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Science and non-science

or, why science needs religion

See also: Who loves science? | Reasons to believe

Introduction and summary

Pure religion is not "pseudo-science."' It is "non-science."

Such a religion does not claim to be science. It is something much bigger and more fundamental. In contrast, science is often used as a kind of religion, but it is not up to the task. It just becomes pseudo-science.

Non-science is essential to science.
Most of life's questions cannot yet be answered by science. So what does the scientist do? The best approach is to find a belief system that (at least):

  1. Is consistent with science
  2. Is shared by many people (to avoid subjective errors)
  3. Is open to rational examination - e.g. it is fully developed and consistent. (This is a great asvantage of Mormonism - it rejects the mysterious and unknowable - for example the "trinity" - in favor of what can be understood - e.. a physical God)

In other words, religion is the most scientific approach to ALL of life.

Contrasting science and non-science

For a definition of terms, see Science and Pseudo-Science

Where confusion might arise

  1. The definition:
    The word 'science' also has an older, broader definition, meaning just 'knowledge.' Hence we have the 'Christian Science' church, and 'The Science of Theology' (a nineteenth century book dealing with the Bible). This page uses the modern, more precise definition.
  2. The method, not the results:
    Science refers to the method and not the results. Knowledge is not science. Science is the experimental method used to arrive at knowledge.
  3. Religion is not entirely unscientific:
    Even though some concepts are not science, anything that can be examined is open to science. Hence, for example, 'The Word of Wisdom' (the Mormon rules on alcohol, tobacco, meat, etc.) claims to be revelation, and hence is not science. But science can make interesting observations regarding not smoking, eating more fruit and vegetables, etc. Science is a useful tool that can be applied to many aspects of religion.
  4. The big picture:
    Science generally deals with small, well defined areas. It is wrong to assume that, because a particular point is established, that this is the final word, or even the most important word. This is most obvious in the popular media. every day a new scientific study is claimed to "prove" something, but the wise person knows that information out of context is of little value.
  5. Is prayer scientific?
    When we refer to experiments, we usually mean experiments that can be repeated by simple and dis-interested steps, and can be seen by an outside observer. So, while getting answers to prayers is in one sense scientific (you can test it by praying), it generally is not considered to be scientific, because the results are personal and are open to interpretation. So, while I could refer to the process of personal revelation as being scientific, for the purposes of this page I will say that it is not.

The test: can an idea be disproven?

The key to deciding whether an idea is scientific is to ask, "can it be disproven?" For example, the claim that "my car is faster than yours" is a scientific statement, because anybody can test it under controlled conditions. (In this case, the test would be fairly easy, as my car is rather old, and makes disturbing noises if driven at speeds of over 55 mph.) But the claim that "my car is more beautiful than yours" is not scientific, because it is difficult for anyone else to test.

Many aspects of the church - such as whether the Book of Mormon is a historical record of a people who actually lived where they said they did - are scientific, because they are open to being disproven. So far, while we can argue long and hard about proof, they have not been disproven (despite numerous "straw men"). Download the book about proof for a review of the evidence up to the year 1997.

The big issues, however, those that affect personal happiness, are open to personal interpretation. They are thus not open to being disproven. For more about what the church is and whether it can be disproven, click here.

The value of non-science

What science cannot do

Non-science is needed, because science, although almost universally applicable in some form or other, has severe limitations.

Science cannot...

Not everyone is willing to examine everything. Most people just want an easy life. Even the greatest physicist will not study biology. The greatest biologist will not know much about physics. Neither will know much about the social sciences. What do you, as a scientific utopian, do about these people? Just criticize them? Ignore them? Control them? Or set up some authoritarian structure to tell them "thus saith the scientists - this is the truth from Mount Sinai!"

Get anything done
It relies on non-science for this - see next section.

Answer questions where important information is missing
E.g. most of them!

Prove anything
It can only disprove things - any scientific conclusion could be disproven at any time, as new and unexpected information is discovered.

Be objective
If person A is ten times as intelligent as person B, then person A will approach a problem, and interpret the results, in an entirely different way. Thus, the practice of science is always somewhat subjective.

Make hard decisions ("Paralysis by analysis")
Nothing can ever be studied "enough." There is always more to learn. Even simple decisions rely on assumptions that (if we want to be purely scientific) need to be tested. But if we keep searching, we get nowhere. Science only works if someone has the authority to say "Enough! We must make a decision now!" Scientists discover information, but politicians and businessmen get things done - and pay for the scientists.

Simplify things
Actually, scientists simplify things all the time. They summarize. They create models and analogies. But is this strictly scientific? No. Every simplification is misleading (or else it would not be a simplification).

