Scientific Knowledge is Objective Knowledge – But What is Religious Knowledge?

Scientific Knowledge is Objective Knowledge – But What is Religious Knowledge?

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Dialog has become a magic concept in the modern world. This corresponds to the appraisal of an interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach in science 1. This paper points to a relation between two areas of dialog, between science and religion on the one hand and interreligious dialog on the other hand. The underlying idea is that a clarification of the relation between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge helps to understand more deeply the characteristics of religion and specifically to support dialog among religions.

Scientific knowledge is objective knowledge. Objectivity is at least an ideal of science. Religious knowledge, on the other hand, appears to be much more subjective and arbitrary. Already in ancient Greece some philosophers expressed a criticism of religion related to its arbitrariness. Xenophane of Colophon wrote: “Ethiopians claim that their Gods are snub-nosed and black, Thracians claim that they have blue eyes and red hair.”2 “… If cattle and horse and lion had hands to paint and sculpture with them like humans, the horses would paint horse-like Gods, the cattle would paint cattle-like Gods … ”3 The development of science was closely connected with the ideal of objectivity. Yet the ancient Greek philosophers recognized that the objective reality of science does not simply reveal itself through the senses. Democritus and Leucippus, the ancient atomists, distinguished between “legitimate knowledge”, i.e. science, and “bastard knowledge”, i.e. sense perception.

Religions have responded in various ways to the challenge of science throughout the centuries. The different approaches can roughly be classified on a scale between two extremes. The one extreme is to shape religious knowledge following the model of science, i.e. to transfer the basic epistemological concepts of science to theology. To take “religious experience” as a starting point of religion is a more moderate form of this position, which is popular today. The other extreme is to abandon all epistemological claims of religion. Religion is reduced to myths and rituals which help one to cope with life.

This paper intends to point to a way between these extremal positions. It will be shown that scientific objectivity does not simply refer to a “true” image of reality, but rather it perceives and creates this reality in a particular way through a process of objectification. Objectivity and truth are therefore not identical. Religion can be orientated towards truth without striving for objectivity in the scientific way. In order to clarify the characteristic of religious knowledge as different from scientific knowledge it is helpful to analyze scientific objective knowledge as the result of a process of objectification that has several dimensions.

Theory and Pragmatics

The priority of theory is the first dimension of objectification. Aristotle wrote:

“With a view to action experience seems in no respect inferior to art [Greek: ‘theoria’], and men of experience succeed even better than those who have theory without experience. (…) But yet we think that knowledge and understanding belong to art [Greek: ‘theoria’] rather than to experience, and we suppose artists [‘theorists’] to be wiser than men of experience (which implies that Wisdom depends in all cases rather on knowledge); and this because the former know the cause, but the latter do not. For men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know why, while the others know the ‘why’ and the cause.”4

This priority of theory with respect to knowledge corresponds to the hierarchical structure of society: “Hence we think also that the masterworkers in each craft are more honorable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers, because they know the causes of the things that are done.”5

Yet these “masterworkers” participate in the process of production. The true value of theory is only reached when theorists are completely free from pragmatic concerns: “… as more arts were invented, and some were directed to the necessities of life, others to recreation, the inventors of the latter were naturally always regarded as wiser than the inventors of the former, because their branches of knowledge did not aim at utility. Hence when all such inventions were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered, and first in the places where men first began to have leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were founded in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.”6

Among physicists one can often find an informal hierarchy putting theorists above the experimentalists. Ian Hacking talks about “class and caste”7 refering to this hierarchy that has evolved in the 20th century.

Objective knowledge rises above the level of pragmatics. The limitation of this approach can be recognized by taking, for example, the ongoing crisis in the development of string theories. These perfectly elegant and attractive theories have been developed and refined for nearly 30 years. They are supposed to explain the most basic qualities of matter, space and time on a unified basis. But physicists encounter more and more complexities in these theories and they cannot find any criteria to decide among the many string theories of this kind that have been developed. Some skeptical voices have always pointed out that no experimental confirmations of string theory have ever been found and that even no  experimental tests appear to be feasible. These skeptics have for a long time been denounced as pessimists. Last year, in 2006, the tides have turned. In August 2006 an article in “Time Magazine” cited two books 8 of well known physicists criticizing string theory and suddenly the skeptics dare to articulate their objections.

This example points to a common characteristic of empirical science: Theories are not derived from experiments as is often supposed. Theories have to be constructed. Karl Popper’s discussion of the problem of induction showed that empirical data can never logically confirm, but only disprove theories. He writes:

“There is a reality behind the world as it appears to us, possibly a many-layered reality, of which the appearances are the outermost layers. What the great scientist does is boldly to guess, daringly to conjecture, what these inner realities are like. This is akin to mythmaking. (Historically we can trace back the ideas of Newton via Anaximander to Hesiod, and the ideas of Einstein via Faraday, Boscovich, Leibniz, and Descartes to Aristotle and Parmenides.) The boldness can be gauged by the distance between the world of appearance and the conjectured reality, the explanatory hypotheses.”9

Popper’s statement displays that believing in theories is based on a strong trust in the power of human reason. The construction of theories is based on this trust.

Not all share this trust in human reason. The various concepts of constructivism in philosophy of science are examples of counter positions. Methodological constructivism understands the meaning of theories as derived from their pragmatical functions. The purpose of theories is according to Peter Janich “the linguistic organization and ordering of knowledge in order to make communication among scientists clear and economical and to support teaching and cultivation of tradition.”10 Following this argument, theories are not intended to contribute to an understanding of the world but rather they are instruments for communication.

Radical constructivism deepens the critique of the cognitive status of theories. It argues that theories have no relation to reality at all but only serve for technical applications.11 Cultural and social constructivism stress that scientific knowledge is always shaped by culture and reflects social limitations.12

To summarize: Theory is supposed to rise above pragmatics in science, but the philosophy of science shows that this is only an ideal. It is a question of trust in the power of human reasoning.

When it comes to religious knowledge it appears to be questionable whether the abstraction of theory from pragmatics can be considered to be an ideal. Buddhism is very outspoken in its critique of this ideal:

“Accordingly, Malunkyaputta, bear always in mind I have not elucidated, Malunkyaputta, that the world is eternal; I have not elucidated that the world is not eternal; I have not elucidated that the world finite; I have not elucidated that the world infinite; …; I have not elucidated that the saint exists after death; I have not elucidated that the saint does not exist after death; (…) And why, Malunkyaputta, have I not elucidated this? Because,  Malunkyaputta, this profits not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of religion, nor tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, the supernatural faculties, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana (…) And what,  Malunkyaputta, have I elucidated? Misery,  Malunkyaputta, have I elucidated; the origin of misery have I elucidated; the cessation of misery have I elucidated; and the path leading to the cessation of misery have I elucidated. And why,  Malunkyaputta, have I elucidated this? Because,  Malunkyaputta, this does profit, has to do with the fundamentals of religion, and tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana …”13

These are supposed to be the Buddha’s words. In Mahayana Buddhism and most explicitly in Madhyamika philosophy ultimate and absolute truth is considered to be ineffable and opposed to conventional truth. Conventional truth, which includes all concrete scientific and religious teaching, is named truth because of its pragmatic relation to absolute truth. Its purpose is to lead the path to the cognition of absolute truth.

In Christianity the relation of truth and pragmatics is the topic of theological controversies. Creeds and dogmas arise from ritual worship. How deeply are they rooted in worship? In the Theology of Liberation the liberating effect of creeds is understood to be a basic criterion for truth, as opposed to an abstract understanding of truth. But the correct correlation between liberation and truth is controversial. A biblical root of this discussion is John 8,32: “The truth will set you free.”

Generality and Particularity

The importance of theory is rooted in the fact that science is ony interested in general laws, “laws of nature”. All particular experimental observations gain their importance for science only when they can be generalized. Only observation that can be reproduced, in time and by different scientists or groups of scientists is of importance.

In the last section of this paper Popper’s contributions on induction have been mentioned. Particular observations, no matter how many they may be, can never justify a general law. In the philosophy of science the meaning of the laws of nature has been debated for a long time, without a conclusive result. The relevant question is, whether the laws of nature are only descriptions of observed regularities (“regularity view”) or whether they correspond to ontological relations of causality (“ontological view”).14 This extensive discussion shows that the question about the status of the laws of nature cannot be solved by science. There is no generally convincing justification for the generalization of laws of nature and for the believe that this generalization provides knowledge beyond merely summarizing individual observations, though generalization is basic to science. Generalization can therefore be regarded as a specific form that is necessary for scientific knowledge.

