Envision science and religion as cartographers huddled together in a dark room. Both can just barely make out a great map before them. It’s too dark to resolve any features, which frustrates them both. Religion pulls out a magnificent looking map of its own, which depicts a single great circular continent, and sea serpents prowling the waters around it.
He then proudly declares that ancient mystics had divined the contents of the great map before them in perfect detail many centuries ago, made a copy, and entrusted it to him. In that time, science had been busy building a crude spotlight with a variable aperture. “Let’s try this, and see how well the two match up”, he says. Religion confidently agrees.
Initially the lamp has very low power, so the aperture is kept small so as to maximize illumination, casting only a small spot of light on the center of the map. “Now we’re getting somewhere!” science says, “The map is brown! Or brownish, some sort of parchment!” Religion perks up. “Aha! As is my own map! You see? And to think that you doubted me.” Science shrugs and continues charging the battery. “You can stop now,” religion assures him, “we know my map is correct”.
But science, persistent type that he is, cranks until the light’s intensity is sufficient to widen the aperture further. “Aha! Some trees! I see trees!”Religion rushes to his side and protests, “But look outside, you can see only sand in all directions, and my map agrees. Something must be wrong with your instrument.”
Science raises an eyebrow. “It’s a spotlight. It merely reveals whatever is there.” As the charge increases, the spotlight widens again. “Ah, a coastline. An ocean is to the west, and I see that the forest extends to the north.”Religion pulls at his collar and sweats. “That’s too close to the center. There can’t be ocean there. You see only a coastline. It may be a river instead.”
Science shrugs. “Your map shows a single large landmass, with a sea serpent infested ocean bordering it. That’s looking increasingly unlikely. We live in a vast desert nation, and are occasionally visited by merchants from distants lands who tell us of an ocean beyond the desert, and of terrible monsters that dwell in it. Taking that into consideration, your map seems to depict exactly what someone might imagine the world at large is like, judging by observation of their immediate surroundings and the heresay of travelers.”
For the first time, religion detects that things are not going his way. He takes on a somber, determined expression and begins inwardly considering which tactics he might use to turn the tables. As they wait for the aperture to widen a bit more, science copies down what it’s revealed up to that point, and dots in a few trees to extend the forest a bit past the edge of what the spotlight made visible.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Religion asks. “Oh, well based on the extent of the forest depicted so far I’ve extended it just a bit further than the spotlight has shown.” A minute later the aperture widens. The forest terminates abruptly, with sandy plains just beyond.
“HAH! HAHAHA!” Religion dances about feverishly, pointing at science; “You were WRONG! So much for your methods! Time to go back to my map, I think. It shows desert there, which is consistent with the barren land just revealed!”
“Not so fast”, science urges, “I was just extrapolating a bit in order to attempt to predict what the spotlight will reveal next. It’s only tentative, that’s why I used gentle strokes, and graphite rather than ink. I believe that once I get a better idea of the geographical makeup of this landmass I can predict with reasonable accuracy what unseen regions of it will contain.”Religion quiets down, with a bit of grumbling, and then the two return to their seats and resume waiting.
The aperture widens again. “If that’s a river, it’s a mighty wide one. Sure looks like an ocean to me. And there appears to be a forest where your map shows a vast desert” Religion is becoming visibly stressed. “They both show ocean though, right? You’ve just got the location of it wrong. Or perhaps my map meant ‘ocean’ metaphorically, like an ‘ocean of trees’.”
Science laughs, “That’s called a forest. If the ancient mystics had meant to depict forest, they’d have depicted a forest.” Religion, red in the face, storms off for a bit as science continues to crank up the battery. Finally, at full brightness, the lamp casts an enormous spotlight which covers nearly all of the map, leaving only the edges in shadow. The map depicts a handful of continents and smaller islands separated by ocean….but conspicuously, no sea serpents.
Religion sulks in the corner, and science tries to comfort him. “You were against me from the start. You hate my map! You hate me!”, religion mumbles. “That’s not true”, science says, “I just wanted to see the great map for myself.” Science reaches out a hand, but religion swats it away. Sensing that he’s not wanted, science takes his leave.
A few hours later, religion emerges with a curiously upbeat attitude. “Take a closer look at the map!” Science obliges. It’s speckled with eraser dust and smudged graphite, obviously having been erased and re-drawn. But more notably, it now looks nearly identical to science’s own copy of the great map.
“That’s wonderful! I knew you were big enough to admit you were wrong.”Religion becomes deathly quiet, and frowns at science. “I wasn’t wrong. You just weren’t looking closely enough at the map.” Science becomes confused; “But you changed it. You went off, and you changed it to look like mine. Except you’ve still got some sea serpents here at the furthest edges.”
Religion snatches it away from science; “Nothing changed. The map looked like this all along. You were just too stubborn to thoroughly examine it. And I cannot help but notice that your instruments are unable to illuminate the edges of the map. That’s where my map clearly shows that the sea serpents reside.” By this point, science is feeling exasperated. “Look, you just copied my map and moved the sea serpents into the only spot that I can’t illuminate. You’re being dishonest.”
Years later Science is still tinkering away, increasing the lumens of his spotlight, as well as its radius. But even as he reaches the border of the map and all seems to have been revealed, religion remains unmoved. Perhaps, he suggests, the serpents are underwater, or on the back of the map. Perhaps the map does not depict the entire world, and the serpents are just outside the region it does depict? Wherever he believes science will never be able to investigate.
All the while he behaves as though unconvinced by his own arguments; petty, defensive, and feigning arrogance as if to heal his own wounded ego. Though he cannot ignore what science has revealed, his every attempt to claim credit for it has failed, and he is left only with excuses that he knows full well are hollow.
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