Why Religion is Incompatible with Modern Science

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Introduction and Overview

There are many common characterizations of science and religion that claim an incompatibility between the two, but upon closer examination, all these characterizations can be shown to be false. That doesn’t mean that science and religion are similar or identical; they are indeed incompatible, just not in the way their incongruence is presented frequently.

After describing many false distinctions between science and religion, this article argues that the true distinction between the two is that religion is founded on a qualitative understanding of reality while modern science is based on a quantitative description of the same reality.

Since the qualitative and quantitative descriptions cannot be reconciled, therefore, modern science is forever incompatible and irreconcilable with religion. We also cannot reduce the vocabulary of qualities to quantities, and we cannot live without the qualitative vocabulary.

Therefore, science can never replace religion, although by undermining the qualitative vocabulary we will undermine societal structures, and ultimately destroy the institutions of science. Many people envision a science-religion “synthesis” to prevent this societal collapse. However, all attempts at “synthesis” are impossible due to the unbridgeable divide between qualities and quantities. The problem can only be solved if reality is described qualitatively both in science and religion. The qualitative description can also be scientific, and such a description is found in Vedic philosophy. Under this qualitative description of reality, the science-religion conflict disappears, and thereby the demand for their supposed “synthesis”.

False Characterizations of Religion and Science

Let’s begin by discussing the many false characterizations of science and religion. They are all quite popular, and yet, they are mostly unexamined. All these create artificial dichotomies between the two, and upon closer inspection, we find that these dichotomies are false.

One characterization says that science deals with the “natural world” while religion deals with the “supernatural”, although the terms “natural” and “supernatural” are not well-defined. If by “natural” we mean things that we can observe, then, we cannot observe the electron or the gravitational field (these are theoretical concepts, used to explain observations). Since they cannot be observed, therefore, by the above definition of natural vs. supernatural, they should be considered supernatural. You might say: Well, electrons and gravitational fields are not directly observable, but they are useful in explaining what we can observe. In short, their effects are perceivable but the reality is itself not perceivable. That criterion can, however, be applied even to concepts such as soul and God. For example, the postulate of the soul can be used to explain death and the persistence of identity in this life even as the material body is changing. Likewise, the postulate of God can be used to explain the origin of the universe and life in it. Since the soul and God are unobservable, and yet, they are used to explain the observations, therefore, science is not more natural than religion; both make unobservable postulates to explain the observable phenomena.

Another characterization says that science is rational while religion is not. This is true of some religions, but not of every religion. Many Eastern religions present detailed descriptions of the nature of reality, which have been debated rationally for millennia. The philosophical discussion in Vedic philosophy especially makes the charge of irrationalism false. It is true for traditions that did not have philosophical origins and philosophy was added subsequently as a way to rationalize the claims, not as the basis on which the claims originated. These philosophical rationalizations have never been complete in many religions, which is why we can say that they are irrational. But that is not the case for religions that began in philosophy or were always accompanied by philosophical justifications. Irrationality is not the trait of these religions. Belief in the soul, God, and transcendence are therefore not irrational per se; they seem irrational in religions where firm philosophical foundations of such realities were never clearly established.

Yet another scientific critique of religion says that religion does not produce new experiences in the present world while science does. This criticism is also true of many current religions, although not of every religion. The Eastern religions always speak of processes that lead to mystical experiences, in this life. They can be confirmed by practice and personal experience. While many personal experiences may be private, they are not limited to one person; they are repeatable by everyone. Therefore, the charge that science produces new experiences but religion doesn’t, is false. Indeed, just as we cannot reproduce scientific results without following the proper experimental procedure, similarly, we cannot recreate mystical experiences unless we follow the stipulated process. The two are identical in this respect.

