Science and Religion Part 2: Truth Value and Causal Relationships

I received some very good questions from rethinkingvalues and intersection9  in response to my last article:
Science and Religion: The Future of Interpretation

And since I think they are questions many people may have, I wanted to address them here:

1. “Because we know that science does not provide us with an objective truth, can we say that it is somehow closer to this truth, or better than other forms of knowledge/statements…?

As an example:  “If I do not think that there is a difference between the statement ‘the world will probably not end tomorrow’ and ‘the world will probably end tomorrow’ I would live my life in a very different way!

Can we have “better” knowledge and believe things to have different truth “values”? I do believe so, in fact, we can’t really avoid giving a different value to different things because it’s simply what we do. “I like cereal more than oatmeal” “I think history is more important than philosophy” ect. Even if we don’t think about it, we make choices every day that show what we value. We perceive, judge and compare then come up with beliefs or opinions based on these many things and, in a way, this is how we create or formulate our truths and beliefs. We will always think some to be “better” than others.

So, yes, I do think every statement or potentiality does have a different truth value. Some are more agreed upon and others have a wider range of opinions on ‘how high the truth value is’ so to speak. But what I want to point out is that we, as people, determine the truth value. Therefore, I don’t think that it’s the case that some truths are “better” or worse than others inherently (because what does that mean? How do we know what is inherent?), and they aren’t just on a sliding scale (this fact is 3 times more true than that fact) but some truths are simply more useful for us and that is what usually makes it more valuable. One truth may be ‘better’ if it creates the outcome or understanding that we want it to, or if it fits the original pattern that we perceive more often than another explanation. So perhaps the scientific method does what we want it to do (give us suitable answers that aid our understanding of experience), I’m just wary of people no longer questioning it or not realizing that it is simply a method, or not knowing that these answers aren’t universal nor concrete. We must think about why we’ve come up with the answers and truths that we have and constantly revise our interpretations as our world changes.

To address the example, there is a clear and distinct difference between the two statements given about the world. You will certainly take different actions based on your belief. But is either “better” than the other? Well sure, that’s up for you to decide. You may think it’s better to think the world won’t end so you don’t have constant anxiety, I may think it’s better to assume the world will end so I live my life to the fullest. And at the end of the day, if we’re still alive, you may say “well, I was right.” and perhaps you were in your own terms, and it worked out for you, but then again, what would the world ending mean? What if the world never ends? (Forgive me for the philosophic banter) What if part of it ends? Only the world as we know it ends, or the universe, what about quantum physics and multiple realities and universes? It’s interesting to ponder, but not really practical for our everyday lives (yet), right? So you can say that your way of living (thinking the world won’t end today) is “better” and you state your reasons (it’s more reliable, fits the pattern we’ve perceived, helps you live your life). Fine and dandy. But the big question always is, does this truth of yours align with reality? Who knows? I don’t think we really speak the same language as reality. There is a wide gap between our reasons for believing something being enough to continue believing it, and the need to be “right” in terms of reality. But I think that your reasons for believing the world won’t end, and the truth value that you give it, is much more important than some outside ‘given’ value, if there even is such a thing.

2. [Paraphrased] We can give reasons for why one [science or religion] is better. Through testing science we can potentially better approximate reality because the more that we test a theory and the more corroborating evidence that we find, the more likely it is that our theory is stumbling on some kind of causal link. If there is no causal link then it is unlikely that we are going to find the correlation of cause and effect all of the time, hence the most plausible explanation for the correlation would be a causal relationship. 

I do think we should always, always give reasons why we believe it is “better” to think one way over another. For example: our current method of keeping time and day may be better than using the stars and constellations because it is faster and easier. Science has pragmatism, so to speak. Logical, rational pragmatic thinking. But does pragmatic=better? If that’s what we value, sure. (And it’s pretty clear that we do)

See, science does act on the pragmatic side of humanity. We created the scientific method for pragmatic reasons. It’s certainly easier, faster, methodological, reliable at times, and useful. We value things clearly because they are useful in our lives, but what is pragmatic (as in practical AND rational) is not always the most valuable. And we forget that. I think, sometimes we come up with very good explanations, theories, even research findings, that are unable to be utilized in our society because they are too complex, too abstract maybe, but they are perhaps what we need to hear more than anything.
Here is a great article on this topic: Growing Beyond True But Useless
So, what do we do? Usually we try make these very valuable pieces of information simpler so they are more pragmatic, but I do wonder : What gets lost in translation?

As for causal relationships, I do think that they are a helpful, if not necessary, way of looking at things, but can also be a dangerous perspective. Causal relationships imply dualities (something I’m always wary of). It says: “This single thing caused another single thing” and again, tends to get rid of complexities, third variables, other factors. But don’t get me wrong. Humans do perceive things in a cause and effect way because in some circumstances it is the most useful. “It rained which caused my hand to be wet ” Do we really need to look into anything else in the moment, walking down the street? No, for all intents and purposes, we know why our hand is wet. We understand that what is falling from the sky is what we call rain. We know it has to do with weather, and that we feel it because we have nerve endings. Now, we could study in depth how water gives the sensation of wetness, we could look into smaller and smaller particles in the water molecules, until we no longer know the answers (and we will always reach a point where we no longer know the answers), and it could be worth looking into and digging deeper. But again, for our everyday understanding or interpretation of what we feel on our hand, the statement “It rained which caused my hand to be wet ” is enough.

