Friday, March 4, 2016
Science and Religion and Politics
Trying to be "honest to God" (see previous blog), I accept science, its method and its results, as the best way of explaining nature and achieving true knowledge. At the same time, I realize that scientific knowledge is not, nor will it be, the final truth. But neither is religion, philosophy, or common sense ways to final truth.
I know that religion is often at odds with science in our secular modern world where science claims to separate itself from religion and politics. And there has been conflict where neither religion nor politics has refused to separate itself from and use science as the way to truth about nature and ourselves in nature.
Religionists using politics to force educators to include creationism as a scientific theory in the schools' curricula is the now classic case of the confusion of science, religion, and politics. The use of religious beliefs over scientific understandings to deny rights of certain segments of society is another. Such is the use of religious scriptures to legitimate slavery, deny woman's suffrage, restrict the GLBTQ community, carry out cruel punishment, and wage war. Another example of the confusion of religion, politics, and science is the raising of political-economic documents, theories, and personages to near objects of worship --as juridical originalists do with the constitution, as white supremacists do with race, as capitalists do with free market, and as politicians are presently doing with the flag and nation.
My own feeling is that alleviating the confusion and conflict is not matter of separation, but rather of defining the proper relationships, between science, religion and politics. I am reading a wonderful book and great article from theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli in which he reflects on science. Science is not about certainty he affirms. Science builds on the knowledge of the past by continually reexamining its past conclusions. Yes, it receives and adopts new data. Yes, it revises its previous theories. Yes, and more important, it reexamines the conceptual system or imaginative framework within which the questions have arisen and the answers have been provided.
But most of all science is about "overcoming our own ideas, and about going beyond common sense continually... and the core of science is not certainty, it's continuous uncertainty." It is recognizing "that there are probably still an enormous amount of prejudices and mistakes, and try to look a little bit larger, knowing that there is always a larger point of view that we'll expect in the future." This is not discarding previous knowledge, e.g. the understanding of classical mechanics, general relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and information theory. It is however surpassing it through ongoing data gathering, theory revision, and reconceptualization through new imagination.
He recognizes that "in religious thinking, often this is unacceptable. What is unacceptable is not a scientist that says I know, but it's a scientist that says I don't know, and how could you know? Based, at least in many religions, in some religions, or in some ways of being religious, [is] an idea that there should be truth that one can hold and not be questioned. This way of thinking is naturally disturbed by a way of thinking which is based on continuous revision, not of the theories, [but] of even the core ground of the way in which we think."
Modernity has rightly discarded religion as a method of explaining nature. But that is not necessarily discarding the religious instinct and attitude. That instinct and attitude is a drive for meaning. And in this sense, religion is vital to science. It is not the precepts, doctrines, laws, and organizations of religion that are important. It is the drive for meaning, which we call faith or transcendence, that is important. The religious instinct and attitude, however various cultures and communities want to articulate it, is evident in a Rovelli and all of us who realize that we do not know, and cannot know, anything for certain and yet push on to expand the frontiers of knowledge.
But when religion tries to take the place of science by claiming that it knows with certainty, that its precepts and doctrines contain a final truth that need no revision or reexamination or reinterpretation and without adopting the provisional knowledge that science has already developed, the stage is set for unnecessary and even disastrous conflict. Then throw politics into the mix and you have the craziness of current American culture, economy, and politics.
It is the same with philosophy and the humanities out of which scientists act to understand nature. Cultures, which include science, the arts, religion, and common sense, are the imaginative conceptual belief systems, within which we all operate and which are in continual transformation. While science is the method by which to explain nature including ourselves, religion expresses the transcending spirit and faith to keep inquiring; philosophy and art stimulate the imagination and offer new ways of and images for thinking. And common sense is the filtering of the products of new thinking into our shared language and belief systems. Which, we hastily add, science must continually reexamine.