Who worries about reconciling the deep philosophical meaning of rap music and bird watching? Or professional basketball and quantum physics? Or motorcycle maintenance and ballet dancing?
Maybe science and religion are similar to these examples, because they are so different. Not only that, perhaps all the vigorous debates over the centuries about whether science or religion is closer to ultimate truth misses the point:
There isn't any #1, alpha dog, primo, unsurpassed approach to knowing reality. All we have are various ways of dealing with reality.
This is, more or less, what the central theme of Barbara Herrnstein Smith's recently released book, "Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion," appears to be about.
Examining these and related efforts from the perspective of a constructivist-pragmatist epistemology, Smith argues that crucial aspects of belief—religious and other—that remain elusive or invisible under dominant rationalist and computational models are illuminated by views of human cognition that stress its dynamic, embodied, and interactive features.
But I feel OK with the more because of Stanley Fish's fascinating (and readable) review of "Natural Reflections" in the New York Times. The title of the review sums up the big question: "Must There Be a Bottom Line?"
The assumption she [Smith] challenges — or, rather, says we can do without — is that underlying it all is some foundation or nodal point or central truth or master procedure that, if identified, allows us to distinguish among ways of knowing and anoint one as the lodestar of inquiry. The desire, she explains, is to sift through the claims of those perspectives and methods that vie for “underneath-it-all status” (a wonderful phrase) and validate one of them so that we can proceed in the confidence that our measures, protocols, techniques and procedures are in harmony with the universe and perhaps with God.
It is within the context of such a desire that science and religion are seen as in conflict, in part because the claims of both are often (but not always) totalizing; they amount to saying, I am the Truth and you shall have no other truths before me. But if religion and science are not thought of as rival candidates for the title “Ultimate Arbiter,” they can be examined, in more or less evolutionary terms, as highly developed, successful and different (though not totally different, as the history of their previous union shows) ways of coping with the situations and challenges human existence presents.
For a long time I considered that there was some way of understanding what the cosmos was all about. I wasn't sure what it was. I also wasn't sure that anyone knew what it was.
But it simply seemed like out there (or in here) somewhere, sometime, somehow, there was/would be an approach to grasping reality preferable to any other.
I didn't question this assumption. Now, I do.
And Smiths' book, elucidated by Fish's cogent review, helped me realize why it makes sense to look upon science, religion, art, athletics, and other ways of relating to the world as alternatives to be judged by their efficacy, not their epistemology.
That is to say, we have certain problems, goals and difficulties with respect to the physical world, and of the models available to us for application and elaboration, science more often than not proves to be the most efficacious. Were our purposes otherwise — say, to deal with trauma, political hopes and fears, the project of community building — we might have recourse to other models and ideas from literature or philosophy or religion or even sports.
...Once the shift is made from asking “what is and should be the ultimate ground of our actions?” to asking “what resources are available to us for dealing with these problems and opportunities?,” the question of which model or way of conceptualizing things is true or truer becomes, Smith observes, less urgent and less interesting.
The inability of science to demonstrate its truth by standards not internal to its practices is not something to worry about because science “as a method is not the sort of thing that can be thought either true or false.” Rather, it works (with works being defined by our needs) or it doesn’t: “[L]ike using low-octane fuel or following a low-fat diet, the minimalism and self-restraint that defines it can only be thought more or less appropriate for the purposes at hand.”
Often on this blog I'll respond to someone who leaves a comment expressing skepticism about science with something like, "Then why don't you share your thoughts via ESP rather than by using a computer and the Internet?"
Scientific knowledge (using that term in its broadest sense as reflecting how to get along in the physical world) enables us to do things and understand how this relates to that.
Religious knowledge (meaning other-worldly, metaphysical, transcendental) isn't in the same practical ballpark. It is abstract, conceptual, theoretical, dogmatic, philosophical.
Thus, for example, you may have assented to an argument that calls into question the solidity of facts, but when you’re not doing meta-theory, you will experience facts as solidly as the most committed and polemical of empiricists. In doing so you will not be inconsistent or self-contradictory because the question of a belief in facts arises only in the special precincts of philosophical deliberation.
In everyday life, we neither believe nor disbelieve in facts as a general category; we just encounter particular ones in perfectly ordinary ways; and any challenge to one or more of them will also be perfectly ordinary, a matter of evidentiary adequacy or the force of counter examples or some other humdrum, non-philosophical measure of dis-confirmation. The conclusions we may have come to in the context of fancy epistemological debates (a context few will ever inhabit) will have no necessary force when we step into, and are asked to operate in, other contexts.
So Fish says that Smith says (I'm planning to buy her book to confirm this) it isn't necessary to take only one side in the Science vs. Religion Ultimate Smackdown debate.
A person isn't obliged to give up ballroom dancing if he or she also enjoys classical literature. A boxer can also be an artist. A geologist can compose haiku.
What this means, among other things, is that the various projects we pursue and engage in may not all cohere in a single intelligible story. We may not be unified beings. In fact, Smith says, “the sets of beliefs held by each of us are fundamentally incoherent — that is, heterogeneous, fragmentary and, though often viable enough in specific contexts, potentially logically conflicting.”
...In short, if you believe this, how can you also believe that? The answer is that the realms of belief supposedly existing in a condition of opposition and conflict are, at least to some extent, discrete. What you believe in one arena of human endeavor may have no spillover into what you believe, and do, in another.
Reading some of the comments on the book review, I came across one that said the best thing about Fish's articles are the comments left by other people.
That's true. Click on the "highlights" section of the review's comment list for the best and brightest. The first one (#61) was well-written and persuasive. Here's how it ended (I've corrected some misspellings):
Ever since humans developed symbolic thought, we have been able to manipulate the world with words. We can say anything. We can think about things that are not in our immediate view, and make stones fall up instead of down, just by thinking about it. We can even convince others that our symbols are true. In this landscape people can rise from the dead, and ethereal paternalistic entities can monitor our thoughts and torture us eternally if we stray from the path. Who is to say otherwise?
Ultimately, truth is demonstrable. At some point you've got to demonstrate your stone that falls up. Science looks at the world, tries to figure out what's going on, and then, in the last crucial step, demonstrates what it finds to the rest of us. Of course, we are all individually free to demonstrate it for ourselves, if we put in a little work and a little study.
Religion makes claims about the world. There are no "separate Magisteria" when people are claimed to fly or walk on water or part seas. The foundation of religion may be symbolically interesting or compelling to some, but you can parse symbols all day long and still you wind up with symbols. When a hundred religions find a hundred different "fundamental truths," then I have my doubts about the truths they're finding.
For all its deep and fundamental claims, I can't see what religion "produces." Some nice architecture perhaps, and some art, and some curious stories. If you like, you can get a priest to bless you to prevent illness. I'll take a flu shot.