[From Lynda Walsh]
One of the threads we touched on in the Oppenheimer and the Rhetoric of Science podcast was the relationship between science and religion. It came up because Oppenheimer frequently mused on this relationship and because the main argument of my book is that the political role that science advisers now play is a mutated version of the role originally designated for religious prophets in democratic societies.
In the podcast and in some discussion that had to be edited for time we ran through the dominant configurations of the science–religion relationship:
- Expansive materialism (aka “quantum mysticism”): suggested by physicists such as Oppenheimer, Schrödinger, and Freeman Dyson, this position holds that our notion of materialism must be expanded to accommodate the effect of an observer. With this definition as a basis, science and religion are cast as two “windows” on reality; they won’t necessary produce the same views (and thus, the same realities), but they are presented as having essentially the same object and as being equally valid perspectives on it.
- NOMA (“Non-Overlapping Magisteria” aka the “is/ought” or “facts/values” divide): Here Stephen Jay Gould (also Einstein, Max Weber, Tolstoy, and others) suggested that the proper purview of science was the facts of life, while religion handled the questions of how best to live and the only problem remaining was how to maintain a civil relationship between the two.
- Fundamentalism: We didn’t discuss this in much depth, but there are of course factions that take either science or religion as the “correct” guide to democratic life and reject the other as epistemologically and politically deficient. (Here's looking at you, Sam Harris 😉
Personally, I’ve always bounced back and forth between the first two options. I was raised as a Christian—by practicing scientists—and so it always seemed intuitive that there must be some unifying perspective to reconcile any seeming conflicts between science and religion: chalk one up for expansive materialism. At the same time, witnessing the ugly battles in the public sphere over evolution and creation, stem cell research, etc., I've thought, well, here are a lot of smart, honest people who simply do not and will not agree on a religious framework for public values so perhaps we should try to keep scientific work, political work and religious work as separate as we can: jot a mark in the NOMA column. But then in my research for the book, I saw how impossible it’s been, historically speaking, to maintain NOMA….
Enter Bruno Latour: Latour has recently offered a new, intriguing paradigm that challenges traditional views of the relationship between science and religion. He argues in effect that there is no proper relationship between science and religion. He makes this argument at length in his new book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013) but more succinctly in this essay. Latour believes we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what science and religion do and this misunderstanding has led us to falsely oppose these modes of thinking and being. Latour explains that the scientific mode was developed to access phenomena beyond the grasp of our senses—viruses, solar systems, DNA, climate patterns, gravity, etc. But it turns out that we never grasp these phenomena through science; all science does is create longer and longer chains of mediators—images, sentences, equations, sound files, instrument read-outs—referring to the phenomena. The longer, richer, and more stable these chains of reference, the more solid our knowledge of the phenomena can rightly be said to be. But at no point does science make these phenomena present to us—it actually absents us from them, one mediator at a time. The religious mode, on the other hand, is all about the experience of presence. Like a profession of love, the religious act continually and intimately re-knit humans to themselves and to each other. Instead of referential inscriptions, the mediators of religion are “angels”—beings, texts, objects, and experiences that catalyze our transformation from lost to found, from lost to saved, from absent to present.
So, in Latour’s new paradigm, science and religion are modes with diverse objects, purposes, and functions. Why, then, have we misunderstood them as competing for the same prize? Mainly because we've misunderstood religion as being about things “out there,” which is the purview of science. Since the Enlightenment we've attempted to use the mediators of science to grasp religious phenomena (e.g., carbon-dating the Shroud of Turin, sending expeditions up Mt. Ararat looking for Noah’s Ark, testing the efficacy of prayer in a double-blind experiment). This scientizing of religion has in turn sparked public debates over its validity as a mode of existence on the grounds that the phenomena of religion do not “exist.” But Latour rejects this argument as nonsensical: religious phenomena don’t “exist” in the same way that quarks “exist”; rather, religious phenomena emerge during the transformative re-presentation of ourselves to ourselves via the mediators of scripture, ritual, and art. Latour distributes the blame for the scientizing of religion in political life evenly to scientific and religious advocates. For that matter, he breaks politics out as a separate mode, no more related to science than religion is; morality is another independent mode frequently running in tandem with the religious mode but absorbed in its own concerns, which are the maintenance of ethical relationships among beings through the action of “scruples” or moments of self-questioning.
I’m still thinking through the consequences of Latour’s paradigm for my research and my personal politics. But I’m compelled by his argument that we have generated a false conflict between religion and science in politics by failing to acknowledge the full range of possible ontologies—both for humans and non-humans. In fact, I saw some of the same confusion that Latour saw in the science–religion debates crop up in my historical data on prophecy: people kept expecting prophets to give them certain knowledge of the future; but what the prophets did instead was to goad petitioners to “know thyself,” as the inscription read at the Delphic oracle. Sensitivity to these ontological switches might make for what Latour calls better "diplomacy" or civil negotiation among modes of existence in politics.
What do you think? Do you buy Latour’s argument that we've crucially mis-framed the relationship between science and religion? Have you encountered a way of relating these modes of existence in public life that we didn't discuss and that you think works?