Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Problems with the Debate Between Science and Religion
Lead: Connor Ahearn, Justin Quinn & Vicki Taibe


Summary by Peter Duran:


Problems with the Debate Between Science and Religion

Presenters opened by setting the stage for discussion, as follows:

To attempt a dialogue between scientific and religious camps, we should try and begin at a point of commonality, a point ‘before’ that in which the conflict begins. Three primary hypotheses address this interesting relationship:
 -The first holds that science and religion explain similar realities; they are just going about it in different ways. This is the Conflicting Worlds hypothesis.
 -Another claims that science and religion describe one and the same reality. According to this hypothesis, the Same Worlds hypothesis, this reality can be described in many ways, at many levels; religion and science simply describe this reality differently.
 -Finally the Separate Worlds hypothesis argues that both the subject and the method of inquiry are entirely different in the scientific and religious fields.
It was mentioned that the Separate Worlds idea might seem to be a ‘way out’ of dealing with a real conflict. Perhaps the idea is that science seeks “true knowledge,” as opposed to religion, which might not be looking for hard facts and only interested in “morals,” or spiritual comforts in life. Science could be asking questions like “how,” where religion asks “why.”

However, this is a highly controversial stance. One student brought up the possible difference in discussion between “religion” and necessarily “organized” religion, and how we should be aware of our conceptions of the nature of religion itself. For instance, we ordinarily think of Western forms of religion. And how might we distinguish “formal” religion from a personal spiritual seeking? Supposedly, 70 percent of people believe in some form of religion. Even if this were true (which is uncertain due to a skewed environment) what does this tell us about people’s true, sincere beliefs?

One opinion was suggested: both science and religion ask the same questions, and make the same claims about what is. But where both have made historical truth-claims, religion tends to beg acceptance of results based on faith, whereas science can test their claims and repeat testing as much as is necessary. Religion cannot provide proof or even evidence of their claims. For this reason, science and religion are best kept separate.

However, it was retorted, perhaps religion touches on what cannot be tested. Besides, doesn’t religion mostly refer to a code of behavior? The original student responded by reinforcing his point: science will always keep asking, while religion settles for “because.”

At this point, the discussion became all the more interesting. A new student mentioned the possibility that science was simply having faith in proof, and thus is becoming a “because,” an ultimate authority; in short, a religion. Prof. Davis went off on the Separate Worlds thesis, claiming that it devalues religion. Maybe religion, he said, is about a personal experience of (something) where science can examine public knowledge.

Another student responded with the claim that religion, being nothing but leftovers of built-up superstitions—unquestioned explanations of knowledge we at one time did not have—had nothing in common with science and in fact was not really credible at all.

Even so, said one student, religious fact can pursue healing, even in a physical and psychological sense, without the aid of science. Having faith, even if it is a simple faith in one’s own body, can bring about much faster healing regardless of the original cause of harm.

Religion, however, may just be a social phenomenon, and in this case it would not be necessarily about ‘faith.’ It would be a mistake to use the two terms interchangeably.
Furthermore, someone continued, if religion is such a personal thing, why is public ritual such an important part of every religion? This was a good question, but how much ‘ritual’ is due to religion, and how much to culture? Are there even any lines to be drawn here?

An analogy was brought up: religion as a theatre, bringing people “into” their existence as they play it out.
Maybe religion and science both discuss truth, but different realms of truth. For instance, a claim like “Beethoven’s 5th is beautiful” could never be examined by science. Likewise, there is no objective answer to the questions of faith, and personal healing that religion does address. And there is healing. However, suggested a class skeptic, this healing could be simply perceived, and not real at all. Maybe it would be worth examining scientifically, however, the possible effects of conscious intention, or ‘faith function’, on the body.

At this point the class separated into smaller groups at the request of the presenters.

In one group, we set out to discuss the differences between organized religion and religion as such—whether their goals were, respectively, power and security. How does the interpretation of truth differ? This group agreed that science certainly had a different way of interpreting truth. Ideas of ‘fine-tuning’ and intelligent design came up, and it was agreed that it seemed silly to attempt to figure out the ‘odds’ of our creation coming about, seeing as there was no real alternative to base our calculations on.

The second group addressed evolution and creationism. Creationism, it was explained, tends to limit the explanatory power of science by appealing to ultimate revelation from God. However, we discussed, it seems as though science’s common appeal to randomness is a confession of its own ignorance. (This group also got lost in its rambles and ran out of time.)

The final small group went over the highly controversial issue of religion in education. Many believed that religion should be taught about, as in a history class, but not taught, or indoctrinated. Likewise, science should be taught about as a process. If religion is also taught as a process of examining knowledge, and both are presented in context, while neither one of them is presented as the ultimate way to go, well this would be the best way. But here we got into issues of propaganda. Is it possible to educate without promoting? Besides, what about the community doing the educating? Shouldn’t they be allowed to share their beliefs with their children?

The discussion ended abruptly without much conclusion, but all participants were stimulated, and this, as I understand it, was the point of the presentation (and the class, for that matter.) Maybe there are no final answers, but the process of discussing and disagreeing without being disagreeable is the way we learn and cultivate an open mind. Some great points were raised today for science, as well as for religion; the reconciliation dialogue is one that will continue to enrich us all.