The Knowing of Science and Religion

the challenge of multiple meanings


Antoine Lavoisier, one of the founders of modern chemistry, realized the importance of vocabulary.  He suggested that the names one uses convey information and ideas as well as identify.  A term in prior use often carries with it archaic ideas which may be appropriate no longer.  And so Lavoisier proposed a set of new words such as Oxygen, Hydrogen and Caloric to describe materials where former names conveyed unwanted ideas.  Vocabulary terms previously existed to describe these things, but those words immediately conveyed to educated users aspects of the plogiston theory which Lavoisier viewed as outdated and wanted to replace.

While Lavoisier recognized this problem with vocabulary terms over two centuries ago, this problem still plagues students of science today.  In many cases scientists have more precisely defined terms such as work, energy and organic so that someone only familiar with the street use of the terms has a radically different understanding that that intended when used by a scientist.  Even the terms used by scientists to describe the essence of science itself often have meaning nearly opposite that assumed by those with only cursory familiarity with scientific research.  This can be a major problem when a scientist uses terminology to say an idea is certainly true, while voters and others making important decisions infer that the idea is only a wild guess and has a good chance to be incorrect!

Astronomer Carl Sagan said Superstition is very simple: It is merely belief without evidence.  But even the term belief seems to have multiple meanings.  Below is s brief translation table illustrating some of the more confusing terms used by scientists:

term common usage science meaning
work something done for pay mathematical exertion of a force moved a distance: W ≡ F · d
energy enterprising, ambitious, lively with vigor mathematical capacity to do work, exerting a force over a distance
organic contains no chemicals or pesticides, pure chemical containing carbon atoms (most pesticides included);
originally a chemical manufactured by a living organism
model an ideal to be emulated, or small example idealized description of a complex process or thing
theory a hunch; not for sure; likely will be changed has been tested and found correct; now considered true for sure
hypothesis just a guess likely enough to be true to be worth formal testing
faith conviction based on revelation from God something held true without any testing
experiment try something with outcome unknown logically rigorous test determining if correct; outcome anticipated
coincidence unrelated but accidentally at same time related because happened too close together to be chance
what's certain matters of faith and belief theories having had close scrutiny, finding no contradictions

The table necessarily is brief and to the point.  Reality is more difficult to encapsulate!  For example, in science a new idea starts out as a speculative hunch, is formalized as a hypothesis, and after some experimental verification becomes a theory.  For a scientist there is no higher category of for sure truth than theory.  One of the activities of science is to recheck even the oldest theories whenever a new procedure is developed.  As a result, most of the theories which have existed for some time have been tested many ways so that the remote possibility of an undiscovered error grows extremely small.

One of the normal ways science advances is by pushing existing theories to see if they can successfully explain and predict new situations.  If the theory continues to explain and make successful new predictions, the theory grows and becomes more powerful.  If it fails, then scientists develop extensions to the older theory, or develop a more comprehensive theory.  Sometimes the popular press describes the discovery as discrediting the previous theory while in fact it only discredited the extension of the previous theory.  Nearly always the replacement theory encompasses its predecessor.  The predecessor remains value, true, and useful for those situations where it previously worked.  For example, the physics of Isaac Newton still remains useful for explaining most of the ordinary motions we encounter and observe in our daily lives.  Only for very high speed motion do we need the more complicated formulas of Einstein's relativity.  Einstein's theory is broader and explains more situations, but Newton's theory still works successfully for most of our daily situations.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (b~1225, d1274) was one of the earliest to consider the nature of knowledge.  He discussed the possibility of error in human reason.  In his view, God had provided two equal routes to knowledge: general revelation and special revelation.  On special occasions God communicated directly, say via an angle.  But God also created the universe in such a way that humans could by observing and reason read the generally revealed work of God.  Special revelation and natural revelation are complementary rather than contradictory in nature.  Any apparent inconsistency must be due to a human error in interpretation.  Many of the scientists living since Aquinas view their work as uncovering the work of the creator.

A generation later Franciscan monk William of Occam (b~1284, d~1349) emphasized the notion that the best principle is one with the fewest premises.  It has long been a common philosophy.  Nearly two millennia earlier, Aristotle wrote Nature operates in the shortest way possible.  Occam's Razor, as it is now called, remains a central tenant for the selection between proposed explanations: The simplest explanation is more likely to be correct.  Keep it simple!

Today scientists are often meticulous when discussing the nature of scientific knowledge.  The very nature of scientific discovery means that science (Aquinas's general revelation) cannot, because of the possibility of human error, ever determine anything absolutely for sure.  All theory remains tentative.  This sometimes leads non-scientists to presume that all theories are equally valid, something which no scientist believes.  Instead, all science is done based on countless human experiences.  So that a true understanding of the universe can be approached, observations and explanations are verified by reasoned predictions and repeated, rigorous logical testing.  Scientists are often highly annoyed when others claim to have a more valid understanding gained without any testing at all, or worse yet, non-scientists claim a theory is true despite experimental evidence to the contrary.

To non-scientists mathematics is often just a useful tool for calculation.  But scientists often use mathematics as a precise logic tool.  Many parts of modern science require a logical chain of inference.  Science determines something is true because that is the only possibility that is logically consistent with a chain of evidence often gathered from very different circumstances.  Because evidence strongly suggests the same laws of our local universe are the same as the laws governing the far reaches of the universe, the tight logic of mathematics allows scientists to determine distant connections.  For example what is learned from high energy collisions at the tiny distances inside nuclei can provide information about the very earliest events after the origin of our universe.

Many people today distinguish science and religion.  However as Thomas Aquinas proposed, science provides a method to learn about the creator of the universe by carefully observing and studying the details of what has been created.  Over the centuries many of the greatest scientists have viewed their search to understand the universe as their attempt to understand the hand of God.  For them, their efforts were indistinguishable from their religion.  Even for some scientists who claim to be atheists who claim to not believe in more traditional views of God, many of their science efforts - to understand the universe, how it operates, and how it came to be - closely match the goals of their more religious peers.  Perhaps much of their differences are minor disagreements in defining vocabulary words such as the term God?



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created 5 January 2007
revised January 2007
by D Trapp
Mac made