Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Science, Religion, Metaphysics: Some Preliminaries

A long-standing motivation for my philosophical work has been the relationship -- sometimes adversarial, sometimes conversational -- between "science" and "religion." [I come to this relationship as someone who has strong undergraduate background in science (neuroscience and paleontology) and as someone who does not identify with a particular religious institution but who nevertheless feels the pull of religious experience.]

Much like Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Stanly Cavell, and Jurgen Habermas, I want to find a way of resisting the temptation to endorse or create a doctrinal metaphysics -- not even a metaphysics of becoming, process, or "difference" in the senses of Nietzsche, Dewey, Whitehead, or Deleuze. (Despite my strong affinity for such metaphysics!)

(This is not to say that I think one can simply dispense with metaphysics; rather I tend to think, along with Cavell and Putnam, that the temptation to metaphysics is deeply ingrained in the Western psyche. I would not want to interpret this temptation as a transhistorical dimension of the human condition, but neither is it something that can be lightly thrown off, as Rorty seems to think.)

The crux of my pragmatic pluralism is that the question "what is there?" must always be re-phrased as "what is there in which respect?" For only when that latter question is answered do we have a specified domain the entities of which can be considered. For example, consider the question, "does Sherlock Holmes' wife exist?" This question can only be answered by first specifying the domain of discourse which is relevant. If the domain of discourse is "the real world," then the answer is "no" (but neither does Holmes, of course). If the domain of discourse is "the world of the Holmes stories as authored by Doyle," then the answer is "no" (but for a different reason -- because Holmes never married.)

But this line of thought works not only for literary creations -- it works just the same way for all discursive practices. Quarks and protons certainly exist -- within the framework of modern quantum mechanics. (Whether we will still say that they exist within the framework of whatever theory eventually succeeds quantum mechanics is an open question!) And even in ordinary language, we are confronted with a plurality of ways of distinguishing between aspects of lived experience.

Suppose I had had chicken for dinner last night instead of steak. Then I today would be a different system of molecules. But it seems odd (to say the least!) that I would therefore be a different person. One might be tempted to side with dualism here. But my alternative is to insist that there is no deep and fundamental truth of "what I am", tout court. Considering me as a system of molecules, and considering me as a person, are not different metaphysical realities -- they are different ways of considering, which is to say, different ways of using language. (As Rorty would say, they are different "vocabularies".)

If one succumbs to the temptation of metaphysics (and it is difficult not to succumb), then one will be interpret science, and/or religion, as metaphysical doctrines. And that is the decisive move which is taken for granted, and which I want to avoid. For once that move is made, everything else follows. Only then can one ask if science and religion are concerned with the same reality or different realities, e.g. "natural" and "supernatural". Or assert that where science and religion conflict, one or the other must be rejected. Both hard-core theism and hard-core atheism emerge only once it is accepted that metaphysics is the only way of speaking.

By contrast, the pluralism I want to develop here is a way of sidestepping the metaphysical impulse entirely. Instead, the question is one of which entities we are committed to speaking about when we employ a certain vocabulary (that of genetics, physics, psychology, literature, art, music, philosophy, etc.). In my terms, the temptation of metaphysics is the dream of a final, absolute, and uniquely correct vocabulary in terms of which everything real can be described. And that dream is one from which I have not only awoken but from which I find myself in the process of constantly having to awaken myself from.

5 comments:

The Country Shrink said...

"And that is the decisive move which is taken for granted, and which I want to avoid. For once that move is made, everything else follows. Only then can one ask if science and religion are concerned with the same reality or different realities, e.g. "natural" and "supernatural". Or assert that where science and religion conflict, one or the other must be rejected. Both hard-core theism and hard-core atheism emerge only once it is accepted that metaphysics is the only way of speaking."

So, if I understand you right, the danger for you is asserting a conflict between science and religion? Or, if I misunderstood, what is the danger of allowing for the metaphysical?

Carl Sachs said...

Country Shrink,

If we interpret science and religion as metaphysical positions, or as methods whereby we arrive at metaphysical insight, then -- given a certain picture of what "metaphysics" means! -- we'll be committed to a conflict between science and religion. This will amount to replaying the battles of Spinoza vs Leibniz and Hume vs. Descartes and Kant vs. Hume all over again. We could do that -- or we could move on.

Me, I'd rather move on.

But, there's moving on, and then there's moving on. For some philosophers, the key is to find a correct vocabulary. For other, such as myself, the key is to stop asking for a single correct vocabulary. And doing that means, among other things, realizing that "science" and "religion" are different ways of talking, that we have them because they satisfy different needs in human life, and that seeing them as either in conflict or as need of reconciliation isn't doing anyone any good.

Put in a nutshell: there is no more conflict between science and religion, nor any more need for reconciliation between them, than there is between carpentry and cooking.

jh said...

perhaps it boils down to something as simple as the question
"is the brain the same thing as the mind?"

"are we cognizant of what is mortal i e subject to decay
and that which is not that which is immortal?"

j

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that you see metaphysics as a "temptation". Of course the reason for that is no doubt a metaphysical one itself!

So while you may be consciously avoiding asking metaphysical questions, you are certainly living under the weight of metaphysical reasoning.

But I think science can be viewed from a metaphysical perspective, just as theism can be viewed from a scientific perspective.

Think of metaphysics as an egg. On one side of the egg, science and religion are joined in unity. The object is to get to the other side. Science takes the path along one side of the egg, while religion takes the path along the other. At some point midway, they will be about as far apart as possible. But as long as they both continue, they will eventually come together on the other side, once again in complete unity.

Meg said...

There are no discrepancies between Allah's creation and the study of it.

The only discrepancy is in your mind because you do not comprehend the fact that Allah does not have to be present to administer the creation. It happens without or with Allah's existence, it is innate, it is INESCAPABLE and you will have a hell of a time proving otherwise.

Knowledge...as in "our" knowledge approaches "truth" but can never attain it.

It also can fall miserably short..especially when most people only have part of the story.

Read the Quran why don't you?

Then maybe you'll find an answer to the gapless creation we are living within.