My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma!

I have often been confronted by the claim that science is dogmatic just like religion.  Or put another way, that science is simply just another form of religion…

I am fascinated by these types of statements…

Because in my opinion these statements could not be further from the truth!

The scientific community prides its self on the process of inquiry.  The goal of science, in my humble opinion, is to constantly change/evolve in light of new information/discoveries in order to provide the best understanding of the natural world.  Built into the scientific process is the notion that as we acquire new information our understanding of the natural world will change.  Science does have “laws/rules” but these are simply attempts to define our current understanding of the natural world.  “Laws/Rules”, as it applies to science, are typically considered “laws/rules” only because they have stood up to the most intense scrutiny.  That said, once a piece of information is promoted to the status of “rule/law” it does not become exempt form the scientific process.  All it takes is one curious mind to question something about a “rule/law”, and then the process of inquiry beings all over again.  If that one curious mind finds an anomaly in the “rule/law”, they bring it to the scientific community, the scientific community will investigate the claim further, and if warranted the “rule/law” in question will then be modified or even completely changed to reflect this new information. 

Most religions, on the other hand, tend to follow some sort of dogma.  That is, most religions have an established set of beliefs that are considered to be “truth” and are beyond question or the process of inquiry.  Let me provide you with a few examples:

1)      Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God

2)      Muslims believe that Muhammad was a messenger/prophet sent by Allah

3)      Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet sent by God.

4)      Scientologists believe that the Evil Lord Xenu was the dictator of the Galactic Confederacy who, 75 million years ago, brought billions of his people to earth in a spacecraft, positioned them around a volcano, and detonated a hydrogen bomb killing them all.  Additionally, Scientologists believe that the spirits of these murdered individuals remain on earth in the form of “thetans” which survive “in” or “around” modern day people of the 21st century causing various forms of spiritual distress/harm.   

As a general rule of thumb the dogma of a religion (such as the examples given above) are not open for scrutiny, discussion or the process of inquiry.  In contrast, no rule/law is science is above the process of inquiry.  Science welcomes the questioning of established beliefs, where as religion demands absolute devotion to an established/predetermined set of beliefs.     

And this, dear reader, is why science is not dogmatic and not just another form of religion…

This has been the skeptical samurai

Woking to serve through the process of inquiry


4 Responses to “My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma!”

  1. Ryan, I agree that accusing science of being essentially dogmatic – in a way that compares with religion – is an interesting argument. And I also think it’s almost never made very well. When people of faith accuse religion of being dogmatic, they’re usually doing a better job of illustrating their lack of understanding of what the scientific process requires. Moreover, they’re usually failing to see what’s actually interesting and challenging about considering the ways in which science is or isn’t dogmatic, or even the ways in which religion is or isn’t dogmatic.

    So with that in mind, I think you considered a rather straw-man version of the argument that science needs dogma or in some way is as comparably dogmatic as religion. When you say “science welcomes the questioning of established beliefs,” this is of course theoretically and *ideally* true but…. not so often true in practice. History shows that scientists who lose faith (!) in core premises, and start working on trying to show how different premises can do a better job of explaining whatever phenomena the old premises were failing to account for, have a tough job ahead of them. They face ridicule, persecution, and discretization. And I’m not just talking about Copernicus or Galileo or Lavoisier or Einstein. Science works precisely because you can’t just go around questioning successful paradigms – or as you said, rules/laws – because if that’s what scientists did, then no productive work would be possible. Unquestioned premises allow you to set up experiments with expected results. When you can predict results, you can control factors. The genius of scientists who managed to gain assent to revolutionary premises, was in how they imagined the experimental conditions that could demonstrate them. Like when Einstein had to wait years for a solar eclipse.

    And to be fair, you CAN question the paradigms of religion in a way that is not wholly dissimilar. Jews in Rome did it and started Christianity. Luther did it and started Protestantism. Henry VIII did it and started Anglicanism. Today, movements in Christianity demand why women can’t be priests or why gay couples can’t be married. Movements in Islam challenge dominant interpretations of the roles of women. And it’s a LOT of work to make those challenges stick and avoid just being totally disregarded. The point is, people DO lose faith in tenets of their religions, and they work to try to establish new ones. Now, I know I know, crucial difference: in religion, they do NOT do it by demonstrating premises through tested experimental results. Science always depends on the constraints and regularity of the natural world, as the bottom line of proof. Religion does not. But that doesn’t mean only religion is dogmatic.

