Science knows a lot about reality. Even more impressive, science steadily knows more and more about reality.
I subscribe to several science magazines, New Scientist and Scientific American. In every issue I learn about advances in the scientific understanding of the cosmos. But when was the last time religions told us something factually new about how the world works?
In fact, so far as I know there hasn't been a first time. Or an anytime.
Meaning, even though prophets, mystics, sages, gurus, enlightened masters, and such supposedly have had access to beyond-normal ways of knowing, none of them ever have communicated a confirmable fact about reality that wasn't already understood by "mere" scientists.
I got to thinking about this after reading an article in the January 5, 2013 New Scientist, "Quantum Shadows."
I didn't grasp every detail of it, but got the basic message: light doesn't only manfiest in the familar wave/particle duality; there's also in between, perhaps more accurately stated as "none of the above." Some excerpts:
"Our experiment defies the conventional boundaries set by the complementarity principle," says Li. Ioniciolu agrees. "Complementarity shows only the two ends, black and white, of a spectrum between particle and wave," he says. "This experiment allows us to see the shades of grey in between."
..."Particle" and "wave" are concepts we latch on to because they seem to correspond to guises of matter in our familiar, classical world. But attempting to describe true quantum reality with these or any other black-or-white concepts is an enterprise doomed to failure.
..."Sometimes the photon looks like a wave, sometimes like a particle, or like anything in between," says Ionicioiu. In reality, though, it is none of these things. What is is, though, we do not have the words or the concepts to express.
Now that is strange. And for quantum physicists, all in a day's work.
That's a new understanding. At least for me, and I've read many books and articles about quantum physics. Light can look like something in between a particle and a wave.
Thank you, science. This isn't airy-fairy conjecture or anecdotal opinion.
That understanding resulted from reproducible experiments using particle detectors and other sophisticated equipment. The video below accompanied the "Quantum Shadows" piece by Anil Ananthaswamy. At the end is a mention of "look for something halfway between a wave and a particle, and you see something halfway between a wave and a particle."
Far out. Yet also decidedly grounded. In reality.
There's plenty of mystery, majesty, and wonder in the cosmos as it genuinely exists. No need for religious fantasies. Reality is weird enough without imagination being added on.
Religions, though, offer us a worldview that isn't founded on the world as it is, but on the world as most humans would like it to be.
With life after death. A loving God who watches over us. Rewards for the righteous and punishments for the wicked. All kinds of spiritual goodies to make us feel better about the "bads" of life: pain, suffering, disappointments.
Hey, I wish all those things were real. Who doesn't? I just no longer find it possible to believe in what I'd like reality to be. Knowing how things are strikes me as much more desirable.
In part (or maybe in whole), this is because evolution rewards adaptation to the world as it is.
Individuals and species which can accurately sense the situation they're in do better than those which can't. Hoping that a saber-toothed tiger isn't lurking in the bushes, when one actually is, can lead to one less overly optimistic early human.
So I, like everyone else, am fine-tuned by evolution to understand what is actually part of the world. This would ensure the extinction of religiosity, if believing in imaginary supernatural stuff was deeply detrimental to our ability to survive and reproduce.
But religions basically are irrelevant in this regard.
They don't help us better understand the reality in which we live, yet neither do they markedly hinder our capacity to get through everyday life. A religious fundamentalist can farm just as well as an atheist.
Religious people do, however, benefit from advances in secular science -- such as medical treatment breakthroughs and technological discoveries. Thus faith-based religiosity rides on the back of the skeptical scentific method that it so often disaparages.
In the end, the superiority of science over religion is shown by how well each understands the nature of reality. Science continually demonstrates expanding knowledge of how things are, while religion doesn't.
Yes, I'll admit that religions are highly skilled at marketing false promises to people who wish life were other than it is. The question each of us has to ask of ourselves is: do I want to live in reality or fantasy?
There is no doubt, as you say, that science provides a better description of reality than religion does. Whether or not this better description results in "progress" however I believe is open to question. You write, "Individuals and species which can accurately sense the situation they're in do better than those which can't. Hoping that a saber-toothed tiger isn't lurking in the bushes, when one actually is, can lead to one less overly optimistic early human."
When I look at the world we are living in, the elephant in the room is population. When I was born less than 50 years ago (not much less), the global population was estimated at about 3.3 billion. Now at 7 billion. Certainly science and technology have contributed to this growth. But this trajectory is plainly not sustainable. The methods of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture, once so promising, are now contributing to the death of arable soil on a global scale. It seems clear to me that whatever the true carrying capacity of the world is for human life, we will use technology to take us to that edge, and over it. Progress toward a brick wall, as fast as we can fuck.
What religion might have to offer, if not greater technological understanding, is at least some wisdom in how that understanding may best be applied. Rather than spending all of the proceeds of the energy and industrial revolutions on ourselves, it would have been wiser to ask a few questions about the future first. But that is not the forte of people, scientific-minded or not.
I predict that our greater understanding of weapons, the functions of the brain, and our helplessness to feed everyone that we can save from illness, will result in a dark future for most people. A scientific fascism on a scale never dreamed by the past centuries many dictators.
When the Iron Curtain fell, people celebrated the victory of Capitalism over Communism. I felt then, and still feel today, that the jury is still out on what we call Capitalism. In the same way, you may crow now over the progressiveness of science and its supposed superiority to religion; I say the jury is still out on where this "progress" is actually taking us. We will have a lot more data to analyze soon enough.
Posted by: Scott | January 22, 2013 at 08:06 AM
Progressively more verifiable information about reality can't help but bring about a more humane and environmentally sound society if we're learning about ourselves as well as everything else, and religion is not conducive to self-knowledge.
Posted by: cc | January 22, 2013 at 09:31 AM
Science may progress, but what is it progressing toward? Now that there is strong evidence from the Large Hadron Collider and corroborating data from CERN indicating the discovery of the Higgs Boson, humanity has reached near-certainty with respect to how matter is constructed and acquires it's mass and momentum.
However, we are no closer to figuring out WHY matter exists than we were when the first humans became conscious. This is a fact that science will never be able to come to terms with.
Life has no meaning whatsoever, and that realization is, for me, simultaneously unsatisfactory and totally liberating.
Posted by: Willie R. | January 23, 2013 at 04:10 PM
Willie R, nicely said. "Simultaneously unsatisfactory and totally liberating." Very much how I feel also.
Today I listened to a podcast interview of Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who has written several book about modern physics.
I heard him explain that the Higgs particle really is a field. In fact, everything is a field, or combination of fields. The cosmos is more continuous, deep down, than separate particle-like.
Don't know how this changes my life. But the notion is cool. Reality is weirder than we ever will know. Not that I know this for sure.
Posted by: Brian Hines | January 23, 2013 at 06:06 PM
Holy cow...this is the second time in the several years that I have been reading your blogs that you, Blogger Brian, have actually mentioned little ol' me in a comment. I sort of consider myself your resident "misanthrope", inasmuch as I am often wont to counter your more upbeat postings with a dose of pessimism. The fact that you allow it without calling me out on the carpet attests to your balanced approach to our (humanity's) existential situation.
I guess we are all entitled to our "say" in your world as long as it is not clearly irrational.
Posted by: Willie R. | January 24, 2013 at 11:25 AM