Religion as Science



Religion as Science


I wish to put forward an unfashionable and provokingly simple point of view: religion is just outmoded science. Religion is the science of an earlier age, yet still clinging on in some places. I don’t just mean the cosmological parts; I also include ethics. That is, religion consists of natural science and moral science—a set of theories about the natural world and a theory of morality. According to religious science, God is the creator of the natural world andhe provides the foundation of morality (as in divine command theory). He created the universe of stars and planets as well as creating all the animals on earth; he also brought right and wrong into existence. The moral laws are God’s laws, as are the natural laws. Above all, he designed and created human beings, with their characteristic nature and moral sense. In the early days it was supposed that many gods rule the universe, each responsible for a certain part of it (the sea, the wind, love, etc.). The essential point here is that these were postulates offered to answer explanatory questions. At some point humans evolved the ability to ask questions (other animals don’t seem to do this)—of each other and of nature. We asked why the sun rises, what it is, where animals come from, etc. The realm of gods, spirits, angels, demons, and so on, was the human attempt to answer such explanatory questions. It wasn’t such a bad attempt: it provided some explanatory insight into things, a semblance of understanding. The attempt went beyond immediate observation, postulating entities (“theoretical” entities) that might be causes of what we observe. Likewise, religious ethics provided a foundation for moral truth: right and wrong are seen as divine edicts. Prior to these postulations, in the dim dark prehistory of human existence, before the ability to ask questions had evolved, these theories had occurred to no one. But once this way of thinking came into existence it took hold of the mind of man: it was the best science available at the time. It was taught and inculcated; it became orthodox. A profession of experts (“priests”) grew up to promulgate this scientific worldview: they became the authorities on the science of the day. Their methods could be obscure, but they were the only show in town—and they had a coherent story to tell (with some fancy vocabulary thrown in). They were humanity’s first theoreticians. 

            What happened later is that a new approach to science was developed, emphasizing systematic observation and experiment. This superseded the old science. It was still trying to answer explanatory questions—the hallmark of science—but it employed a new method. The priest scientists began to seem shabby by comparison, their theories weak and unfounded. Their science just wasn’t very good.  [1] Socrates exploded their view of morality (in the Euthyphro argument), and a succession of natural philosophers undermined their cosmological opinions. Their centers of learning began to seem like centers of ignorance, and new institutions called universities began to appear.  There had been a revolution in science—a massive paradigm shift—away from religious conceptions and towards modern secular science. The science accepted for thousands of years gave way to a new science using a new method—though still cleaving to the questions-and-answers model. It wasn’t that science (“natural philosophy”) began with the Enlightenment—it had been around for millennia—but it made a decisive step forward; and the old science went by the wayside (or is still in the process of going by the wayside). Greek polytheism went by the wayside after a long period of hegemony; now Christian monotheism (and other religions like it) also went by the wayside.  [2] Their theories were falsified, or at least cast into serious doubt: what once seemed scientifically solid was exposed as so much superstitious thinking. It may have seemed reasonable then, but it was reasonable no longer. The entire religious approach to science had to be discarded, and it largely was, in relatively short order. Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Darwin—they all showed that the old science was wrong science. It wasn’t doing something else: it was doing the same thing, but not doing it very well.

            The question that interests me in all this is whether the same thing could happen to science as we know it today. Could the general orientation of modern science be fundamentally in error, as old-style religious science was (though not disgracefully so)? Might there come a time when it will be superseded in favor of something better? This might have seemed inconceivable to the old religious scientists, and it no doubt seems hard to believe for us now, but is it a real possibility? Is there a viewpoint from which our current science might seem not only partial but also deeply misguided? Surely the question is not to be dismissed a priori. Ironically, it is the very emphasis on observation that might prove its downfall, at least as a comprehensive account of the universe. That is, it is the empiricism of science that may undermine its ability to give a complete account of things—as it was the supernaturalism of religious science that undermined it. Why do I say that—isn’t the empiricism of modern science its chief engine of success? Yes, but any method, however successful, is apt to have a downside. The obvious point of weakness is that the human senses are partial, finite, biased, and subjective: how can they be the basis of objective knowledge of the whole universe—all of Being? At least under the religious approach the supposed basis of knowledge—divine revelation–is not thus limited, since God is not epistemically bounded. In principle, access to God’s knowledge will give humans complete knowledge of what there is, unlike the puny human senses. In practice, of course, science has moved further and further away from the deliverances of the senses, erecting a magnificent inferential superstructure, which dilutes its vaunted empiricism considerably. Only thus has modern empiricist science succeeded in establishing the system of knowledge that now constitutes it. But there is still the possibility that some areas of reality are closed off from this mode of knowledge acquisition, and always will be. The list of such possible possibilities is long and familiar: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the quantum world, deep space, the nature of time, consciousness, human freedom, the ultimate nature of matter, etc. These questions have not yet succumbed to the empirical method, the method that defines modern science. Ethics is not susceptible to the empirical method at all.  [3] Our science-forming faculty, as Chomsky styles it, construed as the method of empirical science, seems not cut out for certain problems and questions. Like all methods it has its limitations and blind spots. Maybe the future holds the prospect of a synthesis of human and artificial knowledge systems, which might make our current scientific method look feeble by comparison.  [4] Who knows? Just as modern science superseded religious science, despite centuries of dominance, so some future science might supersede what we have now—admirable as that has been during the relevant phase of human evolution. We need to take a wider perspective, seeing our current science as just one phase of a much longer history. It’s hard to see how our current science could come to be seen as completely wrong, but likewise not everything about religious science was completely wrong—just the main postulates. A lot of good science was done under religious assumptions, and the search for systematic theoretical principles traces back to religious conceptions. We shouldn’t be too caught up in our particular epoch with its relatively local disagreements; from a loftier perspective religious and secular science lie on a single trajectory, with our current methods a possibly replaceable temporary phase. We tend to think that religious science was bad science because it was replaced by secular science, but future science might make ourempirical science look bad in retrospect. And if we never actually reach that lofty perspective, that won’t necessarily be because it doesn’t exist. If we suppose that science came into existence when the human ability to ask questions evolved, maybe when human language evolved (about 200,000 years ago), beginning with religious science, then we might still be in an early phase of its development, with untold possibilities ahead of us. At any rate, the history of science is best seen as a continuous thread tracing back to supernatural conceptions; the scientific spirit did not suddenly begin in the seventeenth century in Western Europe. That is a parochial position: science is the systematic attempt to understand the universe; its methods are just means to that end. Empirical observation is one small part of this story.  [5]



  [1] Berkeley is an interesting transitional figure because his cosmology is resolutely theistic yet he incorporates modern science. He doesn’t endorse out-of-date theories of nature, accepting modern theories, but he places them in a religious context: his is a form of theism without religious science to encumber it. But from a wider point of view his cosmological science is firmly religious: God plays the role of a theoretical entity responsible for all existence. This is theistic science without its usual dogmas.

  [2] I can’t help noticing that polytheism and monotheism have analogues in the natural sciences: from an ontology of several basic elements (earth, fire, water, and air) we move to a monistic ontology comprising only uniform atoms in the void, i.e. matter in general. We go from many gods to a single God, and from many forms of material substance to a single material substance.

  [3] When science adopted an empiricist conception of itself ethics became split off from mainstream science, which it had not been hitherto, thus precipitating all sorts of deformations in moral thought. Before that religious science was not so sharply distinguished from ethics: a natural philosopher would naturally also be a natural ethicist (not a supernatural one).

  [4] The contribution of scientific instruments to scientific knowledge is, of course, massive—the microscope, the telescope—and without this enhancement of the senses modern science would scarcely be possible. The advent of further brain augmentation, possibly by direct implants, is not to be underestimated. Here too we can discern a continuous path in the history of science. The brain awaits the installation of its game-changing inner instruments.

  [5] Rationalism has always opposed the alleged ability of empiricism to provide a complete account of human knowledge, though there doubtless must be an empirical component. The intellect must make a substantial contribution to knowledge (whatever exactly the intellect is).

10 replies
  1. Jesús Requena
    Jesús Requena says:

    Thought provoking. I think it will not happen for Homo sapiens. However I have no doubt that the species that will come after us will develop a different kind of science.

      • Jesús Requena
        Jesús Requena says:

        Yes, of course; but I think that chances are very high. Humankind could certainly destroy our planet before, but I am optimistoc it will not happen. Only about 1 million years are eeded for a new human species with a different brain -and hence mind- to evolve through natural selection. But artificial selection will enormously accelerate the change and it moght happen in…one thousand years?

        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          The big question is what brain modifications specifically would lead to the necessary cognitive advances. If only we knew what kind of brain would be able to solve the problem of consciousness, or even what mental faculties would be required (not more acute eyes or a larger memory or quicker thought processes).

  2. Jesús Requena
    Jesús Requena says:

    Yes, indeed.
    However, fascinating as it is, I think that the problem of consciousness is just one among many others. Time…why the universe exists…(why there is something instead of nothing)…infinity…

  3. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Apart from the date on which this entry was published, I think your claim represents a completely reasonable and historically defensible point of view. And moreover, in terms of attempting to regulate the society and influence it in other ways, science, in the hands of some of its vocal representatives and quiet, but powerful institutions, is preserving the modes of operations of good old organized religions.

    And why, given all we know about history in general and about history of science in particular, would we even contemplate the idea that the science of today won’t be superseded? I mentioned this point in a comment on another blog entry, but it bears repeating: the ongoing processes of (a) merging between “meatware” and “hardware/software” and (b) genetic engineering are almost certain to create a different sentient being and a different science as a result. And also perception, thinking and acting would be much more detailed and probably faster. On the other hand, for all we know, our species might blow it all up in the process…


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