Monday, May 30, 2005

Is science a religion?

It has become fashionable in recent times to say that science is religion under another guise. The Czech poet, playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel, for example, famously said of science that "it kills God and takes his place on the vacant [the] sole legitimate arbiter of all relevant truth." Religious fundamentalists, too, accuse scientists of embracing theories, such as "Darwinism," on faith, not evidence. Certain postmodern academic critics assert that science is just one more way of organizing knowledge of the world, no better or worse than any other; hold fast to your traditional knowledge, these critics advise indigenous peoples, don't be duped by the snake oil of modern science. Curiously, the intellectual left and the religious right agree: Science has made of itself a new dogma, and scientists are the high priests who dispense these presumed "truths" to the masses.

True as charged? Certainly science, like religion, is based on unproved articles of faith:

---There is a world that exists independently of our own minds.

---Things in that external world happen according to natural laws, not whimsically or miraculously.

---Nature's laws can be known with an ever greater degree of confidence.

That's it. That's the extent of the "faith" of science. No one can prove these articles of faith. Our conviction of their truth is supported only by the manifest success of science as a way of acquiring reliable knowledge. Every other avenue to truth -- myth, magic, tradition, revelation -- is static. Only science is open-ended; only science is an engine of change.