Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Provisional Definitions for Religion and Science

Last time instead of directly answering questions about the nature of the relationship between religion and science, I suggested we distinguish between 'phenomenological categories' and 'forms of consciousness'. The point was to think through more carefully what we mean when we use the terms religion and science. Much of the time, we seem to fall into the habit of talking about them as if they were readily identifiable things, which are out there for everyone to see, if only people would open their eyes think carefully about what they are seeing. But the idea religion and science are somehow objective things, or, otherwise put, objective categories within which to group things sharing some common  feature, will only stand up to scrutiny for so long.

So I went on to argue religion and science might better to thought of as 'forms of consciousness', or ways of thinking about things. This second way of thinking about religion and science--as ways of thinking about things--has the advantage of being much more flexible in its application, and so also truer to our experience of the world. Take, as an example, the phenomenon of a falling object; say, someone who was pushed from the top floor of an apartment building. We can theorize about the motion of this object. The falling person accelerates as they plummet towards the ground. Perhaps we could, like Isaac Newton, wonder about the cause of the person's acceleration and formulate a gravitational theory stating objects near the earth's surface accelerate at a speed of 9.8 m/s2. Note we haven't yet confronted the moral question about whether pushing a person from the top floor of an apartment building is good or bad? The object is still the same falling object, but, in this initial analysis, we bracket out moral considerations.

We theorize about the nature of the object's motion, in fact, without any concern for the sort of object it is. Striving to attain 'scientific' objectivity, we discover gravity exerts a force equal to the mass of the object multiplied by 9.8m/s2 (F=ma), and does so irrespective of the nature of the falling object. Moral considerations, on the other hand, add a whole new set of interpretive problems. If I drop a small stone (or better yet, a feather) from the top floor of the apartment building, few people are likely to find my action morally reprehensible. Whereas if I push a person from the top floor, I am going to be brought up on charges of murder. What has changed? The object in question remain the same; but the ways of I thinking about the object has changed.

The difficulty is determining what exactly it is that changes. What sort of expectations do I bring to my thought of these falling objects, such that I indifferently calculate the acceleration of an object due to gravity one moment, and agonize over whether pushing a person off the top floor of a building was the right thing to do the next moment?

I propose religion and science, understood as 'forms of consciousness', represent different ways of measuring objects, including ourselves. Thinking about things might be described as an act of measuring things against other things: we distinguish things, relate things, dissect things, and put them back together, all in our heads. A 'scientific' way of thinking about things is characterized especially by physical measurement. The better our measurements, the better able are we to test a hypothesis about the physical nature of this or that physical phenomenon. Physical measurement require standardized systems of measurement be established so we can intelligibly communicate our findings to other people. A unit of measurement like meters has an agreed upon objective value, as do units for the measurement of time intervals. With much more precise equipment, we are able to calculate the force of gravity at the earth's surface to precisely 9.80665 m/s2.

At the heart of systems of religious belief, as I pointed out last time, are found roughly proximate sets of rules, or normative systems of moral measurement. Rather than measure the physical motion of objects, we judge the moral actions of persons. The first point to note is that we are not likely to judge the 'actions' of non-human objects as moral. (There is a measure of truth to the statement, 'Guns don't kill people; people kill people.') The second point to note is that the grounding of our moral judgment is not exclusively objective, but rather is grounded both objectively and subjectively. The objective component is that we most likely decide it is wrong to push a person from the top floor of an apartment building (unless there exist extenuating circumstances, like the person is armed and threatened my life). The subjective component provides the rationale for why this is the case. Namely, that it is wrong to push a person (where it is not wrong to drop a stone or feather) because the person is, in some sense, a being like myself--a being that is conscious of being what they are, that communicates, that has desires and intentions, very much like I do. Love your neighbour as yourself; do unto others as you would have them do to you; as well as other such statements to the same effect.