Cope with complex human situations
Although super-computers are getting closer and closer to accurately predicting the weather this is nothing compared with accurately predicting human behavior. The "social sciences" are notoriously imprecise, and are likely to remain so for some time yet.

Deal with controversial issues
If you deal with issues with outcomes that would affect your job, or your reputation, how impartial are you going to be? For example, a few years ago a British university was left a sum of money on condition that it went towards researching the paranormal. The university decided (dishonestly, I felt) to use the money to research why people are gullible enough to believe in it. Another example: what if a major company funded you to research its products. Would that not affect the exact questions you asked, and how you reported the results?

Study topics for which there is no funding
Try and get funding for an investigation into, for example, where skin color fits on the evolutionary tree. Or any question where there is powerful public opposition. Or anything deeply unfashionable. Who "sets the agenda"? For example, clean water saves lives, yet we study heart operations. Families prevent crime. Yet we study policing methods.

Objectively study feelings, or personal experiences
These areas are important, but are simply off-limits.

Examples of non-science

These are sources of information on which we base our most important decisions. They all provide "right" and "wrong" answers, but none of them are based on science, and they are generally not claimed to be.

Every experiment rests on assumptions. Nearly every assumption rests on other assumptions. eventually, we get down to assumptions that cannot be proven. In maths, these are referred to as axioms. They are assumed to be true, even though they are not derived from anything else. They are non-science. Hence, science rests ultimately on non-science.

Philosophy is the study of knowledge. It draws conclusions about the nature of reality. But it is not based on science, nor does it claim to be. You or I may fool ourselves into believing that we do not believe in philosophy, but that just shows how ignorant and muddled is our own thinking. everyone has their own philosophy, but most people choose not to examine it, perhaps out of fear of what they might find - inconsistency, change, and (shock) perhaps even blind faith in something.

Trusting authority:
What are schools and universities, except authoritarian institutions? The teacher says "this is so," and the student writes it down. Sure, the student could, in theory, test out every fact for himself. But he won't. It is impossible - she has neither the time nor the resources. We all rely on trusting others in the vast majority of cases. Even when we do test something for ourselves, it is only to judge that the person who told us is trustworthy. Trust and authority are essential to science, but they are not science.

As the saying goes, 'lay a thousand economists end to end, and they still would not reach a conclusion." Or, "if you have three economists in a room, you have four different opinions." Economics is not driven by science. But it is an academic discipline, and it produces decisions, which implies a concept of "right" (buy this product) and "wrong" (do not invest in that market).

(And, by extension, democracy.) Everyone has opinions. But if they are imprecise, or if they concern issues that are difficult to prove, they are non-science. Often, opinions are extremely useful - for example, a great scientist may have a gut feeling based on years of experience - but even gut feelings are not the same as science.

The most important source of "right" and "wrong" is morality. Human rights, for example, are based on agreed standards of right and wrong, yet they have little or no scientific justification.

Fashions in science:
Scientists are susceptible to fashions just like everyone else. For example, for many years the theories of Sigmund Freud were assumed to be reliable. But they were not based on science. Some people would call them pseudo-science. The best we can say is perhaps they were non-science. Every branch of science is guilty of following fashion. For example, I was once reading in a science magazine about AIDS, and it was taken for granted that the simple solution (having one sexual partner for life) was not a realistic option. But there was no scientific evidence for this major assumption - it was just stated as a fact. It was based (I hope) on common beliefs. It was non-science.

Everyone filters their experience through their feelings. Indeed, feelings - happiness, desire, security, love, insecurity - are the facts hat explain and drive just about everything else. Without feelings, what significance is there in anything?

Evolved ideas:
Every waking moment, we take in vast amounts of information, too much to process rationally. We make decisions about what is true or false, based on experience that we may not even be aware of accumulating. If it works, we are more likely to rely on it in the future. This process of "trial and error" is how most information is obtained. It is the basis for the whole concept of evolution - an approach that has applications everywhere. It is extraordinarily successful. But each discovery is not based on conscious or rational experimentation, and so it is not science.

Society relies on law. It has to say "this or that is right" and "this or that is wrong." Without law, we have reduced freedom, and reduced quality of life.


Put all these together, and we see that science - although a very powerful approach - is just a small and relatively weak part of experience. It is like a pen (or a keyboard) to a writer. A very useful and potentially powerful tool, but on its own pretty useless and even meaningless.

A structured approach to non-science

What do we do with non-science? Pretend it is not there? Or try to understand it?

How do we understand it? It is, by its nature, horribly complicated. The very first step must be to define our position in each of these areas. Make it clear for other people to see. But most people, including scientists, do not (or cannot) make their position clear on all of these points. They do not even get past the starting line where truth is concerned.

