Science and Religion

by Siegfried Othmer | August 25th, 2005

The recent newsletter on this subject was intended to highlight the impulse within science to present a complete theory, in the face of the ineluctable reality that completeness can never be proved. We are bound by our hypotheses, and to assert that these allow for no reality beyond the hypotheses is to confuse the map with the territory. It has been rigorously shown in mathematics that a set of axioms that forms a mathematical system will imply propositions that are valid, on the one hand, but not provable from those axioms, on the other. Even more so in science, we will never be able to rule out the existence of phenomena that contradict the naturalistic hypothesis.

I was done with this topic but for the appearance of an article on the same subject in the New York Times of August 23. It is really only in the context of a formal discussion on the topic that most scientists will declare themselves on this issue. So it was that at a recent conference at City College of New York, a student asked, “Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?”

Nobel-prize winning chemist Herbert Hauptman immediately said “No!” Belief in the supernatural is not only incompatible with good science, but “this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race.” Steven Weinberg expressed a similar sentiment on another occasion: “I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That’s a good thing.”

So it is not just that issues outside of the scientific process–religious questions, for example–are somewhat irrelevant wherever science is being done. In both cases above, there is also some emotion driving the sentiment that the “worldview of science” displaces the need for anything else such as religion. Science in essence is placed in the role of the superior religion, a more reliable source of moral guidance.

This may just be an inevitable working out of very human impulses to project one’s microscopic model onto the world at large. What concerns me is that such aggrandizement of our models is at work at every level of our scientific and professional enterprise. We are at hazard all the time of confusing the map with the territory: the diagnosis, or the brain map, or the “chemical deficiency model” becomes the operative reality with which alternative perspectives are clubbed into submission.

This entrapment by prevailing models is a sufficient explanation for the fact that paradigm-breaking pioneers in any field tend to be outsiders. Science could not make the progress it does without structuring thinking around specific models, but we must also cultivate the capacity to stand outside the model, to critique our own work radically, and to examine where work may suffer from being “model-bound.” The process of science has become so finely tuned over the years that the skirmishes tend to be minor ones, in linear progression from already accepted principles. All the instrumentalities of science conspire to see to it that more fundamental criticism is marginalized. There is no place for the “Devil’s Advocate.”

What prompts this line of thinking is that all of these excesses are visible in our own field. All of the various perspectives want to recruit “science” on their own behalf, and to indict other perspectives on the basis of ostensible “scientific” deficiencies and shortcomings. All of the various perspectives give evidence of being prematurely model-bound, of being too constrained by historical worldviews. This eventuates in an atmosphere of intolerance that is quite inappropriate to the level of certainty that prevails anywhere within the field. This intolerance is accepted because it has become acceptable within the scientific enterprise at large. We have come to the point in the maturation of our scientific worldview that we permit ourselves such intolerance, such prejudice, and on the grander scale that state of affairs is documented most vividly in an intolerance of a complementary perspective such as that of religion.

Neurofeedback and the License to Practice

There has been another discussion of licensure and neurofeedback on one of the lists, and this will undoubtedly be increasingly discussed within our ranks.

Cory Hammond states the position thus: “Someone must be licensed for independent
practice in the state where they are practicing if they are offering neurofeedback services for remuneration for a medical/psychological/psychiatric problem. But the license may be in medicine, psychology, social work, as a licensed professional counselor, marriage and family therapist, chiropractor, speech and language pathologist, substance abuse therapist (if they are licensed for private, independent practice) etc.–not just a psychologist. Or they could be working under a licensed person’s supervision who takes responsibility for them.”

The list of professions may be incomplete, but we are not concerned with such details at the moment. The question is whether the basic proposition should be agreed to, and what the historical trends are in that regard. In California the law gives broad latitude to practitioners of alternative modalities, and these of course deal with real medical, psychiatric or psychological problems. The law was updated in 2002 to clarify that such alternative health practitioners were not entitled to perform surgeries or to prescribe medications. The issue clearly was more around the procedure than around the therapeutic target of the procedure. In other words, medicine is what medicine does.

This strikes me as being much closer to how MDs see things themselves. If someone were to claim that regular meditation practice may reduce seizure incidence, that would not make it a medical practice. Closer to home, if a psychologist were to recommend GSR training to reduce seizure incidence, that would not be practicing medicine either. So it is really the procedure that determines whether medicine is being practiced. And that argument does not change if it were to be an unlicensed person that does the recommending. These things cannot be discussed absent a consideration of potential harm, and that issue is entirely tied up with the specific procedure. If no harm attaches to the recommendation, then there are no grounds for limiting the procedure to licensed professionals (who are bound by an ethical code of practice). Anybody can sell “Wild Divine,” and anybody can buy it. If there is a risk attached, it is one that the society is willing to tolerate in the interest of personal liberty. We are inevitably in a realm of soft boundaries. It is out of the question that the whole field of self-regulation technologies should be locked up by the licensed professions. Realistically what will emerge is that the professions will have to sell themselves through added value, not because they have a lock on the technology. Ironically, the way the field has developed there are at least as many boundary issues between psychology and medicine as there are between licensed and unlicensed practice.

2 Responses to “Science and Religion”

  1. Ella Minozzi says:

    Wow, you’re so much more technologically inclined than I am. But I do so appreciate this website and the info it has provided me… and hope to take some time this week to read more. Love your blog!

  2. prof premraj pushpakaran says:

    prof premraj pushpakaran writes — 2017 marks the centenary year of Herbert A. Hauptman!!!

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