Chapter 4: Some Points from Epistemology and Philosophy of Science To Help Us Think

4.1 Preview

“Faith and Science standing together to advocate for all creation and community-led climate solutions. Birmingham, Alabama.” Photo credit: Michael Malcolm

Religion-Environment discussions don’t always take the step that we intend in this chapter, which is to consider the underlying meanings and paradigms that contextualize these topics and the ways that we typically understand and assess them. This may seem like a simple step, but examining our own context can be elusive, because often what and how we already think seems as basic (and as taken for granted) as the air we breathe. My belief is that we can arrive at a better understanding by critically assessing our underlying paradigms than if these remain unexamined. Because this approach [1] is uncommon and nuanced (and possibly perplexing), this preview provides hints as to the direction we are heading in this chapter.

We’ll start by thinking about what it means to know anything in the first place. Science and knowledge are closely linked, and we’ll critique some of the ways moderns have thought about knowledge by examining Richard Baer’s “Our Need to Control,” which criticizes an overemphasis on knowledge as power and control. We’ll also question whether preferences for “objectivity” in our claims about knowledge might reveal a control-based approach to nature. If so, such rationalistic views – that make human reason the measure of all things – might be what got us into this “ecologic” mess, more than the religious variables that Lynn White blamed. [2]

We will look at different modes of knowing – particularly at the more objective, rational, repeatable, scientific modes and methods of knowing (what Baer relates to ratio), as well as the more intuitive, subjective, relational, spiritual, mystical, emotional/affective modes and methods of knowing (intellectus). We will discuss how these forms of knowledge relate to one another in a complementary way that provides a platform for fruitful and respectful dialogue. We will note several models of how religion and science might interact. Our approach assumes that dialogue and some amount of integration between science and religion is both possible and appropriate, both for environmental professionals, college students studying religion and environment at a land grant university, and people of faith in Ohio and beyond. We will also respect the assumption that operating in this realm does not threaten our respect for scientific and religious experts alike. [3]

As for epistemology – after discussing what we think it means to “know” something, either in science or religion (or both), we will want to talk about the ways in which we think knowledge is relevant. Will we assume that what we decide we “know” about religion and the environment is a form of absolute knowledge – knowledge that is definitely right as opposed to other things that are wrong? Will it be a type of relative knowledge, where what we know will be compelling to us, but other things might be compelling to others? Allen Wood’s article on “Relativism” explores these questions, and compares relativism to skepticism, fallibilism, and other options. In the end, we will discuss ways to redefine knowledge and “objectivity” so as to proceed with productive common ground between religious and scientific knowledge and without being derailed by premature dismissals of views that challenge us or getting pulled into knee-jerk arguments that uncritically insist on marginalizing either science or religion. [4] We will proceed from there with “eyes wide open” about what we are talking about and the challenges of talking about these subjects. Hopefully by the end of this chapter, the table will have been set for our proper investigation into religion and environmental values in America.

Belief systems addressed in future chapters:

Religion Belief
Buddhism The teachings of the Buddha can alleviate suffering and bring about enlightenment.
Christianity Believes Jesus Christ to be the Messiah and ultimate revelation of God, as documented in the Bible. Includes Protestants and Catholics.
Hinduism A person’s karma will determine their fortune in this life or the next. Each Hindu may choose to worship different gods.
Islam The words revealed to the Prophet Mohammad in the Quran are the definitive revelation of God.
Judaism Reveres the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and traditions of commentary.
Scientism Rational/scientific knowledge and understanding provides the answer to all of life’s meaningful questions

  1.  The basic tenets of this approach are based on the philosophical and epistemological framework that Richard Baer developed while teaching NR407 “Religion, Ethics and the Environment” at Cornell University from 1974-2005. It is my view that this framework might have provided a better starting point for much contemporary religion and ecology scholarship and education, but Baer’s work has not been appreciated sufficiently to cause such a ripple effect. While this book is dedicated to Richard Baer, this chapter in particular is indebted to his teaching and vision.
  2.  Alister McGrath’s book, “The Re-enchantment of Nature,” makes a compelling case that rationalistic criticisms of religion as being the source of modern problems may in some cases be a projection of blame – McGrath argues that modern science and enlightenment rationality, not religion, have been most responsible for disenchanting the universe (or at least the Western view of the universe). This dismissal of religious/spiritual beliefs leaves humans in control of all meaning, and removes any theoretical limits on human behavior beyond what humans can enforce on themselves. This scientific, rationalistic turn, argues McGrath, objectifies nature as something to be controlled with indifference, whereas a religious, or more enchanted view of reality, would cast humans in a more humble role.  McGrath (who holds PhDs in biochemistry and Christian theology) therefore advocates for the re-enchantment of nature as a way to undo the damage of an over-emphasis on rationalistic control of nature and knowledge, and he encourages a posture of awe and wonder in the face of the gift of creation.
  3.  This is not to say that all scientists and religious people respect each other - indeed, some people perceive or assume great tension between religion and science; part of the point of this chapter is to demonstrate that assuming such a conflict is not the only (and certainly not the best) option for how intelligent people can approach religion and the environment, and we will decidedly not privilege perspectives that do not respect either science or religion and faith as starting points for respectful dialogue. (I will also acknowledge that religion has regrettably been (and will likely continue to be) the cause of great harm in some people’s lives, though it has also been and will continue to be a source of great inspiration, meaning and peace for others. Even so, that religions and spirituality contain valuable resources for creation care and might help humans live sustainably, regeneratively, and peacefully on Earth is the raison dềtre for this book.)
  4.  Some readers may immediately be thinking: “why would anyone want to proceed with such unhelpful, dialogue-killing reactions?” Unfortunately, such reactions have been quite common in religion-science dialogue in the past, so it is important to become more aware of such barriers.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.