Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two Approaches to Ignorance

Science and religion have one peculiar similarity: they both thrive on ignorance. Neither one could function without it. If we knew everything, there would be nothing for science to test, and there would be no gap for religion to fill with God. But does this mean that science and religion aren't so different after all? Surely ignorance can't be a good thing in either case. Do they, perhaps, share a common fault?

No. What matters is how science and religion respond to this lack of knowledge.

Religion revels in ignorance. Without a sense of the unknown, there's nowhere for God to hide. Whenever someone responds to a tough question—like why 17,000 children starve to death every day—with "God works in mysterious ways," they are invoking ignorance as an impenetrable defense of their beliefs. Any unusual phenomenon that science has yet to fully explain—like eclipses and epilepsy in the past, or abiogenesis at present—is taken by the religious to be evidence of God. Believers use ignorance as both shield and sword: it lets them hide from the hard questions of religion and baselessly attack the hard questions of science. (This is why Bill O'Reilly seemed so irritated when he was informed that the tides can, in fact, be explained: he had lost his only means of assault.)

B–but the moon never miscommunicates with the ocean!
Science views ignorance as a challenge. The unknown is valued for what it represents: potential knowledge. When a field is in its infancy, the scientists in that field are brimming with excitement, because there's so much uncharted territory to explore. For example, we're making extraordinary strides in genetics, having gone from mapping the human genome in 13 years with $3 billion a decade ago to doing it in 8 days and $10,000 today. Yet the study of epigenetics is just beginning, and we're still far from mapping all the other important systems. What will we eventually discover? How it will affect our understanding of everything from evolution to neuroscience? What applications will it have for improving our lives in the future? When these questions are answered, we will overcome a fraction of our ignorance and reap the true rewards of science.

While it's true that ignorance is essential in both science and religion, its relationship to those two realms could hardly be more different. I think it may be best to summarize with an analogy. If science and religion were racehorses, ignorance would be the ground they have to cover before reaching the distant finish line: a full understanding of our universe. But while science gallops determinedly toward victory, religion wallows in the dirt, believing that it has already won.


  1. Religion wallows in the dirt so that it trips science. However, in each round, science leaps over the the fat horse on the ground.