Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A spectrum of sorts

General talk about views of the world can be very frustrating and unproductive. But reading this piece about the incompatibility between science and most forms of religion (and particularly the associated comment thread with its predictably divergent views) has prompted me to make a few general observations of my own.

The problem is not just that words like 'religion' are vague, but also that more technical terms like 'physicalism', 'naturalism', 'idealism', 'empiricism' and 'rationalism' are also understood in different ways by different people. Countless scholarly articles have been written defining, redefining, defending or attacking particular positions. I may have another look at some of this literature soon, if only to review and refine the terms I use to define my own stance.

But I think the issues that really matter can be set out fairly simply in the form of a continuum. Such a basic, one-dimensional picture cannot, of course, begin to cover all angles or possibilities but it does allow one to represent in a plausible and useful way some of the most important differences in the way people see the world.

At one end of the continuum you have people who don't see any justification for believing in the existence of anything other than the sorts of things with which science (and mathematics) is – at least potentially – equipped to deal, whether one is thinking of the fundamental structures and processes addressed by physics or the more complex structures and processes dealt with by other areas of science.

What people at this end of the continuum reject is the notion that in addition to the reality (or realities) studied by the sciences (including the social sciences) there is some other reality not amenable to science which impinges on our lives. Like a spiritual realm, or a transcendent moral realm, or some form of 'destiny'. The crucial issue here is that scientific approaches do not reveal behind the phenomena of the natural world (or in fact appear to reveal the absence of) any underlying purpose or goal or enveloping moral reality.

At the opposite end of the continuum you have people who embrace a view of the world which purports to go beyond the science and which incorporates spiritual or supernatural or teleological or transcendently moral elements.

At the extreme are believers in spiritual or supernatural forces which can override normal physical laws. Most well-educated religious people today, however, accept that the physical world operates as described by science and that the spiritual or supernatural realm with which their religious beliefs are concerned is – must be – quite compatible with scientific reality. Such sophisticated believers could be seen as embracing both naturalism and (a subtle form of) supernaturalism. Or, looked at another way, a natural world which is embedded in a broader, all-encompassing reality.

More towards the centre of the spectrum are those who claim to reject all forms of supernaturalism but who also reject the hardline scientific view as narrow and impoverished. Advocates of process theology (or process philosophy) come to mind in this connection, but, though they claim to reject supernaturalism and embrace naturalism, theirs is a form of naturalism which goes well beyond the usual understanding of the term.

Ordinary agnostics, who are prepared neither definitively to embrace nor to reject spiritual possibilities, would also find themselves somewhere in the centre.

The central part of the spectrum is admittedly a very ill-defined and perhaps unstable area. It is characterized more by what the individuals involved don't accept than what they do, and I tend to want to interpret their positions as at least tending one way or the other. Process thinkers, for example, for all their explicit rejection of supernaturalism, clearly tend to the religious end of the spectrum. Others, who might maintain links with religious rituals for merely social or cultural reasons for example, tend in the opposite direction, as their actual beliefs may not differ much at all from those who explicitly embrace a hardline, science-oriented view.

On a related matter, it can be argued (on historical, sociological and logical grounds) that philosophy and religion are intimately linked and, though I won't elaborate on that idea here, I think it's worth remarking that a large (and, in America at least, increasing) number of philosophers are not only anti-scientistic but also religious.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a prominent and interesting example, not least because of the huge influence he has exerted and continues to exert. He kept his religious orientation pretty much to himself. But it was there – and it clearly motivated his philosophical thinking.

As well as his private notebooks, we have detailed accounts by a number of Wittgenstein's friends to support the view that he had strong religious tendencies and commitments. Patrick Drury's recollections are particularly important, and Norman Malcolm (another close friend) explained Wittgenstein's vehement rejection of scientism in terms of his religious orientation.

Henry Le Roy Finch has made the point that Wittgenstein was throughout his life a supernaturalist in the mould of Pascal and Dostoievsky. As well as explaining the tenor of his thinking in many areas, this religious orientation also led – more than any other single factor – to his falling out with Bertrand Russell. The gulf between their basic outlooks was just too great.

This view accords well also with that of Ray Monk who has written intellectual biographies of both men, and who, in a lecture I heard him give some years ago, emphasized not only the absolute contrast and utter incompatibility between Russell's secular outlook and Wittgenstein's essentially religious view of the world, but also the way their respective views permeated their philosophical thinking. (Monk identifies very strongly with Wittgenstein's general outlook – and does not hide his distaste for Russell's.)