S C I E N C E & S P I R I T

Science and Religion, Faith and Revision: A Conversation
Kate Shiner, Anne Dalke, Ann Dixon and Paul Grobstein

During the summer of 2005, the Serendip/SciSoc Group focused on the theory and practice of "Science as Story Telling and Story Revision". Among the issues that arose was a recognition that the original article would generate different specific concerns in different audiences, and so it would be useful to address these with several more targeted versions of the general argument. Kate Shiner, a junior biology major at Bryn Mawr College, wrote one such version, directed to audiences concerned about the relation between science and religious faith. Anne Dalke, who had served recently as Kate's English professor in a class on The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, wrote a response. Their dialogue continues here, where others are welcome to join in the on-line forum discussion of Science (and Religion?) as Story Telling.

The conversation begins--

Lindon Eaves, The Life of Faith is Not a Life Without Doubt

Paul Grobstein, Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising

Kate Shiner, Science: Be Not Afraid

Anne Dalke, Religion as Testing: Another Sort of Story Revising

And the dialogue continues--

Anne, I think you have written a very thought-provoking article. I have been thinking about similar issues lately. The most useful thing I got out of it was an idea that many personal experiences are in a sense assailable...I think it's a good point and I did not fully consider it in my article. But I don't think I tried to rule out that possibility completely in my article, I simply said that outside of THAT class, there may be SOME that are unassailable, and I still think that is a valid point.

My other thought is that the last part is not so much a response to my article but a response to the idea of a conflict between religion and doubt. In my article I did not mean to (and I don't think I did, correct me if I'm wrong) argue that one cannot have religion without doubt. My article was about the conflict between science and faith (where i consider faith to be the opposite of doubt-and of course you know I don't TRULY believe in those kind of dichotomies in a strict sense, which in a way is what i was trying to say in my article), not a conflict between science and religion, and I do think the two are distinguishable (though intimately related) principles (faith and religion). I would be interested to hear what your definition of faith is, because you seem to both consider it a synonym for religion and the opposite of doubt, while you also incorporate doubt into your personal vision of religion. I am confused about that.

Thanks for your questions, Kate--they are helping me untangle some of my thinking-and-feeling about these very important topics. Your essay addressed the perception of a conflict between science and faith, but you're right: I used it as a stepping-stone to explore a related but not identical perception of a conflict between science and religion.

Ann Dixon:
May I just say that your essay is SO Quaker.
understanding the religious search as one of unending doubt
is not compatible with fundamentalism...or Catholicism...

Well, as Kate suggests, an interesting idea has emerged in this shared space, the overlap between her essay and my response: that (all? some?) personal experiences may be assailable and revisable, and so amenable to science (and religion?) as storytelling. This differs from the usual understanding (as figured here on the right) that religion deals with unassailable internal experience, and science with testable externals.

Want to think out loud together a little more about possible overlap and intersection? I'm curious, for starters, to know what you think characterizes "unassailable" experience. What-and-how do you see it distinguishable from experience that is assailable? From experience that is accessible? Or revisable?

From Unification Home Page

When I say unassailable, I suppose I do not mean that a person themselves cannot assail their own perspective on their experience. I am familiar with the phenomenon of hearing something taken in a new light by someone else and then changing my perspective on it; I think most would agree it is an important process for both scientists and people of faith. I think what I was trying to get at was that some (many?) of our internal experiences cannot be "peer-reviewed" in the same sense that a scientific experiment can be. A completely logical thought process can be scrutinized, but experiences that are predominately "emotional" (for lack of a better word, because I think more is often going on) can never be truly experienced by another person for what they are. When a friend tries her best to tell me about a spiritual experience she has had and how it has shifted her perspective on everything, I feel like my interpretation of that experience is definitely guesswork. My guesses may be close or important to me, but I have no justifiable way to prove that to anyone. Perhaps I take it on faith that we are really sharing something- an experience that cannot be embodied in words. In that sense, in order to incoporate this kind of experience into science you would NEED faith, but the scientific method does not allow for it.

