Friday, October 18, 2013

Anthropocentrism I

The great intellectual accomplishment of the Copernican Revolution, according to a certain version of the story of religion and science, was the displacement of humanity from the center of the cosmos. Scientific investigation is supposed to have progressively called into question the sort of anthropocentrism one finds in religious texts. The eastern wisdom traditions (Buddhism and Hinduism, in particular) do not necessarily fall prey to this sort of criticism. But the anthropocentrism of the revelatory religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), which place the human being in the privileged place of being the image of God or the vice-regent of God, runs into difficulties.

What Nicholas Copernicus did accomplish was the spatial displacement of humanity for the center of the cosmos. Instead of celestial objects orbiting the earth, the earth now orbited the sun. After placing the sun at the center of the cosmos, Copernicus speculated further about the possibility others stars might also be suns in their own right, and space might be infinitely greater than almost everyone prior had dared to imagine. Over the next few centuries, scientists grew more and more confident that the location of the earth was astronomically insignificant: the sun was shown to be located in the outer reaches of the Milky Way. Our galaxy, it was further discovered, was one among a great number of galaxies, whose position had no discernible center.

An objection which can be immediately raised is that this spatial centrality and the sort of anthropocentrism found in religious texts are not necessarily equivalents to each other. Regardless whether human beings are in the spatial center of the universe or not, it is not as if human being ever cease to be at the moral center of their own universes. We act with our own intentions in mind, which makes us, in some sense, responsible for our actions.

Let's set aside moral questions for the moment and look more closely at different ways scientists might 'measure' the human being. The most notable scientific challenge to the supposed Copernican displacement of humanity from the center of the cosmos comes from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The argument presented by Darwin in The Descent of Man is that the difference between human beings and other animals is not an absolute different of kind, but a relative difference of degree. All living beings share in the same 'stuff', as it were, but that 'stuff' has a greater density and complexity in the human being than it does other creatures.

The mental capacities of human beings, which Darwin discussed at length, are a case in point. Previous thinkers had pointed to the human mind when they needed to make a case for the absolute dissimilarity between the human being and other animals. For nearly 1500 years Christian and Jewish thinkers had identified the human mind with the image of God. Human beings might share a considerable amount of bodily features in common with other animals, but the mind or the rational part of the soul, was the part of the human being that best reflected God because it was the fountain of human creativity, the seat of the human will, and that which enabled the human being to come to knowledge of the order of nature. Darwin argued that all of those features of the human mental life—memory, emotion, imagination, and even rational thought—could be found in other animals, only this would not have been developed to the same degree. His insistence human being did differ in degree from other animals still leaves the door open for an anthropocentricism of a very different sort: evolutionary superiority.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Aristotelian Problem of Motion

This is taken from Herbert Butterfield's The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800:

Of all the intellectual hurdles which the human mind has confronted and has overcome in the last fifteen hundred years, the one which seems to me to have been the most amazing in character and the most stupendous in the scope of its consequences is the one relating to the problem of motion...On this question of motion the Aristotelian teaching, precisely because it carried such an intricate dovetailing of observations and explanations--that is to say, precisely because it was part of a system which was such a colossal intellectual feat in itself--was hard for the human mind to escape from, and gained a strong hold on medieval scholastic thought...On the Aristotelian theory all heavy terrestrial bodies had a natural motion towards the centre of the universe, which for medieval thinkers was at or near the centre of the earth; but motion in any other direction was violent motion, because it contradicted the ordinary tendency of a body to move to what was regarded as its natural place. Such motion depended on the operation of a mover, and the Aristotelian doctrine of inertia was a doctrine of rest--it was motion, not rest, that always required to be explained. Whenever this motion existed, and however long it existed, something had to be brought in to account for it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Through the medieval period, people seemed to not think much about improving our lot in this life. This is not to say that they didn't think of improving agricultural practices, architectural design, or combat equipment. But the thought of improving human life as such would not have made much sense. Thoughts of a better world, promised by God in the pages of the Scriptures, remained focused on the life to come.

The New Jerusalem of medieval contemplation was replaced in Early Modern Europe by Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and the numerous attempts at improving on his vision. Where the New Jerusalem of medieval contemplation was visited by saints and crusaders, Utopia belongs to the age of daring adventurers like Christopher Columbus or possibly a Robinson Crusoe.

In his Utopia, More painted an image of a highly regimented social order, in which education occupied a place in the daily goings on equivalent to work and play. Utopians needed to understand why they did what they did and why they lived the way they lived--and why it was the best way of life. Not a repudiation of the Christian faith, Utopia attempted to articulate what society might look like if the faithful were as concerned with this life, as they were with the next. Instead of treating the present life as a sort of half-way house, More seems to have had in mind experimenting with the idea that this life had its own intrinsic value. For the image of the New Jerusalem presented at the end of the Book of Revelation, as many generations of Christian scholars would have known, comes down from heaven to rest on this earth.

