Who-knows-what-how stories: The scientific and religious knowledge paradox

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I never meant to listen to this LSE debate on modern atheism because I’m bored of all the endless moralistic twaddle on both sides but it came on on my MP3 player and before I knew it, I was interested enough not to skip it. Not that it provided any Earth-shattering new insights but on balance it had more to contribute to the debate than a New Atheist diatribe might. And there were a few stories about how people think that were interesting.

The first speaker was the well-known English cleric, Giles Fraser who regaled the audience with his conversion story starting as an atheist student of Wittgenstein and becoming a Christian who believes in a “Scripture-based” understanding of Christianity. The latter is not surprising given how pathetically obssessed Wittgensteinian scholars are with every twist and turn of their bipolar master’s texts.

But I thought Fraser’s description of how he understands his faith in contrast to his understanding of the dogma was instructive. He says: “Theology is faith seeking understanding. Understanding is not the basis on which one has faith but it is what one does to try to understand the faith one has.”

In a way, faith is a kind of axiomatic knowledge. It’s not something that can or need be usefully questioned but it is something on which to base our further dialog. Obviously, this cannot be equated with religion but it can serve as a reminder of the kind of knowledge religion works off. And it is only in some contexts that this axiomatic knowledge needs be made explicit or even just pointed to – this only happens when the conceptual frames are brought into conflict and need to be negotiated.

Paradox of utility vs essence and faith vs understanding

This kind of knowledge is often contrasted with scientific knowledge. Knowledge that is held to be essentially superior due to its utility. But if we look at the supporting arguments, we are faced with a kind of paradox.

The paradox is that scientists claim that their knowledge is essentially different from religious (and other non-scientific) knowledge but the warrant for the special status claim of this knowledge stems from the method of its aquisition rather than its inherent nature. They cite falsificationist principles as foundations of this essential difference and peer review as their practical embodiment (strangely making this one claim immune from the dictum of falsification – of which, I believe, there is ample supply).

But that is not a very consistent argument. The necessary consequences of the practice of peer review fly in the face of the falsificationist agenda. The system of publication and peer review that is in place (and that will always emerge) is guaranteed to minimize any fundamental falsificationism of the central principles. Meaning that falsification happens more along Kuhnian rather than Popperian lines. Slowly, in bursts and with great gnashing of teeth and destroying of careers.

Now, religious knowledge does not cite falsificationism as the central warrant of its knowledge. Faith is often given as the central principle underlying religious knowledge and engagement with diverse exegetic authorities as the enactment of this principle. (Although, crucially, this part of religion is a modern invention brought about by many frame negotiations. For the most part, when it comes to religion, faith and knowing are coterminous. Faith determines the right ways of knowing but it is only rarely negotiated.)

But in practice the way religious knowlege is created, acquired and maintained is not very different from scientific knowledge. Exegesis and peer review are very similar processes in that they both refer to past authorities as sources of arbitration for the expression of new ideas.

And while falsificationism is (perhaps with the exception of some Budhist or Daoist schools) never the stated principle of religious hermeneutics, in principle, it is hard to describe the numerous religious reforms, movements and even work-a-day conversions as anything but falsificationist enterprises. Let’s just look at the various waves of monastic movements from Benedictines to Dominicans or Franciscans to Jesuits. They all struggled with reconciling the current situation with the evidence (of the interpretation of scripture) and based their changed practices on the result of this confrontation.

And what about religious reformers like Hus, Luther or Calvin? Wasn’t their intellectual entreprise in essense falsificationist? Or St Paul or Arianism? Or scholastic debates?

‘But religion never invites scrutiny, it never approaches problems with an open mind.’ Crow the new-atheists. But neither does science at the basic level. Graduate students are told to question everything but they soon learn that this questioning is only good as long as it doesn’t disrupt the research paradigm. Their careers and livelihoods depend on not questioning much of anything. In practice, this is not very different from the personal reading of the Bible – you can have a personal relationship with God as long as it’s not too different from other people’s personal relationships.

