Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Science of Religion: Truth and Fact

While reading comments online and talking to people, I have found that many seem to think that science and religion are incompatible. This feels rather strange to me, as a science graduate from a religious university. Science and religion are completely different things with completely different objectives, and a blanket assumption about their relationship (or lack thereof) is often overly simplified and inherently untrue.

Some people will reject anything called science in favor of their religion, while others will disregard anything religious yet accept anything as long as it's called science. One major cause of this apparent incompatibility is that people do not understand the difference between truth and fact.

1: Truth

Truth is.

In the book 1984, a government leader explains how his organization views truth. He tells the main character that if he believes that he has flown around the room, and the only other person in the room also believes that he has flown around the room, then he has indeed flown around the room. If a trusted leader says that he is holding up four fingers, then he is holding up four fingers, no matter what he is really doing. If a piece of evidence is forgotten, it does not exist.

Obviously, this is not true. The reader knows perfectly well that this man has not flown around the room, that he is holding up only three fingers, and that the piece of evidence does exist.

What is truth? To be brief, truth is.

I think all of us have the capability to understand this. We all accept that some things are. Truth is unalterable, and it exists independent of belief. If everyone in the entire world believed that the earth is flat, it would not change the truth.

Religion is an institution of truth. Of course, not all religions are true--this is impossible, since most of them consider themselves the one and only truth. However, the purpose of religion is to teach truth. Whether correctly or not, religion teaches what is and what is not. Perhaps some individual religions are fact based--perhaps some will claim "we have made many observations, and as far as we are able to understand, this is how things are", but I do not know of any. Sometimes individual teachings will come into conflict with well-established or widely-believed fact, which does create a separation between that particular religion and science, but it does not mean that all religions and all science are incompatible.

How do you know what truth is? This is a very personal, and a very religious, matter.What you accept as truth and what you do not is up to you, but it is important to realize that your acceptance does not make it true. You will have to find things out for yourself. And how do you find out what the truth is? The process most often used for discovering truth is science.

2: Fact
When you go to a science class, chances are you will be given a long list of facts that you are required to know. Especially in the early grades, these facts are presented as truth. Students will accept these as truth, and many people still think this way. If science says it, it must be true. As long as some piece of information has the big label with "science" stamped on it, than it's truth. But defining truth isn't science. That's religion. People who think this way will often find that their "religion of science" clashes with other religions. And really, that's not surprising. Religions are rarely compatible with one another.

In science classes, we learn facts, not truths. Caterpillars turn into butterflies. Cells divide to make new cells. Electrons surround atoms. These are all facts.

Most of us accept these as truth. But, as I've already explained, truth is not based on acceptance.

But everyone knows that caterpillars do turn into butterflies, you insist. I've seen them do it.
No. You have seen one caterpillar turn into a butterfly. You may have seen many caterpillars turn into many butterflies. But in order to say that every single caterpillar will turn into a butterfly, or even that every single caterpillar would turn into a butterfly under ideal conditions, you need to make an assumption. You must assume that because this has happened many many times, it will happen in other situations as well.

Science is what makes that assumption. Science says that the more times an individual thing has happened, the more likely it is to be true. When one thing has been proven enough times and under enough different circumstances, it is called fact. Fact is not truth. Fact does not say that something is. It says that something probably is, or that it is as far as we are able to observe, or that it certainly seems that way. But it does not claim to be truth.

Science is a process used to help people decide what is truth. Remember those science projects in elementary school? Those come closest to explaining the true nature of science. You have a statement that you want to prove, so you design an experiment. You control as many factors as you can, and you run your experiment. You get a result. Is that result truth? Maybe. Is that result fact? Well, it's on it's way. You've learned that your caterpillars did turn into butterflies. But what about other kinds of butterflies? What if your caterpillars were unusual? So you run some more experiments, and other people run similar experiments, and after a whole lot of experimenting  you decide that the evidence shows that your statement is true (or false), and that many other people agree with you.

Congratulations. You have a fact.

Is your fact true?


The process of science helps us decide what is true. We decide how many experiments it takes for a statement to become fact. We decide what facts we accept as truth, and which we do not.

This process is not limited to caterpillars and cells and electrons. It can be used for anything. In fact, this process is often used in religion. We tell people to "experiment on the word". Pray about it, we say. Ask, and listen for an answer. Try living the commandments and see if they are the correct way to live. These are all scientific experiments. Conduct your own experiments, do your own research, and decide for yourself what it takes for you to accept something as truth. Then you can stand by it and be sure for yourself.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

4-year-old Wisdom

I will be adding to this post as we go along.
Here is a collection of my favorite quotes from my little girl.

C: "Can I have more salad?"
Me: "Eat three more bites of... actually yes, yes you can."

Daddy: "What prophet should we sing about?"
C: "Daniel and the lion king."

Our daughter came into the kitchen today and started tapping a stick to her chair. Before I had time to get annoyed, she looked up and said, "I don't want to stop bugging you."

Our daughter has named our parakeets Sebastian, Ghost, Boo, Frosty, Pooh, and Tigger.
We only have four parakeets.

me: "I should have made this craft differently."
C: "What did you say?"
me: "I was talking to myself."
C: "What are you making? What's that? Why?"
me: attempt to ignore the constant questions.
C: "I was not talking to myself. I was talking to you!"

me: "Do you want a brownie?"
C: "No, I want more celery."