Different Ways of Thinking: Science and Religion

Sunday, 12 September 2010 16:07

Stephen Hawkings set the cat amongst the defenders of religion when, in his new book The Grand Design he said that God was 'unnecessary'. He explained, 'Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.' http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/7976594/Stephen-Hawking-God-was-not-needed-to-create-the-Universe.html No doubt he expected that the defenders of religion would be offended by this, and they were. Most people working in the media don’t understand what the basic difference between religion and sciences is, but they know a good story when they see it. They immediately contacted those who would supply the kind of quote the media love.

And so it was that The Times phoned Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said, 'Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.'

However, one of the clerics did understand how science and religion are different, and why they are both important. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, said, ‘Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation ... The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the Universe came into being.’ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/7979093/Stephen-Hawking-religious-leaders-dismiss-God-not-needed-comments.html He repeated this on Radio 4’s Thought for Today, only instead of ‘interpretation’ he said ‘meaning’. Readers of my books know that, in talking about how we make sense of ourselves and our life, we can use the words ‘meaning’ and interpretation’ interchangeably.

As Sacks said, the aim of science is to explain why the world around us is as it is. Using observation and experiment, scientists look for evidence to support their theories. If the evidence is not found, they discard their theories and create other theories that have more evidence to support them. However, no scientist would be so foolish as to claim that there was enough evidence to show that his theory was absolutely true. No matter how much evidence can be found, there is never enough to be absolutely certain of anything. (I have discussed this in some detail in the opening chapters of my book Why We Lie).

Science is not applicable to many aspects of our life. For instance, science can tell us what happens to our body after we die but it cannot tell us what happen to us, the people we are, after we die. Science cannot tell us what the purpose of our life is. That is something we have to decide for ourselves. Some people see the purpose of life as the working out of God’s plan, and some people see the purpose as having the most enjoyable life possible. In matters like these we use our imagination, and this can take many forms. We can tell stories, paint pictures, create music, design objects, dance, play, and so on. We can apply our imagination to creating stories about how the world began and what will happen to us when we die, according to whether we have been good or bad. Out of our imagination has come religion. Our imagination creates fantasies, and fantasies do not require evidence as science does. Ask Rowan Williams for the evidence that the particular kind of God in which he believes actually exists, and he will talk about faith that does not require evidence.

In everyday life we move easily between different forms of thinking. One moment we are thinking like scientists in assessing the merits of two different holiday resorts, and the next moment we are fantasising that, if we go to one of these resorts, then we will meet our true love, the person with whom we will spend the rest of our life. Because we think in this way we can find it very hard to understand that we use different forms of thought when we think.

I remember very well when I suddenly understood this. It was in the early 70s, and I was reading Ernst Cassirer’s three volume book Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. It was heavy going and I would not pretend I understood it all. Cassirer wrote it in German while he was still living in Germany. As a Jew, he realised that he would not survive in Nazi Germany, so in 1933 he went first to England and then to America. From then on until his early death in 1945 the books he wrote were in English, and short! They are a delight to read.

In the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms he wrote about what he (or his translator) called ‘organs of thought’. It was while reading and thinking about this book I suddenly understood what Cassirer meant as an organ of thought. I prefer to call them forms of thought.

The world is full of a multitude of things, and we can look at everything we encounter in a multitude of ways. To prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by this huge volume of possible input to our limited brain, we organise things into categories and give each category a label which is a kind of model of what goes into that category. Babies are born with the ability to do this. A baby in his pushchair might notice that, every time a furry thing that snuffled and barked came near, his mother told him that this was a dog. Thus he gradually learned that there are a number of things that look somewhat but not entirely similar and belong in the category called ‘dog’.

You have in your memory many kinds of categories. For each category there is a model that defines the category. One of these is likely to be the model of a car which can be applied to every kind of car. This is a kind of box shape with wheels and some kind of engine to propel it along. The model of a refrigerator is a cupboard for storing things and a motor that creates cold air. You know how each model can be used. You don’t store frozen food in your car, and you don’t expect your fridge to convey you to the beach.

In the same way science and religion are different forms of thought. When we think in the science form of thought we are trying to understand ourselves and the world we live in so that we can make reasonably accurate predictions what will happen. When we think in the religious form of thought we are creating new stories or remembering old ones about the meaning of death and the purpose of life, and about how we ought to behave.

Science and religion are different forms of thought that serve different purposes. To see then as being in competition with one another is just plain silly.

However, Stephen Hawkings could be sure that some religious people would be sure to rise to his bait because they always feel impelled to defend something that is very important to them. This is the internal object they carry inside them and that they call God.

If your mother or father has played an important part in your life you discover that, when they die, they take up residence inside you as an internal object. These internal objects are not exact replicas of your parents but are composed of how you remember your parents. From then on, in any situation you know what your parents would have said or done. Internal objects do not have to be someone you have met. They can be people whose words you have read, or about whom you have been told. They do not have to be real people. In his account of the causes of the global economic crisis The Big Short Michael Lewis described how the Spider Man was the hero on which the financial wizard Steve Eisman tried to base his life. Internal objects can guide and encourage us, and help us decide how we should behave. They can also be impossible to please or very cruel. They can form the cold, hard conscience that drives some people into depression and keeps them there, or reveal their presences in the taunting, ugly voices that psychiatrists regard as the prime symptom of psychosis. Some voice hearers, tired of being treated so ignorantly, were able to demonstrate that these voices are internal objects from the voice hearer’s past. http://www.hearing-voices.org/

Internal objects can come in a religious guise. When Rowan Williams or Jonathan Sacks talks about his God, it is clear that he regards this particular internal object as something very important. Each man would be extremely offended if a psychologist like me referred to his God as an internal object. He would see this as the denigration of the most important person in his life.

In their desire to give their religion a supreme importance, many religious people fail to learn about and so appreciate the complex and creative ways in which we think. Instead of understanding the different forms of thought and how we use them, they claim that religion is better than science. This is like claiming that in general refrigerators are better than cars. Such religious people do not see that, to understand ourselves and our world, we need all the forms of thought available to us. Studying psychology in order to understand yourself is not enough. You also need to go to the theatre, read good fiction and biographies, and, most of all, observe people.

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 04:31