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Religion versus Science: Axiom Wars

I have had the direct pexrsonal experience of ``discussing'' my understanding of the history and origins of the Universe (based on the Axiom of Science including causality and all the rest, introduced and discussed at length elsewhere) which leads to the Laws of Physics and the empircally founded knowledge accrued in the other sciences, compared to the understanding of various other people, of the history and origins of the Universe based on The Axioms of Religion as embodied in (say) the Old Testament, in particular Genesis, defended by one who believes without doubt that the entire Bible is literal truth, divinely inspired, and incapable of being in any fundamental error because a good and loving God would not permit such a thing as a deceitful Bible to Be10.34.

I conclude that the Universe is oh, 13.7 billion years old give or take a few percent. They conclude that it is a few thousands of years old.

I point out patiently the entire coherent structure of reasoning (Maxwell's equations, parallax, stellar dynamics and Cepheid variable stars, the Hubble constant, rates of radioactive decay, geological and paleontological evidence), from axioms through observations on to conclusions, that leads me to believe that whenever I look up at the night sky, light that is around a million times older than that falls on my face .

They patiently point out that the Bible in general clearly and repeatedly states, from the Commandments on, in any number of divinely inspired prophetic statements, that its entire content is divinely inspired and infallibly, literally correct. Therefore, if all of my science is producing answers that disagree with any portion of the Bible, then it must be wrong.

In some detail (as we talked through, in a very civil exchange, each of these points): If radioactive decay rates show the Earth to be older than a few thousand years, they must have changed or maybe I just don't understand the initial conditions. If there is a layered, apparently evolutionary fossil record buried in rock all over the world, it just proves that there once was a Really Big Flood and all the antediluvian beasts that didn't make the Ark settled out sorted by a curious mix of weight and density and size that simulates an evolutionary trend and were chemically turned rapidly into to stone by processes that we don't understand or that might have occurred more quickly then because the chemistry of the time was different.

If the night sky shows light that appears to have come from far far away and long long ago, then either the Universe was created with the light already on the way or maybe the laws of physics changed and light was a lot faster in the beginning. Even if all our current observations of physical laws and the temporal sequencing of biological events is totally, incredibly, twenty-significant-digit kind of consistent what reasons do we have for believing that physical laws haven't changed over time according to a higher law? How do we know that ``outer space'' is even there and not some sort of far closer boundary created by God to simulate a vast Universe, which really would all just be wasted anyway since we are his only creation and the Earth is all that we need.

No fooling, and this is, sadly, not a joke. I wish I were fooling. If nothing else, I've learned that as soon as one discovers in a debate of any sort that your opponent/partner has different Prime Axioms, unless you share the Axiom of Open-Mindedness (discussed below), the wisest thing to do is immediately terminate the discussion, back away slowly (possibly with one hand on your wallet and another on a small but powerful handgun), and go do something useful, like doing a crossword puzzle, or taking a nice long nap, or playing World of Warcraft until your mouse-hand is sore.

At least those things will improve your mind10.35 and are unlikely to get you beheaded, burned at the stake, pilloried, broken on the wheel, enslaved, or just plain beaten up and left for dead - all of which have happened at one time or another to the loser of what should have been an open-minded and fair philophical debate10.36 between holders of different axioms. Including repeatedly, religious axioms, where the ``debates'' were, for example, known as crusades.

The damnedest thing is, of course, that I can no more prove my axioms than they can prove theirs, and hence both our conclusions are in some deep sense equally irrational. Maybe the laws of physics have changed over time in a way that (precisely) cannot be detected now. Formulated this way, how can I prove otherwise by any experiment or experience, by definition?

We thus run up against the good old Pit, once again. Any question or proposition, pushed up against its axioms, becomes unanswerable, unprovable, doubtable. The inevitable conclusion of this (or any other) reasoning chain about the Universe is that no question can be answered save conditionally. Conditional conclusions can only be based on belief in the truth of the premises, where that belief cannot be validated, ever.

We thus see that far from mocking religion as being ``less rational'' than science, that both science and religion are based on faith - the faith that your prime axioms, however unprovable, are reasonably consistent (where consistency at least can be explored by pure reason) and correct, where correctness is beyond proof.

Belief is belief, whether it is belief in the Laws of Physics or the Book of Genesis. Both are, alas, Bullshit. Useful Bullshit in the case of the laws of physics and in my own personal opinion useless and even evil Bullshit in the case of Genesis, but Bullshit either way.

At this point I firmly hope and believe that I've jarred the Scientists who are reading this out of any belief, conscious or unconscious, that a pursuit of knowledge through science doesn't rely on faith. I also hope that I've the Religious people who are reading this (the ones that haven't gathered on my front lawn to throw me in on top of a fire built out of my own books) are jarred out of any belief, conscious or unconscious, that their own personal religious scriptures are in any way superior to those of any other religion's, at least as far as rational knowledge, provability, plausibility, or empirical validation are concerned. God does not come out of a book. Not even this one.

This leads us to ask the following, very important question. We now can see that we cannot use reason to decide between competing axiomatic descriptions. All arguments devolve to ``Is so!'' ``Is not'' ``Is so'' ``Is not'', where there opinion tie is fundamentally unable to be broken as things stand.

In order to break the tie, in order to be able to choose our axioms wisely if not rationally, we have to look not for knowledge but for wisdom. In particular, we need some axioms about axioms, a way of rating axiom sets so that we have some way of deciding that one set is better than another. These meta-axioms can be accepted or rejected as easily and arbitrarily as any of the axiom sets they are intended to judge, so we cannot hope to persuade by logic or reason. Let's try something else instead.

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Next: The Fundamental Axioms of Up: The Fundamental Axioms of Previous: Memetic analysis of the   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17