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.
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'.
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.
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 intelligences. 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
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.
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 Precepts. 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.