Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Turtle Moves.

Sinister Weekly for the week of February 22 - March 1.

I'm reading a book by Terry Pratchett called Small Gods. If you're not familiar with Terry Pratchett, he writes a very funny series of comic fantasy books that take place in the Discworld, a flat circular world that rests on the backs of four elephants who are standing on the back of a turtle. If you enjoy Douglas Adams, you'd enjoy the Discworld series.

Anyway, I won't get into the details of the book, but there is a passage in it that struck me, and it puts me in mind of people who try to discredit scientific fact by equating it with religious belief. People who accept the reality of evolution are called "evolutionists," who "believe in evolution." Scientists who use hard data to describe the effects of human activities on the climate crisis "believe in global warming."

I'll quote a short passage from this book, which I think illustrates the point quite well. In this scene, a philosopher is trying to convince a crowd of people who are used to being told to believe things and have faith that the fact that the Discworld rests on the back of a turtle swimming through space isn't something worthy of belief, because it's just fact.

"Sir, surely only things that exist are worth believing in?" said the enquirer, who was wearing a uniform of a sergeant of the Holy Guard.
"If they exist, you don't have to believe in them," said Didactylos. "They just are." He sighed. "What can I tell you? What do you want to hear? I just wrote down what people know. Mountains rise and fall, and under them the Turtle swims onward. Men live and die, and the Turtle Moves. Empires grow and crumble, and the Turtle Moves. Gods come and go, and still the Turtle Moves. The Turtle Moves."
From the darkness came a voice, "And that is really true?"
Didactylos shrugged. "The turtle exists. The world is a flat disc. The sun turns around it once every day, dragging its light behind it. And this will go on happening, whether you believe it is true or not. It is real. I don't know about truth. Truth is a lot more complicated than that. I don't think the Turtle gives a bugger whether it's true or not, to tell you the truth."

It struck me that in this passage, Terry Pratchett is really illustrating the essential conflict between science and faith - science is, whether you believe in it or not. Religions, gods, require people to believe in them in order to keep existing. Without belief, religion dies. Yet gravity wouldn't stop working if everyone on the planet stopped believing in it. Evolutionary processes would continue to happen even if nobody was paying attention. Even when everyone was convinced it was the other way around, the earth continued to revolve around the sun.

Thus, the anti-science crowd has got it backwards. Scientists don't believe in evolution, or gravity, or global warming. Scientists see data, analyze it, and come up with a theory that fits the available facts. If the available facts don't fit the theory, then the theory has to change. There's no belief, no faith, no stubborn refusal to accept new information that contradicts a central dogma. Science is. The Turtle Moves.

This is not to say that there's no place for religion and faith in the world. Science has nothing to say about anything that it can't test, measure, or analyze. If you believe that there is more to the universe than can be tested, measured, or analyzed by science, then that's where faith and religion can fit. It's when religions try to take the place of science that trouble arises - because religions, by their very nature, don't apply the same rigorous scientific standards for analysis, study, and the willingness to accept all possibilities based on the available data. And religion's inherent tendency towards the utter conviction of its own infallibility is the reason it can and should never be used as a substitute for science.

The Turtle Moves, and it doesn't care whether you personally believe that it does.