Science versus Religion

Two Galaxies interacting in outer space

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope photo: Arp 273– Two interacting galaxies

 “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—-and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”  Albert Einstein



by Frank McKay, OHEA Vice President

Section One: Sources of Useful Knowledge:

Section two: Experimental Science; Methods and Thought Process

Section three: Religion; Methods and Thought Process

Section Four: Is Science Operating at the level of Ultimate Reality?


Section one: Sources of Useful Knowledge

Let’s take a simple look at Epistemology, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods and limits, if any, of human knowledge . Obviously, this topic has been discussed for centuries resulting in the development of arcane and complex terminology, definitions and arguments; it can only be glanced at here. But it will help to understand how Humanists think about sources of knowledge.

It has been discussed with great neatness, wisdom and simplicity, by the Buddhist Scholar, Steve Hagen, that in terms of the profound epistemology question of “How do We Know Truth,” that all methods claiming to answer that question can be placed into three categories:

  1. Authority  
  2. Reasoning, Logical Deduction 
  3. Direct Experience

This author rejects the Authority category immediately by citing ideas of Bertrand Russell, some quoted here: 

“Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.”

“When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.”

Examples of Authority are your father’s dictates, religious dogma and other ideas and concepts which are presented as fixed and unchanging.

Reasoning and Logical Deduction: 

This source of knowledge is clearly a more useful tool than Authority; but it has its own weaknesses as seen with Einstein’s statement at the top of this page. 

Here is the classic example of deductive reasoning in the form of a well known and traditional syllogism; an argument usually with three statements; two premises and one conclusion: 

  • All humans are mortal
  • Donald Trump is a human
  • Therefore, Donald Trump is mortal

The conclusion in a syllogism is considered valid if it follows from its premises and its conclusions are consequences of its premises. The final strength or proof of a conclusion depends on both the strength of the premises and the validity of the argument. You might ask yourself why you accept the two premises above because then you must ask why do you accept other “facts” such as a heliocentric solar system, the cause of the seasons, the structure and  function of DNA, the cause of day and night. Certainly you, personally, cannot present all the evidence for each of those conclusions. Where does the consensus of thinking people for those conclusions come from?

Consider this syllogism: 

  • All birds fly with wings
  • Flying squirrels are birds
  • Therefore, flying squirrels fly with wings  

It has a valid conclusion because the premises automatically make the conclusion valid but human knowledge can demonstrate that both premises are false hence the conclusion is not true, or if you prefer, cannot be proven. 

Consider this famous “syllogism:” 

  • I think
  • Therefore I am

Note the one premise and a conclusion (of course by the famous philosopher Descartes).  Is the premise valid? Can one place into the premise an assumption that there is a thing that is thinking? And what is that thing? And does that weak premise allow you the conclusion just because you have authoritatively, without proof of any kind, made an assumption that is vague and not proven and incorrectly places the subject of the conclusion in the premise?” 

The last two syllogisms demonstrate that deductive reasoning can be in error if the truth of the premises and the validity of the argument are not strong. No doubt this is one point Einstein meant about science being primitive and childlike compared to reality— that it can be fraught with error because it is a human institution. But science corrects itself to a considerable extent. And more importantly, it provides prediction and hence valuable, practical use. See below.

Science demands strict definitions of words in syllogisms, hypotheses, theories and discussions. For example consider the classic “mind teasers” of “Which came first the chicken or the egg,” and “If a tree falls in the forest, without animals to hear it, does it make a sound.” With proper definition of all the words in those “teasers” the so called conflict or paradoxes are easily eliminated and the questions properly answered with precise deductive reasoning. We will do this later when we discuss the topic of evolution on this web site; we shall define it and show with data and mathematics that evolution occurs, can be seen to occur and unquestionably occurs.

p.s. No, of course the tree does not make a “sound” when it falls; “sound” is defined as “sound waves reaching and being sensed by an ear.” In the evolutionary sense,  the eggs came first and those eggs in a population of an evolving species had gene frequencies that defined the new species arising from the eggs. Evolution is defined as a change in the frequency of genes in a population.

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” Confucius

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Section Two: Experimental Science; Methods and Thought Process

Consider this “syllogism.”

  • Observations and experimentation on animals and biochemical and physiological knowledge suggest Drug A will cure Disease A in humans (Observation and Hypothesis)
  • Drug A, when given to an experimental group of persons ill with disease A  who are compared with an extremely similar control group of persons ill with Disease A who do not receive Drug A and in which all other variables affecting cure rates are controlled, cures a certain percent of persons sick with disease A in said experimental group, with a statistical significance of P =.01. (Experimental Procedure and Results)
  • Drug A cures Disease A with an effective cure rate of a given percent at a statistically significant value. (Conclusion)

Although we have put the above procedure in a syllogism-like format, we have described the scientific method. Note that we add “Observation” as the first procedure and that the main “premise” becomes a “Hypothesis,” that is, a possible explanation for an observation.

