Cognitive Martyrdom: The Independence Model For The Relationship Between Science And Religion

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One gets science or religion, but not both. Today’s model swings to the other end of the pendulum, flirting with an extreme inclusivity. One gets science and religion, as long as they are properly understood.

In my last post on science/religion entitled “Darwin, Science and Religion,” I discussed Barbour’s conflict model. I ended by noting that the conflict model assumes an excessive exclusiveness. One gets science or religion, but not both. Today’s model swings to the other end of the pendulum, flirting with an extreme inclusivity. One gets science and religion, as long as they are properly understood. Ian Barbour labeled the model: Independence. Now, in case you haven’t noticed, academics generally and philosophers specifically are an odd sort of beast. We take delight in all sorts of intellectual curiosities (some might say perversions). The history of today’s model is one such wonderfully ironic twist of intellectual history that continually brings warmth to the cockles of my heart.

The great-grandfather of Western philosophy, Socrates, was martyred for his steadfast belief in the value of the search for truth. This led Aristotle to supposedly quip that he would not let Athens sin against philosophy twice as he left his beloved Lyceum, fleeing Athens in the wake of political unrest. Now the first point of irony. Fast forward to the 17th century and the Galileo affair. There Aristotle becomes the oppressor as the scholastic Catholic church intellectually martyrs Galileo for his steadfast belief in heliocentrism. Further fast forward the historical timeline and a second irony arises as the Catholic church repents for Galileo while attempting to avoid sinning twice against science. The topic de jour is evolutionary theory, and the strategy of the church is the very strategy that Galileo employed in his defense of heliocentrism. My cockles are burning.

The strategy that Galileo employed and that the Catholic church adopted in its stance toward evolutionary biology is the strategy of independence. In a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Galileo built a case around the notion that scripture is in the business of showing “how to go to heaven, not “how the heavens go.” He made clear that this is the traditional position of the Catholic church, perhaps a third irony, by drawing on such historical giants as St. Augustine and his contemporaries such as Cardinal Baronius. In 1950, Pope Pius III published the encyclical Humani Generis which provided papal blessing to the harmony between evolutionary theory and catholic theology. The harmony is found in the fact that evolutionary theory may help understand much about physical man, but to understand the spirit, we need a special creation of soul and a special set of tools to investigate the soul’s nature, i.e. Theology.

Pope John Paul II, praising Pope Pius III and Galileo, upped the ante of the independence model in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1996). He begins with an affirmation of the biological sciences in their progress toward the physical understanding of man. This affirmation is closely followed by a plea for serious theological and philosophical reflection regarding the spiritual component of man which he expanded to include, “metaphysical knowledge of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience.”

A first point to bring forward concerning my abridged intellectual history is that the Catholic church does not own the intellectual rights to the independence model. Protestants hold this view as regularly as any Catholic. In fact, Karl Barth did much of the theological heavy lifting required for a protestant independence model. Second, the independence model divides science and religion along lines that philosophers often discuss as a fact/value distinction. One way to understand this is that there are two kinds of truths in the world: objective fact and subjective value. The methodology of the sciences is tailored to helping understand the physical world. Empirical observation tempered with creative experimental design teaches us “how the heavens go.” Science trades in objective truth, a world where objects always fall at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. On the other hand, religion relies upon internal reflection of the soul as it is experienced through religious authorities (e.g., ceremonies, sacred texts etc.), “how to go to heaven.” This internal reflection yields a world of purpose and meaning associated with values. What makes a particular piece of art beautiful? Why do I feel guilty when I cheat my neighbor? Why is it that the very good I ought do I do not do? This is a much more personal, subjective, side to truth.

The obvious benefit of independence is in its ability to preserve a space for religion in a scientific world. This is accomplished by clearly delineating the appropriate questions that either science or religion may ask and answer. Thus, the independence model represents an overly inclusive position as it suggests that in the fullness of life, science and religion—facts and values—have their proper place. The problem with this model, however, is a martyrdom of truth. While it makes religion safe for private consumption, it gelds its ability to produce meaningful conversation aimed at truth. When push comes to shove, truth is lost as the independence model reduces to fundamentalism or expands to liberalism.

First is fundamentalism. One may think of fundamentalism as a reductionist move. Within an independence model, all values are reduced to some sort of religious or philosophical authority. Why should I do my taxes? Read the Bible. Who should I marry? Read the Bible. What kind of artwork should I enjoy? Read the Bible. You get the picture. The problem with such a reduction is the fundamental begging of a serious question. What makes your religious authority, and thus value authority, better than mine? Say I’m a secularist with a naturalistic system of value. Why should I care about your value system, when I have a perfectly good value system currently working for me? The cognitive isolation of facts and values required by the independence model leaves me no way to have a genuine conversation about the nature of my values with a person who doesn’t already accept my value scheme. Thus, the fundamentalist approach to independence might evolve into a conflict model as one “fights” for their value scheme. Truth is martyred in that we lose a way to talk about our value schemes, and thus test it against others.

Second is liberalism. Liberalism is an expansionist move. Since we can’t have a single unified value scheme without lapsing into fundamentalism, let’s simply accept all viewpoints. All viewpoints have aspects of truth and they all deserve a voice at the table. We sometimes see this position expressed on car bumpers as “Coexist,” where the idea is something akin to Rodney King’s famous plea, “Can’t we all just get along?” Civically, there is something to this. We need to be able to live with each other without constant fear of violence. However, what practical benefits are gained through such an expansion of value is lost when we want to get down to the truth of the matter. A liberal expression of the independence model rejects the hard task of getting at truth for the practical task of managing civic relationships. After all, we do not want to offend anybody, the lawsuit is too costly! The pathological relationship that our leaders, administrators and HR departments have with political correctness is the result of such liberalism gone wild. Needless to say, it is logically incoherent to assume all positions are true. Someone has to be wrong. Neglecting this fact, again, martyrs truth.

The take-home of all this is that independence alleviates the exclusivity of the conflict model. While the benefits are intuitively agreeable, in actuality, the admission price is much higher than expected. We are either led right back into fundamental conflict or a nauseating political correctness. Either way, we come full circle to the Socratic events kicking off this post – a killing of truth. Barbour’s next category tries to respect the boundaries set by the independence model (fact/value), while permitting mutual interaction between the disciplines of science and religion. Naturally, this model is called Dialogue, and it seeks to weave a path between the extremes of conflict and independence. An examination of its features must wait to a later post.