What about cause and effect in research? Well when you’re in a lab and working with some kind of physical substance or matter, it’s easier to say  “I did this, and this is the effect it had”. Though still, we must not ignore the entire field of quantum physics which proves, through the Observer Effect Experiments, that our observations of phenomenon affect reality (or the outcome of the phenomenon) on a subatomic level. This goes far beyond the level of experimenter/observer bias that occurs in the creation or conduction of an experiment. And science is really almost always about observation and recording. So one question is, can we really trust our observations? Enough to draw conclusions about the way we perceive things in our experience, in life? Sure. But enough to draw conclusions on the truths about objective reality? Maybe not.

Now let’s look at  social science, where values, culture, and perception are all the more important. How do we determine cause and effect here? Well with what researchers call a “true experiment” under all the right conditions and statistical tests, we can supposedly say that A has caused B, rather than A is merely correlated (somehow linked) with B. But, again, here’s my favorite question: What does that mean? In an experiment, causation means that you manipulated one thing that turned out to have a significant affect on another thing. Most of the times these experiments (if they are done well with random assignment and the correct controls) can give us a moderately strong causal link between concepts or phenomenon where the definitions are strongly agreed upon.
For example: I want to see if violent video games cause aggression in children. I set up my experiment to define aggression and violent behavior (usually agreed upon) and have all of controls accounted for such as time of day and amount played. I select participants randomly in hopes of including differences in gender, age, cultures/ethnicities, family styles, personalities. Theoretically I should have a solid cause and effect experiment, but still, we can never be sure if the aggression is also related to perhaps amount of stress, family circumstances, maybe the games make the children tired and more irritable or they don’t get enough exercise due to the video game play, etc.

What if my experiment involved trickier concepts or aspects of life where we can’t manipulate all variables to assess cause and effect?
For example: I want to see if having a lower income level causes aggression. Well, you can’t randomly assign people to income level. They make the money they make, and for many different reasons. And sadly, income in America is strongly associated with minorities and education level. And aggression here may be linked to discrimination that occurs against minorities, however is the aggression directly caused by it? Or maybe by monetary stress, poor living conditions or family situations? And what is discrimination caused by? History? Religion? An ego complex? None of these questions can really be answered with experiments because these are real-life situations that we can’t always ethically manipulate, especially in a lab.

We can observe, we can theorize, but frankly, much of life can’t be put into cause and effect terms. There are multiple reasons that go into any situation. You look at history and wonder why a war was started; it wasn’t one assassination or one event, it was years of small and large incidents, emotions, intentions. Just think about how many reasons you have sometimes for making one single decision. One could say ‘I broke up with my boyfriend because he said I was fat.’ But if they thought about it more, they may realize there were years of emotional damage and they also just woke up angry that day, and also hated the way he acted sometimes and….the list could go on. We usually have multiple reasons and intentions (even if we don’t know them all), and phenomenon also usually has more than one condition that made it occur in that specific way.

In short: Cause and effect can be a useful way of perceiving things, but isn’t necessarily the “best” nor does it always most accurately explain things. 

3. “Do illusions have any practical value outside of self-deception?”

Yes, I am of the opinion that “illusions” ( what Freud calls any belief that isn’t backed by reason) do have a practical value.  But I do not believe self deception is one of them. Nor are “illusions” and self-deception the same thing. The act of deceiving yourself means purposely lying or covering up something you somewhat (consciously or unconsciously) know to be actually true. This would be any kind of denial or something like deceiving yourself into thinking you wear make-up because you like it when you really wear make-up because you want others to like you. It’s essentially not being truthful to yourself about your reasons behind beliefs or actions. But when you know your reasons, this is different.

Freud uses the term “illusion” because he is biased. He thinks religion is a lie people tell themselves to make themselves feel better. This may be true on some level, but it doesn’t have to be the case. I’d like to use the term ‘perspective’ rather than “illusion” to name these beliefs that we hold, that may not be backed in reason or clear cut experiences, that may never be able to be tested or answered, but are still very useful. These are the beliefs and truths that reach the limit of science. Not just the limit as in- we simply haven’t discovered it yet- but the limit as in- it is up to us to interpret the meaning for ourselves. These beliefs have the ‘practical value’ of determining how you live your life.

See, I’m not even a religious person, in the strict sense of the word. But I still would never say that science is “better” than religion as just a general statement. This is because (with the way we tend to use it) science usually simplifies, while religion (here I must apply a broader meaning to the term) or spirituality or the realm of imagination and mere belief can give us wonderful complexity. Science doesn’t always even take into account the “irrational” that’s so very much apart of us, our emotions, our surreal experiences. No one can really tell you why you feel a certain way when you’re in love. Why you may experience a floating sensation when you meditate. Why you believe what you believe. Sure, science can say love is merely attachment, and tell you which neurons are firing, and that your brain is sending signals that give you a certain feeling, etc. That can be very useful, but it is not the whole story.