In research reporting, scientists forgo the syllogisms and present the results in a report –a logical, deductive reasoning presentation of the observations, hypothesis, experimental methods, results and conclusions. They publish their results in a peer review journal where the entire scientific community can view the experiment, study and judge its methods and conclusions, communicate with the authors and often repeat or modify the experiment. The publication is a strict exercise in deductive reasoning and if errors or criticisms of assumptions or premises are seen by others, this is discussed, communicated, and corrected. Science is constantly correcting itself with more and improved observations, data, premises and methods.

Observation and hypothesis procedures are critical in science. Humans can often miss subtle events or phenomena which can actually have critical meaning and the history of science has many reports of scientists who made major contributions by careful observation and sharp mental machinations. The same with the development of a good hypothesis—-structuring an excellent or profound possible explanation for phenomena can lead the researcher down an excellent road to discovery (and a Nobel Prize); if not, often down a very dead end path.

As experiments are repeated and confirmed, new observations and experiments conducted, evidence may (or may not) build up for the original hypothesis and it becomes a theory. A theory is not the flimsy idea so often misunderstood by the general public, but a body of interconnected statements about the original hypothesis. This concept is well stated by an evolutionary biologist:

“The theory of evolution is a body of interconnected statements about natural selection and the other processes that are thought to cause evolution, just as the atomic theory of chemistry and the Newtonian theory of mechanics are bodies of statements that describe causes of chemical and physical phenomena. In contrast, the statement that organisms have descended with modifications from common ancestors–the historical reality of evolution–is not a theory. It is a fact, as fully as the fact of the Earth’s revolution about the sun. Like the heliocentric solar system, evolution began as a hypothesis, and achieved “facthood” as the evidence in its favor became so strong that no knowledgeable and unbiased person could deny its reality. No biologist today would think of submitting a paper entitled, ‘New evidence for evolution;’ it simply has not been an issue for a century.”

Science must use the scientific methods described above (and below) using the physical/chemical and biological laws discovered and described historically. But it rejects hypotheses when evidence is lacking and it has  the option of modifying theories and even  laws and adding new ones if evidence so demands; it is not authoritative. Science cannot assume supernatural forces are at work which excludes “miracles,” the intervention of supernatural beings or preordination, the later being the belief that events have been determined in advance —-“laid out” in time by “fate” or gods. Also teleological ideas must be excluded from science; these are ideas that imply the universe has purpose or design; there is not a shred of evidence for that hypothesis.

Is science operating at the level of the ultimate nature of reality? See Section Four of this page for thoughts on this question.

Scientists have another tool of great importance for their work and publications.  And that is the statistical confidence level of data. How confident can we be that our selection of people for both drug test groups was a good “random sampling” of a “normal” population of people for whom we wish to make conclusions? Could we, by chance accident, have selected persons for the two groups who were unusual in their lifestyle or genetics or disease background such that our results were not typical of the “real” population?  Where do we draw the line between acceptance or rejection of our hypothesis of having an effective drug? Events in the universe are determined to a great degree by probabilities and those often raise their ugly head in science and deductive reasoning. 

Scientists are trained in the area of statistics, a branch of mathematics. All experiments where sampling errors could occur must present the statistical “confidence level,” which are usually 95% or 99%. A 99% confidence level means we are 99% confident that the results supporting our hypothesis of an effective drug are meaningful and represent the “true” population of persons being tested, The results are then said to be “statistically significant.”  Another way this is often presented is the inverse, that with a 99% confidence level there is only a .01 chance (1%) that the results could have occurred by chance and thus do not represent the “normal” entire population we are testing. Yet another way of saying it is there is only a 1/100 chance of recommending the drug for treating the disease when it is actually completely ineffectual in doing so. When reported this way, it is called a “P value” and expressed in parentheses like this: (P=.01).

See an example of this P value reporting concept in an actual scientific paper published in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, usually referred to as PNAS. It is the official journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS). PNAS is an important scientific journal that printed its first issue in 1915. The scientific work shown here is a report by scientists at Duke University, the University of Rochester and California State Polytechnic University.They were investigating the technique of “fracking”which is used in drilling for natural gas and their hypothesis (premise) was that fracking operations can contaminate the drinking water wells of nearby residents with methane (natural gas). You will see in the abstract of their report, that they found considerable positive results to support their hypothesis and their statistical “P values” strongly back up this conclusion. In some cases, they provide the name of the statistical test used for the P value calculation. Methane was detected in 82% of drinking water samples, with average concentrations six times higher for homes  less than 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) from natural gas wells (P = 0.0006). Note the P value is extremely statistically significant!

