Reflecting on Russell’s Religion and Science 1. Scientism and the Four Purported Magisteria

1. One reason why I have not been posting over the past months is because I have been caught up in the teaching of courses new to me, in ethics, medical ethics, and environmental ethics. These having been courses for which I had not previously gone through the course preparation process, I have had to devote enough of my time in course preparation and management that I have had none left to devote to my blog.

It recently occurred to me, however, that I could and should combine my course preparation and my blogging, by posting to my blog, if sometimes in somewhat variant versions, the material that I am covering in the courses I teach. As it happens, I am scheduled to teach an introduction to philosophy course later this summer and it seems to me that that course is perfectly well fitted for the kind of integrated activity I have in mind. I intend, therefore, over the coming weeks and months, to offer in the form of posts to this blog some reflections on the material I plan to cover in this summer’s introduction to philosophy course (the courses in ethics, medical ethics, and environmental ethics can await their turn).

2. The primary text of the course will be Bertrand Russell’s Religion and Science,* published in 1935. This is not the book of Russell, it seems to me, that is most likely to show up in an introduction to philosophy course. That would be his The Problems of Philosophy. Indeed, I judge the latter to be the better book of the two. I have, however, used it, the latter, as the primary text in an introductory course in the past and quickly learned that my students found its first chapter’s extended focus on that which we can know of the author’s writing table to be, well, off-putting.

Religion and Science it is, then. Given, now, the title of the work, its readers can justly hope that the book will set forth at least some of Russell’s views on religion and science and on the relationship or relationships that exist between them. Given further that the book is being assigned in a course intending to introduce students and others to philosophy, those reading it with me can also justly hope that the book will set forth at least some of Russell’s philosophical views, so adding philosophy and the relationships it may have to religion and science into the mix of matters to be pondered. Given yet further that those reading Religion and Science with me might well notice that the back cover of the edition of the work at hand identifies Russell as an “English philosopher and mathematician,” they might well also hope that Russell’s understanding of mathematics and the relationships it may have to religion, science, and philosophy will be the object of some attention.

The last hope, that Russell will have interesting things to say about mathematics in Religion and Science, may yield in the course of its reading to disappointment. But hoping that the book will have interesting and important, if not therefore always also true, things to say about religion, science, philosophy, and the relationships between and among them will, I can guarantee, not have been in vain. And I, on the other hand, hope that I will be able to make up for the lacunae in the treatment in Religion and Science of mathematics by bringing in on occasion what Russell has to say on the subject elsewhere, what others have had to say, and, passing, to be sure, from the more significant to the less, what I have to say.

3. And so one of the major themes of the introductory course at hand and of the accompanying series of posts will be the respective natures of the four purported magisteria of science, mathematics, philosophy, and religion. I owe, of course, the use of the term, “magisteria,” to Stephen Jay Gould and his theory of the “nonoverlapping magisteria,” typically abbreviated as “NOMA.” According to Gould’s “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,”** the “NOMA principle” holds that:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.

I should perhaps, and in the not too distant future, devote a post to a comparison of Gould’s views on the nature of science, that of religion, and the relationship or relationships between them, with Russell’s. For the purposes of the present post, however, I will let the opportunity for that comparison pass and content myself with the observation that there are not just the two purported magisteria that Gould had in mind, but four, existing in the following hierarchy very evident in, at least, classical Western thought:

4. Theology
3. Philosophy
2. Mathematics
1. Science

I have placed theology at the top of the hierarchy, instead of religion, because it is theology, as the theoretical component of the religions Russell and classical Western thought have had most in mind, that most appropriately stands in correspondence with the theoretical disciplines of science, mathematics, and philosophy.

4. Returning to Russell, I will propose to my students and fellow readers that our first focus be on his “exclusivist epistemological scientism” (as I will dub it; I will clarify the “exclusivist” and the “epistemological” presently). Russell gave expression to this view of the place of science in a statement, than which none more terse is possible, in the opening paragraph of the essay, “The Art of Rational Conjecture, the first of the three essays that constitute the book, The Art of Philosophizing and Other Essays.*** There (p. 1), in the course of telling us what he thinks philosophy is and is not, Russell also tells us what he thinks science is.

Let us begin with a few words as to what philosophy is. It is not definite knowledge, for that is science. Nor is it groundless credulity, such as that of savages [sic]. It is something between those two extremes; perhaps it might be called the art of rational conjecture.

The defining thesis of exclusivist epistemological scientism is, then, the thesis,

Knowledge is science.

or, expanding its statement a bit,

All knowledge is scientific knowledge.

or, expanding the statement yet further so that we have before us a fully explicit universal affirmative categorical proposition, as logicians are wont to identify it,

All instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge.

or, equivalently, thus making more fully explicit the reason for the “exclusivist” of the “exclusivist epistemological scientism” tag,

Only instances of scientific knowledge are instances of knowledge.

5. This thesis is, of course, an epistemological thesis, in the jargon of philosophy; in a somewhat more ordinary language, it is a thesis in the philosophical theory of knowledge. It is moreover, to put it mildly, a radical thesis in the philosophical theory of knowledge. If, indeed, it is true that, to revert to its last-but-one formulation, all instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge, then we are faced with a set of arguments, surely disconcerting at least to some or even to many, but also nonetheless absolutely valid arguments.

First,

No instances of scientific knowledge are instances of theological knowledge.
All instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge.
Therefore, no instances of knowledge are instances of theological knowledge.

That is, in brief, there is no, as some have purported there to be, theological knowledge.

Then,

No instances of scientific knowledge are instances of philosophical knowledge.
All instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge.
Therefore, no instances of knowledge are instances of philosophical knowledge.

That is, in brief, there is no, as some have purported there to be, philosophical knowledge.

And, finally,

No instances of scientific knowledge are instances of mathematical knowledge.
All instances of knowledge are instances of scientific knowledge.
Therefore, no instances of knowledge are instances of mathematical knowledge.

That is, in brief, there is no, as some have purported there to be, mathematical knowledge.

We should note that the three arguments all exhibit the same logical structure, the one to which medieval logicians attached the name, “Celarent” (you’ll have to google it; this post is already too long). The arguments are, as already noted, all valid: that is, if, that is, if, their premises are true, the conclusions must also be true. I’ll leave unanswered, for now, the further question of whether any or all of the arguments are sound, that is, of whether, in addition to their being sound, they are such that, in each case, both of their premises are true.

6. Now, according to the “Publisher’s Preface” to The Art of Philosophizing and Other Essays, the three essays contained in “this little volume” and thus too the “The Art of Rational Conjecture,” “were written by Bertrand Russell during the second World War” and so at least several years, if not nearly a decade, after Religion and Science. We should set for ourselves the historical task, then, of determining whether and, if so, to what extent Russell adheres in the earlier work to the several theses just set forth. This we will do in the coming series of posts. More importantly, we should set for ourselves the further, philosophical, task of reflecting with and/or against Russell, and others, and determining for oneself which of the several theses, if any, might be true. This too we will do.

Until next time.

Richard

* Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, with an introduction by Michael Ruse (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1935]). Religion and Science is readily available for purchase through Amazon.com. You need only click on the following image to be taken to the Amazon site:

** As of this writing, Gould’s “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” can be read online at The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive, http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html.

*** Bertrand Russell, The Art of Philosophizing and Other Essays (Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1974 [1968]). I admit to being puzzled over the fact that, in a book bearing such a title, there is to be found no essay entitled “The Art of Philosophizing.”

The Art of Philosophizing and Other Essays too is readily available for purchase through Amazon.com. You need only click on the following image to be taken to the Amazon site:

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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