When it comes to religious knowledge it is questionable if generalization in the scientific way is an ideal at all. Many religious traditions relate to individual founders (Mose, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed). The significance of these founders is considered differently, but their singular experience, expressed in writings and stories around their life, is fundamental for the tradition. And not only the experience, but the founder as individual person plays a key role, most definitely in Christianity, but also in other religions.

This lack of generalization creates problems when a particular religion justifies its truth in the context of other religions or to non-believers. The philosophy of science makes this problem more understandable. The lack of generalization does not imply that religious knowledge is less true, but only that generalization is closely linked to a certain perspective and form of knowledge, i.e. scientific knowledge.

Knowledge and interpretation

The origin of philosophy and science in Greece was expressed as setting up “logos” against myth. Science strives for truth beyond subjective interpretation. The most basic meaning of this claim is to give priority to “primary qualities” as opposed to “secondary qualities” (in John Locke’s terminology). This extends further to the ideal of abstaining in empirical science from all value judgments and prejudices. Tradition and personal authority play a much less significant role in science as compared to the humanities. While philosophers keep reading the original texts of Plato and Kant, no student of physics will nowadays study the theory of relativity based on the texts of Einstein.

The cultural approach of constructivism (which was cited above) criticizes this claim of science as an ideological pretense. In reality one can find many influences of cultural and individual prejudices and conditions on the course of research. This was most prominently pointed out by Thomas Kuhn 15, in at least what concerns the “scientific revolutions”. Nevertheless science claims that it will finally come to a truth that has been cleansed from all these influences.
Irrespective of the validity of the allegation that this is an ideological idealization, science cannot free itself from interpretation, when it goes beyond a mere description and prediction, but tries to understand the world. The claim to abstain from value judgments and prejudices leads in fact very often to a blindness when it comes to the question concerning one’s weltanschauung (world view). Scientists tend to attribute the same objectivity to their interpretations as to their scientific theories. Frequently the slow or abrupt shift from science to philosophical or theological statements is hardly perceivable.

Examples can be found in many popular books of astronomers or other ph sicists on cosmology. Stephan Hawking wrote in his famous book “A brief history of time”16: “But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge [this is what Hawking suggests], it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”. This statement contains obviously a shift from scientific theory to a theological interpretation. This shift would have to be mediated by a philosophical reflection which is completely neglected in the whole book.

It could be an attractive conclusion to abstain completely from interpretation and to keep to hard science. But it is not simply arbitrariness when physicists get engaged in interpretations of their theories. Science without interpretation contributes nothing to an understanding of the world. Only interpretation creates weltanschauung (world views). The problem does not lie in the fact that science is connected to interpretation, but in the way how the transfer from science to interpretation tends to be made.

Religious knowledge is never free from interpretation in the same way as science is. Myth and dogma come along mutually interconnected. The term “narrative theology” expresses in Christianity the insight that the religious teaching is transmitted more by narrating and listening to narrations than by a systematic teaching. In all religions the dogmatic teaching is connected to a transmission of holy texts, pictures, various stories and sayings and writings of religious leaders of past and present, who’s interpretations are treated with respect.

Religious knowledge depends therefore much more on tradition and authority than science. But this does not imply irrationality. It appears that also in science the personal authority of an author is more important when it comes to questions of interpretation than when he discusses questions of science. The scientific community accepts books on the scientific weltanschauung (world view) from authors like  Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg,  Erwin Schrödinger, Richard Feynman, Konrad Lorenz, Manfred Eigen, Stephan Hawking and Steven Weinberg with respect and attention, whereas unknown authors are left aside. This is striking since these scientists have gained authority not through competence in the field of the interpretation of science, and often they are not competent, but only by their contributions to science itself.

When it concerns interpretation the relevance of personal authority is not arbitrary. In fact it cannot be avoided. When it comes to religious knowledge it is important to realize its dependence on tradition. And this tradition cannot be separated from the persons who transmit the tradition, much less than in science.

