The Second Post on Science and Religion

Another one inspired by 13:7.  Their post (from a week ago) starts by asking “Is an Equation on a T-shirt Enough?” 

Perhaps not on a t-shirt, but what about a tattoo?

My 4th tattoo

So that’s not TOE, The Theory of Everything, clearly, but it is a theory of everything within classical statistical mechanics.  And i spent a year tearing apart the equation, so I figured it was a worthy tattoo.

You cannot reduce everything to one equation.  I think any physicist will admit this.  And a TOE equation isn’t going to make sense to most people.  In fact, one of the most recognizable equations, E=mc^2 isn’t one that’s understood by most high school students. The goal of TOE is not to unravel the world, eliminate God, or diminish history.

This post is less about the theories of science and beliefs of religion than it is about the academic methods of both fields.  It’s about reductionism, and what it means to model an equation or to model a religion.  It’s a shorter version of a paper I wrote my first year of grad sch0ol, actually.

Models–equations and definitions–are utilitarian by design, meant as a guide and as a map.  Jonathan Z. Smith, one of my favorite religious theorists/historians of religion, wrote an essay called “Map is Not Territory” about 35 years ago.  His basic argument is that there are two kinds of maps or models, those of and those for.  A model of describes.  A model for is more like a map, an equation used to determine an outcome or a part of the process.  TOE would be a model of, once you reduce the theories of forces to a simple equation, it isn’t particularly usable anymore.  Something like religion is a model for.  It’s not meant to describe the workings of the universe, it’s meant to provide a guideline and a framework towards ethics, behavior, and community.  When a religion does serve as a model of, I at least prefer to think of it in terms of Buddhist or Hindu descriptions of the universe.  My favorite is one in which the earth is held up by a turtles all the way down.  These are models of that are so ridiculous that you can think of them only in simile, and in my opinion, provide more room to think and contemplate the nature of the universe. 

Of course there are examples of religions that are models of and equations that are models for.  What it comes down to, though, is that models–as equations and as religions–have their uses.  It isn’t reductionism to respect a model for what it is: a shorthand description for or of that which is represents.  No a t-shirt isn’t enough, nor is a tattoo, but for those who understand the mechanism of the equation, it opens up an entire universe.

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One Response to “The Second Post on Science and Religion”

  1. Aaron Leavy Says:

    I tend to think of it as the difference between questions and answers. The best science is fundamentally about answers – it is about testing and knowing and replicating. Science’s questions exist to be answered. If they are unanswerable it’s either a failure of the asker, or evidence in a limitation of current understanding.

    Religion on the other hand is best equipped to provide questions. And here the questions are fundamentally unanswerable. What is the right way to live? How should we engage with the reality of death and the uncertainty of what may be beyond it? How come suffering is not proportional to our own goodness? There’s no advance in theology or science that’s going to give an answer. The asking of the question, the engagement with the unknowing is where the money is.

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