Is “science and religion” one thing, two things or many? And when is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet?

Jumbo jet

The Western Christian/secular view of modern science is not necessarily the norm. When is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet? This was a question that came up in our opening class of the year for our new intake MSc students in Science and Religion, discussing the views of the Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

The theme of the class was the very topic of “Science and Religion” – What is it? Is there a single agreed definition, covering a suitably well-defined set of topics? Looking at some of the scholarly literature on the topic you might be forgiven for thinking that the answer should be “yes” to those questions, but I maintain that the scope of the field is much more complex, and that “no” is a much more honest answer.

Consider this (rather lengthy) quote from Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his piece entitled “Islam and Science” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006, pp.73-4):

“Instead of criticizing the implicit value system inherent in modern science from the Islamic point of view, many of the champions of the blind emulation of modern science and technology claim that it is value-free…[M]odern science, like any other science, is based on a particular value system and a specific world-view rooted in specific assumptions concerning the nature of physical reality…Modern science must be studied in its philosophical foundations from the Islamic point of view, in order to reveal for Muslims exactly what the value system is upon which it is based and how this value system opposes, complements, or threatens the Islamic value system, which for Muslims, comes from God…Even a 747 Boeing jet is not global simply because it is now landing in Samoa as well as Tokyo, Beijing as well as Islamabad or Tehran. Rather, it is the result of a technology derived from a particular view of man’s relationship with the forces of nature and the environment, as well as an understanding of man himself, a view which many forces in the modern or even post-modern West are trying to globalize, by eliminating other views of the world of nature and man’s relationship to it, including of course, the Islamic one. Modern science is a direct challenge to other world-views, including the Islamic, which claims knowledge of reality based on not reason alone, but also on revelation and inspiration.”

I have put the most challenging part in bold. In class, this passage caused considerable puzzlement among some of us, while others agreed with its strong criticism of the imperialising tendencies of science. To so many of us brought up in the Western world, modern science is “value-free”; it just is, as the physical world just is. And yet, according to the above quote, science (especially in technological manifestations like the Jumbo jet), is very definitely not “value-free”. A Jumbo jet might work as well in Tokyo as it does in Tehran, but according to Nasr it carries a heavy cultural baggage along the way.

It’s a commonplace in the postmodern view to acknowledge cultural baggage, so let’s explore this a little more by asking: how important is this cultural baggage in science? Should we acknowledge our contexts and presuppositions when we come to science, in the same way we might in the humanities? Is it meaningful, for instance, to speak of a feminist physics or a Catholic chemistry? Would a Buddhist biology be different in any fundamental respect from a Belgian biology? These qualifications and questions sound absurd to some degree, especially to Western ears. But the point Nasr seems to be raising is that there are contexts in which they really matter, particularly when the science is seen to stand against a theistic view of the world.

Islam, like Christianity, teaches that nature is comprehensible by virtue of its origin from the Creator. Science has a divine underpinning in this view; it works not because nature is natural but because it is ‘creation’. If this is correct (and clearly it’s one of the most hotly debated topics around), then ‘science and religion’ as a discipline is not two distinct things (and still less is it two distinct things at war with each other), but it’s one thing – ‘religious science’, or ‘scientific religion’.

5 thoughts on “Is “science and religion” one thing, two things or many? And when is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet?

  1. Your Grace,

    The highlighted quote seems to confuse science and technology and then haphazardly tack it all on to religion.

    A 747 uses scientific understanding to design and create a device, which is technology not science. Science, has methods rather than values, although you can decide whether you wish to ascribe method=value. You may also decide whether you wish to believe that science is a “deity-given” ability.

    There are theories or empirical models derived from experiments that allow prediction that a plane with the characteristics of a 747 will fly “globally” with a high degree of predictability and safety when subject to a given set of parameters (none of them dependent on culture or religion).

    The 747 would not be in the sky if it were not for a culture, which may not be global, which within it a group had assembled the will, knowledge, and finance to put it all together, and culture(s) that found it worthwhile to pay to fly around in it. Those things are cultural. The fact that it can fly is not cultural or religious, but due to universal physical phenomena. The scientific understanding of those phenomena may be refined, but the fact that it can fly will not. Nor will the fact that scientific methods got it to fly.

    You can view science from the viewpoint of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism, etc., etc, and find it wanting in moral value, or in contradiction to views you may wish were true. But where and when you were born in the world and who your parents were tells us with a high degree of predictability tells us which religious perspectives you will use; therefore, what “global” basis does any particular religious criticism of science yield?

    Final sentence, first part: “Rather, it is the result of a technology derived from a particular view of man’s relationship with the forces of nature and the environment, as well as an understanding of man himself,” True. Second part, “a view which many forces in the modern or even post-modern West are trying to globalize, by eliminating other views of the world of nature and man’s relationship to it, including of course, the Islamic one.” Pure generic judgement, and nothing to do with science per se but tacked on as if it did.

    And which unique viewpoint is “the Islamic _one_”, please?

    I think Avicenna had something to say on this matter.

    A wretched sinner.

    • Ian, I agree with pretty much everything you say. It seems a confused and unnecessarily provocative piece to me, but I have sympathies with (what I take to be his point) about the Muslim desire for science to acknowledge its metaphysical presuppositions.

      • P.S. The author is based at George Washington University in Washington DC, so presumably he has abundant access to Western science and technology, including Jumbo jets.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Great post. ‘Wretched sinner’ has done a neat job of addressing the issues in his reply to the somewhat lopsided theistic article. I guess the author’s actual theistic gripe may have been prompted by the tendency of some modern scientists to speak ultra vires by denying God. Is God dead – indeed? Really? However the answer to this is not to insist on a kind of personal objectivity.

    I believe Faith of religion and the Reason of science are separate activities – affective and cognitive respectively – but overlap at the point of evidence. Both are based on shared values and commitment to the discovery of truth. For rational science to declare dogmatically on metaphysics is to transgress beyond its empirical field, but for affective religion to deny simple empirical demonstrations is to speak ultra vires also.

    The present Religion vs. Science dialogue seems rather confused, and has people from both camps declaring way too much, but proving way, way too little.

    The key issues for further dialogue to my mind are two; Cognitive and Affective: Methodical objectivity and Intellectual humility. Methodical objectivity is essential to discover objective reality in the facts, and Intellectual Humility is essential to limiting our conclusions to their appropriate sphere. Both are necessary to progress while respecting the commitments of each.

    Kind regards
    Morry

    • Thanks Morry, for a helpful response pointing to some of the issues that the science-religion field ought to think more deeply about. You may be interested to know (f you didn’t already) that the Templeton Foundation is keen on promoting humility as a robust principle in the dialogue.

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