Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Religion and Science

One of the major points of interest of mine is the question of the relation between rationality and irrationality, knowlegde and superstition, science and religion. Mark that in this sequence knowledge is not set in opposition to believe. Any human endeavor - including science - is built on some form of believe. Still the commonly used definition of knowledge remains justified true believe. The opposition is based on the difference between justified true and hold to be true believes, between something that can be objectively shown to be true and what has been told to be true.

Most books on the subject were more or less commissioned by religious institutions, at least those I could - so far - lay my hands on. This is mostly due to two reasons. Either someone is an atheist and has little or nothing to say about something he doesn't believe in. Or he's bending over backwards to give religion some space, the way Stephen Jay Gould did with the non-overlapping magisteria in his eponymous 1997 essay in the National History magazine.

Other books, like Victor Stengers God: The Failed Hypothesis, already have concluded any business of discussion the relationship between science and religion. Or Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion discusses the way people feel the need to define either without really explaining his stance in details. (To give them credit, they describe the basic concept while hinting at earlier works, so they may have detailed their views on defining science and religions in some other book.)

So what is missing is a deeper discussion of what religion and science are, what their similarities are, where the differences lie.

So I decided to borrow a few books and the easiest-accessible library to me is the Theological Library of the Strasbourg University in France. Hence the choice of books, Religion and Science, The Cambridge Companion to Science and the SCM Studyguide to Science and Religion. Let's start with the latter one…

SCM Studyguide to Science and Religion

Written by Jean Dorricott and published by SCM Press in 2005, the book, subtitled Footsteps in Space, claims to examine the "scientific interpretation of our position in the universe as we understand it today" and set in relation to religion by "explor[ing] the historical relationship between religion and science/technology since the Stone Ages." As this book is intended as a studyguide, the texts are relatively easy to understand, and from my point of view, almost simplistic. It's underlying presupposition is a religious view of the world. The supernatural is a fact. But of course, this is never explicitely stated, but every bit of the book oozes the ectoplasma of God.

In the introduction Dorricott writes that Part 1 of the book explores the scientific interpretation of the world as it appears to us. Yet each of its four chapter has some major reference to religious entities, the last one ("The Fifth Footprint - I Heard the Voice of God") being unabashedly religious. Even more, for a book that has science as one of its two major subjects, there's nowhere a description of what science (or religion, for that matter) actually is. It sure is easy to read but hardly can be considered a guide to serious study.

Part 2 is meant to describe the relationship between religion and science throughout the ages. Unfortunately by beginning in the "Stone Ages" it makes clear that it is willing to include a lot of conjecture into a relationship that hardly existed at all at that time. Later chapters are more fact-based but succumb to tabloid style and logic.

Just to give you an idea, here's an example. It's part of sub-section Spiralling DNA, on pages 179 and 180. (Actually, the division of the text within a chapter makes use of the sections and sub-sections for easier navigation but not as an indicator of separate ideas.)

"Although scientific method has been so successful, questions began to be raised. Science now had its own philosophers, notably Karl Popper, who introduced the idea of falsification, and Thomas Kuhn, who added paradigm shifts. Postmodern philosophers criticized scientific objectivity on the grounds that discoveries are not value-free. There is no true knowledge, only different ways of seeing the world (Paul Feyerabend). But scientists in general assume they are working with reality, as their findings do not vary with culture, place or time, and that relativity as a philosophy does not apply.

Our ability to fix things had never seemed more secure - but was? Increasing doubts about the efficacy of new technologies are causing great concern among scientists and non-scientists alike as Chapter 8 explains."

Did I say this book treats its subjects in a simplistic way? Oversimplifying seems to be the better word. Quite a major disappointment…


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