More experiments with this possibility, but waver in his convictions. But this loss of nerve did not trouble a later generation of visionary thinkers. A spate of new Utopian visions extended More's vision beyond merely educating to include active exploration, experimentation, and other forms of knowledge gathering. Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1602) Johan Andreae's Christianopolis (1619), and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1624), along with a group of less well-known attempts, all placed at the center of their Utopias what, for all intents and purposes, is a collaborative research institution, funded by a central government authority and encyclopedic in scope.

When the Royal Society of London (for Improving Natural Knowledge) was founded in 1660, its founders took as their examplar Solomon's House, which was Francis Bacon's version of the ideal research institution. The founders likely hoped that the Royal Society would be publicly funded, as Solomon's House had been in the New Atlantis. The only royal support the Royal Society received, however, was King Charles II's royal charter.

The next time you step on a university campus, keep in mind that the vision inspiring the idea of a collaborative research institution is that of a holy city come down from heaven. The original ideal of science was of a collaborative enterprise with the end of improving humanity's material condition, not unlike Jesus Christ feeding the hungry and clothing the needy.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Conservatism of Copernicus

The work of Nicholas Copernicus is perhaps more interesting for what it omits than for what it actually says. Copernicus has been portrayed as a great scientific reformer against the dogmas of the Church. The Bible seemed to suggest that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Aristotle provided a sophisticated way of conceptualizing how this might appear from a God's-eye-view of things. Copernicus is thought to have inaugurated the modern scientific enterprise with his attack on geocentric accounts of celestial motion. While he lived, Europeans still believed that the moon, sun, planets, and stars all revolved around the earth; but a century and a half after his death, most educated Europeans accepted that the sun was the center of the solar system, the planets orbited the sun.

Copernicus cuts an ambiguous figure against this historical backdrop. He did not do his work like we would expect most scientists do their work. In the ample spare time a gentleman of means had at his disposal, Copernicus collected observational data about the position of objects in night sky. But his contributions, in this regard, were paltry at best. The truly creative work Copernicus did was to rethink old tables of information. In an Aristotelian cosmos, the celestial bodies like moon, sun, and the wanders, or planets, were thought to travel in perfectly circular orbits. Anyone watching the sky night after night would, of course, happen upon the observable reality that planetary orbits are anything but circular, most obviously with the phenomenon of retrograde motion. For Aristotle's successors, including the great Ptolemy, the ultimate purpose of astronomical observation was to develop a theoretical account that 'saved the appearances' in such a way the assumption of perfectly circular orbits held good. With the data available to him, Copernicus realized that there was a simpler way to save the appearances, which didn't involve jumping as many hurdles as Ptolemy had to jump. Put the sun in the center and have the planets and earth revolve around the sun in perfectly circular orbits.

Nor is the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric description of the solar system, for which Copernicus is responsible, the most important impetus towards a modern scientific methodology. Far more important was the work of Galileo Galilee and Isaac Newton, who reworked how the nature of motion of understood--this irrespective of whether we are talking about the perfectly circular motion of the sun or moon or the imperfect linear motion of an arrow shot from a bow or an apple that falls from a tree (onto Newton's head). In an Aristotelian universe, an object fell to the ground when dropped because that was the direction of the center of the earth--indeed, of the universe--towards which all heavy things tended.But ff the earth is no longer at the center of the universe, the central tenet of Aristotelian physics loses its justification: that all terrestrial objects tend towards their natural place of rest (heavy objects downward towards the center of the universe, airy objects upwards away from the center of the universe).

Monday, October 7, 2013

On Observing Things with Aristotle

When Aristotle opened his eyes and looked up into the night sky, much like you or I might look up into the night sky, he seems to have believed he was looking at intellectual perfection. The moon, sun, the wandering planets, and the fixed stars all appeared to travel with perfectly circular, uniform velocity. Or, at least, Aristotle thought the celestial objects should travel with perfectly circular, uniform velocity. (The circle is the only perfect shape, since it is made of a single continuous line.) Slight deviations from the expected norm could be overlooked in the wake of overwhelming weight of evidence. The sun rose and set, and rose again. The moon traveled similar paths across the night sky. As did the wandering planets, though at much slower paces. And the fixed stars returned to their original configuration once a year.