Some people say that the claims of science are falsifiable whereas those of religion are not. Again, this applies to some religions, not all. Those religions that focus on mystical experience and prescribe processes for it, can easily falsify the false claims of those religions that may have concocted them. False ideas about the soul and God, or even the body, are falsifiable by following the stipulated practice when the opposite facts are confirmed by personal experience. The charge of unfalsifiability is true for those religions where a process of practice and attainment is not presented. There are indeed some religions that don’t prescribe a process and practice. They are in principle unfalsifiable because there is no way to confirm if the method of practice works, and hence whether the claims they make are true or false. However, this criticism doesn’t apply to those religions which prescribe a process for mystical experience and attainment that can be tested by anyone who sincerely follows the process. Therefore, the claim that science is falsifiable while religion is not, is also not true of religion per se.

Finally, many people claim that religion is based completely on faith, whereas science is not. This is also contrary to fact because faith is needed in science too; if you don’t have faith in the teachers of science, then you will never go to school, never learn what they are teaching, and never validate what they have to offer. If you don’t have some faith in a scientific theory, then at the first sign of failing to observe its predictions, you will abandon the attempt at observation. Without faith, you will not try to build bigger or better instruments that can validate the theory. You need to believe that the theory might be true tentatively to even conduct difficult and expensive experiments. Likewise, science is also based upon many assumptions that are just faith—e.g., that the laws of nature are unchanging with time and place, that the same kind of matter exists everywhere in the universe, that the big can be reduced to the small without loss in fidelity of explanation, that there is nothing in the universe other than physical properties measurable by instruments. There is no empirical evidence or rational justification for these assumptions. Even as these assumptions make scientific theories simpler, simplicity cannot overlook necessary complexity. The faith in these assumptions becomes dogmatic when necessary complexity is ignored and science stridently sticks to the assumptions even when they are not working. The dogmatic faith says: We will keep trying to use the same assumptions and we will be successful in the future—without any justification about why the future holds greater promise. Faith in the assumptions of science even when these are failing makes the practice of science as much a dogmatic faith as many religions. Therefore, both science and religion involve faith, and science is as dogmatic in its faith as many religions; this is not a difference between the two.

In summary, science and religion are not different as rational and irrational, verifiable and unverifiable, faith and skepticism, natural and supernatural, falsifiable and unfalsifiable. The charges of irrationality, unverifiability, unfalsifiability are true for some religions, but not all. The reliance on faith is universally true, although that faith need not be dogmatic; however, there is as much dogmatic faith in modern science as in the most dogmatic religions. Similarly, when science creates fanciful and unrealistic theories about reality, it produces its own supernaturalism that is never confirmable by any observation; on this count too, science is as supernatural as religion.

Setting aside all these common misconceptions about science-religion differences doesn’t mean that they are identical or even similar. There is a difference, which makes them incompatible, although not in the way that most of us presently imagine. So, what is the difference between science and religion, if not natural vs. supernatural, rational vs. irrational, falsifiable vs. unfalsifiable, experiential vs. non-experiential, faith vs. skepticism?

True Differences in Religion and Science

The difference is quality vs. quantity. Religion is founded on the quest for permanent happiness. It says: To be eternally happy, one has to be righteous; to be righteous, one needs to perform deeds guided by moral values; these deeds then involve the understanding of the world as perceptions and concepts. Thereby, the qualitative understanding of nature begins in sense perceptions of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound, extends into the object concepts like table and chair, carries forward into the virtuous ideals of beauty, justice, sacrifice, and kindness, and culminates in the qualitative experiences of pleasure and pain. From our ordinary life, we know that this qualitative language of sensations, concepts, intentions, relationships, and happiness works; indeed, it is the foundation of all societies.

