Satisfying the Incommensurable Worlds Inside Us.
In my previous article, I discussed the long-running conflict between science and religion and the conclusion, of scientists from Galileo to Nobel Laureate, Professor Peter Doherty, that in fact there was no intrinsic conflict between the two at all. In Galileo’s words, “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes”.
So, how does this account for the obvious fact that – as Galileo of all people should have been aware – science and religion, or at least their practitioners, so often are in conflict? And how can this conflict be resolved?
The key is understanding that science and religion are not so much incompatible as they are incommensurable.
To understand this requires delving into the philosophy of science of Thomas Kuhn.
The plain meaning of “incommensurable” is given by Oxford as: “not able to be judged by the same standards; having no common standard of measurement”. Kuhn thought that this concept had special applicability to science, which, he argued, operated under shifting paradigms.
A paradigm is a pattern or example of thinking. Once again, Kuhn thought that the word had special meaning in a scientific context. A scientific paradigm might also be described as a “worldview”. Most importantly, they serve as practical exemplars: what to do and the kinds of questions to ask. For instance, under the Ptolemaic paradigm, astronomers would be preoccupied with solving the “epicycles” required to satisfy a paradigm of celestial bodies in circular orbits around the Earth. Under the paradigm of Copernicus and Kepler, epicycles simply ceased to exist.
To Kuhn, incommensurability meant that occupants of competing paradigms are unable to completely meaningfully communicate key concepts. For instance, to the proponents of Ptolemaic and Copernican theories, the very concept of planet holds different meanings: to the Ptolemaic, the Sun is a planet, to the Copernican, it is not.
Thus, Kuhn argues, “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds”. By “world”, of course, Kuhn means not a physical universe, but a cognitive realm imposed on the universe: a world “perceptually and conceptually subdivided in a certain way”.
As Galileo argued, “The incapacity of the vulgar [and] current opinion in those times” was the “world” in which the Bible scribes composed their cosmological paradigm.
The ancient Near East was a world which was simply incommensurable with nearly every paradigm of modern science. As American bishop John Shelby Spong says: “Jesus could not have imagined such an idea as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity…subatomic physics…would have drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, to say nothing of the author of the Book of Genesis, nothing except blank stares of incredulity”.
But while Kuhn restricted his notion of incommensurability to conceptual models of science, philosopher Hilary Putnam used the concept of incommensurability, albeit in a slightly different sense than Kuhn, to delineate the relationship between science and religion.
On Putnam’s view, the incommensurability of science and religion is the incommensurability of wholesale realms of human experience (or Magisteria, in Gould’s term). On Putnam’s view, because science and religion are incommensurable, they are, as Galileo argued, independent of one another. “When properly understood, science and religion can be viewed as separate and complementary endeavours, asking very different questions and pursuing very different ends”.
For Putnam, science and religion is based on the idea that each are rooted in a different basic standard of cognition. Although he argues that science and religion both respond to reality, he “defends an internal realism” or “conceptual relativity”. The world “in our heads” is, like Kuhn’s paradigms, “perceptually and conceptually subdivided in a certain way”. The separate cognitive realms in this division each satisfy a different realm of human experience.
Putnam argues that science is rooted in what he calls vernunftig, or discursive rationality: that is, knowledge obtained by reason and argument rather than intuition. Religion, on the other hand, is embedded in verstandesgemass, or intuitive understanding, or faith.
Thus, on Putnam’s argument, science and religion are incommensurable because they do not have the same cognitive status. “Religion has more to do with the kind of picture that a person uses to organize life than with expressions of belief”. This was perhaps the argument Galileo was trying to make by calling science and religion “two truths”, religion as an authoritative guide to salvation, and science as “sure and demonstrated knowledge”.
As Hume might have argued, science tells us how the world is, religion (or ethics) tells us what we ought to do about it.
Galileo asserted that two truths cannot contradict each other, but if they are different kinds of truths, then as Putnam says, they do not have the same kind of cognitive status. Rather than being incompatible, they are incommensurable.
Science and religion need have no intrinsic conflict because they are independent of one another, inhabiting entirely different worlds of human experience.