Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Religion and Belief

Reading John Breen's post made me think about how much has changed since Michael Polanyi confronted the scientism of the early twentieth century. In those days phrenologists were still feeling the bumps on peoples' heads. The scientism of that period was reductive and speculative, as Husserl points out in his unfinished work, The Crisis of European Science. Philosophers were uncritically embracing the untested promise of the natural sciences during that period without questioning the underlying presumptions. Husserl turned to Cartesian skepticism as a palliative to the naive presumptuousness of philosophers. He wanted philosophers to question everything. 

I do not believe that human minds can, ultimately, be explained in material terms alone. But the challenges posed by science today are not as easily blunted as they were in Polanyi's time. Today, neuroscience in particular is more sophisticated and subtle than it was 100 years ago, and it needs to be very carefully considered. Its claims run deep into the traditional understanding of what it means to be a human being, and it has the potential to alter some traditional beliefs and settle some ancient debates.

John points out in the passage he quotes from Polanyi that attention must be given to knowing what we can "know and prove and what we cannot." This is right, of course, and it means that the details of the neuroscience claims must be carefully considered: Has consciousness itself been explained? No. Despite books that claim to do just that. But, neuroscience is expanding human self-understanding at an enormous rate, and it is challenging some philosophical ethics precisely because of what it can prove. Mostly, these issues have little bearing on our lives, but they intrude and overtake us when we are faced with difficult choices about how a loved one with, say, brain cancer ought to be treated--when the options one faces force a choice between cognitive capacity and extended life or between the capacity for moral judgment and severe, life-threatening seizures.

Paul Griffiths made a comment at the Oklahoma conference about religion being a fairly recent concept, or at least the contemporary usage of the term. It is easy to uncritically accept an Enlightenment understanding of religion, even as we question the wisdom in doing so. Years ago I encountered a similar thought to Griffiths' comment in the writings of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who was director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School prior to Diana Eck. Smith, in several books, argued that religion is a modern western concept (and some would say "colonial"), and that the equation of religion with belief is a misleading reduction. Faith is not simply a commitment to an unwarranted belief, but the outworking of people trying to live rightly and artfully in the world by putting their "heart on" (to have trust in) a certain way of life. I point this out not because I think Smith had the final word on this topic, but because any attempt to negotiate between scientific naturalism and religion must include an understanding of the nature of the truth claims made on all sides. And throughout the twentieth century the nature of religious truth-claims has been debated. The devil is in the details. 


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