Science, Religion and Philosophy

(This is the concluding, fourth part of the talk ‘The Science Delusion’ and follows on from:

  • Part 1: the idea of science as a method
  • Part 2: conventional, i.e. metaphysical, physicalism
  • Part 3: Methodological physicalism)


18. Ante-Conclusion

This is not the end of the talk, but it is the beginning of the end – time to take stock before making some final points. These concern expanding from our understanding of science to our understanding of science, religion and philosophy.

Dawkins: How We Know What is Really True

The naïve scientific view is that science tells us how things really are. This view is then reinforced by those atheists fighting against fundamentalist positions (religious fundamentalist, that is). For example, one of Richard Dawkins’s most recent books is ‘The Magic of Reality’ (2011), a good introduction to scientific knowledge for all ages, and wonderfully illustrated by Dave McKean. But the subtitle for the book is ‘How we know what’s really true’ (my underlining) yet covers the what and not the how of science and emphasizes the absolute certainty of naïve scientific facts.

In contrast, I started this talk with Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘The Science Delusion’ talk. To paraphrase him only slightly unfairly, he began:

“The science delusion is that science understands what really exists.”

I have framed the conflict within science that Sheldrake alludes to as one between:

  • Metaphysical physicalism: science as a worldview, and alternatively
  • Methodological physicalism: science as a method.

This alternative interpretation can often get lost in the heat of a science versus religion debate.

I have presented methodological physicalism as an approach to science:

  • That is committed to trying to explain our environment and ourselves in purely physical terms (one in which mind arises somehow from ‘matter’), but that does not make any commitment to saying how things really are.
  • That is a pragmatic approach to truth: a synthesis of non-realist Instrumentalism and anti-realist Constructivism – a mixture of social constructions and of truth as growing interactions between an individual (an individual’s brain) and their environment. But, although constructed, it is not relative; our personal growth of knowledge is severely constrained by our environment. We cannot grow truths just any old how.


19. Physicalism ≠ Dualism – Mind

A major problem with Physicalism is that our reference point is still Dualism. In saying that physicalism is just about the physical, we will tend to think of it as being physical in the way it is understood within Dualism, i.e:

Physicalism = Dualism – Mind

This leaves us with an unattractive, cold, lifeless ‘billiard-ball’ model of the universe. How could my conscious experiences possibly be derived from that?

But if we reject the concept of mind as a realm apart from the physical (as physicalism does), we need to conceive of whatever it is that dualists understand by ‘mind’ as being within the physical realm. Hence, we are going to have to change that physical realm.

Physical-realm(physicalism) ≠ Physical-realm(dualism)

If we see the physical in Dualistic metaphysical terms, i.e. ‘this is how things really are’, we will reject possibilities for the physical world that will be able to account for ‘mind’. As Sheldrake said:

“…unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.”

So, how might we reform a Physicalist view in order to encompass both ‘mind’ and ‘matter’? In short, we are a long way from proposing anything adequate. But in recent years, people have started theorizing – proposing some serious theories. We now have some clues on how to proceed and avenues to explore. Here are some prominent ones:

  • Roger Penrose’s and Stuart Hameroff’s ‘Orchestrated Objective Reduction’ in which consciousness relies upon quantum phenomena in cytoskeletal microtubules within neurons.
  • Giuglio Tononi’s ‘Integrated Information Theory’: A 4-million pixel camera is just 4-million 1-pixel sensors whereas we integrate the information we see in many different ways as we discriminate shape/colour/etc and combine it into qualia.
  • Max Tegmark’s ‘mathematical universe hypothesis’ is a Platonist-like theory of everything in which substructures can be self-aware and perceive the mathematical world as a physical reality. Consciousness is ‘what information processing feels like from the inside’.
  • Although critical of physicalism, David Chalmers postulates ‘psychophysical laws’ which determine which physical objects are associated with qualia leading to a variation of panpsychism he calls ‘panprotopsychism’.

“Preposterous!” I hear you cry. But then so were the concepts of wireless telecommunication, quantum mechanics and relativity 200 years ago.

(I have previously looked at the issue of consciousness, in ‘Could Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, and I will hopefully be looking at some of the above ideas soon.)


