Instead of reviewing the theoretical history of STS, in sticking with the tapas approach to an introductory course, I’m going to move to one of the key conflicts in the use of science in public policy – namely, the relationship between science and religion. To understand this relationship, we read two key authors in the field: Stephen J. Gould and Ian Barbour (both natural scientists). In politics, science and religion are erroneously portrayed as having to be in conflict; how can a Christian who believes in the truth of the Bible believe in evolution as is taught in biology?
To begin exploring the relationship between science and religion, let’s start with a couple of canonical definitions of both science and religion:
Religion [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. William James
Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. Clifford Geertz
Science is an intellectual activity carried on by humans that is designed to discover information about the natural world in which humans live and to discover the ways in which this information can be organized into meaningful patterns. A primary aim of science is to collect facts (data). An ultimate purpose of science is to discern the order that exists between and amongst the various facts. Sheldon Gottlieb
Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation . . .As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. Richard Feynman
Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt. Richard Feynman
To better understand the myriad of perspectives on the relationship between science and religion, I’ve found it good to start with the typology proposed by Ian Barbour. (here’s an explanation directly from Ian Barbour. Barbour concludes that there are four ways to understand the relationship between science and religion, two of which keep science and religion apart (as in Feynman’s quote above), and two of which Barbour finds more interesting because of the possibilities that can emerge from the interaction between science and religion. The four perspectives are:
Conflict. This is the perspective that tends to dominate the media; does a political candidate believe in science or religion? Because both science and religion seek to explain the world, conflict between science and religion is inherent. In the United States, biblical literalism is one source of potential conflict from the religion side. From the scientific perspective, Barbour cites scientific materialism as the problem for natural scientists like Richard Feynmann and Richard Dawkins. “Materialism is the assertion that matter is the fundamental reality in the universe… Scientific materialism makes a second assertion: the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge” (Barbour 2000:11)
“I suggest that the concept of God is not a hypothesis formulated to explain the relation between particular events in the world in competition with scientific hypotheses. Belief in God is primarily a commitment to a way of life in response to distinctive kinds of religious experience in communities formed by historic traditions; it is not a substitute for scientific research. Religious beliefs offer a wider framework of meaning in which particular events can be contextualized.” (Barbour 2000:14)
Independence: This is the perspective argued by Stephen J. Gould through his NOMA approach (nonoverlapping magisteria). To paraphrase Gould, scientists are searching for the ages of rocks, while religionists are searching for the rock of ages. There is no conflict, in this perspective, since the domains of science and religion do not overlap: “If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution” (Gould 1997:62).
|Objective, public, repeatable data||Asks about the existence of order and beauty, experiences of inner life|
|Authority: logical coherence and experimental adequacy||Authority: God and revelation, understood through experience and insight|
|Quantitative predictions that can be tested experimentally||Uses symbolic and analogical language because God is transcendent.|
Dialogue: This is the first of two perspectives where science and religion engage with each other in what creative ways, according to Barbour. Starting from Gould’s model, dialogue presumes that the domains are not totally separate, but that they indeed overlap, sometimes rub against each other. But the overlap is viewed not from the perspective of conflict; instead, starting with a more charitable view of the other, dialogue can take place through exploring the boundaries between science and religion, comparing the similarities between scientific and religious methods, exploring the limits to both. “Dialogue may arise from considering the presuppositions of the scientific enterprise, or from exploring similarities between the methods of science and those of religion, or from analyzing concepts in one field that are analogous to those in the other” (Barbour 2000:23). For example, from the angle of objectivity and subjectivity, is science purely objective and religion purely subjective? As Thomas Kuhn in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions concludes in his model of paradigms and normal science, there is subjectivity in the scientific enterprise. Perhaps, then, there is objectivity in the religious enterprise!
Integration: This last perspective is the stronger version of dialogue, in that perhaps science and religion are actually exploring the same animal, as in the blind people and the elephant. As Barbour points out (and as we will explore later in the Shapin and Schaffer), the founders of modern science saw the pursuit of natural science as the way to find God; this is referred to as natural theology. For example, Thomas Aquinas saw the orderliness and the intelligibility (God’s handiwork) as the general characteristics of nature – evidence of the great designer. From a more contempory perspective, the anthropic principle starts from the near impossibility of the complex conditions that gave rise to human beings: “Astrophysicists have found that life in the universe would have been impossible if some of the physical constants and other conditions in the early universe had differed even slightly in the values they had. The universe seems to be “fine-tuned” for the possibility of life” (Barbour 2000:29).