Information and communication

A key concept of modern science is “information”. Claude Shannon is considered the founder of information theory, originating from a project that was supposed to support the optimization of the transfer of information. Based on this theory the amount of information becomes a measurable quantity. The basic equation of Shannon’s theory has an equivalent in physics when it comes to the concept of entropy in the field of thermodynamics. These equations have been discovered independently, but it was shown that thermodynamics can be justified based on information theory.

But the triumphal procession of the concept of information in science originated only with computer technology and even more with modern biology, microbiology and the scientific approaches to understand life and “complexity”.

In microbiology the concept of information has been introduced in relation to the function of the DNA in the cell and the organism. The duplication and transmission of the DNA can be understood as a transfer of information. Transcription and translation of this information results in the production of proteins which build up the organism and control its functions.

For a long time it was seriously doubted whether life can be comprehended by science. It was claimed that a special life force is working in all creatures. In the field of science itself this question could be formulated in the terminology of thermodynamics: How can living creatures escape the general tendency of the increase of entropy and create ordered structures? This seems to contradict the second law of thermodynamics which says that entropy can never decrease in a closed system,  corresponding roughly to the statement that order cannot increase. The physicist Erwin Schrödinger presented the view of modern science 17: Living creatures profit from a strong flow of energy in their environment (i.e. the solar radiation on earth) which is connected to a strong increase of entropy that allows living organisms to reduce entropy in their body.

But the scientific concept of life got completed only when the theory of self organization was developed. This theory relies on the concept of complexity. In order to comprehend complexity the concept of information plays again a fundamental role. Complexity can be defined in the way that complex systems contain more information than less complex systems. But detailed studies showed that this definition is quite complex itself and leads to more and more differentiations of the concept of information 18.

Corresponding to the concept of self organization for life, the mind (especially the human mind) has to be analyzed as an information processing  system. The computer becomes the model that is used to understand thinking.

It is not an exaggeration to talk about a paradigm of information that includes several fields of science. This paradigm takes information as an objective quantity that can be measured in abstraction from the sender and receiver and the context, which all play a fundamental role in real communication.

The objective concept of information is questionable. The problems of the attempts to objectify the concept of complexity and even to make complexity a measurable quantity reveal the problem. In fact all these attempts, which measure a sort of information content, lead away from the intuitive understanding of complexity which refers to elements interacting in a “complex”. This meaning of complexity vanishes to the extent as complexity becomes measurable and objectified. And information in general stands always in a context which gets lost in the process of objectification.

Referring to religious teachings and their transmission an objective concept of information is even more questionable. How much information can be found in an chassidic story? The same text can reveal a life turning truth to somebody in a specific situation or it can just be a story about some irrelevant event in the 18th century which might even be not be “true” in an historical sense.

Religious language, the communication of religious contents, cannot be comprehended with the information paradigm. The content of information of religious knowledge is constitutively bound to the persons who communicate and to the situation itself.

Systematization and formalization

The philosopher Peter Janich states some qualities of scientific rationality, by which it differs from the pragmatic contexts of the life world, from which this rationality has arisen: a) All knowledge is represented in a clear language and marked as knowledge. b) Justified and unjustified, true and false knowledge can be distinguished based on designated criteria. c) This leads to general validity, systematic organization and extensive comprehensibility of scientific statements.19

The systematic organization of knowledge implies a hierarchic ordering in science and requires a well constructed terminology. The best example of systematization is the axiomatic structure of mathematics. In empirical science the organization is more difficult to accomplish.

The ideal of systematization and hierarchization can be applied to the relation of the sciences among each other as well  as to the inner structure of sciences. Rudolf Carnap stated the universal extension of this idea: “It shall be argued that science forms a unity: All statements can be expressed in one language, all facts are of one kind and recognizable according to one method.”20

Carnap stands for the view of physicalism, which is a very consistent way to conceive a systematic organization of science: The basic language of science is physical language because it relates to basic laws of nature. Chemistry is based on physics and its laws and concepts are deduced from physical laws and concepts. Biology relates in the same way to chemistry and physics and so on.21

As concerns the inner structure of the sciences Carnap holds a position which turned out to be not tenable, but illustrates the ideal of systematization: The most basic level of scientific knowledge consists of “protocol sentences” which are directly related to observations. Based on these sentences more general sentences can be deduced, which have a clear relation to the protocol sentences.22 The “protocol sentences” correspond more or less to the axioms of mathematics.

