Is Religious Knowledge more “Objective” than Scientific Knowledge?

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Published on: March 16, 2015

I grew up with a young man who, in turn, grew up with a young lady whom, after all of his years of observing her, he believed he knew.  But when they both turned eighteen he fell into a state of despair concluding that, because of changes in her behavior, he did not really know her.  She was beginning to challenge his understanding of her with what might be regarded as intentional contrariness.  As an agent, an actor, she could actively falsify his conception of her by doing things which she knew contradicted his image of her —  his theories about  who she really was.

Now he could have convinced himself that she was still the girl he thought she was by adopting extreme theories about his experience.  He could have insisted that her behavior was not falsifying his understanding of her by taking the position that it was not really her who was acting out in such new ways.  It was really someone else.  He could invoke bizarre, but logically and contingently, possible realities.  He could have argued that she was possessed, or was even an automaton.  In effect, he could have explained her unexpected behavior by adopting any of several theories in which she was not actually an agent, an actor who could engage in intentionally contrary behavior.  But in that case, he would have been adopting a kind of “scientific” premise in which the object of his interest could not possibly operate in a fashion which was contrary to his definition, contrary to his theories.  He could have implicitly adopted the scientific practice of assuming that his view of her must be the truth about her, having already defined her, and that any inconsistent, unpredictable behavior implied that she was literally someone else.    But then where was the very real girl he thought he knew?

In effect, unless my friend could convince himself that the girl he knew could in some sense, and very suddenly, no longer exist, he was stuck concluding that he did not really know her in the first place; that he was finally gaining a truly objective picture of her.  One option was as painful as the other. 

Christ upset the conception of God held by many people before, during, and after his ministry.  He became a human actor, an agent, able to falsify natural theological theories about God in a fashion in which most scientific theories about passive objects, like quarks, electrons, time, space, force, causality, or crows for that matter, cannot be falsified.  The more passive the object of the observer, the less likely it can engage in behavior which can falsify his conception of it.  The so-called “object” is quite literally the creation of the theories about it.  The object is not conceived of in the first place as an agent, an actor, which can engage in intentional contrariness.

It is precisely because we think of persons as being able to engage in intentional contrariness which implies that their behavior can actually falsify our theories about them, paradoxically making the knowledge of persons more objective than our knowledge of impersonal objects.  An impersonal object cannot, intentionally, act out to falsify our conception of it.  But we think of human beings as able to do so using behavior which is not even extreme. 

In Christ’s own time, most Jews did not conceive of the Savior in New Testament terms.  They did not have a conception of God as getting crucified, let alone being truly human in the first place.   The Christian God is not predicted by the speculations of natural theology or philosophers who cannot reconcile God’s goodness with his contrary behavior in allowing evil into the world.  If God is an agent, an actor, and that is what He is, He is capable, with intentionally contrary behavior, of falsifying our conceptions of Him, making our knowledge of Him more objective than many other forms of knowledge about the relatively passive objects of the impersonal, material world.  There is this scientific notion that the falsifiability of a theory is precisely what makes it rational in the sense of being “objective.”  But many philosophers of science agree that scientific theories, as little more than alternative uses of language, are not actually falsifiable (let alone verifiable).

The 20th Century philosophy of science destroyed the idea that scientific theories about objects which are not conceived of as being able to engage in intentional contrariness, are actually falsifiable.  It is much too easy for the scientist to conclude that he is not actually observing the object which his theories have already definitively described, or that some anomaly has occurred which has misled us into thinking that a well-defined theoretical object has suddenly started behaving in whole new ways.  

Again, my young friend could have adopted the extreme intellectual strategy of trying to convince himself that the person he thought he knew was not the same person, or not a person at all.  But in the real, historical world where we are confronted directly by other persons (the theoretical objects of science are not even in principle directly observable) this is not considered moral or in that sense, rational.  Christ appears to us in history, like other persons, and although His behavior may have contradicted our previous conceptions of God, the direct experience of Christ made it inevitable that people with little or no prior, objective understanding of God would submit to the evidence and conclude both that Christ really is God and that He is not what they expected.  Knowledge of persons, of subjects, by other subjects, seems to be paradoxically more objective, more falsifiable in principle, than knowledge of objects which, because they are not self-conscious performing subjects, cannot refuse our ideas about them.  God can quite literally tell us we are wrong.  A rock, or tree, or quark, or electron, is what it is by definition, and cannot ‘object.’  When substantially different behavior than the expected behavior is observed, the quark is not saying “no” to our theory about what it really is, it is just not a quark.  It may be a whole new particle.  To the extent that the behavioral attributes of the quark change, it is not a quark.  The behavioral borders drawn between different kinds of particles is theoretically arbitrary.  It might be divided up in other ways.  For all we know there is really just one kind of particle which is capable of a boundless range of behavior.  But then a physicist would argue that there is no practical difference between the existence of such a super particle, and the existence of the particle zoo.  Exactly.  This is why scientific language about ‘particles’ can be translated into scientific language about ‘strings.’  So what is it that is really out there?

