science and religion - challenging some common assumptions

Download Science and Religion - Challenging Some Common Assumptions

Post on 14-Apr-2018




0 download

Embed Size (px)


  • 7/28/2019 Science and Religion - Challenging Some Common Assumptions



    Basil Mitchell challenges some common assumptions

    Most of us make assumptions about science and religion which we never think ofquestioning. The purpose of this article is to shake some of them.

    Broadly speaking we think science is a matter of reason, religion is a matter of faith. Inscience things can be proved. In religion we have to take things on authority. Let us look

    at this broad contrast in greater detail. We can break it down into two sets of constrasts:

    1) Science deals with literal fact. Religion is like poetry. It deals with metaphors

    and expresses emotions.

    2) Science deals with questions which can be definitely decided. Religion is a

    matter of personal choice.

    1(a) Science deals with literal fact

    A familiar feature of physics is the way it explains phenomena by reference to entitieswhich cannot themselves be observed, such as protons, electrons, etc. I once asked a

    distinguished physicist at an 'Open Day' in his laboratory how he thought of electrons.

    He took me aside out of hearing of his colleagues and said, 'Don't tell anyone, but Ialways think of them as tiny little billiard balls'. And this was, of course, how RobertBoyle and others in the seventeenth century first thought of minute particles when they

    developed the atomic theory. Sub-microscopic particles are not literally very small

    billiard balls, but they can be thought of as like them in certain respects. Experiment willshow what the resemblances and differences are. As physics develops it gets further away

    from the billiard ball model but it does not escape from such 'models'altogether so as to

    get a literal description of what the physical reality is like. Sometimes the reality is foundby experiment to be like one model in one respect and another model in another. Light

    is best understood in some respects as like waves, in others like particles. In biology we

    have something similar when trying to describe the workings of DNA in the mechanism

    of heredity. If we say it operates as a 'blueprint' or a 'programme' we are using a modelwhich explains the process better than if we simply describe its biochemical structure.

    1(b) Religion is like poetry and deals with metaphors

    It is of course true that religion uses metaphors like poetry. We see this most obviouslyin hymns:

  • 7/28/2019 Science and Religion - Challenging Some Common Assumptions


    Jesus! My shepherd, husband, friend,

    My prophet, priest and king,My Lord, my life, my way, my end,

    Accept the praise I bring.1

    John Newton's hymn piles one metaphor upon another as he tries to express his praise of

    God, and this is recognizably poetry. But the metaphors are there also in the much more

    prosaic language of the Creed:

    I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

    Maker of heaven and earth.

    'Father' and 'maker' are both metaphorical, since God is not a male parent, like a human

    father, and he does not make the world just as a potter makes a pot.

    The Creed is much more like a scientific statement than it is like a hymn of praise.Although it does, doubtless, express in a rather muted fashion the believer's gratitude to

    the Creator, it does not merely express emotion. It makes a series of statements whichare either true or false and which Christians believe to be true.

    But it is a mistake in any case to talk of poetry as if all it did was to express feelings:

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,

    And loved your beauty with love false or true;

    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,And loved the sorrows of your changing face.2

    The poem does indeed express the lover's devotion but it tells us also how he thinks ofthe woman he loves. 'Pilgrim soul' is a metaphor. In loving her as a 'pilgrim soul' he is

    doing more than love her physical beauty. He thinks of her as journeying through life

    and perhaps beyond it (with overtones of Pilgrim's Progress). There is a wholephilosophy to be found in that metaphor.

    The contrast between science and religion in respect of their use of metaphor breaks

    down on both sides, and with it the underlying assumption that the sole function ofmetaphor is to express emotion.

    This does not, of course, mean that science and religion are the same thing, but before weconsider how they differ we must look at the other false contrast.

    2(a) In science questions can be definitely decided.

