Sunday, November 27, 2011

Facing disinterest in science

Is science faith-based? Is truth just a matter of opinion? If we are to believe debates found over the Internet; pitting atheistic and theistic ideas against one another; for people of faith the answer to this question seems to be a unanimous "yes". In fact, there appears to be a strange agreement among an alarming number of religious people stating that science is comparable to religious faith. Out of respect for intellectual freedom, shouldn't we just let people think what they want? Perhaps, yes; and yet, what if they plan to indoctrinate their children with this misrepresentation of science? Are any of us, in this day and age, morally entitled to handicap future generations by spreading confusion about what intrinsically distinct words like facts, doctrines and theories genuinely mean?

Of course, there are quite a few clearheaded believers out there; lucid people who can provide rather decent reasons for still believing in God. That’s great. But sadly, the general trend seems to be a lot closer to something along these lines: “I realize that truth is not a matter of opinion and that there can only be one truth. But look, this is what I believe. Faith is a personal issue that deals with feelings and personal experience with God. Very deep in my heart, I know God’s word to be truth and faith in my God is what leads me to know that he is true. It is my own personal truth and nobody should try to push his beliefs on me. Why not respect each other and just let people make up their mind about why God is true?” If you’ve never heard about circular reasoning, this is a great example for starters. Considering how much of our daily life is dependent on scientific discovery and how much our future is bound to be directly influenced by scientific advancement, it truly scares me to think that so many people around would rather not try to understand any of this.

What's so bad about having ape cousins really?
We should avoid confusing mere ignorance with an actual lack of intellectual faculties; holding this view doesn't make us any better than most theists; besides, it is doomed to be completely biased. Considering our limited time and capacities as human beings, isn't it true that we are all ignorant about an infinity of subjects? The difference is that we actually don't let dogma limit our quest for knowledge. But how are we supposed to face profound ignorance without being at least a little condescending? First, whenever trying to introduce someone to a new idea, it is always better if we don't look profoundly ignorant ourselves about what his beliefs are. We can draw attention to ideas he already believes in and provide enough interesting evidence that contradicts them; if these ideas are presented coherently, chances are that he will want to question them in private. This is not just about us trying to feel good for scoring points during a debate; the primary aim should be to share pertinent knowledge with people who deserve a lot better than what religions are providing.

Perhaps should we also focus more effort on breaking counter-productive myths about science, making it clear that many religious questions are well within its scope. Believers are often fond of the idea that science and religion ought to be mutually exclusive; it is a comforting thought for them. They easily forget that centuries ago, there was a lot more that religion not only pretended to explain by supernatural causes but went as far as threatening those who doubted it with eternal suffering in hell. As science gradually figured out naturalistic explanations to an increasing number of subjects, religions were then forced to abandon many of their preposterous claims of knowledge.

Today, mainstream religion focuses on morals, insisting that we cannot be moral without God. That's because there aren't a lot of subjects left for it to have anything to say about. But it may be interesting to ask: When during the course of evolution did we humans start having an immortal soul and why? What qualified one particular generation of apes for eternal heavenly life that previous ones did not have enough divine worth to be entitled to? Supposing we all go to heaven, will the good bacterias (e.g. probiotics) also be living there with us? If not then on what basis can one species expect to have an eternal soul and not others? Did Neanderthals not have souls too..?

Most try to avoid ideas like these because they create cognitive dissonance. This dissonance can easily make us sad and depressed. Quite understandable; nobody likes to feel wrong, let alone having to admit that someone else was right all along. We also avoid most questions about death, probably because they remind us of the people we lost. To a person who is open-minded and curious enough to be reading this, it must be quite easy to realize that the theory of evolution does not say that from one day to another, a monkey mom gave birth to a human baby; or that one fish decided to come out of the water and suddenly realized it could walk. Without needing to consult a science book, you could probably guess that amphibians came in between. But when speaking to people who were never exposed to any of the scientific evidence for evolution, it is often quite difficult to come up with a simple way to explain how evolution works. Often, your interlocutor will simply dismiss the idea as ridiculous by stating overused straw man arguments like: “You've never seen any fish with hands, have you?” or “How could you explain the complexity of the human eye?”

Well... well... what have we here?
As a good conversation starter, let me propose a nice analogy that seems to succeed with most, simply because it bases itself on a concept that anyone even slightly familiar with Europe can easily understand: Language. Let's take the example of Latin which evolved to become several other languages like Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. The main thing that sets French appart from Latin is that it's not extinct yet. There was no way to prevent Latin from changing over time and the only reason why we gave each a different name was because we decided to. In fact, French is Latin; and so are Spanish, Italian and Greek. Did one Latin-speaking mom ever give birth to a French-speaking child? Parents simply teach their offspring to speak the language(s) they know. They teach it imperfectly and in turn, children teach it imperfectly too. Evolution is inevitable.

Given that your interlocutor is honest enough to admit that he gets it, we could say that you’ve just discovered light in a seemingly very dark room. It wasn’t so hard. It’s now time to help your friend make the connection and realize that children are not identical to their parents either. They can’t possibly be since their parents are both different from each other in the first place. Evolution is a simple, unforgiving and never ending process over the course of which change cannot help but happen. Just like any language can split into a multitude of completely different forms over vast time periods, living bodies adapt to changing environments and eventually end up giving root to completely different species. Suddenly, it turns out that your colleague understood the concept of evolution already. A few late (yet not too late) neural connections have now been made in his brain and for good. Perhaps are you now both in the mood for a little conversation about reincarnation? :)

"We're made of star-stuff." -Carl Sagan-
I believe it should be a priority to keep this frank but respectful; a dialog between science and religion must be maintained at all cost. Understanding the importance of science, as well as its role in our daily lives, may prove to be vital for our future. The intent is not to hurt anyone's pride but to help others use their mental capacities in a way that perhaps they never tried before (courtesy of religious indoctrination). You could point out that although the concept of immortal soul isn't very plausible, we have all been lifeless for an eternity before we were born. We know exactly how it feels not to be alive; there's nothing scary about it. The atom particles that constitute our bodies came from dead stars. These particles do not belong to us. They are passing by; for a brief instant.

We are made from the same components as anything else that surrounds us. This stuff we're made from, which we now know came from galaxies light-years away, will possibly allow other living beings to survive and thrive long after we're gone, as long as time exists in this universe. For a small instant in time and from an incredibly rare point of view, we are having the privilege of witnessing it happening. Unlike reincarnation, this is more than just unfalsifiable speculation. The fact that all of our body constituents will survive and remain somewhere as part of the cosmos, is real and demonstrable; much more poetic and stirring than anything that ape-inspired mythology or individualistic wishful thinking could ever hope to rival. We are dealing with truth now; simple truth...

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