THE BLOG
12/20/2013 08:07 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Religion Is Changing, So Why Not Science?

We are witnessing an era of unprecedented changes. Environmental, political, economic, and informational, just to name a few. The boundaries that separate humans seem to be coming down as globalization proceeds. These changes can be positive or negative, as some political and economic occurrences have demonstrated. We are also bearing witness to religion as it tries to adopt to an ever-changing world.

Uncertain Times With Certain Changes

This trend is perhaps most striking in the Catholic Church, which is witnessing big changes by Pope Francis. His message of tolerance and his emphasis on openness to other religions are sowing profound seeds of change. In fact, Pope Francis has stated the Catholic Church could learn some important things from other Christian sects. But that is not to say that what he is promoting is universally accepted, even within the Catholic Church. In fact, he has clearly ruffled some feathers among the established order as he seems to be encouraging the adoption of flexible belief systems. He might even be accused of getting away from established dogmas and, instead, emphasizing his interpretation of the mission of the Church, which seems to be to strengthen the fellowship of humanity. The resistance in some circles notwithstanding, the overall positive wide acceptance of his message demonstrates that change and progress are favored by large numbers of people.

Perhaps human activities like religion and science have some common elements. Take, for example, Freeman Dyson, a physicist, mathematician, and futurist. He said, "Both as a scientist and as a religious person, I am accustomed to living with uncertainty. Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe." Clearly, Dyson believes that uncertainty is positive. I plan to touch upon this later, why uncertainty is so important to conscious awareness. For now, let me just posit that in a universe where everything is certain, there is no room for free will.

Survival of the Most Changeable?

The constant changes that science undergoes cannot always be predicted. Many steps in the progress of science are being built on previous experience and are therefore predictable. But many of the paradigm shifts brought on by these changes are not. Science progresses through changes in basic assumptions, or in paradigms within existing theories of science. Thomas Kuhn wrote about this in his well-known book, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962.

At a glance, many will assume that religions are harder to change than science since, by its very nature, science is constantly prone to change. This is generally true. And yet, there are always strong forces in science pushing for no change, for keeping the status quo. Those who resist major changes in accepted thinking probably believe they are protecting science from non-scientific abusers. Yet, what they often do is resist major shifts in the advancement of science. As Kuhn stated, major paradigm shifts in thinking are vital to forward movement. Without it, science stagnates.

In the last blog we discussed the self-appointed arbiters of truth. Science as a human activity has its own practices and these should generally be adhered to and even protected from gross abuse. However, the line between trying to do good science and rejecting new ideas seems ever blurrier. Practicing good science does not imply defending some sort of faith or prevailing scientific views that may, after all, turn out to be outdated or even false. If that was good science, we would have no relativity theory and no quantum theory. The openness in science implies open-mindedness.

Keepers of the Faith

Perhaps some scientists are ruffling the feathers of their more orthodox peers. This is perhaps most obvious in the field of consciousness, which Dyson declares to be the greatest mystery of science. Some of the established dogmas in neuroscience and evolutionary biology attribute the existence and rise of consciousness as an epiphenomenon, ultimately attributing the mystery of conscious awareness to utterly random processes. In an effort to understand the fundamentals of consciousness, we will come back in future blogs to discuss topics like consciousness and programs like the BRAIN Initiative.

The unfortunate truth is, some scientists are more narrow minded than some of the religious clerics they so easily deride. When a scientist strays from accepted dogma, not with quackery but with imagination and wonder, we often witness vicious personal attacks by some of the established keepers of the faith. These bullies must be resisted. Science progresses by debate and solid arguments, not by bullying and abuse. Such practices belong to a past era where, in the extreme, reformers were punished violently in public. Attacking someone's reputation or ideas in the name of defending science is the equivalent of mental and sociological burning at the stake. Scientific societies and academia should denounce such practices. These are anathema to academic freedom and freedom of thought. And such practices may be hiding some important benefits accruing to the zealots from science. But they don't advance science, no matter what those interests are.

If religion can change, then surely science can as well. We should seek to protect science from absolutists and fundamentalists. In fact, as faithful adherents to good scientific practices, it is our duty to do so. The soul of science is at stake.

Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, at Chapman University has authored more than 275 articles, is author or editor of 14 books, including the Conscious Universe (Springer) with Robert Nadeau, and is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles (Harmony). I acknowledge valuable input by Lefteris Kafatos.