Monday, May 4, 2009

If there is a point, how would we know?

There's virtual deluge on the Science, Religion and Truth front these days. We have Rod Dreher commenting on Dan Everett's book (and they say Christians don't engage the conversion story when it goes from believer to atheist!), and whether truth is somehow dependent on culture, and can it thus be "objective" in the scientific sense.

Then Stanley Fish over at the NYT gets into it with Terry Eagleton's book talking about the other direction, of the secular West spending more and more time talking about God.

What I found interesting in both instances was the subsequent debates - the largely religious commenters gripping with Everette over at Crunchy Con, while the largely Atheist crowd lambasted Fish over at the NYT for his seeming embrace of Eagleton.

Of all the comments, I thought this one at the NYT got to the point of the issue most elegantly:
Science explains a great deal, but doesn’t explain everything. Religion, on the other hand, does not appear to explain anything.

With science or more generally, physicalism, while limited in the types of questions it addresses, we at least understand what it does provide - repeatable, testable, predictive results. Because of this, we know how to tell good science from bad. We don't need to understand physics, we can see the resulting bridge, take medicine, or use a map to know it is true.

But this still leaves us with questions like "is there a point?" and "was there purpose?" When not applied to human actions these questions presuppose answers that are not predictable, repeatable, or testable, so the physicalist refuses them as nonsensical. But then again, we're not going to use these answers to build a bridge, cure a disease or tell us how to get to an office building, so why should the answers have those properties?

Yet we still want to know.

Isn't a better question, then, what kind of criterion should we use for questions and answers of that non physical sort? That is, if there is a point, how would we know it?

Science adopts criterion of testable, predictive and repeatable to define "true" because we intend to use that truth to do testable, repeatable things and need to predict if they are going to work. To answer "does religion explain anything?" we need to start by asking "what are we planning to do with the explanation?"