Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Science Will Always Beat Religion (an extended metaphor)

I thought of this while listening to The Atheist Experience at work today.

Many religious people love to promote the idea that religion and science are just two different ways of gaining knowledge about the world. They say that since science can't give us all the answers we want right away, the only way we can find answers to the unanswered questions is to seek some sort of spiritual enlightenment.

Honestly, I think this is just silly. Imagine that there are two subsistence farmers - let's call them Rick and Steve - plowing the same field, who agree to split the field between the two of them (so each can farm as he wishes) but they will then share whatever they grow. The field is rocky and has poor soil, so at first, growing anything in it is difficult.

The first growing season, Rick and Steve both plant exactly the same way. They sow seeds into the rocks and just hope that nature will take its course and give them a bounty. The first year is rough; not a lot grows. But Rick doesn't lose faith; he figures that if he sticks to his guns, he'll get rewarded for his patience eventually. Meanwhile, Steve has decided to go through and dig up some of the rocks. Rick chides Steve for trying something different. He thinks Steve is doing a lot of hard work for nothing; after all, the ground will give up whatever it'll give up.

Not surprisingly, in the second season, Rick's crop is just about the same size. Steve's crop, grown in soil that had more room for strong roots, is a little bigger than Rick's. Steve gladly shares his crop with Rick per their agreement, and sits quietly while Rick talks about how Steve just got lucky and how Rick really knows all the best ways to get a good crop.

This goes on for a long time. Rick keeps using the same methods, year after year, and turns up the same crop each year. Steve, meanwhile, keeps refining his technique - he tills the soil, fertilizes his plants, and applies pesticides to keep the insects at bay. Compared to Rick's paltry offering, Steve's crop is huge!

Nevertheless, Rick mocks Steve for breaking from tradition. He says that everything Steve is doing is just going to doom his part of the field eventually, and that Rick's half will go on producing long after he is gone. Rick congratulates himself over how fantastically trustworthy and consistent his techniques are, and pokes fun at how since Steve is always changing things around all the time, he must not know what he's doing at all.

Throughout the years, Steve's half of the field constantly improves, and Rick constantly warns him that he's just destroying any chance he has of the field lasting. Meanwhile, Rick enjoys the bounty of Steve's crop, which is not only larger, but more hearty, nutritious, and delicious.

Without Rick, Steve would be just fine. Without Steve, Rick would be dead.

Rick - Religion - sticks to the same ideas over and over again, without learning. Steve - Science - gets a more and more robust understanding of how things work, improves its own conditions, and shares its benefits even with those who would mock its methods.

How, exactly, does rigid, unchanging dogma allow for an increase in knowledge? How does it give us the goods, in the same way science does? The answer is simple, of course: It doesn't. Science learns. Religion stunts learning.