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

4.3 Comparing different perspectives

“Pondering life at Ross Lake. Chillicothe, OH.” A good complement to pondering life in an E-book. Photo credit: Laura Corcoran

A larger question here is how science and religion are related to reality. Ian Barbour, in his work on reconciling science and religion, describes a four-category typology of the ways we may think science and religion relate to one another: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. [1]

Ian Barbour’s 4 models of the interaction between religion and science:
  • Conflict: Science and religion are in conflict. This view assumes that either science or religion is true while the other is necessarily false, and thus the perspectives of each will be in conflict.
  • Independence: Both science and religion can be true, but in different domains. This view assumes that science and religion focus on different things, so as long as each keeps to its own domain, it can yield truth in that domain (Stephen J Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magesteria would be an example of this view).
  • Dialogue: Science and religion can be conversation partners, as they both contain truth about many things. This view doesn’t assume that science and religion are the same, but that there is enough overlap in what they focus on to mutually inform one another about truths.
  • Integration: The truths of science and religion can be integrated into a larger whole. This view assumes that the best way to understand the world is through an integration of science and religion, because they are complementary modes of knowing the truth about reality.

While there are many implications of these views, for now, the point to note can simply be that “conflict” isn’t the only reasonable option, so if you find yourself in a conversation where the assumption seems to be that conflict between religion and science is the only option, [2] just know that you needn’t be drawn into that fight – -there are other (and probably better) options for understanding and discussing these relations.

It may also be helpful to think about the range of disciplines and fields of knowledge that most universities support, so that we can expand this conversation even more towards its proper bounds, which are larger than we’ve let on so far. The chart below lays out some of the common disciplines across a spectrum of fields in the physical/natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and arts, and religion/ethics. Note that the data and information we gather about things at the far left (physical) end of the spectrum are based on essentially infinitely repeatable and physically-caused phenomena, which can often be reduced to laws. But items of interest at the other end of the spectrum, things like ethics and morals and other things we want to know related to the meaning of life, these are not things that function so much like physically caused things, like billiard balls colliding. So the kinds of things we want to know about across the spectrum differ, as do the methods we use to learn about different types of things. [3]

Spectrum of Disciplines

Natural Sciences Social Sciences Humanities/Arts Religion/Ethics
physics psychology literature theology
math sociology languages ethics
chemistry anthropology philosophy
biology economics classics
ecology civics/poly sci arts, music
history… …history

If you think about all of the various disciplines of knowledge at the university, the spectrum displayed above suggests a range of approaches to understanding just about everything under the sun. One exercise to help think about this further is the following: If you were to chart the following pairs of terms on the spectrum above in terms of where such things are studied, at which end of the spectrum (or where in the middle) would you put each term?

  • facts versus values
  • objective versus subjective
  • “is” versus “ought” (to be)
  • lawful versus unique
  • public versus private
  • real versus symbolic
  • material versus spiritual
  • predictable/repeatable versus unique/unrepeatable
  • daily/mundane/profane versus life- changing/transformative/sacred
  • questions of observables and physical interactions versus questions of meaning, purpose, and morals

There is more overlap and trading on these points than simple dichotomies suggest, but it might be helpful to think about where you’d place each term. Regardless of where we place these different words and phrases, a key point here is that the different knowledge domains along the spectrum use different methods to know about different (and/or similar and/or related) types of things. You don’t set up a controlled experiment to learn about the impacts of child abuse like you might set up an experiment to learn about how one reagent interacts with another in a chemistry lab. And yet, facts and objectivity do play a role all across the spectrum, just as values and subjectivity do. [4] Consider that it’s one thing to know what a physical thing does when it strikes another physical thing – that’s simple physics, and it is ever repeatable. But what is it to know about a moral concept and how that influences a human’s behavior? That’s a different type of thing to know about; it may show tendencies, but will resist pure repeatability due to human free will. [5]

These questions about the properties of knowledge across the spectrum lead us to Barbour’s redefinition of objectivity as “intersubjective testability with commitment to universality.” Barbour notes that data are always theory-laden, and science is subjective and human, though still reliable. So what is sometimes considered to be “objectively” true, might more properly be viewed (particularly for a critical realist like Barbour) as that which the relevant community of experts agrees is reasonable and reliably “true” based on all that we know at any given time, and according to our most rigorous processes of peer review and testing of results and ideas. Surprisingly, this sort of process isn’t entirely dissimilar from how the canon of scripture within Christianity was formed, through a public process of intersubjective testability over several hundred years. These ideas will be more deeply engaged below. In any case, it becomes clear that the pursuit of reliable knowledge and understanding is not only important in “science,” but also in other domains of knowledge.

Another provocative view of what can be known reliably, particularly in religion, is that of Greek Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. Lossky’s notion of full-being knowing as the integration of ratio and intellectus, public and private, treats theology as the publicly or commonly agreed interpretation of people’s private or unrepeatable spiritual experiences. [6] Lossky’s view suggests that this is what leads to orthodoxy, that there’s an intersubjective (hence empirical) agreement in experience across members of a community about real things that have happened to them and what those things mean. If so, that which we call “objective” is more or less what we agree upon as “orthodoxy.” [7]

  1.   From: Four Views of Science and Religion, p. 7-38 (Ch 1) in Barbour, I.G. (2000). When Science Meets Religion (Harper SanFrancisco: SanFrancisco). Another overview is found in Hallanger, N.J. (2012). “Ian G. Barbour,” p. 600-610 in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, First Edition, Ed. by J.B. Stump and A.G. Padgett. A good discussion of these four is also found here: 
  2. Some signs that a conversation is caught in these narrow confines is when someone says something like: “well, everyone knows…” or “well, religion has always been at odds with science…” or other overblown generalizations.
  3.   As Richard Baer was fond of saying: when you want to know how physical particles behave under different conditions, you subject them to those conditions and carefully observe the results. If, however, you are curious to know how torture affects the mental well-being of children, you don't subject children to torture and then carefully observe and record the results (unless you are a sociopath). Instead, we use thought experiments (and sometimes books and movies serve as types of thought experiments to help us think though  and see or test what might happen in different social conditions), or we examine what has happened in various cultures. 
  4. Keep in mind that many famous scientific discoveries have been made by accident or were aided by dreams or various and sundry serendipities – creative leaps don’t only come from “purely objective” number crunching.
  5.  “Free will” is a debated concept. For many, free will seems one of the more obvious traits of human reality, but others argue that it is not a proper entity. From a purely materialistic worldview, which believes all things to be reducible to physical or chemical causes, free will must be viewed as an illusion; this belief is not shared by all (and perhaps not by most).
  6.   Vladamir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976
  7. Lossky, from The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church: “Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a person working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone. Outside the truth kept by the whole Church personal experience would be deprived of all certainty, of all objectivity. It would be a mingling of truth and of falsehood, of reality and of illusion: ‘mysticism’ in the bad sense of the word. On the other hand, the teaching of the Church would have no hold on souls if it did not in some degree express an inner experience of truth, granted in different measure to each one of the faithful. There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism…” (p.8-9).


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