2012-04-24

Science, Religion, and a Bud Vase

My interest in philosophy of science began when I was an assistant debate coach, and a graduate student in communication studies, with a focus on argumentation theory. Once you start looking at what makes a good argument, it isn’t long before you’re drawn to look at the way scientists work, how they put together their arguments, what it is that makes science science.

My interest in philosophy of science continued through my graduate school years. I was impressed by the pragmatists' emphasis on purpose – the purpose of science. One Christmas time I was home visiting with my parents. “Science,” I said to my Mom, who had been chemistry and physics graduate student and then professor for longer than I had been alive, “is about control and prediction. Given a certain set of conditions, what will result? We want to be able to predict. Prediction allows us to have certain amount of control. And the theories of science – the atomic theory of matter, the Copernican model of the solar system, the Darwinian theory of evolution – are the large-scale narratives that help all our predictive discoveries hang together in a coherent way so that we can remember them, and be guided to the next experiment to further improve our ability to control and predict.

Mom was thoughtful. "It’s about explanation," she said. "Science wants to explain things."

Well, yes, science is about explanation. The philosopher in me then raises this question: what is explanation? What does it mean to explain? A literature teacher explains James Joyce’s Ulysses. The chess master explains why it’s better not to take the bishop on move 21. A museum docent explains the Van Gogh paintings. You explain to your new friend the idiosyncratic behavior of your old friend. These are all very different, though they all go by the name explanation.

Science offers a sort of explanation. Science helps us make sense of things in one particular way: namely, a way that allows for control and prediction.

Religion helps us make sense of things in a different way. Where science helps us control and predict the universe, religion helps us befriend our world, enter into a relationship of love and value with it. Scientific understanding lets us know what’s going to happen. Religious understanding lets us feel at home in this universe, at peace with it, whatever may happen.

Twenty years after my first excursions into philosophy of science, I was in my final term at divinity school – Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary – taking a class on religion and science. I expressed to the class my opinion: "Science and religion have no more to do with each other than auto mechanics and flower arrangement. They’re both worthwhile enterprises that enrich and assist human life, but we shouldn’t expect there to be any connection between them. There is no connection."

One of my fellow students, piped up: “What about that bud vase in the new Volkswagen beetle?”

Introduced in 1998, the New Beetle comes standard with a small bud vase positioned to the right of the steering wheel. Sometimes cars and flower arrangement do come together. Oh, that bud vase! We humans, we animals, we life forms, bumble around doing various things: now arranging flowers, now building cars, and constantly telling ourselves stories: some of which help us control and predict things, and some of which help us befriend and be aware of connection. And yet: the bud vase. . . .

* * *
This is part 1 of 7 of "Eschatology: Evolution's Arrow"
Next: Part 2: "Squeezing Science for Spiritual Juice"