Science vs. Faith; or, Janeway finds religion?


“False dichotomy” is one of my favorite terms. Here is a definition from Wikipedia. Essentially, a false dichotomy is a type of logical fallacy where two points or sides of an argument are placed in opposition to each other as if they are the sole options to consider. Often the two options are portrayed as mutually exclusive: as in, “you are either for us or against us, there is no middle ground.” When I first learned this term, I fell in love with it, because it illuminated a very popular ploy in our culture that I hate. When people want to pursuade you of their point of view they will often try to polarize it with something that forces you to accept their point as the “right” option.

A good example can be found in the post 9-11 era. Often, the pundits who were carrying water for the White House (as Rush Limbaugh put it in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty) would pin down opponents of White House policy as “hating America” or “supporting the terrorists”. “Why do you hate America?” was a popular response to any criticism. Either you support the president, or you hate this country — that is a false dichotomy. It was very effective for a time.

A false dichotomy ignores the possibility of a third (or more) option, in order to manipulate perception. By presenting people with an either/or dilemma, you can force them towards an option they don’t really want. In-groups of all types, like cults and political parties, use this ploy to cultivate the blind loyalty of their members. For instance, scientology doesn’t have to convince their members that donating more than they can afford is a GOOD idea. They simply have to assert that the only other option is failure to support the “noble” goal of clearing the planet. If that’s what you want, fine. If you buy into this, and you care about being a good scientologist, you will pursuade yourself to take out that second mortgage to up your “status”. The false dilemma does not allow for other possibilties: perhaps a “good scientologist” would refuse the relentless demands for money; or perhaps being a “good scientologist” is a questionable goal if it means being scammed.

Learning to recognize a false dichotomy is useful in being an independent and open-minded thinker. It keeps you from falling back on lazy, black-or-white understanding of matters that are subtle and complex. It makes you suspicious of jingoism and easy answers. There is a bit of mental discipline involved, to train yourself to examine the questions as well as the answers. If the question is skewed by a particular bias, then any answer is of limited value. Questions can easily be framed to exclude certain info from consideration that might undermine a given point of view. Human nature is such that most of us actually use this kind of thinking, in order to justify the easy assumptions and biases we apply to the world. This is normal, and not necessarily bad. It is an expedient way of simplifying the complicated experiences we deal with every day. Who has time to take everything in? It only becomes a problem when you come to depend on it as a way to validate your point of view.

My favorite example of a false dichotomy our culture embraces is “science vs faith”, aka: “mysticism vs materialism”. The idea that these two things are mutually exclusive is a popular one. I would go so far as to say it serves as the unspoken backdrop for a lot of the conclusions we draw collectively, as to what ideas should be taken seriously. The willingness to put faith in religious or mystical ideas is even seen as a barometer of intelligence and rationality. The assumption being, the more mystical, the less intelligent, in general. Those who report experiences that are generally regarded as “paranormal” — that is, unaccounted for by our current science — are seen as foolish or irrational at best. It begs the question: are these two conceptual filters, mysticism and materialism, truly mutually exclusive? I think not. It seems obvious, considering that science does not have exclusive claim to intelligence, reason, or even pragmatism.

Understanding that is key to resolving this false dichotomy, which is based on the unspoken idea that one side or the other does have such an exclusive claim, and there should be a clear “winner” there. This is not confirmed by practical experience. Science functions through precise measurement and accurate and thorough analysis and rectification. In our culture, there is a tendency to equate objective precision and accuracy with a larger sense of intelligence and truth. This is a misleading assumption. These things overlap, but they are not the same. Immediate human experience and perception, although subjective and often “irrational”, are an equally important part of the big picture. Forgetting this can lead to accepting things like e-meters, or doctors’ prescriptions, even when they don’t actually work as promised.

It is a big topic I am addressing, but the point I want to toy with here centers on some simple questions. What happens when your direct, practical experience is firmly outside the bounds of what science can currently measure and explain? Is it ever truly rational or intelligent to dismiss the simple fact of your sensory experience just because you do not understand it? How pragmatic is it to ignore what is happening right in front of you, because it cannot be easily explained? These are questions that have a lot of personal relevance for me. I am a very intellectual and linear person by nature, and when I was younger I had no use for mystical or paranormal matters. If it wasn’t established as proven by good science, it was just an entertaining fiction in my view. However, direct and undeniable experience has forced me to look at the things science cannot explain, and take them seriously.

I think it is not a question of whether the paranormal is “real” or not. It is a question of when science might eventually reveal the mechanisms behind things we experience that are as yet still mysterious. There is no either/or dichotomy here. Why? Because science is incomplete, and so is human understanding. Neither one can claim to have all the answers in any given situation. “No scientific explanation” is not the same as “not real”. “I don’t believe that” is not the same as “not true”. Which leads, oddly enough, to an episode of Star Trek: Voyager that I would like to share with you as food for thought on this question.

The title is “Sacred Ground”. Even if you don’t like Star Trek, or sci-fi in general, I still recommend that you seek out and watch this episode. (Netflix streaming has it; season 3 episode 7) It is an exceptional story that deals quite elegantly with the question of science vs. faith / materialism vs mysticism. The Captain in this series, Janeway, is a woman of science who is strictly devoted to correct procedures and rational decision-making. However, she is also devoted to her obligation as Captain to keep her crew safe. So, when a crew member is dying and the only solution involves faith and intuition, she is put in a fascinating double-bind.

All their technology and analysis can’t help in this situation, and she must trust a “mystical” source for the answer. She must also confront her own assumptions and expectations and set them aside in order to save the day. As usual, time is terribly short so she has to disregard her personal discomfort and take her best shot. Fortunately, she has a very helpful guide. If you don’t care to seek out the episode (although I very highly recommend it) here’s a you-tube summary, complete with terrible mystical music, that covers the high points.

Spoiler alert: of course, she saves her crew member. But she has to let go of her need for an explanation and trust in what she has learned. Thus, she is led to an epiphany — science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Then, of course, the ship’s doctor does eventually find a sci-fi scientific explanation for the whole thing. But this clip shows, by that point Janeway is not much impressed by the “why” .

It is left up to the viewer to decide why she reacts that way. It seems the scientist has learned some respect for the nature and value of faith, as it functions for an intelligent and pragmatic person.

There are different kinds of knowing. That is the idea I offer for your consideration…


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