Now, if we were in the middle ages where religion ruled the land, I would be writing entirely different responses that pointed out the faults, dangers, and limitations of religion (and there are many). But this is not the land we live in. We currently live in a place where it is scientists who know the methods of research, and may very well understand all of these complexities involved, but the people reading the articles and statistics, most likely, do not. In America, particularly, we simplify everything, and through simplification, there is much manipulation. If something isn’t in simple terms or pictures, or easy to understand and apply, most of us don’t want to read it or even want to try to understand. We are no longer making connections. We have the academics on one side and the layman on the other, and who is going to aid communication between them? Who is even going to apply scientific findings to other fields or vice versa, or apply one area of science to another to create a more complete picture? Who is going to ask questions beyond the ‘findings’ that the scientist displays? We look up to science so much it is dangerously placed on a pedestal in America. It has replaced religion as our judge, as our method of how we determine truths, and even how we see ourselves and our world. This means we are at risk for simply going along with ‘what research says’ just as we went along with ‘what God says’, while not even stopping to ask if what research says is a useful way of explaining the phenomenon, if it is a well conducted/interpreted experiment,  if it can or should have an impact on our everyday lives, or what kind of an impact. Now it’s time to take another look and rediscover why and how science can be meaningful and useful to us, without simplifying it, without isolating it, but always with a questioning mind that science must turn upon itself.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

5 responses to “Science and Religion Part 2: Truth Value and Causal Relationships

  1. Thanks for the great response, and the pingback!

  2. antaeusredux

    I agree with almost all of this, and the end made me realize how we really don’t have populist intellectuals anymore. But just for the sake of questioning…

    Given that we understand one truth to be ‘better’ than another (when speaking about ‘objective reality,’ I’m looking at the first section here) by our definition of it, how well it moves us towards some goal, etc, how is it possible that internally there is something we can “know to be actually true,” that we’re cover up with self-deception? If we define what is true, then how can there be an “actually true” that we decieve ourselves of?

    Obviously, the first example is about the ‘objective’ world while the second is about our internal/experiential worlds. But why should ‘truth’ be different in those different areas?

    • Here, I think you may be referring to the subject/object duality. Most people seem to think we can actually know the cold hard facts about the outside world (object), but not so much about ourselves and emotions and such (subject). I attempt to say that they aren’t actually so different. That every truth we hold is based on what we value and what our perspective is. It may seem like it’s easier to categorize and discover facts about the outside world than ourselves, but as people who ‘live in the realm of experience’ as I said before, we are always a so-called subject MEETING an object. I don’t think they are as separated as we seem to think. Each is infused and affected by the other (there is no outside world without our perception of it, and there is no perception of ourselves that exists outside the context of an outside world)

      Now the extra layer (which people have been speaking of and debating over for centuries) is self-consciousness, or what happens when we think about ourselves and what truths we hold about ourselves (which end up affecting both us and the outside world as we see it). This is why self-deception exists. It is a ‘blip’ so to speak, in how we relate to ourselves. A purposeful non-truth. Sometimes we tell ourselves lies, and there are many many reasons for this. Sometimes we actually do believe these lies and it affects how we live our life. How do we do this? Well we have as Freud called it a conscious and an unconscious. You may be lying to yourself and be aware, or unaware of it, both end up affecting us.

      See, our intentions can’t truly be hidden from ourselves, they can be repressed, but somewhere in the back of the mind it still affects how you think about yourself and the world. Say you feel really guilty about a bad thing you did to a friend. You know that you actually meant to do it in the moment, but felt bad about it later. So as a defense for yourself, you tell yourself that you had no choice. You were having a bad day, it wasn’t your fault, it was the person’s fault who pissed you off earlier, so you aren’t actually a bad person. So this lie that you tell yourself may become your new truth and perception. You may feel better, you may live your life seemingly normally, etc. But your inner guilt does not go away. You may be unaware, of course, but now, say, every time someone blames you for something, perhaps you get over offended, maybe your self-esteem drops a bit without you noticing, there’s a million different possibilities, but all this shows is that both the truths and the lies that you tell yourself end up affecting you.

      Why? No one’s really sure, and this is why therapy is a hard job. But personally, I don’t think we can fully hide our intentions from ourselves because maybe on some level our bodies and minds remember. If you somehow caused a car crash without your knowledge, you don’t feel guilty because you never knew, but if you were aware of it or saw it, you can’t escape the guilt, your consciousness will remember. But some people live their complete lives in self-deception and never figure out why they feel the way they do, and maybe never figure out their real intentions, and this will definitely change their beliefs and the way they live. But see when I say ‘real’ intentions or feelings, I don’t mean that this is objectively ‘true’ and the lie they tell themselves is not ‘real’, which I believe is what your impression was. I only mean that, as people, we have many layers. We have many perceptions of ourselves, and many internal mechanisms that may stop us from having the most beneficial perspective, or the one closest to how we feel. This is why people have revelations, realizations, because our perspective doesn’t always match up to how we feel but once we find the better language, the better understanding, it changes everything, how we see ourselves and the world.

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