Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part VI

By Adam Frank | February 10, 2008 11:58 pm

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

No one can emerge from a consideration of religion without thanking William James.
—Ursula Goodenough

Last week we poked around trying to define the contours of the traditional debate on science and religion. I used terms like the Sullen, the Silly, and the Snarky to lay out the ways we have become conditioned to seeing Science and the domains human spirituality discussed in public. These debates often turn around familiar poles of evidence vs. scripture or faith vs. reason. The problem with the traditional debate, especially its creationism/intelligent design vs. evolution version, is that it sucks all the air out of the room. The debate has been going on for so long and with such vehemence that it appears nothing else could possibly be said on the subject. Today I want to begin discussing alternative approaches that don’t orbit the burnt-out sun of the creationism vs. atheism debate.

The first step is to recognize that some very talented people have tread some of this ground before. The need to focus on faith in the religion and science debate seems to be taken, ironically, as an article of faith. This, however, ignores some vibrant lines of scholarship on religion and human spirituality over the last century. In particular, it ignores William James.

William James was one of the founders of modern psychology and also an influential philosopher, which contributed to him being known as “that adorable genius” during his time. Though religion was an essential part of his childhood, as an adult he turned to science as the basis for his investigations. But as he reached middle age, his interest shifted to more philosophical issues, including religion. He was suspicious of academic theology, saying the systematic “block universes” they created were sterile creations of the Mind and never touched the real importance of spiritual feeling. So James stayed away from grand overarching theories that tried explaining everything under a single rubric. From this perspective he wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, a tremendously influential book that forms a staple of religious studies classes. In it James offers his now famous definition of religion:

Religion… shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude; so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine… The problem I have set myself is a hard one: … to defend … “experience” against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of religious life.

That turn from theology to experience irrevocably alters the character of the inquiry and the nature of questions James asks us to address.

“Divine” is a word that many scientists blanch at, but James gives considerable latitude in his definition of the term. Most importantly he does not force it into the concept of God in the Abrahamic tradition:

A chance of controversy comes up over the word divine if we take the definition in too narrow a sense. There are systems of thought which the world calls religious and yet do not positively assume a God. Buddhism is in this case… Accordingly, when in our definition of religion when we speak of an individual’s relation to what he considers the divine, we must interpret the divine very broadly…

What matters for James is not a person’s experience of God in any scripturally defined sense. Instead, religious experience provides the individual sense of an encounter with the source of the sacred. It is an encounter with the sacred character of the world as it is experienced. That experience may be interpreted in the context of a particular religious tradition but it need not be. James, that adorable genius, thereby gets to stick another feather in his cap: for providing us with a first step in breaking out of the confines of the traditional Science vs. Religion debate.

So what happens if we turn away from doctrine, dogma, and creed? Where do we end up if we turn away from the fetish of Results? What if we turn instead to the irreducible domains of our own experience? What happens to the discussion of Science and Religion then?

Next post in the series: Gimmie Back My Words! The Sacred in Science and Life

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Comments (27)

  1. Steen

    I don’t think the literalists will accept any interpretation of religion other than “every word in the Bible as written.”

    I see no conflict ever between Science and philosophy, or between Science and non-creationist religion. Even the lauded number of people in the US “believing” in creationism will, at closer scrutiny, often accept a significant number of Evolution ideas and reject a lot of the literalists’ arguments (It is all in how the question is asked, and controversial outcomes sell better).

    So the attempt at merging the mainstream with Science is already done in all but the vocabulary already.

    Which brings us right back to the fringe, the literalists. There is no way around them. Without them, no conflict. With them, the battle is eternal. And as there are no common concerns between them and Science, there also is no common ground. They would never accept William James, and their moral fervor makes marginalization impossible.

  2. PeterS

    My first exposure to your ideas here was in CS Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, where he discusses the concept of the numinous. Like you he believes religion starts with a personal experience of the sacred, an ability we all seemingly possess, as evidenced by the extraordinarily voluminous literature on religious experience.
    You ask the question ‘What happens to the discussion of Science and Religion then?’
    Well here’s my short take on it.
    Imagine a God that created the universe at the instant of the Big Bang, science and the laws of nature are the instruments of his creation and nature is the expression of his creation. The universe is set in motion according to the laws of nature in such a way that further direct intervention is not needed. He has seeded the universe with a nearly infinite number of possible outcomes such that somewhere, eventually there will be a fruitful outcome, the whole point of his creation. It is conceivable of course that He selectively intervenes but that is a very controversial subject, I don’t believe he does nor do I think there is any evidence that he does. In this view of creation God is shrouded by the singularity and just as we cannot directly apprehend anything before the Big Bang neither can we ever directly apprehend God. So Dawkins cannot prove that God does not exist and nor can we prove the converse.
    But we can look for clues, science provides some important clues (but never proof since it is unprovable), Paul Davies, in The Mind of God and The Goldilocks Enigma does an admirable job of elucidating the clues.
    The other place we look for clues, as you describe here, is in our own experience of the sacred or the numinous. We may also see the clues in our moral sense, our sense of beauty and aesthetics and our capacity for joy, love and compassion. The extraordinary cognitive abilities of this hairless, mutant ape is another clue.

    I am going to stretch an analogy rather far by saying that taken together these clues to the sacred together make up a kind of spiritual cosmic microwave background radiation. And this is why the human species has instinctively apprehended God. In response to that apprehension our species has created elaborate structures of religions and theology. These structures are neither right nor wrong. They reflect the different ways different peoples relate their experience of the sacred to their cultures. Unfortunately they tend to become dogmatic imperatives but this is the fault of people and not religion.

  3. Robert Johnson

    @Prof. Frank. So to break out of the traditional debate, we separate the idea of “the existence of the divine” from religion (dogma, doctrine, damnation, etc). Religion is our interpretation of the divine, but certainly not the divine itself. Like the difference between a windows shortcut and the .exe file. Erase the shortcut if it is giving you problems, but the .exe file will remain. If we do that, aren’t we nullifying the debate? Because the debate is termed as science vs. religion?

    @at Steen and PeterS. So what then is the pragmatic response? It would seem we are stuck in a chicken and egg game, or what my German hosts would call a Teufelskreis. The literalists (who I still don’t think are at the same level of suicide bombing) aren’t going to be open to discussion as long as they are under attack and they are. The polarized wing of the scientific community (especially the kind which requires public research money) will also not stand down as long as they are under attack. So who has to blink first?

  4. PeterS

    @Robert, I think it doesn’t matter. The fundamentalists’ response to the sacred is just one of many responses that are culturally determined. It is not whether the response is right or wrong that matters. What matters is that they have responded to the sacred and internalised it in a way that makes sense to them in their cultural milieu. Rather than debate it with them we should study at it as an interesting phenomena.
    As for the other side I suspect that their strong reaction is provoked by a deep discomfort with their own internal awareness of the numinous which seems to them to be a contradiction of their scientific ethos. Whatever people may say about the scientific method, it is not a world free from strident debate and and strong, combative views. So that some should react in a Dawkins fashion is entirely to be expected.

    I think that Dr Frank is leading us away from the science/religion debate (the superstructure) to the experience of the sacred (the foundation) in the belief that understanding the foundation is more important than the superstructure we erect upon it.

  5. Robert Johnson

    @PeterS. Well that’s fascinating Peter. I’m all for an interesting phenomenon here and there, and I don’t care much for the idea of right and wrong that you have introduced here either, but, I am also not talking about debating the same old debates with them, whoever they are.

    So I would reject studying fundamentalism/creationism as a phenomenon, because I am not an anthropologist, interested, or into wasting large swaths of time trying to figure out why people are sending my daughter home from sunday school with a picture of Jesus riding a T-Rex in to the temple to chase out the money lenders. I know why they are doing it. I don’t find it facsinating. And the other side is equally unattractive. There just isn’t an excuse for people to go all Dawkins on each other.