However, the connection between moral action and happiness requires an understanding of the laws of action and consequence; these laws can only be based on the idea of qualities because the consequence of actions requires the notion of right and wrong, which requires all aforementioned qualities. For example, if something is wrong then it must be punished; that punishment is possible only through the quality of pain; conversely, the reward of good requires the idea of pleasure. Without pain and pleasure, there cannot be right and wrong. Then, to obtain pain or pleasure, there must be some objects, these objects must be usable by our senses of action (e.g., hands and legs) and knowable by our senses of knowledge (e.g., eyes and nose). This requires the entire repertoire of worldly conception and perception, and since pain and pleasure depend on conception and perception, therefore, right and wrong also depend on them. Finally, the vocabulary of right and wrong must depend on moral virtues such as kindness, truthfulness, sacrifice, etc. Otherwise, we will have no way to decide why something is right and other things are wrong.

Thus, the connection between moral action and happiness requires the complete qualitative vocabulary of our experience. It begins in ordinary sensation and conception, progresses into pain and pleasure, which have to be governed by moral virtues, in order to produce true happiness. If we minimize ordinary sensations and concepts, then we minimize pain and pleasure, followed by the minimization of moral virtues, and ultimately the idea of true happiness. The progressive rejection of qualitative vocabulary thereby leads to abject unhappiness, such that we no longer even remember or understand what actually started the problem in the first place.

The qualitative language about nature leads to the description of nature as cause, effect, and consequence. Instead, if nature is studied as quantities, then the idea of causality only involves cause and effect. When causality is limited to cause and effect, then the scientific understanding of morality is lost, because the consequences of actions become unscientific in a quantitative description of reality. As our actions cease to have consequences, then the eternity of the soul also becomes unscientific. This leads to the conclusion that death is the end of all life, which then leads to the rejection of eternal life and God, and eventually to the collapse of all religious thinking. Conversely, the existence of the soul and God requires the notion of moral action and consequence, and then an elaborate language of qualities.

To illustrate cause, effect, and consequence by an example, we can think of an employer-employee relationship. An employer pays an employee at the end of every month; the work of the employee is the cause, the benefits for the employer are the effect, and the employee’s remuneration by the employer is the consequence. In the scientific language of cause and effect, an employee will work and produce some work, but the employer is not required to repay the employee, because there is no logical and causal necessary connection between one cause and effect (work and result) to another (the employee getting compensated for their work). When this connection is destroyed, then society descends into cheating, exploitation, theft, and the mighty misusing their power over the weak. And this destruction of moral action is the direct consequence of the thinking in science that causes only lead to effects, and never to consequences. The scientific idea of happiness is based on cause and effect, while the religious idea of happiness is based on cause, effect, and consequence. The religious language of morals in turn depends on the understanding of material reality as qualities, rather than physical quantities. When the quality language is replaced by quantities, then morality declines, soul and God are rejected, and selfishness and immorality take over.

Even as science depends on the language of qualities pragmatically, it tries to convert them into quantities using theory and experiment. The experiments replace our senses, mind, judgment, morals, and pleasure with scales and moving pointers. The theories replace our qualitative vocabulary with one of the physical properties and their numerical values. Science is partially successful in this endeavor. For instance, there are no measuring instruments for taste, touch, and smell. There are no measuring instruments to ascertain tables and chairs. There are no measuring instruments to determine justice, beauty, kindness, and sacrifice. And there are no measuring instruments for pleasures and pains. Measuring instruments for the soul and God are not the only missing instruments; most qualities are not measurable.

However, some perceived qualities have corresponding measuring instruments. For instance, the quality of color can be measured using an instrument that seems to reduce color to “wavelength”. The quality of hardness can be measured using an instrument that indicates “tensile strength”. The quality of heaviness can be measured using an instrument for “mass”. The qualities of fast and slow can be measured using instruments for detecting “speed”. And the qualities of hot and cold can be measured using thermometers that seem to detect something called “temperature”.

