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Meditation 674
Science, Philosophy and Religion

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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I must confess to having some misgivings about writing this response to Bernardo Arroyo’s views concerning the relation and natures of science, philosophy, and religion because I do not especially want to appear to be giving “aid and comfort” to the position he is evidently trying to counter. Nevertheless, I believe there are some points which need to be addressed.

While it may be and has been said that “science” is merely a method, such a description is unfortunately methodologically, historically, empirically, and logically much too simplistic to capture the wide panoply of things which have gone and still go by the name of “science.”[1]   The methods of theoretical physics for example are only, if at all,  in the most simplistic sense similar to those of say astronomy, chemistry, or experimental physics -- let alone those of anthropology, biology, psychology, or sociology – and not entirely unlike those of even some endeavors in speculative theology.  Moreover, the so-called “common method” of the disparate empirical sciences, if there really is such a thing, is in principle different-in-kind from that of the a priorisciences upon which they all ultimately depend.[2]

Much “insufferable babble” has indeed been promulgated in the name of philosophy, but so too in the names of science and religion.  Up until relatively recently, Western medical science would have prescribed bleeding as a standard treatment for virtually any ailment while the physics of Newton regarded real space and time devoid of any objects to be the absolute sensoria of God -- to name only two examples.   In short, there is more than enough insufferable babble and claptrap in the histories of religion, philosophy and science to go around.   Moreover, I fail to understand how one can hold that “science is not religion nor is it philosophy” and yet it “be considered a subset of philosophy” anymore than how oranges could be considered to be a subset of fruit without thereby being fruit.  The history, natures, and relations of science, religion and philosophy are simply much more complex than this and, as I shall argue elsewhere, have more to do with what they are aboutthan any assumed differences they might be purported to have with regard to things like being based upon unverified or even unverifiable assumptions, or not being limited “to the constrictions of what we call logic.”[3]  Even good theology recognizes and is based upon the cannons of logic – even when it “violates” them.[4]

Whether any given expression of a religion, philosophy or science offers “solutions for anything” is more a matter of what kinds of things they are intended to solve, not on any assumed differences between their dependency on logic or empirically verifiable or unverifiable assumptions.   Had early twentieth century logicians (philosophers)[5] not demonstrated that virtually all linguistic and mathematical “information” can be reduced to and encoded symbolically in binary form capable of being mechanically (electronically) transmitted and “processed” as either “‘this and that’” or “not ‘this and that,’” we would not be communicating about the relative merits of science, philosophy and religion through this medium now.[6]  Whether such communication “solves” anything (else) at all is yet to be seen.          


  1. There is in fact no-such thing as “science” per se but only particular sciences.   One does not study to become a “scientist” but rather a physicist, mathematician, chemist, geologist, biologist, psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, etc.  Neither in this sense is there such a thing as  “religion” but rather many kinds of religions [e.g., Buddhism (of which there are many different expressions), Christianity (of which there are over 2,000 different denominations and sects within Protestantism alone, not to mention the many Orthodox and Catholic sects), Islam (with at least three major divisions) etc..  Then there is philosophy for which there are no doubt as many speculative views as there are philosophers. One simply cannot characterize, compare, and criticize such wholly abstract concepts on this level without committing the fallacy of hypostatization.  Oh, I’m sorry,  that’s a principle of logic – a traditional province of philosophy – but of course, philosophy “solves” nothing!

  2. The “experimental method” of the empirical sciences is based upon the deductive principle of modus tollensin that a particular hypothesis ‘H’ is said to imply a certain empirical result ‘E’ [if ‘H’ then ‘E’] such that if the empirical result is not observed [‘not-E’] one must conclude that ‘H’ is in error [if ‘not-E’, then ‘not-H’].  To suggest that E’s “confirm” (in the strong sense) or “prove” H’s is to commit the fallacy of the affirmation of the consequent.  Consequently, nothing using the experimental method is ever once-and-for-all proved but only at best not disproved.  This is the basis for the so-called “falsifiability” principle of the empirical sciences and their underlying potential for self-correction.  However, there are also significant evidentiary differences between the kinds of evidence (E’s) that are regarded as acceptable as disconfirming or not-disconfirming a given hypothesis within a given science.  Some require truly predictive or prospective evidence, others do not; some require deterministic data, others only data that is “statistically significant” and even then they may differ on what “p” values will be regarded as statistically significant.  Moreover, all such empirical evidence, irrespective of whether prospective, deterministic, or statistical, lends only at best inductive support for their respective hypotheses.  The a priorisciences of logic and mathematics, on the other hand, require deductive proofs of their “hypotheses” and are therefore in-principle different-in-kind methodologically from the empirical sciences.  Yet, all the empirical sciences ultimately depend upon, one way or the other, the principles of the non-empirical sciences of logic and mathematics (which is itself a subset of logic).

  3. It is simply not sufficient to try to distinguish science from religion on the basis that the latter relies on principles which are in-principle unverifiable while the former does not.  For example, if Newton’s “Third Law of Motion” (the “law of gravity” – that every object exerts an impressed force on every other objectdirectly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to their distances from one another) is true – and there is more than one object in the universe – then the “First Law of Motion” (that every object continues in a state of rest or uniform motion in a right line unless acted upon by an impressed force) is in-principle unverifiable.  Virtually every branch of science has, at one level or another, at least one or more such in-principle unverifiable assumptions.

  4. The very backbone of medieval theology was logic and, contrary to popular “modern” opinion, the science of logic was advanced considerably during that period.  Arguing about “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” was not so much about angels as it was about what is logically possible and what is not.  Using apparently “illogical” statements is and always has been a part of the language of religion whether uttered by a Zen Master (Okay, what is the sound of one hand clapping?) or in such sayings as “Let the dead bury the dead.”  They are frequently used to shock the hearer into breaking narrow categorical (and misunderstood) concepts that prevent them from recognizing and appreciating a wider view of “reality” and a richer experience of life.  However, not all non-sense is profound wisdom, nor logic indelible truth.

  5. Principally, (no pun intended) Alfred North Whitehead’s and Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica.

  6. The ultimately binary nature of knowable “reality” is also prefigured throughout the history of philosophy (e.g., all knowledge is ultimately based upon the ability to recognize samenesses and differences – Plato, Hume, Russell/Whitehead et al.) and religion – perhaps the most clearly evident expression being found in Taoism’s “Yin-Yang” symbol which can now be seen (and probably misunderstood) on any number of kinds of jewelry adorning any number of body parts.  How easy it is for we humans to miss the entire point!