Sunday, May 22, 2005

Science and religion

The current issue of tricycle magazine includes an interview with Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton. She is asked what roles she thinks science and religion should play. In her answer she says that science can tell us about how things work and that religion addresses questions of value. Her actual answer is a bit more complicated, but since this was an interview, it was not intended as a polished presentation. I would like to comment on this basic split, with which I agree.

Before doing that, I would like to clarify what I mean by the word belief. One nice definition of belief is any cognitive content held as true. (See, for example, From this perspective the word belief refers to something we accept as true about the world, and presumably something with some empirical content. This definition is along the same lines as the definition of knowledge as true belief.

Thus in this context, belief is not meant to convey what is often referred to as a religious belief but some proposition about the (material) world that presumably has some reasonable way of being falsified.

With this definition, the distinction Pagels makes can be summarized as follows.
  • The realm of science is beliefs (and again, this is not to be confused with what we often refer to as religious beliefs).
  • The realm of religion is values.
I think that's a nice distinction, and I agree with it. I would also take the next step, namely that these two systems (religion and science) should not invade each other's territories — except in one minor detail.

  • Other than intellectual honesty, science should be value free.
  • Other than science, religion should be belief free.
In other words, the only value relevant to science is intellectual honesty, and the only beliefs relevant to religion should be the beliefs uncovered by the progress of science.

In particular, religion should ground its development of values on two pillars: the truths about the world developed by scientific investigations and our experience of ourselves as human being. The very notion that I have taken so much pain to avoid, i.e., religious belief, should not exist.

To clarify to the point of inanity, I would not use the term belief for something like: I believe in the principle of human dignity. Instead, I would say something like: I accept as fundamental the principle of human dignity. I would reserve the term belief for falsifiable propositions about the world.

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