[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?
John Dewey tried to naturalize religion along these lines in his A Common Faith book and ended up alienating both naturalists and supernaturalists and I don’t see that Latour has come up with a better (more acceptable/useful) model in his recent ventures into speculative theologizing.
Too bad he didn’t instead engage with recent work in anthropology ( see for example: http://luhrmann.net/)
along the lines of his earlier work in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor%E2%80%93network_theory
bill harris says
So who needs Latour when you already have Monty Python?
In the Holy Grail, our ‘good knight’ chops the ‘bad kight’ to pieces and, when further challenged says, “Okay, let’s call it a draw, shall we?”
Once, long ago, religion did try to offer a materially-causal worldview…but badly lost to modern science. So now their ‘object’ of inquiry is ostensibly anything not material-causal. Imagine that!
The real cherry on top is their insistence on ‘spirituality’. Prior to the discovery of metabolism ( the means by which the body generates its own heat), ‘nous’, spiritus’, atman, etc was just that: warm breath that departed the body upon death and drifted upwards to ‘heaven’ as warm gas normally does.
Now, thanks to science, ‘spirit’ has become immaterial–a conveniet epistemological bunker, indeed.
Many QMers are flumoxed at the seemingly too-close relationship between math and physics, Wigner taking the most radically subjective stance. Yet OTH, many others either see no problem, or could care less.
In this sense, simply citing the ones who’ve gone subjective is cocktail party chatter. For example, did ‘Oppie’ offer any reason other than suggesting that Krishnas revelation to Arjuna seemed like an atomic explosion?
My own take on this non-issue is that it’s all Emmy Noether’s fault. ‘See whre letting gurls do science and math will get you?
Didnt some sage already say much the same with the quote that reliogion teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go?
martin knap says
Scince clearly makes us experience presence differently; why separate reality from its representation in such a strict way? For example Darwinian theory certainly changed the way we view ourselves, and, one can hope, for the better. The American Christian right seems to have almost an antinomian stance towards nature, because of the belief in a higher immaterial soul for whom the world is something secondary. New things we learn about ourselves from neuroscience can help us to think better about the (common) good, something with which religion and/or morality shoul be in tune with etc.
Bruno Latour: The Relativist
I tend to roughly agree with Latour that religion, science etc. address different areas of human life / modes of existence, though it is hardly an original idea and I find Latour’s formulation of it pretty unremarkable. I’m less enthusiastic about Latour’s generalizations concerning religious experience, though it might owe something to structuralism of his formative years.
Wayne Schroeder says
Linda–thanks for your presentation here and on the podcast. I found it thoroughly enjoyable due to your ability to focus on the subject and to keep the subjects (the PEL guys) focused. Your style integrates well both knowledge and persons. Yes, Latour is not the sine qua non of the great object/subject divide which gets extended to the science/religion divide. The part I enjoyed was your ability to be self-aware of the difference between values and other aspects of reality by employing some aspects of Latour.
What makes most sense to me is outlined by Deleuze who distinguishes equivalent but distinct divisions between the reality of science and other realities, in his case philosophy and art (religion would be analogic to philosophy). His way of cutting the metaphysical pie is claiming that each is a different way of organizing reality: science creates quantitative theories based on fixed points of reference such as the speed of light which Deleuze calls “functions.” The arts create novel qualitative combinations of sensation and feeling which Deleuze calls “percepts” and “affects.”
And finally, rather than being a timeless pursuit of truth, reason, or universals, Deleuze defines philosophy as the creation of concepts which are not based on identity conditions or propositions, but metaphysical constructions that define a range of thinking which are functional and focused on the problem being raised rather than providing an imagined perfect answer. Religious, political or social values would fall under the same category as philosophy and should be approached with similar skepticism of trying to impose values as “truth” but as functional responses to a problem which continually needs new responses.
I like Latour’s relational focus as a difference between science and religion, but it doesn’t deal directly with the deeper metaphysical issues.
Lynda Walsh says
Sorry this reply is so late–I was out of town for a couple of weeks–but I wanted to say thanks for listening to the podcast and for the cogent critique. And thanks for reminding me about Deleuze on this issue. I haven’t read enough of him–he’s high on my list for sabbatical reading this year.
Billie Pritchett says
This is the first time I’m reading anything about Latour but it does seem to me that science and religion cannot be divied up in those categories you mentioned because people make substantive metaphysical, epistemological, and moral claims on the basis of prior scientific or religious claims. To echo a debate from the most recent PEL episode, either life begins at conception, as the Catholic Church claims, or it doesn’t. And consider other areas. Christ was son of God (or maybe even God himself) or he wasn’t. People go to hell when they die or they don’t. None of these debates fit comfortably into the above categories.
