The way in which science is like a religion

Many years ago in one of those college philosophy debates I was challenged with the assertion that science, as a way of looking at the world, had no more claim to correctness than religion. That it was, in effect, a religion itself.

(Do you remember those conversations? Everybody seemed filled with intellectual fervor and self-righteousness and the debates carried on into the wee hours. Somehow not too many people changed their minds as a result of what they heard. There's a lesson there....)

It made no sense. Maybe if the person who said it to me had bothered to explain what he meant, I would have been able to forget all about it, but I couldn't. It has hung in the back of my mind for 20 years, awaiting support or negation. Finally I figured it out:

Science is like religion in this way: it makes the fundamental assumption that events are repeatable. Science says that if you can completely describe a situation, and later completely reproduce the conditions, the same events will follow. This is somewhat trivialized by the fact that when science says "completely describe", it means all the way down to the wavefunctions of every subatomic particle. It also includes the caveat that even our best descriptions are probably incomplete because we're still learning. However, it is a very real assumption, and if you think about it, there's no reason to take repeatability for granted.

If it weren't for repeatability, cause and effect would be replaced by coincidence. Science wouldn't have a leg to stand on. On the "strictly speaking" level, this is an absurdly philosophical debate - all those wavefunctions are unknowable in practice. But on the "how should I live my life" level, it has created two large groups of people making choices based on radically different assumptions: either I can understand the world and predict the outcomes of my actions, or it's out of my hands. Of course most people use some mixture of those perspectives, and many people oscillate depending on circumstance and mood.

Repeatability has consequences for theological debates as well: if you would always make the same choice given the same conditions, then does free will exist? And if it doesn't, how can a person justly be subjected to heaven or hell after death? Maybe this is the tiny crack at the bottom of the chasm between science and religion.

The choice didn't exist 500 years ago, before the rationalists and the empiricists got going. It's strange to me that they did their work specifically because they hated the things people did out of superstition. Hate is a strong word, but guys like Voltaire devoted their lives to skewering religion just to make room for their new way of looking at the world. Now that science has brought us so many technologies, it's hardly necessary, and I'm repelled by that adversarial culture.

As you might guess, I have very much drunk the liquid nitrogen Kool-Aid. It's unfathomable to me that things might happen for no reason. But I rarely argue that others should see the world the same way, because I might be wrong. After all, I'm still learning.