Tuesday, January 16, 2018


The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains—for a great book tells us that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. 
Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us. 

That's a classic statement of the no-conflict thesis regarding the relationship between science and religion. They cannot directly compete with each other because they make claims about different domains. The scope of science is the physical real whereas the scope of religion is moral and spiritual realm–assuming such a realm exists.

Not surprisingly, Gould's position has been attacked as an ad hoc compromise by Christians and atheists alike. But ironically, Gould is taking the same position as proponents of methodological atheism, who insist on the same compartmentalization. They typically defend methodological atheism on three grounds: by definition, scientific method disallows supernatural or teleological explanations; supernatural are explanations are untestable; and making room for supernatural explanations would bring science to a grinding halt.

Atheists invoke the same strictures in reference to historiography. It's not that reported miracles are false; rather, reported miracles aren't even false. They fall outside the purview of what historians can take into consideration. So historians and scientists must be neutral on the supernatural. That's not something they're in a position to affirm or deny, for supernatural claims are both unverifiable and unfalsifiable–at least by scientific and historiographical criteria. 

But that generates an acute dilemma for atheists. Methodological naturalism commits them to the no-conflict thesis. 

In addition, W. V. Quine, high priest of scientism, had some radical concessions regarding the limitations of scientific knowledge:

It would address the question of how we, physical denizens of the physical world, can have projected our scientific theory of that whole world from our meager contacts with it; from the mere impacts of rays and particles on our surfaces and a few odds and ends such as the strain of walking uphill, From Stimulus to Science(Harvard 1999), 16. 
There is a puzzle here. Global stimuli are private: each is a temporally ordered set of some one individual’s receptors. Their perceptual similarity, in part innate and in part modeled by experience, is private as well. Whence then this coordination of behavior across the tribe? (20). 
The sensory atomist was motivated, I say, by his appreciation that any information about the world is channeled to us through the sensory surfaces of our bodies; but this motivation remained obscure to him. It was obscured by his concern to justify our knowledge of the external world. The justification would be vitiated by circularity if sensory surfaces and external impacts on nerve endings had to be appealed to at the outset of the justification,”Confessions of a Confirmed Extensionist and Other Essays (Harvard 2008), 328. 
There is much clarity to be gained by dropping the project of justifying our knowledge of the external world but continuing to investigate the relation of that knowledge to its sensory evidence. Obscurity about the nature of the given, or epistemic priority, is then dissipated by talking frankly of the triggering of nerve endings. We then find ourselves engaged in an internal question within the framework of natural science. There are these impacts of molecules and light rays upon our sensory receptors, and there is all this output on our part of scientific discourse about sticks, stones, planets, numbers, molecules, light rays, and, indeed, sensory receptors; and then we pose the problem of linking that input causally and logically to that output (328).  
Much as I admire [David] Lewis’s reduction, however, it is not for me. My own line is a yet more sweeping structuralism, applying to concrete and abstract objects indiscriminately. I base it, paradoxically as this may seem, on a naturalistic approach to epistemology. Natural science tells us that our ongoing cognitive access to the world around us is limited to meager channels. There is the triggering of our sensory receptors by the impact of molecules and light rays. Also there is the difference in muscular effort sensed in walking up or down hill. What more? Even the notion of a cat, let alone a class or number, is a human artifact, rooted in innate predisposition and cultural tradition. The very notion of an object at all, concrete or abstract, is a human contribution, a feature of our inherited apparatus for organizing the amorphous welter of neural input (402-03). 
The conclusion is that there can be no evidence for one ontology as over against another, so long anyway as we can express a one-to-one correlation between them. Save the structure and you save all. Certainly we are dependent on a familiar ontology of middle-sized bodies for the inception of reification, on the part both of the individual and of the race; but once we have an ontology, we can change it with impunity (405). 
This global ontological structuralism may seem abruptly at odds with realism, let alone naturalism. It would seem even to undermine the ground on which I rested it: my talk of impacts of light rays and molecules on nerve endings. Are these rays, molecules, and nerve endings themselves not disqualified now as mere figments of an empty structure? (405). 
Naturalism itself is what saves the situation. Naturalism looks only to natural science, however, fallible, for an account of what there is and what what there is does. Science ventures its tentative answers in man-made concepts, perforce, couched in man-made language, but we can ask no better. The very notion of object, or of one and many, is indeed as parochially human as the parts of speech; to ask what reality is really like, however, apart from human categories, is self-stultifying. It is like asking how long the Nile really is, apart from parochial matters of miles or meters. Positivists were right in branding such metaphysics as meaningless (405). 
So far as evidence goes, then, our ontology is neutral. Nor let us imagine beyond it some inaccessible reality. The very terms ‘thing’ and ‘exist’ and ‘real,’ after all, make no sense apart from human conceptualization. Asking after the thing in itself apart from human conceptualization, is like asking how long the Nile really is, apart from our parochial miles or kilometers (416). 
So it seems best for present purposes to construe the subject’s stimulus on a given occasion simply as his global neural intake on that occasion. But I shall refer to it only as neural intake, not stimulus, for other notions of stimulus are wanted in other studies, particularly where different subjects are to get the same stimulus. Neural intake is private, for subjects do not share receptors (463-64). 
But in contrast to the privacy of neural intakes, and the privacy of their perceptual similarity, observation sentences and their semantics are a public matter, since the child has to learn these from her elders. Her learning then depends indeed both on the public currency of the observation sentences and on a preestablished harmony of people’s private scales of perceptual similarity (464). 
These reflections on ontology are a salutary reminder that the ultimate data of science are limited to our neural intake, and that the very notion of object, concrete or abstract, is of our own making, along with the rest of natural science and mathematics (471).

On Quine's view, it's appearances all the way down. Not in the metaphysical sense that there's no bedrock reality which underlies appearances, but in the epistemological sense that bedrock reality is undetectable. Scientific observation, experimentation, and theorizing can never get behind perception to describe what the world is really like apart from perception. 

This, however, might have the ironic consequence that theological explanations, unlike scientific explanations, do have the potential to describe ultimate reality. In principle, there are two ways that could be the case:

i) Some theological explanations appeal to modal intuitions. They aren't filtered through sensory perception.

ii) If Scripture is divine revelation, then God's knowledge circumvents appearances. He doesn't know the world via sensory perception. Rather, he knows the world because it corresponds to his plan or idea for the world. And he can share his creative ideas with humans. 

It's analogous to the difference between seeing a movie and hearing to a director explain what he had in mind. That enables the viewer to get in back of the film. To access it from the privileged viewpoint of the film's creator. 

This upends the way many people relate faith and science: instead of science getting to the bottom of things while theology is about airy-fairy stuff and wishful thinking, it's theology that gets to the bottom of things.

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