Science & Religion

May 12, 2010

I’ve been having a discussion with David about this issue that started on the comments to my Blathering for $$$$$$$$$$ post and then transferred to my Fuzzy Thinking #48 thread.
It started with my irritation at Templeton Prize winner Francisco Ayala’s contention that science and religion are different ways of knowing. My latest response to David’s latest comment has become so long that i’ve decided to put it up as a new post and invite any stray readers to add their perspective.
I’ll post what i wrote this morning and edit and add to it over the next few days.

Hello David, I have finally found some time to reply to your various points. (chronic toothache, i’m discovering, is inconducive to metaphysical inquiry).

Moderates and fundamentalists.
First, your irritation at being bundled up with fundamentalists and so on. Of course, I understand that, but, unlike the atheism conflation, Harris isn’t guilty of conceptual confusion. His point is straightforward; he claims that the religiously moderate give “cover” (I believe that is his precise word) to religious extremists by normalizing irrational beliefs. Moreover, it is arguable that extremists are more faithful to their scriptures. This relates to a crucial point about moderate belief: on what basis does the moderate cherry-pick scripture? By what criteria are passages of scripture rejected or accepted? The answer to this question forms a devastating argument against morality having any basis in religion.

The definitional question.
I neglected to state that the second definition of “atheism” assumes rejection of the supernatural. Yes, it is basically humanism. It would be odd to describe Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler as humanists, but this is what is being said when Dawkins is challenged with their crimes! It’s an incoherent accusation.

Faith schools
Finally watched the Big Debate last night. I’m utterly opposed to state funding of faith schools and open to the idea that a secular state should ban them altogether (i stress “open to the idea” … i’m also open to counter-arguments to this strong secular position).

Ken Wilbur
Your quote:-
Ken Wilber points out that “mystical experience is indeed ineffable… like any experience – a sunset, eating a piece of cake, listening to Bach’s music – one has to have the actual experience to see what it’s like. We don’t conclude, however, that sunset, cake, and music therefore don’t exist or aren’t valid. Further, even though the mystical experience is largely ineffable, it *can* be communicated or transmitted, namely, by taking up spiritual practice under the guidance of a spiritual master or teacher (much as judo can be taught but not spoken; as Wittgenstein would have it, the mystical ‘can be shown but not said’).”

Sorry, David, but what on earth is he talking about?
eating cake is a mystical, ineffable experience and nobody disputes cake exists.
experience of God or gods is a mystical, ineffable experience and so why does anybody dispute that God or gods exist?

Is that a fair summary?
Is he saying anything less ridiculous than that?
Judo isn’t taught? Karate? I was taught karate: “shoulders square” “crisper punching”.
And my retort to Wittgenstein: experiences similar to professed mystical experiences can be fairly precisely replicated in the neuroscience lab by use of drugs, electrical stimuli and so on.

OK, well, to the meat.
Indeed, you are right. Knowledge is the heart of the question here. But were we to clarify millennia-old epistemological matters in this modest exchange we would be blasted into blogosphere stardom. So let’s leave aside the problem of defining knowledge and press on.

Your quotation of Wordsworth is fascinating and could not really be more apt.

Several things i’d like to say in response:-
– my initial response was one of recognition (“Yes, i know what he means”) and no doubt a more complete knowledge (used in the everyday sense of the word) of Wordsworth’s life and work would give me a more precise sense of what he is expressing, but even with this i could be mistaken about Wordsworth’s experience, and my own sense of this wisdom might be a fair distance from his. In fact, considering the temporal distance, my experience might necessarily be qualitatively different in ilk. In other words, i’m alluding to the irreducible subjectivity of such experiences (and speculating as i do so by using such words as “necessarily”, “qualitatively” and “irreducible”). In any case, it is hardly something to be put against quantum theory as an alternative form of knowledge, and i see nothing distinctly religious, let alone Abrahamic (by which i mean simply Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in it, unless one takes seriously the view of Karen Armstrong that the essence of all religion is compassion. Hmmm … it’s not easy to write concisely about these matters but let me attempt to summarize. If you want to call this “knowledge” then go ahead (i’d prefer, say, “wisdom”), but in relation to the original dispute – Ayala’s claim that science and religion are two ways of knowing – two problems remain: 1. this is clearly not something that sensibly stands in the same category as quantum theory or the theory of special relativity 2. the work of demonstrating in what way this insight is religious (or Abrahamic, not merely in the trivial sense that it arose in a country with an Abrahamic tradition) rather than magnificently human falls to you or Ayala.

– rejection of the supernatural does not entail the viewpoint that poetry, literature, dance, painting and so on have no value!! despite what the popular culture apparently thinks. Cultured scientists regard all those “unweaving the rainbow” fears as a stunning failure of the imagination. In fact, rejection of the supernatural, as Matthew Arnold pointed out in the 19th century, leads to greater value being accorded to art as an alternative world of contemplation. I can’t really stress this point enough. Everything is available to the atheist, even scripture, even theology. All grist to the contemplative mill.