    The fact remains that the polarities are engaged in a skirmish that is part of a greater cultural conflict among the cultural elite. I think the point of discussing the fact that there appears to be a conflict of science vs. religion, would imply that maybe that conflict is not producing positive results, and that a way around the skirmishers or ending the skirmish might be a good thing.

  6. This is a great line of dialogue. When it comes to the creationists I am arguing that no real discussion will be possible and its just not a fruitful way to go. The same can be said about the ardent atheists who are vehement in their dismissal of all forms of human spiritual aspiration. The Sullen as I call them are a real threat to the scientific enterprise in this country and those battles need to be fought but by turning our discussion in a new direction we have the possibility of opening new avenues of thought which can engage thoughtful non-believers, believers and all inbetween. At least that is the hope.

  7. Mike Gottschalk

    @Robert and the rest, I singled you out Robert as you mentioned your daughter and I would like to use the both of you in an analogy that I’m working with. One I hope will help illuminate our context better.

    Imagine sitting in the car with your daughter of three. “Daddy” she says, ” how does a car work?” Do you launch into a Gottschalk styled response consisting of thermodynamics and torque, or do you merely say something like, “well sweetheart, you just stick in the key here and it goes, bpprrooom!”
    And satisfied, she perkly says, “oh, o.k.” Now, if your daughter was still satisfied with her then age appropriate answer at the age of nineteen, we would something’s wrong.

    I’ve been using this analogy when I talk with other Christians with a hope that, when it comes to reconsidering deeply held ideas about God, their evolution is a natural thing; from this blog however, I’ve pushed the analogy further to incorporate science: Is there anyone in this world who knows more than a college sophomore?

    If the adage, “the more we know, the more we don’t know” is true, than I think we could argue that our willingness and capacity to be ignorant could be a measure of our intelligence and maturity- both spiritually and scientifically….

  8. Mike Gottschalk

    @Robert. I agree with your description, ” separating religion from the divine”. Not only have I applied this in my conversation with the religious, I’ve been applying it to the naturalist as well. In the naturalist’s case I might ask, has anyone actually seen life itself? Or have we only observed the effects of life? Nature is the result of life expressed isn’t it?

  9. This is nub. One can and has to separate religion or religious experience from the divine – especially ideas (theories) of the divine and its relation to the natural world of natural science.

  10. Mike Gottschalk

    @Adam Frank. Kierkegaard, who coined coined the phrase, “leap of faith” used this phrase to describe the experience of an, “adult level of faith in God”, as like a man standing at the edge of a cliff, peering over it’s edge and seeing only black. What is one actually leaping into? For me, this moment came when I realized that God for me was in fact, my theology of God. I shuddered during my ensuing leap, that centered on this recognition (revelation?) along with my surrender into a God being the God that is, regardless of my dogma.

    Other animals live comfortably in nature pursuing their kinds of sustenance; Somehow, we need more- something of another kind. In a universe as large as the human’s, we seek scales of reality that feel like they fit within our size of control; our scaled realities get made into all kinds of dogma. I just don’t know that science readily recognizes it’s own vulnerability to dogmatism. Something I think we need to appreciate as we open ourselves to experience the sacred, is that changing one’s scale, or dogma, can indeed feel like Kierkegaard’s apt description: one that describes more than a religious phenomenon however- this one’s uniquely human.

    I no longer make something like Christ or Science the ends of my pursuit. For me, since my own “leap”, they’ve become my beginnings in pursuing life itself.

    Thanks for all your work in providing such a place for all this dialogue; as cumbersome as blog commenting can be, this short time of dialogue has already expanded me.

  11. Mike Gottschalk

    @Adam. You’ll have to explain nub.

    I agree with you in that science doesn’t get useful scientific knowledge from such a question. But such a question can further open a person’s eyes to the mystery we live in. We don’t see “god”. Likewise, we don’t see actual “life” either. In both cases, we can only see their effects. What are the effects of “god”? Whatever they are, they don’t show themselves in the same manner as the effects of “life” found in the natural world.

