Issues in Philosophy Discussion: The Relationship Between Philosophy, Science & Religion

Discussion: The Relationship Between Philosophy, Science & Religion

In an interview for What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?, Clifford Sosis asks Helen De Cruz (Oxford Brookes University) about the relationship between philosophy, religion, and science.  She discusses Platinga, Quine, Tania LombrozoAbraham Heschel, and others. The following is an excerpt from the interview:

Clifford Sosis: What is the relationship between religion and philosophy?

Helen De Cruz: I think people outside of philosophy of religion overestimate the degree to which philosophy of religion is a form of apologetics. It does happen to some extent, and Plantinga’s advice to Christian philosophers still looms large. That being said, I am not sure what the relationship is. I did a qualitative survey among philosophers of religion and more recently a focus group study, which suggest it might be a form of faith seeking understanding. But if that’s the case, why aren’t we seeing more earnest engagement with the religious presuppositions and the orthodoxy? Personally, I am interested in why people are religious at all, and so my work focuses on the cognitive science of religion and fleshing out its philosophical implications.

CS: Plantinga’s advice?

HDC: The “Advice to Christian Philosophers”, is a set of guideline Plantinga proposes for how Christian philosophers should do philosophy. While I have deep respect for Plantinga, I do not share the enthusiasm some others have for this piece. So for, instance he discusses a hypothetical Christian philosopher who is attracted to Quine. He writes

Quine is a marvelously gifted philosopher… But his fundamental commitments, his fundamental projects and concerns, are wholly different from those of the Christian community-wholly different and, indeed, antithetical to them. And the result of attempting to graft Christian thought onto his basic view of the world will be at best an unintegral pastiche; at worst it will seriously compromise, or distort, or trivialize the claims of Christian theism. What is needed here is more wholeness, more integrality.

Now as someone who is attracted to the Quinean project, I disagree with Plantinga. Moreover, I think it’s not possible to make such assumptions about whether this or that view is incompatible with Christianity without actually doing the work. I have lots of other problems with the piece, but I’ll leave it for now.

CS: How are religion and science related?

HDC: I think the two have lots in common, for instance, there’s a recent literature in cognitive science suggesting that awe and wonder play key roles in scientific practice. One neat recent study by Tania Lombrozo and colleagues showed that people who are more prone to awe are, surprisingly, less likely to be young earth creationists, or endorse faulty teleological scientific explanations. There are other studies suggesting that the state of awe and wonder encourage critical thinking and reduce reliance on stereotypes and clichés. To Abraham Heschel (a Jewish theologian) awe is prior to religious faith – it’s a primitive emotion that makesreligion possible because it reduces self-importance and thus encourages religious deference (a religious believer, yare hashem, is literally one who stands in awe of God).

Similarly, we have lots of autobiographical accounts of scientists, including Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, who talk about the role of awe and wonder as psychological motivators for their work. Those emotions are the ones that prompt us to go beyond the mundane stuff of providing in our basic survival needs and reproduction, also perhaps to go beyond ourselves and be in a state of deference, which I think is required for science (not only because of a certain need to adhere to the reigning paradigm but just also to be enough invested in the world and a certain picture of it to devote lots of time and energy to it).

Science, religion, and art are the things that make us distinctively human, and thus the things I am primarily interested in as a philosopher. I was recently talking to Richard Potts, the curator of the Hall of Human Origins in the Natural History Museum in Washington. This permanent exhibition has many human fossils and the nuts and bolts of fossils. But visitors who leave messages and comments aren’t interested in how we became bipedal, or how large the cranial capacity of a Homo ergaster was. Rather, they are interested in why we make art, when we first became religious, how we’re able to engage in science and make technological advancements based on it.

This interest of the general public is not so different from mine—it’s the main reason I got into  philosophy and still engaged in it today. Science and religion are both excesses (at least prima facie) of human behavior that cry out for an explanation.

CS: Church has never made me feel the way I’ve felt in that exhibit. Readers, I highly recommend, it’s… awesome. I think this is why I’m so interested in philosophy of science, and meta philosophy! Relationship between science and philosophy?

HDC: Our philosophical work should be informed by science, and often I read brilliant papers that could be better if the author had bothered to read up on the relevant (cognitive science, often) literature. I’m not quite a Quinean who sees science and philosophy as a continuous project, but I am pretty close to that idea.

Are science and philosophy part of the same continuous project? What role can awe and wonder play? What do you think about the relationship between philosophy, religion, and science? We look forward to your comments!

