I can’t imagine two scientists debating something of a scientific nature and concluding, “Well, you have your truth and I have mine.” Yet this attitude is quickly becoming the norm when discussing matters of spirituality in Canada today. Why is that?
It comes from the idea that science deals with objective reality and faith deals with subjectivity, speculation or even superstition. It’s rooted in the modern dichotomy of science vs. religion, which exalted science and reason as the supreme arbiters of truth. This has resulted in some in the science community adopting the arrogant attitude often attributed to the medieval church, like acting like they have a monopoly on truth.
The modern notion that science is based on fact and religion is based on faith is somewhat disingenuous. The scientific method is based on presuppositions that must be accepted by faith. (Presuppositions are assumptions about the world or background beliefs whose truth is taken for granted.)
Scientific reasoning assumes, among other things, the orderly, or rational, nature of the universe; the know-ability of the external world; and the reliability of our senses to gather accurate information. These are beliefs that can’t be proven without first assuming them to be true or stepping outside the domain of science into the realm of philosophy. This means the scientific method is not opposed to faith, but founded on it.
Perhaps the most significant critique of postmodernity on scientific reasoning is the illusion of objectivity. The objectivity of science is suspect because it relies on the human beings doing the research to be objective. Scientists, like all human beings, are social animals who have been conditioned, socialized, normalized and cultured, resulting in the development of certain biases, beliefs, desires and preferences, many of which they’re not aware of.
This impacts the evidence discovered, and the conclusions made in scientific research, because the evidence and results are not merely the result of observation, but of interpretation. And the interpretive process involves the subjective inner reality of the observer as much as the external objective reality being observed.
Some have described this in terms of the “observer effect,” which states the act of observing something influences the results of the observation. This would include not only the instruments used in the experiment, but the researchers themselves.
Furthermore, science itself is a social enterprise. Social conditions and attitudes affect how individuals and groups interpret evidence, and how much they attempt to resist falsification, especially if the evidence contradicts the core program of their scientific community and culture.
For many, postmodernity has effectively challenged the superiority of scientific reasoning. It has brought a healthy scepticism to modernity’s claim to objectivity and certainty by demonstrating science and reason can be just as biased and agenda-driven as religious belief. It calls for greater humility, awareness and psychological understanding, by highlighting the propensity of science and reason to be used destructively and manipulatively.
Postmodernity also reminds us of the power of culture, language, social influence and story in how we understand reality and live in relation to the world, including how we do scientific research.
The point here is not to undermine science and reason. The point is that there are different ways of knowing, and all these ways of knowing are valuable and necessary for understanding our complex and multi-dimensional reality. Postmodern philosophy reminds us that scientific reasoning is not the only way to know reality and it’s not always the best way to know reality. Science certainly has a key role in our pursuit of understanding ourselves and the world, but its claim to objectivity, certainty and superiority are delusional.
That being said, even the harshest critics of the scientific method accept that it works. Most of us accept the scientific method and its results because it provides meaningful and utilitarian knowledge about the world. This is important. I would argue we should evaluate our faith and spirituality the same way.
Too many churches and Christians are obsessively trying to prove Christianity is “true” or “the Truth” when the question most people are asking is, “Does it work?”
When people look at science successfully performing organ transplants and landing exploration rovers on Mars, they conclude science works. At the same time, more and more Canadians are concluding the church and Christianity don’t work or no longer work for them.
Is the church’s modern understanding of “truth” part of this problem?
To be continued. . . .
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor at Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.