Sunday, February 20, 2011

Evolution of Science and Religion

Some people argue that science has its place, and religion has its place. But this perspective fails to take into account evolution, specifically in culture and language. Consider the concept of (not to mention the word) "science." Once theology was the queen of the sciences, since "science" in this sense meant simply the acquisition of knowledge. "Natural science" is what most people now think of as "science," but even then it is not so easy to think of a definition. Is it a method? Is it a body of knowledge? Is it knowledge about particular kinds of things? Which things? Can it imply a certain kind of "worldview"? Or consider the word "religion." How does one define it? Does it have to involve belief in the supernatural? Does it have to involve participation in an institution of the faithful? Is it a philosophy? Is it a collection of morals? The difficulty of these questions is symptomatic of a deeper fact, namely that the word "religion," like the word "science," has a long cultural and linguistic history which is still moving forward. I find it highly absurd to think that we could predict the outcome of this evolution for a period of time longer than a few years.

Application: Anyone interested in providing a view on the relationship between religion and science must in some sense offer definitions of those terms. Yet these definitions must compete with one another for popular usage, and thus they are hardly definitive. For instance, science as a worldview has gained some ground in the intelligentsia at certain points in recent history, but it probably will not have huge success in the long run. It feels to me as if the most popular definition of science these days is strictly utilitarian: we like it because of what it does for us. For that reason our culture has little reason to precisely sort out the relationship between science and religion; as long as science just keeps giving us cool stuff, can't we all just believe what we want? There are probably much worse ways our culture could handle the situation. In any case, we cannot simply decide what the two words "science" and "religion" mean, and then logically deduce their compatibility. If we did that, then all of language would just be mathematics.

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