 Many of us are familiar with this sampling error theory from voter polling results done before elections and reported as “margin of error.” It is different only in that it is reporting half the width of a confidence interval on a graph of the data. A 2% margin of error means that for the stated confidence level (95% or 99%) and sample size, there is a 2% chance that the “true” percentage is within 2% (higher or lower) of the stated value for a total of 4 possible percentage points “off.” See Wikipedia: for some excellent graphs on Margin of Error. That link also summarizes the concept: “The margin of error is usually defined as the “radius” (or half the width) of a confidence interval for a particular statistic from a survey. The larger the margin of error, the less confidence one should have that the poll’s reported results are close to the “true” figures.”

These various mathematical tests provide science with extreme rigor and greater certainty of conclusions.

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Section three: Religion; Methods and Thought Process

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”  – Eric Hoffer–The True Believer

“We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation.  We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” – President Barack Obama

Religion obviously uses none of the scientific methods above and its major tenets are for the most part quite authoritative and unchanging. For example, the Christian Bible is a collection of texts considered sacred in Judaism as well as in Christianity; a Christian denomination regards their accepted bible as divinely inspired, a hypothesis science cannot test for all the reasons stated above and below.  

Occasionally throughout history and perhaps even up to the present time, religion will make statements about the physical world that science can examine with its methods and demonstrate their “truth” or “falsity.” The historical obvious examples where science has tested such religious “hypotheses” and rejected them are the heliocentric solar system, the fact of evolution and the age of the Earth, etc. If religion claims an event or phenomenon as a “miracle” it is quite easy for science to establish and test an alternative hypothesis for the so called “miracle.” So called “miracle healing” or spiritualism (visitations from deceased relatives) can usually be “debunked” easily by science. Results of prayer can be shown to be equal to random chance with no statistically significant indicators.  When religion makes claims  about the physical world that science can “test,” it does so at its own peril.

Arguments for supernatural forces or gods cannot be tested by science because they cannot be placed into a meaningful, deductive premise and conclusion structure that are valid, i.e., they cannot be placed inside the scientific method for testing. Science cannot test statements put forward as truth by religion because science studies physical aspects of the universe, not statements about unseen, unmeasured, non-observable entities. If religion presented solid and measurable data to science which it considered evidence for gods, spirits, angels, etc., science would jump at the chance to test it.  

An example of statements made by religion that are not testable are the “five proofs” presented by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) for the existence of god. Here are those “proofs” with comments:

1. “Motion: Some things undoubtedly move, though cannot cause their own motion. Therefore there must be a first mover; god.”  

(We can easily write this as a syllogism; would it be valid? Energy provides all motion and science has laws to describe energy, so by itself, this would appear meaningless. Today, the argument might be what caused the energy, on through the Big Bang Theory. But to then posit a god as the final “first mover” again makes it untestable for science because science would not see that as a testable hypothesis; as above, science does not deal with super-naturalism because it has no evidence to support it and it has no connection with the physical laws of science.)

2. “Causation: As in the case of motion, nothing can cause itself, and an infinite chain of causation is impossible, so there must be a First Cause; god.”

(It states that something is impossible without any valid proof and of course the obvious argument against this is that if god is the first cause, and nothing can cause itself what “caused” god? Why could there not  be an infinite chain of causation? What law of physics states that? It is simply an authoritative statement with no meaning, no evidence. Think in terms of the “Big Bang” theory” one version of which has the galaxies returning “backwards” toward the “Singularity” and starting over; infinitely.)

3. “Existence of necessary and the unnecessary: Our experience includes things certainly existing but apparently unnecessary. Not everything can be unnecessary, for then once there was nothing and there would still be nothing. Therefore, we are compelled to suppose something that exists necessarily, having this necessity only from itself; in fact itself the cause for other things to exist; god.”

(Definitions are lacking such as the meaning of “necessary” and “unnecessary.” Circular reasoning throughout)

4. Gradation: If we can notice a gradation in things in the sense that some things are more hot, good, etc., there must be a superlative which is the truest and noblest thing, and so most fully existing; god.

(See if you can set up a syllogism for that and analyze it)

5. “Ordered tendencies of nature: A direction of actions to an end is noticed in all bodies following natural laws. Anything without awareness tends to a goal under the guidance of one who is aware; god.

(And try thinking through this one also; it is another nightmare in definitions; in one sense it is asking about the laws of science and their origin; physicists can or will have answers for all these questions)

For more of this discussion, see the Section on this website entitled: The 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.