I do not think Latour’s argument brings anything new or profound to this topic. Moreover, this argument excuses religous believers for their false sense of reality. The problem is not that poeple expect religion to describe facts, the problem is that people assume religous scripture as fact. And we all know what assuming makes…
Lynda Walsh says
Hi Travis–Everyone assumes something as the basis for their beliefs about the world, don’t you agree? Even if you’re a scientist, can you go back and independently verify all the claims about the world that you take for granted as you take vaccines, drive your car across bridges, and plan your day by the weather forecast? No, so you assume those facts are solid because of your faith in the scientific method, not because you have somehow empirically or even logically verified them for yourself. Now, I’m not arguing here that the bible is as solid a guide to the natural facts of the world as science is. All I’m just calling into question your implied argument that non-religious people somehow don’t make assumptions in deciding what to believe about the world.
I highly recommend John Caputo’s new book The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Caputo levels a well thought out and well written critique of the Science/Philosophy/Religion divide.
Caputo is relevant as Latour is talking modes and not objects/realms, and his heideggerian/existential/phenomenological imperative captures much that Latour misses by focusing on beliefs, but I would recommend instead for this philosophical site/crowd his:
On Not Knowing Who We Are: Madness, Hermeneutics and the Night of Truth in Foucault
Cognitive by-product theories focus too much on the ‘declarative’ or ontological claims of religion whilst largely ignoring the mechanisms of ‘social coordination’ that are obviously also at play. For some part, the problem for both science and religion relates to what J.L. Austin (How to do things with words) refers to as “the descriptive fallacy”- both magistrates are very guilty of committing this. Our capacity to use language (belief) for general social coordination, interaction, manipulation, influence etc., might well supersede the ‘reality tracking’ capacity, despite the former seeming to have primacy or logically priority to the later. However; this phenomena is rather ubiquitous. We’re all guilty of using a pretense to (or assumption of) reality tracking as a way (mode) of sub-serving social interaction on a quotidian basis: conversations involving putative topics, news, anecdotes, fables, hot and cold gossip, rumour/hearsay, jokes/comedy, conspiracy, propaganda, errant or extreme values, myths, superstition, religion, mysticism, spirituality, misconception, bigotry, ignorance, white lies, sub cultural norms…, much of what counts as philosophy, etc. It’s a group based (pragmatic) strategy that gets you access to all the latent goodies that come with being socially hooked up with people who are supposedly ‘on the same page’. I tend to steer clear of Continental Philosophy, but from what you’ve written, Latour seems to be heading is the right direction.
“•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 ”
Wow, the coverall term is now a synonym for objectivity or principled confidence. In essence, if your a non relativist you are as crazy as a religious fanatic…..Amazing
Lynda Walsh says
I chose that term carefully for Harris and stand by it as I’ll explain in a moment. But in response to your comment, let me first ask you what “objectivity” you see in his writings. Let’s consider the following claim: “The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science” (http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/science-must-destroy-religion)? Where’s the scientific or logical evidence to substantiate that claim? Where’s the careful argumentation? The consideration of previous or opposing work? Off the top of my head, I can think of three major works that oppose Harris on this point (Max Weber, Robert K. Merton, and Simon Schaffer). One might assume that an equal or greater amount of evidence and argumentation would be needed to refute these classic studies. But if you read the piece I linked, you’ll see Harris gives this key point no more than one cleverly written sentence. And I hardly cherry-picked that sentence: You can swing a dead cat in Harris’s writing and hit baldly unsubstantiated claims, logical fallacies, sarcasm, and other demagogic techniques. What’s more, he repeatedly refuses to acknowledge either these problems or the validity of arguments for the humanitarian benefits of religion, and he calls on his followers to “destroy” religion. Looks like a pretty fundamentalist stance to me. And I’m pretty sure it’s calculated. After all, Harris isn’t out to dismantle the Facts/Values problem with a lifetime of careful neuroscientific and philosophical research (if he is, he’d better pick up the pace a bit b/c three journal articles in a decade doesn’t get you tenure, at least not where I work); rather, he makes inflammatory statements about religion to goad American readers to “wake up” (the title of his next book) and reconsider their values. At least in his public persona, he’s a polemicist–what other title should we give him considering his track record?
My line on this debate is quite simple: “no science without conscience.”
Latour = Deepak Chopra of Social Studies = New Age mumbo jumbo.
Terence Blake says
I attended one of his lectures about science & religion, and he illustrated his point by a rhetorical question: “do we ask a judge whether he BELIEVES in the law?” What would that mean anyway? He ACTS according to it, and that is his way of believing… Does he believe that the law is god-given, or universal, or true, or just? That’s besides the point! It’s not about whether we believe in evolution OR god. We ACT in different ways in different contexts, where different ‘truths’ count and where different ‘traditions and rituals are meaningful. Therefore religion is not a BELIEF, according to Latour, but a PRACTICE, a way of doing things that are meaningful to the practitioners in that certain context. This shows even within the natural sciences: what counts as an explanation in biology does not necessarily hold in physics. The reduction of the debate between science or atheism and religion to the question of ‘belief’ in god or dinosaurs is a sign of cultural degeneration.
Tim Booth says
This is all great! And it relates nicely to Austin. How about a PEL ep on Latour???