Here are some other thoughts of mine that have come out of this conversation, although I'm not sure how they are all related: The idea of religious practice as one of constant doubting and testing is an intriguing one, and I agree with Ann that it is not the traditional Catholic or mainstream Christian perspective, or at least it is not articulated as such. I also wonder about religion without faith. I know it exists in some sense (preachers yell about it all the time), but is that what you are talking about? My guess is no. I suppose the way I see it is this- religion is community and tradition, and faith is an internal conviction- and one that is not assailable or able to be put into words. I do not think that any faith completely settles all questions in an immediate sense, but in some greater sense I believe that it does, just not in a way that I completely understand. I think that in having any kind of faith one is constantly battling against doubt, but religion without any faith does not seem to me like it would be rewarding.

I remember thinking, when I read through the fundamentalism vs. relativism forum, that the divide is between people who see the world in terms of their own internal battles (which are immediately real to them and infinitely important) and those who do not understand that perspective. I think fundamentalists are flawed in not realizing that the rest of the world does not see the same patterns that they see in everything (at least not in the same places or in the same way) and that trying to force this perspective on other people will be completely unproductive. I think they are also wrong in thinking that science will somehow necessarily take away their faith by shifting their perspective. I think it may very well shift their perspective, but I still hold that it need not weaken anyone's faith.

You continue to prod me, Kate, in ways I find both intriguing and useful. (Thanks!) I'm struck, for instance, by your saying that "our internal experiences cannot be 'peer-reviewed,'" because we can not "truly share" each another's experiences. But does being peer-reviewed--that is, being evaluated for worth--have to depend on sharing an experience? Maybe--for the kind of science-religious synthesis I'm trying to imagine and describe to you--we could aim for something a little different: finding useful, for ourselves, the different experiences of different others, precisely because we don't share them? Religions, as traditionally defined (and as described by you) are communities based on shared traditions. But mightn't we have religions, as we have science, based on a shared search for meaning and understanding, rather than on a presumption that what we all come to understand will be the same? (I do think Quakerism, in its best practice, comes close to being this sort of religious science/scientific religion).

I find myself intrigued, too, by your linked observations that "faith is an internal conviction," "not assailable"; that "religion without any faith does not seem...rewarding"; and that "science...need not weaken faith." What do you understand, and mean, by "faith"? Is it faith in something? In, for example, one's internal experience, whatever that may be? Or faith that one's internal experience is universal, common to all humans? (I'm thinking here of your interesting distinction "between people who see the world in terms of their own internal battles" and those who do "not see the same patterns.")

I find your ideas intriguing as well. Religion based on a shared search for meaning and understanding as opposed to a defined commonality is appealing to me, and I think it leaves room for faith (more about faith later). But I think you see this dichotomy more clearly than I do...it's hard for me to explain but I'll try. I don't quite understand what you mean by "finding useful, for ourselves, the different experiences of different others, precisely because we don't share them." How can we find something useful that we do not share? I am playing the devil's advocate here because I think we can...but how do you mean? Through language? And if we really believe that we can find another's experiences useful musn't we have some kind of belief in a shared commonality with that person? From what I know of science it seems reasonable to have that belief, because we share mostly the same DNA.

At the same time I think to a certain extent I live on the assumption that what I know of other's experience is my best guess, and this is where I see the division between religion and science. To me, there is legalism, and then there is open-mindedness. From my point of view open-mindedness as well as some other values I've adopted rest on the understanding that I cannot "peer-review" or judge anyone else's experience in terms of worth, because I really cannot know what that experience or any decisions made in that mindset were like. To be a part of society I make concessions, like I would have to judge as best I could if serving on a jury, but I know a personal judgement of character is ultimately beyond me.

You've asked what I mean by faith, and maybe that last statement has something to do with it for me personally. Holding seemingly contradictory views at once- that we all share something, and that I cannot point it out in any one person at any single time, not in a logical way. But it is much more than that as well...I really have no idea how to explain how I define that word. It involves God for me but that is a word that brings up images and associations that seem unrelated to the general concept. I remember wondering how you define faith as well, and if you can explain the word any better than I can I'd really appreciate it. Not that I assume we will have the same definition but it might be useful. Not only in its difference, though, it is useful to me because there is some commonality as well. Right? And could it be useful if it was the same?

