During centuries lots of influential people and profound thinkers have written or talked about the relationship present between science and religion. Some people now can ask me what I mean exactly for the latter. Well, I want to intend this term broadly, to include organized religions based on well defined creeds, traditional religious beliefs and experiences in a variety of cultures, spontaneous religious experiences not lied to a particular tradition and so on and so forth. Perhaps, also art, sculpture, meditation and practices that involve the mind and the body have some mystical insights that resemble to some sort of faith.
The aim of science is to bring coherence to our experience starting by a clear methodology based on induction and attentive observation, whereas one aim of religion is to infuse our experiences a deeper meaning. Scientific statements are founded on sensory and rational information and this claim is true in spite of the many abstract concepts – not yet directly observable – and terms founded into theoretical papers. On the other hands, religious practices and specific terms state what we cannot perceive with our senses. Why so? Until proven otherwise transcendent beings do not belong to a specific time, space or matter, and this main reason avoid them to be subject of scientific discourse. What matters the most in a sacred ritual or scene is the inner experience of the observer.
Let’s take for example a topic that I like a lot and that historian of science, philosophers, physicists, mathematician and artists insert in the center of their reflections: the contemplation of nature.
I leave you imagine who, looking on a river floating or an awe-inspiring forest, can perceive the photo-chemical processes of food production, the mechanistic perfection of the flow of energy and material through the ecosystem or the sacred beauty, peace and regeneration of its deep harmony. There is also another option, but I think it will have a lower percentage of probabilities: the same person can find all these claims true because all aspects should be perceived as fundamental and with no contradiction at all. But they are very different things, right?
Science speaks loud and publicly: it is conveyed in terms which can (at least in principle) be precisely defined. Returning to the woodland and the river’s frame, each niche is a sort of (complex or simple) ecosystem and every chemical reaction can be defined and described to others (leaving behind the individual communication abilities) because it is based on scientific laws and precise processes.
In contrast, religious experiences are private and often very difficult to explain others. Why so? when we try to explain others what moves us on a religion (or a form lied to it, specified above) practice and following of main principles, our first feeling is that the “incapability” to express it in well-defined terms gain the upper hand. Thus conveying our personal experience into words became very difficult and do not forget that religion is based on a set of things we cannot change our mind about. In comparison in science it happens lot of time that after further studies, experiments or dialogues within the same theoretical field representatives there will be a change or even a revision of results, due to new evidence or sharper experimental processes about. This aspect converts religion to be concerned only with eternal truths on which a vision or a perspective on world existence – and beyond – is nestled.
But religion and science do have some characteristics in common, and looking at these aspects we can reflect on a deeper understanding of their differences. Cutting down to the bone, religion is based on faith while science is based on experience. But having a further look upon, both faith and experience are intrinsic aspects of both of them. What is different are the ways on which they convey their meanings.
Now, someone can state that the role of faith in religion is well known, but in what sense does faith play a role in sciences? Isn’t science based on skepticism and observational/rational inquiries based on results/claims/theories that usually are defined as the opposite of faith?
To give their best in – and outside – the laboratory or the office working time in which passionate and talented human beings spent most of their lives, scientists must be moved by an evident faith that Nature is understandable, because it is – in some sense – lawful, rational and orderly by some aspects that can be recognized, understand one another and studied. Starting from a simplest recognized element to arrive at one theory (sustained by experimental practice) that can explain whole complexity without missing fundamental boundaries.
As the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi emphasized, scientists must have an implicit faith to the overall premises and methodologies of science, aspect that is not so different on the varieties that religious faith can assume. As example I have in mind the faith in the truth of particular dogmas or scriptures, on religious leaders and authorities pronouncements and on the truth and reality enclosed in a particular lived religious experience. There are people that define Experience as a kind of faith. In fact, it is important to reflect on what role experience play in science and religion…
In science are the quality of the instruments and the fine observations of the scientist the first and main elements capable to make a difference in the process of empirical experience. On the other hand, religious experiences cannot be defined as primarily moved by sensory perception. I mean, the senses can have some sort of involvement but everyone can agree that the ultimate experience is based on them to have significance…
The enlightenment of a Zen Master, the moment when a Sufi adept understand the meaning of all the practices followed without pronouncing a word or a doubt, the important revelation of christian mystic and the connection Judaism has with ethnic and cultural traditions, filled with rules and practices that can possibly affect every aspect of life; all these are solitary and internal experiences that do not depend on sensoria evidence, and that cannot be communicated by words in the usual fashion.
I am reflecting on an area where science and religion can meet: the question that focus on what it mean to be human. As this time of Easter, Passover and Eid al Kabir (or Eid al-Adha) shows us, this question pool rituals and meanings of monotheistic faiths and become the area of mutual interest that can be compatible with science and its approach on life.
I’m closing this post, asking myself how science and religion can enrich each other on this point, the question of the features and the aspects of what it means to be human, that for me is still open and a vision to maintain in these time of holiness and relationship with family and friends.
Wishing you an happy Easter, Passover ending and futur Eid al Kabir feast of the Sacrifice 2017!