By contrast, terrestrial motion was decidedly finite, linear, and imperfect. Aristotle's use of the term motion encompasses far more than that for which we use the term. Aristotle's definition of the term would include the growth of a plant in addition to a change of spatial location. Terrestrial objects, he believed, all tended towards their natural place of rest. Heavy object fell downwards; airy objects rose upwards.

This rough outline of Aristotelian basics should be recognizable to each of us. Even if we don't actually think like Aristotle, we understand how he drew his conclusions.

Not so recognizable, I suspect, understanding of human nature that goes along with this account of the physical universe. At the beginning of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says the human being delights in their senses, especially the sense of sight. The bodily senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting) yield bits and bytes of information for the mind to think upon. Without the mind's discriminatory powers, separating truth from falsehood, actuality from mere appearance, however, the bodily senses are powerless to yield any sort of complex judgment about the way things are.

Which is to say that perfection attaches itself to the operations of the mind and imperfection to the bodily senses. When Aristotle looked around at terrestrial objects, he thought that both the bodily senses and the terrestrial objects of the bodily senses possessed a certain kind of imperfection, which was ultimately impenetrable to human reason. Material things came into being and passed away. They were therefore, in an ultimate sense, inconsequential. On the other hand, what might be gleaned from individual things about general features shared in common by whole classes of individual things was consequential. For these reflected the unchanging nature of perfect truth, rather than the changing nature of individual things. And when Aristotle looked up into the night sky, he saw an image of the mental perfections that he found in human rationality. As he says in On the Heavens,

Our theory seems to confirm experience and to be confirmed by it. For all men have some conception of the nature of the gods, and all who believe in the existence of gods at all, whether barbarian or Greek, agree in allotting the highest place to the deity, surely because they suppose that immortal is linked with immortal and regard any other supposition as inconceivable...There mere evidence of the senses is enough to convince us of this, at least with human certainty. For in the whole range of time past, so far as our inherited records reach, no change appears to have taken place either in the whole scheme of the outermost heaven in in any of its proper parts…The same ideas, one must believe, recur in men’s mind not once or twice but again and again. (402-3; I.3[270b])

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The (Changing) Concept of Nature

Chief among the difficulties of writing the history of religion and science is that neither religion nor science quite meant what we think they mean today. When we go to the history books looking for science, we get very selective about what qualifies--e.g. improving astronomical measurements-- and misunderstand what our predecessors thought they knew and/or thought they were doing. The same goes for religion. We tend to treat religious beliefs as exclusively personal, or subjective; we expect them to inspire, but not to dictate the truth about the observable world. So when we discover in the history books people using religious beliefs to do just that, we automatically assume that something either is wrong with the way that they thought about the world or that we have made incredible amounts of progress in the intervening centuries--or, as is often the case, both.

Some of the difficulty one encounters when studying the history of religion and science will be mitigated when we consider that our present use of the term 'nature', derived from natural scientific investigation, has an exclusively physical, non-moral quality. Prior to the 20th century (and especially prior to the 19th century), however, the term 'nature' had both physical and moral connotations.

How so? Someone like Richard Dawkins will insist that the human being, explained within the methodological confines of natural scientific study, can get on quite well without supposing they have a spiritual substance called a soul in addition to material that makes up their body. On the other hand, someone like Aristotle, whose theories still had currency in the 18th century, held that the human being was by nature composed of a material body and rational soul. Having or being a soul, which has or is a body, was a way of saying that the life the human being possesses is not merely an individual possession, not merely something a person can dispense with as they choose. Having or being a soul meant that the human being was always already enmeshed in communal webs of moral significance. That idea had an exceptionally long half-life, and has only very recently fallen out of use. The term 'nature' has ceased to include soul; and, as a consequence, it has also ceased to possess intrinsic moral significance.

The lesson to be garnered here is that early modern and pre-modern thinkers ought not to be faulted for falling to understand the natural world properly (i.e. on modern scientific terms). They may have dealt with the problematic of how to relate moral and physical judgments about the world differently than we do at present, but that does not mean all-important moral questions like, How ought I treat other human beings? cease to be relevant today. Whether or not scientific investigation has made splitting the atom a real possibility for us today says nothing about whether I should set a nuclear device off in the middle of a city. In the same sense, whether or not the acceleration due to gravity near the surface of the earth is 9.8 m/s2 says nothing about whether it is morally acceptable to shove a person off a 40th floor balcony. A balance between moral and physical judgments must still be struck.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Distinguishing Nature from Artifice

A lecture on technology in a class on religion and the natural sciences may seem a little out of place. Considered as a form of knowledge, science is about heady ideas, whereas technology is about the everyday artifacts that help us get along in the world. And, as David Nye points out in Technology Matters, we tend to think of technology as a form of applied science. Without scientific advances, this line of reasoning goes, there can be no technological advances. Religion doesn't seem to have a place in the picture frame.

