Sunday, August 23, 2009

#53. Bridging the Gap

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One of the reasons why the word "convergence" in my blog title sound so strange is because many people still think science and religion are opposed to one another.

They're not. Obviously they are two very different things.

But while most of us assume that we know what the difference is, it's not easy to put that difference into words. What this post is about is an attempt to state the difference between science and religion clearly and to spell out the practical importance of bridging the gap between them.

I think the effort is worth it because once we're clear about the difference, we can have a much better understanding of their relationship and also of their surprisingly important practical consequences for our current environmental crisis.


As a start, history helps a lot in getting that difference clear. From the evidence of archeology and anthropology, religion seems to be as old as humanity itself-- several million years. Science, on the other hand, began only recently-- about 500 years ago.

Even if we think of science as having begun back in the time of ancient Greeks and Babylonians, it's still recent in comparison with the several million years of human history.

Five hundred years out of two million years is a very small fraction: 500/2,000,000ths. It looks even smaller as a decimal: 0.0025. As a human enterprise, science has been around only ¼ of one percent as long as religion.

And yet, in that short time our misuse of science has totally transformed our existence and even the very Earth itself. That our home planet has become inhospitable is what we mean by "the environmental crisis." So whether we care about religion or not, it's obviously important that we understand just what science is, if we are to be part of the healing of the Earth.


The best thing I've seen dealing with the difference between science and religion is a recent talk given at the annual conference of the Metanexus Institute held this year in Phoenix, Arizona, in July.

If you're unfamiliar with Metanexus, it's a Philadelphia-based global endeavor dealing with science and religion. I mentioned it in post #39 (Hebrew Thought); it has an excellent e-publication which you might like to check out: The Global Spiral.

This year, several of the conference's major addresses were made available on line prior to the beginning of the conference. It seems Metanexus thinks along the same lines as the journalist-author David Crumm. I quoted him in post #51 (A New Series of Posts).

He says that five hundred years ago, "global change came through movable type and pamphleteering. Today, it's the Internet and blogs." To effect social change in our day, Crumm says, we need to "publish quickly and often."

So, a word of congratulations and thanks to Metanexus for having such a fine collection of topics and speakers, and for making their papers available on line-- even before they were officially presented at the conference!


The talk dealing with the difference between science and religion was given by Dr. Jakob Wolf, a Lutheran pastor and professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen.

His paper is one of the most enjoyable essays I've read in a long time. It's intelligent, honest, and free of the ponderous academic style that is so deadly for easy understanding and delight. I'm planning to give a summary in this post of a few of his main ideas.

Dr. Wolf makes two especially significant points. One is about our critical need for a clear understanding of how science and religion are related. The second is that, in order to have that understanding, we also need a clear description of what is known in modern philosophy as "phenomenology."

"Phenomenology," needless to say, isn't an everyday word. But it's a necessary concept if we are to understand how science and religion differ and why that difference is important.

Professor Wolf's basic point is explicit: science by definition is a search for causes and explanations of how things work, while religion has to do with our valuing of things.

If you are thinking, "Well, OK, but that's not anything new," I agree. 
Hang in there! One of the things that's so valuable about Dr. Wolf's presentation is that he spells out just what it means to say that "science intentionally reduces things to the simplest explanations of how things work." In our day, that's an especially important concept.


He begins by noting that science is a human project. It wasn't accidental; it was deliberately invented by earlier thinkers as a way to understand the world that didn't depend on the pre-scientific view that whatever happens in human life is the result of the whims of the gods.

A familiar example of events being determined by the gods' arbitrary whims is the story of the wanderings of Odysseus. You may remember how, in the Odyssey, the god Poseidon causes the wind to blow Odysseus off course on his way home from the Trojan war. It took Odysseus 20 years to get back home simply because he had displeased Poseidon.

In that pre-scientific perspective, there were no clear patterns to the way things worked. The Greeks of antiquity, however, developed “a radical new idea, that the phenomena in nature do not occur as a result of the free decisions made by the gods."

Since its beginning science has been defined by this restriction: only the mechanical laws of nature and chance occurrences are considered valid scientific explanations. The ideal of science is still the same today: to understand how specific causes, without outside interference, results in specific effects. Science is intentionally and deliberately mechanistic in its perspective.

