I was thinking about the story in the news of the young woman found hanged with her feet tied together and her hands tied behind her back. As incredible as it sounds, the police have determined that she committed suicide.
Here, interestingly is the conflict of science and religion.
Forensic science, and I suppose some good old-fashioned police experience, saw past the obvious in this case -- a woman hung from a rope with hands and feet bound. I would have assumed that she had been killed. But there was a way, demonstrated by the police in a video, by which the woman could have done it herself. This is good science -- observe the situation, propose a hypothesis that would explain what happened, design an experiment to test the hypothesis, run the experiment and see if it confirms the hypothesis.
But why would the woman do what she did? We can guess about the motives, maybe even gather some anecdotal evidence (like the note she left behind) about what she was thinking, but ultimately we can never know for sure what was in her mind at the end. There is no science that can be conducted on the dead's thoughts; might be some day, but not now.
Is there nothing that can be known about motives? Of course not. We can draw on all the information we have, we can compare notes from similar situations, we can examine our own actions and feelings and gain an understanding, and we can ultimately choose to believe what we want about why the woman did what she did.
Would we be right? After all, there would be no proof available -- we could not confirm the hypothesis. What we would conclude would only be an inference from the few things we knew for sure, from the science available to us.
Could we be right? The probability of stumbling on the right answer purely by chance is, I suspect, not much different than the chances of random inert elements coming together to form sentient life forms, yet sentient life forms abound.
The young woman's family understandably rejects the police findings. From what they've seen and what they know, they can not believe that she would kill herself. The inference they make, from the things they know, adds up to an entirely different conclusion.
Science is the language of how things happen. Religion is the language of why things happen. Of course there is bad science, and there is bad religion. I am always dismayed when people try to use religion in place of science, or science as a religion. However, I've never found them to be incompatible or mutually exclusive.
We are insatiably curious creatures. Unlike the animals that appear to be content with simply being, we want to know everything about ourselves and our environment. We want to know how the woman managed to hang herself with her hands and feet bound, and we want to know why she did it. We want to know where we are, what is this place in which we find ourselves, and we want to know why we are here.
The discovery of how and the discovery of why are two distinctly different disciplines.
I make this point in part because recently my beliefs were described to me as being superstitions. Superstition is defined as a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like. That's not an apt description of what I believe.
Suppose I believed that holding a toad would give me warts. Fine. As a Catholic, I am taught that my belief can and should be informed by reason, so I would have to consider all the information presented to me. There is compelling science that proves that toads are not the source of warts. If now I persist in my belief that toads cause warts, I could rightly be accused of being superstitious.
However, to look at the intricacies of the universe, to marvel at the sheer wonder of improbability of sentient life, to contemplate the beginning and the irrevocable end of all matter, and to then infer from this that there is a benevolent direction occurring is not irrational. In the language of science, this is not fact, but neither is it superstition. It could be described as a hypothesis, one that there is currently no way to test. In the language of religion, it is called faith.
The young woman who hanged herself is dead, and we feel compelled to determine how and why she is dead.
We are alive, and it is no less important to determine how and why.