The epistemological principle is that objectivity hinges on the possibility of a thing still remaining what it is in our paradigm of language (religious or scientific) even though our knowledge of it is revolutionized.  Christ revolutionized the world’s understanding of God as God.  There was no escape, given the rest of His behavior (miracles, resurrection), into the conclusion that Christ was not God.  Our knowledge of another person may be revolutionized as knowledge of that person.  But the moment that our knowledge of one of the relatively passive objects of a scientific theory is revolutionized, it is no longer what it was.  The scientist has complete control over whether it is still the same thing, or something new. 

Again, the scientific object in question may not even be directly observable.  Our experience of persons, including God, is, at least in principle, much more resistant to the convenient conclusion that we are experiencing something altogether new.  Religious language, traditional language, about God, and many other human Realities, may be much more stable than scientific language.  This is exactly why we describe these paradigms of language as “traditions.”  The language of our religious tradition about God is much more stable than scientific language about quarks or even crows.  We do not allow ourselves to conclude that Christ is not God simply because He behaved in unexpected ways.  Our historical experience is additive to our knowledge of God.  Direct revelation stabilizes our understanding of God to a degree which outstrips the stability of theoretical knowledge about non-observable or even directly observable scientific objects which are not actors unless God is regarded as acting through them.  This is not a possibility for many scientists.

A scientist tells us that “All crows are black.”  This cannot be verified because we can never know that we have observed every crow.  This depends in the first place on how we happen to use the term “crow.” 

But hopefully this scientific induction can be falsified in principle and thereby made ‘objective.’ 

The biologist observes an orange “crow,” or a bird which seems in every other regard to be a crow, but is engaged in behavior which is not crow-like.  The bird cannot tell the scientist that he is really a crow or somehow prove this with his other behavior.  It is all too easy for the scientist to simply invoke the rules for using the word “crow” (admitting implicitly that his induction is culturally relative) and conclude that this is not a crow.  No new knowledge about crows is being added at this point.  That is, there is nothing inherently objective about the scientist’s observations.  They cannot force the scientist to propose new knowledge about “crowness,” which goes beyond the current rules for using the term “crow.”  Scientific ‘knowledge’ is primarily just rules for using language, including terms like “crow” and “quark.”  The rules for using the latter term are simply determined by a subculture rather than any broader encompassing culture in which science is done. 

A lot of scientific ‘knowing’ starts with the already established rules for using ordinary language.  The scientist often uses this language metaphorically (e.g. “particle”), and then literalizes the use in his scientific subculture.  Scientific ‘literalizing’ is accomplished by scientists using some metaphor they have adopted as if it is literal.  The repetitive use of the term “particle” in the laboratory suggests that ‘particles’ really exist, even though they may have no mass or extension in scientific theory, which is why the original scientific use of the terms “particle” and “material” was metaphorical or analogical.

The biologist may be doing nothing more than preserving a linguistic tradition in which crows, by definition, are always black and behave only in certain established ways.  In another culture, where there are slightly different rules for using the noun “crow”, another scientist might conclude that new knowledge is in fact being added to our body of knowledge about crows when he observes a flock of orange birds which share other attributes with black crows.  But then what is the difference between supposedly objective, empirically based knowledge, and the construction of a paradigm of language?  How is objective knowledge to be distinguished from simply adopting rules for using language?  Whether or not the crow is really an object — something which experience can provide new knowledge about — is entirely up to the scientific “tradition.”

And so the historically revealed, directly experienced, and intentionally contrary God of Christianity seems to be a much more likely object of real knowledge than the much more theoretically, linguistically controlled objects of science.

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