    In a great deal of science this is true, especially the sort of science one learns at school

    and which is applied in practical life, in designing machines, constructing bridges and so

  • 7/28/2019 Science and Religion - Challenging Some Common Assumptions


    forth. It is astonishing what accuracy can be achieved in observing, measuring and

    predicting phenomena. Since this is the sort of context in which most of us encounter

    science, it is natural for us to suppose that, unlike other disciplines, science can alwaysprovide precise answers to any questions we like to ask it. But two distinctions must be

    kept in mind:

    (i) between questions which arise within a body of agreed theory and questions

    about choice between fundamental theories;

    (ii) between exact and less exact sciences.

    (i) In an influential book on the philosophy of science T. S. Kuhn3 drew a distinction

    between normal and revolutionary science. Normal science is carried on within a set ofbasic assumptions about which there is no dispute. Kuhn calls these 'paradigms'. Given

    the prevailing paradigm scientists can produce definite answers to the questions raised.

    But, he argued, there occur at intervals scientific revolutions in which there is a struggle

    between the currently accepted paradigm and another which threatens to overthrow it.The disputes which arise between the supporters of rival paradigms are not capable of

    being settled in the same cut-and-dried fashion. Kuhn gives as examples the transitionfrom an Aristotelian to a Newtonian conception of science and from Newton to Einstein.

    Kuhn has been criticized on two main grounds; that he exaggerated the differencebetween normal and revolutionary science, and that he is unclear whether there can be a

    rational choice between paradigms. But his main thesis stands: there is a distinction to be

    drawn between the sort of research which is done when the fundament laws and central

    concepts of a science are not in dispute, which accounts for most everyday scientificwork, and the kind of thinking which takes place when what is at stake is precisely what

    organizing concepts should be employed and what basic laws acknowledged.

    A famous example is provided by Darwin's theory of natural selection at the time of the

    publication ofThe Origin of Species. Here was a fundamental theory which was

    ultimately to revolutionize the study of biology. But there were serious scientificobjections to it at the time which Darwin himself acknowledged: 'A crowd of difficulties

    will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never

    reflect on them without being staggered, but, to the best of my judgement the greater

    number are only apparent; and those that are real are not, I think fatal to my theory'.4Darwin trusted to his judgement, which was to be vindicated by subsequent

    developments, but there was a scientific debate of fundamental importance which could

    not be settled by knock-down arguments.

    2(ii) The distinction between exact and inexact sciences

    When we talk about 'science' we usually have in mind the so-called 'natural sciences' and

    forget about the 'human sciences' such as psychology and sociology. It is characteristic

    of these latter that they involve a greater or lesser degree of controversy not just

  • 7/28/2019 Science and Religion - Challenging Some Common Assumptions


    occasionally but as a regular feature of their operation. This gives rise to 'schools of

    thought' with different conceptions of the aims and methods of the subject. Think of the

    continuing debate in the social sciences between 'nature' and 'nurture' whether humanbehaviour is best explained in terms of genetic or other biological factors or in terms of

    social conditioning. For example school 'league tables' have revealed that on the whole

    girls do better than boys at school. Why is this? One side argues that it has to do with thebasic biology of the sexes. The biological changes which boys undergo during

    adolescence are more tumultuous than those which affect girls and make it harder for

    them to settle down to disciplined academic work. Girls mature faster and achieve anequilibrium earlier. The other side emphasizes instead the greater cultural pressures upon

    girls to conform and become amenable to authority. Both sides appeal to scientific

    evidence and adduce scientific arguments in favour of their position, but there are no hard

    and fast proofs available.

    It is worth noticing, as a corrective to the common stereotypes of the cool dispassionate

    scientist, that these debates can become very heated. Emotions are deeply involved and

    the participants may find it difficult to avoid accusing their opponents of prejudice andinsensitivity.

    A sensible conclusion might be that there is truth on both sides. Both biological and

    social factors are involved and one should try to estimate their relative importance.

    Although there is no quasi-mathematical way of settling the dispute,


View more >