    The difference – which I think you mostly had in mind to distinguish science – is that in science, unlike in religion, adherents of the old paradigm eventually die out. No one believes in phlogiston or humours or the planet Pluto anymore (aw). We still use Newtonian mechanics but few doubt that something more like Einsteinian relativity theory (and/or quantum relativity) can describe and account for more phenomena than Newtonian theory can.

    It’s just, it doesn’t exactly follow that religion is dogmatic and science is not. Science is necessarily dogmatic, because that’s how everyday science is productive. In order to do cancer research, you have to assume a paradigm outlining what cancer is, how healthy cells behave, and whatever else. Only after tons and tons and tons of unexpected results from such experiments, would you start to question these paradigms. And only after triple checking your lab equipment, using someone else’s lab and equipment, replacing all your samples and subjects, and so on and so on. Science works because the LAST thing you’re supposed to do, is question the paradigm. Science works because proven paradigms are treated as dogma.

    Maybe we could say, the dogma science needs is good, but the dogma religion needs is not. However misplaced we say religion is because of its dissimilarity with science, I think it takes massive courage for people to demand change within religion. There’s people who think catholic priests should be allowed to marry, because they see the catholic church’s recent sexual abuse crisis as evidence that a life of celibacy is too damaging for some. That’s going against all kinds of dogmas of the consecration of the body and the carnality of sin. People have, like, been killed for that.

    Course, religion is, y’know, wrong. Stories and myths and symbolism mistaken for truth. Doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, and doesn’t mean the dynamics of contention and revolution within science and religion don’t have things in common. Maybe you think “dogma” is just inherently the wrong word to describe the (productive, necessary, and good) adherence to theoretical paradigms which makes everyday scientific practice and experimentation possible. If you do, we could talk about that.

    Have you read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn?

  2. Um, I think perhaps we’re poisoning the well here…
    So because we don’t see science as dogmatic we’re negating the suffering and strides made by those who seek to have their spiritual practice adapted? Or perhaps that we are making claims about spiritualism?
    While your statements regarding sexual abuse in the catholic faith or the rights of Islamic women are beautifully expressed, I fail to see how that makes an argument against dogma in religion – yes, Henry the VIII started the Anglican church (mainly so he could get a divorce), and that is why it’s called the Anglican church and not the Catholic church. Dogma in religion is what defines the Anglican faith as Anglican, Protestant as Protestant and so on. For me, and from what I understand Ryan to be saying about dogma and religion, we’re talking about the systems within defined religions, not attacking personal spiritual faith.
    This type of semantic maneuvering/wrestling fails to grasp what I take to be the main separation of science from religion, and, as it happens, why science is not dogmatic. Science seeks an understanding of the physical world. The “rules/laws” of science are based on what it knows thus far to be true. Science does not require that its disciples adhere to these rules, only that they acknowledge their proof. These rules encompass things like gravity and the elements, not why women can’t be priests.
    I don’t claim to be an expert within the scientific community, I am not a trained scientist, but I do understand its principles enough to know that those scientists who were once ridiculed were also redeemed when their theories were PROVEN. No such claim can be made, shall we say, by heretics burnt during the inquisition.
    I do not think your statements about science not allowing its paradigms to be challenged are merited. Science does not ‘eat its young’, there are countless instances where questioning a paradigm resulted in a whole new understanding of a given phenomena. Until recent decades, no one thought it possible that peptic ulcers are caused by bacteria. While the physician responsible for this breakthrough was undoubtedly challenged by his peers, given the understanding of ulcers at that time, his response to the challenge was not to rail against the rigidity of the scientific community, but to continue his studies and gain irrefutable proof.

  3. […] The Skeptical Samurai Working “to serve” through the process of inquiry « My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma! […]

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