Religion, science and pseudoscience

In my line of work (computer science research and development) it seems that a fairly secular outlook is common, and as my outlook includes religious faith, I think it makes sense for me to put up some notes on how I think religion and science (and pseudoscience) fit together.

The standard scientific view works with what is measurable, repeatable and provable — and disprovable. And that works well for science. I’m entirely comfortable with it being the best way for us to investigate a large part of the world around us. It’s a viewpoint from which we can look back to a lot of what went before as being relatively primitive. Now, we have a fairly solid definition which, roughly speaking, boils down to “if it can get translated through to an electrical signal, it’s real; if it can’t, it isn’t”. Of course, if we go back to an earlier stage of science, we get something more like “if it can produce a deflection of a lever, it’s real” — and that’s a definition which, for some time, would have excluded electricity as being some kind of odd hypothetical effect, something to do with amber and with lightning, that couldn’t really be measured repeatably.

Well, those are very rough approximations; I make them to raise the points that what was once the gold standard for measurability is now seen to measure only a subset of what we can now measure; and, as a side point, our new standard for measurability was once something we couldn’t measure, and, applying our present reasoning, we should have rejected as not a proper scientific effect.

Scientific enquiry has its own framework of proper practice: for example, it’s unscientific to ignore, or to alter, the data points that don’t support your theory.

Science doesn’t to so well when it comes to things that can’t be measured, repeated, proved and disproved — such as a large part of human experience. The hardline scientific materialists tend to reject such things, specifically because they can’t apply scientific enquiry to them. However, in doing so, they’re not being better scientists; they are, in fact, throwing away data points that don’t fit their model.

To put it simply and strongly: we do experience things. Things do get to us, for better or for worse. I believe, from my experience, that I experience things. I don’t think that the experience of experiencing things reduces to things going on in the physical brain. And I think many people have that same intuition, but reject it as illogical. I could have pointed out (except even I have more tact than to do so) to an atheist friend who didn’t believe there was anything more than the material world: “If all there is is just arrangements of atoms, why are you so upset that your husband left you for someone else?”

In fact, many of the things we experience are common experiences to many, hence the power of poetry and, indeed, of all of art. These document our subjective experiences; they realize them, and yet that realization is not the same as Gödelization (encoding) any more than the quantification done by psychologists and social scientists. We can describe, for example, happiness or sadness; we can collect statistics on what proportion of the population are gladdened or saddened by a particular kind of event, and on how many respond to happiness or sadness in a particular way; but it is not through these descriptions that each of us knows what happiness or sadness is, but through a commonality of experience.

The central irrationality of the `rational, science only’ outlook must surely be that it assumes that we can measure (by means of measuring instruments that we construct) everything about us and about the universe of which we are part. As far as I’m concerned, they pulled that one out of thin air. The set of things we can measure doesn’t have any glaring gaps; it is self-consistent, which is good as far as it goes, but that is no proof that there are no things which we cannot thus measure. There are things we can measure now that were once thought unmeasurable; there are things we now think unmeasurable, and we may go on to measure some of them, but there could always be more.

And so there is, in my outlook, room for both science and religion; for that which we can measure (and quite possibly not actually experience) and for that which can experience (but not usually measure).

And yet, scientific thinking, especially when it acknowledges its limits, is a really, really, good way of thinking. Unfortunately, this leads people to forget its limitations, and to try to apply it to areas in which its prerequisites (repeatability, provability, disprovability) are not met, and that’s where it becomes pseudoscience. I’m not as disapproving of this as many scientists are; the best pseudoscience is an honest, although incorrect, attempt to use our best thinking mode for everything.

Having mentioned that there are things that we experience, but cannot measure or systematize, I should give some examples.

The classic example, beyond the basic experience of our physical world, is religious experience, in its many forms and strengths. Those who wish to may dismiss it as primitivism, although there are thinkers at the same level who do not dismiss it (for example, the commonest degree subject in Anglican clergy I’ve known, apart of course from theology, is physics).

Another one, that I’ve experienced myself, is uncannily predictive dreams, and feelings that seem to intrude from somewhere outside us. Dismissable, of course, as selective remembering of coincidences, but some of the ones I’ve had have been seriously precise, as though either I’m being told something, or perhaps the connection between time and conscious existence isn’t quite as simple as it looks for most of the time.

Something that I thought was really weird when it happened to me was the transfer of characteristics from someone who’s died to those close to them, as I felt some of my Dad’s character transferred to me on his death (considerably improving me). I’ve since heard, at a series of public lectures on psychology and religion [St Edward’s Church, Cambridge], that this is a well-documented effect.

Some of the stranger effects even seem to hide from investigation. I’ve been to a couple of talks on parapsychology [Peter Fenwick, Institute of Psychiatry] which mentioned some of these. One that stood out to me is that a classic `remote sensing’ experiment was done twice, by different teams, at a conference [at Jesus College, Cambridge, if you want to try to track it down; I don’t have an exact citation]. One of the teams believed the experiment might work; the other team were skeptics. They agreed on the experimental setup, and on the statistical analysis to use. The result supported remote sensing, for the group who were open to it working; the same experiments, with the same analysis, when done by the skeptics, did not support it. (This has happened often enough to have been named: it is called `the experimenter effect’.)

Other uncanny effects include Peoc’h’s Tychoscope experiments, and the observation that the presence of certain people (including some leading theoretical physicists) was enough to stop some experimental equipment from working. A laboratory, Princeton Engineering Anomolies Research (PEAR), was set up to investigate such effects, and came up with a small difference from randomness — some data points which are ignored by `rationalist’ researchers who would, one hopes, normally object to selecting data points according to whether they support their hypothesis.

And, among all these odd measurements, came up something strange: the power of love. Experiments involving two people as the experimental subjects got different results if the subjects were close friends, compared with the results for two who did not know each other.

Even if these strange measurements can be shown to be spurious, that does not prove that there are no effects at, or beyond, the edge of measurability. It’s a boundary region that fascinates me, and it seems almost an obligation to explore the boundaries of knowledge; in fact, there doesn’t seem to be so much point in exploring only the known.

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