– i would describe monotheism as “a way of not-knowing” rather than “a way of knowing” though i wouldn’t accuse all monotheists of this. The unweaving the rainbow notion is a virtual proof of this point.

– ugh! my brain needs a rest. Other work to do. Let me continue at a later date. I’ve kept you waiting about 10 days for my reply, so please accept this for now.


3 Responses to “Science & Religion”

  1. Hi Don,

    It would be good to hear from others…

    A few quick points…

    Your suggestion of “wisdom” for my quotation of Wordsworth seems quite promising.

    I agree that poetic appreciation is something that everybody can share. I mentioned the case of Shelley (on the Fuzzy Thinking post) as an obvious example of a 19th century “atheist” (or with his “world spirit” perhaps “pantheist”) with a deep poetic sensibility. If I had to choose between the company of a fundamentalist Christian (in the commonly accepted meaning of that phrase) and a poetic atheist in the Shelleyan mould, I think I know which I’d prefer.

    My intention in quoting Wordsworth was to try and open up the conversation about knowledge on something like neutral territory.

    As usual there is much more to say! I shall try to respond to the other points in due course.

    There is a good dentist in Itsukaichi, opposite the station.


  2. ukdonjp said

    Let me proffer a couple of ideas.

    I wouldn’t entirely object to claims that there is such a thing as “religious wisdom”. And yet, rejecting the supernatural as i do, i regard such wisdom as the result of human contemplation and reflection, nothing to do with revelation, which i think is a degrading notion. Wisdom has something to do with contemplating experience and something to do with reflection on the limits of knowledge (&c &c).

    Knowledge, though, i regard as arising from free inquiry, that is “science” in the broader sense, including, say, rationally conducted history. The key concept here is “rational”: proportioning belief to evidence (or better to hand this over to AC Grayling – “‘Ratio- nal’ means what it says: a proportioning of the hypothesis to the grounds for advancing it, a ratio between the degree of credibility and the strength of the evidence.”)

    “Evidence” is the other crucial consideration. This word sits uncomfortably in discourse on wisdom where talk is more likely to be of “experience”.

    I guess this is why Ayala’s glibness irritates me so much; he collapses crucial distinctions. Anyway, these are my latest gropings towards an answer …

  3. You asked about what the Judeo-Christian tradition had contributed to knowledge.

    What is interesting is that the scientific method emerged from a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world.

    Firstly there is the insistence that God is the Creator of “all things visible and invisible”, ex nihilo, which in turn assures us that the universe has a rationality that reflects that of God the Creator.

    Secondly, the act of creation was free, proceeding from God “not out of any necessity whether of being or of knowledge or of will but out of pure freedom which is not moved, much less necessitated, by anything outside of itself so as to be brought into operation” (Duns Scotius)

    From this we understand that the universe had a beginning, is rational and is contingent (not necessitated). Its ultimate “ground” is beyond itself although in itself it has an integrity – a contingent order – of its own.

    Thirdly, the theologians of the early church period were engaged in working out the relationship between God and the created universe in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. That God revealed himself to man through the Incarnation of the Son suggested that God was both separate from the created world and the upholder of it as opposed to the Greek tendency to see cosmology and theology as much the same thing. This freed up the study of the creation from the contemplation of the Creator, separating the study of the works of nature (which ultimately developed into modern science) from theology. The rationality of the universe was a given, based on the rationality of the creator. These ideas emerged out of a dialogue between Judeo-Christian and Greek thought – you can see the influence of both in the NT.

    Without these ideas, which originated in Judeo-Christian theological reflection – especially in the Christian theology of the early church (and were taken up again by Duns Scotius and I guess by Roger Bacon) – on the nature of the universe, and which are essential to the modern empirical sciences, those sciences would not have developed as they have.

    The idea of contingence was obscured for centuries during the corrupt ascendency of the Papacy and the authority of Aristotelianism, until the former was shaken by the astronomers and the latter by Francis Bacon (plus his more practical contemporaries).

    Newtonian physics seemed to suggest to the followers of Newton (if not to Newton himself) that the universe was a closed, stable system based on causation (as opposed to contingence) and operating within the bounds of the two constants of time and space. (Marxists have yet to get beyond that stage of rational development.) It is not surprising, therefore, that the notion of an eternal universe and co-eternal God or “World Spirit” (as Shelley came to see it) or simply “nature” lent credence to various forms of pantheism and atheism, for if the universe were closed and had no creation there was clearly no creator. Shelley:

    You know as well as I do that that position no longer holds and that the atheist no less than the theist has had to shift his ground in the light of scientific advancement, which is something that both should celebrate.

    The emergence of relativity theory and quantum mechanics vindicate the view of the Nicene church that (1) there was a beginning to the universe and that (2) it is contingent and (3) although bounded, is open and not ultimately grounded in itself but beyond itself [I’m tiring – this will have to be gone into in more detail…] – ultimately beyond the capacity of our
    reason to penetrate.

    What is clear, however, is that the methods and the discoveries of western science do not stand outside of the insights of the Judeo-Christian tradition and therefore the knowledge they bring us are one of the chief ornaments in this world of that tradition.

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