Even as science converts some qualities into quantities, the measurement of speed, weight, temperature, tensile strength, and wavelength, is never equal to the corresponding observation of qualities. For instance, even when color is said to be nothing other than a wavelength, the fact is that we never perceive light as a wavelength; we always perceive it as color. The scientific explanation of color perception says that light enters our eyeballs, where there are separate detectors for red, blue, and green, which separate the color components and send electronic signals to the brain. In short, some electron signifies “red”, while other electrons signify “blue” and “green”. How some electron becomes a significator of color shades, and how that significator then turns into the experience of color, is never explained. And it cannot be explained, because no electron, atom, or molecule is ever going to be “color”. It will always be a combination of four physical properties—momentum, angular momentum, energy, and spin. This creates explanatory gaps because the measured values don’t explain the observations, although we think they can. Taste, touch, smell, pain, pleasure, beauty, justice, kindness, and sacrifice are all atoms according to modern science, but (a) we never perceive them as atoms, and (b) we cannot explain how atoms produce what we do experience.

This leads to the problem that observation is not measurement. An observation involves qualities, whereas a measurement involves quantities. Since there is no way to convert the quantities back to qualities, hence, we can never reduce our experience to measurements—even when we can perform a measurement. The problem is much worse when we cannot perform a measurement of qualities that we can experience ordinarily.

All religious thinking comes from the quality of happiness, transforms into the qualities we call moral virtues, then transforms into the quality of righteous action, which then requires the qualitative senses of action and knowledge, which depend on a qualitative understanding of the world as smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. Humans are described through qualities of personality such as extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, etc. Even society is structured based on qualitative relations such as husband-wife, parent-child, employer-employee, experimenter-theoretician, etc. Science tries to transform this immensely complex vocabulary for qualities into quantities; it partially succeeds in creating quantities corresponding to some qualities, but always fails in explaining how the quantity produces the quality. The euphoria of partial success leads to bombastic, unjustified, and ultimately false claims about having reduced qualities to quantities, such that all qualitative claims of religion, which are in turn based on everyday vocabulary and intuitions must be false. Religion on the other hand continues with its qualitative narrative in which a quality that remains eternal despite the changing perceptions of perceived qualities is additionally postulated. This is called the soul; it has a qualitative personality that distinguishes it from the other souls into a unique individual. And finally, there is a requirement for the understanding of the origin of all these temporary and eternal qualities. This origin is also a person—God—and therefore has a unique qualitative personality, different from the personalities of the individual souls.

The conflict between religion and science is based on the conflict between qualities and quantities. Modern science began by trying to remove the observer from the study of reality, then rejected all the human qualitative vocabulary, and then invented a new vocabulary of quantities, measurements, and equations. This invention continues to depend on the qualitative vocabulary in scientific institutions. And it cannot be preempted because science has never been able to explain even the simplest of perceptions based on quantities. Claims of scientific superiority would be true if science was able to explain qualities based on quantities. But it cannot. And yet, it persists in claiming its superiority. The challenge to this superiority is not just soul and God, but also the pervasive, and the most ordinary sensations and experiences. If science cannot reduce these qualities to quantities, then it is futile to say that the worldview of qualities is false, and quantities are the only reality. In fact, by making such claims, science ends up becoming the denial of commonsense far more than the denial of any religious claims.

Methodological Commitments of Modern Science

This denial of commonsense constitutes the method of science. One of the cornerstones of modern science, for instance, is the Lockean distinction between primary and secondary properties; the secondary properties are qualities, while primary properties are quantities. Science is methodologically committed to studying the world as quantities, and not as qualities; it is committed to denying the reality of qualities, and uphold the reality only of quantities. Similarly, another cornerstone of modern science is the Cartesian mind-body divide, in which science will only study the body, which is described as res extensa, or something that has only one property of extension or length. When this dualism is transformed into materialism, then, even if you feel pain, it has to be reduced to some length. When you are in love with someone, that has to be explained based on some length. Ontological materialism, where matter is defined as physical properties—all of which ultimately reduce to some length along some physical dimension—is the method of science. Whatever doesn’t fit in this method is ignored.

