Classic Revisited: Whitehead, “Science and the Modern World”

Alfred North Whitehead was an important philosopher of science and metaphysics writing primarily in the early twentieth century.  Here is an interesting section from his book, Science and the Modern World (1925), dealing with the conflict between religion and science.  We are sometimes deceived into believing that these disputes are only quite recent, but of course they are not.  They are old tensions, and many writers have had provocative things to say about them.  Here is a bit of Whitehead:

The conflict between religion and science is what naturally occurs to our minds when we think of this subject.  It seems as though, during the last half-century, the results of science and the beliefs of religion had come into a position of frank disagreement, from which there can be no escape, except by abandoning either the clear teaching of science, or the clear teaching of religion.  This conclusion has been urged by controversialists on either side . . . .

When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.  We have here the two strongest general forces (apart from the mere impulse of the various senses) which influence men, and they seem to be set one against the other — the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.

A great English statesman once advised his countrymen to use large-scale maps, as a preservative against alarms, panics, and general misunderstanding of the true relations between nations.  In the same way in dealing with the clash between permanent elements of human nature, it is well to map our history on a large scale, and to disengage ourselves from our immediate absorption in the present conflicts.  When we do this, we immediately discover two great facts.  In the first place, there has always been a conflict between religion and science; and in the second place, both religion and science have always been in a state of continual development . . . .

[A]ll our ideas will be in a wrong perspective if we think that this recurring perplexity was confined to contradictions between religion and science; and that in these controversies religion was always wrong, and that science was always right.  The true facts of the case are very much more complex, and refuse to be summarised in these simple terms.

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The Passing of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens has passed away after a terrible battle with cancer.  While not a few readers may be familiar with his various, energetic anti-religious polemics, perhaps a smaller number know his book on George Orwell, which I found to be both well-written (as is all of Hitchens’s work) and enlightening.  And for something light, take a look at this short exchange between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Hitchens on the nature of the 1960’s counterculture — two elegant speakers having some fun with one another.

Reporting Child Sex Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community

The Jewish Daily Forward reports on a controversy in Brooklyn over D.A. Charles Hynes’s refusal to name scores of Orthodox Jews arrested for child sex crimes over the last three years. Hynes has charged 85 members of the Orthodox Jewish community with such crimes, but says that releasing their names might identify the victims, which NY law forbids.  Critics say this is a pretext and that Hynes, an elected official, is in fact trying to maintain the support of the influential Orthodox Jewish community, which opposes releasing the names. The Forward article also discusses a controversial policy adopted by Agudath Israel, an umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis, that requires Jews who suspect child sex abuse to consult their rabbis before reporting their suspicions to secular authorities. Critics argue that Orthodox rabbis often persuade people that approaching the civil authorities would violate Jewish law principles such as the prohibition on lashon harah, or “evil gossip.”

Canada Bans Veils During Citizenship Ceremonies

Reuters reports that Canada’s immigration ministry has decided to forbid women at naturalization ceremonies from wearing veils that cover their faces, even for religious reasons. The ban will affect Islamic veils like the  niqab, which covers the face but has an opening to allow vision, and burqa, which has a mesh. The ministry argues that its decision will ensure that people who “join the Canadian family” do so “freely and openly,” but Reuters talks about a possible lawsuit by Canadians who believe the ban violates Muslims’s religious freedom. If such a case materializes, the governing precedent would likely be the Canadian Supreme Court’s 2006 Multani decision, the Sikh kirpan case, in which the court held that, under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, any restriction on religious freedom must serve an important government objective and be proportional to that objective — a test that resembles the pre-Smith Sherbert doctrine in American law.

Plantinga, “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

The famous philosopher Alvin Plantinga (emeritus at Notre Dame, also at Calvin College) has published Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (OUP 2011).  There was a fair story in the NY Times about Plantinga (and this book) a couple of days ago. 

I also have always thought that this on-line paper of Plantinga’s, “On Christian Scholarship,” was very interesting. 

The publisher’s description of the book follows.

This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates — the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord.

Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist — evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion — as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological “fine-tuning” in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way — as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise.