Thursday, October 28, 2010

More on Science and Theology

Regarding that last post about science and theology: I don't want to oversimplify the picture by suggesting that science consists of a tome of established facts that scientists devote their lives to memorizing. Science is a best understood as a verb -- a process, a method, an approach to finding and establishing dependable truths about the world -- and it departs most sharply from theology in this respect. I would be loath to oversimplify this matter when I can belabor the obvious instead -- onward!

If a challenge arises to the existing scientific paradigm, from whatever source, a peer-review process evaluates the quality of the challenge, most importantly by checking whether the new finding can be reproduced in controlled circumstances. Or, in the case of something like astrology, it considers whether there is any evidence to support the challenge, and whether it coheres logically. On this basis the challenge either succeeds or fails, and both the result and the process leading to it are open to the scrutiny of all.

If a challenge arises to a given theology, what happens? The people in the theology's camp either embrace it or decline to do so. Maybe they declare the challenge a heresy worthy of death, or maybe they consider it beneath their notice, or maybe something between. Nothing is decided. At best, the theology can be said to achieve logical coherence given its starting postulates and premises, and perhaps it may claim some correspondence with the world of observable fact. For example, while muslims may not agree amongst themselves on the exact meaning of jihad, they can agree that it is required of them based on the text of the Koran. Non-muslims can likewise see that the text of the Koran rattles on about something called jihad.

In theology, this is as far as it can hope to go, and it's easy to see it's not very far. It allows for nearly anything -- this god, that god, a few gods, many gods, person-like gods, animal-like gods, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and so on. It is consistent with some theologies to say that the entire Koran, word for word, is totally irrelevant to human affairs. Other theologies would say the same of all the texts and traditions of Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. Some theologies are consistent with the claim that Jesus was a minor itinerant preacher bearing a handful of useful moral precepts, but one whose followers mythologized far beyond proportion. Some theologies insist that all of the world's religious traditions are, when seen in the proper light, conveying the same basic insights, while others insist there is precisely one that matters. And so on.

There is no standard for deciding questions of theology apart from raw logical coherence, and not even that has been reliable as a standard (see: trinitarianism). Doing violence to those who disagree has been a well-tried method, but brutalizing and killing are not properly considered methods of epistemology.

There is such a thing as getting things wrong in science. In theology, any assertion is as good as any other. This is why, despite the wishes of Karl Giberson and others of like mind, the exertions of theologians are of no consequence. That which cannot be methodologically distinguished from bullshit is, well, bullshit.

1 comment:

Paul Sunstone said...

I think in practice, arriving at a consensus in theology tellingly resembles arriving at a consensus in politics. And when that is not the case, it most resembles a law court. At any rate, it does not bear much resemblance to the process of arriving at consensus in science. At least, that's what I've seen in my limited experience of it.