The concept of protocol sentences as a basic level of science to which more general propositions are related in a systematic and logical mode proved to be a misconception. It was refuted by the realization that scientific observation can never be separated from theory. All concepts, even if they appear as purely observational, are charged with theory. A strict distinction between observation and theory is not possible, not only due to pragmatic reasons, but also as a matter of principle.23 Alan Chalmers illustrates the point with an example from everyday life 24: Somebody getting up in the morning and longing to prepare his coffee complains that he cannot get the gas to burn. He assumes that there is something called “gas” and that some “gases” are inflammable. But the concept of different “gases” has not always existed. “Until 1756, when Joseph Black showed that fixed air (CO2) was consistently distinguishable from normal air, two samples of gas were thought to be distinct only in their impurities.”25

A strictly systematic structure of science neither exists for the propositions of a field of science nor for various fields of science. It turns out that some of the most interesting results and applications of science arise as the result of interdisciplinary or “transdisciplinary” research.26 Helga Nowotny compares the structure of science to a sprawling rhizome or rootstock as opposed to the hierarchic picture of the tree of sciences.27 This is meant to describe the factual evolution of science as well as an ideal.

There exists also a fundamental limitation of formalization and systematization in science. It is marked by the Gödel theorems. Gödel showed that every formal system that is rich enough to include the usual axioms for the natural numbers (Peano axioms) is incomplete as a matter of principle. This implies that in every formal language of basic complexity, statements can be constructed that can neither be proved nor refuted within the system. They are undecidable. Even more important is that the statement of coherence of a theory has this quality: It can neither be proved nor refuted within the system.28

This does not imply that statements that are “undecidable” exclude a logical analysis. But this logical analysis has to go beyond the system in question. The mathematician has to take a perspective from above the system in order to deal with fundamental questions like coherence. This perspective cannot be formalized completely, because every formalization is again included in a formal system, involving the same problem. Ultimately justification is based on an intuitive understanding of truth and reality. In this way the possibility of formalization as a dimension of objectification is limited as a matter of principle.

Religious language can never be formalized in the same way as scientific language. Scholastic theology and especially neo scholastic theology and philosophy have been attempts to achieve systematization for the basic teachings of Christian theology. Even today the overcoming of these approaches is sometimes mourned by theologians and philosophers. The “reformed epistemology”  is a modern approach along this line. But religious teaching is not systematic in this sense and cannot be systematized.

In Book-Religions, for instance Judaism and Islam, a sort of core of the religious teaching can be identified. But these book are all but systematic. And in reality the core alone is not sufficient to understand the religious teaching. Interpretations, stories, various traditions, writings and images, all these elements are somehow situated around the core and part of the teaching. In many religions even the core cannot be easily identified and is part of the inner-religious debate.
Systematization and formalization are necessary ideals of science. At the same time they mark the limits of science. Ultimately they are embedded in normal language and everyday life and they depend on this embedding. Religious knowledge cannot be subjected to systematization and formalization in the same way as science. The connection to the life context is more intimate and fundamental than in science.

Facts and Reality

Science is based on empirical observations. Observations refer to facts. Facts have the quality that they can be assigned truth values. A statement about a fact is either true or false. This is reflected in the discussion whether bivalent logic can be applied in the same way to statements about the past and about the future. Aristotle discusses the famous example about the sea battle, that may happen tomorrow. His conclusion is that no truth value can be assigned to the statement “Tomorrow there will be a sea battle.”29 Assigning a truth value would imply determinism and the sea battle is a possibility, not a fact.

Aristotle’s differentiation of facts and possibility as referring to past and future corresponds to the modern interpretation problems of the second law of thermodynamics. At a closer look two problems of interpretation can be found. The first one is in what way the laws of physics imply an arrow of time, i.e. a preference of certain processes to evolve in one direction. A simple example is the dissolution of a piece of sugar in water or coffee. The second law of thermodynamics states such an arrow of time. But the most fundamental laws of physics are symmetric with respect to the reversal of the arrow of time. How does the arrow of time arise? Assigning a different status to statements about the past and the future leads to a consistent solution of this probl m:<a