The Illusion of Consilience
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: [March 30th, 2000]

     April's fools manifested themselves rather early this year. A perfect news article was ready to be made on March 22nd, when the Templeton Prize was awarded to oddball scientist Freeman Dyson. The Templeton Prize is awarded to further "the world's understanding of God or spirituality," which is equal to saying that you get a prize for being the most delusional religionist on the planet. And you get a million dollars for being delusional. That's really something. Just to show you how serious they are, Billy Graham won on 1982. You read this right, Billy Graham. I don't need to tell you more about the seriousness of this award. It was also won by such luminaries as Charles Colson (a guy who pushes to indoctrinate more prisoners with our favourite hate cult) and Mother Theresa (seems like torturing the ill is religious advancement, not surprisingly).

     The Templeton prize is supposed to be given "for progress in religion," which is as meaningless as saying "a higher-level barroom brawl." My irony-meter may be about to explode, but it really blew when I noticed why this year's winner received the prize: because he promoted the limits of science in deference to spiritual guidance," that religion is realist and as valid as science, and that "science and religion should work together to abolish the gross inequalities that prevail in the modern world." Putting aside the arrogant altruist claims, it is interesting how Dyson attempts to put reason on an equal footing with science, instead of outright trying to replace it.

     On a personal level, it's a shame to see a scientist so ignorant of epistemology and religion in particular. A more sarcastic columnist could say that this is only an instance of typical scientist arrogance. Because we often associate science with reason, scientists therefore come to believe that they are the all-and-all of epistemology, and that they can automatically tell falsity from nonsense at a glance. We see numerous scientists, for example, accepting the "talent" of paranormalists without proper controls, and being all-agape when James Randi or another conjuror comes around to debunk them. But of course there might be scientists reading -- so I will refrain from saying anything about this. Far from me the intention of insulting anyone, quite the contrary -- any reader of mine knows that's just not my style at all.

     At any rate, Dyson's claims, and the Templeton Prize, are only indicative of the new religious movement, which is more insidious than simply trying to stamp out science outright, as has been tried before without success: in trying to make religion and religious claims accepted on an equal footing with scientific and philosophical claims, the decision-makers of religious communities hope to have religion more widely accepted and studied as a serious alternative. We see this happening concretely with the creationists' crusade for equal time in public schools. Hoping to get the creationist delusion accepted as alternative to evolution, they therefore proceed to attack the evidence for evolution and propose a vague idea of "intelligent design" in order to lend credence to this alternative, as if creation and evolution were the only two possibilities. Some see this tendency as a sign that religion is not as strong as it used to be; some others say they're just getting a bit wiser. There may be truth in both propositions.

     I am reminded of Ayn Rand's saying that the bad needs the good to survive and flourish. This may seem like an empty aphorism, but it is quite true. Because of its falsity and immorality, religion qua religion cannot be accepted as serious. It can only survive, insofar as we maintain the point of view of being a viable alternative or not, by attaching itself to scientific thought, or raising itself to the level of scientific thought. By this illusion, a false ideal can freeload on the back of a respected system. We have numerous examples of this in real life: take for examples the ideas of "new art," astrology, homeopathy, or even some interpretations of quantum physics. Most branches of science have annoying perennial freeloaders. Psychology is attacked by Scientology, anthropology is attacked by Castadena followers, biology is attacked by creationists, and so on.

     Maybe you know this popular analogy of wine and mud. If you pour some mud in a bottle of wine, what do you get? Mud, of course -- it would be pointless to still try to sell it as a bottle of wine. Same thing if you pour some wine into a bottle of mud. The only difference is that both are better to the taste than a plain bottle of mud. Wine does not benefit in the same way: mixing the good with anything else cannot do anything but drag it down. In the same way, any association or mixing of science with religion can only be to the detriment of science. Religions are hodgepodges of meme complexes designed to propagate (through freeloading, proselytising or otherwise) and entrap, not minding about truth or falsity in the process: that's why we call them memetic viruses.

     Now, science and religion are similar in one particular way. They both purport to be the result of a search for reality and its profound truths. However their validity is not similar in any way. Religion is a faith-based affair, fuelled mainly by instinctual emotions and societal support. Science, on the other hand, is a reason-based method of observation and testing.

     The mistake when we talk about these disciplines, as I highlighted before, is to consider them as epistemic primaries. We must always consider their underlying assumptions. In epistemology, we distinguish between three different first-level methods which are exclusive: 1) reason, which is a method of finding knowledge by using objective evidence, 2) faith, which uses subjective evidence, and 3) skepticism, which is the belief in the absence of knowledge altogether (belief in this absence is also subjective, but we differentiate it because of its particular implications). You must not, by the way, confuse this type of skepticism with the common usage of the word, which is associated with a process of doubt and could be qualified as "reasonable skepticism."

