Science and Religion, what are they good for?

Scott, the author of Skeptic Meditations, has made it clear that I need to more adequately describe what the relationship between the sciences and religions are in a situation where we use both as valid means of knowing about the world. He pointed out that there are conflicts between popular religious views and well-accepted scientific views — vaccinations versus faith healing, for example. I agree, there are conflicts between scientific findings and religious tenets, and I’m not advocating any type of relativism.

I think the source of this conflict between the sciences and religion frequently arises from the claim that religion or science (pick your favorite side) provides all the answers to all the questions we have. In other words, this debate stems from a misunderstanding of what an epistemic method is capable of doing for us. An epistemic method is a way of generating useful knowledge about how we experience the world. For example, physics has enabled us to mathematically understand gravity, which lets us put telecommunications satellites in orbit. Physics is an epistemic method, as is biology, sociology, or understanding foreign languages. However, I also submit that much “softer” subjects, such as literature, music, and religion are also epistemic methods. Each of these areas of study are epistemic methods, or tools, because we can use them to better understand our experiences of being human.

Now most folks don’t find much problem with the claim that each of these epistemic tools has its intended use. For example, I wouldn’t use my (limited) knowledge of Shakespeare’s sonnets to solve an algebra problem, and my algebra won’t necessarily help me understand the history of astronomy. In other words, each epistemic tool solves some problem very well, and it solves other problems less well, or not at all.

This directly applies to the debate between science and religion, the one that has scientific atheists and fervent religious followers calling each other nasty names. At least since Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic church for his astronomical observations, religion in Europe and it’s colonial descendants has been on the defensive, trying to maintain its control of many epistemic areas that are becoming more usefully described by branches of scientific investigation: astronomy, biology, geology, and their relatives are all able to tell us the story of how our universe has come to be the way it is better than religion can. I say “better” in the sense that the sciences produce knowledge about our experience of the world that is able to predict more and do more for us.

However, there are things that the sciences still don’t do very well. Despite using the sciences to harness nuclear energy or build a jet engine, the sciences don’t tell us what we should do with this new information and our new abilities. Ethics is an area of our knowledge that is recalcitrant to scientific analysis. Coping with suffering, pain, or loss is another area that the sciences can’t teach us how to do very well, as is making difficult and complex decisions. For these areas of human experience that can’t be captured by scientific analysis, we need a different epistemic tool.

Some folks claim that science will be able to describe these intractable problems, such as ethics and human subjectivity, but that’s the same sort of faith-based reasoning that these science-minded folks would like to see driven out of the decisions to vaccinate children against preventable diseases. In both cases — vaccination and faith in science’s epistemic powers — it is a mistake. By this reasoning, science loses its rigor, becoming little more than magic: anything is possible, because the argument assumes the consequent.

What I’d like to see in the debate between the sciences and religions is a recognition that no individual epistemic tool is capable of providing a complete explanation of human experience to us.*  By design, each field of science, as well as literature, philosophy, language, and religion has a limited area of study. To think otherwise requires the one who holds that opinion to explain why using a less-useful epistemic tool is preferable to a more useful one. It’s a fundamental tenet that we need multiple epistemic tools to develop a more complete understanding of the world

It’s an historical accident that philosophy and religion are old enough epistemic tools that they were catch-all categories for human knowledge over many centuries. But since the 18th or 19th Centuries, the fields of epistemic elaboration have been subdivided into smaller and smaller plots. Many branches of the sciences have supplanted religious traditions and philosophy as the epistemic authority on various problem sets.

Is there a problem in accepting that we need multiple tools to make sense of our experiences? I suppose the problem lies in deciding which epistemic tool set is sufficient for building our knowledge. That problem is a towering one, and it’s certainly going to take more space than I have left in this blog post.

However, I’m curious as to why we ought to eschew religious traditions, in context with the arts and sciences, as part of our epistemic tool box. It seems to me that we ought to retain all of our epistemic tools, since they don’t weigh anything, and they might still prove useful, as long as we recognize that they each have limited utility.


* I suspect this is due to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems applying to our epistemic endeavors, certainly within the formalizable sciences, but the formal proof of that suspicion is beyond my mathematical abilities.


2 thoughts on “Science and Religion, what are they good for?

  1. SkepticMeditations

    Most people cherry-pick what they want from religion, science and the arts. What systems, if any, are reliable or probable to human flourishing?

    Religion in your posts seems too broad, as is science, to make sweeping generalities. Perhaps your argument or point could be made more clear if you narrow your argument to clearly defined aspect of religion or science and give specific examples.

    I agree with you that art (lumping in religion) and science are important to improving human flourishing. Everyday lived “religion” is important to most people. I wrote several posts under ‘Spirituality as “Lived” Religion’ at my blog:

    1. My Other Feet Post author

      @S.M. — You make a good point, that my points are generally broad. I could stand to be more specific. However, the question, or problem, of human flourishing is a broad one, as is the problem of human knowledge. It comprises mental and physical health, society and politics, environmental quality: it seems like the argument or case you’d like to see would require a book’s worth of writing. To be sure, it’s a book I’d like to write, but it’s not one I currently have time to write.

      Elaborating examples is one way to explain my position, but I also wonder if there is a heuristic that captures most of the case or argument while dispensing with the academic rigor of stepping through each stage of the argument: that’s what I’m attempting to elaborate. But perhaps I’m attempting to arrive at the conclusion without providing enough explanation.

      More work is needed, at any rate. Thanks for reading and commenting.


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