Mainstream modern culture is steeped in science – obsessed with being objective and furthering scientific thinking within all walks of life. Faith and belief are rebuked as descriptors of the scientific perspective – scientific truth supposedly belonging to some higher order beyond question. Knowledge thus derived is increasingly seen as utterly and incontrovertibly true, with an intransigence curiously akin to religious zealotry.
Of course, science aficionados would invoke the scientific method, clinical experimentation, the peer-review process and such, to challenge any idea science was effectively a religion – likely arguing the absence of these things in religious outlooks gives science a uniquely solid grounding.
In terms of how different schools of thought rest on different ritualised practices, they do have a point; the rituals of science and religion are hugely different. But is the champion of religion not equally entitled to argue science’s failure to convene with an omniscient god, its absence of a metaphysical overview, plus its lack of moral direction, puts it on an inferior level to religion?
Such questions are not short on controversy, and such controversy arguably reflects unjustifiably dogmatic positions over contentious matters that really merit more open-minded approaches. If any one position were so evidently correct, how could such controversy exist in the first place?
Just why do so many who believe themselves to be living in the same world see that world so differently? Possible answers include dissimilar upbringings, and different peer pressures. Perhaps far more than imagined, we prefer ideas proven socially expedient over demonstrably correct ones. Perhaps our culture forms us more than we form our culture.
The modern scientific community and our long-standing churches are two similar hierarchies displaying similar adjudicatory roles in the cultural expression and acceptation of ideas. Their means of deriving those ideas may be vastly different, but in both cases the majority of members are overseen by an elite, with outside challenges to core doctrine being rather reflexively dismissed. Many naturally succumb to group pressures. And to the extent that anyone does, they are not really their own person, able to process an unfiltered version of reality.
Outright intimidation as a feature of religious structures has seen the infidel slaughtered or burned alive for simply asking questions. But although such paranoic intolerance is absent in the world of science, the doubter of scientific truth can be more comprehensively ridiculed, given the cultural reach of science far outstrips anything seen for religions. And whereas religious viewpoints effectively compete against one another, science currently battles no significant contending school of thought. Quite cleverly, the scientific position is silent on religious ideas, such that holding any religious faith does not bar one from also embracing science.
In terms of a belief system destined to conquer minds and exhibit cultural resilience, science is considerably ahead of all forerunners – even including the powerful conviction in national identity. Its flexible approach is such that even disproof of its own ideas simply results in a reorganization of itself to include new ideas. Errors found in even the most widely accepted scientific ideas, such as those of classical physics, are never taken to undermine science. If anything, the replacement ideas are framed as improvements to the overall belief system.
Also unlike religion, science’s dogma is embedded in the objective worldview and scientific procedure, rather than in any particular truths. Hence, successfully debunking accepted scientific facts with contradictory evidence is actually perceived as further validation – not criticism – of the scientific endeavour. The process is widely seen as one of fully optimizing the human understanding of reality, as reflected in a certain intellectual arrogance that views science as a form of perfect knowledge.
Science is therefore a belief in the value of methodical approaches to obtaining knowledge – as opposed to the belief in absolutist knowledge it is commonly imagined to be. Whereas religions promoted speculative beliefs in for example, old men with grey beards hovering amidst the clouds, science chooses to look at the clouds, note whatever is observed, and then theorize in manners that should remain open to reinterpretation. Strictly speaking, failure to observe any bearded old men should not exclude the possibility that such beings are invisible. However, scientific minds often make that extra step, and deny the existence of whatever they cannot see – a curious stance given science’s widely-held belief in equally invisible dark energy.
Nonetheless, science’s empirical approach to knowledge – believing whatever is directly observed – obviously makes science more evidence-based than religious ideas of esoteric origins. But if science is about believing sensory input, why do we need it? Do our senses not work of their own accord?
Both religion and science endeavour in their separate ways to surpass mere ideas of the human condition, and to somehow improve matters. In addressing the fragility of the human organism amidst a fundamentally mysterious reality, both pretend to answer human needs – to provide security, power and prosperity, whilst reducing threats and vulnerabilities.
Depending on the individual’s view, this approach within religion can be seen as anything from averting eternity in hell and delivering everlasting heaven, to conning as many as possible into mass stupefied subservience. The scientific approach does not exhibit such extremes, being characterized by a general belief it can tangibly improve our immediate situation within an objective reality. Notably in both instances the relevant supposed knowledge is not seen as of value in itself; its supposedly beneficial aspect lies in deploying it to our presumed advantage.
If knowledge for knowledge’s sake is useless, the comparative value of religious and scientific knowledge should then be judged according to the benefits each one genuinely delivers – and it is not hard to understand science’s popularity from this position. Whereas religion offers little or nothing in terms of tangible, incontrovertible and immediate benefits, science serves greatly to evolve human cultures, and has obviously helped deliver a multitude of technological devices and processes. Whatever spiritual benefits certain religious positions provide, they are not things we can hold in our hands and appreciate through the materialistic perspectives of modern culture.
However, is the more fulfilling approach to life spiritual or material – remembering formalized religions have no monopoly on spirituality? In playing any spiritual perspective off against science’s materialism, the real issue actually revolves around core personal values. The matter becomes one of opinion: what can we expect from any belief system, and what is the real value or meaning of life itself? What is sought and what might be found where one chooses to look?
Of course, today’s convoluted cultures exhibit little agreement over such key questions. But common sense might summarise a coherent answer as the best of all worlds – spiritual and material. And even if many scientific minds might wholly deny spirituality, they still need to demonstrate science offers tangible benefits to persuade sceptics. Whether or not science manages to access some set of correct truths, the bigger philosophical question is about what purpose it serves, and at what cost do we succumb to its materialist temptations.
Given modern science is effectively the derivation of knowledge to fuel technological development, this question concerns the purpose and value of technology: is technology a net benefit to humans or not? Can its downsides such as global pollution be meaningfully mitigated to show a net positive worth?
Ironically, asking such questions in today’s world is akin to questioning religious ideas within cultures pathologically intransigent about their religious doctrines. Questioning the status quo has always been reflexively deemed ludicrous, and rarely done in earnest – or is immediately sidelined by group think. Hence the more enthusiastic champions of science operate more from ingrained convictions than from any balanced examination of its doctrinal position.
As regards technology providing benefits to mankind, this is at least debatable. For the most part, our cultures overwhelmingly believe technology to be either wholly or somewhat beneficial. But the increasing technological destructiveness of human warfare, together with possibly-fatal damage inflicted on the planet’s biosphere, leave the supposed benefits of technology far more questionable than modern culture generally acknowledges. Embracing some anti-technology position is not necessary to simply observe how technology most definitely has some serious downsides. But this proves a difficult challenge for many to even consider – their belief in technology being as unquestioning as their belief in science.
This is dangerously blind faith; both nuclear armageddon and extinction of the human race through degradation of the environment are real possibilities that would not confront us but for our reckless and unchecked use of technology. And if either possibility comes about, there will obviously be no one to then reflect on what is in fact already obvious: the scientific furtherance of technology has enabled various possible global hells beyond the worst excesses of all religions combined.