Scientific researchers work hard to figure out how things work and to make use of that understanding to make things work better. An example familiar to everyone of the good use of our understanding of the working of things is the miracle of modern dentistry.


Religion, obviously, is something very different from this mechanistic view of how the world works. Religion simply is not about trying to understand the mechanical results of specific causes.

However-- and this is a key idea-- the very basis of science is the assumption that specific causes produce specific results, and that, when we work at it, we humans can figure out (at least some of) the patterns to how things work. Another way to say that is that the designs which we see in the world's workings are humanly understandable patterns.

Although it has taken a great deal of effort, over the last five centuries scientific researchers have been able to figure out how some of those intelligible patterns work: how stars are formed, how living things reproduce, how language is learned by young children.

But it's important to see that the human enterprise we call science assumes the intelligibility of nature. While research scientists try to figure out the cause-and-effect details in the patterns found in things like planetary formation, embryological growth, and speech development, that fact that those patterns are intelligible isn't science. 

It's something else.


In Europe, the understanding that there are intelligible patterns to how things in nature work is referred to as "intelligent design." But, as Dr. Wolf says, in the United States, the term has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists to promote their creationist views.

That's a problem, he says, because "intelligent design" is a very positive idea. It's a deep and rich concept and "it would be a tragedy to lose it."

But while it's obviously not a scientific concept, he also insists that neither is it a religious concept. It's something else, a completely different aspect of our human attempts to make sense of the world. The study of that "something else" is known as "phenomenology."

Because phenomenology is so important for an understanding of the difference between religion and science, I am going make a probably-foolish attempt to explain just what "phenomenology" means as I understand it. Bear with me. I think it's worth it.


Phenomenology is a branch of modern philosophy that has to do with how we understand things. It is our attempt to "understand understanding," as the biogenetic structuralists like to say. Readers of earlier posts know that I wrote about Biogenetic Structuralism in many of them; if it's new to you, you might want to check out a few, for example: #8 (Background to Biogenetic Structuralism) or #10 (Overview of Biogenetic Structuralism).

In everyday speech, the word "phenomenon" refers to something which is unique or special. If a cow gives birth to a two-headed calf or weather conditions result in snow with a bluish tint, those events are said to be "phenomena." But we're more familiar with the word being used as an adjective-- as when we say of something really special, "It was phenomenal!"

In the philosophical sense, in contrast, a "phenomenon" is anything we can observe-- any object, event, person or process that we can be aware of. So in this technical sense, every observable thing is "phenomenal."

It's important to note that while phenomenology is a human endeavor-- just as science is-- it's not an attempt to understand the cause-and-effect patterns to how things work. Rather, it is an attempt to understand how our perception of things works.

Phenomenologists refer to our perception of things-- our observing, knowing, being aware of events, processes, persons-- as our "apprehension" of them. The point of all this is that our apprehension of design in nature is not the result of thinking about those patterns but is the direct result of our immediate experience of the fact that the phenomena have patterns.


Dr. Wolf notes that everyone-- "even the most hardcore Darwinists"-- agrees that natural phenomena have patterns. No one-- "not even militant atheists," he says-- denies that there are patterns to how things work: "the perception of design in nature is as old as human reason itself. It is spontaneous, involuntary, universal, and not even a matter of choice."

One more idea. It may sound like double talk at first, but it's not. The fact that we can see patterns to natural processes like the formation or stars or the development of an embryo is itself a phenomenon. In slightly different words: the human ability to see that some phenomena in nature are intelligible is also an intelligible phenomenon.

The point is that our apprehension of design in nature (which is the direct result of our immediate experience of phenomena having patterns) is something completely different from our effort to figure out how those patterns work.

So, the apprehension of design is not "science."

But it's not "religion," either.

It's something completely different from both-- a “third” thing. And it is, as Dr. Wolf says, what "bridges the gap" between science and religion.


While science is our effort to understand the intelligible designs we apprehend in nature-- in terms of random, unconscious and impersonal forces-- religion interprets those designs as a result of a creative intelligence or a divine mind.

Dr. Wolf lists some of the common interpretations which humans have come up with in our recognition of the intelligible patterns we observe in nature, things like pantheism, stoicism, neo-Platonism, pan-en-theism, deism and, of course, theism (which is where theologians jump in!).

