Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Science, Religion, and the Rapture

Let me identify what I hold to be the most significant difference between science and religion.

Science allows people to make useful predictions of the future. Religion does not.

Science says that the Sun will use up all of its hydrogen in five to seven billion years and swell in size - making life on Earth impossible at best, or consuming the Earth, unless steps are taken to change this future. It also tells us what steps can be taken and how to take them to increase our chances of success.

The vast majority of predictions we get from religion fall into two groups.

One group consists of predictions whose failure cannot be confirmed. The utter failure on the part of religion to make useful predictions on matters that can be confirmed suggests that we should expect the same failure rate with respect to these unverifiable predictions.

The other group consists of riddles of vague claims where a wide variety of results can be fit into the prediction after the fact. A willingness to stretch the meanings of words entirely out of shape means that there is no future event that cannot be fit into the "prediction' after the fact.

Of course, as any fortune teller will tell you, if you make enough predictions a few of them are going to turn out right simply by blind luck.

All of this is simply worthless nonsense. It has no practical value whatsoever.

Science has made our lives better off because, with science, people can make specific predictions and those predictions actually come true.

Think of the computer on which you are reading this posting. This act of reading what I wrote is the product of being able to accurately predict a huge set of events whereby what I put on this post now will show up on your screen at the time that you are reading this. The people who designed and built this computer did so by stringing together a massive set of predictions.

Not one of those predictions came out of scripture. You can't read scripture and come away with a set of reliable predictions. You can try to have faith that the unconfirmable predictions are reliable - but they are far more likely to be wrong than right.

Why is that?

Because there are simply far more options that fit in the category of "wrong".

You pick at a card out of a deck. I guess that you picked the King of Hearts. I can have faith that you picked the king of hearts. However, it is not the case that you're guess has a 50-50 chance of being right. Chances are, you are far more likely to be wrong than right. Given a sufficiently large deck (one with a near infinite number of cards), I can virtually guarantee that whatever card you guess without evidence to be the correct card, you are almost certainly wrong.

This is the source of my own confidence that the claims of any religion can be rejected. Religious claims draw a random card out of a nearly infinitely large deck. I don’t need to know what the card actually says to know that the religious person sitting next to me who, without the slightest evidence, claims to “know” what the card is, is almost certainly wrong.

The predictions we get from science are not perfect - and they almost certainly never will be. However, this does not change the fact that the predictions we get from science are the only truly useful and reliable predictions we have available.

I have often condemned people for making overly broad claims about religion. Yet, this is a claim about religion that I would not classify as overly broad. Religion has no ability to make useful predictions above and beyond those that science can provide.

If somebody wants to predict the end of the world using religion - they can pretty much be ignored. They know nothing, and their guess is almost certainly wrong. However, the predictions for the end of the world that science has given us can be accepted with the degree of precision that science allows. We've got serious problems ahead - a couple hundred million years down the road - and extremely serious problems to worry about in five to seven billion years.

It is possible - though unlikely - that we might meet our end earlier by colliding with another object in space. We could be hit by a passing star, a black hole, or a rogue planet thrown out of some other solar system and sent on a collision with Earth.

There are options that fall far short of destruction of the Earth that are still tragic - and still worth avoiding. But the ability to predict them and avoid them gains nothing from scripture. They come from science, or they do not come at all.


Eric Noren said...

I'm conflicted because I'm an atheist and find religious predictions to be laughable. But I find your reasoning to be suspect.

First, you offer that "science allows people to make useful predictions" followed with a prediction that the sun will die in 5-7 billion years. Far from useful, and frankly it's a prediction that we have to take on faith... none of us will be here to verify it.

You also argue that science has made our lives better, implying that religion has not. Again, not a believer, but I think it's dishonest to suggest that religion has not made our lives better -- as a people and over the span of history.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The "science allows for useful predictions" was exemplified by a discussion of computers, not the death of the sun. You have shifted the context in order to shift the meaning.

After establishing that science makes a huge number of useful predictions we can confirm or falisy, I go on to argue that the reliability of these predictions gives us reason to trust those predictions we cannot directly confirm or falsify - the death of the sun. This inference is quite different from drawing a number out of a hat and taking it on faith that the number of right.

And the implication that religion has not made our life better is something that you assigned to me. "X made our life better" does not, in fact, imply "Things other than X have not made our life better." I never made that implication. You did, then assigned it to me, so as to write a criticism of something I did not say.

My claim - the one I explicitly wrote in the post - is that religion, insofar as it deviates from science, utterly fails to provide us with useful predictions.

Anonymous said...

So far, religion has been unable to predict with any accuracy better than random chance, often worse.

Science has a pretty good track record of measurable, useful predictions. That's pretty much the whole idea of science: predictions based on observational and experimental data.

Based on what astronomers have observed, a star like the sun is expected to go red giant in about 5-7 billion years from its current age. It's not a wild guess. It's based on observations of other stars and measurements of their composition, temperature, and size. Astronomers aren't just connecting dots to make pictures and labeling moon craters.

Yes, it's an estimate, but it's far from useless if we want to be around as a species at that time. In a billion years, I hope we can narrow the window somewhat. In 4 billion, we better have figured out how to stop it or how to survive on other planets around other stars or it's going to be a bit late.

In regards to religion making life 'better,' are there any examples where religion as improved human life where it has not also impoverished it? e.g. Religious art is a common example that's trotted out, but I'd counter that the destruction and censorship of art by religion is equal or greater.