Why scientists and religious people could greatly benefit from better communicating, and collaborating with each other
November 27, 2016
I'm possibly one of the few people on this planet who has spent in depth time researching and working with and understanding science and scientific people as well as researching, working with and understanding religion and religious people.
It has become my understanding that the ideal effort for our understanding of nature and humanity as a whole is a meeting between the two realms. Both groups of people search answers to very meaningful and useful questions, and use various tools, skills and abilities to answer them. Each group tends to deeply lack a set of skills that the other group posses, and that could be used to deepen an understanding of their respective subject. Each group contains fallacies in their methodologies, people who exploit the system's weaknesses for ill interests and a fundamental lack of understanding of the other group. I would like to elaborate on all these points in detail.
First of all what are the different questions and areas that each group explores? The scientific group explores and seeks to understand, model and work with the so called "objective reality", whereas the religious group seeks to understand, model and work with the "subjective reality". I will define later what I mean by these. We can already see the importance of a bridge between these groups and an interest in collaboration between them in the commonality of the object of their interest, that is "reality". It is very interesting to note that most people I have met in either group believe that only their respective reality exists or has a very limited awareness of the reality studied in the other group. Neither group is therefore well aware of the existence of the reality studied by the other group, and this creates the first significant difficulty in communication between the two. Indeed defining and distinguishing those two ideas is no easy task. But let's see in depth what I mean by subjective and objective reality.
Before we go into distinguishing the two let's see what I mean by the concept "reality". One could define reality as everything we believe there is. Everything we speak about, observe, understand, analyze, experience, could be defined as reality. Everything that we as a human species can perceive, conceptualize, model, predict. This is an incredibly broad idea. This idea might include "irrational" elements such as ghosts and telepathy and superstitious beliefs. It might include very "rational" elements such as planets and the way they are governed by physics laws. It might include very personal beliefs such as friendship and love. It could include theoretical beliefs, such as string theory. You will see later why I place the word rational in quotes.
It is hard in general to speak of and to define reality, for it is an attempt to define a system using the system itself. It dwells into getting a grasp on consciousness, which is the abstract thing where all reality is perceived, experienced, elaborated, understood, determined. Consciousness is a subject that has been studied by philosophers, religious people and scientists alike, to attempt to come to a definition and understanding with very arduous difficulties. Yet consciousness is the very thing where all is contained. All human experience, everything we can perceive or define or study is contained in consciousness.
It's not far fetched therefore to relate reality to consciousness itself, whatever consciousness is. The concept of reality is completely meaningless without the presence of some consciousness that can indeed experience it first hand. Without consciousness there might still be something, but it wouldn't be considered reality, it wouldn't be experienced as reality. Indeed when we are unconscious - for instance we are placed in anesthesia or are deep asleep without dreams - nothing exists there, it is pitch darkness, or better, nothingness.
Now, that said, what is the difference between objective and subjective reality and why do we make a distinction between the two. Intuitively we can sense that objective reality has something to do with circumstances external to us, a sort of "world" that we are set in and that exists and works independently of our ability to perceive it, i.e. of our consciousness. This is of course a far fetched assumption as there is absolutely no proof that anything "out there" that works independently of our consciousness actually "exists". Yet it is a valid and well supported assumption, and science is based on this assumption.
Objective reality is defined through the scientific method by creating sets of experiments, categorization and methodological laws that attempt to model this world "out there" in a way that is agreed on by everyone by creating and allowing us to have the same conscious experience of it. We start by axioms that are reality concepts agreed on by everyone, we build on those axioms using logical laws that are agreed on by everyone, and we then create experiences on top of those logical reasoning that we can all witness and experience. A very simplified example of this process may be a physics experiment on gravity that defines the reality of gravitational reality by creating gravitational laws based on mathematical logic and physics axioms, might then produce a certain set experiment that we can all reproduce and experience, and see the outcome as it relates to the laws and agree that indeed the laws are confirmed by the experiment. If there is a doubt on an objective peace of reality, one might refine the logical principles that model that reality based on some reality axioms, and produce a better experiment to test our experience of reality as it relates to those laws, and test it. There is nothing in the objective reality that is not in principle definable or understandable by the scientific method. The limitation might be in the tools and in our mental abilities, but anything can be studied and refined in reality with this method.
Subjective reality on the other hand is intuitively something that has to do with an "inner world" of some sort. It is the exploration not of some sort of objective world "out there" that is considered to exist in spite of the presence or the absence of consciousness, rather it is the exploration of consciousness in itself. Unlike objective reality, subjective reality ceases to exist without consciousness. It is the study of the very mechanism that perceives reality.
Now, before continuing I should stop and note that, although the main aim of religion is the one I just defined above, a lot of religious studies tend to "spill over" into trying to define, with the same tools, the objective reality as well. This is one fallacy in religion and another great source of contrast and conflict between religion and science. Indeed when religion tries to define the objective mechanics of the universe using subjective exploration tools, resulting in direct opposition with the scientific laws that define it, religion has forgotten its purpose, it has confused the kind of reality it is dealing with. This is unfortunate, and it stems in my opinion by the lack of understanding of these different realities by these different groups, as I mentioned above. But for the sake of continuing with the definition now, let's focus on religion as it pertains to its own realm.
It should also be noted that the reverse happens as well. Psychology for instance, often includes attempts to study the subjective reality domain, using scientific principles that pertain to the the objective reality domain. This in my view has been the cause of many failures in the realm of psychology, but this is an entirely different subject.
Back on topic, religion therefore tries to understand the mechanisms of consciousness itself. It does so using a system that resembles in many ways the scientific method but it greatly lacks the rigor and precision and analytical thinking that scientists use when applying it on their own realm. This is by the way one area where, in my opinion religious people could greatly benefit by better communicating and understanding scientific people, but I will get more into this later.