Humanism and Religion:

Humanists reject religion as a source of knowledge for the reasons stated above and the negatives stated below.  Humanists are not actively anti-religious and they understand that science cannot solve all human difficulties, but Humanists support scientific methods of inquiry while rejecting sectarian doctrines. Science “works.” It allows prediction and understanding and hence is  incredibly useful in engineering, technology, medicine, etc. Its potential for understanding the universe could be limitless but no one can see into the future.

Of course we respect the rights of anyone to believe whatever cosmic ideas they prefer and to join and practice any religion they so desire, an understandable “natural” right and tenet of the American Constitution. Of course if certain religious beliefs are dangerous to society or hateful toward some groups of people, humanists will comment appropriately and always protect our civil rights in regard to the separation of church and state.

Repeat: Humanists have a very, very strong belief in the separation of church and state. Religion cannot and should not be connected with government activities of any kind. That would endorse a particular religious belief!  And the United States Founding Fathers knew and stated repeatedly the importance of avoiding intermingling. Because that’s when the rock throwing and the yelling begins and later the guns come out and eventually the armies start to roll. One can pray in ones church, synagogue, temple, home, corner of a library, in one’s mind, while driving your automobile, while walking down the street and in your friends house, etc. Not openly IN A PUBLIC SCHOOL, ABSOLUTELY NOT; IN A GOVERNMENT MEETING, ABSOLUTELY NOT; IN ANY OTHER PUBLIC BUILDING HAVING A CONNECTION WITH A GOVERNMENT BODY, ABSOLUTELY NOT!  IN THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE OF THE UNITED STATES, ABSOLUTELY NOT.

Why on Earth anyone, including the Supreme Court of the United States, would think that would be appropriate under the U.S. Constitution or is rational or was desired by the Founding Fathers is beyond the understanding of any Humanist.

Praying in public places owned by the government and the people implies government approval of those prayers and assumes the existence of a god or gods and insults non-believers and forces theism on them.

In public schools, to combine the need to state our nation is “under God” with the other words of the Pledge, tells the children of non-religious families that their patriotism is invalid . No government should be declaring that proper citizenship is dependent on a religious belief, especially not one that claims to have religious freedom as one of its highest virtues; it makes a mockery of religious freedom, purposely excluding tens of millions of non-religious Americans.

Are religious persons sometimes so insecure in their beliefs that they feel the need to force their beliefs on others in public places?

We also understand that religious beliefs are sometimes stated as providing “comfort” to people and that people have emotional and psychological  needs that religion might fulfill. Anthropological studies currently hypothesize that religious beliefs can be found some hundreds of thousands of year ago:

“Religious behaviour is thought to have emerged by the Upper Paleolithic, before 30,000 years ago at the latest but behavioral patterns such as burial rites that one might characterize as religious – or as ancestral to religious behaviour – reach back into the Middle Paleolithic, as early as 300,000 years ago, coinciding with the first appearance of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. Religious behaviour may combine (for example) ritual, spirituality, mythology and magical thinking or animism – aspects that may have had separate histories of development during the Middle Paleolithic before combining into “religion proper” of behavioral modernity.”

And what  needs might religion fulfill? Religious myths can be viewed simply as the “Denial of Death” psychology;  the need to believe one will never die, — life after death. Or perhaps the “World Doesn’t Make Sense” psychology, a way to bring order to why you exist— the “meaning of life.”

But Joseph Campbell, the brilliant student of Mythology, looked at the wider view as he studied religions, general cultural belief systems and other mythological systems all across the world. He came to realize that the mythology of religion represents the need for humans to feel and express the deep awe, mystery and wonderment they feel about being alive and conscious in a boundless and “mysterious” universe, surrounded by great beauty and complexity. People apparently have a need to integrate those feelings within their family and find a similar social community of individuals.  Religions usually add the irrational supernatural and divine embellishments.   Campbell put it this way: 

“So in a sense, behind every fantasy, behind every mythological story, there is some type of deeper truth about life. All the gods are simply projections of human potentialities. They’re not out there. They’re in here. That word, “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” is a good phrase”.

“It is a disaster, to take the old religious myths literally, and this is monstrous—in what’s going on today in the way of illuminating the mind, to go back to something that’s four thousand years out of date, in every sense whatsoever—in the sense, in the first place, of realizing what humanity is. They had no historical knowledge of anything but their own little corner of the Near East—no knowledge of the Americas, no knowledge of the Far East at all. And to pull back in that, I think it’s criminal.”

“The image, the mythic image, does not fit the contemporary mind. So the message can’t get into the contemporary body. You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it.”