While this may have become increasingly true in the 20th century,  it was not always the case. Galileo's scientific discoveries for example seem to follow from his technological inventiveness. Upon hearing a Dutch inventor made objects appear closer than they actually were using with a series of refracting lenses, Galileo reasoned out how he could replicate and improve upon the result. Afterwards he turned his new magnifying glass skywards and noticed, among other things, topographical irregularities on the moon, moons orbiting Jupiter, and sun-spots. These observations precipitated an archetypal overhaul of astronomical and physical assumptions over the next few centuries--among which were included the perfect spherical shape of celestial objects and the geocentric character of celestial orbits.

The question about which comes first, whether science makes possible technological advances or vice versa, is a chicken and egg question, though very few people are willing to leave it as such. Most studies of cultural consequences of technological development presume technological development makes possible new scientific ideas. In the case of Galileo, the invention of the telescope made possible the eventual overthrow of an Aristotelian conception of the cosmos. Nye takes this up in his discussion of the widespread presumption of technological determinism in the 20th century.

More importantly, the question about which comes first is a characteristically modern question. An all-important middle-term has dropped out: the relation of technological artifacts to human beings. Most studies of the cultural consequences of technological development forget that technological implements (from shovels to computers) belong within the creative circle of human life in a way rocks, trees, and other animals do not. The difference between them is that between artifice and nature. Technologies are the products of human being's giving form to already existing material for some specific end; they are artificial human creations endowed with human purpose (even if, or especially because, not all of the consequences of technological innovation can be foreseen). Whereas the creators of technology are born into a natural world already filled with a myriad of natural things that exist independent of human creative input.

The distinction seems obvious when someone points it out to you. Evolutionary accounts of human origins, which blurs distinctions drawn between human beings and other creatures, however, tends to obscure the distinction between people and the products they create and use. Increasing urbanization doesn't help either, as it sets up artificial barriers insulating us against the extremities of the natural world, which we have always, and will always, belong to.

Early modern and pre-modern peoples were intimately acquainted with the difference between artificial things and natural things. Since neither you nor I 'created' the world in the same way that we create tables and chairs, the question, Who or what did create the world? seemed to naturally follow. The Greek philosopher Plato seems to have thought that the Demiurge created the material world in accordance with eternal archetypes. His student Aristotle considered the world to be eternally existent. The Jewish scribes responsible for compiling the Five Books of Moses, by contrast, were quite certain God created rocks, trees, animals, human beings, etc. What they all shared in common was that they drew a comparison drawn between God, who may or may not have created the natural world out of nothing (or, at least, without any helpers), and the human being, who created tools, clothes, shelter, and other such things out of natural materials found in the world.

The significance of this historical reflection goes something like this: Not having a divine Creator as a counterpart against which to measure ourselves has meant we think less on the fact that human beings create things and more on how the products of our creativity shape our lives. We no longer measure ourselves against a natural order; but now we are measure by our technological creations.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Religion versus Science?

Taken from Owen Chadwick's Gifford Lectures for 1973-4, published as The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: University Press, 1975):

Science versus Religion -- the antithesis conjures two hypostatized entities of the later nineteenth century: Huxley St George slaying Samuel smoothest of dragons; a mysterious undefined ghost called Science against a mysterious indefinable ghost called Religion; until by 1900 schoolboys decided not to have faith because Science, whatever that was, disproved Religion, whatever that was.

The twentieth century strips legends, and among the legends started stripping this. The healthy action of historical investigation, like any other scientific enquiry, refused to be content with inherited ideas received uncritically, and asked how far those axioms were invented, how far they depended on a real antithesis of minds, how far they were devised or made rhetorical by propaganda, and how far they expressed deeper currents of antagonism than the intellectual. (161)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Provisional Definitions for Religion and Science

Last time instead of directly answering questions about the nature of the relationship between religion and science, I suggested we distinguish between 'phenomenological categories' and 'forms of consciousness'. The point was to think through more carefully what we mean when we use the terms religion and science. Much of the time, we seem to fall into the habit of talking about them as if they were readily identifiable things, which are out there for everyone to see, if only people would open their eyes think carefully about what they are seeing. But the idea religion and science are somehow objective things, or, otherwise put, objective categories within which to group things sharing some common  feature, will only stand up to scrutiny for so long.

