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

4.4 Similar Structures: Theory and Data in Science, Belief and Experience in Religion

Before going further, it will be helpful to clear up how the sort of religious language we’ve used above could be applied to science, and Ian Barbour’s comparison of the structures and methods of religion and science is helpful in that regard (refer to handout.) Barbour describes how science works – how theory and data lead to what we know in science; he also develops a parallel description of how belief and experience lead to what we know in religion.

The Structure of Science

Barbour’s flow diagram (in the handout linked above and outlined below) highlights how concepts and theories influence observation and lead to observation and data (via a deductive path); meanwhile, inductively, based on what we observe, we use imagination, analogies, and models to come up with theories and explanations. The inductive view of Bacon and Mill involved generating theories by generalizing patterns of data, but Barbour notes that theories involve concepts and hypotheses not found in the data and can refer to things not directly observable. Barbour asserts that all data are theory-laden: our choice of phenomena to study, our choice of variables, the form of our questions that determine our answers, the process of observation which alters observables – all of these relate back to theory. Similarly, Thomas Kuhn [1] said data depends on existing paradigms, and paradigms imply the kinds of questions that will be fruitful and the types of explanations that are to be sought.

Barbour notes that accepted paradigms are harder to change or overthrow than particular theories. So, science uses four criteria for assessing theories:

  1. Agreement with data and predictive power: the theory matches the data of what is observed and provides predictive power for subsequent data gathering,
  2. Coherence: the theory is consistent with other theories, integrates with them, and yields understanding; simplicity is also a virtue of coherent theories,
  3. Scope: the theory is comprehensive and generalizable, and
  4. Fertility: the theory leads to further developments or can provide a framework for future research.

Barbour notes that these criteria relate to three Western views of truth (each with their own drawbacks):

  1. Correspondence view: a proposition is true if it corresponds with reality – theories agree with data (and yet we can’t always tell what is real; we don’t have total capacity to directly discern or access reality),
  2. Coherence view: a proposition is true if it’s comprehensive (coherent and generalizable) and internally coherent (and yet reality seems more paradoxical and less logical than rationalists assume, as demonstrated by chaos theory, complexity theory, and flux – (which show that even if you know all the inputs in a complex system like life on Earth, you can’t know or predict all the outputs)[2]),
  3. Pragmatic view: a proposition is true if it works in practice (and yet a false idea could still “work” in certain contexts).

Barbour concludes that the best definition of truth is “correspondence with reality.” Because reality is not entirely accessible to us, the criteria of truth must include the four criteria listed above (agreement with data, coherence, scope, fertility). Taken together, Barbour’s favored view is a form of realism, a critical realism because of the combination of criteria that are used. (Section 4.6 below will delve more deeply into what Barbour means by “realism” as distinct from positivism, idealism, and instrumentalism.)

Barbour adds that science does not lead to complete certainty – its conclusions are always incomplete, tentative, and subject to revision. Theories change in time, but science offers reliable procedures for testing and evaluating theories through a complex set of criteria. That is how Barbour characterizes the structure and process of science. How he characterizes religion has some surprising parallels.

The Structure of Religion

Barbour charts a similar set of relations for religious knowledge. In religious experience, there are concepts and beliefs, which function like theories do in science. These beliefs influence experience and interpretation, in connection with religious experience, which is then expressed and packaged and stored and reviewed and replayed in story and ritual. These experiences, stories and rituals are like data for religion, which engage and lead to imagination, analogies, and models, from which concepts and beliefs are derived.

By this account, Barbour says that “data” for religion are religious experience, story and ritual (for example, some key stories for Christianity are the creation of the world, covenant with Israel, and the life of Christ; for Buddhism, the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha under the Bodhi Tree; for Judaism, Passover and the exodus from Egypt). Unsurprisingly, experimental testing of religious beliefs is problematic as religious-spiritual experiences are not particularly amenable to scientific approaches for testing data (thus the criteria below become critical). Barbour also notes that the influence of religious beliefs on the interpretation of data is very strong – more so in religion than in science, though this influence is akin to that of paradigms in science. With religion, we’d say that paradigms are extraordinarily resistant to change, and data is much more theory-laden than in science.

To develop further on religious “data,” Barbour lists six distinctive types of religious-spiritual experience, understood as accessible to individual experience, but in the context of the community:

  1. Numinous experience of the holy – more characteristic of a Western transcendent God; usually interpreted in personal models,
  2. Mystical experience of unity – more Eastern, implying a union with all; usually interpreted in personal models,
  3. Transformative experience of reorientation,
  4. Courage in facing suffering and death,
  5. Moral experience of obligation,
  6. Experience of order and creativity in the world.