20. The Compatibility of Science and Religion

Is Religion Compatible with Science? On 2 May 2000, Richard Rorty gave a lecture with that very title at West Valley College, Saratoga which restated some of William James’s and John Dewey’s pragmatic arguments on this topic. To illustrate his points, he began the talk by asking us to consider a hypothetical person, Professor Ryan, a church-going evolutionary biologist. Ryan does not seem to be troubled by any inconsistency between the two and she is well aware that:

  • Her parish priest would like her to take the Bible’s pronouncements more seriously, and
  • Her ‘swaggeringly atheist’ scientific colleagues make jokes about her religious beliefs behind her back.

As Rorty said:

“She is equally insouciant about both.”

There are many people like Prof Ryan. Are they behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way because they make no attempt to weave their scientific and religious beliefs together? Rorty says not:

 “Theology nowadays mustn’t try to compete with natural science in explaining how things have come to pass, how the human species got here, for example. Nor is it supposed to compete with science in predicting what will happen. Those days are gone. Once upon a time, in the 17th Century, the church and the new science offered competing predictive explanations. Now the church has given up on predictive explanation.” (11mins, 40s)

“Nowadays since the development of modern science, religious belief and scientific beliefs have become tools for doing different jobs.  Scientific beliefs help us predict and control events … Religious beliefs give us a way of thinking of our lives which puts them in an emotionally satisfying context.” (At 12mins, 30s:)

“This way of reconciling science and religion requires one to abandon the idea that there is one way the world really is and that science and religion are competing to tell us what that way is. Abandoning that idea is easiest if one thinks of beliefs as tools for accomplishing a purpose rather than as attempts to represent the intrinsic nature of reality – the way things are in themselves. Instead of insisting that there is such a way, one will hold that although there are alternative descriptions of things, descriptions useful for different purposes, none of these get closer to ‘the way things really are’ than any other. On this view, the sole virtue of any descriptive vocabulary is its utility. It can’t have a further virtue called ‘getting things right’. This view of the function of descriptions is at the heart of the pragmatism developed by James and Dewey.” (At 13mins, 20s)

Feel free to watch rest of the video. But from here on, I want to return to the issue of the metaphysical versus the methodological in considering the compatibility of science and religion, or otherwise.

Let me replace the dichotomy of science versus religion with a scale of belief:

  1. Religious fundamentalists
  2. Prof. Ryan’s congregation
  3. ‘Prof. Ryan, evolutionary biologist’
  4. A methodological physicalist
  5. Prof. Ryan’s work colleagues
  6. Militant atheists

Prof. Ryan finds herself caught between her congregation and her colleagues. I can empathize; a methodological physicalist will be criticized from both religious evangelists (1) and the dogmatic scientists (6).

A modification to this 6 point scale transforms it into mirroring science and religion, which may also be viewed as a mirroring of  the natural and the supernatural:

  1. Metaphysical religious
  2. Naïve religious
  3. Methodological religious
  4. Methodological physicalist
  5. Naïve physicalist
  6. Metaphysical physicalist

Positions 1, 2 and 3 categorize how an individual is religious, if at all. Positions 4, 5 and 6 categorize how an individual is scientific. But an individual could be both religious and scientific. My claim is that it is possible to span the divide between science and religion and hence hold a coherent (compatible) position, but only if the span is not too wide. To be both a metaphysical dualist (1) and a metaphysical physicalist (6) is clearly incoherent and is a stretch too far. But the other combinations are compatible:

  • 1 and 4
  • 1 and 5
  • 2 and 4
  • 2 and 5: both naïve positions – probably the largest group.
  • 2 and 6
  • 3 and 4: treating both science and religion as tools that do different things, as Rorty suggests Prof. Ryan does.
  • 3 and 5
  • 3 and 6: an interesting combination

Salvador Dalí: “Saint Surrounded by Three Pi-Mesons” (Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueras)

The combinations are possible either because:

  • they are unthinking: they involve one or more naïve positions, or
  • they are considered: they involve one or more methodological positions.

I find combinations involving the ‘methodological religious’ (3) to be the most interesting. This is a position in which someone adopts the practices of a religion not because they are true but because they are useful. I suspect that some senior Anglican clergy fall into this category, but I haven’t found any that would say as much to a stranger like me.


21. Anti-Conclusion

I have presented a story about science:

  • As a pragmatic methodology.
  • In which a methodological stance is preferred over a metaphysical stance.
  • In which a physicalist stance is preferred over a dualist one.
  • As an open-minded, dynamic process that allows development in surprising ways, such as expanding to include an account of consciousness.
  • As a stance that can be compatible with religion.
  • Which can be mirrored with religion: a similar ‘methodological versus metaphysical’ debate can be had with religion, with a methodological approach being proposed.
  • In which the reasonable middle ground of the methodological (scientific or religious) is disparaged by those from both sides from the metaphysical extremes.