The stories we know by

One of the most preposterous pieces of scientific propaganda is Dawkins’ story about an old professor who went to thank a young researcher for disproving his theory. I recently heard it trotted out again on an episode of Start The Week where it was used as proof positive of how science is special – this time as a way of establishing its superiority over political machinations. It may have happened but it’s about as rare as a priest being convinced by an argument about the non-existence of God. The natural and predominant reactions to a research “disproving” a theory are to belittle it, deny its validity, ostracise its author, deny its relevance or simply ignore it (a favourite passtime of Chomskean linguists).

So in practice, there doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between how scientific and religious knowledge work. They both follow the same cognitive and sociological principles. They both have their stories to tell their followers.

Conversion stories are very popular in all movements and they are always used on both sides of the same argument. There are stories about conversions from one side to the other in the abortion/anti-abortion controversy, environmental debates, diet wars, alternative medicine, and they are an accompanying feature of pretty much any scientific revolution – I’ve even seen the lack of prominent conversions cited as an argument (a bad one) against cognitive linguistics. So a scientist giving examples of the formerly devout seeing the light through a rational argument, is just enacting a social script associated with the spreading of knowledge. It’s a common frame negotiation device, not evidence of anything about the nature of the knowledge to the profession of which the person was converted.

There are other types of stories about knowledge that scientists like to talk about as much as people of religion. There are stories of the long arduous path to knowledge and stories of mystical gnosis.

The path-to-knowledge stories are told when people talk about the training it takes to achieve a kind of knowledge. They are particularly popular about medical doctors (through medical dramas on TV) but they also exist about pretty much any profession including priests and scientists. These stories always have two components, a liminal one (about high jinks students got to while avoiding the administration’s strictures and lovingly mocking the crazy demanding teachers) and a sacral one (about the importance of hard learning that the subject demands). These stories are, of course, based on the sorts of things that happen. But their telling follows a cultural and discursive script. (It would be interesting to do some comparative study here.)

The stories of mystical gnosis are also very interesting. They are told about experts, specialists who achieve knowledge that is too difficult for normal mortals to master. In these stories people are often described as loosing themselves in the subject, setting themselves apart, or becoming obsessively focused. This is sometimes combined or alternated with descriptions of achieving sudden clarity.

People tell these stories about themselves as well as about others. When told about others, these stories can be quite schematic – the absent minded professor, the geek/nerd, the monk in the library, the constantly pracising musician (or even boxer). When told about oneself, the sudden light stories are very common.

Again, these stories reflect a shared cultural framing of people’s experiences of knowledge in the social context. But they cannot be given as evidence of the special nature of one kind of knowledge over another. Just like stories about Gods cannot be taken as evidence of the superiority of some religions.

Utility and essence revisited

But, the argument goes, scientific knowledge is so useful. Just look at all the great things it brought to this world. Doesn’t that mean that its very “essence” is different from religious knowledge.

Here, I think, the other discussant in the podcast, the atheist philosopher, John Gray can provide a useful perspective: “The ‘essence’ is an apologetic invention that someone comes up with later to try and preserve the core of an idea [like Christianity or Marxism] from criticism.”

In other words this argument is also a kind of story telling. And we again find these utility and essence stories in many areas following remarkably similar scripts. That does not mean that the stories are false or fabricated or that what they are told about is in some way less valid. All it means is that we should be skeptical about arguments that rely on them as evidence of exclusivity.