Given the broad human experience of these sorts of things — which can’t necessarily be repeated or predicted so are not amenable to scientific method in typical experimental ways — assessment of beliefs comes from within a paradigm, and reliability in the cultures of religious community therefore calls for the same four criteria as above for science:

  1. Agreement with data: in the case of religion, this is very theory laden, but beliefs should nonetheless accord with religious experiences,
  2. Coherence: new religious experiences, beliefs, or interpretations are evaluated by the intersubjective judgement of the community, which protects against individualism and arbitrariness,
  3. Scope: a religious belief should help interpret life and social reality, though Barbour says it should also accord with science, and
  4. Fertility: does a religious belief advance basic understanding and virtue? Does transformation result? Is healing affected? Is character improved? Are peace and love generated?

In Barbour’s framework, the modes of knowing in science and religion are not so dissimilar, and if this is true, we might expect that a comprehensive approach to knowledge about the world would draw from both. We might also suspect (hearkening back to Kaufman) that science would be the preferred mode for knowing about nature as wilderness, while religion would have more to say about cosmology and the purpose of life. And in any case, these understandings would be supportive of Barbour’s notion of dialogue, or perhaps even integration, between science and religion. Indeed, the last couple of decades have seen more and more dialogue between science and religion about the environment, and an increase in integrative approaches.

These more complementary patterns differ markedly from what held sway 50 years ago when Lynn White was writing about religion and the environment. Undoubtedly the project of modernity privileged ratio, observables, empiricism, and “science,” across all realms of knowledge, which has led to some imbalances. E.F. Schumacher put it this way (also 50 years ago) in Small is Beautiful:

“The present danger,” says Viktor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist of unshakable sanity, “does not really lie in the loss of universality on the part of the scientist, but rather in his pretence and claim of totality… What we have to deplore therefore is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalising.” [3] After many centuries of theological imperialism, we have now had three centuries of an ever more aggressive “scientific imperialism,” and the result is a degree of bewilderment and disorientation, particularly among the young, which can at any moment lead to the collapse of our civilization. “The true nihilism of today,” says Dr. Frankl, “is reductionism… Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness; today nihilism is camouflaged as nothing-but-ness. Human phenomena are thus turned into mere epiphenomena.” [4]

The notion of “specialists generalising” as a bad thing is not meant to discourage inductive thinking as a path to the creation of theories – it’s a reference to those who take what they know at a physical level of reality, and try to impose it onto the whole cosmos and on larger questions of meaning. It’s an example of the semantic slippage that Kaufman might warn us against – of gaining small knowledge about nature as wilderness, and thinking then that it automatically applies to nature as cosmos. This is misinterpreting the forest because of the trees, or, more precisely, misinterpreting cosmology because of the trees. To invoke the James Gustave “Gus” Speth quote we discussed in chapter one: to make progress in sustainability, we don’t need just more science and policy, we need cultural and spiritual transformation, and that is not so much a thing for the realm of science, but rather falls in the domain of religion. Speth sees science and religion as complementary forces, in contrast to the modern, rationalist turn that would privilege science as the arbiter of all and as having the final authority on all subjects. [5]

This discussion of religion and science may be challenging. If Barbour’s perspective holds true, it might even point toward something of a paradigm shift in the way that science is understood in relation to religion. For our purposes, the point has been to examine how science and religion operate, and how we arrive at understanding via science and religion. In so doing, we might notice that the contemporary science-religion conversation is still sometimes truncated and obstructed by attitudes, paradigms, and perspectives that don’t well match the material. If we allow an anti-science or anti-religion view to set the frame, our discussion will not be very productive. But if we take the time to notice the similar structures of science and religion, and the complementary forms of knowledge that they produce, our prospects for understanding deepen.

  1.   See Kuhn, T.S. (2012) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50th Anniversary Edition (University of Chicago Press: Chicago).
  2. See also: White, P.S. (2006). “Disturbance, the Flux of Nature, and Environmental Ethics at the Multipatch Scale”, pp. 176-198 in David M. Lodge and Christopher Hamlin, Eds,  Religion and the New Ecology (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, IN)
  3.   This brings to mind the problem of semantic slippage raised by Kaufman between nature and wilderness and cosmos. But we also might note that “science” was once a much broader term than it is today; the ancient sense of “science” included knowledge about ethics as well as about the physical universe. So the impulse to think about wilderness and cosmos in relation to one another is ancient, and seemingly quite natural.
  4. From E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful
  5. We will note in chapter 8 and when reading Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ that Francis explicitly acknowledges the limits of religion, stating that religion does not have the final say in matters of the environment, and must turn to science as a partner.


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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.