When we keep in mind that both science and religion are based on the "phenomenological apprehension of design," we see that, while science makes use of the phenomenological perception of intelligent design to figure out how the patterns work and religion interprets the intelligence in the designs as coming from a creative consciousness, religion and science are in fact two totally different things.


At this point, you are probably saying to yourself, "OK. But, so what?"
Well, in fact, many significant things follow. One is that the "phenomenological apprehension of design" isn't as unusual as the phenomenologists' name for it might make us think. It's a down to earth experience familiar to all of us. We just call it other names.

Another is that the "phenomenological apprehension of design" has some important implications for our understanding of those Sophia/Wisdom perspectives which I've mentioned in many previous posts as being at the core of the western religious tradition.

I'll share some thoughts about both of those ideas in future posts. Here, I will offer just one very practical response to that "So what?" that may have been in your mind.


Wolf notes that it's almost impossible in the United States to be sympathetic to the idea of design in nature because, as he says, the idea of design in nature has been compromised by American fundamentalists' use of it to promote their creationism views.

But the whole point of Dr. Wolf's talk is that "it would be a disaster if we abandon the idea of design in nature. It is a philosophical idea that we in no way can afford to lose."

Why not? He spells it out nicely.

If we have only science and religion, and the idea of design in nature fits into neither of these categories, we tend to lose it as a valid concept for expressing our experience of nature.

But neither institutional religion nor scientific rationalism provides us with that experience of nature. And in this time of environmental crisis, it's our experience of nature that makes all the difference. Dr. Wolf talks about the environmental situation in terms of "ethics."

He notes that theories are never ethically indifferent, that they have practical consequences. Here, the fundamental connection between theory and ethics is that the different ways in which we experience things determine the ways we treat them.

If we see the creatures of nature only as the results of unconscious processes and random events (in the way which science-- by conscious intention-- does), then it is impossible, as he says, that they have any intrinsic value.

But "if they do have a value in their own right, it is outrageous to damage them."

And the one thing that justifies this "ethical" view of nature is our phenomenological recognition of intelligent design in nature.

Neither patriarchal religion nor mechanistic science-- but only our personal experience of nature as an expression of intelligent design-- can inspire each of us to personally contribute to the healing of the Earth.


PS. Two articles in today's (23 Aug 09) New York Times are relevant to this post. One is by Thomas L. Friedman, the other by Robert Wright.
In "Connecting Nature's Dots," Friedman quotes Map Ives, director of sustainability for Wilderness Safaris in Botswana, about reading "Mother Nature’s hieroglyphics." It's an excellent example of what Jacob Wolf means by "apprehending intelligent design."

Director Ives says, “If you spend enough time in nature and allow yourself to slow down sufficiently to let your senses work, then through exposure and practice, you will start to sense the meanings in the sand, the grasses, the bushes, the trees, the movement of the breezes, the thickness of the air, the sounds of the creatures and the habits of the animals with which you are sharing that space.”
Friedman adds, "Humans were actually wired to do this a long time ago."

The point of his column, says Friedman, is that "We’re trying to deal with a whole array of integrated problems-- climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, poverty alleviation and the need to grow enough food to feed the planet-- separately." But "We need to make sure that our policy solutions are as integrated as nature itself."

Poverty fighters, climate-change folks, food advocates and biodiversity protectors "all need to go on safari together."


The other article is "A Grand Bargain Over Evolution" by Robert Wright. 

It's also about apprehending design in nature. Although it's longer and more complex than Freidman's, it's well-worth working your way through.

The sections about the "intrinsic creative power" of natural selection and about seeing intelligible design in plants and animals are especially helpful. "Unlike a rock," says Wright, "an organism has things that look as if they were designed to do something."

Most helpful is the section in which he talks about "seeing the same kind of pattern in the development of human culture."

He says, "The technological part of cultural evolution has relentlessly expanded social organization, leading us from isolated hunter-gatherer villages all the way to the brink of a truly global society. And the continuing cohesion of this social system (also known as world peace) may depend on people everywhere using their moral equipment with growing wisdom-- critically reflecting on their moral intuitions, and on the way they’re naturally deployed, and refining that deployment."

Good stuff. I hope you can get to read it.


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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.