Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Faith Hospital

I have been asked about what I consider the possibilities to be for a reconciliation between faith and science – specifically, with respect to religious claims that have a scientific component. This would apply to religious claims about the age of the Earth and the origins of Man.

I would also argue that this distinction between religion and science has to do with moral facts as well. Moral facts have to do with whether malleable desires will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. The relationships that exist between desires (as they are understood within desire utilitarianism) can be potential matter for scientific study.

To look at the potential conflict between religion and science, I would like to imagine two hospitals.

The first hospital is the Institute for Scientific Medicine. Its cross-town rival is Faith Hospital.

At the Institute, the staff spend a great deal of time taking a number of different measurements of every patient who comes to them. They record symptoms and duration. They also conduct tests, which are designed to collect more observations, that also go into their data. The check blood pressure, temperature, chemicals in the blood, chemicals in the urine, blemishes in the skin, they look at different pieces of tissue under a microscope and the graph changes in this data over time.

All the while, they are searching for regularities.

Ultimately, what they are after is percentages.

“If a person comes to us with symptoms S1, S2, and S3, and our tests produce data D1 and D2, then 45% of them who get treatment T1 will live, while 55% of those who get treatment T2 will live.”

Using this type of record keeping, observations, and other forms of data, the people at the Institute for Scientific Medicine are always throwing away treatments that have a lower success rate than the treatments that they introduce.

Everything that they do at the Institute for Scientific Medicine is measured against these observable conclusions – the percent chance of patients getting better. Every decision that they make is a variation of, “55% is greater than 45%.” Treatments that do not pass this test are thrown out; treatments that do pass this test are adopted.

Now, let us go to Faith Hospital. Faith Hospital has a staff that believes that they have other ways to test medical advances. They believe that it is sufficient to have faith that a procedure will work. They look in their religious texts, and those texts say, “Use procedure P1.” So, they use procedure P1. Either that, or some think that God has written medical truth into their brains – that all they have to do is to pray and God will give them instant knowledge of the correct medical procedure.

The Institute for Scientific Medicine will only use Procedure P1 if it proves to have a higher success rate than any alternative procedure. The instant that an alternative has a higher success rate, they abandon P1 in favor of that new procedure. Whereas, at Faith Hospital, its staff will continue use P1 forever.

At Faith Hospital, they believe in medical absolutes, and those absolutes are described by God and written into their holy books. They believe that abandoning these medical absolutes leads to medical relativism, where there is nothing at all to guide the use of one procedure over another.

This is simply an article of self-deception – this idea that one must use religious text as a standard or have no standard at all. As a matter of fact, there are a number of other standards that one can use to measure medical procedures, and the survivability of the patient is one of them.

In fact, all of science has a standard – its ability to predict and explain real-world events.

What happens when Faith Hospital adopts standards and procedures that the Institute for Medical Science rejects? The effect that is that Faith Hospital adopts standards and procedures that are not the ones with the highest chance of actually helping their patients. It means more sickness and death, more disability and misery, then there would otherwise be. Because if, in fact, Faith Hospital’s standards actually produced results, they would show up in the statistics, and the Institute for Medical Science would adopt them.

The Institute for Medical Science has nothing against the practices used by Faith Hospital themselves. The Institute is only interested in what works. The problem with Faith Hospital’s standards and procedures is not that they are grounded on faith. It is that, if one looks at them, they do not work. They fail to provide ways of organizing knowledge that successfully predict and explain real-world events.

The staff at Faith Hospital like to say that the procedures at the Institute are just as much a matter of faith. They just have faith in different things.

Well, no. We can see here that this is not true. A 55% survival rate compared to a 45% survival rate is not a matter of faith – it is a matter of observation.

It is a matter of observing the fact that the scientist, with his weather satellite and computer models that predict the probability of a hurricane going in a particular direction and the effects of those winds and that water on those structures does a lot more to save lives than banning homosexuality and abortion and mandating prayer in schools. One of these methods actually saves lives. The other method does nothing but distract people from methods that actually save lives.

Of course, religion claims to have the capacity to provide benefits outside of the realm that science can measure. Science can only measure actual human survival, absence of pain, freedom of mobility, effects on building structure, and the like. Faith Hospital claims that its benefits are harvested in a realm that science cannot measure – in the afterlife that no living person can see.

