Friday, October 4, 2013

Science vs. Faith, Religion and Belief

Scientists often scoff at what they call 'primitive belief systems' such as those with medicine men and shamans. Yet the roots of science come from the same  fundamental human impulses that formed these beliefs.
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. 
Albert Einstein
For example, history of science professors James E. McClellan and Harold Dorn wrote, “In the case of Neolithic astronomy, we are dealing not with the prehistory of science, but with science in prehistory.”

And going back even further to animistic beliefs, the roots of science are still visible. 
"Animism" is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples' "spiritual" or "supernatural" perspectives.Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.
The return of the Pleiades every year was a major event in many cultures as it often marked the beginning of the rainy season and for some was the beginning of the new year. Since there was a distinct seasonal change when it appeared, it was also given godlike powers and treated with reverence in many religions. According to Wikipedia, the Pleiades was known to "the Maori, Aboriginal Australians, the Persians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Maya, the Aztec, and the Sioux and Cherokee." as well at the Greeks. When the Pleiades first appeared in the night sky -- which lasted only a few minutes at the beginning of its annual reappearance -- indigenous tribes often greeted it with wild celebrations. Yet their ability to mark time was sophisticated enough that they knew exactly when to look for the Pleiades -- even though appeared over the horizon very briefly at first. (
The time of the rains was announced to the Hottentots by the rising Pleiades, whose reappearance was hailed at the annual festival. The first missionary to the Khoi-Khoi, George Schmidt, (1737), relates that, 'At the return of the Pleiades these natives celebrate an anniversary; as soon as these stars appear above the eastern horizon, mothers will lift their little ones on their arms, and running up to elevated spots will show to them those friendly stars, and teach them to stretch their little hands towards them. The people of a kraal will assemble to dance and sing according to the old customs of their ancestors. The chorus always sings, "O Tiqua! our father above our heads, give rain to us, that the fruits (bulbs, etc.), may ripen, and that we may have plenty of food and a good year."' 

It is now believed that the 1600 BCE Bronze Age Nebra Sky disk, with pictures of the sun, moon and Pleiades was used astronomically to determine the fall and spring solstices and also had religious importance. (
An essential part of many animistic religions was the role of the shaman. 
Shamanism among Eskimo peoples refers to those aspects of the Eskimo cultures that are related to the shamans’ role as a mediator between people and spirits, souls, and mythological beings. Most Eskimo groups had such a mediator function, and the person fulfilling the role was believed to be able to command helping spirits, ask mythological beings to ... enable the success of the hunt, or heal sick people by bringing back their "stolen" souls.
The above definition of the role of the shaman is not unlike the Greek hero: 
In Greek mythology heroes are regarded as mediators between gods and mortals...
Tylor, the anthropologist who coined the term animistic, was quite condescending:
Tylor believed that animistic beliefs were "childish" and typical of "cognitive underdevelopment", and that it was therefore common in "primitive" peoples such as those living in hunter gatherer societies.
And what does all this have to do with science? Well, it's really quite simple, but hard to see from our modern technological and scientific perspective: 

In the beliefs of all cultures 
-- from the most 'primitive' to the most modern -- 
across the globe, there was/is an underlying uniquely human logic: 
There are forces outside of human beings 
which can be known 
and once known can be influenced.

This idea is so much a part of us and our cultures that we take it for granted. And more than that, we are still driven to better understand these outside forces and to learn how these forces can be tamed or used to our benefit.

This idea is at the heart of science. Rather getting the help of a shaman or making offerings to gods and goddesses, with science we now look for laws of nature which once understood can often be controlled or harnessed for our own good. But the basic impulse is the same.

And BTW just how far removed is science from previous ideas about gods and goddesses? 

Commenting on the Western fascination with technology and science, Dr. Eugen Weber in his conclusion of the entire history of the West (52 1/2 hour lectures) pointed out the importance of Greek mythological ideas which led to today's obsession with modern technology. Weber believed that modern science is, in a sense, stealing fire from the gods and putting this power that the gods formerly controlled into our own hands.
Really when you think about it, our patron saint is Prometheus who stole fire from the gods.
Eugen Weber
Professor of History, UCLA

Public Television Series

The Western Tradition
However, science was designed to answer some questions but not others. 
Science, natural philosophy, proceeds on the information given by the senses. This line of its attack is thus limited and we cannot hope that anything but limited objectives can be reached. Science does not profess to solve ultimate problems. On the other had it does seek to solve its limited problems with a known degree of accuracy and a known margin of error.
Charles Singer
A History of Scientific Ideas
There are many things beyond our understanding -- and always will  be beyond our understanding -- which is the realm of religion. And yet there are things that we now do understand -- such a earthquakes, storms and disease -- that used to be part of religion. Nevertheless science will always be limited and religion will always speak to that part of our soul that craves a connection to a huge universe that fills the sky  with hundreds of billions of galaxies that contain hundreds of billions of stars.

It is also important to note that the father of the Big Bang theory was a Catholic Priest,  Georges Lemaître -- so a religious view point led directly to our modern understanding of the creation of the Universe.
Lemaître explored the logical consequences of an expanding universe and boldly proposed that it must have originated at a finite point in time. If the universe is expanding, he reasoned, it was smaller in the past, and extrapolation back in time should lead to an epoch when all the matter in the universe was packed together in an extremely dense state. ...Lemaître argued that the physical universe was initially a single particle -- the “primeval atom” as he called it -- which disintegrated in an explosion, giving rise to space and time and the expansion of the universe that continues to this day.
In 1931 Georges Lemaître, a Catholic Priest, was the first to propose that the Universe began with the Big Bang. (
In a recent article in the New York Times, a scientist, Adam Frank, bemoaned the fact that the truths of science such as evolution theory were not more widely accepted:
"This is not a world the scientists I trained with would recognize. Many of them served on the Manhattan Project. Afterward, they helped create the technologies that drove America’s postwar prosperity." Yet as we know, the Manhattan project brought us the ever present threat of nuclear war as well as nuclear reactor accidents  -- so perhaps a blind faith in science is not always a good idea.

Science and the institutions of science should not become a kind of unquestionable priesthood that is as inflexible as the Catholic church of the 1600s that tried and imprisoned Galileo.
Charles Singer
A History of Scientific Ideas
Knowledge for knowledge sake has created an imbalance in our worldview. Human knowledge should progress evenly on all fronts. When our understanding of the physical universe far surpasses our understanding of ourselves a great disequilibrium occurs. It isn't as though we don't need to know all this stuff. It is simply that there are other things we need to know in order to make sense out of all this physical knowledge we have gathered. 
Dr. John M. Artz 

As you look through the veil of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy to our companion galaxy, Andromeda -- with its billions of stars aligned in a majestic order -- it is hard to not believe in something much greater than ourselves. If you ever get a chance, look at it through a telescope. It will take your breath away.

A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
Carl Sagan

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