--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." (John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, Source for "The Meaning of Serendip")

Faith, for me, is trusting that something will be helpful. It could be trusting that God will take care of me. It could be trusting that someone who loves me will always be there in a pinch. It could even be trusting that a process of shared seeking (like this one between us, Kate) will lead us both into new places of understanding. Such a trust might be robust (as I suggested above, a "belief in one story that completely settles all questions"). Or it might be fragile, following the Buddhist teaching that to remain with a belief that no longer serves its usefulness is like continuing to carry the raft after you have crossed the river. Actually? I'd go so far as to claim that faith might be most tenable if and when we know that its object is temporary, as Jody Cohen said in Writing Descartes: a springboard to push off into action and change...with the caveat that the springboard essentially drifts (disintegrates?) after we've interacted with it in this way.

Last summer, Paul famously chided Descartes for putting unreasonable levels of trust in "thinking"; I chided Paul in turn for placing too much trust in, and saying he feels safer around, people who can think. My own trust in the productivity of people thinking out loud together got chided in turn this past semester, by a student who claimed that engaging in such activity (in both the classroom and an on-line forum ) takes guts and a belief in the goodwill of humanity and life which she didn't share. Which brings us straight back, I think, back to this matter of our finding someone else's experience "useful," especially when we have not shared it. I'd say its "worth" lies in its reminder of the limits of our own perspective, and in its contribution to the expansion of our world. I learned this a long time ago at a workshop at my Meetinghouse:

that each of us has the responsibility and the authority to speak up....But--and this is the flip side of the same coin--each of us needs to cultivate a sense of humility, knowing that we can also be corrected by others. I understand now that the two ideas depend absolutely on one another: we can express with authority the "truth" as we see it in a given moment, knowing that our speaking will provoke others with different viewpoints to correct us. We can feel free to speak, because we know that we will be corrected, that revision is...always necessary (from Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach).

This process, as Paul and I later wrote about it in an essay on teaching college seminars on story-telling, can be a difficult one,

involving a complicated push-and-pull of authority and humility, as we ask one another both to claim what we know and to acknowledge what we don't yet know, and to stretch to figure out the relation between the two.

Is this useful? As way of describing the practice of science? Of religion? Of faith?

What if you don't know what the object of your faith is? Isn't that the whole point...you don't know where it is taking you, you are just along for the ride? So how can you KNOW that its object is temporary? Or permanent, as in "one story that completely settles all questions"? And isn't this faith in constant change itself faulty in being a kind of story that completely settles all questions? I think these are both slippery slopes, and that is why faith is so hard to put into words. Faith to me is all about holding these contradictory views simultaneously...faith is about putting together beauty and danger and getting out joy and hope instead of despair. And I think any kind of faith is at once trying to be a story that settles all questions and leaving room open for doubt about where it will lead. I think fundamentalists have this element when they have faith in their religion and so do Buddhists, but maybe they just articulate it in a different way and run into different kind of problems. Robust and fragile are not useful to me in the context you applied them, because I personally find Buddhist beliefs to be overwhelmingly robust when applied in certain ways.

I DO think the process of revision is useful in science and in religion. But I think it is useful in different ways. In science, it usually becomes obvious at a certain point to the majority of people when the story needs to be revised. Darwin obviously trumps Lamarck. In religion, it depends on each person whether or not the impact of another changes their own articulation of belief. I do think you are right about another person's story about his experience (which I think is important to differentiate from the experience itself) being important to the first person if it is different from what she has already incorporated into her own story. (Although if someone tells me a personal story that reinforces my beliefs, I would say this may be as important in way, it creates community.) In science though, we all have a story we can point to and say "look here, it needs to change." In religion I think it is up to me to point to that part in myself, in my own story, and see its inconsistency (or not). And would you accept that whether or not the story of science changes my internal story of faith depends on me?

