Beyond Reason

Knowledge, Religion and Science in The West

David Hopson

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"We are moving into a post-rational age, where we have to re-establish the idea that it is meaning which determines the validity and quality of knowledge; not simply whether it is logically and experimentally correct. Knowledge has a moral and political dimension which we ignore at our peril."

{After Galileo} "What was needed was a move from trying to understand what is being seen to understanding why we see what we do. This is a huge conceptual change, and Galileo’s real victory is not the pyrrhic one of eventually turning out to be right. His victory is that his trial made clear to everyone that in understanding the world the simple evidence of the senses could no longer be considered the primary source of truth. What you had to work out was a model of reality that explained why you experience things in the way that you do."

"Understanding the mind, and the nature of the self, became as important a part of The Enlightenment as anything to do with material science. Knowledge isn’t given by the world, it is something that we make up for ourselves, and because we make it up we can also get it wrong. In short, Descartes tells us that what we see and feel may not be the same as what is real. The Sun may look like it is setting, but the reality is that we are on a turning Earth. Our challenge is to disclose what is hidden, and not simply to report what is seen."

"The great distinction that is made today between religion and science did not exist in the same way nor in anything like the same degree in the past. It is not until the 17th century in Europe and America, in the period which we now call The Enlightenment, that knowledge began to be broken out into the kind of silos that we use now."

"The attention given by fundamentalists to every last word and comma in scripture has reached the kind of forensic intensity which one can see, if not altogether understand, in the work that is done on the ‘cloud chamber’ images from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Scientific culture has elicited a fundamentalist response in which scripture is seen not only as the pure source of divine inspiration, but as a precise and challenging ‘dataset’ setting out God’s words, and prescribing what people should believe and how they should lead their life."

"The foundations of reason in the Mediterranean cultures lie in the belief that a single God created a single universe with a single set of physical characteristics and laws that are true throughout time, and everywhere. The laws of logic, “Whatever is, is,” “Everything must either be or not be,” and “Nothing can both be and not be,” are in truth the briefest complete description of this God’s universe."

"Politically, the philosophy of science has also made it clear that there is no knowledge so certain that it justifies the exercise of power against those who dissent from it. Feyerabend was at pains to emphasise the dangers of an over belief in the certainties of science, a view which was not only philosophical in nature but perhaps also reflected on his direct personal experience of life as an army officer in Hitler’s Germany, and the hideous ways in which science was used by the Nazis to justify their crimes."

"The history of Mediterranean monotheism reveals that by the time Greek civilisation began to emerge, there was already an understanding of the judgemental nature of self reflective consciousness. The critical turning point in Greek thought, and in truth the founding moment of the Mediterranean mind, was asking the question, “What is reality?” The question only makes sense to those who have understood the challenge of reflective consciousness. You wouldn’t ask this question unless you had some reason to suppose that reality might not be what ‘common-sense’ told you it was. This question only begs an answer if you realise that in some way there is a choice between competing versions of reality, and you need to find criteria which will allow you to decide which view is best and if possible to go further and decide whether you know anything which is unequivocally true."

"Reflecting on the contemporary distinction and conflict between religion and science, the point is that the reason why the scriptural God is dead is that natural philosophy (science), changed its description of the universe. In this respect one of the main lines of attack on religion by the scientistas, the fundamentalists of science, is significantly weakened. It is not that the idea of God fails the test of science, rather it is the case that science has moved to a position where there is simply no place or role for the God of ancient scripture ...
... the significance of this point is not that religion needs to be given a second chance to make its case about the existence of God, but rather that the question of whether or not the scriptural God exists is an irrelevant distraction. The noise that has been generated about the non-existence of God by well-known atheists like Richard Dawkins has drowned out the far more challenging and interesting issue of what natural philosophy (science) means five hundred years after Copernicus made his tentative proposals about re-ordering the universe."

"By the beginning of the 20th century, scientific culture had become and to a large extent remains obdurately attached to the belief that it alone has the ability to achieve a complete, objective and rational knowledge of the world. Religious fundamentalism often looks to me like a response which mirrors the unyielding certainties claimed for science, rather than being founded in some kind of pathological fanaticism – a sort of social version of Newton’s third law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."

"If science did not inspire such confidence in its understanding of the material world, imagine how much more nervous we’d all feel at the airport, waiting on the plane for take-off. However when it comes to the most fundamental issues about reality and how we understand it, science cannot lay claim to greater insight than any other tradition of knowledge – or indeed to have come up with anything that is compellingly novel apart from really strange stuff like quantum mechanics and string theory. On matters like consciousness, love and morality, questions about what lies ‘beyond’ the Big Bang and the observable universe it is difficult to imagine that within or without science we can ever achieve definitive, integrated answers that will serve all people across all time. The problem that scientific culture has created for itself is that it has tried to leverage its command of the air into command of the heavens."

"It is the perception of a cold and dispassionate refusal in science to engage with meaning, and its obdurate certainty about the universal totality of its own truths, which causes such offence to so many people. Scientific culture looks to an awful lot of people like a tyrannical monster threatening to strip their lives of meaning and values, and that is intolerable. In these circumstances, and especially in societies or communities with a strong traditional religious culture, if science is seen as coming simply to blaspheme and destroy the truth and the meaning of God, the response can only be calculated to give way to a violent defence."

"Understanding the history of knowledge, and its place in culture, is a vital contribution to progress and tolerance in the bloody disputes which divide us. With an historical perspective it is clear that all assertions which make claim to absolute truth about life, the universe and everything should be regarded as manifestations of insanity."

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