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Truth of the Matter

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Science is not a path towards truth; therein lies its greatest strength.

"Tibetan Monkey" by Nathaniel Gold

"Tibetan Monkey" by Nathaniel Gold

In his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal describes a forum held at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia where he spoke alongside the Dalai Lama. De Waal reflected on the great interest that Tibet’s spiritual leader had in the findings of modern science and particularly the latest research on the evolution of empathy and compassion, areas central to Buddhist thought. It was, de Waal wrote, “a refreshing departure from attempting to drive a wedge between religion and science.”

According to the Dalai Lama, there is no conflict between his own spiritual pursuits and those of modern science. Quite simply, if any principles of Buddhist thought are found to be wrong by employing the scientific method, “Buddhism will have to change.” Just as he did in his 2005 address to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the Dalai Lama emphasized that his deeply held religious philosophy was both enriched and informed by an empirical worldview.

On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualized as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality. Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism.

This is a rare perspective amongst religious thinkers. Discussions about the conflict between science and religion usually hinge on the question of priority: which path towards knowledge takes precedence in the pursuit of truth? However, this is a false premise. In the Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–empirical science is dismissed on certain questions because it either contradicts their cherished beliefs or, as in the recent case of former New York Times columnist and current Yahoo! News correspondent Virginia Heffernan, because creationism just has a “livelier” story, a position that resulted in widespread criticism.

Heffernan went on to write, “I think science is poetry, useful and not; scientists think science is truth that compels belief it [sic] itself.” Where this sort of incurious perspective gets it wrong is the basic misunderstanding of what the scientific method and worldview actually is. Science is not concerned with truth, it is concerned with doubt. As I’ve discussed before, it is this that makes science and religious faith fundamentally different.

However, there are some important ways in which science and religion as institutions are the same. Having studied primates for many years (specifically bonobos) it is easy to identify commonalities both within and between human societies. All social primates, whether we are talking about macaques, chimpanzees, or humans, are inordinately fond of forming groups and developing social hierarchies. Individuals rise within these hierarchies based on ability and political patronage. This fact is so obvious that it is not often appreciated.

Scientists and Cardinals alike both rise to a given position in their careers based on how their peers regard their work and how well they play the political game. In order to form an alliance with a potential ally or curry favor with an individual of higher rank there are a few standard tactics. You help promote their work, praise them in public, invite them to conferences or conclaves, and help them advance in their field. In bonobos this is called social grooming (though, admittedly, bonobo conclaves are probably a lot more fun). This reflects a reciprocal political exchange that has been identified in every population studied in our species as well as most other social species.

Furthermore, scientists also have a creed, or a set of beliefs, that guide their action. This creed is that the natural world demonstrates predictable patterns that can be deciphered with careful analysis. Rather than study the Bible incessantly and debate what it can tell us about God’s plan, scientists study nature. If you like, you can even go as far as Thomas Carlyle in his criticism of Charles Darwin and state that scientists are beholden to a “Gospel of Dirt.” The method of science is to bounce ideas off of reality in order to separate the ones that work from the ones that don’t. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have their sacred text; scientists have theirs.

But this is where the comparison ends. In contrast to those religious proponents who believe that truth is revealed through their spiritual teacher or sacred book, science operates under the assumption that human reason is limited and that a theory is only valid until further evidence either refines or discards it for a better explanation. Science is never finished. It is a continuing work in progress and any accepted theory is merely “provisionally true” for the time being.

There is also no single observation that is independent of the observer. This was made abundantly clear thanks to research at the subatomic level. A particle, such as an electron, can only be predicted to have a specific location or to be moving in a specific direction. You can not have both. The action of measuring the electron, by hitting it with a photon of light in order to record it, changes its behavior. The investigator alters the investigation.

This is the case for biology the same way it is for particle physics. Manipulating bacteria in a laboratory or chasing after bonobos in the rainforest can alter the results that are recorded. Furthermore, the cultural biases of the scientist influence the very questions that they will ask in the first place. These biases might not be recognized for generations. It is for this reason that scientists value large sample sizes and try to collect as many observations on a given phenomenon as they can. Likewise, new theories only reach consensus once studies have been replicated and the theory’s predictions are independently supported.

Acknowledging the difficulties inherent to empirical research does not undermine the power of science as an explanatory tool. What it does is limit our hubris. It is a worldview that religious thinkers who cling to an assumed truth could well learn from. After all, as we have seen time and again throughout history, it is the passionate embrace of a flawed “truth” that has visited great calamities on members of our species. The scientific method is one that accepts human folly for what it is and works within our limitations to discard the steady stream of ideas that are inconsistent with reality. It is a pursuit that is as meticulous as it is awe inspiring and, without a doubt, is the liveliest story I know.

This has been adapted from a piece that originally appeared at

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Ralph Haygood 11:06 pm 07/12/2013

    “…though, admittedly, bonobo conclaves are probably a lot more fun.” They do look more fun. I got bored with scientific confabs. It’s too bad more scientists aren’t more like bonobos.

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Cummings 7:06 am 07/13/2013

    Excellent article, Eric, and interesting to read the Dali Lama’s view of science. I did not know that.

    As for the now infamous Heffernan piece, it should at least get credit for stimulating some very good responses, such as yours here.

    This is not to argue against the proposition that Heffernan is an idiot. There is absolutely no doubt that she is. But sometimes, idiocies like Creationism spur good writers to write good explanations of science that might not otherwise get written.

    In one blog here in SA someone said that it only takes a second to say “the earth is 6000 years old” but it takes a lot longer to refute it. Well, so what? There is a lot of scientific illiteracy in the world and the long refutations of Creationism, Heffernanisms and other forms of mental disabilities are good learning tools for the general public, especially the general population of public school students.

    The explanations of what the word “theory” really means, and what the activity of “science” really is, bear repeating again and again. They are extremely important ideas. (Please see Gould for some of the best explanations ever.)

    So thanks again for a good piece. I enjoyed reading it.

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  3. 3. David Cummings 7:17 am 07/13/2013

    Here is Richard Feynman on some of these subjects:

    You should all make your kids watch this video.

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  4. 4. lrickard 12:00 pm 07/13/2013

    I think that the Heffernan problem, aside from her apparent reveling in being a flake, is the presumption that science has somewhere a belief in a Truth. Well, as you noted, we do have a ‘creed’, first intimated by Thales, that says we can start with the presumption that the universe does have a rational structure, and that that structure can be understood by us. But it’s not a Truth; it’s the Great Grandmother of All Hypotheses. We work AS IF Thales were right, and see what happens. And so far, an awful lot has happened in consequence.

    I suppose it’s possible to take the Dalai Lama’s approach: live AS IF the tenets of Buddhism are true, in order to live well. It’s possible because he’s prepared to alter those tenets when necessary. Alas, it does not so far seem possible for most People of the Book to follow that path.

    I guess that’s the basic difference. We follow the AS IF; they follow the I AM.

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  5. 5. David Cummings 6:27 am 07/14/2013

    I’m an atheist but I’ve always thought that some religions are better than others. To my mind Zen Buddhism is the best… though I guess you could argue it’s not really a religion.

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  6. 6. rosabw 10:30 am 07/14/2013

    Religious people are stupid. Scientific people are smart. Ad nauseum.

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  7. 7. RobLL 2:57 pm 07/15/2013

    There is and has always has been a strong component of the three Abrahamic religions which has taken a view essentially identical to that of the Dalai Lama. The common factor is the recognition that Truth as sought is a highly metaphorical pilgrimage. There is also a huge literature as to politics reverting to tribal and ultra-nationalistic cultures – and doesn’t even require religion.

    See Augustine
    See Hans Kuhn
    See “Religion in Human Evolution”.

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  8. 8. Roger12 9:45 pm 07/15/2013

    Another scientistic sermon trading on an “us and them” false dichotomy. There are Christians and other of religious extraction who are cutting edge in their fields of science, as well as secular types who rightly reject scientism.

    I grow tired of the straw-men and caricatures of religious faith that get bandied around in articles such as this one.

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  9. 9. JimClark46 3:52 am 07/16/2013

    No word yet from the Buddhists who do not agree with the current Dalai Lama’s views? Buddhists don’t even appear to agree about use of violence and aggression, judging from recent events in Asia. And the idea that belief in an ordered, predictable universe is a “creed” akin to religious beliefs is nonsense. If the universe was not predictable, then science would simply not work to create better explanations. But science does work. Hence, the universe must be predictable. That conclusion is not a creed in any informed sense of the word. Lots of other things to quibble with here.

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