What My Fridge Taught Me About Faith, Science and Progress

Posted on June 24, 2010. Filed under: Atheism, Personal, Religion, Science |

I like analogies.

My brain doesn’t wrap itself around verbose logical arguments well.  For better or for worse, my mind functions best as an unending spool of metaphors, epigrams, and anecdotes; poetry is the mother tongue in my head.

So with that said I want to show you something:

WTF?

If you are like most people you probably have no idea what the hell this is.  Most of you don’t really care.  What this diagram represents though, is something each of us likely uses every day.  It is a wiring diagram for a fridge.  This post is about my fridge, and what it says to me about the prism through which we discuss faith and the lack thereof.

What if I told you that you were unable to use a fridge because you couldn’t understand this diagram?  What if I said that you must now only use a root cellar because in order to use fridges, you must first understand all the science that goes into fridges?

I could tell you that root cellars have been used effectively for thousands of years, and they were good enough for your ancestors.  Root cellars preserve food well.  They require little maintenance and no electricity.  Root cellars are so much better than fridges.

So why do so many of us own fridges then?  Why even invent a fridge in the first place?

The answer to everyone who owns a fridge is obvious.  I don’t salt my meat. Why? Because my fridge is better at keeping meat fresh.  It can keep different foods at different temperatures,and it’s all conveniently located right in my kitchen.

So I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

What if someone told you that you couldn’t be an atheist because science doesn’t have all the profound answers to all the world’s questions?  What if someone told you that you must put your faith in ancient outdated belief systems because you can’t come up with an obvious answer to all life’s questions?

Islam has been around for a little more than a millennium, Christianity roughly twice that long.  Hinduism can better that by at least 1500 years.  In all that time they have only been able to do a half ass job of explaining the world around us.

The only thing world religions have been able to do is “salt the meat“; offer an imperfect but usable means of looking at the world around us.

But George, you say, religion is so much more than an explanatory filter  for the world around us.  It offers comfort in hard times.  It binds us together in communities.  It informs our morals and laws.

So it does; and this brings me to a second point.  A fridge is not a root cellar.  You will not likely take shelter from a tornado in your fridge, nor will you likely store a whole winter’s worth of food there.  There are things that root cellars do that fridges do not; things fridges weren’t designed to do.  Man has designed other things to offer shelter in a storm.  We have devised new ways to store a season worth of food.  What a fridge is though, is a specialist.  It is nearly perfect at doing the few tasks it is designed to do.

A fridge is not a root cellar, true, and Science is not a religion.  Science will not console you through the end of your marriage.  It’s not supposed to.  It will not offer you moral advice, for better or for worse; nor should it be used to.    Science is a prism through which we view our natural world, a way to understand how the universe works; a means to mold and manipulate that information into new technologies.

It is the only explanatory filter that is testable, falsifiable, verifiable.  It has a very specific job, one it does with uncanny accuracy.

There are other structures that offer moral guidance, and do a much better job than religion.  There are ways to commune with one another without the church; ways which, may I add, do not by their very nature exclude those with opposing views.

What I am getting at here is that root cellars are outdated technology, something that did a better job than no root cellar at all, but not a very good job to begin with.  Some people may own a root cellar and a fridge at the same time, but there is no doubt which one you keep your milk and eggs in when you get back from the store.  It was nice for a time to have food keep a little longer, to have somewhere to store your fall harvest.  It worked so well in the pre-industrial villages where our ancestors tilled the earth and worked the land.  Yet time marches on, and  man never ceases to chase progress.

So then, have we left the root cellars.

Just as I don’t really need to know geothermal theory to put my rudabegas in the root cellar, so too do I not need to understand that wiring diagram to grab a cold beer from my fridge.  I can feel contented in knowing that when I pull the ice cream out it will still be frozen, when I grab the milk it will still be fresh.  I can take to the bank the fact that my food will be better off in my fridge than the root cellar.  I know that because I can observe it.  Every time something comes out it is exactly as I should expect it.

So it is with science.  I don’t need to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics to believe in evolution.  I don’t even need to know everything about evolutionary theory to know that evolution happened.  I know that if I leave science to its own devices, the best possible answer will come out.  If I take the time to learn the theory, it turns out that is exactly what happened.

That sounds a lot like faith in science.  It is to a degree.  It is deserved faith- one that comes from observation and experience.

It is faith without fine print.

I don’t need to hedge my bets with alternate explanations for all the inconsistencies.  It is an explanatory filter that is predictable and self-correcting.  I don’t mind saying that I put my faith in science.  It has never failed to produce good answers.

I can also have faith that my fridge will be better than a root cellar- so long as I remember what my fridge is for.

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