Posted by: gcarkner | January 28, 2013

Paradigm Shift on Faith & Reason

Paradigm Shift in Myths about Faith & Reason

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Two Ways of Seeing Reality


This applies to the December 2012 post on Ten Myths about Faith & Reason. What is the way forward beyond the narrow thinking of scientism? Is there a path towards a more integrated and whole understanding of reason and reality itself? It is our conviction that science must be more engaged with, tempered by other forms of wisdom. Philosophy, of which science is traditionally a sub-discipline, by classical definition is the love of wisdom. This is a posture that prompts persons to use all the skills of reason in the quest for truth, goodness and beauty, to pursue total knowledge. Rationalism unfortunately pits truth against beauty and goodness, and this is epistemologically dysfunctional. French philosopher Jacques Maritain boldly cautions that ‘science without wisdom is blind’, meaning that its explorations and usage requires insight from something other than science qua science. What are the credible possibilities of a re-aquaintance of sapientia et scientia,  wisdom and science?

If we step back and  reflect a bit, genuine knowledge is the cultivation of the virtue of wisdom, which entails that all knowledge ought to have a relationship with both the intellectual and the moral virtues (known as phronesis). Science within its appointed limits attends to matters of fact, quantity, cosmic order, matter and anti-matter, the physical forces and the realm of stars and galaxies (the what and how questions). Wisdom, however, has a large vested interest in the qualitative conditions of life and research (the why questions): relationships, meaning, purpose, value, idea, narrative, appropriate application of knowledge and other meta-issues. Neither should be ignored if we are to attain a whole, integrated and constructive truth. The two types need to be reconnected and interwoven for strength and balance. Both are key if we are to make sense of the universe’s richest intelligibility. MIT plasma physicist Ian Hutchinson spoke strongly at UBC in 2013 of the limitations on scientific knowledge as non-comphrehesive (Monopolizing Knowledge).

Albert Einstein  in a pithy statement once wisely countered the spirit of scientism with a bit of balance: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” It is valid to ask whether the universe has a purpose beyond the mere fact and functionality of its existence (wondrous as that is), whether in all its vastness and complexity it dwells within a larger context of meaning and purpose. We humans possess within us this intense need and legitimate passion to know everything about our world and ourselves, and not to settle for partial, narrow, skewed or one-sided answers. It is also important that we not bully others who offer a different sort of knowledge, such as in the humanities.

nebulaAs we have seen from rude and brutal experience, science and technology employed without a conscience can be soulless, dangerous and even death-dealing on a massive scale. Science is not ethics, but a completely different culture sphere; it does not offer a robust ethics. Einstein felt this worry very existentially as he worked with other scientists on the breakthrough physics that lead to the first splitting of the atom, and ultimately to the first mass killer atomic bomb. This is to say nothing of the subsequent costly (lives, property and money) and politically debilitating decades of the arms race with its MAD (mutually assured destruction).

The 1945 controversial bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a terrible way proved Einstein’s gut suspicions correct. This much power is very dangerous and must be handled delicately and appropriately. Science employed to its best ends, like other forms of philosophy, is geared to improve the common good of humanity, not to destroy persons or deprive people of their personhood (James Houston) or their very lives.

Wise scientists and bureaucrats have to take responsibility for the human and environmental consequences of new research and technology and they ought not to hide behind mere collections of facts about the physical realm.  The DVD series Test of Faith from the Faraday Institute Dialogue on Science & Religion at Cambridge University raises many of  these important why questions and purpose questions (context). These questions are examined at the cutting edge of research, through a documentary dialogue with top Oxbridge and American scientists and historians of science. It involves a mature, open-minded exchange.

What grounds science ideologically and culturally? Whence comes the mathematical order? Why is there something rather than nothing? Are science and Christianity in a deadlock conflict, or is there possible synergism between science & faith? Does the Big Bang eliminate the need for God? Can humans be explained fully according to their genetic template? Does one transcend one’s neural networks in making moral decisions? Does one’s biology determine one’s value and destiny?

These top contributors such as Sir John Polkinghorne, former physicist and president of Queens College Cambridge, strongly respect science, but realize that it is not the only necessary form of question or important insight. Nor does it exclude the legitimacy and importance of good philosophical, religious or theological reflection. They also participate in the current robust dialogue between religion and science. Much highly respectable scholarly literature is available: John Polkinghorne, Denis Alexander, Owen Gingerich and Alister McGrath, Ard Louis, Bill Newsome represent depth and breadth of insight on this dialogue.

