Angry Doctor

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Invisible Man 2

Today angry doc would like to feature a letter that does not comment directly on healthcare, but which he thinks illustrates to a certain extent the difference between modern medicine and many forms of alternative medicine.

angry doc reproduces the relevant paragraphs below:


Writer has got it wrong
by Shyamal Ghose

"Science and religion differ on how they approach these questions. The processes they follow are diametrically opposite to each other.

Science follows a particular methodology for explaining the reality around us - the methodology of induction and deduction. Induction is based on data, and deduction on logic, which is formalised in the language of mathematics.

In fact, science is defined by this methodology, and not by the subject matter it studies, nor by its specific findings. As the scientist, John Casti, puts it in his book, Complexification, science is more of a verb than a noun.

Religion, on the other hand, has nothing to do with data or logic. Its approach to explaining the reality is based on speculation, dreams, mythologies, visions and subjective mysticism.

Dr Ho has got it completely wrong when he suggests that science defines reality by what can be studied by its method, that anything that cannot be so studied is denied existence, that all religious claims about transcendental non-material reality are 'defined away' and are 'not allowed' to exist.

This is a bad distortion of the scientific approach. In fact, Dr Ho turns the scientific epistemology on its head.

Science does not compartmentalise reality into that section which is amenable to its method, and that which is not and then 'define' away the latter. There is no reality, as experienced by human beings, either directly or indirectly, that cannot be studied by science. But it has one dogma. It will only follow the method of induction and deduction - data and logic - in trying to understand this reality.

But, why this dogma? What is so great about induction and deduction? Well, it is the only method that works. We survive in the real world (and have survived throughout the whole history of our existence on this planet) by applying consciously or unconsciously a myriad of technologies ranging from the simplest, such as a twig from a tree to scratch my itching back, to the most complex, such as the computer on which I am writing this.


All of these technologies are the result of understanding the nature of reality by applying the methods of induction and deduction, sometimes, almost intuitively, as in the case of the twig, and sometimes more deliberately, as in the case of the computer.

In contrast, there is not one single evidence of an alternative explanation of reality, through, mysticism, the supernatural, et cetera, actually working in the real world. There are millions of anecdotes, brilliant myths, evocative literature, but not one piece of verified evidence.

Now, in applying the principles of induction and deduction, there are many speculative hypotheses about the existence of various entities which do not pass the test - entities such as ghosts, angels and transcendental supernatural beings.

In this list could also be included things like unicorns and aether. Science does not believe in ghosts and spirits and God, not because they are not amenable to the scientific method, but because there is no evidence, empirical or logical, of their existence.

Science does not believe in unicorns and aether (any more), not because they are outside the scope of science, but there is no evidence of their existence. The supernatural is not 'ruled out by fiat', as Dr Ho says, but by lack of evidence.

Actually, the protagonists of religion and the supernatural are acutely conscious that they cannot stand up to the scrutiny of induction and deduction. So, they make out as if they are playing a different game, where the rules of induction and deduction do not apply; where a different epistemology rules.

They just postulate the existence of the supernatural and go on to build elaborate, but vague, speculative structures of concepts, not needing to be constrained at all, either by the demands of data or logic.

They package all that up in some obfuscating verbiage and call it a special kind of reality which science cannot penetrate, thereby hoping to gain legitimacy for their unbridled speculation. Dr Ho's article is another exercise towards that end.

Now, anybody has the right to withdraw from the real world and create an artificial construct for his own pleasure. It is like playing Monopoly with its make-belief currency and special rules of property ownership based on the throw of a dice.

Everybody is entitled to such indulgence. Enormous trouble would arise, however, if the player attempted to use the Monopoly money for real-world transactions. Unfortunately that is what happens when religion claims to have explanations for the real world phenomena and thereby provide answers to questions of values, morality and purpose."


"Dr Ho ends his piece by advocating humility on both sides of the debate. Here also, let us take a reality check. Science is the most humble and humility-generating human endeavour. Since it relies on data which are ever changing, all scientific truths are 'contingent' - till such time as contrary data do not overthrow current truths.

There are no absolute truths which are unquestioned for all times to come. No matter how exalted the position of Einstein, one verified evidence of contrary data, no matter how lowly the student or research worker who generates it, will overthrow the theory of relativity, and replace it with some other that is better able to explain the new data.

Science is the only human endeavour that progresses by trying to prove itself wrong. It accepts a theory only if it has failed to do so - and even then, temporarily. The only absolute for science is its epistemology - data and logic.

Contrast this with the posture of religion. All religions claim absolute, universal, eternal truths which can never be questioned. Even though different religions propagate different wisdoms, they all claim that their truth has come directly from God. How much hubris is required to claim that a book that was written 2,000 years back has the answers to the problems of life today! There is no humble egalitarianism in religions. All religions arrogantly claim special dispensation from God for their adherents.

So, how should we deal with religion then? With great respect. Everybody should study religion - all religions. But only as history; as a part of mankind's brave striving to make sense of his reality.

It does not matter that the religious explanations of this reality do not hold water any more in the light of modern scientific epistemology. The subsequent invalidity of a hypothesis does not detract from the glory of exploring it in the first place.


Ptolemy and Newton are no less revered figures today, even though their schemes were overturned at a later date. The problem arises when religion is yanked out of its setting in history and is made to masquerade as an explanation of eternal reality and a prescription for modern life."

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1 Comments:

  • Science and religion will NEVER be allowed to peacefully coexist. No carefully worded argument can change that. Religion cannot stand up to the scrutiny of science. Everyone knows this and has known it since Gallileo was thrown in prison for proving that mass doesn't affect acceleration on Earth. I wish it were otherwise.

    By Blogger Mike, At June 04, 2007 3:32 am  

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