     The reason (no pun intended) I point this out is to show the obvious opposition between science and religion, and more generally between philosophy and theology. The scientific method is based on the notions of empirical observation and falsifiability, which places it squarely in the realm of rationality. Proper philosophy is also reason-based. Theology is based on unquestioned doctrines and revelation, which makes it a derivate of faith. They are opposite and unreconcilable.

Trying to Mend the Duality

     But beyond this foregone conclusion, why do so many people, freethinkers and religionists alike, sing the praises of consilience between science and religion? Perhaps because of epistemological ignorance, as pointed out before. Another conciliator, Stephen Jay Gould, known as one of the two main figures in evolution theory (as well as a religionist, oddly enough), exhibits this belief with a profound "scientist arrogance:"

"I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict" --Rocks of Ages.
     He systemises this attitude with the notion of "non-overlapping magisteria:" the idea that science and religion can co-exist in distinctive and equally valid realms. Like a married couple, each side is equally validated and takes care of half of the job. In Gould's particular case, science takes care of the natural while religion deals with the supernatural. In the more common form of consilience, science is concerned with studying natural phenomena, while religion is a source of morality and "answers" in general. There is this implicit idea that religion is still the framework with which we should see the world, and that science and philosophy have only a very limited place in terms of usefulness. While the notion of non-overlapping magisteria is a true dichotomy, the common division is more an accommodation of the obvious truth of science more than an acknowledgement of its validity.

     What is troubling is that most people share this belief. Where does this idea that scientific answers and religious answers are equally valid come from? Part of the answer may be disbelief at the idea that science can be so right, and religion can be so wrong. A related idea, or perhaps a consequence, is the "cult of compromise." Philosophical skepticism is so prevalent today that most people do not really believe that anything can be said to be true, or that anything deserves any more time than anything else. Because of this you get agreement on things like equal time for creationism. Another reason is that many people think, "there must be something more than science," due to the complexity of the human experience.

     The opposition of science and religion would not really be a problem if there were no overlapping. If theological delusions were wholly outside of the vast fields of human cognition, they would be like discussions of cult science-fiction series or particular hobbies: that is, vastly irrelevant to most people. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Despite the concept of "non-overlapping magisteria," science and religion are not non-overlapping -- they are in direct conflict. I have mentioned the creationist attacks on biology. This is only one example. Religions also widely attack cosmology and physics, medicine, psychology, and epistemology in general. Even if a religion existed that did not argue scientific knowledge, it would still most likely be opposed to philosophical knowledge. Theology is, so to speak, the retard cousin of philosophy -- he keeps trying to barge in despite your best efforts.

     One may argue that a religion does not necessarily have to attack scientific or philosophical propositions. It depends how you define "religion." In this context, the most appropriate starting point would be to talk of an attitude of worship of the supernatural or supernatural entities. But then you can see that even a bare-bones religion is intertwined with ethical concerns -- should we worship this or that entity? It's much more debatable than most religionists think, but even if it weren't, it would still imply an ethical proposition. Even the mildest, most tolerant religion must necessarily overlap philosophy in that sense. In this context, the proposed forced "fitting" does not resemble so much like two puzzle pieces that go together, as it does a rape.

     So in one sense, consilience is an optical illusion. But there is another way of seeing the problem that is more and more popular in science. Science and religion, reason and faith, these are all meme complexes that compete for "mind-shares." And as we know from memetics, various factors (mostly genetic and social) make the mind more or less receptive to welcome and propagate certain memes. All this process takes place in the mind, which we know not to be an entity in itself, but an emergent material property of our brain.

     Therefore this begs a paradox of reconciliation: it is possible that we can see the relationship between science and religion as a fight for the same memetic space in people's minds. This is confirmed by our analysis of the epistemological factors involved. Therefore, we seem to be able to understand these two sides from a memetic, and more broadly a mental, point of view.

     This is the point of view adopted by biologist Edward Osborne Wilson in his famous book "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge." In short, the duality that we perceive between humans and natural phenomena is due to the complexity of the system that we all are. Because chaos theory applies to humans, it seems to us that our psychology is of another nature entirely, but that is not the case. It is still regulated by its own material nature. The newly emerging science of evolutionary psychology gives a lot of insight in this regard (as an extension of genetics as the most important memetic factor.)

     This consilience is not very relevant to our starting point, however. It does not compound the dichotomy but gives us the means to understand its dynamics. So this is more a consilience between the natural and human sciences.

     At any rate, if no religion can possible stay outside of reason's rightful sphere, is it possible to have a system of beliefs that is compatible with scientific thought? Certainly. However it would have to be epistemically equivalent or part of science or philosophy. More esoteric people adopt point of views that I call "new perspectives." By a selection of importance, one can see reality from different sides or from further back. This selection of importance is the following: creating a new perspective is the equivalent of looking for new connections and patterns on our web of knowledge. When we find an aesthetically pleasing one, we call it a "perspective." Religions and cults are nothing more than this process of selection applied to intra-subjective "reality."

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