Monday, October 14, 2013

Describing the Elephant: Different Ways of Knowing

So far on this blog, I have had way too much fun defining science and showing how it relates to the rest of reality, including religion. And hopefully I’ve established that many view science and religion as compatible, even overlapping. In my own view, for example, science and religion overlap extensively, because I accept any truth as part of my religion. 

“But Alisse,” you must be thinking, “science and religion really are different systems, even if they sometimes overlap in topic.” And you are right. The way we “know” something in science is generally not the same way we “know” something in religion-- they are different ways of knowing.

Lest anyone misunderstand my little diagrams, let me hasten to clarify something: Remember that science is defined by its method, so any truth within the “science” circle can be obtained through the scientific method. And obviously, most religious knowledge is not obtained that way. When science and religion do converge on the same reality or arrive at the same conclusion, they have generally taken different routes to get there. I am not suggesting a “non-overlapping methods” scheme similar to Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria," because many religions (including mine) welcome truth obtained through the scientific method-- hence the overlap. But because religion is not limited to that method, it can ask questions of a different sort. Thus, as we discuss any given truth from a religious perspective, we may move freely in and out of the overlap with science, depending on the kinds of questions we are asking at the moment. (I will have lots more to say later about what happens when scientists move in and out of the boundary around science-- there’s a right and a wrong way to do that. Stay tuned!)

Perhaps an easier way to think about all of this is with the old “blind men and the elephant” analogy. Sometimes science and religion take hold on and describe entirely different parts of reality, much as the blind men grabbing onto different parts of the elephant. But sometimes the difference is in how they describe the same part of reality. Science uses its hands to describe the physical features of the elephant; religion can accept the testimony of the hands and use its heart to understand the purpose and meaning of the elephant. 

I’m going to use Kenneth R. Miller again, because he puts things so well:
“ allows believer and nonbeliever alike to investigate the natural world through a common lens of observation, experiment, and theory. The ability of science to transcend cultural, political, and even religious differences is part of its genius, part of its value as a way of knowing. This leads some to conclude that the world as seen by science is devoid of meaning and absent of purpose. It is not. What it does mean is that our human tendencies to assign meaning and value must transcend science, and ultimately must come from outside of it.” (Miller 1999:267-268)

It is my belief that when we allow ourselves to know reality in both ways simultaneously, our overall view and understanding is greatly enriched. The only problem arises when the two ways of knowing appear to contradict each other. I will not pretend that this never happens, but it is my experience that it happens far less often than is commonly thought. And when it does happen, it inevitably means that our understanding is incomplete in one or both arenas. Ultimately, reality (or truth) cannot contradict itself. We need only be patient, and in time, our various ways of knowing-- if they are trustworthy-- will be congruent.

The question we must ask in the meantime, then, is: how trustworthy are these two ways of knowing? Let’s attack the easiest one first and explore how much faith we should have in science… next time

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