Writing in The Guardian, Mark Vernon comments on a recent Cambridge University lecture delivered by the major philosopher and Templeton Prize winner Charles Taylor, who spoke about religion and science. Taylor reportedly said that in the conventional understanding of faith and reason, reason was superior to faith because it was based on logic, and testable hypotheses. Science was a matter of applied reason, and thus superior to religion as a way of knowing.
Further, science’s success carries political implications, for it seems that the rational can be disengaged from the specifics of culture, ethnicity and religion. A physicist in Sante Fe can communicate easily and directly with a physicist in Shanghai. From that observation, which is undoubtedly true, comes the dream of a brighter tomorrow: if only humanity could approach all its problems in the same way – deferring only to evidence and reason – then perhaps it could solve its problems too, or at least a fair number of them. Moreover, if people would only drop their appeals to revelation – which conflict, are irrational, and have a marked tendency towards violence – then perhaps the world would become a more peaceful place. That’s the promise. Who’d deny its appeal?
Unless, Taylor continued, it’s an illusion. For when you examine the way science actually works you see that there’s a third factor at play. Philosophers of science call it by different names. Colloquially, it’s the hunch or the eureka moment. More technically, it has to do with an elusive force named intuition. But take, for the sake of the argument, one of the best known attempts to understand what really happens in scientific reasoning, that put forward by Thomas Kuhn.
It’s because of him we have the phrase “paradigm shift” – those breaks between the science of Aristotle and Copernicus, or between that of Newton and Einstein. What happens, he thought, is that there is no procedural appeal to reason in these moments, no patient weighing of the evidence. Instead, there is a rupture, a revelation. Science finds itself teleported to a new world, in which even the questions it asked before now look foolish.
What analysis of this kind suggests is that the reasonableness of science is partially true, during periods of what Kuhn called normal science, when puzzles are proposed and solved. However, during paradigm shifts, that evaporates. Science enters a period of flux and uncertainty until a new paradigm is settled. Intellectual wars break out too. Scientists stop talking to one another. They label opponents “heretics”. Then rational discourse breaks out once more – until the next shift.
Taylor’s lecture, at least as reported by Vernon, is too interesting to be summed up here, but it reaches the conclusion that scientific advancement wouldn’t be possible if scientists worked on the basis of pure science alone — that they need the kind of revelations that come via flashes of insight and intuition. And in this, way, “the neat distinction between science and religion unravels.”
Do read the whole thing.
UPDATE: On his blog, Mark Vernon has a bit more to say about the Taylor lecture, including things Taylor said that he (Vernon) couldn’t work into his Guardian piece. For example:
To understand something you have to love it, because understanding is never a completely disengaged stance but springs from inspiration.