Credulity in science and religion

People often comment that science encourages rationality and questioning, but I’m not convinced. Of course the scientific process is deeply rational and represents a search for truth. But the way science is taught requires a certain amount of faith. And I think religion (and many other ideas) essentially imitate this to create the impression of the same degree of support for their tenets.

Here’s an example. Most educated people would accept relativity. If pressed, they would probably have a rough idea of what it’s about (“something to do with the speed of light?”).  If they had spent a bit of time reading popular science, they might have a bit more (“the speed of light is the fastest thing there is, and is always the same regardless of your frame of reference.”).  If you told them that Cerenkov radiation is the radiation emitted by particles entering our atmosphere faster than the speed of light, and then pointed out that it’s the speed of light in a vacuum that cannot be exceeded (not the slower speed of light in our atmosphere) they might amend their statement

(“the speed of light in a vacuum is the fastest thing there is, and is always the same regardless of your frame of reference.”).

If you asked them what the experimental evidence for it was, they might or might not know. I remember first being taught relativity in university physics, and wrestling with it. I was sure that there was an error somewhere and spent many mental cycles trying to figure it out. When you scratch a bit, you find some crazy stuff. 

Suppose you’re on the moon watching two rockets traveling towards each other. Each of them has a speed of half the speed of light. The rocket on the left shoots a laser at the rocket on the right. You will see the laser going at the speed of light relative to yourself. And both rockets will see the laser going at the speed of light relative to themselves. It’s crazy! If you were doing this with jet fighters going at half the speed of sound, with the left one shooting a bullet at the speed of sound, you’d find that the bullet would be going at the speed of sound relative to the first jet, 1.5 times the speed of sound relative to you (the observer), and twice the speed of sound relative to the second jet. But with light, the rules are different. With the jets, they would each see the other approaching at the speed of sound. With the rockets, they would see each other approaching at 0.8 times the speed of light.

Yet we accept this, not because we’ve run experiments ourselves, or because of our detailed understanding, but because we rely on those who have. That the people who’ve looked deeper into this have found that there’s more and more to it. There’s no bottom – just a deeper and deeper understanding. We trust the accuracy of those reporting the results and their explanation of them. It can all be verified with a further explanation, and, in fact, science teaching exhorts its disciples to dive deeper. But most people don’t.

Similarly, people I know and trust would report back on religion. On the historicity of Christ, or the reality of religious experiences, with an exhortation to look into it and decide. Of course, I’m not an expert in archaeology, literature, history, textual criticism, theology etc, so to some extent you have to choose to take it on faith

Now, obviously, it’s a different kind of knowledge. More akin to establishing something in a court of law than to establishing something scientifically, but the basic structure of the presentation is the same. Books are written to explain and justify the beliefs. The difference is that when you dig deeper, there is an extraordinary paucity in the evidence for religion compared with an extraordinary depth to the evidence for science.

So if you’re surrounded by nice, reasonable Christians, and you’re not an expert in a variety of historical and theological fields, it’s easy to be over-credulous, because, superficially, the presentation of the tenets looks the same. It’s only when you look into it with a genuine spirit of inquiry looking at both sides of the argument that it breaks down.

I will also comment that this superficial presentation of a topic in a scientific format (that is, giving an impression that the knowledge being presented is just the tip of the iceberg, and there’s tons more if you’re interested) is a chink in the armour of people’s credulity. As someone trained in science, I’ve always been frustrated by people’s ability to write-off fields like evolution, climate science, vaccinations etc, but that’s at least in part because I feel more confident of my ability to go beyond the superficial presentation with my background in science. Religion trains people in credulity, and seems to lead to an inability to discern truth in other fields also.

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