However, religion itself has a problem in this regard. Because there is no way to ‘test’ the various options, there is an infinite number of available options to choose from. Some say Heaven waits for those who believe in Jesus (and that nothing but this is relevant). Others place entrance on ‘good deeds’. Others promise the keys of heaven to those who will sacrifice themselves against the infidels in a jihad.

For all we know, God is a lover of reason. He gave us a brain, and nothing pleases Him more than to see us use it to good effect. To test us, God created religion – fables that make no sense, so as to sort those who mindlessly enter into this trap from those who have the capacity to think about the claims of religion and say, “That makes no sense!” When death comes, it is the rationalist who joins God in Heaven, while the faith-guided theist learns that faith represents a type of intellectual irresponsibility and recklessness that God simply does not approve of.

When we talk about things outside of the realm of science, people can choose whatever they like, because by definition there is no way to prove that one set of beliefs is better than another. There are no predictions that can be tested in a laboratory, nothing to observe and measure, that actually proves that a religious view is correct. If there was, then the scientists would be there to conduct the experiments and to incorporate the results into their findings.

Science, on the other hand, has standards. Science does require that members compete against each other on their ability to explain and predict real-world events. Scientists give their allegiance to those who can demonstrate that they have the power to save 55% of those afflicted with particular symptoms, rather than 45% . It measures its success in the real-world observation that, out of every 100 people who come down with a particular symptom, 55% of them will survive, instead of the old number of 45%.

The choice as to whether to go to the Institute of Medical Science when one is ill, or instead going to Faith Hospital, is the choice between having a 55% chance of being alive in the future, versus a 45% chance of surviving. No amount of wishful thinking can change the fact that it is things like this that explain the difference between science and religion.

12 comments:

Atheist Observer said...

Alonzo,

Your discussion of Faith Hospital and Science Hospital provide a clear presentation of one of the great advantages of the scientific method.

I think the concept is also useful as an adjunct to your concept of using praise and condemnation to mold malleable desires in a system of morality.

You may be effusive in your praise or vehement in your condemnation, but if I have no reason to care about your opinion, I may easily ignore you. On the other hand if you are able to show or convince me that what you object to is actually thwarting some of my own desires or goals, you may be much more effective.

To draw a sports analogy, a coach might complain to a receiver that not running the prescribed routes is not a good thing. But it might be more effective to show the receiver a few game films where the receivers who caught the most passes were the ones who ran correct routes.

The facts make the receiver see the desire to run freely is thwarting his desire to catch passes. Not only does he fail to catch passes, but he contributes less to the team and makes it more likely the team will lose. I suspect for most players a clear awareness of those facts would be much more effective that praise or condemnation of the coach.

Of course in many situations making the facts clear can be much more difficult, but where we can bring facts to bear we have the opportunity to build common moral and ethical views across cultural and religious boundaries.

In nearly all cases the most effective tool for change is the individual. When that individual can clearly see all the consequences of an action or desire, the best choice for that individual is usually (not always) the best choice for others as well. Those that achieve that become the kind of ethical people we all prefer to live with.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I encourage you to submit this to all relevant blog carnivals, and I plan to hype it on my blog as well. Everyone needs to read this one.

The notion of Faith Hospital as you have described it here is a very effective way to prove your point. I wonder how many Christians would select this hospital over the scientifically-based hospital if given the choice?

bpabbott said...

Alfonzo,

Kudos! ... that was perhaps the best essay/blogging I've read regarding the conflict produced by religion's self induced delusion that non-objective musings are comparable in merit and reliability to objective methodology.

With respect to; "religion claims to have the capacity to provide benefits outside of the realm that science can measure"

I do think there are "truths" that lie beyond objective study. Ultimate questions such as (1) What is the purpose of the universe?, or (2) What is the purpose of my life?

While these questions may appear ill conceived, or moot, to some, they are of substantial importance to others.

Respecting my implied context, these questions are non-objective in nature, and therefore, do lie outside the realm of science.

In my opinion, your treatment regarding inappropriate religious extrapolations is excellent, and while I find your efforts inspiring, I wonder how many theists see such critique as blasphemy :-(

Personally, I find the incorporation of materialism in religion as a perversion ... a "blasphemy" to borrow the word ;-)

What are your thoughts of addressing such religious practices by critiquing their appropriateness on religious ground?

As you have likely inferred, I think pointing of the realm of "truth" that is uniquely religious, and the virtues that religion can have regarding individual happiness and fulfillment is also deserving of effort.