“There are two things that have to happen if you’re going to have a mythology that’s appropriate to man today. One is to take the world of nature as it is known, and my God, I’ve been hearing recently about some of the things that the physicists and astronomers are finding out, and it is magical and incredible. That’s the ground. It’s not difficult to turn that into a mystical inspiration. And the second thing is to realize that the society with which you are involved is not this group or that group, or this social class or that social class, or this race or that race, but the planet.”

” I would say that all of our sciences are the material that has to be mythologized. A mythology gives the spiritual import—what one might call rather the psychological, inward import, of the world of nature round about, as understood today. There’s no real conflict between science and religion. Religion is the recognition of the deeper dimensions that the science reveals to us. What is in conflict is the science of 2000 B.C., which is what you have in the Bible, and the science of the twentieth century A.D. You have to disengage the messages of the Bible from its science.”

You can see that he understands the origins of world religions—man’s mind struggling with the “meaning of life”  in an ancient time; ancient religions for ancient peoples.  And he clearly states that we need a new, modern mythology—–a way to express our very existence or our joy in existence, in this scientific age. This is expressed well by an artist/writer:

“Joseph Campbell observed that the myths created by our ancestors no longer make sense within the context of our modern society. Campbell went even farther to warn us that a society with no contemporary myths in which it can believe is in danger of losing an essential part of humanity…We need new myths to help reflect on the values of our culture, our philosophies, our sciences. For example, new myths can have the ability to incorporate both an understanding and a deep sense of respect for the power of modern science and the accompanying technologies offered us without losing sight of our need to touch one another.”

“The modern mythology we have been developing through science fiction, science and technology, continues to grow within our culture. One example is our conflicted reaction to the deciphering of the human genome. Another is the widespread interest in the theories of quantum physics, in particular as they refer to the phenomenon of consciousness.”

Humanists believe they can play a part in the development of a new “mythology” 

Negatives of Religion:

Many persons and organizations have made long lists of the historic and contemporary horrors and negatives that religion has brought with it or continues to cause; we cannot begin to list them all here. The previous link starts off with this listing below and continues for some pages.

Wars, –The Crusades, –The Inquisition,–the 9/11 tragedy, –ethnic cleansing, –suppression of women, –suppression of homosexuals. –fatwa’s. –honor killings. –suicide bombings, –arranged marriages to minors, –human sacrifices,–witch burning, –systematic sex with children, –prevention of stem cell research, –faith healing, –useless circumcisions, –prevention of minority rights, –promotion of slavery, –the Jim Jones tragedy, –dissolution of family bonds, –genital mutilation, –general misogyny, –religious terrorism, –the Catholic sex scandal cover-ups, -suppression of art and literature, –the Ku Klux Klan, –Islamic gang rapes of woman as punishment, –punishment and suppression of freethinkers, –belief in a better afterlife leading to neglect of ones life, social values and the advancement of mankind, –creation of bigotry, –Pope Benedict’s condemnation of condom use for the spread of AIDS in Africa, –missionaries killing heathens, –children dying because their parents prayed to their god instead of getting legitimate medical help,–censorship, promotion of creationism and intelligent design which stifles science education…………………………………………………………….

These kinds of listings are more motivation to take Campbell’s suggestion—let us find a new, modern “mythology” for civilization to live by; perhaps in time we will call it Humanism.

The stated goals of some religions in the earthly sense of improving the human condition are very admirable but the results of actions toward these goals are minor in terms of the massive nature of the problems. The growing human problems of overpopulation, food, water, energy and other resource shortages, war, weapons of mass destruction, and global climate change, to name a few, strongly suggests we will not make much progress with current religious mythologies. Incredible talent, leadership, education,science, engineering and the Arts and Humanities to connect, motivate and unite us, will all be needed.

Humanists believe that focusing on supernatural forces is irrational and profoundly detracts from how you view the universe including how you interpret events in it and how you understand cause and effect. If instead of looking to science, logic, and the best of human nature, you believe gods control the universe and are the cause of all effects including your own behavioral possibilities, then your choices in life, your motivation, and your thought process for affecting events and improving yourself and the human condition are terribly compromised. “True Believers” can be seriously limited and constrained in their thought processes; politicians and charlatans can often exploit the psychology of their beliefs. 

Data suggests that more and more persons are moving away from religion. Recent surveys indicated that 20% of persons in the United States indicate they have no formal religious affiliation, a trend Humanists see as positive and a trend we will help accelerate by pure persuasion. And accomplishing this will include stronger education in science, math, and critical thinking skills as well as studies in the arts and humanities.

Perhaps you can assist us in “adjusting” the ancient ideas designed for ancient people with more modern, rational thoughts and actions. 

“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.”  – Albert Einstein, 1954

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Section Four: Is Science Operating at the level of Ultimate Reality?

