It seems in a lot of the so-called debates between science and religion, there's a lot of confusion about the difference between the search for factual knowledge and for understanding, and the corresponding difference between descriptions and models.
A description is a list of statements about a real-life object or collection of objects, such as 'the Moon is made of cheese' or 'the majority of people have 2 thumbs'. Such a description may be true or false (or neither, depending on your notions of truth) and it may be complete or incomplete (though a complete description of anything interesting will be impossibly long unless certain conditions are imposed). If you attempt to describe something, you are attempting to obtain facts about it.
A model is a whole artificial universe, consisting of objects and laws of interaction, that attempts to emulate the structure and behaviour of something. Unless we have a complete description of something, there is no way to be sure that the model is perfect; however, a model can 'fail' if it predicts one thing when the reality is otherwise. However, this is not fatal, as long as the failure is not too serious, as the purpose of a model is to understand
something about how the real thing works, by making a 'toy version' which can be more easily manipulated than the real thing (eg a model star, or a model country). Also, models make no claim to be exactly like reality; all that matters is behaviour. For example, most scientific models have a concept of 'force', and yet to use the model we don't need to believe that there are things out there called forces, merely that particles behave as if
under the influence of forces.
How do science and religion fit into this? Well, science and religion BOTH involve descriptions AND models, but their use is slightly different.
In science, the descriptions are of a rather limited nature: they are a list of results of experiments which have been peer-reviewed, repeated and so on and are generally accepted (note: this does not mean that they must be true, but makes it sufficiently likely that for most purposes we can treat them as true). The models, however, are extremely large and complicated, and a great aim of science is to unify models as far as possible (for example, there is now a single model featuring the concepts of electromagnetic, strong and weak 'forces'
Religious attitudes vary greatly. There are some religious beliefs (such as Biblical literalism) which involve a high degree of description: There is exactly one god, Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected, etc. But a lot of religious thought has been guided towards understanding how the world works rather than giving a list of true statements, and as such religions can also have models. For example, many Buddhists believe that the world is essentially indescribable to the unenlightened, but that enlightenment can be attained by considering models which in some way describe approximately how the world works, eg reincarnation or the mind of an 'individual'. This is even true in most brands of Christianity, in which sections of the Bible are viewed as allegorical
: they aren't literally true, but they are useful for fostering an understanding of the real world.
So where does the confusion arise? Well, consider the statement: 'Scientists believe that God doesn't exist.' What is being said here is that scientists believe the descriptive statement 'God does not exist' to be true, but this is not the case: in fact, many scientists believe in God. However, God does not feature prominently in their models
, because he is not necessary to understand the details of how the world works. From a modelling point of view, it doesn't matter if you say 'God induces massive particles to accelerate towards each other' or simply 'Massive particles accelerate towards each other'. It only becomes sensible to include God in the model if you feel that behaviour is so complicated and arbitrary that it can only be made sense of by the direct involvement of some unseen intelligent force, which has certain properties such as 'goodness' (so things happen because it is 'good' if they do). Hence believers and non-believers alike may agree that a model is 'good' (which simply means it helps us understand how things work) even if they have different views as to the underlying reality.
Am I getting anywhere with this? Any suggestions as to how the above could be made more effective? After all, what I've just written is not really a description of how people think, it's only a model