I got into an interesting discussion over the weekend of the merits of science versus faith based thinking. I’m happy to say that it was one of those productive discussions and not just a shouting match. It’s rare these days that you find people you can have intelligent conversations with. People are pretty well programmed against productive discourse it seems.
During the course of the discussion, I came across a pretty good metaphor for the difference between science and faith based thinking (I was arguing for science).
Now, just for a little background, I think that there was a time in the development of the human race where religion was necessary. Just as the concept that there were only four elements (Earth, Fire, Air, Water) was a necessary stepping stone to our modern periodic table. The first theory is elegant on paper, but useless in practice…but you needed the first to get to the second. Religion is the same way, it took human beings from complete savages, but we’ve evolved to the point where we need something more now.
The comparison I made was that religion is similar to the geocentric model of the solar system, and science is then represented by the heliocentric model. The thing that confuses everyone is that both of those systems will give you the same results for certain questions. Both are accurate for predicting when harvest is going to come, etc., but only the heliocentric model can be used to send spacecraft to Mars. Essentially, for the grand majority of people, both models are equally relevant in a practical sense, and that’s why some people would argue that it “doesn’t do you any harm” to believe in the geocentric model.
However, that’s where I disagree. Believing in the geocentric model, as believing in the fundamental components of religion, does limit you because it trains your brain to accept ridiculous and time consuming contradictions.
For example, the geocentric model isn’t as simple as somebody putting the Earth at the center of the system. Even when that model first appeared, there were fairly advanced astronomers around, and they had already noticed a phenomenon called “retrograde motion of the planets.” This is a bit of a difficult concept to explain, but let me give it a shot.
When you’re driving in a car and you’re passing another car, you sometimes get the sensation that the car you are passing is going backwards. This is just an optical illusion because both vehicles are going forwards, but from inside your vehicle you can see the car you are passing drifting backwards with respect to you. This same optical illusion happens with the planets. At certain times of the year, Venus looks like it is going backwards in space in its relative motion to the earth (this can be observed if you plot the location of Venus over a series of nights…like the ancient astronomers did).
The result of this on the geocentric model is catastrophic. To explain it required a bizarre and convoluted hypothesis that involved putting all the planets on circular orbits around fixed points as they traveled in an additional orbit around the Earth. They actually built models of this concept which are unwieldy meshes of clockwork that look like they were designed by a lunatic.
In contrast, the existence of retrograde motion fits perfectly with the heliocentric model without having to make any adjustments.
As I was talking with my debate partner last weekend, I found she kept having convoluted, tenuous explanations for all my objections. It was impressive the amount of work that she’d done to justify her belief system, but I couldn’t help but think that same brain power would have served her better if it had been used to further her forward progress rather than justify her attachment to the past.
The great thing about science is that if you see things are starting to contradict themselves, you don’t break yourself in half trying to find an absurd explanation, instead, you throw the model in the garbage and start again. Occam’s razor says the simplest explanation is usually the answer.
The problem with holding on to the contradictory model and learning all the ridiculous quirks is that although that model can be made to explain everything that’s already known, it is useless for revealing new phenomena you didn’t know existed.
All scientific models that have been accepted have yielded truths that the original model builders didn’t know were there.
That’s progress folks. You put together as much of the puzzle as you can, and when you have it right, the true answer is revealed.
There’s nothing “noble” in training yourself to accept contradictions, or retroactively read truth into ancient documents. Truth is clarity.
The problem is that people get married to outdated thinking because they dedicated so much time to mastering it. But there’s nothing noble in that, it’s a fool’s errand.
Religion does deserve a certain amount of respect since I think you can make an argument that it was among the initial stepping blocks that lead to the scientific method as well as a human literacy and the inclination to study and meditate. But at this point in human history, adherence to religion takes people away from the physical truths that comprise the universe ALL religions accept as the undisputed work of the creator.
If you consider yourself to be a religious person, shouldn’t you be striving to understand the physical laws of reality? Galileo said it best, “the word of God was written in the stars and the language is mathematics.”
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