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Thoughts on Science and Religion

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I’ve always had an interest in science. Even as a very young child, I can remember puzzling over day and night. How does the sun get back to the east to rise? What are the stars? I remember imagining that the night sky was really a huge inverted colander. The sun would make its way back to the east outside the colander, and we would see the sun’s light coming through the holes. My interest in science arose from what I took to be a universal desire to understand the world in which we live. I understood science to be a systematic inquiry into the world for the purpose of understanding it.

One of the things I’ve learned as a parent is that characteristics I thought were universal were merely personal. None of my children has the least interest in science. I do not know why. The desire to understand is so much a part of my very being that I cannot grasp being without it. One of my sons recently told me he hated science. I asked why.

“It’s boring,” he said.

Boring?! How can science be boring?

“It has nothing to do with life,” he continued.

My son is a bright fellow. He knows full well that the technology he enjoys so much comes directly from science. But, as he pointed out, he doesn’t need to know how a computer works—or an iPod or a smartphone—to use it. None of my children have much curiosity about how things work. It is enough for them to know that they do work. Perhaps most people think the same way. I do not know.

As for me, I am always curious about how things work. I also have tremendous faith in my own capacity to understand how things work.

I wrote a while ago about the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. When I wrote it, I was sure that most people can tell the difference between magic and science. Now I am not so sure. Without a curiosity about how things work, why should anyone seek evidence for or against their own thinking? What difference is there in the thinking of most people between belief in electricity, gravity, or the nuclear strong force and belief in fairies, gnomes, or sprites? For those with a purely instrumentalist view of knowledge, the question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Does it work?”

I have to admit, I am more interested in truth than in utility. Not that the truth and utility are necessarily opposed. But they are not the same thing. One can easily imagine investigating the utility of a concept without coming close to discovering its truth. It is also possible, I suppose, to investigate the truth of a concept without discovering its utility. Nevertheless, I believe that the significant advances that have been made in technology result from scientists earnestly seeking the truth about the universe we live in. Technology takes the discoveries of science and makes them useful, but there is no enterprise that takes the usefulness of things and makes them true. So science is preeminent.

Many people who unthinkingly use technology every day criticize science as if its objectives were fundamentally flawed. Among evangelical Christians, for example, it is common to disparage biological evolution as if biologists were motivated solely by a desire to discredit God. Certainly there are some scientists so motivated. However, the desire to discredit God is not fundamental to science; it is fundamental to rebellious man. Biologists are motivated by a desire to understand living things. Out of that desire, mixed with countless hours of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and all the other activities of science, a consensus has emerged among scientists that all life on earth is descended from the same source, that all living things are connected by heredity. This consensus is not wishful thinking. It is not dishonest or unscientific as some Christians have claimed. It is good science, supported by a wealth of evidence from disciplines as diverse as geology, genetics, paleontology, and biology.

Science is a human enterprise for understanding the world we live in. Understanding is always about truth; you cannot understand something without believing what you understand to be true. (You can, of course, believe something to be true without understanding it, but the reverse is not true.) It is not the only enterprise for understanding the world. Religion also makes truth-claims about the world and also provides a way of thinking about the world and understanding it. But religion concerns itself with spiritual reality, while science concerns itself with physical reality. There are some who deny spiritual reality, as if the capacity to understand were not itself a spiritual reality. Human ideals, philosophy, ethics, love, justice, faith—these all belong to the spiritual world. To deny that world is to deny what makes  us human.

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homeopathy science

Water—Only $9.99 for ½ fl oz.

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Since writing the following article back in 2010, the makers of the product have changed its name. It is now called “Irritated Eye Relief” and no longer contains a reference to conjunctivitis. You can view the new product here. Note that the URL still refers to pink eye relief. It also states, in good homeopathic fashion, that it “stimulates the body’s natural ability to relieve” the symptoms of irritated eye. The idea is that substances that cause redness and irritation will cause your body to produce natural substances that relieve the redness and irritation. But since your body is already experiencing redness and irritation, wouldn’t it also already be producing natural substances that relieve these symptoms? Keep in mind that at one part per million there is not enough “medicine” in the water to make a difference in the response your body is already making. (Updated 04-27-2012).

