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The following is a response to a discussion I had with a Christian theologian from Princeton University about the dogma of religion and the supposed dogma of science (or “scientism”).

Science and “Principles”

Science is not inherently dogmatic. In fact it is built upon the un-religious principles of re-evaluation and questioning of authority. You made the point earlier that because we [scientists] are relying on observation and principles, there is a dogma that becomes fundamental to science. I disagree with this claim. I think that, avoiding the vague philosophical meaning of “principles”, we can both agree upon a pragmatic definition of dogma. Yes, there is a certain faith that is associated with relying own your own observational faculties. But this is no different than saying that it takes faith to acknowledge reality. I think that we can abandon this perilous usage of the term “principles”, and accept that what we critically and scientifically interpret can be relied upon.

This of course only applies to certain circumstances. If all of your faculties are implying that there is a ghost in your attic, obviously you can no longer rely upon your observational skills. However, when we impose a set of critical criteria to these observations, and use the enlightened consensus opinions of said observations, they can then be taken as reliable. In this case, a necessarily rigorous application of critical inquiry will no doubt determine that there was no ghost in the attic, and this would fall in line with the majority of evidence that we have that ghosts are exceeding unlikely to exist (and for all intents and purposes they do not).

Dogma, following the religious interpretation, lacks evidence and reason judgments, and requires little/no thinking to get an appropriate answer. It is in this way that science is not dogmatic.

Of course, science follows guiding “principles” that structure the methodology of scientific knowledge [the “scientific method”]. But these principles are only based on their practicality as tools to explain our surroundings. These principles may at first seem dogmatic, because of many years of adherence to them, but that is only because they have been shown to be the best ways to discovery and truth. If a new and better method were discovered, these principles would either have to be changed or be discarded. And this is my point: because scientific principles, theories, and rules change (with adequate reasoning and verifiable evidence), science as a whole is not dogmatic. If new evidence was discovered tomorrow that legitimately disproved continental drift, the science would change, and the principles would change to incorporate the new evidence.

Religion and Dogma

Dogmatic religion does not have room for change based upon critical evaluations, and is the true meaning of the word dogma. This is why there is a long history of religious “heretics” being persecuted, executed, and excommunicated. Because religion mostly operates in the absence of evidence that science would consider, their principles mainly rely on agreed upon answers (dogma). Religious councils of old have met in the past to decide on new principles, but this was not to incorporate new evidence and change principles accordingly, this was used to silence heretics and dissenters [Council of Nicaea-325]. I think that is the true, pragmatic meaning of dogma: the complete unwillingness to change belief or law in the face of new evidence. Dogma has a set of unwavering rules and principles; a new religious discovery is more likely to create a schism within the church than it would change people’s minds about certain teachings. And this is exactly what we see. In Christianity, different interpretations of the Bible have not been settled by relying on legitimate evidence (because there is none beyond the book itself), but rather by fracturing into many different denominations, sometimes arguing over only one or two differences in scriptural interpretation (Jesus was the messiah/Jesus was not the messiah etc.). Science has no such aspect; science is constantly updating itself through a continuous feedback loop of questioning, experimentation, theory, and revision.

There are certainly those who use science dogmatically, but they are not doing science correctly (avoiding contradictory evidence etc.), and doing a disservice to the true nature of science. Although it may seem that science uses some principles as though they were dogma, for example evolutionary theory in biology, this only seems to be the case. When a scientific theory or principle is used widely and repeatedly, this is only because it remains the best explanation for the examined phenomena. What is so beautiful about evolutionary theory is that it has illuminated so many workings of biology and history, while not being above a constant evolution itself, morphing and adapting to new evidence.

Pitfalls of Existence Arguments

Making the claim that it takes just as much faith to be a scientist than it does to be religious is nonsense. Making that claim is an attempt to mask the illogical basis for religion behind the veil of philosophical uncertainties. Just because you can not disprove the existence of a god, does not mean he exists. Further, using arguments such as the cosmological (the had to be a creator to begin the universe) or the ontological (there must be some being greater than we can imagine) may give the theologian some breathing room, but they are still hiding with God in the gaps. Because I can not prove that a god didn’t begin the universe, does not imply his existence. Even so, if either of the arguments were valid, this would not attribute any additional qualities that so many religious people impart to their conception of God. That is to say, arguing that something had to exist prior to the universe’s creation does not then mean that this being is a bearded white man sitting on a cloud who reads your thoughts.

You can not prove that there is not a microscopic quantum-hydra causing all of your misfortunes, so is it the most reasonable explanation that this hydra exists, or are you just down on your luck? This is basically religious logic, and it actually is more unlikely than a scientific explanation. Trying to explain something that is already as  infinitely complex as the universe with something even more complex does not make sense to do. Given that everything that we have discovered has a natural explanation that follows the known laws of the universe, it does not make sense to take the easy way out and just say “God did it”. That is intellectual laziness. Again, arguing from ignorance is a logical fallacy and religion will not budge because of their dogmatism.  Saying that science can not disprove God, therefore he exists (especially when there is no evidence to go on), is the same as saying that religion cannot disprove quantum hydras therefore they exist. Without evidence, the exchange is meaningless. But let’s face it, even if science did somehow prove that God did not exist, do you think religion would give in? Of course not. And this is precisely because religion is allergic to non-dogmatic, evidence/reason-based inquiry. Contradicting these ancient methods, science has the means and the freedom to analyze our world without restrictions from uncertainties or scriptural shackles. In fact, the reason for the gigantic leap in knowledge, technology, and understanding for our species is chiefly due to the un-dogmatic nature of science.

I propose the informal creed of science, thoroughly without dogma: