A Comparative Study of Scientific Models and Religious Myths
Science and religion are not comparable, because they have different spheres of enquiry - A Comparative Study of Scientific Models and Religious Myths introduction. Science functions in the material sphere, and strives for strictly material explanations of the natural world. Religion on the other hand takes human experience as its domain, which transcends the material domain. Both however use analogy as their mode of expression. The scientist constructs analogical models, where measurement is the criteria. Religious myth also employs analogy, and the criteria here is human experience. Following this line of investigation, Alister McGrath offers a comparative study of scientific models and religious myths in his book Science and Religion: An Introduction. Mircea Eliade, on the other hand, believes that religious myths contain more significance than that which can be found through a mere comparison with scientific models. We consider both McGrath’s analysis and that of Eliade, as found in his book Myth and Reality.
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We first consider McGraths’s analysis, who finds strict parallels between scientific models and religious myths. It is not always apparent to the scientist that he employs analogy to express his empirical findings. The mistaken notion is that science describes the world in absolute terms. Francis Bacon had established the experimental method, which he describes as “a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting directly from the simple sensuous perception” (Bacon 1996, p. 40). Because science endeavors under such a positivist philosophy, the delusion remains that science is absolutist. But science cannot describe the world as it is, but must use analogy. A scientific model is in effect a creatively constructed analogy that aids in understanding a certain aspect of the natural world.
An instructive example of the scientific model is that which is used in the kinetic theory of gases. Before the theory was first developed by Rudolph Clausius in the nineteenth century, Robert Boyle had advanced the theory that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the pressure applied to it. Soon after this Jacques Charles in France proposed that the pressure of a gas is directly proportional to the temperature. But the fact is that Boyle’s law does not apply exactly for any real gas. Boyle did not observe an exact correlation between volume and pressure, as described in Boyle’s Law, with any of the gases he examined. He did however observe that the behavior of gases were always close to the description. With this general approximation, along with the general intuition, common to all scientists, that nature functions in the simplest and most harmonious possible way, Boyle arrived at his law through a creative impulse. It is really a model that he has used to express his findings. The inverse proportional relationship is a mathematical/logical construct, and serves as the model which Boyle’s Law emulates. If we follow the train of thinking sparked by this model, we see that what we have really done is conceptualized an “ideal gas”. Such a gas does not exist, but it can be imagined, and this is enough for the scientific model to work. We can combine Boyle’s Law to Charles Law, and if we do we then arrive at the ideal gas equation:
pV = nRT
[p stands for pressure, V for volume, and T for temperature, as measured in the absolute Kelvin scale; n is the number of moles of gas present in the sample, and R is the gas constant.]
Again, no real gas will behave exactly in this fashion. The relationship is a model that aids our understanding and investigation of real gases.
Boyle’s Law and Charles Law are examples of straightforward empirical models, where simple mathematical relationships are taken as the models which real empirical data are imagined to follow. Clausius arrives at the same result with a model that is slightly more involved (Pauling 1988, p. 323). He doesn’t just observe gases, but imagines a gas to be composed of countless molecules in constant and haphazard motion. The molecules are imagined to be perfect spheres, and at the same time as having no volume, even though they possess mass. A sphere without volume is a contradiction, but not for modeling purposes, because we are happy as long as we can complete the mathematics. The spheres are further imagined to be completely elastic while they bounce off the container walls. The last modeling touch is to make their speeds proportional to the temperature, so that while they have random direction, they all have the same speed. All that remains is to complete the mathematical and statistical calculations, after which we derive the same ideal equation as above.
The advantage to Thompson’s approach, which uses physics as well as mathematics, is that is allows the model to be built upon, adding more and more features so that the model comes closer and closer to reality. An observation could be that real gases do not follow the ideal gas equation exactly because real gas molecules have volume, whereas the model reckoned with no volume. Supposing the volume of each molecule to be ‘b’, and there being k number of molecules in total, a simple calculation for error would be to replace the volume V with the term (V – kb), giving:
p(V – kb) = nRT
The allowance is extremely crude, but it is a correction nevertheless. Further manipulations to the equation may be made based on further hunches. In this way scientists proceed creatively, fine-tuning their models, so that they have equations with remarkable predictive value, even though they have composed an elaborate fiction using analogy.
Religion uses analogy in a less disguised way. McGrath introduces the highly instructive example of Jesus Christ being described as a ransom. This is clearly a metaphor. Nobody will read in this description a human tale of kidnapping and the handing back of a person as ransom. It is clearly a narrative beyond the confines of the world. It is self-evident that the other world cannot be described adequately using terminology of mortal existence. Therefore, as of necessity, all religious discourse is highly metaphorical. The Bible is composed primarily in parables and metaphors. Jesus being a ransom is one such metaphor. McGrath suggests that, even though this is a completely different sphere of knowledge from empirical observation, religious metaphor nevertheless works on a principle similar to that of the scientific model.
He identifies three defining characteristics of the scientific model. Firstly, it must be an analogy, so that language applicable to one thing is applied to another. Secondly, there must be points of similarity for the analogy to work, otherwise it becomes irrelevant. And thirdly, there must be a limit to its applicability, so that beyond a certain bound the analogy breaks down. All three characteristics are noticeable in the analogy of the ransom. The paying of ransom is a human deed, not strictly applicable to the divine, and so we have a genuine metaphor. A ransom is paid to liberate someone held captive. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus Christ sacrificed his life so that mankind would be washed of their sins, and thereby attains liberation from the prison of mortal existence. Therefore we have a striking point of similarity, and thus the second criteria is met. But who is the ransom paid to. This is not clear, and therefore the analogy breaks down here, because a human ransom is always paid to an evildoer who is holding a captive. To say that the ransom is paid to the devil is to deny the omnipotence of God, and we cannot imagine any other recipient of the ransom. We must admit that it is the part of the analogy that breaks down. This is also in keeping with the scientific model, which must break down after a certain point.
McGrath then introduces the concept of complementarity in religious analogy. One analogy complements another, so that if there is a shortcoming in one analogy, it is made of for by another, and in fact both analogies complement each other to a certain extent. So that in the Bible God is variously described as King, Father and Shepherd. The analogy of King allows the possibility that God is a tyrant, which cannot be the case. The analogy of Father mitigates this possibility, and the one of Shepherd even more so. No two analogies completely complement each other. There will always be a shortcoming which must be met by a third analogy, and even more. It may be postulated that all possible analogies combine to make a composite whole that describes God definitively. But this is beyond the finite capacity of the human. This means that one cannot have religious knowledge, but only signs that point the way to knowledge, which are religious analogies.
But complementarity is also a feature of scientific models. Boyle was a chemist, and Thompson was a physicist. The ideal gas equation is result of the approaches of the chemist and the physicist complementing each other. Thompson could not have started at all without chemical analysis of Boyle firmly planted in his mind. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard postulates that all knowledge is “self-referential” (Baudrillard 2001, p. 6). Therefore an item of knowledge has no meaning in itself, but instead derives all its meaning through reference to other items of knowledge, or to other objects. To know something completely is to add all the references gained from everything else. But because this is practically impossible, all knowledge is partial, being from only a limited point of view. This is only another way of saying that all items of knowledge complement each other. Scientists have always been reluctant to admit the existence of complementarity, being more driven by the possibility of absolute knowledge. But the advent of quantum mechanics has advanced complementarity to the fore. The celebrated principle of uncertainty by Heisenberg postulates that it is impossible to have completer precision in both position and velocity measurements of a particle. To know the position precisely is to have no knowledge whatsoever of the velocity. This is quantum complementarity. It is a particular expression of complementarity in science as a whole. The interrelatedness of all knowledge finds even better expression in string theory. This branch of modern physics postulates a “super-symmetry” to exist between relativity theory and quantum physics, and indeed between all fields of physical enquiry (Feynman 2002, p. xxxviii).
McGrath’s analysis is restricted to epistemology. But religious assertions are “prescriptive rather than descriptive” (Braithwaite, qtd. in Long 2000, p. 288). It is not religious to merely read scripture and understand its import. Only when it impels one towards the moral life is it religious, and then it is not mere knowledge but experience. Barbour finds that this is not too different from what the scientist does.
As models of an unobservable gas molecule are later used to interpret other patterns of observation in the laboratory, so models of an unobservable God are used to interpret new patterns of experience in human life. (1974, p. 49)
But interpretation cannot exclude action. As Braithwaite sees it religious beliefs are “primarily declarations of adherence to a policy of action, declarations of commitment to a way of life” (Braithwaite, qtd. in Long 2000, p. 288). This leads us on to Eliade’s interpretation of religious myth. He also believes religious assertions to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. But he discovers in religious myths much more than mere policy statements.
Eliade introduces the concept of sacred time, as distinguished from profane time. Profane time is that which we experience in normal circumstances. Indeed science uses profane time to describe the natural world. Historical events are ordered in this scheme. But religion does not deal with contingent truths, but rather universal ones. Such truths exist beyond profane time. They are not true in such and such circumstances, but are true always. So if there be a narrative that expresses religious truth, it does not take place in history but elsewhere. Eliade contends that it takes place in sacred time. In terms of normal time we can say that events as described in religious myth are always taking place.
[T]he myth is regarded as a sacred story, and hence a “true history,” because it always deals with realities. The cosmogonic myth is “true” because the existence of the World is there to prove it. (1998, p.7)
The “realities” are also narratives of creation. People in the Western world are interested in the French and American revolutions, because they see it as a process of creation of modern democracy. Religious realities are far more encompassing, and deal with creation at the most fundamental level. Religious myth tells the story of such creation, and in such ways as to enable the worshipper to grasp the whole story, and not just fragments as in the case of literal history. They do so by chiming in with the experience of the worshipper, and thus are “self-authenticating models in which the universe discloses itself to us” (Ramsey 1964, p. 61).
Because the events in religious myth are always true and always happening, it demands from the worshipper more than mere knowledge and understanding. He must also participate in the myth from time to time, and this is accomplished through ritual. Religious ritual, according to Eliade, is a form of re-enactment of the myth. On most occasions the mystery behind the ritual is not consciously known by the worshipper, where nevertheless the performance of the ritual facilitates comprehension, which is more important. Eliade studies the myths of primitive peoples, because here they carry their proper force and function. He notices that the priests and shamans are initiated into the mysteries, while the lay worshippers follow their guidance. In such societies the sacredness of the myths are entirely preserved, and the myths are re-enacted with proper observance. In such societies we see that religious myth is not only a model for knowledge, but is also a model for experience. For these primitive tribes religious myth expresses fundamental realities, and through the re-enactment of the myths they guide society as a whole.
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