So I went on to argue religion and science might better to thought of as 'forms of consciousness', or ways of thinking about things. This second way of thinking about religion and science has the advantage of being much more flexible in its application, and so also, it seems to me, truer to our experience of the world. Take, as an example, the phenomenon of a falling object; say, someone who was pushed from the top floor of an apartment building. We can theorize about the motion of this object. The falling person accelerates as they plummet towards the ground. Perhaps we could, like Isaac Newton, wonder about the cause of the person's acceleration and formulate a gravitational theory stating objects near the earth's surface accelerate at a speed of 9.8 m/s2. Note we haven't yet confronted the moral question about whether pushing a person from the top floor of an apartment building is good or bad? The object is still the same falling object, but, in this initial analysis, we bracket out moral considerations.

We theorize about the nature of the object's motion, in fact, without any concern for the sort of object it is. Striving to attain 'scientific' objectivity, we discover gravity exerts a force equal to the mass of the object multiplied by 9.8m/s2 (F=ma), and does so irrespective of the nature of the falling object. Moral considerations, on the other hand, add a whole new set of interpretive problems. If I drop a small stone (or better yet, a feather) from the top floor of the apartment building, few people are likely to find my action morally reprehensible. Whereas if I push a person from the top floor, I am going to be brought up on charges of murder. What has changed? The object in question remain the same; but the ways of I thinking about the object has changed.

The difficulty is determining what exactly it is that changes. What sort of expectations do I bring to my thought of these falling objects, such that I indifferently calculate the acceleration of an object due to gravity one moment, and agonize over whether pushing a person off the top floor of a building was the right thing to do the next moment?

I propose religion and science, understood as 'forms of consciousness', represent different ways of measuring objects, including ourselves. Thinking about things might be described as an act of measuring things against other things: we distinguish things, relate things, dissect things, and put them back together, all in our heads. A 'scientific' way of thinking about things is characterized especially by physical measurement. The better our measurements, the better able are we to test a hypothesis about the physical nature of this or that physical phenomenon. Physical measurement require standardized systems of measurement be established so we can intelligibly communicate our findings to other people. A unit of measurement like meters has an agreed upon objective value, as do units for the measurement of time intervals. With much more precise equipment, we are able to calculate the force of gravity at the earth's surface to precisely 9.80665 m/s2.

At the heart of systems of religious belief, as I pointed out last time, are found roughly proximate sets of rules, or normative systems of moral measurement. Rather than measure the physical motion of objects, we judge the moral actions of persons. The first point to note is that we are not likely to judge the 'actions' of non-human objects as moral. (There is a measure of truth to the statement, 'Guns don't kill people; people kill people.') The second point to note is that the grounding of our moral judgment is not exclusively objective, but rather is grounded both objectively and subjectively. The objective component is that we most likely decide it is wrong to push a person from the top floor of an apartment building (unless there exist extenuating circumstances, like the person is armed and threatened my life). The subjective component provides the rationale for why this is the case. Namely, that it is wrong to push a person (where it is not wrong to drop a stone or feather) because the person is, in some sense, a being like myself--a being that is conscious of being what they are, that communicates, that has desires and intentions, very much like I do. Love your neighbour as yourself; do unto others as you would have them do to you; as well as other such statements to the same effect.

To summarize, religion and science can be thought of as ways of measuring things according to moral and physical standards, respectively. Scientific standards of measurement are grounded objectively, in some agreed upon standard units of measurement; whereas religious standards of measurement are grounded both objectively in the action which is judged and subjectively in the sort of being making the judgment. The difference between the two, of course, will make it much easier for scientists, in their capacity as scientists, to agree with each other than it will for believers, in their capacity as believers, to do the same. Which is typically what we find when we look at the history of religion and science.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

John Hedley Brooke on Mapping Human History

The work of John Hedley Brooke is unavoidable in the study of religion and science. His reflections on the state of the field can be read as a response to Ian Barbour typology of various forms the relationship can take. Barbour's work is focused on the period after the 17th century, when people begin to perceive a radical difference between something called religion and something called science. Brooke's work has a much broader focus, including the 16th and 17th centuries, when the people were more likely to speak of something called natural philosophy, which contained elements of both religion and science. As a consequence, Brooke talks the language of religion and science (because that is what his readers recognize), but everywhere he suggests it is not as simple as thinking about how religion relates to science. We should also question how religion differs from science, and we should question whether the terms actually serve the purpose we intend them to serve.

In the paper 'Religious Belief and the Natural Sciences', Brooke sketches, using Barbour's terms, out a number of other possible relationships between religion and science.

1) Religious Belief as a Presupposition of Science...

as happens when the human mind and the natural order are presumed to be created by the same God, who creates the possibility of a correspondence between the two and renders the world intelligible.

