Religion, Philosophy and Science
Created | Updated Jan 29, 2003
WORK IN PROGRESSReligion Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.Science The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.Philosophy Investigation of the nature, causes or principles of reality, knowledge or values, based on logical reasoning; the critical analysis of fundamental assumptions or beliefs.
A list of things which human beings need to know in order to act in the world would be almost endless. "What's the best wood to make my spear from? Is that critter dangerous? What's Fred up to now?" More generally we also need to know where we stand in relation to other members of society and the wider world, and most of us also want to have some explanation as to why.
Many of the questions we face on a day to day basis can be answered well enough for the purpose in hand without reference to different areas of knowledge. Different types of question have different contexts and different types of answer, but when we ask wider or more general questions, about who we are, or why the world in general is how it is, we have to find a way of linking these together to provide a common context, an explanatory frame of reference (paradigm) that seems to satisfactorily answer to our needs in the realms of metaphysics, cosmology, society (including ethics), and psychology.
The strategies that are adopted to achieve this integration will normally be selected on the basis of what is perceived to have been successful in the past, on what is familiar1, or on the person's prior emotional or psychological commitments and needs. These factors may be implicit as well as explicit, and individuals may be quite unaware of the assumptions that drive them to a particular worldview.
The most obvious distinguishing feature of theistic religions2 is a belief in the existence of a supernatural being or beings, and not infrequently a belief in an entire spirit world or plane of existence that runs "parallel" to the mundane world, and which can be accessed in dreams, revelations, and other altered states of consciousness. [Link to entry on neurotheology?]
Metaphysically this is closely intertwined with the idea of causation as agency, and cosmologically with the idea that the universe was created by, and to serve the purposes of, this supernatural agency.
The social and psychological functions of religions are much less clearly delineated, however. Religious doctrines may be used both to support and oppose existing social arrangements, and may locate the authority to speak for god either in a religious establishment or the conscience of the individual. Here it is the methods of justification which are similar, not the results. Final authority is vested in some way in the God's pronouncements, either in a holy text, the rulings of the priesthood, or the inspired words of prophets or shamans. (Judaism, for instance, had all three, the latter two often representing different interests.) Psychologically, too, religion can be used to support radically different conceptions, depending on how the individual perceives his relation to god and/or the world. For some God is the divine source of a beneficent order that can be relied upon3, and the originator of justice and charity. For others God can be capricious and vengeful, and there is a constant need to placate Him by sticking rigidly to every rule and ritual. As to whether the religion determines the psychology in these cases, or vice versa, this must be left to the reader.
The distinctive features of science, like religion, lie in its metaphysics, and in the scientific method4.
According to this metaphysics there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in eternal physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by the objective procedures prescribed by the scientific method. This method is a process of observation, theory formation, prediction on the basis of the theory, and most importantly, of the testing of these predictions by further observation. The success of science in extending our understanding and control of the physical world hardly needs belabouring, but as with religion the relation of science to other aspects of worldviews is more complex.
In the first place science as such has little to say on the subject of our social arrangements. It can contribute information, but it is not normative (it doesn't determine our value systems5). Scientists, of course, are a different matter6; scientists are quite capable of smuggling social/ideological assumptions into their work, and though peer review and testing find them out eventually, they can do damage to both science and society in the meantime7. In the second place, a majority of people have no deep understanding of how science actually works8. The worst consequences of this are on the one hand a form of secularised worldview in which science is treated as a species of the supernatural with some form of moral authority, but with little discrimination of real science from pseudoscience9, and on the other a hostility to science and objectivity equally lacking in discrimination.
Philosophy has a somewhat different status to religion and science. There is indeed a loose usage of the word philosophy, as it appears in the phrase a person's philosophy of life, which is very close in meaning to the idea of a worldview. In a more technical sense, however, it means something rather more specific, but difficult to define. Novice philosophers are almost invariably told that the only way to understand what philosophy is is to actually do some philosophising, and there is some justification for this as philosophy is more of a method or an approach, than it is a specific body of learning or doctrine. Essentially the function of philosophy is to interrogate worldviews and to expose their conceptual foundations. But despite their 'ivory tower' image, they cannot do this from outside the society in which they work10. Medieval philosophers were primarily theologians, enlightenment philosophers struggled with the problems of the rise of science and the new nation states. Philosophy starts with questions that make us lose our normal bearings11. "What does it mean to say that God exists?", "What and where is the mind? "What do we mean by good and bad?" The way that philosophy and philosophers answer such questions helps to shape and articulate the concepts that shape and change societies.
1 The major source of such familiarity will of course be the preexisting paradigms of the social group of which the person is a member2 there are also nontheistic religions, most notably Buddhism, but whether these should be regarded as religions or philosophies is a moot terminological point. I shall regard them as a special type of philosophy.3An important psychological source for the origin of science's confidence in the laws of nature, without which it might not have got started.4 The metaphysics does not distinguish it from philosophy, of course, metaphysics being a branch of philosophy. The scientific method does, however. 5There are of course certain practices with normative value inside science, such as freedom of thought and speech, and review by one's peers, that naturally have wider implications6 In the same way that religion, as such, does not determine scientific truth, but some religious individuals think it does.7 The support of some scientists for eugenics would be a good example8 Me included, I'm afraid.9 Science as religion.10 A fact that philosophers themselves have only gradually come to terms with11 'A philosophical problem has the form, "I don't know my way about"' - Ludwig Wittgenstein