The Mormon church has a clear, highly visible, and consistent approach to all of these areas -

You may disagree with each of these points. You are free to do so.

But criticizing is easy.

Can you provide a viable - and visible - alternative?


Only the Church (or something like it) can even begin to claim a scientific approach to science. Because only something like the church has a clear, consistent, open and visible doctrine- one that can encompass the whole of non-science, and make the best use of each area. Church members, unlike many people who claim to promote science, are not 'in denial.'

The academic view of religion

The history of 'science versus religion'

Most of what we see as 'science versus religion' is in fact:

To make matters worse, each side usually has only a vague idea of what the other means.

For a detailed history of the main controversies, see "A History Of The Warfare Of Science With Theology" By Andrew Dickson White. Note that the author sees the problem not as science versus religion, but as science versus dogma. I agree. The dogma in question was fixed teachings that tried to copy the Bible. But the Bible is in the language of the ancient Jews and deals with their particular needs. As the centuries go by, trying to copy that written history becomes more and more absurd. Instead, we need a church that is living and can adapt.

As can be seen from the pages on evolution, the church is in a position to accept new findings without threatening its literal beliefs in the Bible.

For details, see the pages on ' a history of Christianity,' 'the word of God,' 'Authority,' and 'do we know what the church is all about?'

The cultural elite (universities and the media)

From "Religion and the Cultural Elite" ( by Cullen Murphy

"Garry Wills has observed in his book Under God... 'Clearly, in our society,' he writes, 'two large groups are talking past one another. One fails to see legitimacy in religious values. The other fails to see legitimacy in irreligion.' The fact that these two large groups are talking past one another is not a trivial matter. It has consequences--consequences for the nature of human inquiry and moral discourse; consequences, in practical terms, for the way in which we as a pluralistic polity deal with a host of pressing national concerns." ...

"The subject of the seminar [is]: 'The Alienation of Intellectuals From Religion Within American Culture' ... That alienation of the cultural elite on a vast scale has occurred can hardly be a matter of serious dispute. Doesn't the message come through many times every day in what we read and hear and watch on TV? In academe, survey data drawn from interviews with faculty have documented the estrangement from religion time and time again... voicing a religious perspective is just not intellectually respectable. In some circles, religiosity constitutes in addition an embarrassing lapse of taste."

"Survey data show that only about 8 percent of those in the elite media attend religious services with any regularity, and that 86 percent attend 'seldom or never.'"

"From a journalistic point of view, the fact that 120 million Americans may have attended a religious service on a particular weekend will never be news, even though it is a defining feature of American life; it's not news because the same thing happened last weekend and will happen again next weekend. What tends to get reported on instead--accounts, indeed, for some 60 percent of all news about the Catholic Church, for example... is abortion, dissent, homosexuality, pedophilia, and the church's role in American politics. The coverage of other denominations follows the same pattern."...

"A few years ago I had occasion to measure the amount of space in the New York Times index devoted to the category 'Religion and Churches' and found it to be equivalent in size to the category 'Teeth and Dentistry.' "

"The assumption in political science was that as societies modernized, became more developed, they would also become more secular. But as Huntington pointed out, one cannot survey the last decades of the twentieth century and find a ringing endorsement of that assumption. In many places, perhaps most, the idea that religion should have nothing to do with the running of a polity is simply incomprehensible. And so, Huntington asks, Is it possible to understand the world while maintaining a view of religion as a purely private matter, as we so often do in the West? And his answer is: No, we cannot. "

"Scientific Progress" and post-modernism

Science has made great progress within its limited remit. But has this led to any progress in answering the bigger questions? Perhaps it might one day, but history suggests this is highly unlikely.

Unless stated, quotations in this section are from "The Tower of Babel: Modernity built the tower" from the Premise web site.


Progress through intellectual thought. At present, this usually means technological progress

"Technology is a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend? Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend. Its gifts are not without a heavy cost....It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy."

A history of modernism:
1. The enlightenment (rejecting the Catholic church)

"Modernity arose with the triumph of the Enlightenment. The Renaissance and the Reformation had previously unleashed powerful forces toward liberty, civil rights, the freedom of the secular spheres to operate independently of the church, and had given birth to the rise of modern science, education, and universal literacy. However, the Protestant Reformers were just as insistent as the Roman Church on the importance of authority [the Bible]. .. Individualism was not tolerated, as the Reformers criticized the many sects of their day for their disregard of the institutional church."

