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Will Science Beat Religion? And What are they Competing for?

In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking said that, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”  This statement is indicative of the on-going debate between science and religion.  In fact it seems to disclose a great many of the assumptions that underlie the debate.

The debate is hardly a new a one.  However, in its contemporary form many of the interlocutors, regardless of on which side their allegiance falls, agree about the fundamentals of the argument in Hawking’s quote.  For instance, that religion and science are in a competition; they seem to provide mutually exclusive answers to the same questions.  Also, the methods of science and religion are different if not utterly opposed to one another.

Let’s suppose, for the moment, that Hawking’s caricatures of both science and religion are correct.  Presumably, there are other sorts of institutions that are based on authority with which science is not in conflict or competition.  We might think of politics as something like this.  So why won’t science beat out hierarchical governments?  Why is religion its competitor?  Again, it seems that the two institutions are after answers to the same questions.  “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  “Where did we come from?”  Scientists answer one way, religious folk another; competition ensues and it becomes survival of the fittest.  As the debate continues to be framed in this way, it seems what counts as the fittest here is what has the simplest and falsifiable answers to these questions.

However, for a great many years the fundamental structure of this debate was in question.  The idea that science and religion may have different but non-exclusive answers to similar questions is an old one.  Most believe that it has its roots in Kant.  However, the movement was its strongest in the mid-20th century.  There it was identified with many people who said they were working in the vein of Wittgenstein, and the view got a name: Fideism.  Philosophers of religion which flew under the banner of fideism suggested that it was a confusion of some sort (whether it be linguistic confusion, category mistakes, or lack of context sensitivity) to suggest that science and religion where attempting to answer the same questions.  The questions may sound the same and be composed of the same words, but those sentences meant very different things depending in which context (science or religion) the questions found themselves being asked.

An unpopular consequence of fideism was that it meant that science and religion were not allowed to comment on each other.  They inhabited different categories, languages games, or forms of life (depending on which fideist was talking).  If, as Wittgenstein suggested, a person would be unable to understand a lion if it talked, a scientist couldn’t understand a mystic’s revelation.  And that was fine.  The lack of understanding had little to do with truth.  It is this consequence that led to Fideism’s overall demise at the end of the 20th century.  And it might have been rightly exiled to historical literature.  However it is important to recognize that the framing of the contemporarydebate between science and religion narrows our understanding of certain notions like Truth and Meaning.

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About modalpontiff

I possess lofty aspirations to be the first philosophy professor on Mars.

One comment on “Will Science Beat Religion? And What are they Competing for?

  1. Rob Farrow
    July 5, 2010

    I’d prefer to characterise fideism as the irreducibility of language… It’s not that the scientist and mystic cannot understand each other, but that neither can expect to comprehend the other on their own terms. The scientist can understand what they mystic says: just not as science. To understand language means, for the fideist, to understand a certain form of life. But there’s no reason why one can’t partake in multiple forms of life, right?

    I must confess to being somewhat sympathetic to fideism as I do want to believe that there’s something of lasting value in the religious tradition. However, the really critical point in contemporary debates around the value of religion is that, if we read religious pronouncements charitably through the filter of fideism then at the same time we exclude them from the scientific language game. Religionists may not tell us how the world came to be, or what makes a person a person, or what the fundamental nature of reality is, etc. Now, this is evidently what most religions like to do, and they also claim it as the basis for the validity of their religion: for example, Christians don’t just think that the Fall is a metaphor for what it is to be a human – they are obliged to maintain that it actually happened and that the evidence for this claim is scriptural.

    I can’t entertain the idea that the priest knows more about the fundamental nature of reality than the experimental physicist. But I can entertain the idea that religious traditions contain moral wisdom and convey something about what gives our lives meaning.

    The question is whether or not this is enough to justify devotion to a particular religion (I don’t think it is). More practically, I think there are good grounds for undermining the prominence of religious voices in debates about morality, since religionists tend to be people who shout the loudest rather than bring any real expertise to the table.

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