Religion Science And Philosophical Naturalism

What are the relationships among religion, science, and philosophical naturalism? Everyone recognizes that there are differences, but there are similarities as well. All three of these terms refer to ways of knowing: a field of study that philosophers call epistemology. The epistemology we call science is primarily a methodology that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. Although individual scientists may be concerned with moral and ethical issues or rules of conduct, science as a way of knowing is not concerned with these things. The methodology of testing natural explanations against the natural world will not tell us whether it is immoral for coyotes to kill rabbits or whether members of one sex or another should keep their heads covered in public, or whether marrying your father's brother's child is immoral but marrying your father's sister's child is not. Science is a limited way of knowing, with limited goals and a limited set of tools to use to accomplish those goals.

Philosophical naturalism relies on science and is inspired by science, but it differs from science in being concerned with rules of conduct, ethics, and morals. When a scientist makes a statement like, "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind" (Simpson 1967: 344), it is clear that he or she is speaking from the perspective of philosophical naturalism rather than from the methodology of science itself. As anthropologist Matt Cartmill (1998: 83) has observed, "Many scientists are atheists or agnostics who want to believe that the natural world they study is all there is, and being only human, they try to persuade themselves that science gives them grounds for that belief. It's an honorable belief, but it isn't a research finding." Only a minority of Americans embrace philosophical naturalism—perhaps as few as 10 to 16 percent or so—but it has had a long history in Western culture, going back to some of the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece.

Religion concerns the relationship of people with the divine, but it also may include explanations of the natural world and the origin of natural phenomena. Religious views almost universally derive from revelation, but this does not rule out the use of empirical and logical approaches to theology. In fact, many Christian denominations pride themselves on their reliance on logic and reason as a means both to understand the natural world and to evaluate theological positions. But an ultimate reliance on revelation can place religion into conflict with science, as discussed earlier in this chapter. When revealed truth conflicts with empirical knowledge, how does one choose?

Different religious traditions provide different interpretations of revealed truth—all held with equal fervor—and within the same religious tradition the documents that are considered authoritative can be, and usually are, interpreted differently by different adherents. Reform and Hasidic Jews interpret the Torah differently, Muslims of the Shiite and Sunni traditions have some different interpretations of the Koran, and Catholics and Protestants use Bibles with different books. Which tradition is more faithful to the sacred documents is ascertained differently by different factions, and unless agreement can be reached on criteria of judgment, different factions will be unable to determine whose interpretation is correct.

For example, some Christians interpret the Bible as indicating that the Flood of Noah was an actual historical event that covered the entire Earth, and they believe that the receding floodwaters cut the Grand Canyon. other Christians interpret the Bible differently and argue that the Flood was not a universal historical event and could not have carved the Grand Canyon. Proponents of different biblical interpretations tend not to persuade one another because their religious assumptions are different; to some it is not a matter of logic or empirical evidence (as will be illustrated in the readings in part 3).

In science, on the other hand, there is no revealed truth. Although some explanations are believed to be very solidly grounded, it is understood that even well-supported theories can be modified and, in rare circumstances, even replaced by other explanations. For the limited purpose of explaining the natural world, science has a major advantage over religion in that individuals of different philosophical, religious, cultural, and/or ideological orientations, using the methodology of science, can debate their differences on the basis of repeatable—and repeated—empirical investigations. Different scientists, using different techniques, technologies, and observational approaches, provide validation not possible through revelation.

Scientists looking at geological and biological data can piece together a natural history of the Grand Canyon and test one another's explanations against the lay of the land itself. The ability to go back to nature—again and again—to test explanations, rework them, and retest them is one of the strengths of science and a major contributor to the amount of empirical knowledge exponentially amassed over the past three hundred years. To some, though, the open-endedness of science is a weakness: they seek definite answers that will never change. For them, Ashley Montagu's (1984: 9) definition of science as "truth without certainty" is insufficient; for others, it is science's greatest strength.

Just as attempts to explain the natural world through revelation cause friction with scientists, so materialist scientists cause friction with religious people when they make statements about the ultimate nature of reality—when they speak as if they speak for science itself. On reflection it should be recognizable that if science has the limited goal of explaining the natural world using natural causes, it lacks the tools to make justifiable statements about whether there is or is not a reality beyond the familiar one of matter and energy. As will be clear in some of the readings to follow, both supporters and deniers of evolution argue erroneously that because science uses methodological naturalism (and quite successfully), science therefore also incorporates philosophical naturalism. Unfortunately, such confusion makes communication about science and religion, or creationism and evolution, more difficult.

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