Saturday, January 2, 2010

Science, religion, and fundamental values

I just finished watching a 2004 video of presentations by three Templeton Prize winners (Ellis, Polikinghorne, and Rolston III), on "Science and Religion Dialogue: Why It Matters."* One thing that interested me about the video is that all three speakers agreed that science could benefit from dialogue with religion, because science cannot talk normatively (only descriptively) about values. This is a common sentiment, but it strikes me as wrong. To be sure, the second part of the claim is mostly (though not entirely) true—science cannot, at least, tell us what our most fundamental values ought to be. However, the fact that science is the wrong kind of enterprise to answer normative questions about fundamental values, does not show that religion is the right kind of enterprise.

I understand the tendency to assume that religion carries authority in the arena of values—it's one of those false "common-sense" beliefs that we adopt just because everyone else says it—but my reaction always is to wonder whether ethics isn't, rather, the domain of philosophy, which at least tries to utilize reason and evidence (religion being subsumed into philosophy on the occasions when it uses those tools). And if there are no answers to be had through philosophy—that is to say, reason and evidence can yield no answers—then I would wonder why anyone would think there is an answer to be had at all.

I presume that the speakers in this video all have reasons, grounded in philosophy, for claiming that religion does have the requisite authority, but they never tell us what those reasons are.** For the rank and file, religion, unfortunately, often functions as an excuse for laziness—one merely waves one's hands and says "faith" or "mystery," as though that explains anything. Presentations such as these, unfortunately, only encourage such laziness.

* As usual, I downloaded it through iTunes and listened to it through VLC player at 2.5x to 3x speed—listening to things at normal speed has become excruciating for me.

** Polkinghorne tries to argue that the intelligibility of the universe is best explained by the existence of a Creator, but this argument is irrelevant to the ethical authority of religion.

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