Gimme Back My Words! Science, Religion, and Vocabulary, Part II

By Adam Frank | February 18, 2008 12:37 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.

Yesterday, I argued that going beyond the traditional science v. religion debate would require finding an appropriate vocabulary. If we really want a different path beyond the usual “My Religion v. Your Scientific Results” brawl, we need to appropriate wider, older meaning for words. The trick will be to have an ear for the resonance, the poetry inherent in those words that can be of use to us. Then we have to use them, creatively, to rise above the particular meanings pinned on them by our particular historical moment.

Both Sean Carroll and Charles Schmidt argued yesterday that you have to look at the meaning most people would attach to a word—the dictionary meaning, that is. It’s a good point and a relevant point, but for me it’s too narrow. It’s true that in science, we often throw out words that have “failed” (phlogiston is one example). But for the really powerful terms and ideas, we often keep the words and shift their meanings. This was, of course, Thomas Kuhn’s point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Space, time, mass, and energy are words that we scientists have kept in our tool chests even as their meanings changed radically.

Imagine a nineteenth century physicist googling “Space.” The definition he would get would be Newton’s. There would be no mention of deformable manifolds or a unified space-time. In science, and in the broader culture, it’s our job to find the words that can do the heavy lifting we need them to do. When it comes to science and religion, the word “sacred,” with its long history of use in different religions, and, most importantly, its pivotal place in the scholarship of Religious Studies, fits the bill. That is why scientists like Stuart Kauffman, Ursula Goodenough, and myself have come to lean on it.

There is something in this term “sacred” that will allow us to go beyond the tired creationism v. evolution debate and speak to why we do science, and to why all of us respond to the beauty of its broader worldview. It’s not just about science, it’s about science in its very human context.

Every generation changes the direction and content of words. To miss how the sacred resonates with something ancient in us because we fear it can only imply the supernatural is to miss its opportunity. The sacred has relevance for what science calls us to in our activity and our attitude.

I understand the apprehension that some feel in adopting these kinds of terms. But I argue that there is something true in them. They have real content that speaks to our lived experience in science and in science’s relation to culture. It is our job to harness words like “sacred,” and through scholarship and discussion infuse them with broader meanings that speak to the unique experiences our moment in history calls us too. We live in a scientific age, but the sense of the sacred has not left us. We only forgot to call it by its rightful name.

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

Comments (30)

  1. Charles Schmidt

    Yes it is true that words change there meaning for many people but not all. As an example when I was much younger when my grandmother said that some one was queer she meant he was strange or when someone was gay they were happy. If she were here today she would still have the same meaning for those and other words that have changed and on more than one occasion I have said that something was queer and my meaning was lost. So if we wish to broaden a definition it must be understood when someone comes across it the first time and know what is meant by it. To have an understanding of a word in just a small group does not do for the rest of the world.

  2. I very much appreciate what you are saying but the expansion of meaning of words never changes in any other way. It is not as if there a universal commision which decides that as of June 1 all humans can only use a word in a certain way. Its organic and as I will try and write about tomorrow “sacred” is a term which has been broadly explored in the Religious Studies literature.

  3. Charles Schmidt

    You are right in that no commission tells us how to use words but the use of the word and it’s meaning must be accepted by a majority of the people and that is easer to say than to have happen. The word “sacred” to some will remain with the same meaning no matter what is said or done and the use of it by science or in scientific context will mean to the that science is moving to a God orientated view which would not be true.

    It is like the story about a Priest and Rabbi having been in an accident the Priest thinks he see the Rabbi make the sign of the cross. The Priest asked the Rabbi have you converted and the Rabbi replies no, why? Well you made the sign of the cross and the reply is no I was checking my spectacles, testacies, watch and wallet.

    The same idea applies to words if we expect it to mean something and it does not we are at a minimum confused or it does not seem reasonable to us. To change a meaning or add to one there must be consent by a large number of people from all walks of life.