I had a cold last week, and when I got over it, I found it had left a little irritation behind. I had an itchy, irritated eye.  So today I was at Rainbow picking up a few things when I passed the pharmacy section and noticed a large sign that said “eye care.” Maybe I’ll just see if there is something that can give me some relief from the itching and burning in my eye. I found the section for the eye drops and started scanning the little boxes for something to soothe my eye. On the top shelf, right at eye level was a box labled Pink Eye Relief. Odd. I thought medicine for pink eye (conjunctivitis) required a prescription. I picked up the box and turned it over to see what were the active ingredients. This is what I saw:

Active Ingredients
Purpose
Belladonna 6x
redness, burning, grittiness
Euphrasia 6x
watery discharge
Hepar Sulphurius 12x
redness, stinging

For me the 6X and 12X were giveaways, but I started searching for the word anyway. Ah, yes. There it was. Homeopathic. I glanced at the price: $9.99 for ½ fluid ounce. I looked back at the box: “According to homeopathic principles, the active ingredients in this medication temporarily relieve minor symptoms associated with viral and environmental conjunctivitis.”

For a brief introduction to homeopathic principles, check out this article on Wikipedia. In a nutshell, homeopathy claims that the more diluted a substance becomes, the more powerful its healing effect. The notation 6X indicates that the original solution was diluted with one part medicine to 10 parts water. Then the dilute solution was diluted 1:10 again. Then again and again for a total of 6 times. In other words, this ½ fluid ounce contained 0.0001 % belladonna extract, the same amount of euphrasia extract and 0.0000000001 % of hepar sulphurius. Compare it to other preparations. For example, The active ingredients in Visine® are: dextran (0.1 %), polyethylene glycol (1 %), povidone (1%), and tetrahydrozyline HCl (0.05 %).   The ingredients in the homeopathic remedy are too dilute to be effective.

By the way, it’s a good thing they are. Both belladonna and hepar sulphurius cause redness and itching rather than relieving it.

I would not have minded if this so-called remedy were being sold in an alternative medicines section where its dubious character could be instantly recognized. But this concoction was sharing shelf space right next to the other eye drops as if it, too, were real medicine. Moreover, the fact that it is a homeopathic remedy is not very noticeable. A consumer who knows nothing about homeopathy or how to read the ingredient list would not know that they were purchasing a ten-dollar vial of 99.999 % pure water. That’s as pure as the distilled water the same store sells by the gallon for less than $2.

Caveat emptor.

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book review science spiritual life theology

Primal—Book Review

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Mark Batterson wants to change the world. He wants to see a new Reformation, one that will get Christians back to the basics of their faith and make them a powerful force once again. Using the framework of the Greatest Commandment, Batterson calls for renewal in four areas: compassion (heart), wonder (soul), curiosity (mind), and active involvement (strength).  He envisions a newly unified Church, laying aside its doctrinal differences and working together in ways that could lead to significant change.

It sounds great. In fact, it sound too good to be true, and Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity starts to feel like an infomercial on late night cable. Glib and breezy (though better than most), Batterson’s book belongs with a plethora of other spiritual self-help books. It is heavy on inspiration and light on practical suggestions for its readers.

Like many inspirational writers with big ideas, Batterson gets carried away by them. He likes science, so he uses science to bolster some of his claims, apparently unaware that he has not offered any evidence. Here’s a typical passage:

The human brain typically produces beta waves that oscillate between thirteen and twenty-five cycles per second, but when we are in a state of relaxed alertness, the brain produces alpha waves that oscillate between eight and twelve cycles. So what? Well, some truths are only comprehended via contemplation. You quite literally have to get the right wavelength. If surface knowledge is sufficient, beta waves will suffice. But the only way to get truth into your soul is via alpha waves. You can’t just think with your mind. You have to think with your soul.

Here are a number of deep questions airily dismissed! I won’t deny that some truths become clear only with meditative reflection. But I also won’t admit that adding the bit about the difference between alpha and beta waves does anything to clear up the mystery of why some truth is easily accessible and other truth less so. Primal is full of such odd bits and pieces, and Batterson seems not to notice that the facts he relates serve only as metaphors, not as evidence, for his central arguments.

I share Batterson’s hope for a new Reformation. Maybe Primal will get some believers thinking about what could happen. If it does, it will help, but I think it lacks sufficient weight. It is also too centered on American Christianity. Real change in the American church will require rethinking the church’s relationship to the American dream. Few Christians are willing to go there because it may require so much personal sacrifice. But the whole message of the gospel is about sacrifice for a cause so great that no price is too high.

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