Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Science Handles Premisses in Contrast to Religion

The core of rational discussion consists in the use of arguments. From premisses we derive conclusions by applying rules of inference. Premisses as well as rules of inference are assumed to be true and/or correct for that matter. Now, the use of arguments itself cannot make the difference between science and religion. Both, religious and scientific thinkers make use of arguments. Also, assuming premisses as evidence for a conclusion is therefore inherent in both, science and religion. Thus, if some scientists like Richard Dawkins try to fix the difference between science and religion by calling science „evidence-based“ in contrast to religion being based on pure faith, they're misled. Both try to rely on arguments and thereby using more or less strong evidence in their premisses.

What makes the difference is the critical method of handling premisses. For a scientist, none of his temporary assumptions is in principle sacrosanct. Each scientific assumption is in principle open to discussion, let it be empirical evidence, hypotheses or laws. Even the underlying mathematical logic and mathematics itself is frequently challenged by steady research. There is in principle no absolute truth in science.

For the religious thinker, there are assumptions which he would never give up, which are singled out as crucial, sacrosanct, taboo, untouchable in principle. E.g. for the Christian believer, the resurrection (raising from the tomb) is essentially taboo. Though he may apply arguments for it, the evidence he might use (reports written between 70 and 100 years after the alleged occurrence) is still evidence. But how weak or strong you might consider this evidence, a Christian may not seriously dispute it, otherwise he would cease to be a Christian. It's not under critical discussion, it is taboo. In contrast, a scientist may in principle always come out and criticize even the most accepted assumptions (and he will do that if he has reason to do so). For a religious thinker, the evidence not further critically discussed is called the dogma. For the scientific thinker, there is no such thing. (In the course of his daily business nevertheless, the scientist will rely – only for pragmatic reasons – on some set of assumptions temporarily without questioning them – which would make otherwise work practically impossible. One cannot question everthing all the time.

Similarly, if religious thinkers argue that faith/belief is not a feature distinguishing science from religion, because also scientists must believe in their assumptions, they're mislead. A scientist needs not believe nor have faith in anything. Usually they don't belive in belief. What they do is temporarily assume premisses in order to work. If they doubt an assumption or a result they will critically review it. Doubt is the mother of science, not belief.

When recently scientists of the CERN measured neutrinos being faster than light, they were so surprised (not to say shocked) about this contradiction to one of Einstein's key results – important in several areas of physics – that they started to doubt. In order to critically examine the experiment, they invited other scientists around the globe to review it. It was the US-physicist Brian Greene to whom is attributed the following beautiful quotation reflecting the truly critical spirit of science

"We'd be thrilled if it's right because we love something that shakes the foundation of what we believe," said famed Columbia University physicist Brian Greene. "That's what we live for."
(German: "Wir wären begeistert, wenn es sich als richtig herausstellt. Wir lieben Ergebnisse, die die Grundfesten dessen erschüttern, was wir für wahr halten.")

No matter what the outcome of the review of the Cern results by the international scientific community will be, Greens memorable saying was already worth it and will hopefully stand the test of time. Btw, the same attitude is also reflected by Konrad Lorenz who once recommended - as a daily exercise at the breakfast table - to take one of your loved hyptheses and try to falsify it.

These latter remarks may also hint at a third preconception concerning science often put forward by religious people: Science, they say, is not enough. Science neither gives people security nor meaning of life. Unlike religion, science cannot meet our deepest needs …
An answer to this may take more time and space and will be done in a later post.

Entry to CERN, late December 2008, unfortunately closed to the public

CERN in Geneva (Switzerland) stands for European Organization for Nuclear Research, here in late December 2008

CERN originally stands for Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, late December 2008 closed doors


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