Religion, Science and Perspective: Let the Games Begin

I actually had a different post in my queue, but this conversation got so interesting that I thought that I would throw my two cents in and bring it front and center before continuing with my own modest critique of science and introducing the phenomenology of Charles Sanders Peirce as planned.

Tom, I haven’t as yet read Feyerabend, but I certainly will now, and when I do I will print my thoughts here. I have been re-reading Thomas Kuhn on the nature of scientific revolution, a little Wilfred Sellers and his critique of science and some contemporary philosophers namely Joseph Margolis and Robert Brandom. These have all given me a great deal to think about in terms of placing science in context of the progression of human thought.

At Brian’s suggestion I have also read a couple of Michael Shermer’s books and he is, of course, a scientific apologist, ever defending logic and rationality against the dogma of religion and belief. I don’t think he is a joke, in fact he seems like a thoughtful critic of certain entrenched ideas (and he often presents himself as more open-minded than he is sometimes represented by Brain.) In some ways, however, he strikes me as fighting a battle that has already been won – at least among the people I tend to associate with in Integral/Evolutionary circles. Few people in that group are struggling with belief in unfounded dogmatic ways, they either have given up dogma for something new (which could always be a new dogma) or they have found reasons to feel comfortable holding on to more traditional religious beliefs as they move into the future. I think Michael Shermer is largely talking to a different audience.

In one recent book Shermer dismantles the “Intelligent Design” evolutionary position. I myself ascribe to a variation on this idea – that there is some form of teleology in the universe – but the way I think of teleology is far from the intelligent designer personified that is often being promoted by many in the Intelligent Design movement. Pulling apart Intelligent Design as a cardboard veneer stapled over Christian Creationism isn’t terribly hard, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. There is lots of sloppy thinking and bad science mixed in with the great stuff in the intelligent design debate and Shermer has many years of good work ahead clearing it up. Yet again, I don’t think that I or we are really his audience; we are already on his side in that battle.

The battle that I am currently following is the battle in the second half of the 20th century that Tom is referring to in which the shortcomings of science have been placed under a microscope by some brilliant and insightful thinkers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Science has no method, although Feyerabend may change my mind. I still see science as the triumph of the Western World that has given us so much we enjoy in modern life. I am not ready to tell all the scientists to pack it up and go home because they are not really following a method. I want them to keep going with their method and discover new cures to diseases, better methods of communication and travel, and generally continue to improve the standard of living for people on this planet.

On the other hand and in accordance with many of sciences critics, I don’t want them dictating what is real and what is unreal. When science brought logical positivism, rationality and empiricism to the for front of the Western Mind it rightfully claimed that it had a better handle on truth than did the traditional religion that was its main competitor. At the same time the traditional religions had a right to tell science not to move so fast and throw out the baby with the bathwater. After all it wasn’t science that pulled Western Europe through the Dark Ages. It was, for all it faults, Christianity that stopped warlords from killing each other and everyone else in the process by getting them to pledge allegiance to a common king in the person of Jesus and then sending them off to fight a common enemy in the crusades. As horrendous as the crusades were – and they were for sure – they also bought Western Europe enough peace to rebuild the population that had been decimated by the plagues and then move beyond the system of feudalism to the nation state.

Similarly as the limits of science are being explored we also want to keep the discussion in a historical context. Science is a perspective on reality that mistakes itself for the whole of reality – hmmmm, the same could be said about religion. The kind of objective handle on truth that science claims is not objective. Science often fails to see its assumptions about reality as assumptions and mistakes them for “givens” (Wilfred Sellers). Science also fails to see itself in the historical context in which it was developed (Kuhn) and therefore neglects the cultural forces that have helped shape its point of view.

So the modernism of science has been overrun in some quadrants – and not those in which Michael Shermer is currently fighting the good fight of modernism  – by post-modernism. Post-modernism sees right through the problems of science. It sees how scientists fail to recognize that their point of view is not merely a strictly objective assessment of observed facts. Science is a perspective that has been shaped by some complex of conclusions based on observed facts, personal preferences and biases of the scientists involved, and cultural influences that are often mistaken for reality. And so science has been on the run – again in certain quadrants – for decades trying to prove itself and finding its truth claims falling short of its promise in many ways.*

In turn post-modernism is and will find that its own foundation – that all knowledge is a matter of perspective and cultural influence – is also a perspective. Once again we will have mistaken the most recently discovered part of the picture for the whole of reality and we will get up, dust off and continue with our rush toward an ever more integrated understanding of knowledge, ourselves and our relationship to the world. 

*(An interesting example of science on the run is the defense of Behaviorism that Carl is often an eloquent champion of in this blog. I often find myself agreeing with everything Carl says about the powerful perspective of seeing human activity as pure behavior, and yet disagreeing with the spoken and unspoken implications that go along with it. I have read some things that Carl has generously given to me and I can’t (as yet) agree with the hard determinism and denial of internal being that seems to come along with that view. I have also read other contemporary thinkers on the matter and from what I have found the strict interpretations of Behaviorism are generally disregarded as already haven been proven wrong (although I haven’t found that proof in a satisfactory form yet.) Often I think what Carl and some of his circle like Robert Epstein are acctually doing are advancing Skinner’s original work to keep Behaviorism in step with more recent advancements in science, but this is a digression from my original point although an avenue of inquiry that I want to keep on the table.)