“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”          J.B.S. Haldane, 1927

“The nervous system of an organism cannot in any absolute way distinguish between a perception (caused by an external phenomenon) and a hallucination” Francis Heylighen

How do humans perceive events and their causes?  When are they enlightened to use deductive reasoning and critical thinking and when do they fail to do so? Why do they sometime accept scientific explanations and other times do not? What do they consider “truth” and by what process do they arrive at that. What does epistemology and its history say about the ultimate nature of “truth.” And where does Science think it is on this scale of “truth? Cognitive Science has advanced considerably in recent decades in its understanding of these questions. Many of our previous assumption about how we learn are shown to be myths.

A popular example of this relates the story of graduating Seniors at Harvard University who were surveyed several years in a row and asked to explain the cause of the seasons on Earth. Most got it wrong and many indicated that the the cause of the seasons was Earth being closer to the sun in summer and the reverse in winter; that of course is neither true nor the cause of the seasons! But they must have been presented with the actual scientific cause of the seasons in the 3rd grade and probably repeated in the 8th grade and at least one other time in high school or college.

They reverted back to basic “instincts,” emotions and learning patterns that are programmed into the brain and which evolved to handle the basic physics of living on Earth and function to solve everyday problems. Combined with the simple cause and effect events they experienced as children, they never fully absorbed the concepts taught in science classes in K through 12. If you are close to a fire or warm object  you are warm–further away you are colder—–hence, summer and winter and the sun. One reverts back to brain programs that evolved for everyday problems and solutions. A child perceives that putting on a sweater that makes them warm must mean the sweater is warm and directly gives them heat; but of course that is not the “truth,” the heat comes from their own body and the sweater traps it.  THE POINT: Our brain programs have deductive reasoning circuits (neural networks; interconnections between brain areas and memory, etc.) but we cling to simpler explanations and ones we have previously understood and used. Obviously emotions sometimes take over our thinking and our brain often deludes itself to protect our ego, id, and identity. 

Cognitive Science has shown that when a person attempts to take in newer, “truer,” and more useful information for a given concept, the brain appears to “fight against” the integration of the new information with the old. It is comfortable with the old information and has probably spent some considerable time and effort in justifying it and tends to reject new ideas. It is the teacher’s job, the educational systems role, to assist the student with performing this integration. New techniques must be used for the integration process such as (1) perceptual-motor grounding (“hands on”) where the student can “construct” her own answers, (2) combining graphics with verbal descriptions, (3) connecting and integrating abstract and concrete representations of concepts etc. It appears this new understanding of the brain and how to apply it in the classroom will take an educational revolution if  students are to develop  sophisticated cognitive skills including critical thinking and to build knowledge at deep levels of mastery. Let’s hope the revolution is underway in the United States.

The Buddhist Scholar, Steve Hagen, noted above, places these concepts of the human mind, stuck in its primitive condition, into a harsh perspective:

We’re very prone to storytelling—and to listening only to our own story…rarely do we realize that our story is just one among many. Indeed, for most of us, our private story readout is so smooth that any awareness of “this is a story” never registers at all.

Jeremy Campbell, in his book The Improbable Machine, gives and eloquent account of how we often form our stories out of “flimsy or contradictory data,”  yet each of us locks on to our story and spontaneously re-makes its explanation, even “in the face of devastating logical argument.” It seems that, once we have a story, we’re not given to re-examining the evidence for it.

Why do we not simply, naturally and automatically move toward that which is deep-set and Real? We do not because, when our attention is drawn toward the Real Thing, we meet with thoroughgoing Paradox and Confusion, and we become frightened. We fear to account for what we perceive directly, prior to (and outside of our story).

We compulsively interpret what is new in terms of what we already know. We prefer to do this rather than fully attend to what we directly perceive.

This is just how we fear Truth. It is nothing less than the fear of the loss of identity.

 © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

PLATO © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

The discussion of the “Nature of Reality” would take volumes to review and we cannot do that here but we could have easily led into such a discussion with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” from  The Republic. There he told a story of “prisoners” tied up inside a cave and their reality of life was simply to see shadows cast in on the cave wall from outside. It is sometimes forgotten that the Plato allegory is intended to illustrate the effect of education (or the lack of it) on our nature and how our nature usually has little appetite for knowledge or too much knowledge. For another quick interpretation of the cave story, we recommend a review of Plato’s Allegory from which this quote was taken:

While Plato thus describes the liberating and empowering nature of education, he was deeply pessimistic with regard to its popularity. In the tale of the cave great emphasis is placed on the difficulties of acquiring knowledge, and on the hostility and mistrust that many people feel toward education and educated people. The ascent out of the cave and into the light is neither easy nor necessarily voluntary, and it requires a persistence and willingness to undergo changes that most people would find too strange to consider, or too painful to endure. Not only do cave dwellers dislike leaving the cozy darkness to which they are accustomed, they also hate and mistrust those who have been outside and who have come back to improve things. Most people dislike being told that they lack knowledge; disturbing gadflies like Socrates are rarely respected for their critical remarks and demanding ideas. What people basically like is having fun and being left alone.