In fact, methodological materialism relies on insulting those who bring up the questions of our experience and the reality of the qualitative vocabulary, rather than trying to answer the questions that they are raising. If you talk about any perceived quality as being irreducible to physical properties or try to add it to the scientific vocabulary, then hardcore materialists will try to humiliate you by calling you “pseudoscientific”. This establishes the virtue signaling of materialists; for them to be true, commonsense must be false. Science relies on overturning the common-sense vocabulary of happiness, pleasure, moral virtues, righteous action, object concepts, and sense perceptions, and replacing it with physical properties, instruments, and equations, without explaining the former based on the latter. When the flaws of the scientific method are exposed, the materialist mocks those pointing to the flaws. Most people are too ignorant to understand what science is saying and too scared to question its assumptions. So, the false substitution of commonsense (qualities) with scientific claims (quantities) continues.

The idea that science and religion are compatible, or that they can be synthesized, relies on (a) the obfuscation of the conflict between qualities and quantities, and (b) the urging of humility on the part of scientists. The humility is not unwarranted—after all, there are so many qualitative experiences that can never be reduced to physical properties—and since science methodologically relies on these physical properties alone, it can never explain them. Humility is warranted because science is forever incomplete in explaining human experience, beginning with ordinary sensations of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. However, the obfuscation of the problem that qualities can never be reduced to quantities leads to the illusion of compatibility and claims of the possibility of some synthesis between them.

The fact is that the methodological commitment to quantities makes science and religion incompatible. But this incompatibility exists even between science and commonsense. Why single out the conflict between religion and science, when ordinary experience is equally contradictory to science? Why should we treat the scientific claims of the non-existence of soul and God any different than the claims of the unreality of smell and taste? The fact is that they are not. People may pretend that the ideas of soul and God are incompatible with science but taste and smell are not. Truth be told, the worldview of quantities is incompatible with every quality, including the qualities of ordinary sense perception. The special status of soul and God would arise only if science had been able to explain the ordinary conscious experience, without invoking soul and God. Until then, taste and touch are just as much qualities as soul and God. In Vedic philosophy, the hierarchical dependence between these qualities progressively takes us from smell to God. Therefore, we don’t need to worry about science contradicting God; we just need to worry about whether science can explain the quality of smell. We can start at the bottom of the quality hierarchy, and move upward gradually. On the other hand, if we disregard smell and taste as something to be explained in science, then we create a vocabulary of science that pretends to not need soul and God in order to explain ordinary observations. And this pretense goes unchallenged because we frame the science-religion conflict in terms of numerous superfluous and false dichotomies that we discussed above.

The Qualitative Description of Reality

This is where Vedic philosophy becomes important because in this philosophy the world is described as qualities rather than quantities. There is no such thing as mass, energy, momentum, charge, temperature, and dozens of other physical properties used in science. All these things that science considers “real” are not actually real. Reality is qualities. When these qualities interact, they produce effects, including the movement of a pointer on a measuring instrument. The interaction of these qualities also produces sensations, thoughts, emotions, and relationships. The movements of pointers on measuring scales are as much a product of quality interactions as conscious experiences. While pointer-measured properties cannot explain our perceptions, the quality interactions can. In short, quality interactions can explain both pointer movements as well as conscious experiences. Due to its versatility in explaining both physical effects and subjective experiences, the quality description is real. And due to the inability of physical properties to explain subjective experiences, the quantity description is false.

Under the quality view of reality, a pointer movement is real but not reality. Real means that it is an effect that we can perceive. But it is not reality because the pointer movement should not be inferred to mean that the objective reality is indeed such physical property quantities. That is because if we conclude that the pointer movement entails that reality is quantities, then we can never explain even the simplest of our experiences.

When the world is objectively described as qualities, then the conflict between religion and science disappears. However, whatever we call “science” now, is not modern science. It is still rational and empirical, it is not merely based on faith (although it requires faith in teachers), it is falsifiable and verifiable, and it includes the natural as much as the supernatural.