A history of modernism:
2. Rationalism (rejecting any external authority)

"Much changed when Rene Descartes (1596-1650) put forward his famous formula, Cogito ergo sum--'I think. Therefore, I am.' ... Devoted to rationalism, Descartes insisted upon absolute philosophical certainty. There must be a way of knowing things beyond any doubt, Descartes insisted, and therefore he sought a foundation for grounding all human knowledge. That foundation was universal reason. Like Plato, Descartes believed that instead of the world shaping the mind, the mind shaped the world."

Hume went further. Since he had never seen any miracles, then miracles could not happen. Therefore all of Christianity must be false.

This is pretty much the common view today. "If I cannot see it (or work it out for myself) then it does not exist."

A history of modernism:
3. "Progress"

In earlier times, it was accepted that ancient peoples often knew more than we do. One of the best ways too discover something was to learn what the ancients knew: so we studied the ancient Hebrews, or the ancient Greeks. But now that has all changed. If mankind has a foundation in certainty, then we can work things out for ourselves. Each generation can discover even more things than the previous generation. Hence, life can get better and better. Technological change is seen as the ultimate proof of this. Each generation can make better machines than the last, and these machines enable us to do everything bigger, better, and faster.

Actually, this is not such a new idea. This is really "New Age" thinking in a new package. The basic idea is that we, as a people, have grown out of the old ways into a new and better world. It was Joachim's medieval heresy again, that we no longer need external authority because we live in "the age of the holy Spirit".

Problems with modernism

1. It is based on a bogus dilemma
It is assumed that authority and reason progress cannot go together. They can. It is only faulty authority that needs to be rejected, just as we need to reject faulty reason.

2. It rejects its origins
It is assumed that modernism arose by rejecting Christianity (or to be precise, Judeo-Christianity). In fact, it was only because of Christianity that modernism could exist. Most other major faiths teach a cyclical view of history - that we are going though the same cycles again and again (e.g. in reincarnation). But Christianity teaches a linear view of history - that we are genuinely going somewhere. It also teaches that we are all individuals, rather than just part of some greater whole. It was only in this tradition that the enlightenment and the idea of "progress" were possible.

3. It is illogical
If we want to act rationally, the first thing we need to realize is that our individual ration of intelligence is limited. The most rational thing to do at the outset is to find someone who knows more than we do. Certainly we should question authority, but we should not expect that sometimes its conclusions will be different from our own.

The early Protestant reformers understood this. They did not reject Catholicism immediately, but spent many years trying to understand it and reform it first - in case they had missed something. When they rejected it, they still kept its structure. They were less likely to be wrong than those modern intellectuals who make far bolder claims (rejecting all religion) based on far weaker understanding (e.g. superficial problems.)

4. It does not seem to work
Modernism took its biggest hits with the world wars. If the world is getting better, why are we destroying eachother - and the planet - faster than ever before?


In reaction to all this "progress," post-modernism gives up any claim to progress, but teaches that diversity, pragmatism, and sophistication are the things that really matter. If modernism is summed up by 1960s tower blocks (an attempt at a planned, perfect society), post-modernism is sumed up by 1980s shopping malls (which make any grand claims, but go with whatever the people want).

"Post-modernism knows no commitments: it [says] `no code is inherently better than any other.' ... 'We live in the age of feelings. Today there is no more truth or falsehood, no stereotype or innovation, no beauty or ugliness, but only an infinite array of pleasures, all different and all equal.' ... the test of a truth is 'its cash-value in experiential terms.'

Post-Modernism and modern Protestantism

"But before we get too high-and-mighty, we must realize that this is the prevailing sentiment in the churches, whether conservative evangelical or liberal Protestant. The charismatic movement is not founded on a revolutionary exegesis of relevant biblical passages; it is simply in step with modernity and postmodern intensification of pragmatic sentimentalism. Even in conservative circles one gets the impression that churches are "all different and all equal." Whether one is a Roman Catholic '“evangelical' or a Baptist or Pentecostal 'evangelical,' all that matters is the feeling, the experience, of being 'born again.' This is not a new Age of the Spirit; it is the Spirit of the Age."

Most Protestants are like modernists - they believe in a sure foundation of truth (e.g. the Bible) but have ben unable to turn it into reality (e.g. a unified church). Evangelicals are like post- modernists. They do not bother themselves with church structures (they claim that the true church is invisible) but judge their success in terms of popular movements (church growth, TV evangelists, the Vineyard, the Promise Keepers, etc.) In this respect, Protestant Evangelicals are just a cross between the liberal theologians (who dislike physical interpretations of scripture) and the modern consumer economy.


The bottom line

Where do you go when you pass beyond the scope of science?
Religion has always been the answer.
And some religions make more sense than others.


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