All ways of knowing are equal, but some are more equal than others

All ways of knowing are equal, but some are more equal than others

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By: Adam Santoro

I would like to thank Benjamin Mora for submitting a thoughtful commentary in the previous issue of the IMS Magazine. Mr. Mora offered a contrasting opinion to that which I presented in the Winter 2012 issue, stating that “…flourishing dialogue between science and religion in recent years is testimony to the fact that, far from being irreconcilably conflicted these two domains of human knowledge can fruitfully interact.”

Mr. Mora presented three arguments: firstly, that I was incorrect to state that scientists who are religious have not thought deeply about the issue, or are acting in a non-scientific manner; secondly, that my views succumb to an erroneous method of thinking called scientism; and thirdly, that I can only successfully support methodological (and not philosophical) naturalism, which allows for a great number of plausible and fruitful interactions between science and religion.

As per his first argument: Mr. Mora contends that there are numerous “top-thinking” scientists who have thought deeply about the issue at hand. He presented a list of “top-thinkers,” presumably to illustrate how some individuals maintain a high degree of scientific integrity and still think about the issue deeply. To this I would simply state that an individual’s scientific prowess does not necessarily translate to matters not published in Science or Nature; because an individual is a leader within his scientific field, it does not necessarily follow that he maintains sufficient scientific integrity when dealing with issues outside of the published literature (especially those that enter the realm of philosophy). Mr. Mora listed a plethora of scientists, all of whom are Christian. This is indeed curious, and raises numerous questions (i.e., why not list names of top-thinking scientists who are non-Christians?).  I assume that it has to do with Mr. Mora’s theological bias, which leads me into the rest of the discussion.

As per his second and third arguments: Mr. Mora implies that scientists who support my viewpoint suffer from scientism, which states that the scientific way of knowing is the only way to discover truth. Those who share Mr. Mora’s epistemic viewpoint acknowledge that there are different ways of knowing, and theology and science are merely two of such ways. With this worldview, theological knowing can inform one about the natural world, and science can inform one about theology, since both ways of knowing are equally valid. There is a problem with this view. It is undoubtedly the case that a priori theological beliefs necessarily dictate those natural phenomena that can be explained by science (e.g., something inherently boring and obviously un-divine as Brownian motion), and those that seemingly require theology (e.g., evolution vs. Intelligent Design). To those with this view, theology only succumbs to science when it would be to approach insanity to deny the scientific truth (see: the history of evolution, the Heliocentric Model, etc.). Thus, it is not a simple case of complementary systems of knowing that can live in harmony; all ways of knowing are apparently equal, but some are more equal than others.

Regardless, straw-men aside, I was careful to present an argument that did not depend on a single way of knowing. Instead, I (perhaps naively) assumed that scientists support methodological naturalism – a viewpoint that says all natural phenomena must be explained by science, and theology cannot dictate when it cannot. Mr. Mora should take note that the theological way of knowing is not lost with this worldview; instead it is limited to the knowing of non-natural things.  So, much like how in some views theology often dictates the limits of science, from my perspective it is science that dictates the limits of theology. Methodological naturalism does not assume that the theological way of knowing is invalid or incorrect; it simply states that it cannot conflict with science when dealing with the natural world. In my article I merely interpolated some conclusions from this viewpoint. Firstly, if theology cannot step on the toes of science on matters concerning the natural world, then nearly all theistic religions are to be rejected (since they all make naturalistic claims in some capacity, all of which conflict with scientific principles and natural laws). Second, deism is the only position a scientist/methodological naturalist can support, since this position does not contain conflicting views of natural phenomena. Thirdly, a scientist should support methodological naturalism fully – to pick and choose avenues where science is to be usurped by theology is to lack scientific integrity. Thus, an individual who is properly scientific and truly accepts methodological naturalism can be a deist, at most.

As a final point, it is commonly argued that methodological naturalism can be in harmony with theology since a theistic God can act upon the natural world in ways that we cannot detect (and hence, by their very nature are in tune with natural laws and can be studied with science). For example, God could drive mutations during evolution in subtle ways that we cannot detect. This is merely a logical game (you cannot prove the non-existence of the Tooth Fairy with 100% certainty). This viewpoint would seriously undermine the credibility and integrity of a “top-thinking” scientist, since the invention of ad hoc hypotheses is wonky at best.