2) Religious Belief as a Sanction for Science...

as happens in the Two Books conception of the sources of human knowledge, one book divinely revealed in human language, the other read off the nature of observable things.

3) Religious Belief as a Motive for Science...

as happens when scientific study is understood to be God-glorifying.

4) Etc., etc.

Each of these possibilities most closely corresponds to what Barbour calls the 'Dialogue' between religion and science. Brooke may use Barbour's terms, but he doesn't speak as if something called religion and something called science are talking to each other. Instead he is interested in how religious beliefs, on the one hand, influence scientific study and practices, on the other hand. This may seem to be a trivial point to make; but it is Brooke's contention that what you emphasize matters.

Why? If you hold 'religion' and 'science' at arms length and try to figure out how they relate to each other, you just might forget that religious beliefs and scientific knowledge are very often found in the head of the same person.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A General Orientation to Religion and Science

Questions about 'the relationship between religion and science' are well known in the sphere of public intellectual discussion. How do the two relate to each other? Are they complementary or the combative? In other words, does religion (whatever that might be) fit well with science (whatever that might be), or are the two best kept at a arms length from each other?

Scratch the surface of the public discussion to uncover the perspective of leading scholars in the field of Religion and Sciences Studies and what you find is that much the conversation about how these two (for lack of a better term) things relate to each other. The classic text in the field is Ian J. Barbour's revised version of his Gifford Lecture series Religion in an Age of Science (1989-90), renamed Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997). The first lecture on 'Ways of Relating Science and Religion', which became the first chapter of Part II in the revised book, is available on the Gifford Lectures website.

Barbour's analysis furnished several generations of scholars with the mental architecture to make sense of the material. The sorts of relationships between religion and science, depending on the place and time, Barbour found in the historical record generally fell into one of four categories: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. Either religion and science refused to play nice, they stood aloof from each other, they maintained amicable relations with each other while granting the each other a measure of autonomy, or they actively sought reconciliation with each other.

All this begs a question about what are exactly religion and science. The way Barbour's categories are set up, it sounds like religion and science are groups of people. And that is more or less true. In Barbour's usage, religion and science are 'phenomenological categories', or labels under which persons can group 'phenomena' that seem to share some feature in common. Hence certain sets of beliefs and practices held and carried out by different groups of people get characterized as either one or the other. The important point to note here is just how arbitrary the labels religion and science actually are. An interpretation of a obscure sacred text and a daily ritual of praying before dawn and initiatives Pope Francis' many initiatives to care for the poor somehow all fit into 'religion'. A scientific study published in an academic journal and laboratory equipment and Bill Nye the Science Guy are likewise slotted into 'science'.

Phenomenological categories are rough and ready descriptors. They have usefulness insofar as they help to classify historical and contemporary information. But there is also a real danger of forgetting categories like religion and science are nothing in themselves--quite literally: figments of our imagination--and are only useful applied to a human world, which they help make sense of.

To say the same thing in slightly different terms: Phenomenological categories help us objectify the world. They cut it up into digestible chunks. Their limitations, however, also need to be borne in mind. What we call religion and science are not objects per se, but ways human beings have thought about objects--objects like the sun, moon, and stars, animals, plants, and inanimate objects, and so on.

So when we confront questions about 'the relationship between religion and science', each of us needs to bear in mind we are not talking about actual things that are 'out there' like the sun and moon or rocks and trees or other people are 'out there', which we all can look at and comment on. Nor are they 'out there' in the historical sense that Galileo Galilee or Isaac Newton are 'out there'. Applying the categories becomes especially difficult the further back in human history one looks, as early scientists tended also to be believers in some religious creed or other. Rather: questions about the relationship between religion and science arise from a much deeper source: the problem of what it is to be consciousness of anything at all.

Bear with me. This is not as esoteric as it sounds. Human beings encounter consciousness in two distinct ways: immediately in ourselves (i.e.thinking) and mediately in the wider world (or communicating, in conversations or by interacting with other persons, by reading books, watching television, surfing the internet). We also may encounter glimmers of consciousness in so-called 'higher' mammals like dolphins, elephants, and baboons, or we may see it mimicked by artificial intelligence. On the other hand, we do not think of water or rocks as being conscious. These don't communicate with us anything distinctive about themselves (e.g. they do not talk or write books), hence we say they are not conscious

Religion and science can be technically termed 'forms of consciousness', and by that I simply mean they are different ways of thinking about things.  What we objectify in the thoughts and actions of other persons are best understood as different ways of bridging the 'existential' gap. The reason the gap exists in the first place is that there is an entire physical, material world, which, in some sense, stands between us, separating us from each other. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle expressed this by calling matter the 'principle of individuation'. I must speak my mind (or write a blog), for example, in order to make myself intelligible, and you can't actually know what I am thinking unless I do. That physical world can by examined, studied, theorized about, worked on, or even altered in some way. But the 'existential' gap, the distance between me and you (and not just my body and your body, but my thoughts and your thoughts) never disappears.