Ultimately, looking for the “essence” of any complex phenomenon is always a fool’s errand. Scientists are too fond of their “magic formula” stories where incredibly complex things are described by simple equations like e=mc2 or zn+1 = zn2 + c. But neither Einstein’s nor Mandlebrot’s little gems actually define the essence of their respective phenomena. They just offer a convenient way of capturing some form of knowledge about it. e=mc2 will be found on T-shirts and the Mandelbrot set on screen savers of people who know little about their relationship to the underlying ideas. They just know they’re important and want to express their alegiance to the movement. Kind of like the people who feel it necessary to proclaim that they “believe” in the theory of evolution. Of course, we could also take some gnostic stories about what it takes to “really” understand these equations – and they do require some quite complex mix of expertise (a lot more complex than the stories would let on).

But we still haven’t dealt with the question of utility. Scientific knowledge derives its current legitimacy from its connection to technology and religious knowledge makes claims on the realms of morality and human relationships. They clash because both also have views on each other’s domains (science on human relationships and religion on origins of the universe). Which is one of the reasons why I don’t think that the non-overlapping magisteria idea is very fruitful (as much as I prefer Gould over the neo-Darwinists).

Here I have to agree with Dawkins and the new atheists. There’s no reason why some prelate should have more of a say on morality or relationships than anyone else. Reading a holy book is a qualification for prescribing ritual not for the arbitration of morality. But Dawkins should be made to taste his own medicine. There’s no reason why a scientist’s view on the origin of the universe should hold any sway over any theologian’s. The desire of the scientist to provide a cosmogony for the atheist crowd is a strange thing. It seeks to make questions stemming from a non-scientific search for broader meaning consistent with the scientific need for contiguous causal explanations. But the Big Bang or some sort of Priomordial Soup don’t provide internal consistency to the scientific entreprise. They leave as many questions open as they give answers to.

It seems that the Augustinian and later scholastic solution of a set of categories external to the ones which are accessible to us. Giles Fraser cites Thomas Acquinas’ example of counting everything in the world and not finding God. That would still be fine because God is not a thing to be counted, or better still, an entity that fits within our concept of things and the related concept of counting. Or in other words, God created our world with the categories available to the cognizing humans, not in those categories. Of course, to me, that sounds like a very good argument for atheism but it is also why a search for some Grand Unified Theory leaves me cold.

Epistemology as politics

It is a problem that the better philosophers from Parmenides to Wittgenstein tried to express in one way or another. But their problems were in trying to draw practical conclusions. There is no reason why the two political factions shouldn’t have a good old fight over the two overlapping magisteria. Because the debate about utility is a political one, not an epistemological one. Just because I would rather go to a surgeon than a witch doctor doesn’t mean that the former has tapped into some superior form of cognition. We make utility judgements of a similar nature even within these two domains but we would not draw essentialist epistemological conclusions based on them. People choose their priests and they choose their doctors. Is a bad doctor better than a good healer? I would imagine that there are a whole range of ailments where some innocuous herb would do more good than a placebo with side effects.

But we can consider a less contentious example. Years ago I was involved with TEFL teacher training and hiring. We ran a one-month starter course for teachers of English as a foreign language. And when hiring teachers I would always much rather hire one of these people rather than somebody with an MA in TESOL. The teachers with the basic knowledge would often do a better job than those with superior knowledge. I would say that when these two groups would talk about teaching, their understanding of it would be very different. The MAs would have the research, evidence and theory. The one-month trainees would have lots of useful techniques but little understanding of how or why they worked. Yet, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between the “quality” of knowledge and practical ability of the teacher (or at best no predictable relationship). So I would routinely recommend these “witch-teachers” over the “surgeon-teachers” to schools for hiring because I believe they were better for them.

There are many similar stories where utility and knowledge don’t match up. Again, that doesn’t mean that we should take homeopathy seriously but it means that the foundations of our refusal of accepting homeopathy cannot also be the foundations of placing scientific knowledge outside the regular epistemological constraints of all humanity.

Epistemology, as I have said elsewhere, is much better explained as ethics.

Thus endeth the blog post.

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  • DanV

    Brilliant post – I’ve been mulling these ideas over for about a year now, and you’ve now completely removed the need for me to get them down on paper. Keep up the good work !