Embracing Science

Having thoroughly deconstructed religion, I was prepared to reconstruct my psyche on a more rational foundation. I wanted to try to learn as many true things as possible and reject as many false things as possible. I didn't want to live with cognitive dissonance. I wanted to form a worldview that would help me to live in this world. I wanted to accept reality.

I had heard that many people who lose their faith / leave their religious tradition tend to favor science, and I wanted to find out why. I began a journey to see what science had to offer and I began to understand why people in a post-conventional stage of faith embrace science.

Truth vs. "Truth"

There's an LDS hymn titled "Oh Say, What Is Truth?" and indeed, I found myself asking that same question. If the religion I was raised in had been shown to be false, after hearing all my life that it was the pinnacle of truth, then what was truth after all?

I reflected on other things I had learned during my upbringing and pondered on what else I thought was "truth". I took a lot of math classes throughout my schooling, and I decided that the most solid thing I learned was mathematics. Of all the hard sciences, math seemed the hardest. Intellectually, math always made sense to me. Anytime I was taught a new branch of mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.) I could process it, grok it, and apply it.

If, by some quirk, we lost all of the mathematics that we currently have, we would be able to reconstruct them all, from scratch, back to what we have now. This is because math is part of the reality that we live in. On the other hand, if all traces of Mormonism were to suddenly disappear, it would likely be lost forever. We would not be able to reconstruct it because it is the product of a very specific time and place (the 19th-century burned-over district) that no longer exists. (For that matter, if we lost any of the world's religions, we probably couldn't reconstruct any of them from scratch.)

A more sure foundation

It also occurred to me that time had never dimmed my firm belief in mathematics (even if I couldn't remember every single formula). I knew it was true, despite the fact that I had learned it decades ago. I didn't need to attend a weekly math class and hear people bear testimony, over and over, of the truthfulness of mathematics. It wasn't necessary. I just knew it was true, no doubt about it.

There are plenty of stories about members who "studied their way out of the church". They were faithful, they delved into church history, and after they learned about the skeletons in the closet, they were out. I have never heard of anyone who "studied their way out of mathematics". "Oh yeah, old Bob knew a lot of math. He even became a math professor, but he just kept studying and studying and now he doesn't believe in math anymore." The very idea is absurd.

Furthermore, even if a hundred mathematicians all did their best to try to offend me, it would not diminish my personal knowledge of mathematics in any way. No amount of bad behavior would cause me to "fall away" from believing in the rules of arithmetic, algebra, calculus, or any other branch of math. Contrast this to the various rumors you hear of people who "got offended and fell away".

It is also worth noting that no amount of "anti-mathematics" literature would ever shake me from my belief in mathematics. People could point to the flaws & foibles of ancient mathematicians and it would not discredit their discoveries. Conspiracy theorists could rant all day long about how math is "wrong" and "bogus" and I would just blow it off. I've proven to myself that it's true, and that's all that matters.

Now contrast that to what we hear in church about "faith-building": we need to hear the testimonies of others and bear our own testimonies to keep them strong. We need to attend church and gather with like-minded people to keep our faith "burning bright". Getting "offended" can cause a person to lose their testimony. I had to wonder: is this "knowledge", or is it just Pavlovian-style conditioning?

See this blog post: God and my Stinky Kitchen Counter

Alternate Epistemology

While I was a believer, I tended to favor supernatural / spiritual explanations over scientific ones. I would occasionally tell myself, "Science hasn't got it all figured out. Scientists keep changing their minds. They're using a very inefficient method for discovering truth (falsification). God's got it all figured out." I accepted the epistemology that pondering and praying to get an answer that would confirm one's beliefs was right and good.

Having learned about confirmation bias and its shortcomings, I was open to alternate epistemologies. I was intrigued at the approach taken by science because it was so radically different from the approach I'd been raised with. The "pray & receive" approach starts with a conclusion and favors signals (in the form of "fuzzy feelings") that  confirm those conclusions.

Science takes a very different approach: A scientist makes observations, then forms a hypothesis and, makes tests, and observes the results to refute or verify the hypothesis. Note that a single verification isn't sufficient (as it is with the spiritual approach): You have to be able to get the same results numerous times by both yourself and by other people (to ward against bias).

