Science and Religion

I must admit, I have always held some contempt for scholars who suggest something of an eternal conflict between science and religion. One might just as easily or even with more justice say that there is an eternal conflict between science and patriarchy or science and government or science and war and/or peace. For one, when my ancestors were wanderers (and which of our ancestors weren’t?) their very survival depended on a keen grasp of the world around them: weather, seasons, migratory patterns, horticulture, drainage flows, tides, geology. For another, by reducing scientia to only those things that lend themselves to rigorous mathematical modeling — the so-called STEM fields — we in fact severely constrain that can be known, quod non sciatur, to what can be counted, quid est eis numerus. And, yet, I have been wondering why contemporary Christians, Jews, and Muslims who count themselves “traditional” also seem to be enemies of scientia in the broadest sense, knowledge. I have been wondering this even more since reading Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the world: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain (2002). Because, contrary to rather unscientific mischaracterizations of the Middle Ages, it was actually only with the dawning of the modern epoch that those who counted themselves “religious” began to dig in their heels. Why? What was at stake?

Let me suggest that at the outset what poses as religious resistance to science can be understood as a misdirected resistance to capitalism. What do I mean? Review the multiple layers of social, cultural, and practical reason that guided social action prior to the birth of capitalism — prior to the fourteenth century — and you will notice how prolific were the logics infallibly guiding communities to happy outcomes. Capitalism invites communities to interpret all human action in terms of its marginal product, in terms of ΔQ/ΔL, where Q is some quantity of, really, anything or no thing, and where L is some amount of labor, although one could also say that it is some quantum of labor-capital, since the two come to be interchangeable. ΔQ is a change in Q relative to ΔL, a change in L. So what looks initially as though it were considering things, is in fact a ratio between two Δs. The rise of capitalism therefore constitutes a dramatic reduction in permissible logics, permissible ways of knowing, permissible things to know. But why could not modern science simply be added, like a Roman god, to the existing pantheon?

This, in fact, is how many conservative, evangelical Christians who happen to be scientists often view their professional lives, in purely formalistic terms. It is not a worldview so much as it is a technique, a minor deity if you will. But this is not at all how modern science — modern scientia — wishes to be viewed. Knowledge is not “in part.” It is not in “a glass darkly.” Should a corner of the universe fall out of the general theory, it immediately attracts scrutiny. Scientists want to know that corner, as it were, “face to face.” If religion “knows” something that science cannot know through the scientific method, then science can do no more or less than ask for a proper scientific demonstration. Short of a proper scientific demonstration — a demonstration proving scientia, proving knowledge — scientists must conclude that whatever it is people religious claim to “know,” it is not scientia, not knowledge.

One way to approach this hubris is to identify, empirically, all of the forms of knowledge — real knowledge — of water flows, migrations, geography, seasons, etc. that science as private industry pushes to the side or eliminates. So, for example, if there is a Creator of the entire Universe, is this Creator truly in a bunch over whether I interpret the first eleven chapters of Genesis “literally,” whatever that means? Or might this Being not be interested in whether I am destroying some small, insignificant corner of Creation called Earth? Does this Creator have an eternal preference for how and which of his creatures give consensual pleasure to one another? Or does this Creator not care infinitely more whether such pleasure-seeking and granting is consensual?

But let us suppose that capitalism has eliminated both the sign-system and the dictionary that might help me grasp what God wants me to do and be? Read the Bible. It was clearly, transparently, spectacularly, written by and for people who farmed and migrated. What is at stake is not whether I can consult a good commentary or Bible reference book. What is at stake is whether I can even read the signs of the times: floods, earthquakes, fires, extinctions, mass migrations, water levels, seasons, etc. Instead, people religious read their Bible, their Talmud, their Koran, as though it were a science textbook. They read them as though they were commenting on sex or biology or astronomy or free trade or democracy or liberty or free will or . . . or . . . whatever. They know that something is terribly wrong. But what?

But, here is what we know. Science is completely incompetent to tell us what questions we should even ask. It is completely incompetent to tell us what we should do. And it is completely incapable of these sorts of things because, at its most basic level, science can be reduced to ΔQ/ΔL. That is to say, it is entirely competent to measure and show relationships, even causal relationships. But it is completely incapable of telling us why they are important.

People religious know — or, in any case, they suspect — that science does not know these things. And they suspect that science is responsible posing as an answer to these questions. “Well,” people religious say, “I have an answer. It’s in the . . .” Bible, Talmud, Koran . . .

Resistance to science as resistance to capitalism.

But what if we now replace the marginal product with the widest possible variety of ways of grasping our world: aesthetic, ecological, geographic, topographic, stratospheric, planetary, archeological, agricultural, sociological, psychological. That is to say, what if our lives with one another are actually mediated by the stories we tell about these different formations and about the empirical, practical, tests we perform to verify these stories. What if we liberate these spheres from their bondage to ΔQ/ΔL?

In that case we might have to revisit the Islamic Mediterranean of the Middle Ages.

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