Science, Religion, Humanity and other unknowns
This post was directly prompted by, and is somewhat of a reply to, Sean Carroll’s post of today on the Cosmic Variance blog, the most recent of a long series of interventions on the ‘science and religion’ issue, titled ‘Science And Religion Are Not Compatible’. This kind of topic is a hot one on the blogosphere, but one specific trait does strike me all the time: consider the list of blogposts around the accomodationism debate which Carroll links to, from Jeffrey Coyne’s blog. What we find here is a list of blogs, i.e. people writing them, but who are these people? As often happens, with a couple of notable exceptions–Chris Mooney’s one and Russell Blackford’s one–all the other interventions are from people with scientific training: Kenneth Miller, a biologist; Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician; P.Z.Mayers, a biologist more than Coyne and Carroll, biologist and theoretical physicist respectively. Elsewhere the trend is the same, as an extra example consider the latest of a series of articles by Michael Shermer (historian of science) on the New Scientist. Or a certain Richard Dawkins. Now, I have absolutely nothing against scientists. At the contrary I deeply respect and admire their work. And I am not trying to suggest -Let the theologians speak- either. I would just like this discussion to be approached with some extra degree of historical and philosophical rigour. I would never dare to blog about quantum gravity, even with the little that i know about it, so why is it that when it comes to religion everyone is an expert? (take as an example the discussions of the ‘Four Horsemen’: for as much as I respect some of them–those not called Harris–they hardly are informed speakers when it comes to the history of ‘religions’ and to the history and the ideological role of the concept ‘religion’ itself). Do we take it for granted? But also, would it not reasonable to suspect that both theologians/believers and scientists ultimately have some axe to grind, since what is at stake is their own authority?
As I mentioned before, I do my research in a department of Study of Religions, and I happen to have spent the last 9 months working on a chapter of my thesis dealing precisely with the ‘science and religion’ debate. This said, I am not a believer of any kind, nor a particularly exceptional scholar of religions: my work is a philosophical analysis of a certain kind of discourse, and this kind of doing philosophy is what I care about. I do have knowledge of scientific theories and methods, and my interests are in no way limited to ‘science and religion’ problems. I am not in any way trying to pronounce on how ‘science’ and how ‘religion’ can or can not be compatible. I think that the question is not as simple as that, and should be refined, looking outwards to the big picture in which such a debate has arisen in the first place.
This said, I want to try to make clear some points here. To briefly summarise part of my work (which I am planning to shape into an article to be published as soon as possible) I believe that, to start with, the pair of terms should be clearer than they are. Specifically when it comes to ‘religion’ it is all but clear what ‘religion’ is. In order to do so, I have sourced myself back to a trend in the academic study of religion (for the non-experts, not to be conflated with theology): the people involved here have spent a great deal of intellectual energy (and ink) in questioning the validity of the category ‘religion’ in the first place. I have no space to go deeper into this right now, but for some very essential readings see here, here, here and here (and there is much more going on about it, for a good overview of what this is all about see the website of the Critical Religion Category Network).
In a sentence, ‘religion’ is a term which indicates a western (i.e., Christian) understanding of those set of beliefs and practices which can be grouped into a general category which can be compared to ‘religion’ as the west knows it. Non trivially, this means that each and every time we talk about ‘science and religion’ we must have very clear that what we are talking about is really post-enlightenment scientific method and Christianity. But be careful, this does not mean that we therefore should engage, one by one, with all the ‘religions’, because it might as well be that what we mean by it, really, can only be effectively applied to Christianity. In short, the ‘science and religion’ debate is always about ‘science and Christianity’ and can only be about ‘science and Christianity’ as long as the set of elements assumed to make up the entity ‘religion’ remain those which currently are.
Some might look annoyed and reply: -Whatever, nice exercise in terminological analty, but at the end of the day what we mean by ‘religion’ is ‘whatever addresses itself beyond nature’-. Carroll indeed notes that
Of course, it’s very difficult to agree on a single definition of “religion” (and not that much easier for “science”), so deciding when a particular definition has been twisted beyond usefulness is a tricky business. But these are human endeavors, and it makes sense to look at the actual practices and beliefs of people who define themselves as religious. And when we do, we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it. And these claims are often very important to the religions who make them; ask Galileo or Giordano Bruno if you don’t believe me.
But what do we mean by ‘natural world’? What is this well defined realm that we can identify as ‘just nature’? On what basis exactly does particle physics refer back to ‘nature’ differently than metaphysics (not even necessarily theological metaphysics, but purely the branch of philosophy that goes under this name)? Where does (physical) nature end and culture (is it a metaphysical concept?) begin? What is the break in continuity between complex systems like the atomic structure of a chair and the culture which makes use of a chair? How does culture emerge from nature? This is the problem of emergence, common, for example, in discussions about the nature of intentionality and consciousness emerging from a purely biological (i.e., material) brain.