The above is an excerpt from the forthcoming What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher? Interview with Helen De Cruz which will be released publicly on 6/14.  Early access to the interview is available (with a contribution) here.  Clifford Sosis created What is it like to Be a Philosopher in order to get to know philosophers outside of an academic setting. He has interviewed forty different philosophers so far, with the mission “to dig a bit deeper into the psychology of philosophers.” 

8 COMMENTS

  1. What an interesting read! I find the section about awe and wonder extremely compelling. I think that the propensity humans have to feel complex emotions, such as awe, drives our
    philosophical/scientific/ religious desires to seek out answers that are not apparent. It would seem that philosophy, science, and religion are derived from the same sort of thought processes or emotions. Throughout all these disciplines, people are trying to come up with explanations for certain phenomena that they experience and cannot explain.
    It would seem to me that religion is the most banal way to explain these phenomena, whereas science and philosophy rely more on critical thinking and experimentation. That being said, I do think religion,science, and philosophy are interconnected in that they stem from human curiosity and wonder.

    • Well said, Asia! As Plato wrote, “Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Also, I agree that there ought to be more overlap between science and philosophy. Some philosophers of love are paying attention to the nexus between science & philosophy – e.g. Brian Earp, Carrie Jenkins, and others.

  2. Random thoughts! It seems like when we try to talk about the concrete claims of a particular religion–Judaism, Christianity or Islam, say–they are extremely difficult to defend philosophically (for the sake of argument, let’s say via rational means that are not obviously scientific) because the claims are so idiosyncratic, and supporting them seems to require accepting highly contentious premises. I think it is difficult though not impossible to reconcile Christian orthodoxy with a Quinean worldview, but it is easier to make Quine’s views compatible with a more abstract, theistic worldview. I think there is a certain grandeur to abstract, theistic world views. Logic or the ontological argument can incite awe (even though there might be something wrong with the ontological argument). Even a religious story which may or may not be true or an evolutionary account of human origins or the idea of an electron is awesome, in the way a superhero movie is awesome: in these cases, our limited cognitive capacities are attempting to contend with things that are difficult to fully comprehend. I think reflecting on the psychological reasons we experience wonder and awe can make these experiences seem less laden with religious significance. I wonder if other animals feel awe? I often imagine my dog being awe inspired by my amazing deeds, but I wonder if I am projecting!

    • Cliff – I think you’re right about the difficulty of making any particular religious claim stick – awe is at least in the account by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt described as an emotion that has parallels in non-human animals (e.g., chimpanzees), since it’s an emotion that has to do with social deference (you feel awe for a social superior and hence “know your place”, maybe that’s what going on with your dog?) Although there are criticisms about that account and Michelle Shiota sees it more in general terms as an emotion that helps us accommodate things that are too vast for our limited intellects to comprehend.

  3. For me, the scientific study of awe deprives awe of its religious significance. However, philosophical reflections on science and the scientific community, and the power and cognitive limitations of the mind, magnifies my sense of wonder. My interview with Helen reminded me of my interview with J.D. Trout, a fellow ‘wonder junky’ and philosopher of science, who pointed out that even abilities we consider mundane are awesome upon reflection (whatisitliketobeaphilosopher.com/jd-trout/):

    “Among other projects, I am also working on an unusual one about the drama of language. The complexity of spoken language processing is truly humbling. It is also an excellent model of how difficult it is to spin theories about the mind from reflection on experience, even when that reflection is described as just a place to begin. The nature of experience matters of course, but our interpretation of experience – in this case the content of speech experience – is properly subservient to the many processes that produce it. Most philosophical explorations of mental processes that focus on the phenomenology of experience treat that content as monolithic, or at least characterized by a few introspectible properties, much like visual content that has phenomenologically detectible dimensions of saturation, intensity, and hue. In any phenomenological experience in spoken language perception, there are dozens of components that contribute to the experience, and the limits on attention and memory that render phenomenological measures crude can obscure its actual complexity. Philosophical analysis can be a tool in understanding, but it is largely a housekeeping measure. Using it as your main investigative tool permanently stunts your prospects, even when you promise to ‘take seriously’, or read about, empirical results. At any rate, my hope is that I can compose a project of lively examples and language effects that are clearly explained and fill you with wonder.”

    • Hi Carol! They both say something along these lines…

      Aristotle (in Metaphysics): “It was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”

      Socrates (in Plato’s Theaetetus): “I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html

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