And that, according to Plato, is the reason why democracy does not work. Good government requires a sufficient degree of knowledge and understanding, and democracy in particular presupposes a competent citizenry. His experiences in Athens convinced Plato not only that the demos of his native city was incapable of making rational decisions, but also that it is simply not in the nature of most people to exert themselves in the pursuit of a serious education–to become competent governors of themselves. It will, Plato thought, always be just a small number of people who will be willing to develop their intellectual faculties to a point where they can be trusted to make informed and well reasoned decisions.

So you decide: Is Plato “undemocratic,” arrogant and and elitist? A believer in Democracy as corrupting and ineffective? A realistic, observer of human nature, suspecting humans are weak, irrational, emotional creatures that need to be led?

But, again, we will use the thoughts of Buddhist, Steve Hagen who gives us a magnificent summary of his view of “ultimate reality.”

 We human beings are commonly confused about appearance and Reality, about identity, about what we really desire, and about what we can and truly do know. In short, we are confused about Reality. We’ve formed many a theory and belief, but as we look about the human world, it is quite clear to us that nobody actually knows what’s going on. Yet claims to Truth are being made at every hand, including the claim that there is no truth.

All of this suggests that all our speculative thoughts are nothing more than conceptual constructs. Since we’ve fashioned these constructs out of our ignorance, they can reflect nothing conclusive about deep Reality. If there is meaning behind the word “truth,” it is quite clear that most of us have taken the wrong approach to finding it.

In short, it would seem we have no idea of what constitutes Reality. And without any idea of what constitutes Reality, we can have no clear idea of what constitutes Knowledge. How can we distinguish knowledge from mere belief? The consensus is that knowledge must be other than mere belief, yet Western philosophy has not been able (or has any idea how) to define knowledge in a way that genuinely distinguishes it from mere belief.

Sir Isaac Newton was of course a “founding father” of the scientific revolution. He gave us the Laws of Motion, the Calculus and the profound measure and formula for gravity. It is often forgotten that this brilliant man had some deep ideas on human consciousness, human understanding and the human mind. A relevant example is that he gave us an extremely pragmatic formula for gravity — it allows us to measure the force of attraction between two bodies, whether it is the earth and the moon, the sun and the earth, or the earth and you! Here it is: 


Wiki Creative Commons Attribution; by Dennis Nelsson/ m1= mass 1; m2 = mass 2; r=distance; F1 = force 1; force 2 = force 2; G = the gravitational constant — another mystery and unintelligible concept

It says that every point mass (a “body” of atoms”) attracts every single other point mass by a force pointing along the line intersecting both points. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

But he pointed out that he did not have the slightest idea what gravity was or how it caused its results. He could measure it but he was also saying that the essence of gravity was unintelligible to the human mind; It could not be understood. In common words, how could a mass, not having any connection to another mass, affect that other mass? How can a mass “pull” on another mass if there is no connection whatsoever between the two? He appears to  have thought of this almost as a mysterious “action at a distance.” It was “an absurdity” he stated. He implied that anyone who thought they could explain how gravity caused its effects was certainly an incompetent fool. His statements:

It is inconceivable that inanimate Matter should, without the Mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon, and affect other matter without mutual Contact…That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance thro’ a Vacuum, without the Mediation of anything else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.

Gravity must be caused by an Agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this Agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the Consideration of my readers.

Isaac Newton, Letters to Bentley, 1692

The words, “material or immaterial” in the last sentence imply further that he does not know if gravity acts by ghostly, mysterious forces or if those forces that can be explained by science. He does not know. He cannot explain it.

Modern physicists at this point, might leap out of their chairs and claim that Einstein improved our understanding of gravity with his General Theory of Relativity. This is basically the idea that space and time are interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. Wow! As he worked out the equations for his general theory of relativity, Einstein proposed that massive objects caused a distortion in space-time. You’ve seen the “trampoline” analogy, when the Earth is placed onto the trampoline and the “space-time” lines, representing the structure of the trampoline get bent. (why do they get bent only downward — that makes little sense)

Is this space-time continuum and trampoline analogy intelligible to  you? Does that give you a clear picture of some reality you could call “gravity” when used with the trampoline concept? Do you walk away from that with a great understanding of how gravity functions? Its cause? To many, this “space-time fabric distortion” line of thought makes “how gravity functions” even more unintelligible. During Einstein’s life physics proceeded on to quantum physics including something called quantum entanglement. Einstein and others could not accept the strange, unintelligible implications of this concept, referring to it as “spooky action at a distance.”