    As to the, nature as effect of life idea, I’ll stand on Feynmann. (sp) He himself groused that no one really understands energy, or can explain it- though it has been described quite well.

  12. David White

    Greetings all,

    Science and faith might coexist beautifully were it not for political/religious extremism.

    The creationism/ID lobby seeks to establish their sectarian interpretation of faith over physical evidence by promoting as science an astonishing religious error which actually contradicts the Bible!

    This teaching claims that evolution by natural processes, including what both creationists and ID’ers continually label “blind chance” (random occurrence), could only be “accidental”, and therefore godless. In this they agree with the atheist position.

    Why this current marriage of convenience, agreeing with atheism against the Bible, in order to promote a religious agenda? Might it be because this heretical tactic permits them to deny the possibility of guided evolution through chance?

    This startling and contradictory machination is carefully explained here:

    Intelligent Design Rules Out God’s Sovereignty Over Chance

    “What proponents of so-called intelligent design have cynically omitted in their polemic is that according to Biblical tradition, chance has always been considered God’s choice as well.”

  13. Robert Johnson

    @David. I don’t think it’s the extremism. There have always been extremists. It’s a matter of how many there are and who is listening. The amount of extremists/ism might seem to be rising but it isn’t. In Fiorina’s “The myth of a Polarized America” ( ) you can see a decent report that it’s not America that is polarized, but the political and cultural elites.

    Then @ everyone else:

    The question arises from Prof. Frank’s view and answers that debating with the ID/Creationists and (implied) the Dawkins Gang (because they are just as extreme, entrenched and uwilling to debate, like it or not) is something to simply be bypassed.

    If we bypass the extremists then we can get down to the nitty gritty so to speak, but, what if no one (who matters) is listening because middle America (as one example) is concerned about every day life and the polarized elements are just having too good a time to disengag)? What then?

  14. Mike Gottschalk

    @ Robert. Your point about middle America and the polarized elements has perplexed me for awhile. I don’t think the polarized elements enjoy truth so much as they enjoy feeling the “largeness” engendered from fighting a war: an engrandizing of “us” against “them”. Perhaps they derive a feeling of personal solidity by having a “them” to stand up to. They need adult sized and battle grade play pens.

    As to middle America. It’s as if we’ve become amphibious and keep adjusting ourselves to the temperature. I wonder if it has to do with confusion over what is really real? Are we machines? super animals? blind results of inevitable forces? In light of these choices, what else can I aspire to, other than being consumer? In fact, if you listen to the message- one that in some way asserts that God is out to make you a “winner”- put forth by the churches with the most popularity, it pretty much substantiates our current brand of “consumerism”. In our culture, we no longer forge meaning as individual persons in a life that in our bones, feels worth while; we now buy our identities off the rack; identities feverishly invented by marketing departments in the form of brands and sold to us at prices so cheap that we can throw them away to buy new ones.

    In the effort to correct our abuses of subjectivity by marginalizing it to a level that we could call violent, our ability to be persons of meaning is as flaccid as a popped balloon. (I could go “Jersey” with Adam Frank here and involve him in this analogy, but I’ll refrain….) Yet, doesn’t our unique capacity to be subjective form the basis to be rich unique individuals? People summed only as “results” and grouped by buying patterns don’t have the power that people summed as true subjects have. Perhaps to be a little more colorful in pushing this point, I might argue that American culture differs Communist culture only at a level of consumer goods. Other wise, we share in the same resulting stupor.

    This doesn’t answer your question yet, but I think it adds illumination to the problem you’re spotting in your question. Which in the past, really wouldn’t be a problem- at least in a true democracy: to each his own. Today, I would argue that the consuming of goods as a reflexive replacement for a lost subjective experience is fueling the demise of our planet.

    The ‘World is Flat’ author, (I’m blanking his name- damn) sees our solution to our pending demise in making green technology, “China Cheap”. I guess I’m wondering instead, how do we become people who value something we might call, “elegant living” as a matter of course? Your thoughts?

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