I’ve quite enjoyed reading through “Is Nature Enough: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science“, by John Haught. One of the many points he articulates well is what he refers to as “layered explanation”.
In the science/religion ‘debate’ (as if it needed to be a debate – which, as we shall see, is the whole point of this post), I think one of the most urgently needed concepts is that of “layered explanation”. What is meant here is that there can be more than one layer/level/kind of explanation for a given phenomenon.
Here’s a quote from the book:
“Naturalists put too heavy a burden on evolutionary science whenever they turn it into ultimate explanation. What I shall propose instead, as a way of giving a place to both science and religion is layered explanation. By this I mean that everything in the universe is open to a plurality of layers of explanation. The alternative to layered explanation, or to explanatory pluralism, is explanatory monism, an approach dear to the heart of most naturalists.” (p. 16 – italics in original)
Science: enemy or fount of all knowledge?
I think two kinds of people will benefit most from this: fundamentalist religious believers (who either a) make an enemy of science, or b) attempt to create a ‘better’ kind of science) and convinced philosophical naturalists (who generally both a) think religion ‘poisons everything’, and b) think science is the ultimate way to explain everything); they both happen to agree that religion and science are directly and totally incompatible (at least for some definitions of ‘religion’ and of ‘science’). One – religious fundamentalism – demonises science as anti-God, and the other – scientism (another kind of fundamentalism) heralds science as the ultimate key to any and all kinds of knowledge.
Fencing reality – fencing explanations
When a theist (of any kind) suggests to a science-heralding atheist that there are ‘limits’ to what science will ever be able to explain, he/she is sometimes sharply reprimanded for attempting to maliciously ‘ring-fence’ reality, with the obvious motivation of keeping some bits safe for theistic belief. But the science-heralding atheist does his/her own kind of explanatory ‘ring-fencing’, when she/he restricts ultimate explanation to the tool of science.
Science – a powerful tool, but with limited uses
What I appreciate about John Haught is that he passionately and repeatedly affirms the need to encourage science to go as far as it possibly can in it’s scientific explanation of phenomena. But there are modes of knowing which are sourced by methods other than methodological naturalism, such as the realm of ethics.
For example, science can offer ever-increasingly detailed accounts of the biological journey in which sperm, egg, placenta and foetus/baby have starring roles. This kind of account is infinitely valuable (and I’m conscious that this statement is a non-scientific one!), and constitutes a powerful tool of knowledge to be used in many situations… but scientific accounts are unable to provide any guidance whatsoever concerning ethical questions such as: how to (or whether we even should!) reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion, or when/if a developing foetus can/cannot be ‘terminated’ (on which – just to ground this quickly and easily in reality – it has seriously been proposed by ethicist Peter Singer that ‘termination’ can ethically occur as late as 1 month after birth! – see Singerian principle #9 here).
As valuable as scientific explanations are, they remain (if I may use the strongest language that comes to mind) utterly impotent for the grounding of values from which ethical decisions are made. However one does ground (or not ground!) the values for their ethical life, they are not using the knowledge arrived at via methodological naturalism, but rather some kind of tradition, philosophy/logic or life-value-system – which can broadly be called their ‘religion’.