While Einstein didn’t think that quantum mechanics is wrong, he did contend that it is incomplete — that it didn’t tell the whole story. This is exactly what Newton said about his “action at a distance” gravity force; that the future would solve the true nature of the gravity force; but not yet as of 2018.

Thus as science progressed through the 20th Century, one could say that that standards  for what was intelligible was constantly being lowered. Was reality moving more and more away from human understanding? Is human intelligence limited in what it allows us to comprehend? Did Newton both admit to the ghost in the machine and leave it there? Noam Chomsky gave a talk in 2011 at the University of Oslo University on this topic that is brilliant and should be heard by all interested in these concepts.

Placed in a broad view we get this conclusion from one person:

Contemporary physics is not able to determine the true content of the universe. At the present time we do not have clear scientific answers to what are the universe, particle, mass, energy, gravity, infinity, space and many more components of the universe. They are left unanswered and opened for everybody to guess. We are given descriptive definitions based on study of particle motions so we have a glimpse of what the universe does but not even a rudimentary concept of what the universe is. This scientific insecurity gives various ideologists open field to preach their doctrines about what is the universe and what are humans in it. From Slobodan Andrejevic, The Second Substance.

All of modern physics is “done” with mathematics, a very precise and horrendously valuable tool to science. But is math reality? Is reality math? Is physics math? Is math physics? Does math give us all a clear, intelligible, physical, consciously understandable image of how gravity “works?” Can you consciously “imagine” the time-space  continuum?  The reality of quantum entanglement?  Is math the only way to reality? We must keep in mind that math is a man-made discipline. What is consciousness and its limits?

How close to reality is science getting us? The answer, as Einstein essentially says at the very top of this page,is —  “the closest we are going to get.”

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The theories and laws of science allow great prediction and understanding of phenomena in the universe and have yielded huge improvements in the human condition such as in applied engineering, medicine, etc. 

Science collects evidence for hypotheses, theories and laws; it makes no claim to be working with absolute realities. As seen above, the scientific method requires certain assumptions be made in order to make valid conclusions. For  example, science assumes its stated laws of physics and chemistry operate throughout the universe and allow predictions of events often based on probabilities. Some consider that the aforementioned assumptions and the necessary use of probability theory in making predictions places science in the realm of a “belief system.” But those “beliefs” are what give science its strength and predictive ability and those beliefs will be changed if any evidence so warrants.  In terms of absolute reality,  science will not declare there is no possibility for Certitude about Reality because that would be a contradiction; we would have claimed Certitude about the impossibility of Certitude.

Being an open, changing and growing human enterprise, science will examine any evidence, test any hypothesis and come to conclusions using deductive reasoning. Because these epistemological questions no doubt depend heavily on human consciousness which is located in the brain, science will possibly make great strides in the next hundreds of years in finding answers there. See recent advances in this study area.   The very nature of human consciousness may be the cause of the contradictions seen in various phenomena of quantum science.  And hence there is an unknown probability that science might one day find absolute reality.  For elaboration on this idea and from whom the above ideas were drawn, our friend, Buddhist Scholar Steve Hagen is recommended.    

We should keep in mind that many times in history, persons with some authority, have declared that all that was ever knowable was known. New laws of physics are likely to be “discovered” and the universe further explained. Frequently with new techniques and insights, giant leaps occur in knowledge and understanding. For example, within just a few recent years, the Kepler Space Craft  discovered over two hundred planets revolving around stars within our galaxy that are considered Earth-like in size and composition and the structure of the human genome has been finalized and mapped. 

Science might be said to be at the edge of discoveries relative to the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe. That theory has large scale supporting evidence but with many, many unknowns. The fascinating studies of dark matter and energy, human consciousness and the contradictions of quantum science foretell incredible opportunity for science to leap forward in understanding the universe.

Sit back and enjoy the advancement of science; never a dull moment! Better yet, if you are a young person looking for a career, look no further. If you are currently an active scientist, best of luck to you. 

Science is sometime accused of consisting of coldness and calculation and that it removes and denies us the mental and emotional joy regarding the mysteries of life. However, simply take a good look at the Hubble Telescope photo of interacting galaxies appearing at the top of this page.  A view through a microscope at the creatures in a drop of water could also demonstrate that science is shot through with passion, longing, mystery, awe and romance.

That excitement and awe of living on Earth as a human was famously expressed by this gentleman:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg

      of the wren,

  And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,

  And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,

  And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

  And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,

  And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

Walt Whitman; Leaves of Grass, 1855

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