I recently popped over to Five Before Chaos to find that JD Ryan had posted a piece about one of his favorite topics: science’s claims over religion.  This particular post (In Which PZ Sheaths His Sword) is based on one by PZ Myers over at the very good Pharyngula; in that piece PZ takes a look at an article written by Roger Ebert about Darwin.  The articles (Ryan’s and Myers’ and Ebert’s) are generally pretty good- except where both JD and PZ take issue with one point of Ebert’s: the view that “science has no opinion of religion.  It cannot.”  I’ll try to be clear about my disagreement, though it may seem muddy because I entirely and wholly agree with the rejection of the statement “science has no opinion of religion.  It cannot.”  In laying out their arguments against this statement (in JD’s article, by way of quoting PZ) some classic mistakes of the scientific/rational community are committed and this is where I take issue.  And you, my friends, are in luck, because the always colorful JD Ryan has agreed to engage with me in a little blog-based debate over this topic; what follows will serve as my first reaction to JD’s stance.  I don’t imagine I’ll be able to persuade JD to fundamentally change his opinion (but hey, ya never know) nor- do I hope- he expects to persuade me to his (but hey, ya never know), but both of us are intelligent, thoughtful people and intelligent, thoughtful people engaging in debate is fun, and quite useful, and one of my favorite pastimes.  Be sure to head over to FBC to look for his reply to me in the near future.  And feel free to chime in with your own comments.

To begin with, as I said, I agree wholeheartedly that science does have an opinion of religion, but in making his arguments JD in the process de-values (or misinterprets) important aspects of our human experience while simultaneously putting science in the unfair position of hoping to be more than it is (a mistake by no means confined t JD or PZ).  As for the claim itself- science can, does, and should have opinions regarding religion.  Religion, almost universally, functions partially as a tool which seeks to explain phenomena which we see and experience in the world.  To the degree that it does so, it is very often proven (if not always) wrong in the end.  Religious explanations about what the sun and the stars and the moon are, what they do, how they got there, the earth’s place in the universe (to name just a few examples) were all well and good for easing the fears of the unknown held by people over the previous several thousands of years; the only problem of course for religion is that science came along and proved those explanations blatantly wrong.  So in this regard, in this function of religion, science does indeed have an opinion and very well should, lest our species were to live in-perpetuity in a pre-rational state void of evolving consciousness.

Science, it turns out, is singularly well-suited for explaining the physical phenomena of our universe.  The question then becomes, is our universe anything more than physical phenomena? Is it possible for us to answer this question in the affirmative without violating scientific principles or turning our backs on rational thought?

And here is where I disagree with JD’s stance.  Science a great job at telling us what is True, but does a poor job at explaining the Good and the Beautiful.  Our world shouldn’t be broken down merely into the physical, but recognized to be at least three separate (though intertwined) orientations: I, We, and It.  I, as in Plato’s “the Beautiful”, Kant’s “Critique of personal Aesthetic Judgment”, Haberma’s “truthfulness or sincerity (subjects)” and Wilber’s “Upper Left quadrant”; We, as in Plato’s “the Good”, Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason or intersubjective morality”, Haberma’s “rightness or justice”, and Wilber’s “Lower Left quadrant”; It, as it Plato’s “the True”, Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”, Haberma’s “truth (objects)”, and Wilber’s “Right Half”.  JD even ends his piece noting that all things should be held-up to scrutiny, whether it be claims about “zombie Jesus” or whether Shaft in Africa is better than the original Shaft; yes, they should be, but the scientific-rational world-view is not well suited for all tasks.  Thus, science can spend all the time it wants addressing ideas of “God” the human, male, father in the sky (literally) but it’s disingenuous when it tries to make claims about a sense of “God” that is personal, abstract, and demonstrative specifically of my subjective experiences as well as our collective values.  

While all three realms of consciousness are testable and verifiable, to leave them all to “science” (i.e., the rational-scientific world-view) is to reduce human experience to a material flatland, and to miss much (er, two-thirds) of our actual experience.  “With any speech act” says Habermas, “the speaker takes up a relation to something in the objective world (it), something in a common social world (we), and something in his own subjective world (I) (PD p. 313/314).  Wilber: “And the claims made with reference to each of those worlds have their own validity criteria, namely, propositional truth (referring to an objective state of affairs, or it), normative rightness (cultural justness or appropriateness, we), and subjective truthfulness (or sincerity, I).  And this means that none of them can be reduced to the other.” (SES, p. 149-150).

Wilber:  “And so we can now return to (and better understand) the notion of subtle reductionism, or the attempt to collapse the Kosmos (by which he means all of the universe and our experience in and of it) to (scientific materialism or the reduction of all phenomena to the physiosphere) or reduce ‘I’ and ‘we’ to ‘it'” (SES, p. 151).  Religious claims as to understanding “it” or “Truth” have proven dubious at best, but the same can be said of scientific claims about “I” and “we” or the “Beautiful” and the “Good”.  The rationalist explanations of these domains reduce us and our experience to mere functions of the larger social order; my meaning or purpose or even ability to judge Right or Wrong (outside of the physical realm) is likewise reduced to a mere function within the greater ecology around.  The formula of this sort of reduction is a sort of suicide for purpose and meaning, and leads- has led, in fact- to the rampant spread of materialism, consumerism, nihilism, and selfishness.  

Again Wilber:

We will see that the great task of modernity and postmodernity, as theorists from Schelling to Hegel to Habermas to Taylor have pointed out, is not to replace gross reductionism with subtle reductionism (or atomism with flatland holism), but to integrate the Big Three (integrate I, we, and it; or art, morals and science; or self, culture and nature), not by reducing one to the others, but by finding a richly encompassing conception of the Kosmos that allows each to flourish in its own right.

In other words, if the great achievement of the Enlightenment (and “modernity”) was the necessary differentiation of the Big Three, the great task of “postmodernity” is their integration, overcoming what Taylor called “a monster of arrested development”. (SES, p. 153)

So, I’ll agree with you JD when you say no claim is above scrutiny; science is but one tool in doing so.  Science very well has something to say to religion, but is by no means the only one in the room when we are describing or trying to understand our world.