Just as with the scientific method, religious people start by agreeing on some subjective axioms, were "agreeing" here is an overstatement. In fact this agreement is not as consistent and as solid as it could be among various religious cultures. On top of those axioms, using some kind of reasoning and analytical skills, that are not as rigorous and precise as those used by scientists, religious people draw certain models and conclusions about subjective reality. They then create experiments which are not usually very precisely defined, to test such models.
I will give a specific example here to clarify what I mean. Let's say that spiritual people want to demonstrate the effectiveness of using taro cards as a tool to better understand their subconscious thought patterns. They start by agreeing on some axioms that is the axiom that outer reality is a reflection of the thoughts in our conscious and subconscious mind and that the subconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind using feelings. They then build some laws, for instance they deduce the law of attraction, which states that we attract in our outer reality what we are thinking in our conscious or subconscious minds and thus we will draw and notice a taro card based on our subconscious thought patterns. They then proceeds to create an experiment in which a person draws a taro card and reports the first thing she notices on the card, and using that they explore their emotions and feelings connected to what they notice to find some subconscious thoughts.
As you can see this method is far from precise and rigorous, yet it has some resemblance to the scientific method. We are trying to define how our subjective reality works by stating some kind of axioms, drawing some sort of laws and conclusions and then testing them into experiments that can be repeated and experienced by everyone. The main issue with the religious approach in my view is the lack of rigor and precision as well as consistent logical and analytical thinking when going through this process, not - as many scientists believe - the approach itself. By adding the rigor, analytical and logical skills that are often common in science, to the religious realm, I believe we could get a far more consistent, precise and useful understanding of the subjective reality in the religious realm.
On the converse, scientific people when applying the scientific method to explore and understand objective reality, generally tend to lack a very different set of skills, which religious people tend to abound in, and which in my opinion leads to a lot of "bad science". This is the ability to understand how ones subjective reality actually works, and to take that into consideration in their decisions and actions.
For instance, a scientist that tries to publish as many papers as possible in order to become successful, and sacrifices the quality of his work or his ethics in treating his employees in order to achieve this goal, might be completely unaware of the fact that his overwhelming need for success stems from unresolved trauma in his childhood, and that by not addressing it he is causing damage with his actions.
A scientist that chooses to pick and publish only results that are statistically significant for his conclusions in order to obtain grant money, thus sacrificing his honesty, might not be aware of the unconscious mechanisms that bring him to such dishonest behavior and might do nothing to correct it.
A scientist that is not willing to consider an idea that is too far from his own belief system and in fact discards it and ridicules it, may not be aware of his strong emotional attachments to his own belief system and how this keeps him close minded and ignorant about other topics.
Scientists could greatly benefit by a greater understanding of their subjective reality, in order to apply it to their decision process, and create a much better quality science.
It is my opinion therefore that both religion and science could greatly benefit from greater collaboration and communication with each other, were scientists could teach religious people how to more rigorously apply analytical and logical principles in order to reach better defined, less biased and more precise conclusions, and religious people could teach scientists how to better understand and consider the workings of their mind, in order to make better, more intelligent decisions.
That said, I don't want to give the impression that all scientific people are experts in their objective reality methods and that all religious people are experts in their subjective reality methods. Quite on the contrary, in each field we have people of differing abilities, and sometimes we have scientists that are illogical and inconsistent and lack reasoning abilities (let's call that analytical intelligence), just as well as we have religious people that are quite unevolved and lacking in introspective abilities (let's call that emotional intelligence). There are also people who excel in both - Albert Einstein was a notorious example. However I do believe that those abilities can be learned, and that one does not exclude the other.
There really isn't a "one method fits all" approach in this, but I believe that the strong barriers that have been created between science and religion actually prevent us as a human species to evolve and progress, and to better understand ourselves and our world.
What is then the seemingly endless conflict between religion and science? We all know from history how scientists have been persecuted and killed by religious people, and today the contrast between the two worlds seems to be still pretty high. One only needs to look at scientific-religious debates of the fierce kind with Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or the fight between religious and scientific leaders over authority on education and politics to see the reality of this conflict.
The problem here, as with every realm in the world is that humans are far from perfect, and we confuse the method with the individual. As I mentioned in previous examples were scientists make methodological mistakes in their research process, the problem there is not that the scientific method is fallacious, but rather the individual using it is. Hardly any scientist is perfectly free from any sort of bias or distortion that leads him to make less-than-smart decisions while he carries on scientific procedures. Equally, scientific knowledge and understanding can be applied constructively or destructively depending on the individual or group using them. Atomic theory can be a gold mine for producing cheap energy, but a calamity when used in nuclear bombs. Religious people are certainly not free from this corruption either. We have seen over and over in history how religious leaders have exploited people's weaknesses and faith for monetary and power gains, how they have persecuted people and lead them to conflicts and wars. To this day it is quite common to see religious leaders that exploit and use their followers in unethical ways - one only needs to think about cults with ritual sacrifices, pedophilia in the catholic church to see examples. This however does not make the religious method, in the sense of introspective exploration as I defined it above, fallacious or invaluable. It is merely the way it is used by less than well meaning people that makes it destructive rather than constructive.
Unfortunately during religion vs. science debates, the proponents of either realm use these sorts of examples to discredit the realm as a whole, forgetting that the person they have in front does not define the method.
Recognizing therefore both our common imperfections as humans, as well as our common desire for inquiry and curiosity that strives us towards understanding one realm or the other, is therefore in my view the first step towards a successful communication between scientists and religious people and a collaboration and understanding. Rather than generalizing the methodology of one person to define the entire realm, let's then aim towards a common goal of idealistic understanding and evolution of our mind's ability to understand and to utilize knowledge for bettering our world as a whole.