Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Science, religion and belief

Recently I had great fun answering a question, where I based my answer strongly on the ideas of Thomas Kuhn as put forward in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (follow the link to get the book with 30% discount and free delivery worldwide).

There are strong similarities between science as described by Kuhn and religious fundamentalism.

1. Kuhn's basic premise is that science generally operates within what he calls a paradigm, which is defined as a set of received beliefs.

Religious fundamentalists operate within the scope of beliefs defined by their scriptures/holy books. 

2. What Kuhn calls the "educational initiation" through which a person becomes permitted to work as a scientist (school exams, BSc, MSc, PhD, etc.) is firmly based on these beliefs. The rigorous nature of scientific education means that these beliefs take a deep hold on the minds of most students.

In fundamentalist circles, there is a strong emphasis on educational activities such as bible study, which serve the same purpose as above.

3. The truth of a paradigm is seen as being absolute and self-evident. Scientific research during what Kuhn terms as "normal" scientific activity (as opposed to revolutionary, paradigm-breaking science) assumes the truth of the paradigm and the same time is held up as supplying further proof of the paradigm.

Fundamentalists operate within the same sort of closed circle. They claim truth is absolute and self-evident, interpret their experiences in the light of this "truth" and then hold up those experiences as proof of what they believe. 

4. The specialised language of scientists insulates them and their scientific activity from the rest of society. Moreover, scientists as a group tend to be unconcerned by the opinions lay society has about them.

Fundamentalists often urge their followers to keep away from the "evils" of the outside society. Many restrict their dealings with non-believers to "witnessing" and otherwise stay in the company of other fundamentalists. 

5. People who have a fundamental problem with the paradigm and try to put something else in its place tend to be excluded from the scientific community.

Those seen as heretics or lapsers are rapidly excluded from and ostracised by religious fundamentalist groups.    

In science, the heretics and revolutionaries do triumph at times, outworn paradigms are demolished and new ones constructed. Interestingly, Kuhn describes the acceptance of a new paradigm by scientists as being more akin to a process of religious conversion than to a process of scientific logic and deduction!

The question concerned was: Is Physics a religion? (follow the link if you wish to read my answer)

No comments:

Post a Comment