The Dissident

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Using Pragmatism to Reconcile Religion and Science

This was written over several days and finished up in a coffee shop with a blonde roast at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi classical sets in my ear. In this essay, I take ideas from William James, John Dewey, Paul Tillich, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida and Marin Heidegger and synthesize them into a short treatise on the reconcilability of science and religion. Drawing from pragmatism, I hope to dissolve some of the talk of [T]ruth and focus on show how science and religion are tools that accomplish a particular purpose with the goal of meeting particular human needs. My contention is that you can be science-minded and religious while retaining a clear semblance of intellectual responsibility.

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Science and religion are often said to be irreconcilable. The principle argument for this claim is that it’s intellectually irresponsible to both believe in the existence of a benevolent omnipotent creator of the universe and to accept the results of modern science. I’m dubious of this notion of intellectual responsibility.

Let us consider an illustration that may put my argument into perspective. Imagine an evolutionary biologist who is also a religious believer. Let’s call this imaginary person, Professor Mastersen. Mastersen spends her time trying to find ways to bridge the gap between Darwin’s story of how the mammals and, in particular, human beings came into existence. Her work is done within and against the background of the usual story of the history of the physical universe; the first story told by Lucretius, and enlarged upon by Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. It’s a story about elementary particles batting about without purpose and coming together accidently to form stars, planets, protein molecules, and eventually everything else. God, however, does not get into the act.

On Sunday’s, Professor Mastersen goes off to Mass, recites the creed, takes communion and all the rest of it. She doesn’t think much about the relationship between her weekday and Sunday activities. She was raised a Catholic and she relishes the experience of communal worship. Ever since she realized her oldest son is gay, she’s had doubts about the church’s views on various issues, and she regards the present Pope as a little too preoccupied with sex. But she figures Popes come and go, and the next one might be better. Although she is married to an agnostic, her husband agreed that the children would be raised Catholic. When her kids were studying the Catechism, they would ask her the usual questions of just how God managed to create the world out of nothing, how God managed to be both fully God and fully man, and how the consecrated host on the alter manages to be the divine substance while retaining its previous appearance. She shrugs the questions off, for she has little interest in theology and she is quite content to toss in the phrase “mystery of faith” whenever it will do the most good.

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Many people like my fictional Professor Mastersen actually exist. There’s lots of people who view themselves as perfectly good and perfectly sincere believers in some standard version of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, nevertheless, accept unquestionably the propositions the Darwinian theory of biological evolution, which many other Christians think incompatible with the creeds of their respective faith. These people are the despair of both the swaggering atheistic scientific colleagues and the less liberal members of the clergy. Professor Mastersen is well aware and rather amused that her parish priest would like for to take the Pope’s pronouncements more seriously. She is also aware that her atheistic colleagues make jokes about her religious beliefs behind her back. She is equally indifferent about both.

The question I want to discuss is this: Is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why?

We can hold contradictions by making distinctions

One might retort that we all have a moral obligation to think logically. Well, I say it’s not, perhaps, so off logic that one shouldn’t hold contradictory beliefs. For it’s always possible, as St. Thomas remarked, we can dissolve a contradiction by making a distinction. It may seem for example, that I should not both accept the Copernican sun-centered theory, and still believe that the sun is moving steadily closer to the horizon. But, of course, I resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between the astrophysical and the common-sense descriptions of the sun’s motion. For most people, it is common-sense to think that the sun moves around us, simply because that’s the way it appears! At Mass, it may seem that I should not both believe that there is wet bread on my tongue and that I am partaking of the various substance of my God. But I can resolve that contradiction by distinguishing between the theological and the commonsense description (albeit theological description) of what’s going on. We make this kind of contradiction-distinction all the time.

When the courts decide hard cases, for example, they make distinctions that nobody has ever drawn up before in the hopes of avoiding the charge that they are treating like cases in unlike ways. This is done, for instance, in murder cases that make distinctions between premeditated and unplanned murder, as well as voluntary and involuntary murder. The courts make further distinction if the defendant is criminally insane. Thus, one can hold contradictory beliefs: one murderer ought to get life in prison because it was premeditated, while another murderer should be given leniency because he fell asleep at the wheel killing another motorist, involuntarily. The “logic” is not crystal clear. It’s never easy to say when such distinction-making is legitimate and when it’s not. The same judicial opinion is often described with equal conviction and honesty, as brilliant analysis and as disingenuous rationalization.

Two Different Vocabularies: one religious and the other scientific

When it comes to the purported clash between religion and science, however, it may seem difficult to wiggle one’s way out of the appearance of contradiction. For surely the universe was either planned by an intelligent being who’s concerned for our welfare and actions, or it’s a fortuitous assemblage of contingencies. It seems too simple to say that it can be described in one way on Sundays for religious purposes, and a different way on weekdays for all other purposes. The difference in describing the two ways of the universe are just too important to be shrugged off as distinction between alternative purposes. Furthermore, the differences between these two descriptions doesn’t seem analogous to the differences in the common-sense and the scientific descriptions of the motions of the sun and earth. For in the latter case we can escape contradiction by saying it is handy and harmless to have two different vocabularies, one for everyday purposes and another for scientific purposes. The relation between the statements made in these two vocabularies is not exactly contradictory but just a matter of speaking crudely and precisely.

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The crude way of speaking which tells us that the sun moves across the sky can be replaced with a more precise description of what’s going on, a description which saves and explains the appearances. But the scientist who is also a religious believer can hardly say that neither biology or the Catechism is a crude oversimplified but convenient way of speaking. For the scientific and religious vocabulary are equally refined and precise. Both purport to describe how we got here and where human beings come from – so one of them surely must be wrong. Anybody like Professor Mastersen, many people would say, must be schizophrenic or at least intellectually irresponsible.

Paul Tillich: science deals with the literal and religion deals with the symbolic

One particular way to defend people like Professor Mastersen against this charge of intellectually irresponsibility, is to distinguish between literal and symbolic truth. Paul Tillich, the great Protestant liberal theologian of the mid-century, said that the statements of science are to be taken literally true whereas the statements of religious faith are what he called “symbolic expressions of our ultimate concern,” that is, attempts to describe whatever it is that we love with all our heart, soul and mind. Tillich said we all have symbols of our ultimate concern, only some of which are personalized deities, the revolutionary power of the Proletariat is such a symbol for Marxists. Moreover, the incarnation is such a symbol for Christians and the poetic imagination was such a symbol for Coleridge. Just as Marxist allows for no empirical facts to spoil their image of the Proletariat, and just as the Positivists allow no one to interfere with physics and mathematics, so do Christians allow no empirical facts to dissuade their sure and certain hope of resurrection.

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Tillich’s point is that a debate between Marxists and Christians or between Marxists and Positivists is not like a debate between advocates of Ptolemy’s and Copernicus’ theories about the motion of the earth or like a debate between Darwinian’s and creationists. In the latter case, there is plenty in agreement about what phenomena need to be explained and room for debate about which explanations of those phenomena meets best familiar criteria. But in the case of the Marxist verses the Christian or the Buddhist verses the Hindu, it seems silly to try and get agreement on which phenomena need explanation or about criteria for satisfactory explanation. The whole idea about explaining phenomena seems out of place in reference to these disagreements. So liberal theologians like Tillich say, let’s think of religion and philosophy as dealing in symbols and science as dealing in facts. The same facts are compatible with the invocation of many different symbols.

I don’t think that Tillich was intellectually dishonest, but I also don’t think that his notion of symbols is particularly helpful. The cache value of the term ‘symbolic’ seems to be merely irrelevant to prediction and control (that is, the ‘literal’ is the stuff in science books that help us cure diseases, build bombs, etc. and the ‘symbolic’ stuff in non-scientific books is not useful for that purpose but is useful for some other purposes).

Science and religion are tools, rather than ways of getting to Truth

Tillich’s interpretation of theology as symbolic expression of Christian concern merely reiterates the claim that theology nowadays mustn’t compete with natural science in explaining how things have come to pass (how the human species got here for example). Nor is it to compete with science for making predictions, for those days are gone, once upon a time in the 17th century, the church made competing and predictive claims, but since then, they have given up on making those claims. This is why the church has become immune to empirical disconfirmation and why acquiring or losing belief in God is more like falling into or out of love than winning or losing an argument.

It seems more helpful to forget about the literal/symbolic distinction (of Tillich) and just to say that since the development of modern science, religious and scientific beliefs have become tools for doing different jobs. Scientific belief helps us predict and control events in space and time. This job, before the Enlightenment, was to be done by cosmogonic hypothesis pervade by priests and prophets, but it can now be done better. Religious belief gives us a way of thinking about our lives that puts them in an emotionally satisfying context. Religion oversteps its bounds when it picks a quarrel with science, as when the Christian clergy picked quarrels with Galileo and then with Darwin, and science oversteps its bounds when it tells us we have no right to believe in God, now that we have better explanations of the phenomena that God was previously used to explain.

This way of reconciling science and religion requires one to abandon the idea that there is one way the world really is, and that science and religion are competing to tell us what that way is. Abandoning that idea is easiest if one thinks of beliefs as tools for accomplishing a purpose rather than as attempts to represent the intrinsic nature of reality, the way things are in themselves. Instead of insisting there is such a way, one will hold that although there are alternative descriptions of things [descriptions useful for different purposes] none of these get us any closer to the way things really are than any other. On this view the sole virtue of any descriptive vocabulary is its utility. It can’t have a further virtue called “getting things right”.

Neither science or religion get us to the Truth

To assume there is an intrinsic nature of reality is to assume that there is a portal to an absolute [T]ruth, concrete essence, and knowledge that is grounded. This is akin to Plato’s perfect Forms floating high above in the heavens as pure representations of the things below. To believe in the intrinsic nature of reality is to think that [T]ruth is floating somewhere in the heavens and scientific proofs can uncover that [T]ruth or that holy scripture or Divine revelation can reveal [T]ruth. The idea that science helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking that phlogiston theory uncovers the truth of combustion and rust. The idea that God helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking the saw is the best tool for building a house. The idea that rational arguments help us uncover truth is has useless as Aristotle thinking ‘the facts’ show that the earth is at the center of the universe. Just as it is useless for the religionists to say morals come from a moral Lawgiver, it is useless for the secular person to argue that “the facts demand …,” “logic demands …,” or “reason demands …,” as if there is an external [T]ruth that fact, logic and reason point toward.

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A pragmatist’s view: we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well

This technique of reconciliation also requires one to say there’s no such thing as the search for truth, if that search is conceived as something distinct from the search for greater human happiness. For all we know about truth, from a William James and John Dewey pragmatist view, is that we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well. We want prediction and control, and scientific beliefs give us that. We also want our lives to have significance, we want to love something with all our heart, soul, and mind, and philosophical and religious belief gives us that. Different human needs give rise to different ways of describing ourselves and the world, thus different candidates for belief. These candidates are, so to speak, running for different offices so they need not get in each other’s way. They all deny that things have intrinsic nature as opposed to useful descriptions.

These ways of thinking about truth, belief and reality add up to the view of knowledge common to the American pragmatist, to Nietzsche, and common to such post-Nietzschean European philosophers as Heidegger and Derrida. All these thinkers give up on the idea of reality as-it-is-in-itself, and the idea that the search for Truth (capitalized “T”) is an attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of things.

The views these thinkers share is sometimes called social constructivism, but that’s misleading. These thinkers are not saying that what we use to think was discovered is actually our own invention, rather they are simply reiterating that we can make no sense of the suggestion that one description is closer to the way things really are, apart from any human needs, purposes or interests than some other description. The best we can do is discover that one description is more useful for the satisfaction of one or another human need but hardly for the satisfaction of all human needs.

These philosophers (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida) all deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to the way things are independent of our needs, for, they argue, there is no way we could ever test for such correspondence. Any proposed test would have to compare the ways we talk about things with the way things are apart from being talked about- and we have no idea of what such comparison would look like. For example, if we want to talk about Western Democracy being the best form of government, we have no independent [T]rue form of Democracy by which to test it up against. For every democracy is tainted with something that can be perceived as undemocratic. So ‘democracy being the best government’ cannot correspond to something “out there”, by which, we can then conclude, “Ah Ha! This is true!”

Who do we demand evidence from?

Is evidence something which floats free of human projects or is the demand for evidence simply a demand for the satisfaction of one particular human need – the need for agreement and belief when engaged in cooperative social projects? William James thought it was the latter.

On James’s view he says: it’s reasonable to demand evidence from those of whom we are engaged in a common enterprise, for example, when we are dealing with judges who are trying to make our country’s laws hang together. But when we are engaged in private idiosyncratic projects, such as the search for meaning in religion, it’s not clear that we have an obligation to produce evidence. For James, to search for truth is to search for beliefs that work; for beliefs that get us want we want.

When Professor Mastersen searches for the best explanation for a puzzling biological fact she, of course, is bound to look for an explanation which will be supported by evidence available to her fellow scientists. But on James’s view this is not because she is seeking truth as opposed to happiness, rather she is seeking tools that will do a certain job that certain human beings have taken, namely putting together a comprehensive narrative of what spatio-temporal events were casually linked to which other spatio-temporal events, in particular how biological evolution works.

When she expresses her contempt of fundamentalist Catholics who reject Darwin, Professor Mastersen is expressing contempt for people who try to use old tools when new and better tools for doing the same job have already become available. When Professor Mastersen attends Mass, takes communion, and recites the creeds, she is not taking part in a cooperative quest for the best solution to a practical problem. She is no more answerable for demands for evidence than when she decided for whom to marry, or when she decided what graduate training to take up. She is seeking happiness in her own way, on her own time, for her own sake.

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We have no responsibility to truth; only a responsibility to other human beings

We have no responsibility to something called “truth.” To the contrary, our only responsibility is to other human beings. The question of whether there is evidence for a belief is a question of whether there exists a certain human community which takes certain relatively controversial propositions as providing good reasons for that belief. Where there is such a community, a community to which we want to belong, we have an obligation to our fellow human beings not to believe a proposition unless we can give some good reasons for doing so. Reasons of the sort the relevant community takes to be good ones. Where there is no such community we don’t. No one knows what would counts as non-question-begging evidence for the claims of the Catholic or Mormon Church to be the ‘one true church.’ But that should not matter to the Catholic or Mormon community. Biologists, on the other hand, know quite well what counts as evidence for Darwinism or creationism.

James, unfortunately, thought of the opposition between the responsibility to our fellow human beings and to ourselves in terms of a distinction between intellectual grounds and emotional needs. I think that that was a mistake. For that way of talking suggests a picture of two human distinct faculties with two distinct purposes, one for knowing and another for feeling. This picture has to be abandoned once one gives up, as James and others do, the idea that there’s a special human purpose called ‘knowing the truth’ interpreted as ‘getting in touch with the intrinsic nature of reality.’

It would have been better if James would have thrown out this faculty of psychology that draws a nice clean line between reason and emotion and substituted something like a picture of human minds as webs of belief and desire, so interwoven with one another that it’s not easy to tell if a choice has been made on particular purely intellectual grounds or emotional grounds.

Nor is it useful to divide areas of cultures or of life into those of which there is only objective knowledge and those of which there is only subjective opinion. These traditional epistemological distinctions are misleading ways of making a distinction between areas where we do have an obligation to other people to justify our beliefs to them and other areas in which we don’t have an obligation.

Religionists owe us no justification for their private internal beliefs

James intellect/passion distinction should be replaced with what needs justification and what doesn’t. A business proposal, for example, needs justification. However, a marriage proposal – in our romantic and democratic society – doesn’t. If someone asks you to marry them, you don’t demand, “justify your proposal.” But if someone asks you to invest in their company, it is on point to demand they justify why I ought to invest. This pragmatist ethic says, along with John Stewart Mill, our right to happiness is only limited by other people’s right to have their own pursuits of happiness interfered with. This right to happiness includes what James called “the right to believe.” More generally, it includes the right to faith, hope, and love. These three states of mind can also not be justified and typically should not have to be justified. Our only intellectual responsibilities are responsibilities to cooperate with others on common projects. Projects such as constructing a unified scientific theory or quantum physics, and not to interfere with their private projects of faith. For the latter, such as getting married or engaging with religion, the question of intellectual responsibility just doesn’t arise.

This may beg the question, when do people of faith assume responsibility for the justifications of their belief? Notice in the previous paragraph I spoke of common projects. Just as scientists, collaborating on common projects, need to justify their claims because it directly effects the public sphere, so do religious people when their claims go from personal to public. When we speak of legislating laws based precisely on religious suppositions, then justification is needed. But Professor Mastersen owes no one any justification as to why she attends Mass or takes communion.

Last Words

The initial question I set out to answer was this: is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why? My contention from the outset is that she is in fact not behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way. Moreover, religion and science are simply two different tools used for different purposes. Just as Professor Mastersen owes no one justifications of why she chose to be a scientist rather than a gardener, she owes no one an explanation has to how she derives meaning, purpose and significance from a belief in the divine.