive’. They give spiritual guidance to how a person should overcome problems.

    In Chiang Mai, Thailand, I once asked a monk whether they believed the myths. He told me they were just allegories and that the monks only treated Buddha as a respectable teacher, not as God or gods.

    Notwithstanding the historical facts that religions indeed wish to claim sovereignty over science, I personally believe that religions and science are just two different way to understand the world. Religions resort to a kind of mysticism or feeling while science use logical reason or falsifiability, and I insist that both ways are complementary or at least not incompatible.

    • 山中 says:

      I think our difference lays in how we define religion. As I said before, Buddhism and Daoism are more like philosophies than religions. The latter began strictly as a philosophy, then the religious aspects of it started independently during Han Dynasty with the introduction of the deity Xi Wang Mu, without the underlying philosophical thoughts. Buddhism was divided into philosophies and religion. Zen Buddhism started in China and was mixed with Daoist philosophical thoughts. Buddha merely means a learned person, and according the Buddhas teaching, once he is enlightened, he no longer exists, so it is not really a religion if seeing that way.

      The usual definition of religion is that it is a belief in the supernaturals due to faith. If a religion claims that God exists, then it is make a factual claim about such God occupying a place in the space-time continuum. Then any thinking person who come across such claim must ask themselves whether such a God exists and should they believe such God exists and what evidence displays the existence of God.

      David Humes’s dictum on miracles/supernaturals suggests that such belief is self-contradictory and illogical. If we want to understand the physical world and know what is true, religions and their supernatural believes are not of much help to us.

      Myths are stories made by human, of course there are human elements that encourage people and lift up the human spirit. In the modern age we have superheroes movies, and we can all learn a thing or two from the Batman. But that doesn’t mean that Batman exists in the real world, or that we should say the belief of the real existence in Batman and the scientific study of the cultural phenomenon of Batman are compatible.

  4. mrtso1989 says:

    I think that’s a view too narrow take. The core of religion is the appreciation of one’s place in the Cosmos. Monotheism resorts to an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God as the embodiment of that idea and that’s also what David Hume was much critical with.

    Ideas like Buddhism and Daoism are religions insofar that they believe in an underlying Way that lead us to understand we are all part of the Cosmos. Any gods are simply add – on or parts of the allegories/myths that could help to illustrate the Cosmos or the way to understand Cosmos.

    That’s exactly what I have been disagreeing with. People with less patience to know the underlying meaning or less intellect to think about the deeper questions might believe in the real existence of Batman. The proper way is to look at Batman and the whole story as a collection of symbols that tell something about the spiritual world.

    I think our main differences lay not in the definition of religion, but our views on fact/value separation. David Hume is a great proponent that we can not derive facts from values and vice versa. However his view and other philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment are not without criticisms. Historically, the French Revolution revealed the limit of human reasons and that even with grand slogan like ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, people can do a great measure of violence. Psychologically, Freud’s ideas on the unconsciousness shows that humans can not be perfectly rational being. Philosophically, Nietzsche gave a drastic attack against the fact/value separation and said that to be neutral and completely valueless is already a stance.

    What I am trying to say is that the world is a Cosmos that consists of many dimensions. Philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment gave a due weight to the use of reasons. Science is also another powerful tool which we can discover the nature. Religion is the spiritual means that give us insight of this Cosmos.

  5. 山中 says:

    Well, is monotheism “not religion” according to your definition? Or do you want to limit religion to polytheistic religions? Then, are the Roman or Viking or Aztec paganisms correct in the views of the Cosmo? Are Buddhism and Daoism correct in their metaphysics? Do people really reincarnate? Is the Dalai Lama reincarnation of the Buddha or is that just a scam? What’s the difference between believing in Batman and a dude reincarnating through out centuries?

    I can agree that facts and values are different things, but many of our values are based on the understanding of facts. Murder creates harms, so killing is bad. Famine leads to suffering, so we should work hard and be productive. Whatever the case it maybe, once a religion, any religion, claims that it can answer questions like the beginning of the universe, then it has a duty to prove it.

    And do not forget that religions do get hold of people because of their factual claims. People should follow the Dalai Lama because he is a deity; people should follow Buddhism because that’s the way to get out of reincarnation; people should follow the Bible because it is god’s words; people should worship Daoist deities because they are magical entities. Take all those away and religions disappear.

    Furthermore, you can have a certain spiritual feeling when you think about the universe, but that’s not necessary religion and you definitely do not need religion for that. It is called philosophy. Take humanism for example, it is a secular philosophy that deal will values without any use of supernatural. Daoism began and still is a humanistic philosophy, which is a fact that you avoid to answer. It is up to you to feel spiritually about a certain thing or anything, you don’t need religion to tell you that, and that is the key element of Existentialism. Or take Stoicism, it is an incredibility spiritual that admits that humans are not always rational and our limits are inherent; therefore, it takes great discipline, efforts and contemplations to stay being good. These two elements are ingrained in the Daoist philosophy. Many atheists are incredibility spiritual willing to take up the philosophical thoughts of Buddhisma and Daoism.