But this is perhaps too cosy a view of the problem. I have presented a purely epistemological view of the problem, rejecting metaphysics and saying nothing of ethics. It is a compartmentalized approach to philosophy.

And anyway, I should be ask myself ‘who am I kidding?’:

  • An anti-metaphysical position is still a metaphysical position of sorts – it’s just a rather minimal one: ‘ontology-light’.
  • It is a bit disingenuous to think that ontology and epistemology are separate. Despite my sympathy towards Prof Ryan and my stated antipathy towards Dawkins, if I were to find myself in a discussion with Dawkins and Ryan, I would probably find myself agreeing with Dawkins on a physicalist interpretation whereas Ryan would be too happy to accept a religious interpretation.

I have rationally declared that science and religion are compatible. And I am happy with that interpretation. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t feel right. Sub-rationally, our metaphysical outlook does matter. We can ordinarily go along as methodologists. But when it comes to the crunch, it is as though we ‘revert to type’, myself moving towards the metaphysical physicalist and Prof Ryan moving towards the metaphysical dualist. So my metaphysics (such as it exists) pollutes my epistemology (and in judging that it ‘doesn’t feel right’, there seems to be a crossover to ethics here too).

It might be said of me that I have merely thrown metaphysics out of the front door only to let it back in via the back door.

Sub-disciplines of philosophy are Inter-related

Sub-disciplines of philosophy are Inter-related

We cannot keep the different sub-disciplines of philosophy completely isolated from one another. As one philosophy lecturer, critical of the modularization of university education, put it:

“Anyone who thinks otherwise just isn’t doing philosophy.”

There is interplay between metaphysics and epistemology but there are other ways in which one sub-discipline ‘pollutes’ another. It can go further, leading to complex dynamics, as intimated in the picture below.

A Dynamic Relationship

What has been presented in this talk has been a philosophical framework for science but that is only a first approximation and is far from the complete story.

(This conclusion part introduces the idea of the inter-relationship between ethics and epistemology and now sets the scene for a future talk: how does what we know – specifically, what we are now learning about the brain –  affect how we think we should believe.)

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4 Responses to Science, Religion and Philosophy

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I really enjoy this blog! As someone with a religious childhood and a scientific education, I’ve spent many decades considering how to reconcile the two. I believe I would be a 3.3, 3.5 or 3.7; the exact reading seems to vary as I focus on one or the other side.

    FWIW, I see spirituality and physicalism as separate vectors (like an XY graph) rather than as single scale where moving in one direction means moving away from the other. Clearly 1 & 6 on your scale are incoherent, but the XY metaphor is useful to me on the lesser extremes.

    If you’re interested, my own very casual post that explores this is:

    • headbirths says:

      Hi Wyrd Smythe,
      Thanks for you link to your blog post and very happy to promote it. I particularly liked your comments on Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. I think I see what you mean by the XY rather than the linear graph, except that ‘spirit-uality’ and ‘physic-alism’=’non-spirit-uality’ are antithetical to one another (maybe pan-psychism lies towards the high-physical with high-spirituality top-right corner of the graph?). In my post, I was wanting to emphasize the opposing symmetry and parallels between the religious and the scientific. Hence the linear graph. But a 2-D graph with the metaphysical/methodological tension on one axis and something else on the other axis is probably more useful.

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Yes, I agree, and I found that myself in my article (where I talk about the circle and positive-negative charge — both of which metaphors perhaps approach that symmetry you’re talking about). I think any time one view truly excludes the other, you’re talking some kind of linear graph.

        The chart at the top maybe suggests a possible second axis: the degree of certainty one has about ones worldview. I’m not sure that’s helpful for what you’re writing about, though. As I said above, my writing is a lot more casual and gut-based than what you’re doing here (which I really value and enjoy).

        As for Frost, yes, that poem has been a guiding star all my life. I had a friend once who said (voice dripping with disdain), “You go out of your way to be different don’t you!” Maybe it’s having been a hippie once and truly understanding the implications of, “Do your own thing, man!” Unplowed ground, the untraveled path; those are so much more interesting than the “same old thing.” 🙂

  2. headbirths says:

    “The enemy of science is not religion… . The true enemy is the substitution of thought, reflection, and curiosity with dogma.”

    ― Frans de Waal

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