The meetup on Intelligent Design and science made me wonder whether ID is religion---whether or not it is science. Philosophy of religion has long had its own demarcation problem: what is and isn't religion? The ID discussion seemed to waver between whether to see ID as science (or at least proto-science) or as religion. The arguments for why it might not be science were well rehearsed. But suppose it is not religion?
Taken at its word, ID theory seems closer to science than to religion. It doesn't appear to be defending anything remotely like the religion of the average person on the street. Little about ID theory strictly implicates traditional notions of God. Perhaps it is necessary that if there is a god of the traditional variety, the design of the universe is "intelligent" in some sense but if this were the case it would be hardly sufficient to support the common view of God. And according to some traditions, the intelligibility of any aspect of nature has nothing whatsoever to do with real religion.
Needless to say, not just science but religion, too, has an identity problem. (Big time! There has been blood over this one. No wars yet over the internal science demarcation problem.) Is religious talk talk about facts that have empirical truth value or is religion a way of being in the world? You would think from our previous discussion on ID that science and religion play on the same field, but do they? Not everyone takes that for granted.
Suppose the atheist's nightmare is realized, that one day science turns up incontrovertible evidence that a God of the traditional all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful, Judeo-Islamic-Christian kind exists. (Don't ask how!... maybe a Mars rover spots a plaque: "Made by God.") So? What would that have to do with meaningful religion? If I was a doubter before, am I supposed to quake in my boots now? I mean if this God really was all-this and all-the-other, including all-merciful and all-understanding, I am quite sure I would be all-forgiven for exercising my God-given critical thinking abilities. After all, in her or his infinite wisdom, the divine would have known that I would be an all-doubter.
And if there remains something not "all" about her or him, if, for example, he or she retained an element of unseemly, all-too-human, jealousy and grudge, then I would certainly have been justified in withholding my conviction that this God is worthy of worship until all the evidence is in--if not after as well. It would be the epistemically responsible thing to do. And no divine being worth its salt will have us be epistemically irresponsible. Still, hastiness in judgment might be excused in mortals. But with all eternity on hand, God can hardly be so pinched for time. In making us mortal, we were given the perfect excuse for doubt. It says so in many places in scripture we should be careful what we believe. Idols are designed to be easy to believe in. They are expert at trotting out evidence in their favor. God? Not so much.
But if God doesn't have any recognizable human traits, if the language we use that inspires awe in us (the "all" language) makes God more than a little paradoxical, even as a concept, let alone a natural reality, we are left where we started: with mystery. God is no answer to any fully intelligible question we might ask. God may well exist (in some sense), may well have been designer (somehow), may well etc...but God remains profoundly inscrutable.
The alternative, adopted by the design theorists (and assumed by some of their critics), is that God is scrutable: that the very idea of God is conceivable to us by extending some ordinary ideas we have to their limits. We all know what knowledge, power, and goodness are, right? Now just imagine gads of them concentrated in some place with natural coordinates. Call it "God." I say "natural coordinates" because they are assumed within the purview of science. I am not aware of any "supernatural coordinates," but if there are, I can't imagine what science would have anything sensible to say about them...
But a mere intelligent designer is a far cry from an object of worship. (Wonder might be appropriate---as we might have for extraterrestrial intelligence, or fear, maybe, like for an oncoming asteroid. But not worship.) Suppose evidence pointed to one of those---a mere intelligent designer. "Wow!" I might say, then, "now what?" If that's all we ever get from our researches into the micro- and macro-cosmos---traces of order improbably explained in any other way but through crafty design---then I admit I would be impressed. For a short time. Until all the old questions about what kind of designer entity this might be and why I should care catch up with me.
And if before the incontrovertible evidence was uncovered I was a believer, I am not sure what role the evidence is supposed to play. Shore up my belief? I do mean belief in the thoroughly tricked out conception of God, the one with the three super---the "all"---traits. That God apparently has no particular need for our belief. How are we to make such a need or desire sensible without anthropomorphizing? People like to look good in the eyes of their peers, but God? I know as a normal human being I wouldn't be too impressed with someone's "faith" in me if they wanted to see incontrovertible evidence of my authenticity before dealing with me. Are you saying that God with far less cause for self-esteem issues than me would? Fortunately, we don't ask that people have faith in us too often. In God only we trust---precisely because we know nothing about God. God help us if we did. We might start asking uncomfortable questions precisely because we know ourselves (or ought to) too well.