Although here I suppose I have run into a dilemma, because if I follow my own definition of faith I would have to say that it will change my faith and that it will not. I can accept that...but I think faith is by definition all-encompassing so it can find a way to shift and incorporate the new experience...it just becomes a better iteration of what it already was, in that I understand better what was already in some way inside of me.

I think any kind of faith is at once trying to be a story that settles all questions and leaving room open for doubt about where it will lead....it usually becomes obvious at a certain point...when the story needs to be revised...

--in both science and religion, with difference being that science requires communal assent, while in religion, the assent (like the experience and knowledge out of which it arises) can be entirely personal?

And yet: most religions have creeds that assenting individuals recite together. Might that be the place where science and religion come together? In the insistance that personal belief join with other personal beliefs, in the making of a community in which all agree--temporarily--with all also agreeing to continue seeking, and to revise the common story in response to shared new experiences?

(Curious to me, as I write this out, that I seem so to want science and religion to be essentially the same thing. I suppose that's because, in my experience, they are. And I seem to be asking for your assent to my experience. Hm: same process as above.)

Which raises the important question, in both science and religion, of how large communal agreement need be. Religious wars are grounded in the hope that others can be--must be--converted to one's own belief system. Science has a somewhat different process of adjudication (one that is just as brutal, in its excision of unsupported ideas): a new story generated in one laboratory is tested and re-tested in others, to see if the observations out of which they arise are robust ones. Paul's story of science advocates wider participation in the processes of scientific exploration. Why do both scientists and religionists need others to participate in a shared process? To test--to assent?--to the validity of our own experiences? Because we recognize the limits of--and so don't trust (=have faith in)--our own?

It seems like an important point, the idea of asking someone to assent to your experience. Religions do have that element, I agree. There is a process of testing a creed within yourself and seeing if it works for you like it does for other people. We do want people to reinforce the validity of our internal experiences in order to feel more assured...although I'm actually not sure if everyone works this way to the same extent, it strikes me as a more strongly feminine quality. Of course religious wars have been led by men- maybe they just don't have as much faith in dialogue.

To answer your question specifically, science and religion in my life are woven together in some ways. I enjoy learning about life (my major being biology) not only because I'm constantly asking logical scientific questions, but also because I just like to think about how beautiful life is, and that for me is a spiritual experience.

But I think where we dissent is that I still do not want to totally break down this division between internal and external in the communities of religion and science. I know there are external elements in religion, but it seems like they essentially involve agreement about internal experience. There are internal elements in science, but I think they function primarily in the "crack" Paul wrote about, in helping people come up with creative new hypotheses about externally observable phenomena. Scientists, despite what internal experience may be motivating them, are still agreeing (or not) about externally replicable observations. I think the people involved can certainly overlap, and this can be productive. But what they publish in a peer-reviewed journal will only be allowed to express their external observations.

Scientists also seem better able to reach communal assent than the religious believers of the world. I cannot think of any scientists who have murdered each other over disagreement about a hypothesis, and they seem more open to being told that their theories are inadequate. Perhaps this is because it is easier to know how to go about replicating an external as opposed to an internal experience? Maybe this is what causes scientists to see their own limits more clearly. Perhaps if we could see the limits of our internal experience we could come to more religious agreement....

Glad Science as Story Telling brought the two of you together for some interesting/generative story sharing. Freely admit to saying "if you broaden science and reduce the strictures of some religions, they are essentially the same thing". I suspect though I am less inclined than Anne "to WANT science and religion to be essentially the same thing". Any maybe that's relevant to your conversation?