Falsification

It doesn't end there: A common question asked is "Can we falsify it?" This is a much more critical (some might say "negative") approach because we're actively trying to disprove the hypothesis. (I gained some experience with this approach doing "destructive" or "negative" software testing where I actively tried to break a program with malformed inputs, out-of-sequence steps, etc.)  A hypothesis that is able to survive numerous attempts to falsify it emerges as a very solid, very sound, scientific theory.

I was also impressed at how (good) scientists are willing to see their theories disproven and have existing models supplanted with alternate models that better explain the observed results. (One example of this: Early astronomers believed that planets revolved around the Sun in a circular orbit, but later concluded that an elliptical orbit modeled their observations much more parsimoniously.) This stood in stark contrast to the religious approach where, when observations conflict with "revealed truth", apologetics enter the scene to try to ease cognitive dissonance, rather than any admission that the "revealed truth" might be flawed.

Also problematic is that religious teachings are bound up in holy books that are believed to be the unbending Word of God and therefore eternally correct and unalterable. It just makes for an unworkable situation.

"Science adjusts its views based on what's observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved." - Tim Minchin

Recognition of our mental frailties

Scientists use a variety of techniques to ensure that they get the most accurate results possible. These include:

The reason why these techniques are used is because they recognize that our minds our not inherently rational. We are susceptible to cognitive biases, logical fallacies, mental shortcuts, and other problems. They take measures to eliminate bias as much as is humanly possible.

Contrast this to religion where cognitive biases / logical fallacies are not only unacknowledged, but celebrated. When someone professes that they believe in something despite evidence to the contrary, they are lauded for their inspiring faith. This is not how you build a rational society. A house built on this kind of foundation will be shaky indeed.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I also noted that many scientific discoveries build nicely on each other over time: a discovery in one generation leads to a more advanced discovery in a later generation, etc. (e.g. Arithmetic -> Geometry -> Calculus).

But new scientific discoveries seldom (if ever) validate older religious beliefs. More often than not, those discoveries disprove religious teachings. I was forced to ask myself: which of these is more solid ground for building upon?

Unconstrained Learning

It was refreshing to be able to read science articles without trying to filter everything through the broken worldview of Mormonism. When I was a believer, it was so tedious, whenever I learned something new, to go through the mental gymnastics of trying to fit it into the narrow worldview of the church. It put such a strain on my brain. It was so liberating to be able to learn something new and just accept that it is the way it is, right at face value. No straining, no cognitive dissonance, just pure, acceptance-based learning.

For the record, I didn't instantly abandon any / all beliefs in the supernatural. I remained open to supernatural ideas but I opened my mind to naturalistic explanations for various phenomena. One example: I was taught that our innate morality is the "Light of Christ", given to all men by God as a gift to help us behave righteously. I later learned that our innate morality is a byproduct of humans having evolved to be a cooperative species.

While I remained open to both the supernatural and the natural, I found that the rational / naturalistic explanations were much more accessible, much more satisfying, gave me a greater sense of closure, and required much less of a stretch to accept. This started me on a path toward rationality. Over time it became increasingly more difficult to believe that supernatural explanations could have any real merit.

What science can't do

Believers in various faith traditions are often quick to point out that there are limits to what science can do, and they offer some valid criticisms. A favorite point that believers bring up is that science cannot answer the question "Why was all this created?" (Though the way it is often stated is begging the question.) It is important to note that science alone cannot offer a person purpose for their lives. By and large, the scientific method is a destructive process designed to disprove falsehoods. It doesn't imply a purpose for why we exist. That is the realm of philosophy.

On my own, I observed that the fuel for the scientific method are hypotheses and science alone does not come up with these. Human beings are the ones that propose hypotheses, using their wonderful, observation-inspired, imaginations. Without human creative juices, the scientific process would be an unfueled, non-running, machine.

Ethics

Another criticism I heard is that science alone cannot teach ethics. This is only partially true. Yes, there have been some abominable, wholly unethical, experiments performed in the name of science. (I think this is where the "mad scientist" archetype comes from.) That said, such experiments are not considered "good science". (One hypothetical: If a chemistry student enrolled in a program with the explicit goal of creating a more potent form of nerve gas, I doubt if he would get much support from his professors.)

Furthermore, there are some fields of science that carry a strong ethical component with them. The medical sciences, for example, include the Hippocratic Oath of "First, do no harm". Psychology / Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is interested in developing attitudes and behaviors that promote healthy, functional, lifestyles & relationships. But as a general rule, many branches of science are ethics-free (e.g. mathematics, physics, chemistry), which would ultimately lead me to embracing secular philosophy.