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.