Wisdom is a virtue prior to and necessary to good scientific insight, a valuable companion in the application of scientific discovery. Science is dependent on the best human and divine wisdom for direction, application and meaning, and also benefits from the ethical brakes on its investigations and inventions. Science operates within a larger horizon of meaning, a set of underlying metaphysical assumptions that it cannot prove or demonstrate scientifically (not unlike faith). See Tom McLeish, Faith & Wisdom in Science (OUP, 2015).

Beyond the metaphor of mere empirical fact to new metaphors: Poetry, the language genre in which wisdom often appears to us, proceeds from the totality of human sense, imagination, intellect, love, desire, instinct, blood and spirit together. The metaphors of wisdom are equally important to the metaphors and discourse of science. Prudence, courage, justice, self-control, honesty and other virtues are deeply relevant to both daily life and the scientific enterprise. It is clear to major decision-makers, judges, and managers that technological, statistical and scientific expertise is both necessary and helpful. But it is not complete. Science was never meant to give us a cultural worldview or a foundation for ethics.

Technical or factual expertise alone is incomplete for adjudicating many issues that scientists face and on which they must pass judgment. Science, while it is a good method for investigating and manipulating the material world, is of much less value for deciding what to do with the knowledge, the expertise and the power thus acquired. In light of this, twentieth century physicist, philosopher and historian of science, Pierre Duhem provocatively argues for the priority of metaphysics and religion over physics. Metaphysics may not be popular among some scientists today, but it is far from irrelevant to them or their work; hopefully they will follow good metaphysics.

Scientific epistemology is no substitute for metaphysics. Canadian Philosopher Calvin Schrag (The Self After Postmodernity, pp. 133-35) urges respect for the significance of all four culture spheres: aesthetics, ethics, science and religion. Scientific reason is only part of the human economy of knowledge and should not dominate, oppress or eliminate the other culture spheres. It should interact with them in balance and dialectical tension, and benefit from their checks and balances, as well as their creative questions and contributions. Schrag suggests that Immanuel Kant is responsible for the splintering of, or disconnection between, these spheres.

Science in its study of the cosmos is master of one important theme in the story of life, but not the whole story. Some of the most important issues and decisions we struggle with are relational, moral, issues of beauty, human character and our religious purpose. Many scientists now realize the importance of value judgments in the economy of scientific reason because of the groundbreaking work of Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge) mentioned in an earlier post. There are stunning reflective resources available in the world’s great wisdom literature, such as the Classics (Plato, Aristotle, etc.), the ancient Hebrew literature of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, ancient literature that has stood the test of time, contributed to democracy and lawfulness; it resonates deeply with our human condition, our experience. The way of wisdom is a well trodden ancient and modern path, and should be assisting our current reflections on reality.

There is currently an exciting revival of interest in virtue ethics (a growing field) applied to academic work, as in Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind. To name a few, a good scientist is guided by a genuine search for truth, a humble willingness to change her theory when new evidence challenges it significantly, humility in view of the limits of scientific knowledge, honesty in reporting and interpreting data and credit for the person who did the actual work, respect and care for the subject or object under study, collegiality to share rather than hoard information, respect for the larger scientific community, generosity and benevolence for the good human use of the research, gratitude for the opportunity to be in this field of discovery. Wisdom indeed is very relevant to good science and human flourishing in general.

Many excellent scientists will agree that they would also add gratitude to the God who created the wondrously beautiful and complex world, this cosmic gift we study and through which we make our livelihood. In fact, some 40% of American scientists claim a belief in God. There are many theists who gave birth to science in previous centuries (Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Faraday, Pascal to name few of many early scientific geniuses). There is a way of wisdom appropriate for the scientist as well as the sage; the love of wisdom is appropriate to both vocations. Perhaps we should call on our sages once again to inform our science and bring new humility, new levels of servanthood to the various research areas. The same wisdom is appreciated for stewardship of scientific resources and discovery.

Gord Carkner (with appreciation to Dr. D. Stephen Long, Marquette University, for his insights on epistemology and language)

See the complete article Scientism and the Search for an Integrated Reality SCIENTISM

Listen to Bruce Cockburn “Maybe the Poet”

Read Jens Zimmermann, Hermeneutics: a very short introduction (OUP, 2015)

Faraday Institute on Science & Religion: Brilliant variety of lectures available for download; they also have summer one week courses. Below Sir John Polkinghorne, Cambridge Physicist & Theologian, leading innovator in science-faith discussion.

Dennis Alexander, Faraday Institute

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