Now, the “natural” is some contradictory qualities (called the three modes of nature), and the “supernatural” is non-contradictory qualities (which can be understood once we understand the natural qualities). Science and religion are still different in the sense that the former deals with contradictory qualities, and the latter with non-contradictory qualities. These are called duality and non-duality in Vedic philosophy. But they are conceptually compatible in the sense that they are both talking about qualities. As the study of quality progresses, we develop an understanding of those qualities that are less contradictory to each other. For instance, the qualities of truthfulness and kindness are often compatible, but the qualities of hot and cold are always contradictory. Going deeper into the understanding of the qualities leads to fewer contradictions, although they continue to exist. These contradictions are resolved when all qualities are rejected, leading to the cessation of all experience. Then, further progress means the rediscovery of qualities in a form that does not involve mutual contradictions.

The soul is now understood as the combination of three qualities—cognition, relation, and emotion—with unique individual preferences in these. Matter is understood as limitations in the qualities of cognition, relation, and emotion, such that when one quality is present, then other qualities are necessarily absent. And God is understood as unlimited cognition, relation, and emotion, or the source of all qualities. Thus, the contradictions between the study of matter, soul, and God—which we call the conflict between science and religion—disappear because we are talking about reality as qualities, the interaction of qualities, and the effects produced by these interactions. Everything is now “scientific” in the sense that it is rational, empirical, verifiable, and natural; even the supernatural is natural in this sense of “science”.

The Question of Science-Religion Synthesis

Modern science and religion are forever incompatible; they can never be reconciled, their conceptual contradictions can never be resolved, and their worldviews can never be compatible. There is simply no possibility of their “synthesis”. Conversely, when the world is understood as qualities, then there is no conflict, contradiction, or incompatibility between science and religion. Then, we don’t even need to talk about a “synthesis” because one subject leads to the other. The idea of the synthesis of science and religion is thus either impossible (in current dogmas about science) or unnecessary (in a qualitative view of matter and the resulting views about science).

There is, of course, a burgeoning field of religion and science, which debates the differences between religion and science, and hopes to create a dialogue between them. This is one of those things where a possibility of union is imagined because the dichotomy is founded on false distinctions. Intelligent people can see that many claims about the science-religion dichotomy are false; that realization leads to the idea that they can be reconciled. But this is a false idea because there is indeed a dichotomy, that makes the two irreconcilable. The goal of unity between the two hinders the discovery of the true dichotomy as that will quickly destroy the dreams of their unity.

The true dialogue between religion and science can begin from the examination of the methodological commitments of science to describing nature as quantities, understanding why that commitment is detrimental to scientific progress, and seeking an alternative method and commitment to studying nature based on qualities. But this is not likely to happen, because it means rejecting all that science has done in the last four centuries. Hence, the effort spent on trying to reconcile religion and science is most likely a waste of time. The better use of time would be where we devote effort to understanding and explaining nature, soul, and God as qualities.

Personally, this is why I have steered clear of attempts to synthesize religion and science. Certainly, the conversations between those who seek such synthesis seem more amicable and mutually respectful. The conversation that begins by questioning the method of science seems utterly disrespectful and detrimental to a dialogue between religion and science. But the question is: Can mutual respect in the dialoguing parties and the desire for mutual alliance automatically solve irreconcilable differences? We assume that we can find a middle ground through dialogue because we don’t recognize the true issues. Good intentions to fix an illness combined with the absence of diagnosis of the illness isn’t going to produce a cure. The discussions on science and religion compatibility, the need to find common ground through dialogue, and the desire for synthesis are good intentions that lead to nothing. If we get past the desire to synthesize, then we can find the truth free of contradictions and that truth will not be in the need of artificial synthesis.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Why Religion is Incompatible with Modern Science," in Shabda Journal, September 28, 2021, https://journal.shabda.co/2021/09/28/religion-incompatible-with-science/.