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.