Friday, August 01, 2008

The Science of Gods and Variables

It occurred to me that there is a similarity between the number of variables in scientific models and the number of gods worshiped by people of faith. It seems like the trend over the millenia has been to reduce the number of variables and gods respectively. In the case of variables, the goal is zero while in the case of gods worshiped the trend has been towards one. But it makes me wonder if the ultimate trend for both is zero.

The evolution of science starts with a world where almost everything in human experience is a mystery. Over time, as cause and effect are discovered, the mysteries are removed. As science becomes formalized, scientists sought to broaden their knowledge by coming up with new theories for how the universe works and testing those hypotheses through experiments and measurement. Early in an area of study, there are multiple variables. But as theories are refined, more and more of the equation becomes known resulting in fewer variables. Theories on the cutting edge of how the universe works try to unify all the known forces into a single, elegant equation. There are still variables that are not fully understood but fewer than there were a decade ago.

Computer modeling follows a similar but inverse path. Predicting the weather is done by running complex models. Early models were simpler due to the limits of both understanding and computer power. Simpler models have more external variables in that fewer of the contributing forces are being factored into the equation. Over time, our understanding and processing power have increased and this has allowed us to reduce these external variables by incorporating them into the models.

This sounds very similar to the history of religion. To early humans, everything is a mystery. Cause and effect is beyond understanding and so, to compensate, gods are created that "cause" certain things to happen. With so many mysteries in the world, many gods are created, each responsible for one or more effects. One god is the sun, giver of light, another god brings the rains and yet another brings abundant or scarce harvests.

I don't know when the religions of the world peaked in numbers of gods worshipped. Poly-theistic religions remain to this day. But eventually a turning point was reached and religions decided that there were too many gods. This resulted in a slow but steady trend towards worshipping fewer gods. Religions that worshipped multiple gods were seen as engaging in "idol worship".

Catholicism tried to sit on the poly-theistic/mono-theistic fence by introducing the concept of the holy trinity: essentially saying that their one God is simulataneously made up of the father, the son and a very fire-like holy spirit.

Islam took a firm, mono-theistic stance with the Koran saying, "there is no God but God". Islam was laying down the law... that's it, there's only one.

Sir Richard Dawkins made this trend humorously clear in a speach I heard him give on problems of discrimination against atheists in the US. With all the focus we put on a candidate's faith here, an atheist, even if he/she was an amazing statesman, could never be elected president. Dawkins then made an interesting point. The general history of religion has been towards worshipping fewer and fewer gods until we reached the current situation where Islam, Judaism and Christianity all worship one god. "Atheism is not that different", Dawkins said, "we just go one god further."

I don't know if the two trends are linked. But it would seem natural that as science has illuminated more and more of the World's mysteries it would impact religious beliefs. As the sun is revealed to be a ball of burning gas, it makes less sense to keep telling everyone that it is a god. Perhaps the current debates over things like evolution are because some of the more extreme faith-based leaders worry about what comes after "1" when you are counting down.

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