Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Science & Religion, Draper & White

To my chagrin, I noticed only yesterday that I haven’t posted in over two months. The reasons for this are many, but the main reason is that I’ve been working hard and fast on Killjoy, my next novel. At present, the manuscript is over 123,000 words, and so I’m not far from finishing up. A bit of dialogue here, a plot revelation there, and I’ll be done.

Additionally, I’ve been studying. Recently, I got a catalog in the mail from a group calling itself The Teaching Company, which markets a series of college-level lectures on a variety of subjects, from mathematics, to physics, history, and philosophy, either in CD or DVD format. So, I bought a couple of courses, one on the history of science and religion, and another on the philosophy of religion. I’ll get the one on the philosophy of science later on.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with my purchases. I finished the course on science and religion a few weeks ago, but I decided to go through the lectures once more, this time taking copious notes and doing a bit further research on my own. The course is taught by Lawrence M. Principe, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who holds PhDs in Chemistry and the History of Science. No dummy, this guy. Anyway, I thought I’d share some of the takeaways I got from the course.

First, Principe identifies the central characteristics of science. They are:
1. Science is a body of knowledge claims. Such claims are held to be objectively true or at least probably true.
2. Science is a practice. By this he means a set of methods for gaining, assessing and augmenting the sum total of knowledge claims that science holds.

Then he turns to the central characteristics of religion:
1. Religion (by this we usually mean theology) is a body of knowledge claims.
2. It is also a practice.

Got that? In other words, though there may be some difference in the kinds of knowledge claims that science and religion make, both science and religion use the same overall strategy. The claim that religion works by faith and that science by reason is too sloppy. Science must often depend on faith statements even though it uses reason extensively; likewise, theology relies on the exercise of reason. Science and theology share considerable commonality. Both faith and reason are methods for generating knowledge claims.

Further, this notion that science and religion represent wholly separate domains that are (and have been) in conflict with one another is demonstrably false. It is a fiction composed in the nineteenth century, principally by two men: John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. These men had specific political and social purposes when arguing their cases, and the historical foundations of their work is almost totally unreliable. Draper’s work, Principe notes, represents “some of the worst historical writing you are ever likely to come across.” And those of you who, like myself, went to public school and were told that Columbus set out across the Atlantic to prove that the world was round when everyone else, including the Church, maintained that the Earth was flat, need look no further than White to find the culprit. (In fact, White’s “historical” source for his claim was actually Washington Irving’s fictional account of the event, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.) But such is the power of myth-making.

In fact, even the word “science” is an invention of the nineteenth century. In previous times, what we would today describe as scientific inquiry would have been called natural philosophical inquiry. Much of the conflict we see today in the evolution/shmevolution debate is the result of fundamentalism—both from religious and well as scientific viewpoints. Christian fundamentalism is one very small part of Christianity; scientific fundamentalism (call it scientism or materialism) is just as real as the religious kind, and just as unrepresentative.

Principe concludes his lectures with this statement: “[Some] fundamentists’ depiction of the scientific establishment as aggressively and inherently atheistic is an example of the error of collectivism; but in reading the Haeckels, the Hoyles, the Sagans, the Dawkins, the Drapers and their tribe, one can see easily the foundations of this depiction and why it causes justifiable anxiety. There are today notable and high-profile scientists who use op-ed pieces, popular books and programs and other public pulpits to proclaim the gospels of materialism, atheism, and scientism… Too often the claims are philosophically naïve and clothed in arrogant sarcasm and dismissive disdain. That’s no way to carry out a discussion.”

No way, indeed.

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