Curriculum Theory / Teaching

Knowledge and Belief

At last I have submitted an article that I’ve been working on for quite a while to a suitable journal. Great, only not so, because I’ve just noticed that the author guidelines stipulate 25 pages or less including references and for some reason I read that as excluding references, and my article is 28 pages long with the references and the abstract. Arse. That’ll be bounced back then. Arse.

Anyway, it was an article on a topic close to my heart, and without re-publishing the whole thing, I’ll skirt around some of the stuff that’s in it, and pose a question or two that didn’t make it into the article.

I’ve been reading Jerry A. Coyne’s latest piece Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (Coyne, 2015), and chapter 4, pages 185–196 particularly grabbed my attention—Is Science the Only Way of Knowing? This leapt out at me because it is intimately concerned with the concepts I’ve been investigating, and what makes knowing something different from believing that same thing? What makes knowing different from having faith? Well, my first response is somewhat flippant, but nevertheless true. Knowing something makes aeroplanes fly, knowing something allows for successful treatment of bacterial infections, knowing something allows us to vaccinate against measles, mumps and rubella. Having faith in one’s ability to fly unaided, results in nothing but painful injury or worse, having faith in alternatives to modern medicine such as ayurvedic “medicine”, chiropractic interventions, or homeopathy, can quite possibly kill you.

Faith in something does not mean you know that it exists. You can believe in something with every fibre of your being—intellectually, emotionally, you may even trigger a physiological response by your level of commitment and its related phenomena—but that does not mean the thing exists. In contrast, not believing in evolution will not stop the influenza virus from mutating to a strain unaffected by past vaccines, and does not change the fact that Homo sapiens shares a common ancestor with Pan troglodytes.

Figure providing a basic timeline of hominin ancestry from UC Berkeley.

Evolutionary science, with a century and a half of testable, replicable, falsifiable, and predictable findings has shown that human beings (H. sapiens) once shared a now extinct common ancestor with modern chimpanzees (P. troglodytes). We did not, as the common misunderstanding would have it, “come from monkeys”, we are in fact apes, and share ancestry with other apes. This is science, and remains factual and evidence-based, regardless of our beliefs.

Religion is essentially revelatory, that is, its principles and philosophies are revealed through scripture and teachings. The supernatural—what is beyond nature—is founded upon unexplained observation, ignorance of the physical sciences, and credulity. Science seeks to explain the previously unknown, and once known, such phenomena become part of the natural and no longer require faith in something beyond nature to make it so.

Thus, religion and the supernatural are not based on testable, replicable, falsifiable, and predictable evidence. Religion can therefore make no claims as to knowledge of the natural order of the Universe.

The flip side of this particular coin, as adherents of religious faith and the supernatural often argue, is that science can make no claims as to what may be beyond the natural. In his work Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999), evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould described the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Gould held that religion and science could say nothing about their opposing realms of discourse; they were non-overlapping. I am entirely with Jerry Coyne on this one, Gould—as greatly and rightly respected as he was in his lifetime and since—got it wrong on this one. Science can actually say plenty about the supernatural.


Abject failure to understand evolution

Not once in the history of humanity’s academic studies and observations has one verifiable example of the supernatural, in any guise, ever been recorded, much less established beyond scientific explanation. Science can therefore speak to the probability of religious and other supernatural phenomena quite eloquently.

With the highest practicable levels of probability, God, Satan/The Adversary, deities great and small, angels, demons, ghosts, vampires, prophets, extra-sensory perception, astrology, acupuncture, homeopathy, ayurvedic quackery, aromatherapy, reiki, detoxing, sightings of flying alien space-vehicles, aliens and crop circles (amongst a myriad of other equivalent nonsense), are nothing more than anthropogenic apocrypha.

Unfortunately, a large part of modern society places a truly astounding importance on baseless faith. The Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture, published a report entitled Science Culture: Where Canada Stands (2014), in which they stated that 55% of Americans, 38% of Europeans, and 25% of Canadians (less, but still far too many for my liking), held the view that “we depend too much on science and not enough on faith.” (p. 54)

Personally, I wonder if people confuse concepts of ethics and morality for religion or the precepts of religious faith, whatever theirs may or may not happen to be. Nevertheless, according to this study, large sections of American, European and Canadian society would rather govern their decision-making by faith rather than reasoned evidence. I find this notion extremely unsettling, and so should any science educator. Why has science education failed so many people in the dawning of the 21st century?

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