Monday, December 28, 2009

Adventures In The Spirit: Ch.2

In chapter 2 of Philip Clayton's new book "Adventures In the Spirit", he makes the case that religious truth and scientific truth have significantly overlap, yet remain distinctly different. To get there, he compares three perspectives.

First, there is a common modernist view that religious truth is subjective, passionate, mythical, and intrinsically perspectival while scientific truth is objective, dispassionate, rational, and natural. Scientific opposition to religion (as advocated by people like Richard Dawkins) is therefore justified. It's clear Clayton sees a false dichotomy lurking within Dawkin's reasoning.

Second, there is an emerging post-modernist view that scientific truth and religious truth are ultimately the same. This view, a much stronger view in Clayton's opinion, says that "both [religion and science] involve a critical use of hypotheses and doubt within a subjective human framework pervasively influenced by personal, societal, and historical factors....the physics of special relativity and quantum mechanics have made observer limitations central to the epistemology of science, as well as to its view of reality...a massive literature now treats scientific theories as myths, models, narratives, and stores, and ascribes to them only the truth proper to such accounts...religion and science are identical: both are symbolizing activities aimed at making the world meaningful through the creation of a symbolic universe....scientific truth might need to be reconceived from the standpoint of coherence rather than correspondence." Indeed, religious studies majors like myself notice that religious truth is similarly described in the context of post-modern academic study. In an interesting transitional comment, Clayton notes that the modern Western religious person (whom he calls the "secular believer") is much less dogmatic in practice than many scientists like Dawkins and Dennet are about their scientism.

Third, Clayton shows how this more extreme post-modern view, while a correction to the old rigid modern view, goes too far by sacrificing essential phenomena of both fields in an effort to equate the two perfectly. I list his reasons for objecting to the extreme post-modernist view below:

1)While objectivity and a theoretical attitude remain the ideal goal of science, religion is guided by the value of subjectivity in faith and response. While scientists might be passionately attached to their theories as matters of ultimate concern, the religious phenomenon is all about providing hypotheses as foundational to the subject's "ultimate concern".

2)While science is characterized by an ideal of the progressive mastery of nature ("possession"), religious truth is characterized by unpossessability. "When worship strives after possession, religion crosses the line into the realm of magic...Where scientific truth is 'for us', religious truth remains 'beyond us.'"

3)Similarly, religious truth "is not found in a specific object of experience but in the ground of all experience. In contrast to the scientific mind, the religious consciousness will never countenance the divine as one object among other objects in the world...[while] there is a sense in which believers will accept specific events or doctrinal teachings as adequate, [they still insist] that, at the more general level, the ultimate truth exceeds all abilities of human language. The appeal to a knowledge beyond words - or to the limiting, self-negating function of parables, myths, and symbols - is the constant theme of the religious teacher."

4) While scientific theory is not immune to the influences of contextual perspectives, it nevertheless is structured with powerful mechanisms "for avoiding, or recognizing and eliminating, errors and prejudices in the construction of theories." While cultural/cultic/individual/group differences in religion and art "add to the richness of artistic and religious truth, the constant goal in science is to transcend perspectival differences."

Clayton wraps things up nicely: "Having discovered the significant overlaps between scientific and religious activity...the four distinctions [above] can no longer be construed as signs of a fundamental religion-science dichotomy...Though one must grant important differences between science and religion, one can do so as part of a nuanced understanding of the two, one that eschews black-and-white distinctions in favor of careful gradations that are more truly representative of the complex realities of the phenomena themselves."

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