To summarize, religion and science can be thought of as ways of measuring things according to moral and physical standards, respectively. Scientific standards of measurement are grounded objectively, in some agreed upon standard units of measurement; whereas religious standards of measurement are grounded both objectively in the action which is judged and subjectively in the sort of being making the judgment. The difference between the two, of course, will make it much easier for scientists, in their capacity as scientists, to agree with each other than it will for believers, in their capacity as believers, to do the same. Which is typically what we find when we look at the history of religion and science.


  1. In the case of the term 'moral', you seem to be presupposing that the prescriptive aspect of morality is intrinsically subjective and not based on an objective/real/absolute standard of morality independent of man(for example, God). This essentially automatically assumes that just about all of the major world religions (including the Abrahamic faiths) are false. Consequently, your definition of 'religion' reworded is basically ‘the subjective interpretation of the physical universe using a subjective moral lens.’ Within this definition alone, you are basically conceding and concluding that ‘science’ has a privileged epistemological status compared to ‘religion’ when it comes to determining objective truths.

    1. Nothing of the sort is conceded. You have over-interpreted my meaning. The issue, it seems to me, is that your categories subjective and objective are not clearly distinguished from each other. For example: how would you distinguish between an objective 'scientific' claim and an objective 'moral' claim--or are the sorts of objectivity involved here essentially the same? Or, as another example, what interpretation of the universe, whether scientific or otherwise, doesn't involve some subject component?

  2. Your definition of religion seems to be restrictive to the point that a large subset of issues and beliefs that would be considered as being related to 'religion' would be excluded (example: claims religions make about the origin, functioning, and history of the universe independent of morality).

    1. This is an example of begging the question. What claims does 'religion' make about the origin, functioning, and history of the universe that are independent of some moral claim? If you have in mind claims contemporary Evangelical Christians make about the age of the earth or the origins of species, I grant you that 'religion' has made such claims. But those are based on very modern strategies for reading sacred texts that grow up with and respond to 'scientific' methods of study of the natural world. The sacred texts themselves have no notion of an account of the natural order of the world that is not thoroughly moral. Read Genesis 1 against the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 or read the account of creation in the Qur'an.

  3. I don't see how the multitude of claims that religions make about the universe are exclusively moral in nature. When I say that 'the Judeo-Christian God exists', I am also implying that tangential claims about morality are true(which are subjective interpretations of this objective fact). However, how does the moral way of thinking itself produce the knowledge to know that God exists? I also don't quite understand how someone can determined which "sets of rules, or normative systems of moral measurement" that different religions have are correct, given that these rules require objective 'physical' facts about the universe in the first place(using the term physical loosely) to interpret morally.

    Feel free to explain to me anything that I don't understand. I'm not an expert.

  4. Let me try to answer your question by distinguishing between different sense in which one might say God exists.

    For the ethical monotheist (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the world of our experience exists because God creates it. How he creates it is up to question. That he creates it is not.

    Now, in the modern scientific era, we tend to think of existence as belonging to that which can be observed. The existence of anything must be verified, and if it cannot be verified, it is nonsensical to speak of it as existing.

    Between these two definitions, it seems to me, is a fundamental difference: one is moral and the other is not, or one is factual and the other is not. If we stick with the creation narrative in Genesis, its authors know almost nothing about how to provide a factual description of the natural world. Our factually predisposed minds expect them to say God creates in six literal days, but by my best estimation we would be wrong. What they do describe is God working on six days and then resting on the seventh. One of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 says, because God rested on the seventh day, therefore you shall rest on the seventh day as well.

    So the creation narratives (everything else exists because God exists) seem to say something about how human beings ought to conduct their day-to-day lives.

    I grant you, of course, this takes us nowhere near establishing which morality is 'objectively' valid. But I am not sure morality requires an 'objective' ground. If I am responsible for my actions, then I am responsible--and if I act wrongly, I do so not because I failed to measure up to some external measure, but because I failed to conform to my own nature. The Genesis narrative ends with the creation of the human being in the image of God, which seems to suggest some sort of moral autonomy on the part of humanity.