V. V. Raman’s partial defense of my Why Religion Matters

V. V. Raman’s partial defense of my Why Religion Matters

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It has been more than three months since (in Metaviews 007.2001.02.09) Varadaraja V. Raman came to my defense against the critical reactions my Why Religion Matters was drawing from participants in Metaviews, but the delay was unavoidable. I have struggled all spring with a physical trauma which reduced me to simply coping with each day. Fortunately the problem has finally been diagnosed -a broken hip- and I am squeezing in this reply before hip-replacement surgery tomorrow (15 June 2001).

Before I turn to Professor Raman’s remarks, I need to remark that I categorically reject Billy Grassie’s reference (in his introduction to Raman’s piece) to “my antipathy to science.” As I write on p. 50 of Why Religion Matters, “Science is on balance good [the qualification concerns only whether it has given us more power than human nature is able to handle wisely, but that’s outside this book], whereas nothing good can be said for scientism.”

Now to Prof. Raman. We have worked together on several projects involving Hinduism, including most recently the magisterial Encyclopedia of Hinduism, and I have learned much from him on that front. And I thank him for the solicitude he shows me in his entry under review. He thinks the criticisms directed at me from the science side are valid, but as he comes from the third world, he knows what it is like to be an underdog and he sympathizes with my feelings. I resonate especially to these two of his sentences: “Overtly or subtly, science…seems to have the upper hand in…explaining cosmic birth and human emergence,” and “it is frustration at hegemonic science marginalizing what was once powerful and what is still an essential institution for civilization, namely religion, that prompts Huston Smith…to bring charges that, to the dominant group, seem strange and grossly unfair.”

It is nice to have a friend in court, but feelings are not the issue here — truth is. As the Vedas tell us, satyam eva jayate, verily truth conquers, and I agree completely. If I could be shown a single scientific fact that proves that the common metaphysical spine of the great religions is wrong, that they are “essential to civilization” (Raman’s phrase) would not sustain my belief in them. I would stop believing in them instantly and would return to being the scientific naturalist I was in my graduate years at the University of Chicago.

The slings and arrows that scientizers –my admittedly pejorative word for those who accept science as the royal road to truth– have directed at my book (all of the ones I have seen) concern two issues that are of secondary importance. First, conceptually I am charged with being uninformed on the amount of empirical support there is for Darwinism and against Intelligent Design; and institutionally, the claim is that I don’t see that the Star Island/CTNS/Zygon/Templeton axis does not limp on three legs (as in chapter 12 in WRM) and is already the Equal Opportunity center on Science and Religion that I call for (in the same chapter).

There is no way I could make a dent on my critics on those two issues here, save perhaps to suggest that they read my replies to Ian Barbour and Ursula Goodenough in the June issue of Zygon. The relevant data is oceanic, and people fish from it what supports their predilections.

The one point I can make here is that no critic (in Metaviews or anywhere I have seen) has challenged Why Religion Matters‘s deep contention, which is that science can’t say anything about whether the religious worldview is accurate. Their failure (I cite E. O. Wilson as an example on page 231) is to distinguish between cosmology and metaphysics as I define them. Cosmology maps the physical universe as accessed by science and our sense organs; while metaphysics describes the whole of things. (In naturalism the two coincide, but there only.) My favorite analogy is to imagine the physical universe as a giant balloon. Within it we can shine our flashlights (the scientific method) on anything inside the balloon, but we can’t get the flashlights outside the balloon to determine where it is located in space, or for that matter whether there is space outside the balloon. Whether there is or is not such an other world is the religious issue. That’s what the book is about and, as I say, I haven’t heard a peep from anyone again{st} my handling of it.

I thank my friend Raman for at least trying to rescue me.

And here is an excerpt from “Huston Smith replies to Barbour, Goodenough, and Peterson” by Huston Smith in Zygon, vol. 36, no. 2 (June 2001), pp. 229-230.

As to whether I define science too narrowly, it is for a clearly stated purpose that on pages 191-192 of my book I define it as narrowly as possible, beginning with the only definition I consider incontrovertible; namely, that science (through its technology) is what refashioned the world that traditional people lived in into the world we inhabit today. The hard sciences are what fueled the technology that effected this change, and we had better believe what they tell us, for they have knockdown proofs for their central hypotheses. With DNA and the genetic code, molecular biology is now also in the “you better believe us” hard science camp, but where experimental proofs for hypotheses are lacking, their truth-status moves from certain to probable with every step in that direction weakening science’s right to dictate what we believe. When those hypotheses are used only as working tools for further research, the amount of evidence that supports them is an internal affair for working scientists, and the rest of us should keep our noses out of the discussions. But when they impact worldviews, as Darwinism emphatically does, it is wrong –morally wrong, I personally feel– to claim for Darwinism anything like the noetic rights the hard sciences are entitled to.

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