Monday, June 25, 2012

Subjectivity and Objectivity in Religion and Science

A few months ago, literary theorist Stanley Fish published a thoughtful two-part Op-Ed in the New York Times critiquing the idea that science has direct access to objective truth while religion is hopelessly subjective. His argument can be summarized as follows:

"It is certainly possible to distinguish between [different] sets of arguments and to conclude that one is better supported than the other. And there will be many reasons that might lead you to that conclusion, including the fit or non-fit of the arguments with other arguments you already accept and the authority within a discipline or within the institutions you belong to of those who propose them. But one reason that cannot be given is that one set of arguments enjoys the advantage of being in touch with the world as it is apart from anyone’s beliefs, allegiances, assumptions and theories. No set of arguments can claim that advantage, although any set of arguments can claim a host of others."
Pointing out to people who place total trust in scientific empiricism that the scientific endeavor is shaped by history, culture, and politics predictably elicits defensive responses, as Fish's Op-Ed certainly did. While he addresses many of these responses in part two of the Op-Ed, he did not satisfactorily respond to those who critiqued him for abandoning any aspiration to objectivity. The problem with Fish's approach, therefore, is not that he finds subjectivity in the scientific method and in scientists themselves; rather, it's his disavowal of objective knowledge as such.

The way I see it, conversations about scientific and religious knowledge often operate within a false either/or binary: Either the knowledge obtained through them is 100% objective, or it is 100% subjective. Either we are capable of grasping the world "as it really is," or we're not capable of grasping it at all. This stark binary does a disservice to both science and religion, but it's certainly great for generating obfuscating polemics.

As I pointed out in my last post on the nature of evidence, religious claims are also subject to validation or discrediting by inquiring believers. It is simply not true--to use an objective statement--that once one leaves the "realm of science" one is entering territory where people no longer care to or can possibly verify what is true. Major religions did not gain converts only at sword-point, by authoritarian trickery, or with threats of economic or political disempowerment; they relied, especially at their very beginnings, on persuading people of their truth through evidence. To use only examples from the three great Abrahamic religions:  Moses outdid Pharaoh's magicians with a miracle of God; God parted the Red Sea, through which the Israelites actually passed; Christ/God cast out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, and predicted the future; Muhammad, the illiterate and unschooled prophet, produced (through an angel of God) a work of high Arabic poetry whose inimitability persists to this day (although some great Arab poets have attempted to imitate it--precisely to discredit the revelation). These are all signs which believers have seen and, after deliberation, determined to be the work of God. But they all also encountered much disbelief and skepticism in the communities within which they occurred, as well as throughout all subsequent history.

What is at stake in accepting or denying these "signs" is nothing less than one important kind of objective truth:  for the religions above, whether there is a God and whether Moses/Jesus/Muhammad is His prophet or, as in the case of Christianity, His son or even God himself. Religions, like sciences, also aim to discover the truth by way of evidence; they just do so in ways that differ from the Baconian scientific method. Much of it relies on a kind of empiricism with which mainstream science is only beginning to grapple:  the mystery of intersubjectivity--of the direct (empirical) encounter of a human being with another human (or other-than-human) being. And this is only one empirical dimension of religious experience.

But here is the crucial point:  this does not mean that the scientific method is wrong or that it does not also lead us to some kinds of objective truth. We rely on the knowledge gained through this method in countless ways every day, ways which prove again and again that our trust is well-placed--so well-placed, in fact, that we are mostly consciously unaware of all the ways in which scientific truths underpin our most mundane activities, which often have life-or-death stakes:  driving a car; flying in a plane; getting vaccinated; using sterile plastics; drinking purified water; etc. However, the fact that our reliance on these truths is not conscious does not mean it is not there; the fact that most people don't understand or often think about scientific theories does not mean that they don't trust them. Stanley Fish appears to make this claim, which is mistaken. He writes,

What is difficult for many to grasp is the irrelevance of theoretical speculation about faith and evidence (or anything else) to the conduct of everyday life. As ja, a scientist, put it, an argument like the argument that both science and religion rely on “assumptions about their own first principle … seems to be of purely academic interest. Most humans spend the vast majority of their time worrying about practical … issues like the availability of food and water, the suitability of climate, maintaining health, and combatting illness.” Exactly! Not only is the argument that science and religion cannot be distinguished on the basis of fidelity to reality true (a word I do not shrink from for the same reason I do not shrink from the word “objectivity”), it is also harmless.
This statement is the opposite of the reality. Both science and religion are nothing if not ways through which humans resolve practical issues like locating food and water, settling on places to live, maintaining health, and combatting illness (especially the latter)! The word "religion" comes from the Latin religio which has connotations of discipline, practice, and method--its root has to do with binding, which is the action at the root of discipline that enables us to do anything skillfully. The Arabic word shari'ah, which is often translated into English as religious law, literally means a "way" or a "path"--literally the path to a spring of water, the source of nourishment in the difficult desert of life. Religion, in other words, is a method for living life skillfully and fruitfully, in a nourished, nourishing, and healthy way. It is not at all a stretch to say that science--and its sister discipline, philosophy--are to a large extent the same thing. What is interesting is that between and among them, they encompass so many different methods for doing so.

Moreover, against Fish, I would say that debates about the relative distance of science and religion from reality are by no means harmless. They shape the fabric of knowledge by which we, as individuals and collectives, know that reality (or those realities). And needless to say, that fabric is always being reshaped and reformed, often in terribly violent ways. It really matters how we access objective truth--because how we access that reality, as Fish so clearly demonstrates, often determines what reality (or realities) we access. The fact that the method mediates the object which it seeks to apprehend does not mean that the object becomes any less "objective;" it only means that there are multiple ways of apprehending the same object and multiple objects to apprehend, and therefore multiple objectivities. People can--and do--trust in more than one method for knowing the world (or worlds).

This leads me to my final point:  No matter how conscious or unconscious, people all carry within themselves theories about why things are the way they are and work the way they work--in other words, about objective truth. There is no such thing as an a-theoretical person. As John Maynard Keynes once wrote,

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back... soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

-- John Maynard Keynes, "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money"
Since everyone is an amateur theorist about many things (meaning that everyone operates based on socially conditioned ideas about what is true and uses socially influenced methods in order to arrive at that and other truths) that means that everyone is operating by balancing subjectivity and objectivity in their own ways. In the same way, "official" discourses of science and religion also balance subjective and objective data and claims. Without any notion of objectivity, there's no point in seeking positive knowledge, and without any notion of subjectivity, the stakes for every truth claim become immeasurably high. As an anthropologist, I am always balancing my desire to be faithful to each individual's subjectivity and capacity for error (including my own) with our shared human desire to make positive, reliable meaning out of our existence on this earth. My hope for the conversation about science and religion is that it continues to interweave subjectivity and objectivity in ever more complex and interesting ways. The days of binaries, I hope, are numbered.

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