All this by way of saying that whatever is discovered about God in any remotely scientific way is unqualified to inspire faith. I didn't invent this line of thought, of course. It's been around since ancient times---since at least St. Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, et al.
"What the...?!!" "Haven't we evolved past that, Major Tom?"
Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest (possibly, the most significant) philosopher of the last century, has given it modern expression: silence. Religion is best understood, not through noises we may make with our mouths, but as a way of living. Talk about God he considered "gassing," the same in semantic content no matter which end of the digestive system was involved, not to be mistaken for truth claims in the same class with truth claims we make about more mundane matters. God talk can't very well be false for the same reason. (Some have interpreted this conclusion to suggest the talk is "meaningless." But to the extent being meaningful is meant approvingly, normatively, that doesn't make sense either. Religious experience, if you have it, is simply not part of the world in which semantics and truth---or their opposites---are criteria.)
This has been called anti-realism in religion. Some among the religious say it comes too close for comfort to atheism. Some among atheists think it is pure irrationality or mysticism. But it is the view that religion is a cultural form of deep importance to our humanity but absolutely none to our intellect---except by way of humiliating it. The intellect should do its best to hold its own as best it can. It has an imperative to spend itself wisely. That means also "knowing its limitations," to paraphrase both Albert Camus and Clint Eastwood. For all our touted rational capability, we don't actually spend much time practicing it.
Some related questions:
What is the proper role of religion? Is it in the business of competing with science? Is science in the business of competing with religion?
Is religion, as some have claimed, an aging cultural artifact that will and should one day die out as it gets replaced by something else? What could that something else possibly be? Nothing?
If by another belief system founded on non-rational principles---i.e., positive atheism, what will have changed?
Will it be a safe but cowardly agnosticism? Too afraid to stick its neck out?
Will it be a culture of indifference to ultimate questions, ignorant of its own history, somehow in love with the idea that we are on the verge of transcending it and about to move into a brave new age? (I'm thinking Steven Pinker here, to mention just one such view.)
Is curiosity dying out because we know so much compared to those in the past? Is evolution slowing down? Beginning to reverse?
But maybe no part of the science vs religion row has anything to do with either real science or real religion, but with competing power blocks? With politics? What could be less scientific or less religious than that?
Some of us are outright atheists out of respect for science and its accomplishments. Some are atheist out of indifference. Some of us will reject anything that militates against our inherited or communal beliefs, including science.
Most ordinary people, however, are religious in some sense. But most ordinary people in our culture partake of the benefits of science. Most know their smart phones, medical care, modes of transportation, etc., their whole material way of life are the direct result of science. Most know that science and religion do not rigorously inform each other in practice or theory. They hardly communicate with each other at all.
What do these "most people" make of this? Are they irrational? Do they compartmentalize? Opportunists? Take their comfort where they can get it? In religion when they have doubts that no amount of creature comforts are sufficient to allay? In science the rest of the time or when it's handy? Do they make an effort to make science and religion intellectually compatible?
If they use their rational capabilities to try to make them compatible (I'm not suggesting most do), the options are:
1. They do something like what the ID theorists are trying to do: devise a picture in which somehow it all makes sense together. Science and religion do not have to be seen as opposed and may offer mutual guidance.
2. Or they retreat to a minimalist belief strategy: interpret both religion and science skeptically, demand of each only what it can give with integrity, and not an ounce more. And leave the questions that neither of them can be rigorous about answering open. Such minimalists are only brought to a belief of any sort kicking and screaming.
The second is the anti-realist position in religion. It isn't and probably will never be the more popular strategy because it throws us back on our own individual resources---which are neither as meager or as rich as some would have us believe.
To Jon's good question in the discussion below, who takes an anti-realist position on religion?---the answer is few. It is in many ways an elitist position. But you could also say it is the only one that pays more than lip service to the popular phrase "critical thinking."
Let the flames begin!
"Man is not a rational animal." - Maurice Merleau-Ponty (as Katherine Morris, one of our club members, reminds us in her emails).
"I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent. [Pause.]" - Samuel Beckett, Endgame.
A primer on philosophy of religion: