Science Is a Dirty Bastard
What is the meaning of life? Where is our purpose? Why are we here and what are we supposed to do? Where did we come from and what will follow us when we are gone? Why am I such a lowly worm and a sinner?
In my favorite episode of My Three Sons, Chip Douglas wants to join a club that his friends have started. They cook up a series of tasks for him to complete for his initiation, and when he completes his tasks they will teach him the “dirty little secret.” He is dying of curiosity, so no matter how absurd the tasks, his dogged determination carries him through so that he can reach the Holy Grail of the “dirty little secret.”
Chip finally completes the last task and goes to his friends and says “Okay, I’m in. What’s the dirty little secret?” They laugh and tell him that “The dirty little secret is that there is no dirty little secret.”
And that, my friends, is the mystical meaning of life. There is no dirty little secret, no hidden answer “42.” It rains on the just and the unjust alike. I am not a sinner, nor a lowly worm. The purpose of “purpose” is to puzzle us, to urge us to try to discern the secrets as a great pastime, inspiring wonder at the world around us. A deep desire to understand the “why” of the cruelties of fate (or the blessings of good fortune) is born of a curiosity that drives us on through our tasks. If we just keep on searching for answers to our questions, eventually our gods will give us the 411 on life. Or something will.
I was out having a conversation with a guy who calls himself an “atheist, mostly” because he doesn’t accept the Christian/Jewish/Muslim concept of God. Nor does he accept the gods of mythology. He does, however, think that there is more out there that we don’t yet perceive through our physical senses. He bases his belief on the shared experiences of humanity encountering ghosts and other unexplainable phenomena. He has decided that if so many people have reported supernatural phenomena for centuries, there must be some basis in fact. I didn’t laugh at him, but I did explain to him that I had experienced some weird things myself. I explained to him that when I looked back at them, I could find a plausible and natural explanation for each.
That’s how it is with the appearance of design in nature, and it’s the appearance of design that leads to the illusion of purpose. The biological cell is incredibly complex, with multitudes of cooperating organelles and structures. The process of creating copies of DNA and from there, mapping out the structure of proteins (which then fold in the most efficient structure possible to carry out their tasks), well it’s all just too complex to develop without the guidance of a planner.
If the Planner is capable of such wondrous processes as meisosis and mitosis (and sex), then the Planner must be in control of Purpose and our lives thus have meaning beyond that which we can see, touch, taste, smell and hear. Religion, in this context, makes a great deal of sense. It provides answers to the question of purpose. Follow a path and gain enlightenment and/or eternal life in the Planner’s Presence.
Unfortunately, the answers provided by religion aren’t all that satisfactory, because they don’t provide any means to verify or test the answers. The answers are based on authoritative declarations from the writings and thoughts of learned people who have analyzed the works of other learned people. The answers are based on the pronouncements of a priestly class who lay claim to a source that we can’t access (unless we have a faith strong enough to believe them despite contrary evidence).
Science steps in and looks at the processes of nature and shows us how to tease apart the secrets of their workings, slowly and carefully and with missteps along the way. The missteps are readily acknowledged and re-examined. The successes are retested to make sure they closely approximate (within a high confidence interval) the truth. Then they are once again examined as new questions arise that cast doubt on the answers.
The problem with science is that it doesn’t provide comforting authority. It never promises the “truth” of anything, just progressively more useful descriptions. The result of scientific methodology is often more uncertainty, and that is not comforting to those of us who believe in absolute answers. This will never do, and from this uncertainty comes for some faith that we can still practice the ritual and pray and get the answer we have been promised. Science and religion are in a pas de deux, but they are constantly stepping on each other’s toes.
If science can’t produce comforting authority then what is it good for? It is good for disproving assumptions, is what it is good for. It has been good at disproving the “certain knowledge” that race is a valid biological construct. It has been good at disproving the the “certain knowledge” that complex structures such as avian vision can’t develop in stages (half an eye). It has been good at disproving the “certain knowledge” that there was a global flood 4,500 years ago. It has been good at disproving the “certain knowledge” that the universe and all of its contents can only have been produced by an intelligent actor.
If, then, religion depends on a creator in order to provide a purpose to life, what happens when that creator is no longer a necessary function in the life equation? Religion steps back in and says it can still help find purpose because science is limited to a natural methodology, whereas through faith there are “other ways of knowing” and science can’t approach those other ways.
Of course, as an atheist, I can look at the pathetic claims to “other ways of knowing” and scoff. I acknowledge that I have been using very general terms and examples, and in my examples I allow religion to be relatively harmless. It is a concept that claims an authority it cannot have. I could simply sit back and say “Well, if some people want to believe, then that’s their business” and I could leave it at that. With that, I could be just as accommodating as Josh Rosenau or Chris Mooney or Chad Orzel, and then I could whistle on my way nonchalantly.
My problem is that I am not content to leave it at that. I didn’t become an atheist because of science; it was a slow realization that I was not born a lowly worm. I was not born dependent on the sacrifice of a man-god and his resurrection in order to gain “salvation.” I realized that I had no overriding purpose to uncover; I was not born to any certain fate.
I learned that as religion lost its explanatory power on the workings of nature, it clung to its power of redemption and salvation, and these are problems that it created so that it could provide the solution. I’ll drop the generality of religion and address my specific objection to Christianity. I was taught that at birth I carried the sin of Adam and Eve and that I needed to practice certain rituals or pray certain prayers to be cleansed of the sin that I never committed. I needed baptism, confession and contrition to access the creator. In another version of Christianity I needed to be “born again.” I could never be good enough for the creator on my own, being human. And being human, I was condemned to be separate from the creator unless I chose the right way to accept redemption.
I am not a sinner. I have done bad things, but I am not a sinner. The sin for which I am supposed to be supplicating forgiveness was a sin committed by someone else. I just couldn’t buy into the idea that I was born evil and unable to become good on my own.
I dropped Christianity. That was when I ran into the objection that I couldn’t explain origins without God, and therefore I am foolish to be an atheist. What I find humorous is that when I explain that scientific methodology has disproven the notion of a necessary supernatural designer, or planner, then I am also told that God is “not an explanation for origins, God is inseparable from Creation.” The goalposts are continually shifted.
And finally, I arrive at my point. The organizations fighting (thanks to all of you!) to achieve acceptance of solid education in subjects scientific, are bowing first to the demands of religion to say, “But this shouldn’t harm your faith.” They are granting privilege to religion that it doesn’t deserve, while the defenders of religion are demanding that science conform to faith. By giving in to this demand, the defenders of science forget that the process of science is an interloper into the security blanket of cherished, certain knowledge. Science is a dirty bastard, because it doesn’t confirm the answers we want.
In advancing science education, scientists should not accede to such demands to accommodate religious fear of becoming less and less relevant. What they should instead do is explain the science and let religion and the religious deal with their own issues regarding the implications of the discovery of how nature works.
They’re grownups. they can handle it.
This entry was posted on Monday, June 29th, 2009 at 7:00 am and is filed under Mike Haubrich, Politics, Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.