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On Modern Science and Sacred Traditions

“Religion is anti-science.”  Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, once wrote the following:

I’ll construe “science” as the set of tools we use to find truth about the universe, with the understanding that these truths are provisional rather than absolute.  These tools include observing nature, framing and testing hypotheses, trying your hardest to prove that your hypothesis is wrong to test your confidence that it’s right, doing experiments and above all replicating your and others’ results to increase confidence in your inference.

And I’ll define religion as does philosopher Daniel Dennett: “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” Of course many religions don’t fit that definition, but the ones whose compatibility with science is touted most often – the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – fill the bill.

“Yes, there is a war between science and religion”, The Conversation, 21 December 2018

These two definitions, as Coyne puts it, construe incompatible ways of viewing the world.  Arguably, however, these are very bad ways of defining both religion and science.  Neither gets after something essential, but aims, instead, at a kind of generalized amalgamation.  Coyne goes on from these dubious definitions to argue that religion provides no good reasons or evidence for its claims, but requires unreasoning faith, whereas science employs an empirical method of inquiry that can result in “confident inferences”.

1. Reconciling Sources

Debating Coyne’s unserious and weak assertions (and understanding) is not our purpose, here, however.  His—and generally other “new atheist” objections (which smack of intellectual insecurity; what else could so philosophically-bereft minds feel, when facing philosophically-dependent questions?)—instead serve to raise a point: how should we understand science, and, with that, its compatibility with religion and sacred traditions?

The hermeneutic question of interpreting different sources for truth—the books of nature and of revelation—has long been asked by none other than religiously-minded figures themselves.  On its own, asking this hermeneutic question is itself a kind of scientific inquiry.  For we must recognize that what often goes by the name “science” today—or “modern science”—is but one dependent branch on the tree of human understanding.  To this end, Jeremy Bentham (of all people!) once felicitously proposed the terms “idioscopic” and “cenoscopic” to distinguish between the methods used in “modern science” and the philosophically-geared methods of discovery.  Fr. Scott Randall Paine has an extensive and wonderful essay on the distinction available here.  In short, the idioscopic specializes its vision to discern things indiscernible otherwise; while the cenoscopic utilizes the common reasoning capacities of the human being to resolve discoveries into a coherent whole.  Regarding idioscopy as alone the tree upon which knowledge grows (cutting that branch off and sticking it in the ground, as it were) has borne sickly intellectual fruits.  “Modern science”, divorced from the humanities, arts, philosophy, religion and theology—all the domains of cenoscopic inquiry—leaves us with an unresolved picture of the world.

But modern science alone does not cause this separation.

1. Scripture and Science

Commenting upon the modern philosophical rejection of the textually-commentarial tradition of Scholasticism, John Deely writes in a lengthy footnote:

Although sometimes I wonder to what extent this objection of the times, apparently directed against the Aristotelian philosophers, a safe target, is not the more intended for the unsafe target of the theologians, who in fact have always been the far more culpable in this area from the earliest Christian times.  I think of such examples as that of Cosmas Indicopleustes with his Christian Topography (Alexandria, i.535–47ad), “in which he refutes the impious opinion that the earth is a globe”, for “the Christian geography was forcibly extracted from the texts of scripture, and the study of nature was the surest symptom of an unbelieving mind.  The orthodox faith confined the habitable world to one temperate zone, and represented the earth as an oblong surface, four hundred days’ journey in length, two hundred in breadth, encompassed by the ocean, and covered by the solid crystal of the firmament” (Gibbon 1788).  But examples of equal or greater offensiveness can easily be culled from every tradition of sacred, “revealed” texts, both before and outside of the Christian development.  Surely, within the Christian era, one of the more outstanding examples of hermeneutic abuse is the career of the “blessed” Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621) who, well in advance of the most famous trials over which he held sway (in 1600 that of Bruno, in 1616 that of Copernicus’ work, laying the ground for the 1633 condemnation of Galileo), had arrived through scriptural study at a detailed cosmology which he regarded as “virtually revealed”.  These astonishing results he recorded between 1570 and 1572 in his unpublished Commentary on Qq. 65-74 of Aquinas c.1266 [Summa theologiae, prima pars], autographs which we may hope will one day be brought to full publication (Baldini and Coyne 1984 [“The Louvain Lectures of Bellarmine and the Autograph Copy of his 1616 Declaration to Galileo”] is barely a start) to add to the many object-lessons still resisted that make up the ending of the “Galileo Affair”: see Blackwell 1991 [Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Church] esp. 40–45, 104–06 (on the truth of the Bible even in trivial matters being guaranteed as Bellarmine put it, ex parte dicentis – “because of God being the one who says so”).  Too bad Galileo, writing in 1615 with Bellarmine in mind as well as still alive (see Blackwell 1991: 274), felt constrained to leave unpublished his observation that “those who try to refute and falsify [propositions about the physical world] by using the authority of… passages of Scripture will commit the fallacy called ‘begging the question’.  For since the true sense of the Scripture will already have been put in doubt by the force of the argument, one cannot take it as clear and secure for the purpose of refuting the same proposition.  Rather one needs to take the demonstrations apart and find their fallacies with the aid of other arguments, experiences, and more certain observations.  And when the truth of fact and of nature has been found in this way, then, but not before, can we confirm the true sense of Scripture and securely use it for our purposes.  Thus again the secure path is to begin with demonstrations, confirming the true and refuting the false”.  This lesson applies across the cultures to every group that draws upon texts deemed revealed, not in every case, indeed, but wherever arise questions that can be investigated and resolved by means of natural investigations, scientific or philosophical.

Deely 2002: What Distinguishes Human Understanding, 57-58n13.

While I generally agreed with my mentor on many things, I find his objections (and dismissive attitude) toward Bellarmine problematic.  Yet—I must admit a hesitation here.  There seems to be a valid objection to the hermeneutic used often still today by Biblical literalists; one which attempts to conform an understanding of the physical world to an already-determined interpretation of Scripture’s meaning, rather than to understand Scripture’s revelations about the natural world through an understanding of that world itself.  Study of the natural world responds to our human thirst for knowledge, and, nourished in the proper context of a holistic human learning, enlivens the soul.  To constrain it under the bounds of a Scriptural interpretation itself question does, indeed, beg the principle.

3. Universal Hermeneutics of Continuity

Can we resolve the diverse sources of knowledge into a coherent whole?  How?  How should we interpret Scripture and science as parts of one continuous whole for human knowledge?  Join us this evening (and perhaps again in the future!) to discuss.

Philosophical Happy Hour

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