Saints and Science

The Roman Catholic Church (and others similarly, I believe) has a system for designating a hierarchical status of Sainthood – and various lesser beatified statuses – to deceased notables.

The Scientific Method, which has produced vast changes and improvements in knowledge and the human condition, is a rather different system. The following is a brief (especially for including just one aspect of the Scientific Method) comparison and contrast of the two systems.

The system for canonizing (a higher step in beatification) a Roman Catholic Saint is formal and specific. Well, sorta specific. The position of ‘Promoter of the Faith‘ has disappeared and is replaced by the ‘Promoter of Justice‘. These positions ostensibly have the same function – to provide evidence against a candidate’s canonization – but very different procedures. Now, skeptical or contradictory evidence is considered only if church authorities are in the mood.

The net process for achieving Sainthood is, essentially: (1) die (2) be popular with a bishop who can make a convincing case for your coolness (heroic virtue) ; this gets you on the ‘OK to pray to‘ list (3) get lucky enough that a sick person (or other person in need of supernatural intervention) prays to you for healing, instead of praying to an actual Saint or to the all-powerful God of the Universe (4) get luckier, so that the sick person claims that a prayer to you has healed them ; this is irrespective of any medical treatment they received (5) get so terrifically lucky that the sick person was not so horribly ill as to die (6) get lucky all over again with another person in need of supernatural intervention.

The Roman Catholic Church will examine these fortuitous events according to these generalized criteria: (1) is the candidate dead? (check!) (2) did someone pray to the candidate for something to happen? (check!) (3) did that something happen? (check!) (4) did someone else pray to the candidate for something to happen? (check!) (3) did that something happen? (check!). That makes a Saint.

The Roman Catholic Church will NOT examine these fortuitous events according to these generalized criteria: (1) did lots (thousands? millions?) of people pray to the candidate for something to happen? (2) did those somethings not happen? (3) did lots (thousands? millions?) of people pray to non-Catholic, or even non-Christian, dead persons for something to happen? (4) did those somethings happen without benefit of Church sponsorship? (5) did the two somethings that did happen, happen for non-supernatural reasons (medicine, human intervention, a generous donor)?

Quite a system they’ve got there, there in that Roman Catholic Church. Hell, folks could pray to Dusty Cat (may he rest in peace), have nice things happen, and the Holy See wouldn’t consider his feline soul to be beatified. It should – no real, substantial difference there. Dusty’s soul was beautiful, though.

Science is a bit less hierarchical. It can be political and competitive, but such is not always a detraction. In fact, as with the Free Enterprise System, competition is good.

The Scientific Method is fundamentally the opposite of beatification. Beatification seeks proof. Hey, we all want proof, right? It’s what we are evolved to seek – a correlation such as ‘eat red stuff, get sick‘ or ‘prayer, then healed‘. The Scientific Method instead seeks falsification.

Prior to the Scientific Method, science was not terribly different from beatification. The result was that it was subject to ‘false positives‘ – favorable results that were unrelated to the supposed cause. It too often ignored contradictory evidence. Vast amounts of work were wasted on alchemy, which really went out of its way to ignore negative results. You couldn’t falsify an alchemist’s pet supposition or belief.

All that sort of b.s. diminished to a tiny remnant when science began to depend on falsifiability. Gee, sometimes science falsifies falsifications! It has become absolutely insistent on only accepting results which have survived many attempts at falsification. In fact, even after a scientific theory – we don’t use the word ‘Law‘ any more – is accepted as ‘true’ (good enough for practical work), Science still re-checks periodically. The recent news from CERN‘s OPERA experiment regarding superluminal neutrinos is the latest example. CERN’s press release (not a peer-reviewed article claiming a reliable result) indicated the possiblility (with reservations noted) of neutrinos moving faster than the Cosmic Speed Limit – the speed of light. Everyone suspected a systematic error, and, by golly, there was one. But scientists always try. Newton (you know – the guy with the apple and that Law) needed some correction, and Einstein might get some too!

We owe modern life and the accelerating progress of knowledge to the Scientific Method. As for deceased Saints causing actual miracles, “Paris Hilton will win the Nobel Prize for Physics before that happens.


6 Responses to “Saints and Science”

  1. 1 Jim
    October 18, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Yep, science is, more than ever before, a team sport. Every aspect of life requires community (except for Robinson Crusoe). The neat thing about the Scientific Method – as it is actually practiced – is that there are mechanisms to maintain some control over the human tendency to abuse trust. The U.S. Constitution is another example of a system that incorporates implicit trust and explicit ‘checks and balances’.

    ‘Woo’ is an oldie that I often see on P.Z. Myer’s blog, ‘Pharyngula’ [http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/]. It is such a suitable word that NOT EVEN I can find better.

    PS – I can write reams about Southern Baptist woo. Maybe there is another post thying to get out.

  2. October 18, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Not every scientist can verify every result, just as not every mathematician can check the proof of every theorem he uses. Trust is always a component of our beliefs, it may be trust in God, trust in the authority of the church, trust in your fellow experimentalists, but the scientific method as well as theology always sits in a nest of trust. Or, in other words, science requires faith.
    By the way, I have never seen the word “woo” used. I can discern its meaning from context, but where did the word come from? Is it perhaps a Stone-ism?

  3. 3 Jim
    October 17, 2011 at 11:24 am

    I am suspicious of all forms of woo. Catholicism happens to offer the best example that I am familiar with. The Catholic Church would do well to return to using the Promoter of the Faith function. Advocacy must be balanced by skepticism. As much as I like to explain the beauties of falsification, I (and most everyone) don’t use it a lot for everyday decisions. We all depend upon our evolved capacity to correlate – so we seek verification, not near-absolute truth. Verify, but trust.

  4. October 17, 2011 at 7:28 am

    I am too fresh from leaving a church in which Catholic bashing was a sport slightly less popular than football to completely appreciate this post. But what I can completely appreciate is how well you describe and explain the scientific method. Excellent work.
    Each intellectual discipline, that can truly be called intellectual, has its own version of the scientific method. I think theology has its own version, but theologians do not seem to be trained in it, or have abandoned it. The Catholic church, and the other traditions as well, should return to their roots and I think your post can be taken as an exhortation to do just that.

  5. October 16, 2011 at 10:10 am

    While I believe in God, and Jesus, I have always been suspicious of the catholic hierarchy.
    It seems to be just the kind of thing that Jesus preached against. Just my view.
    I really don’t have the need to get into a full blown discussion on religious theory.
    Been there and done that, it’s a waste of time usually.

  6. October 16, 2011 at 9:55 am

    This is an outstanding post, and perfect artwork to go with it, Jim. Well done. It’s nice to have you back.

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