Monday, 12 February 2007

Intellectual Honesty; Religion and Profession

I read this NYT article today: "Believing Scripture but Playing by Science's Rules" and had a surprisingly strong reaction to both the article and the readers' responses. Quick summary (though I recommend reading the article), a man who takes a literalist reading of the Bible's Creation account (which for him includes a belief that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old) submitted a PhD thesis in paleontology working within the "conventional scientific framework" - i.e. according to evidence that the earth is at least tens of millions of years old. In response, the NYT asks this question: "Can a scientist produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held religious beliefs?"

Ok, so, I think formulating the question this way is a little melodramatic because it so quickly concludes that variance in ideas suggests intellectual dishonesty. I think it is more to the point to examine the premises the question itself is built on: the dichotomy between religious and scientific truth. I realize I just threw us back three hundred years to a time when religion could still make truth claims, but I think that we can work through questions about the relationship between science and religion, philosophy and religion, etc only once we've rehabilitated religion as a possible source of truth. Ok, so all of us posting to this blog accept that religion can indeed make truth claims. By accepting that religion can claim something to be true, then it would be rational to assume that someone wouldn't operate according to religious principles if they didn't believe they were true. Similarly, it would be rational to assume that someone wouldn't operate according to scientific principlies if they didn't believe they were true. Enter two medieval philosophers trying to reconcile Platonism and Aristotelianism with Islam and Judaism, and you hear Ibn Rushd and Maimonides arguing that truth can't contradict truth and we see that somehow, religious truth and scientific truth are actually part of a greater whole. And this - this "somehow" - is where the NYT question fails, because it doesn't allow for the process that enables a response exploring how different truths could possibly be related. Of course, this response has to be done according to correct methodological principles rather than reading into science a religious belief - clearly. But to say we have to suspend our beliefs because they seem to flatly contradict what we study is reductive and irresponsible and unrealistic, no one would be able to contribute to scholarship until they had woven how everything fits together! Like, only God could publish anything. Or Kant, right before he died.

Now, pointing this toward trends within our church, people often speak of a bifurcation between spiritual and secular knowledge. That's rubbish. If something is true, it is true regardless of the source - whether it be the study of physics, philosophy, literature, music, scripture, endocrinology, whatever.

Lol, I know these issues have a million points of contention, I do realize I've argued according to lots of premises I haven't defended, but I figure this is a good starting point.

So, tangibles: What do you think of the NYT question? What are points of seeming contradiction between your religious beliefs and your academic/professional training? How do you traverse this tension?

(ps - it would be great if we don't get into a discussion of evolution)


Courtney said...

I told Alexandra I was interested in this debate, but it doesn't quite relate to my field of study. She wanted some clarification, so I said, well, either a comma goes there or it doesn't. There's no question about whether God created the comma or it just evolved.

See? There's not much debate about editing and the English Language. Alexandra just wanted me to tell you that. :)

Courtney said...

I've been thinking about this on and off since I read the post and I don't really have a definitive answer. When I read that article, I thought: "that's not fair!" Since when has academia discriminated based on the future use of a degree? One of the great freedoms of our time is that anyone can obtain any degree contingent upon willingness to work. Why should it matter to scientists if one's future work will rely on the Creations of God? I don't know. If I were a student at another university, I wonder how this would affect my major: English (not my minor: editing). If I were to write about the Bible, would I treat it as fiction based on the audience? Granted much of the Bible (Old Testament, usually) makes me scratch my head, would I count it as fiction? Or would I "stand my ground" and claim that yes, that donkey did talk which proves that Yeats blah, blah blah. If I were to count the Bible as fiction, would I be denying my faith? Or, as the man featured in this article, would I simply be writing to the audience. This is not a question I have to encounter on a daily basis, largely because I am at BYU, but I am very interested in how those of you non-BYU dwellers have dealt with this in your various fields.

Monica said...
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Emma said...

Word to there not being a difference between spiritual and secular knowledge. Truth is truth. In light of the strong scriptural and prophetic emphasis on gaining truth, I can't help but be baffled individual/cultural Mormon attitudes towards education - for example, that pursuing an education is primarily an economic decision. To me, that's not seeing the forest for the trees.

In broad terms, I don't really see this NYT example as intellectual honesty, per se. There's so much truth out there, and we know so little of it. It doesn't always bother me when things don't make a lot of sense to me, or even when two ideas which I think both have merit conflict. Having said that, though, I don't feel absolved from a sense of responsibility to study, ponder, and seek things out.