It is a perspective I think Dawkin's and others could incorporate ... and thus reach a much broader audience.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

@bpabbott
You wrote: "[T]hese questions are non-objective in nature, and therefore, do lie outside the realm of science."

While I see what you might have been trying to achieve by asking these questions, I think your assertion is false. If you ask "What is the purpose of the universe?" and if there is a definitive answer, then science would be able to answer this with sufficient investigation, resources, etc. Whether or not this is within the grasp of humanity, I wouldn't like to speculate. At the moment, I don't know of any scientific hypothesis (Douglas Adams aside) to deal with this, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a 'true' answer out there.

However, if there isn't a definitive answer, we might look to philosophy (or its bastard offspring in the form of religion) to provide a "placeholder", but it wouldn't be 'true', just something that offers an 'answer', something to the satisfaction of the person posing the question. It seems that this is the route most people take at the moment - and it appears that some take comfort from this. It doesn't make it 'true', though.

I would come to the same conclusion as above for your second question, although being more personal it may be more difficult to "answer" to the satisfaction of the individual.

Anonymous said...

@null
you commented: While I see what you might have been trying to achieve by asking these questions, I think your assertion is false. If you ask "What is the purpose of the universe?" and if there is a definitive answer, then science would be able to answer this with sufficient investigation, resources, etc.

As I understand our comments, I do not agree. Your position implies both that (i) an objectively valid answer exists for any question, and (ii) all questions are objectively valid ... correct?

Further claiming that it is possible that all gaps in human understanding, whether objective or subjective, may ultimately be filled by an objective methodology is no more than a matter of faith ... and if we restrict ourselves to the "subjective" the idea appears to me to be faith of the blind kind :-(

D said...

Excellent, excellent article. No christian would really choose Faith Hospital; yet this is what they espouse daily.

Great analogy. It really sums it up.

Anonymous said...

Very, very nicely done.
I wonder which wacko would opt for curing leprosy by dipping a live dove in dead dove blood. Leviticus 14:1-8. Or is the leper colony out back?

J.L. said...

Sadly, the Faith Hospital has already caused the vey real death of these two infants in New Zealand:

Caleb Nathaniel Tribble and Caleb Moorhead

Anonymous said...

@bpabbott

As I understand our comments, I do not agree. Your position implies both that (i) an objectively valid answer exists for any question, and (ii) all questions are objectively valid ... correct?

You misunderstood me, then. In fact, I did quite the opposite. I explicity emphasised the condition that "... if there is a definitive answer, then science would be able to answer this with sufficient investigation, resources, etc.". This doesn't, of course, preclude looking for an answer, but I do not claim that all questions are objectively valid.

Further claiming that it is possible that all gaps in human understanding, whether objective or subjective, may ultimately be filled by an objective methodology is no more than a matter of faith ... and if we restrict ourselves to the "subjective" the idea appears to me to be faith of the blind kind :-(

I would completely agree. In fact, I also explicitly stated "[w]hether or not this is within the grasp of humanity, I wouldn't like to speculate" to support this. Of course, this would only happen under the previous condition being filled that there was an answer to the question. If the question is unanswerable, no amount of investigation will yield a true result.

My original point was in disagreement to the assertion that you made that you think "there are 'truths' that lie beyond objective study". I understand that this is your opinion, I was just disagreeing (and explaining why I do).

Anonymous said...

@null

ok, I'm on page with you :-)

Respecting my personal opinion, I also agree that there are no truths that lie beyond objective study ... at least no relevant ones.

This is, of course, my belief and not my knowledge.

However, in that there are multitudes who do believe subjective truths exist, I think it prudent and wise to give their world-view room with in our society ... meaning that I don't specifically support their view, but do support any other individual's liberty to do so.

bpabbott said...

I just noticed this article on yahoo, dated Dec 26th ... the same day as this post.

I'll never understand why so many prefer blind faith respecting claims of the subjective, rather than placing their trust in objective scientific study.

In any event, I thought the article might be of interest.

Todd Sayre said...

I've always felt similarly about the "Faith Publishing" of religious literature. I'm not just talking about he KJV-only people. I mean the Bible needs a new "Revised, expanded and featuring an all-new forward by Jesus" version.

Stressing the unchangingness of faith isn't really a good way to win over the scientifically minded.