Friday, January 01, 2010
An Old Debate
I like to look at history. Before a certain moment in human history, there was no dichotomy between religion and science. It was all one subject. Call it religion, spiritualism, belief in the unknowable, or what you will, the purpose was to explain things that seemed to defy explanation. Why do earthquakes occur? Why do floods occur? Why to solar eclipses occur? Why do we get sick? People wondered about these and other questions.
Some events can be explained by careful observation and experiment. A dry stick thrown into a fire will catch fire and burn. Water in a pot placed over the fire will get hot and boil. Meat and other food thrown into the boiling water will cook and produce nourishing, tasty soup. Many simple things like that can be understood by observing carefully. But there is no simple explanation for an earthquake. Until very recently, there was no means of predicting even the probability of an earthquake. These unexplainable events were ascribed to the action of a powerful god or spirit. The god had his or her own reasons for the earthquake, flood, great storm, epidemic, drought, or other disaster.
Such inventions as the telescope and microscope and their use in studying the sky above us and the microscopic beings in the earth beneath us represented a step away from ascribing to a god all of the mysterious problems that beset us humans. The telescope eventually provided evidence that the earth is not the center of everything but only a small planet in an immense universe of stars and planets and comets and all of that. The microscope eventually gave evidence for the germ theory of disease. That meant that a god was no longer needed to explain eclipses of the sun and moon and many diseases and infections.
Scientific knowledge and philosophy expanded. More and more phenomena were shown to be the result of natural and knowable causes. God was less and less needed to explain things that happened. There grew up a distinction between knowledge gained from experience and logic on one hand and knowledge contained in ancient, holy writings on the other. Often these different "knowledges" contradicted each other. And that's where we are today.
Even in ancient times, long before the scientific revolution started by Copernicus, Galileo, Huyghens, Newton, and others, wise people recognized that there were two aspects of religion. One aspect was the explanation of floods, earthqakes, eclipses, and other natural disasters. The other was the establishment of a system of morality and ethics to enable large populations to live together in cities in peace. This system was based on the simple rules of behavior within a small, closed family: respect the elders, share, treat others as you would be treated, take care of the very young and helpless, don't waste precious food, keep yourself clean, don't lie about your brother or sister, etc.
Today religion is important in clarifying and explaining many complex moral and ethical issues that arise between us humans as we compete for our fortunes and our places in society. Here is an example of a difficult issue: violence in support of freedom from oppression by foreign occupyers. It has been argued that an oppressed people must use violence to free themselves from domination by a colonial power. The violence cleanses the feeling of oppression and worthlessness imposed by the colonial power and enables the newly freed people to feel unashamed about themselves. Another argument is that violence often does not lead to liberation but only to more oppression and that non-violent, peaceful demonstrations can be more effective against the colonial power than violent confrontation. That is, Ghandi was more successful in liberating India than Yasser Arafat was in liberating Palestine. I don't know the answer to this question even though my example tilts strongly in favor of non-violent demonstration. There are other situations in which violent confrontation won the day while peaceful demonstrations amounted to nothing. I think this is a proper question for religion.
I think that questions about earthquakes, the origin and proliferation of species, and a physical description of the origin of the universe should be assigned to science. Religion really can't tell us how things began. Religion can speculate and perhaps provide answers as to why it began. "How" suggests a mechanism that can be simulated in laboratory experiments. "Why" is a question that can not be investigated by any experiment that I can imagine.