"Religion" is not part of my upbringing. "Science" is. For this reason (among others), I'm more concerned about how science is understood, both by those involved in the activity and those not, and less so about religion. And I think I both can and should have something to say about science and how it is perceived, whereas I don't think either is the case for religion. "IF you broaden science ..." is something I'm willing to take on as a task and I think I can do so with some useful expertise. "IF you ... reduce the strictures of some religions ..." is a different problem, one that I'm not equipped to take on and one that it would be the height of arrogance for me to attempt. That task involves histories and sets of aspirations that I'm not familiar with and communities at least some of which would be offended (appropriately) by any effort on my part to tell their stories. I'd be happy to to have "science as story" extended as "religion as story", if that works within the relevant communities, and to provide any help I can to those within those communities who want to try. But I don't know enough to WANT it to be so. It is entirely possible that something critical (and unknown to me) would be lost in the process. My own commitment is not to fuse science and religion but rather to have science be recognized as a "supportive nexus for human exploration and story telling in general", one that can involve and empower people regardless of what other stories (including religious ones) they may also find useful.

Along these lines, I'm intrigued by your discussion of internal and external experiences and their assailability, and the question of assent/agreement. Traditionally science has avoided dealing with matters of internal experience and has managed at least a reasonable degree of agreement within its community (at least) by confining itself to external things about which there is substantial experiential agreement. This is changing with the development of the "human sciences" and, most dramatically, with inquiries into the brain. The latter are not only requiring scientists to acknowledge the causal significance of "internal experience" but suggesting that the border between internal and external experience is much less sharp than had been previously thought. The upshot is a renewed understanding that internal experiences have to be taken at face value (and are, in this sense, unassailable) and some important new understanding: that internal experiences are much more individually unique than most people have suspected, that they originate in unsuspected ways and are difficult to alter, that they are based in material organization and hence potentially alterable, and that they are never fully shareable. All this is going to have a quite significant and to a substantial degree unpredictable impact on what we mean by science. And perhaps on what people mean by religion as well? ""if we could see the limits of our internal experience ..."?

Looking through several years' of Brown Bag discussions about "the culture of science," I see a repeated circling back to this idea. While talking about Interpreting Climatic Catastrophe, Don Barber said that it was a human characteristic that we are prisoners of our own experiences. When Paula Viterbo presented on natural family planning we found ourselves observing that, over 100,000 years of reproduction, women developed mechanisms for sensing the variations in their own cycles of fertility, and asking, Is it not possible to rely on one's own internal experience?

So, pursuing this a bit: Kate, you say you do not want to totally break down this division between internal and external, that scientists recognize the limits of internal experiences, in contrast to the (comparative) "ease" with which they can replicate external ones. Paul's saying, contrari-wise, that with current developments in cognitive science the border between internal and external experience is much less sharp than had been previously thought--though it seems to me he actually goes on to sharpen that border, by describing internal experiences as unique, difficult to alter, and never fully shareable (thereby implying a contrast with external experiences, which are replicable, alterable, and shareable?).

Quakers use a process--which I've several times participated in, and much admired the outcomes of--that seems usefully to bridge this divide, and that also accords with the socially adjudicative nature of science that Thomas Kuhn (among others) has highlighted. In a Quaker "clearness committee," someone experiencing an intuitive perception, a strong "leading" from within, lays out that concern to a selected group of Friends, who gather 'round and listen to you explain that you want to go preach to the poor, to leave your husband, to...do whatever you strongly desire to do. Presumably the internal experience of feeling "led" is itself not fully shareable, but it is precisely for that reason that it is shared aloud with others, made assailable and testable in a common search for right action, with a firm faith--not in any object, not in any particular end, but rather in the wisdom that can result from the process of shared seeking. As Paul Lacey explains, this process--and the faith which grounds it--is

one way of distinguishing the Quaker from the Ranter. The Ranters...insisted that all things were permitted to whoever followed...divine inspiration. For them there could be no authority outside of the individual's own conviction and neither the need nor the means to test the rightness of the individual's understanding or motive...but Friends learned...the community must practice discernment to test when an individual was rightly led (rpted. Teaching to Learn, p. 56).

If reaching shared judgments about internal experience doesn't distinguish the religious practice of communal testing from that of science, perhaps this matter of "rightness" does? Scientists know that they are only getting it less wrong, while religionists are convinced that--though they may only discern it incompletely, even with the help of others--there actually is a right to be discerned? That there is an external standard against which we judge our actions? Might that be what you mean, Kate, when you speak of faith?

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