  4. Mike Gottschalk

    I struggle with this from a religious side of understanding. I can’t cite the historical and human Jesus for his insight in the same way that you can cite Darwin for his. This frustrates me. Christians attribute any force of Jesus’ insights to a belief about his nature rather than his apt perception of something in reality; the perception is lost by only seeing the person. I believe that if Jesus perceived something in reality that is pertinent, than it should be available for us to see as well- regardless of his nature. We didn’t adopt Darwin’s perceptions because of who Darwin was, we adopted them because once he pointed them out, we could perceive them as well.

    I don’t see you trying to be religious. I do see you perceiving something important that lies beyond the experience of common words and uses. If an existing concept fit, you would use it; so would I. When it comes to your choosing the word sacred, I’m curious as to how other possible words failed to convey your perceptions?

  5. Mike Gottschalk

    @ Charles Schmidt: Charles, I’m curious as to how a math symbol or function spreads and becomes adopted in science culture. Of course a word like sacred carries baggage, but I imagine that a resistance still exists in adopting a new math thought even without such baggage. Any thoughts?

  6. Charles Schmidt

    @ Mike Gottschalk: Mike, It would seem that if the new symbol conveyed a new concept it would take hold quickly if it was used however, if it did not and one was in place that said basically the same thing how could anyone be persuaded to change? The old thing about this is the way it has always been done or in this case written as in a symbol it must be proven to be better. That is the way that I see it, of course I could be wrong in my view, I am married and have children so I am used to being wrong on occasion. What Do you think?

  7. PeterS

    I can understand that as scientists and philosophers that we need to be careful and accurate with our terminology so Sean’s comments are understandable.
    But we are in danger of emasculating the discussion; to misquote Waldo Emerson, “a foolish precision is the hobgoblin of little minds”.
    Why?
    1) the subject area is particularly rich in varied meaning so that undue precision excludes too much, blinding us to a rich world of understanding.
    2) we are adept at inferring the correct meaning from the stage in which the discussion is set.
    3) the local context further explains the meaning.
    As it turns out, most people are rather good at 2 and 3.
    Of course this gives room for the polemicists amongst us to seize on unfavourable interpretations; too bad, polemicists doggedly adhere to their agenda anyway.
    Adam Frank has carefully set the stage and context so I think the intended audience will have little difficulty inferring the correct meanings.

  8. Mike Gottschalk

    @Charles: In deciding my own involvement with Christ’s perceptions, I ask whether or not his perceptions are more accurately conveyed in terms of contemporary perception and language; in other words, are his ideas more like seeds and since their publishing, have become better understood and expressed in something like psychology. As you noted, why change a word if the underlying reference is adequately conveyed through it.

    I’d argue that the adoption of a new symbol may not always be seamless. If we’re doing something beyond changing window treatments, introducing a new symbol implies adding a new concept or new understanding of an existing concept. Where concepts intersect with our sense of identity, we can be quite reluctant to even consider its change.

    On a “magic of dialogue” level, I was poked by your “…if it was used.” Usefulness. It’s occurring to me that besides denoting utility, usefulness implies our judgement of relevance to something I want or need. The sign = is useful to me as I’m currently considering its deeper meanings and its ability to illuminate something I’m interested in. The sign for cosine holds no such interest for me though, and math formulas have never been a source of entertainment for me.

    So it seems what we’re uncovering here, is that the spread of a word like sacred will depend also on its usefulness to a group.

  9. Mike Gottschalk

    @PeterS: I like your observations Peter, and I join you in noting Adam’s accomplishment; note the change in mood and tone of communication between The Sullen and the current posts.

    During a Leno show awhile back, James Carville the political consultant, was asked by Leno what he thought about all the ‘right wing’ talking heads and their audiences. Carville replied, “They’re kinda like drunks leanin against a light pole at night; they’re not lookin for illumination as much as they’re lookin for support”.

    I think that in our population, there are people who only want to be “pole leaners,” and use science or religion not to see better, but to confirm what they are comfortable seeing.

    As to my own involvement, I would be quite comfortable using the lower case g for the word god to denote the talking of an idea and not a formal figure of religious experience or reality itself. Further, I would also be comfortable in citing Jesus, to refer to him as christ with a lower c to denote the human person; Christ is a title and not a name, but since he doesn’t have a last name like Bohm, I could try to accomplish this feel with christ. What do you think?

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