These are extremely complex questions, and I cannot give them appropriate attention here. But the point is: how did we historically reach this dualism? What if we are wrong? ‘Natural’, and its companion ‘Supernatural’, are all but neutral, clear, self-evident and universally recognized terms. Of course, they seem very clear to us born and raised in a Christianized culture (and yes, science–as a practice and a method–is part of this culture), but does that make them really that universally clear?
Simplifications are often dangerous, just as Carroll’s use of Galileo’s name is: the Galileo’s ‘affair’ was way more complex than a poor scientist tortured by an evil church, and the easy use of it as a symbol of scientific pride is supported by a centenary division between sacred and secular that is–guess what–the product of a very specific culture and a very specific historical period. To simplify it is to manufacture conflicting sides.
Now, all these arguments of ‘cultural relavitity’ might be convincing or not. Whatever you like. But they are not my main point. My main point is that, over and above these problems, at the very bottom of this ‘science and religion’ issue there are some elements which do not hold any taken-for-granted property of being universal.
The way I see it, the problem underlying it all is: what do we mean by humanity, and consequently what do we conceive as morally right and morally wrong?
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
This is the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on this first article the rest follows. And yet, it seems all but clear to me what these ‘human beings’ are. This might sound again as an annoying terminological quibble, but I would like to simply direct the attention of the ‘science and religion’ crowd, to this simple point. By way of exemplification, consider this passage (by Philip Ball appeared on Nature, retrieved on the website of the Reason Project).
It’s easy to agree that the use (or generally, abuse) of religion to justify suppression of human rights, maltreatment and murder is abhorrent. To the extent that this is in the project’s sights, it should be applauded. But with Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Good) on board, one can’t help suspecting that the Almighty Himself is the prime target.
This debate now tends to cluster into two camps. One, exemplified by the Reason Project, insists that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, and that the world ain’t big enough for the both of them. The other side is exemplified by another recently launched project, the BioLogos Foundation, established by the former leader of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. In this view, science and religion can and should make their peace: there is no reason why they cannot coexist. The mission statement of BioLogos speaks of “America’s escalating culture war between science and faith”, and explains that the foundation “emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life”. BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, which similarly seeks to identify common ground between science and religion.
Whatever the final goals of the Reason Project on the one side and of the Templeton Foundation on the other, they both find ultimate justification in an apparently clear vision of what is best for humanity. For Richard Dawkins (and probably Sean Carroll as well) it would be the end of religious ‘irrationalism’, while for the late John Templeton it would have been to find a peaceful collaboration of science and religion (note, in passing, how the option of a predominance of religion at the expense of science is not proposed, as the Templeton Foundation knows that to join the Creationist bunch would be a PR suicide…For an interesting recent post on the TF see here). What I am interested in, is not at all what the two parties propose, but in what their previous assumption is: that there is a very clear understanding of humanity and that out of this universal ‘humanity’ we can derive an ethics capable of telling us what is better and what is worse. Are these considerations culturally and politically neutral?
How does a specific understanding of ‘humanity’ condition our discussions about ‘science and religion’, about artificial intelligence, about global warming catastrophisms, and even about governmental funding of scientific research projects? (Not to mention how did it condition historical events such as colonial expansion–often supported by a certain will of exporting scientific knowledge–or religious missions?). When Carroll argues that
Of course, nothing is to stop you, when you say the word “religion,” from having in mind something like “moral philosophy,” or perhaps “all of nature,” or “a sense of wonder at the universe.” You can use words to mean whatever you want; it’s just that you will consistently be misunderstood by the ordinary-language speakers with whom you are conversing. And what is the point? If you really mean “ethics” when you say “religion,” why not just say “ethics”? Why confuse the subject with all of the connotations that most people (quite understandably) attach to the term — God, miracles, the supernatural, etc.?
He is, I believe, making a mistake: it is not ‘religion’ which can be just equated with ‘ethics’, but ‘ethics’ (and its foundational concept, the universality of ‘humanity’) already underlies our whole discussion around ‘science and religion’, our scientific decisions, and the way we decide to approach any issue whatsoever.
I might be weird, I might sound eccessively postmodern (red flag for the scientists in the audience!) but I think that the lack of critical investigation into the origin, the development and the application of this ‘humanity’ concept is notable in its absence. If we go on writing about ‘science and religion’ as if we have these two ‘universal things’ firmly placed under our scrutinizing eye, as if we know what to do with them in order to do ‘good’ to ‘humankind’, and as if our understanding of them and our intention in using them is completely impermeable to social, political and cultural contextual influences, our writing will be at best an intellectual divertissment–fundamentally useless–but at worst might be the source for political decisions which will affect our lives and the lives of those upon whom we are imposing these decisions.
My two cents.