I am happy to report that my back is now completely healed up from its recent travails, and I can now sit in perfect comfort for arbitrarily long periods of time. So let’s see if we can wake up this sleepy little blog…
My friend Dave Pruett, recently retired from a long and successful career right here in the JMU Math Department, seems determined to keep me in blog fodder for a while. He’s recently been writing for HuffPo. We considered his first post here. Now he’s back with a new entry. Jerry Coyne has already weighed in. Let’s have a look of our own.
Dave is arguing for some sort of concordat between science and religion. I would be more specific, but I honestly don’t understand what he’s actually claiming. My main criticism of his essay is that I wish he would be more careful about defining his terms. Here’s the opening:
In a 1983 address to an international symposium on Galileo, Pope John Paul II issued a stunning pronouncement:
The Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith. … It is certain that science and faith represent two different orders of knowledge, autonomous in their processes, but finally converging upon the discovery of reality in all its aspects…
Given centuries of animosity between science and religion, the pontiff’s admission astounds for several reasons. First, it stresses the complementarity rather than the antagonism of rational and intuitive modes of knowing. Second, it grants autonomy to both revelatory processes, implying that neither should seek to manipulate or triumph over the other. And third, it suggests that ultimate truth — so far as we can know it — emerges from the concerted efforts of external and internal explorations.
I’d like to know more about these “intuitive modes of knowing.” What methods do they employ, and what knowledge have we obtained by applying them? Dave sets them up in opposition to “rational” modes of knowing, which leaves me wondering what a non-rational mode of knowing looks like.
The bigger problem, though, is that the Pope said nothing about “intuitive modes of knowing.” Nor did he talk about “internal explorations.” He talked about faith, and when the Pope uses that term he is not talking about anything as benign as a few moments of meditation and introspection. He is referring instead to faith in the tenets of his church. These are tenets you are not permitted to challenge, on pain of putting your eternal soul in jeopardy. Let us recall that the Pope leads a church that claims a unique authority to interpret the Bible, and claims to know in great detail what God wants from us. He even claims to be able to speak infallibly at least some of the time. The most arrogant materialist has nothing to learn about humility from such a man.
I know Dave well enough to know that he does not subscribe to any standard religious creed. He would not be impressed with someone who argued, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Hence my confusion. His essay is all about exhorting scientists to be more humble and to be cognizant of other modes of knowing. Then he opens with a quote from the Pope, whose primary mode of knowing is his own self-proclaimed authority to hold forth infallibly on the ways of God. He takes the “faith” referred to by the Pope, and transforms it into vague musings about “intuitive modes of knowing” and “internal explorations.”
Hence my frustration with the lack of precision.
But the devil is in the details. Autonomy among those in relationship is best preserved when each party maintains a clear and robust boundary and a high degree of integrity. I’ll defer to the philosophers to painstakingly demarcate the domains of science and religion, but one thing is certain: Most of the historic animosity between them is due to boundary infractions. And both parties are guilty.
I’m afraid it won’t do to defer to the philosophers on this one. Not, at least, if Dave wants to convince anyone that science has infringed on the proper domain of religion. “Religion” is such a broad term that you have to tell me what you mean by it before I even know what you are claiming. If we are talking about the kind of religion that is based on the teachings of sacred texts, or which claims that its clerics have special insight into the ways of God, then I do not agree that science has ever infringed on religion’s proper domain, since such forms of religion have no proper domain.
As it happens, I don’t think Dave is talking about that kind of religion. My impression is that he goes in more for Native American type spirituality, and not for creed-based religions. But this makes it all the more important that he explain precisely what he means by “religion,” that he tells us exactly the methods his version of religion uses to acquire knowledge, and then tells us what knowledge has been acquired by these means.
The violations of science’s domain by religion are numerous, well known and egregious. Particularly odious was the church’s burning of Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 for multiple “heresies” that included the promotion of Copernicanism (the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than vice versa), a suspicion that the stars are suns like our own and a belief in the plurality of worlds. Close on the heels of Bruno’s demise came the trial of Galileo of 1632-3 in which the Inquisition convicted the world’s most eminent scientist of heresies “more scandalous, more detestable, and more pernicious to Christianity than any contained in the books of Calvin, of Luther, and of all other heretics put together.” Galileo’s life was spared when he signed a confession recanting the “heresy” of Copernicanism; however, he remained under house arrest for the duration of his life.
Skirmishes between science and religion persist. Today’s religious fundamentalists periodically attempt to force the teaching of creationism (or one of its many guises) in public schools, in violation both of science’s domain and the constitutional separation of church and state. For a short summary of the most recent major skirmish, the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, see pages 89-90 of Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists (Oxford, 2012).
Well said! I think Dave is especially insightful in his choice of references here. I am slowly reading his book-length treatment of these topics, and I am happy to report that he has passed one of my big litmus tests for books on this topic: he does not soft-pedal what happened to Galileo. He does not try to claim that the whole thing was just a political affair and not really about science and religion at all, nor does he claim that Galileo was really not treated all that badly.
Science’s infractions are subtler but equally damaging to the human spirit. During an enlightening lecture in 2000 by religion scholar Huston Smith, I began to appreciate how science infringes on religion’s domain. Smith thoughtfully distinguished science from scientism. The former is an investigative protocol; the latter is a religion, complete with dogma. Science is a formalized procedure for making sense of the world by studying its material properties, perceived through the awareness of the senses, albeit senses heightened by modern marvels such as the electron microscope, the Hubble Space Telescope or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Scientism (or scientific materialism), on the other hand, adds to science a statement of faith: The universe is only material. Moreover, given the spectacular successes of science over the past three centuries, it is more than fair to acknowledge that science represents a powerful way to learn about the world. But scientism ups the ante: Science is the best (or only) way to make sense of the world. In short, scientism is to science what fundamentalism is to religion: cocksure and inflexible.
This I don’t understand at all. “Scientism” and “scientific materialism” just flat are not the same thing. Scientism is a claim about how we obtain knowledge, while materialism is a claim about what exists. Most people with a fondness for scientism are materialists (myself included), but there is certainly no necessary connection between them. So which is it — materialism or scientism — that is damaging to the human spirit? Perhaps he means that both are. Well, fine. But if he is challenging materialism then I would want to know more about the non-material stuff he is claiming to have discovered, and I would want some insight into how he claims to know anything about it. If scientism is the issue, then tell me more about these non-scientific ways of knowing that help bolster the human spirit. But please, for heaven’s sake, take a clear position on something.
Moreover, I don’t agree that either scientism or materialism are damaging to the human spirit. Quite the contrary, in fact. It is traditional religion that is deadening and soul-destroying. It is when I hear religious clerics thumping the Bible, telling me that my time on Earth is just a prelude to my real life in heaven, that I wonder what the point of it is. The thought that I am just the plaything of an omnipotent being who will condemn me to hell for thinking the wrong thoughts is not terribly encouraging. It is when I hear scientists speak about their work that I find myself uplifted and excited to be alive. Religion has nothing to offer to the human spirit beyond dubious factual assertions and fool’s gold.
There are a few more paragraphs in Dave’s essay, but I think we have seen enough for today. Dave is promising multiple sequels to this post, so I hope he will clarify some of the issues I have raised here.