The existence of the gap raises all sorts of questions like how we ought to relate to each other, about how we measure up beside each other, whether and to what I should render assistance should you ever require it. These are, narrowly conceived, moral questions. But broadly conceived, they are also religious questions, in the sense that religious beliefs (one way of thinking about things) invest moral significance in even the most mundane parts of our lives. The heart of classical religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or Buddhism and Hinduism is found in some moral 'law of life' like the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars, or the Five Percepts. These lists of rules are more than rules: they interpret life, defining between good and bad, by setting up moral norms. I will develop this point a little further in a couple of days.

So, in a short summary, phenomenological categories only tell half the story. Terms like religion and science do not only get at the objective world out there; they also say something subjective about how each of us make sense of that wider world.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Ian. G. Barbour's Topology of Religion and Science

What exactly is meant when we talk about religion in relationship to science? The meaning of the question is not self-evident because it is not at all apparent what sort of 'things' religion and science are--or if indeed it is right to speak of them as things in the first place.

Conceptual difficulties, the terms religion and science have been very useful to many people as general categories in which to put things that seem to share something called religion or something called science in common.

Background to contemporary discussions of the relation between religion and science is provided by the work of Ian G. Barbour. He proposed a widely influential typological method of modelling the relationship between religion and science. The Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, for which he was awarded the prestigious and lucrative Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (1999), is his most comprehensive account.

Most of Barbour work focuses on post-17th century European developments. He sees the new cultural situation created by the sort of natural scientific study associated with persons like Copernicus and Galileo, Newton and Darwin, as well as Faraday and Einstein as necessary developments, which believers of any stripe must engage with constructively.

Barbour further proposes four general ways that the study of human history shows us religion and science have related to each other:

1) Conflict...

as happens when scientific materialists and a biblical literalists are locked in the same room together.

2) Independence...

as happens when religion is understood to relate exclusively to moral and spiritual truths and science to observable and materials truths.

3) Dialogue...

as happens when specific religious teachings, like the doctrine of Creation, correspond with certain scientific assumptions, like the intelligibility of the natural order.

4) Integration...

as happens when science--like evolutionary theory--is thought to demonstrate how God, i.e. the complex numinous unity that holds all things together, comes into existence through ever more complex physical, chemical, and biological systems.

My own objections to this kind of academic shorthand, or typological simplification, will become more clear as the class proceeds. For now, you need to be aware of Barbour's proposals because more recent scholarship on religion and science has been forced to wrestle with his work. When you read 'Religious Belief and the Natural Sciences: Mapping the Historical Landscape by John Hedley Brooke, note how he hard he works to find wiggle room in order to say to Barbour, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Assigned Texts and Other Resources

In addition to the coursepack, two general survey texts have been assigned.

Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2008) by Thomas Dixon is part of the expansive Very Short Introduction (to just about anything) Series put out by Oxford University Press. It is available in the bookstore, or it can be found on Amazon for purchase in Kindle format or on Google Books for purchase in e-book format.

For those who want more informative reading on related topics, other additions to the A Very Short Introductions series you might look at include:
Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, by Thomas Pink
Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, by Samir Okasha
The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, by Terry Eagleton
The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, by Lawerence M. Principe
Science and Religion, 1450-1900: From Copernicus to Darwin (2004) by Richard G. Olson is part of a larger project to publish survey texts in the history of religion and science by Greenwood Press.

It has a companion volume, Science and Religion, 400 BC - AD 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus by Edward Grant, which provides a detailed introduction to some material that we will touch on in class, but is not directly relevant to our goals.

When it comes to choosing topics for your written assignment, it may be helpful to look further afield in the Very Short Introduction Series or in the Greenwood Guides for inspiration.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Contemporary Debate

Only earlier this year did I begin to suspect 'the conflict between religion and science' no longer captured student's attention like it captured mine while I was in my in my first years of grad school. This came as a little bit of a surprise to me, which I wrote about here: 'They Knew Not Dawkins'. The long story short, it seemed people got tired of hearing the same arguments over and over again, and so moved on. As I prepared to teach a class on Religion and the Natural Sciences this fall, I was confronted by the possibility there was no longer a popular discussion on which to riff.

