Observation vs. Belief

Creationist Timeline

Creationist Timeline

Many observers have used the scientific method of observation, measurement, experimentation, and testing of hypotheses in ways that have challenged many of the facts that underlay religious beliefs. This is not to say that they have challenged the religious beliefs themselves–merely that they have made observations that were not what religious believers originally expected. For instance, Galileo’s observation that the Earth rotates around the sun challenged Catholic Church doctrine. Christianity has since adapted to this astronomical fact because the centrality of Earth was really just an assumption that made its way into Christian doctrine, not a core part of the religion.

Other scientific observations have challenged religious doctrines in similar ways. The evidence of billions of years of geologic change, hundreds of millions of years of dinosaur dominance, and the apparent evolution of millions of other prior life forms on Earth seem to contradict biblical accounts of creation. But creation stories don’t have enough detail to be scientifically disproved, only to be analyzed and seriously undermined.

However, scientists do not generally try and test religious beliefs themselves. They have generally explored only the physical universe that surrounds us in a pure quest for knowledge regardless of whether or not the answers challenge religious assumptions or core beliefs. This unwillingness to directly challenge the major religions could either be because they assume religious beliefs are untestable, they do not want to test them because they are religious themselves, or they are cowards because they know that there will be a public backlash against them. Charles Darwin spent years privately developing evidence for his theory of evolution because he well understood that it challenged Christian beliefs and would result in an uproar of disbelief and anger.

For the biblical stories to be disproved, they would have to be converted into theories that are specific and testable. Some religious scholars have already tried to estimate the age of the Earth by counting the number of generations of humans identified in the bible. This was done for religious rather than scientific purposes, but it at least identifies some basic assumptions, such as the average number of years per generation. The theory resulting from this effort is that the universe and Earth itself is only about 6,000 years old. Obviously, archeological evidence shows that humans have existed far longer than this, so this particular theory has been disproved to all except those who believe the bible is literally true despite any evidence to the contrary. Of course, religious believers can simply add more assumptions that change the theory to make it impossible to disprove. For instance, they could argue that archeological evidence is just an illusion of a fictional past.

Archeology is an example of a field of science that can be used to examine the validity of some elements of religious history. Many archeological studies of places and events mentioned in the bible have confirmed the existence of many people, places and many events. But it cannot verify their true nature. Whether events occurred as written, were embellishments of the truth, were completely fictional stories, or were a result of misunderstood natural forces rather than supernatural ones is mostly beyond the reach of the hard sciences (e.g. physics, archeology).

So why not expand the means of scientific analysis in order to undertake a direct study of those other elements of religious belief? I suspect that many scientists do not believe it can succeed or that it should even be attempted and most have not even considered the possibility. This is partly because it will take non-traditional means of observation and analysis similar to those used by the soft sciences (e.g. psychology, anthropology) than by the hard sciences. Theories generated from the soft sciences are more suspect than those of the supposedly more concrete hard ones. But they are the only ones that can deliver the needed evidence.

We need some theories and tests that could be used to scientifically examine specific religious or spiritual beliefs. But first, we have to define new, scientifically-acceptable methods of experimentation and analysis that must be mastered before such an effort can be attempted. These methods may not be traditional, but if they are conducted using the basic principles of the scientific method, they could provide meaningful results. If they are pursued with objectivity, deliver reasonably repeatable observations and measurements, and result in testable theories, then they must be considered valid scientific methods.

Since religion and spirituality invariably deals with life as well as death, we need a way to obtain data from the following situations:

  • Near death experiences
  • Communication with the deceased
  • Memories of past lives
  • Visions of spiritual masters or god
  • Spiritual or non-physical healing
  • Psychic communication between humans (ESP)
  • Communication with animals
  • The effects of prayer and meditation

Data from these situations can be used to test some of the core beliefs of many major religions and to build better theories about the nature of our existence. They can be used to test religious answers to the following questions:

  • Is there an afterlife, and if so, what is the nature of that life?
  • Can a mind exist without a brain?
  • Can memories be stored outside of the brain?
  • Can memories be transferred to another location?
  • Is intelligence just a set of algorithms?
  • Can those algorithms be transferred to another location?
  • Can intelligence be increased with more processing speed or memory?
  • What happens to consciousness immediately after death?
  • How is a mind stored after death?
  • Do human personalities change after death?
  • Do we continue to learn after death?
  • Can spirits (ghosts) be detected and communicate?
  • Do spirits get confused or lie after death?
  • What is the duration of the afterlife?
  • What are the characteristics of the afterlife?
  • Does reincarnation occur and, if so, when and how does it occur?
  • Are people reincarnated in proximity with other close friends or relatives?
  • Does mind-to-mind communication (ESP) occur and, if so, what is its speed?
  • In what circumstances and between which people is ESP most likely to occur?
  • Is there brain activity that can be measured when ESP occurs?
  • Does the body have an aura of energy fields surrounding its physical parts?
  • What is the nature of such energy and how can it be measured?
  • How is body energy linked to body mass or mental activity?
  • Does the body respond to other nearby fields of energy?
  • Can fields of energy be controlled to heal body mass?

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