    Aren’t you a bit inconsistent to say that religion solely holds the domain of spirituality?

  6. […] 跟mrtso1989在他的博客討論科學與宗教相容性的問題,有興趣者可以參加。我的看法是科學與宗教並不相容,因爲宗教所提出的一套世界觀並不能用任何方法證實或推翻。科學則相反,科學界所提出任何理論都可以被推翻,證據不支持這套理論,這套理論就不會被接受。透過這個找出錯誤與剔除錯誤的過程,我們就可以知道什麽是值得相信而什麽是不值得相信。如果我們要考慮一樣東西的實際有無,例如達賴喇嘛轉世,宗教本身並不能,也不會告訴我們怎樣可以證實它的觀點是錯的,反正達賴喇嘛說他是活佛轉世,他就是活佛轉世。如果我告訴人我是蝙蝠俠,不知他人或否單憑我的説話就相信我。 […]

  7. mrtso1989 says:

    Monotheism, of course, falls in my definition of religion. To a limited extent, monotheism is not unlike Buddhism or other Oriental religions, because the ultimate goal of monotheism, just like Buddhism or Daoism, is to have union with the Way or God, that is all – transcending.

    Let me quote one example. Genesis 1:27: So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
    When God create ‘human’, this first ‘human’ consist of both sex. This ‘human’ is ‘perfect’ insofar that he/she is not marred by the law of opposites (i.e. male and female) but by creating a woman, and hence breaking the unison, it symbolizes that sin will naturally flow that breaks the harmony. (well, that sort of equates woman with sin, but that’s a different story)

    As a mythologist has said ‘Hence the personality or personalities of God – whether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or Unitarian terms, in polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheistic term, pictorially or verbally – no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing’ (Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces). What he means is that, the historical facts concerning the religious stories are irrelevant because ultimately what we are interested is not the gods/God, but their functions as a vehicle to communicate to us what the Way is.

    My stance does not go as far as that, but it serves as a very good answer to your questions relating to pagan views on cosmos or the authenticity about reincarnation. It would have been a mistake to treat myths as literal truth. As I have said repeatedly, they are mere allegories that help to illustrate the Way.

    Of course, throughout the ages, people do believe them as literal truths. Firstly it is fruitless to look at hindsight. Now we have our sophisticated scientific tools like rockets and satellites, and then we can ridicule the stupidities of the ancient believes, without realizing that with their limited resources, they achieved remarkable astronomical feats. Secondly, the people you mentioned like ‘People should follow the Dalai Lama because he is a deity; people should follow Buddhism because that’s the way to get out of reincarnation; …’ are just lazy people who don’t bother to question the meaning behind religion. Thirdly, sure enough, I think it’s a great feature in religion, especially in Buddhism, that people can worship in great many ways. The fact of this diversity demonstrates that the so – called doctrinal straightjacket that would have prevented freedom of thinking is more apparent than real.

    Finally, my stance is that religion and science are compatible. Even if religion is not the only spiritual guidance and that philosophies like secular humanism or existentialism can be the substitutes, that does not serve as an relevant attack. Religion and science can be still compatible, even if you wish to find other substitutes that you think they are more convincing.

    By the way, I confess I am unlearned in existentialism and stoicism. Would be grateful if you may recommend any good introductory books on them to me.

    • 山中 says:

      Wait, the whole religious aspect of Buddhism is reincarnation/ karma; you take that away, you take the whole religion away and what is left is the philosophy, which is Zen. Therefore, if you question their supernatural claims, you are questioning the religion. And that is why science and religion are incompatible. If you follow the scientific method, you will have to question the supernaturals. It will be logically inconsistent to say otherwise. Science says everything is natural or has natural explanation, whereas religion says there are things beyond natural: these are mutually exclusive claims. Philosophy allows you to be spiritual without any supernatural claims.

      “What he means is that, the historical facts concerning the religious stories are irrelevant because ultimately what we are interested is not the gods/God, but their functions as a vehicle to communicate to us what the Way is”. That is called a secular study of religion. This is not religious study nor theology. There is a big difference between them. Like a say above, secular study takes away the supernaturals, so it is not a religion anymore. That’s why I asked you what do you mean when you say “religion”.

      Existentialism is more abstract, you can try reading Jean-Paul Satre or Albert Camus. You can read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditation or AC Grayling’s What is Good? for an introduction of stoicism.

  8. […] neither ‘ancient’ nor ‘modern’. It is timeless. In my previous article, Science and Religion Are Not Mutually Exclusive, the learnt blogger, montwithin, challenged my stance and argued that falsifiability is what […]

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