I've finished reading Barbara Herrnstein Smith's "Natural Reflections," which I blogged about before on the basis of a New York Times review.
Smith's main thesis is that science and religion are, well, natural reflections of each other. This is a seriously scholarly book and I'm not crystal clear about what she means by this.
But her final two paragraphs summarize her case in an agreeable fashion.
Scientists share cognitive tendencies, achievements, and limits with nonscientists; religious believers share them with nonbelievers. Although each may put the world together and conduct his or her life in ways that are at odds with or opaque to the other, the cosmology and way of life of each deserves minimally respectful acknowledgment from the other.
Such acknowledgment would not mean accepting ideas one finds fantastic or claims one knows are false. And of course it would not mean approving practices that one knows are confining, maiming, or murderous to oneself or to others. What it would mean is recognizing, as parallel to one's own, the processes by which those cosmologies and ways of life came to be formed.
Not me, says the self-vaunting evangelical atheist. Tu quo-que, -- you, too -- says the defensive, resentful theist. Et ego -- I, too -- says the reflexive, reflective naturalist.
Smith keeps saying, though never in so many words, "Why can't we all get along?" She obviously has a deep respect for both science and religion, though she accurately points out that these words -- science, religion -- don't mean as much as we often think they do.
Her most convincing argument is that all humans share common cognitive capabilities and tendencies. So when atheistic scientists and devout religious believers hammer on each other, they're using the same tools.
Scientists decry the dogmatism and closed-mindedness of true believers. However, the history of science is full of examples where scientists acted the same way. Smith acknowledges, though, that science has certain advantages over religion in how it corrects errors.
We have observed that scientists studying religion are subject to the same general cognitive dispositions and liabilities that they identify as natural to the human species and as responsible for some of the central features of religion.
As I have emphasized from the beginning, this is not equivalent to saying, nor does it follow logically, that science is "just another belief," like shamanism or Presbyterianism.
The system of methodological commitments that defines Western science, notably naturalism, empiricism, and experimentalism, constitutes an extremely efficient apparatus for generating models of the operations of the phenomenal-physical universe that permit us to predict, control, and intervene in those operations with maximal effectiveness and reliability.
To the extent that shamanism or Presbyterianism seeks such ends, Western science is better at achieving them. Also, many characteristic norms and practices of Western science, such as the detailed description of investigative procedures, the prompt and open publication of findings, and the honoring of fertile theoretical innovation, are especially effective ways to limit the negative consequences of cognitive conservatism and other liabilities of our humanly shared cognitive dispositions.
In other words, both scientists and religious believers are prone to screw-ups, mistakes, erroneous conclusions, blind spots, resistance to having long-held ideas overturned, and other all-too-human weaknesses.
But the scientific method has ways of dealing with these problems, while religions, by and large, are much more devoted to defending established beliefs than to challenging and modifying them.
All in all, I found that Smith's scholarly approach to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of science and religion meshed quite nicely with my own churchless intuitions.
As I frequently say on this blog, it doesn't bother me (much) when a religious believer says "I feel..." It's an "I know..." that isn't backed up with demonstrable evidence or even a good argument that irritates me.
Everybody is trying to make sense of life, to get through the day as happily and harmoniously as possible, to keep the mish-mash of thoughts, memories, emotions, perceptions, and what-not that continually course through our psyches in some sort of manageable order.
We don't know what the hell is going on.
With ourselves. With other people. With the world. With the cosmos. With anything. Not really, though for brief moments we may be able to tell ourselves, "this is the way it is."
Problem is, that "it" and "is" are continually changing, impossible to pin down, without boundaries, ephemeral will-of-the-wisps.
Science is one way we humans have of hanging onto a psychological hand-hold that keeps us from spinning off into a chaotic existential whirlpool. Religion is another way. And there are countless other ways.
(For example, I consider that when I'm able to get my hands on the newly announced Apple iTab, my life will be complete.)
So I agree with Smith: science bests religion when it comes to understanding the phenomenal world and making our way through certain aspects of physical reality.
But art, music, dance, literature, sex, athletics, politics, drugs, cooking, and so much more that constitutes the rich fabric of human culture testify to our need for highly individualistic ways of knowing and being.
The efficacy of scientific methods, norms, and practices in these several aspects, however, does not make the knowledge thereby produced either the only kind of knowledge there is or the only kind worth seeking. Nor does it make the natural sciences the only locus of desirable cognitive self-discipline among humans.
...Each of us keeps constructing our own personal cosmos out of virtually everything that we experience, here including our private dreams and, as may happen, our individual visions or intuitions of the unity, duality, or divinity of the universe.