First, some background to these comments. The contemporary debate around religion and/or science questions goes back at least to the 19th century. Andrew Dickson White's The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) debated John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875). The terms the authors used in the titles are familiar enough, but the forms of their arguments may seem slightly skewed. Draper's book presents a version of the classic 'religion versus' science thesis: science began among the Ancient Greeks, was sidetracked by medieval Christianity, and was rediscovered in the early modern period. But his book was anti-Catholic, and not necessarily anti-religious, insofar as Protestant forms of the Christian faith come out looking fairly good. White's book presented a more sophisticated version of the narrative: Christendom, or the community of Western European (at later American) Christianity, evolved out of a theological 'worldview' into a scientific 'worldview', and into a new and improved version of scientific Christianity. Of course, neither of these are quite the contemporary terms of the debate. The default assumption was not yet that religion and science are in conflict.

The contemporary debate shares a whole lot more with the thesis put forward in Bertrand Russell's Science and Religion (1935), namely, science progresses as it turns away from religion, and especially as it turns away from Christianity. But the form the debate taken in the past decade or so is driven especially by the events of 9/11. The destructive actions of a small radicalized group of Muslims convinced a group known as the New Atheists that religion in toto had to go. The group included the following (if you will forgive me a little rhetorical flourish) Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse: the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, along with a few others. Their best-selling books were written in a moment of apparent existential crisis, with all the urgency and bravado that entailed. Whether or not Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006) or Hitchens' god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) counted as respectable contributions to 'scholarship', as some have asked, is a moot question. They succeeded in shaping the nature of the contemporary debate. Daniel Dennett's memorable description in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) of religion likening it to a parasite feeding on people's brain's, stealing their ability to think clearly, ultimately compelling them to engage in all manner of self-destructive activities. How else do you understand a suicide bombing?

The New Atheists made the study of the religion and science exciting. They saw the destruction of the Twin Towers as evidence fundamentalist religion was on the rise everywhere, and took aim, not only at Islam, but American Evangelicalism. The stakes were high: either rational peace and harmony or certain apocalyptic self-destruction. Science--or the attitude of tolerance its methods engendered among its practitioners--would save of us all from the bigoted ideas of believers. So the study of religion and science was not just some dry as dust investigation of  the historical minutia, but was about the ties that bind communities together--which is to say, it was also social and political. A course on Religion and the Natural Sciences practically sold itself.

The thought that this highly charged intellectual environment had somehow dissipated in the intervening years dawned on me, much to my dismay. But I hadn't been paying close enough attention. In fact, Dawkins called the Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan out on Twitter for believing a winged horse had carried Muhammad into heaven to meet Adam, Moses, and Jesus, saying it was on par with belief in fairies. Dawkins and Hasan had met early on Al-Jeezera's Head to Head: 'Is Religion Good or Evil?'. The public forum only allowed a very superficial comparison of ideas. Their conversation, however,  could just as easily have been named 'Is This a Scientific Claim or Not?
(Questions like these we will have to take up in the course of the semester: In what sense are 'religious' claims testable in a scientific study? Are they all testable? Are only some testable? If so, how do we distinguish between ones that are and others that aren't? And if they are testable, what do the conclusions of scientific testing tell us about religion?)

On Twitter Dawkins has continued to prosecute religious ignorance and promote the virtues of the scientific method. Following the row with Hasan, he has also received a good deal more attention from reporters. That means ye olde questions of religion and/or science are back in the public eye, at least for the time being.

Now is as good a time as any in the last decade to be teaching and/or taking a class on religion and the natural sciences.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Welcome to the companion blog to RELG 340: Religion and the Natural Sciences, offered through the Faculty of Religious Studies (FRS) at McGill University. Introductions, I suppose, are in order.

My name is Richard Greydanus. I just finished my fourth year in the Ph.D program at the FRS. This will be the third time I have offered this particular course. My hope is that the blog smooths over a few of those wrinkles that arise in the classroom setting, as might arise when I go on a tangent and forget where I am going or forget to indicate why the tangent is important. (These things do happen...)

My other hope is that a blog gives the students more value for their academic dollar. Here students are in a better position than I am to make a judgment.

Monday, August 26, 2013


Welcome to the official blog of RELG 340: Religion and the Natural Sciences, a course offered through the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University.

This blog will be active through the months of September through December . I expect that a large majority of the traffic to this blog will be from students enrolled in the class. The posts will usually relate to the topics discussed in class during the day. Students can expect me to discuss anything I post here during class time, which means students can also expect to be tested on the material posted here--except in the most obvious of circumstances (e.g. if I post a cartoon).

Sensitive material will be posted, of course, will be posted on the My Courses content manager.

The comment system will be active, and students are encouraged to make use of it.

Richard Greydanus