Making progress in our understanding

‘It stands to the everlasting credit of science that by acting on the human mind it has overcome man’s insecurity before himself and before nature… the Greeks for the first time wrought a system of thought whose conclusions no one could escape. The scientists of the Renaissance then devised the combination of systematic experiment with mathematical method… there was no longer room for basic differences of opinion in natural science… Since that time each generation has built up the heritage of knowledge and understanding, without the slightest danger of a crisis that might jeopardize the whole structure… [we] can register at least one great and important gain: confidence that human thought is dependable and natural law universal.’

Albert Einstein, Science and Society

It is difficult to coherently argue that we do not have a far more developed, reliable, and sophisticated understanding of both ourselves and the world today than at any other point in human history. In just the few centuries since the modern scientific method was developed, it has completely transformed our understanding of the world.

Our ancestors often resorted to supernatural forces to answer questions about the natural phenomena they encountered. Where does thunder come from? Why does the sun appear to move across the sky? What causes disease? Why is it colder in the winter than in the summer? Why do living things appear so well designed for their environment? Where do human beings come from? Today, science has answered all these questions.

It is not surprising that, in the past, people might have explained natural phenomena using supernatural ideas. Without the knowledge of the natural world that science has provided, it would have been difficult to explain why the sun rose and set, why people became ill, or what caused natural disasters. Human beings appear to have an evolved propensity to believe in the presence of hidden agency to explain natural events. Perhaps it helped us to survive. What is certain is that it has hindered progress on the path to knowledge.

Ever since the Copernican revolution removed the Earth from the centre of the cosmos, science has fought for its freedom from the requirement to fit the existent teachings of religions or philosophies, which societies used to explain the nature of the world.

‘Vast masses of myth, legend, marvel, and dogmatic assertion, coming into this atmosphere, have been… dissolving quietly away like icebergs drifted into the Gulf Stream.’

Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom

Rational patience

There are, of course, big questions about the natural world that science has still yet to solve: What is the origin of the universe? How did life begin? What is consciousness? However, the fact that science has solved so many of the mysteries of the past means we should be wary of leaping to supernatural explanations for things we do not currently understand. History has shown us that science provides the best hope of finding the missing answers to our questions. It is possible, of course, that our scientific understanding may never develop to the extent that we are able to answer everything. However, a humanist can at least claim that history has shown us that the rational position is to be patient, rather than to jump to non-scientific conclusions.

Does this view leave any room for religion or the supernatural in explanations for how the world works?

The humanist philosopher, Richard Norman writes:

‘Either (a) religious beliefs are interpreted and applied in such a way that brings them into conflict with scientific theories, in which case we have good reasons for accepting the scientific theories and rejecting the religious beliefs. Or (b) religious beliefs are interpreted and applied in such a way that makes them consistent with scientific theories, in which case the religious beliefs are redundant and do not explain anything that cannot be better explained by the scientific theories… It is quite consistent to maintain both that the origins of our universe, the earth, and living species can be explained by scientific theories and that these theories can be read as accounts of the workings of a divine creator. The problem is there is no good reason to add the latter claim… Religious belief is not refuted but it simply collapses for lack of a foundation.’

Richard Norman, On Humanism

Question: Does a scientific understanding of nature leave any room for religion when it comes to answering questions about the natural world?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK