Science and Religion – review (part 1)

Professor V.S. Ramachandran, University of California, San Diego

Giving the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 2003 the celebrated neuroscientist Professor V.S. Ramachandran gleefully laid out the means by which neuroscience might eventually gobble up philosophy, psychiatry, aesthetics, and a variety of other medical and intellectual disciplines. The years since those Reith Lectures have seen something a little different: not the out-and-out conquest that Professor Ramachandran seemed to envision – not yet, at any rate – but instead a rash of neuro-x disciplines, from neurotheology to neuromarketing to neurolaw.

This seems to reflect the fairly common-sense notion that while we can learn a fair amount that is useful for pretty much any area of human life by sticking some poor soul in an fMRI machine, even the most advanced conceivable ‘outsider’ account (i.e. looking at the mind-brain from the outside) will require, as its complement, both first-person ‘insider’ accounts of the sort that poetry, art, music, and all the rest are able to offer and – perhaps particularly where mental illness is concerned – educated, empathic, interpersonal accounts of the sort that the pioneering psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers was advocating at the beginning of the twentieth century.

To suggest as much need not be just the usual tedious romanticism in the face of nasty old ‘cold science’, but nevertheless a confrontational approach in these matters – ‘how dare science presume to interfere in matters of x, y, and z’ or ‘how dare anyone stop science getting involved in x, y, and z’ – seems as popular as ever… and it has a longer history than you might think.

Which brings us to the idea of ‘science versus religion’, and to Thomas Dixon’s introductory essay, published in OUP’s Very Short Introductions series. Dixon sets things up well, saying that although ‘science versus religion’ is primarily a Victorian-era media invention, there are undeniably big questions at stake:

‘What are the most authoritative sources of knowledge? What is the most fundamental reality? What kind of creatures are human beings? What is the proper relationship between church and state? Who should control education? Can either scripture or nature serve as a reliable ethical guide?’

It’s a useful little paragraph because it reminds us just how deeply the philosophical, the confessional, the moral and the political are intertwined when it comes to thinking about science. I’ll get to the politics and public morality – where this book is at its best – in the second part of this review, but let me start with some of the other dimensions.

Inevitably, there are difficulties. The number of writers in the VSI series who throw in a ‘can’t please everybody’ health warning early on attests to the difficulties of covering any topic in a ‘very short’ way, but nevertheless there are frustrating omissions here. Most problematic is the decision to limit the discussion mostly to Christianity. Given the enormous impact in the west, since the late nineteenth century, of various forms of Buddhism and other Indian religious and philosophical systems, this is a great pity: part of their impact has been precisely to recast the science-religion debate, helping to pull western religion – and western culture in general – in the direction of intelligent scepticism where relying too exclusively on a verbal, conceptual apprehension of the world is concerned.

Fr Thomas Keating - one of a number of pioneers influenced by Asian traditions to try to recover the contemplative dimension in western Christianity

By ignoring this part of the science-religion debate, we lose the chance to ask the fundamental question of what counts as ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing’. We also lose the chance to trace the various attempts in recent decades – from the wacky to the deeply suggestive – to reconcile unitive religious cosmologies with post-Newtonian physics, with evolutionary biology, and with developmental psychology and psychotherapy.

One of the major philosophical questions that Dixon does raise, though, is that of ‘trust’.

In a characteristically engaging turn of phrase he reminds us that there is more to science that simply ‘pointing our sense organs in the right direction': the scale and complexity of modern scientific knowledge means that both scientists and the general public participate in a huge network of trust. Scientists have to trust the manufacturers of their hardware, the accurate standardisation of measurements and methods of observation within and across labs internationally, and the work of scientists in related fields whose theories and results they can’t check but which are nevertheless crucial to their own research.

This is all the more important for non-specialists or non-scientists when we realise (as Dixon points out) that some of the most advanced science doesn’t make intuitive sense – a much-cited example is the notion of matter being both waves and particles at the same time. This becomes seriously problematic when, as with climate change, the securing of public trust in science is essential to the making of politically difficult decisions.

Karen Armstrong: one of a number of modern writers to look again at religious 'myth'

On the religion ‘side’ of the debate you sometimes find people wanting to expand this notion of ‘trust’ into ‘faith’, thereby setting up a kind of equality between religion and science. Potentially more mischievous still, the notion of religious ‘myth’- in the sense not of something ‘false’ but of something powerfully symbolic that reveals an aspect of humanity or divinity to us in a way that descriptions or propositions can’t – is extended to cover the claims that science makes about the world.

There is frequently some dodgy philosophical footwork going on there, as the howls of protest at the apparent conflation of ‘myth’ with ‘theory’ in a recent Mark Vernon piece in The Guardian suggest. So it’s a pity that room wasn’t found in Dixon’s account for at least a little discussion of these prominent public features of the science-religion debate.

We get close to it, though with a discussion of the possible complementarity of a book of nature and a book of God (Bible, Koran, Torah). Dixon writes:

‘Texts do not generally have obvious meanings, but rather these must be teased out through the collective efforts of many readers… It is well known amongst literary scholars that the project of discerning an author’s intentions in a text is a difficult and controversial one. The histories of science and religion reveal that these difficulties have been experienced in full measure in relation to both of God’s books. Neither nature nor scripture offers a transparent account of its author’s intentions… Some read the book of nature as an autobiography  and the scriptures as purely human works’.

This seems like a good place to pause. In the second part of the review, I’ll look at what happens when societies face the challenge of turning these matters of meaning and interpretation into something communal and political: law, public morality, and education, from creationism to neuroscience…


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  • Crispin Bates
    August 21, 2012 - 12:04 am | Permalink

    I am not impressed by the work done by neuroscientists using MRI scanners. It really is the crudest type of research not far removed from basic anatomy studies. ‘Ooh look it moves when he takes a breath!’. It shows how far is this particular discipline from understanding anything. That does not mean though that we should give up on the attempts of science to explain the human mind, and I am very concerned by the way in which religious faith is increasing its influence within British education. It is a hugely ironic that in an era when we are born, survive, feed ourselves, and communicate at the profoundest levels due to the effectiveness of rational science (including medicine), and yet in so many schools Religious Education receives more hours per week than science. It is no surprise that in cultural studies metaphysics rules the roost, and science enrolments (and an understanding of scientific method within within the humanities and social sciences) are at an all time low. There is an extremely good and very worrying programme about ‘The Faith Schools menace’ by Richard Dawkins available on Channel 4 on demand at Warmly recommended!!

  • Chris
    August 23, 2012 - 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I very much agree, re. the general level of science awareness – I heard a physicist on the radio complaining that it still seems possible to know almost nothing about the fundamentals of natural science and yet still believe oneself to have a rounded education…

    That said, public faces of science like Dawkins and Brian Cox need to be careful to take an encouraging rather than a condescending or defensive approach with the general public. The ‘priapic positivist’ tendency otherwise helps foster too much of an us-and-them between the scientifically literate and sub- or not-yet-literate.

    And thanks for the tip about the Dawkins programme…!

  • Yoshi Inoue
    September 2, 2012 - 12:50 am | Permalink

    Using postmodernist/relativist terminology, Science is just one ‘metanarrative’ amongst many which defines what counts as true knowledge. Most people, in the “West” at least, now believe in the superiority of scientific epistemology above any other belief system – and quite understandably so.

    I share Dr. Crispin Bates’ concern about the increasing religious influence within the British education system (even though I am a Japanese subject). I believe Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) should adopt a stricter criterion for the content and number of science lessons taught in all schools – especially religious ones.

    Having said all this, I want to ask if it is justified for science to claim such a privileged proximity to Truth? (the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Dr. Richard Dawkins (b.1941) !) A British empiricist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) would strongly support this pro-scientific claim. 

    Russell’s profound insights and perspectives on changing western socio-political norm made him a formidable and controversial thinker – an atheist widely renowned for his provocative writing style. According to his book, ‘The Scientific Outlook’ (1931), he places a strong emphasis on the universality of scientific knowledge which seeks general patterns and laws applicable to all matter. And as we’re (still) living in a “material world” as Madonna kindly reminded us a while back in mid-’80s, Russell’s scientific outlook therefore still makes perfect sense, well, to a lot of people. Anyway, his argument is very persuasive and entertaining, it is worth a peek.

    I agree with Russell to a large extent, I believe science does not only contain elements of important truth but also it is fun and useful. Nonetheless, for me, it could never be more than a complex web of human cognitive and rational arrangements (or a currency, in a literal sense of the term).

