Understanding: Science and Religion

perspective on a touchy subject


the nature of understanding

One of the best explanations for how brains develop understanding is called CONSTRUCTIVISM.1.  In short, it suggests that each person uses their own experiences to construct understanding for themselves.  This implies that because each person has a different set of experiences, each person's understanding is somewhat different.

Some philosophers have suggested that this means that because all science is constructed in our brains, nothing is necessarily TRUE in SCIENCE or any other part of our understanding.  But the world is REAL and provides most of us (i.e., who are not blind) with common experiences: e.g., we see the color of the sky and feel pain.  Those common, shared experiences help us build a consistent understanding of the REAL world.  But not all experiences are identical; not all ideas we hear or read are experienced by others.  So as a result we all construct partially varied understandings.  No person experiences everything, so it could be said that no single person has a complete or GOD's view of reality.

The brain constructs all understanding, therefore the ways we learn and understand science are also the same ways we learn and understand all other subjects, even religion.  So we should expect much in common between SCIENCE, RELIGION and all our other understandings.  When I was a little boy I was taught in Sunday School that nobody has a complete GOD's view of GOD, or CHRIST.  GOD was bigger than any human mind could comprehend!  (you noted the parallel :)

changing role for religion

Some people get very touchy when others propose ideas about religion that are different then their own.  It might be helpful to appreciate again that if constructivism is correct, then no two people will have totally identical understandings about religion (or any other subject).  It follows that some of my ideas below about religion will likely be different from your views.  The intent is not to shock you, convert you, or destroy your religion.  But by considering different views, you may gain a deeper understanding...  i.e., understand science better and be deeper in your own religion.

Many of the greatest scientists such as Kepler, Newton, and Einstein were deeply religious.  But our current understanding of the world is more complete than theirs: for example, we now know how the molecule we call DNA controls much of life.  And perhaps environment controls much of the rest.  So today many people see less need for the existence of a God.  Still others have tried to prove the existence of God.

the nature of God

Here the history of science might actually provide some clues for a productive search:

Before science, ancient peoples view Gods as controlling all the aspects of their world beyond human control.  That changed greatly when Newton introduced a self running mechanical universe governed by forces, laws, and principles; God became the masterful creator who engineered the clockwork universe, but rarely if ever intervenes.  Theologians explained that since we really can't know all about God, it was OK if our view of God changed with our improved understanding of the universe.  Perhaps if human understanding of God had to be revised in the past as scientific understanding improved, we could expect our current understanding of God might further change as our understanding of the universe improves.  This suggests a search for direct evidence of a God is probably handicapped.  It is a bit like looking for a valuable gem in a hay stack, only to later find that what was valuable in the hay stack was a rare molecule that could stop cancer; finding the real gem (of a molecule) would be unlikely if we searched for a small stone.  So the question about God will likely be easier if we choose not to search for direct evidence of a God, but rather search for the nature of God.

a possible clue — example of the method

Several religions teach that in the beginning Adam and Eve committed the first sin resulting in humans feeling shame when they thought they did wrong.  This helped explained why most of us feel guilty from time to time.  Such sense of guilt or shame is often a handicap, preventing us from even attempting things which might cause more guilt or shame.  If we commit an error, say failing to close our pants zipper, we get embarrassed when we discover our faux pas.  It makes little difference if anyone else noticed.  In generally guilt for such sin keeps us from becoming all that we might be (as the US Marines' expression goes).2

These same religions teach that God provided COMMANDMENTS to help people live good lives, but that people still sinned.  Christians and Moslems believe that Jesus suggested that we could do better than just following the COMMANDMENTS by living one's life in LOVE and CONCERN for others.  After he was crucified, his followers suggested that his death removed the original sin and once free from that guilt, those who believe would be empowered to become all that they might be.

Apologies to those who are not believers, and to any who found this paraphrasing of several religions different from their own understanding.  You don't need to agree!  More importantly, here an a possible example of how the a priori method used by scientists might be used to answer a question.  If believers can be observed to actually be empowering as they believe, then that provides indirect evidence.  Whether the mechanism is true or fictitious stories which cause believers to be braver, either would still help define the nature and power of the believed God.

a second possible clue — example

Seemingly very different, PLEASURE provides a second a priori clue.  Unlike the satisfaction that comes from LOVE and CONCERN for others, PLEASURE is a very personal phenomena.  Our senses provide experiences that sometimes bring PLEASURE: viewing something beautiful, hearing great music, tasting delightful food, or even making love.3.  But those experiences are different for each of us.  Music which delights some people often doesn't delight others.  And in some cases, the same experience which delights some may even offend others!  Such experiences are very personal.  Likely we will soon understand all the nerve interactions and chemical reactions involved in such pleasure.  But the existence of the process of pleasure revels evidence about the nature of God which we presumed to exist.

possible third clue

This a priori method can be extended even further.  If we presume that God is the creator or the universe, all that modern science tells us is true about the universe gives evidence about the nature of God!


Again, the above are a priori procedures common used by scientists, here applied to understanding the nature of God.  They don't provide proof for or against the existence of a God because that is likely beyond the power of human understanding to accomplish.  Instead it use the power of human reasoning and a couple of the procedures of science to instead define God to fit that which must be true if God does exist.  How fully the description above helps clarify how brains work to develop understanding.  Again, as in science, sometimes we choose to ignore questions we can't answer.  (Does æther exist?  Is there a God?  What created the Big Bang?).  but we choose instead to try to understand related answerable questions:.  (What is the nature of light?  What is the nature of God?  How did the universe develop from the Big Bang?)


1..  George Bodner, Michael Klobuchar (Purdue University) and David Geelan (Curtin University) describe THE MANY FORMS OF CONSTRUCTIVISM .

2..  The paralysis due to sin may have aspects in common with the fear of falling that paralyzes some of us while hiking when we encounter a section of trail with a shear drop off.

3..  Apostle Paul in the 14th chapter of his letter to the Romans addressed the relation of PLEASURE to LOVE of others: I am absolutely convinced, as a Christian, that nothing is impure in itself; only if a man considers a particular thing impure, then to him it is impure.  If (for example) your brother is outraged by what you eat, then your conduct is no longer guided by love.


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created 30 July 2001
revised 6 December 2009
by D Trapp
Mac made