Philosophy: On Science and Religion
Is science closer to religion than is typically assumed? Is religion closer to science? Might rational enquiry, based on evidence, share similarities with faith? These questions were raised by Charles Taylor, the distinguished Canadian philosopher, speaking at a Cambridge University symposium (pdf). He suspects that in the modern world we've bought into an illusion, one that posits a radical split between reason and revelation. Today, given the tension and violence that arises from misunderstandings about both, is a good time to examine them again.
The illusion, if that is what it is, emerged after the Enlightenment, when epistemological authority was questioned. It came to be assumed that you have to chose between one or the other – or, at least, if you appeal to revelation, its “truth” will only stand if allowed by the court of reason.
The new power invested in reason itself arose from the tremendous success of the natural sciences. Physics, geology and the like set a new standard of rational enquiry that is couched in procedural terms. Hence, what is rational has come to be equated with what is logically coherent. Further, it must be derived by proper methods including repeated observation and correct inference. In short, it's what scientists do.
Further, science's success carries political implications, for it seems that the rational can be disengaged from the specifics of culture, ethnicity and religion. A physicist in Sante Fe can communicate easily and directly with a physicist in Shanghai. From that observation, which is undoubtedly true, comes the dream of a brighter tomorrow: if only humanity could approach all its problems in the same way – deferring only to evidence and reason – then perhaps it could solve its problems too, or at least a fair number of them. Moreover, if people would only drop their appeals to revelation – which conflict, are irrational, and have a marked tendency towards violence – then perhaps the world would become a more peaceful place. That's the promise. Who'd deny its appeal?
Unless, Taylor continued, it's an illusion. For when you examine the way science actually works you see that there's a third factor at play. Philosophers of science call it by different names. Colloquially, it's the hunch or the eureka moment. More technically, it has to do with an elusive force named intuition. But take, for the sake of the argument, one of the best known attempts to understand what really happens in scientific reasoning, that put forward by Thomas Kuhn.
It's because of him we have the phrase “paradigm shift” – those breaks between the science of Aristotle and Copernicus, or between that of Newton and Einstein. What happens, he thought, is that there is no procedural appeal to reason in these moments, no patient weighing of the evidence. Instead, there is a rupture, a revelation. Science finds itself teleported to a new world, in which even the questions it asked before now look foolish.
What analysis of this kind suggests is that the reasonableness of science is partially true, during periods of what Kuhn called normal science, when puzzles are proposed and solved. However, during paradigm shifts, that evaporates. Science enters a period of flux and uncertainty until a new paradigm is settled. Intellectual wars break out too. Scientists stop talking to one another. They label opponents “heretics”. Then rational discourse breaks out once more – until the next shift.
The challenge is to understand what happens during the shifts. What processes are at play then? There's a huge debate about this. But it is at least plausible that the rational periods of normal scientific enquiry are only possible because enough scientists have decided to go with the disruptive hunch or intuition. Certainly, they test it. And their tests “prove” it – until the next shift, that is.
So, the suggestion is that you could be forgiven for concluding that science is only possible because scientists are prepared to make a collective leap of faith, a commitment to the prevailing paradigm. Further, science just wouldn't be possible if scientists always and everywhere adhered to the scientific method alone, the procedures that have come to define what counts as rational. Something other than repeated observations and correct inference is required for progress.
To put it another way, the neat distinction between science and religion unravels, for religion involves commitments made on faith too. You might protest: revelation purports to come from God and is untestable, two characteristics that the scientist would certainly reject. Except that regardless of its source, a revelation can only make an impact if it makes sense to people, which is to say that they test it against their lives, that it can account for the evidence of their experience, like a theory. Revelation can only bear the weight of significance when people have engaged with it rationally too.
Moreover, a particularly successful religious revelation, or should we call it a “faith hunch”, may come to have global appeal: it becomes a kind of universal language. The Christian in Sante Fe can worship with the Christian in Shanghai. Perhaps in this respect religion is closer to science too. We might take Taylor's lead and discuss, rationally if we can.
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 31 January 2010Back to the top