    A Japanese Kyoto School philosopher, Kitar? Nishida (1870-1945), argued that “pure experience”, i.e. Truth, is only attainable through pre-conceptual intimate intuition. In this line of Zen influenced logic, the scientific worldview amounts to nothing but an anthropomorphic illusion. In other words: a creation of the human mind. Ironically the same argument is often employed by “piratic positivists” that God (or gods) are just projection of our inner desires, fears, etc.

    I really like Nishida’s philosophy. But, of course, I am not suggesting that we abandon scientific endeavour all together. That would be very silly. Because, personally, I thank science so much for my iPhone, of which I am surely not worthy…

    But I do believe we should acknowledge that there is a need for more serious thinking and discussions rather than merely hopping onto the trendy “priapic positivist” band wagon driven by charismatic and charming main-vocalist Dr. Brian Cox (b.1968) et al.

    If physical/material certainty and utility is all we wish for in life, then Science should be the one and only ‘religion’ followed by every human being. But that would never happen, because our minds are much more intricately composite than that, especially considering personal diversity of every individual: each person has an exclusively unique upbringing (we are not factory-made robots with production numbers on our foreheads, are we?).

    Borrowing Thomas Dixon’s questions quoted above, if we asked St. Brian Cox “what is the most fundamental reality?”, I don’t think he would be able to provide a viable or meaningful answer – if there was one, that is.

    Finally, I also agree with Chris that the “priapic positivist” tendency to be condescendingly assertive of Science’s intellectual authority over religions does foster a division between the scientifically literate and the un(der)educated or the non-non-believers. And I conclude, the heroic crusade of “priapic positivists” is somewhat admirable but I believe there is no epistemological battle ground to be fought on. No Jerusalem.

  • Katie Phair
    September 21, 2012 - 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely agree with the previous points about religious teaching in schools, but my main grievance would be the breadth of religious thought taught, not the teaching of it per se. Regardless, I think most reasonable adults would prefer not to have the next generation raised to be narrow-minded and insular…I personally find it unfortunate that Dawkins is the cheerleader for this, but I guess he’ll suffice.

    Moving on, I really enjoyed this post Chris. Of particular interest to me was the expansion of ‘trust’ beyond human sensitivity and into a scientific necessity. Perhaps in much the same way as we historians can be bound by our sources, limited as they will always be, scientists will always need a certain dependence on each other. Rather than viewing this as a negative, I think it is absolutely wonderful; what greater accountability could exist than a conversant, vast, co-operative and trusting network of scientific men and women? The only real problems emerge when that invisible network is broken (i.e. with the atom bomb, Nazi eugenics etc) and science is moulded to a use beyond the purpose of discovery and ‘progress’.

    Yoshi, I’m glad you raised the notion of proximity to ‘truth’ (and I particularly enjoyed your 2nd to last paragraph concerning personal diversity), but I think that in itself is based in a conflict of what ‘truth’ actually means and, perhaps more importantly, how that truth is germinated. I had written a lengthy spiel here, but it essentially boiled down to my frustration at the concept of ownership of ‘Truth’ when, rather ironically, we have no idea whether ‘Truth-with-a-capital-T” is even possible. ‘Truth’ appears to my unscientific mind to be a personal conception and as such may be a subjective entity separate from factual understandings about the workings of our world, bodies, etc. I think the difficulty with ‘Truth’ may be much more in terminology and methodology, especially as concerns academic specialisation.

    We have become so obsessed in academic circles with the idea of ‘specialising’ in a particularly minute area that, as Crispin and Chris both pointed out, we lack any kind of well-rounded intellect.

    Even being a specialist purely in ‘History’ would be limiting, so to then have further specialisation is, admittedly, useful for the depth of historical understanding but it is equally crippling for the advance of grand theory (though Skinner seems to believe this has returned) and for co-operation between differing fields.

    My question would be: Why have we, in the humanities, lost the trust that scientists have fostered?

  • Chris
    September 26, 2012 - 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Cheers for the comments, Katie. In answer to your final question, I’m going to pin all the blame on radical post-modernism. ‘Higher Superstition’, which I’m hoping to review at some point, is a pretty cruel and inaccurate read, but nevertheless it’s revealing of where the problems that both scientists and the general public have with the contemporary humanities seem to lie: the impression of pompous obscurity, wheedling self-righteousness, an apparent detachment from everyday reality, and generally a black hole for tax payer’s cash. Bear in mind that no-one at the University of Edinburgh fits that description. ;)

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