This article addresses the relationship between experience and belief, focusing on the role of science in the debate between secular Humanism and Christianity. It suggests that the possibility of appropriating experience to belief – taking action to bring experience into line with belief – distinguishes spiritual belief from systematic belief (in which the object is independent of beliefs about it); but that the boundary between these two forms of belief is itself a matter of (metaphysical) belief. Understanding science and religion, Humanism and Christianity in relationship to systematic and spiritual belief-structures helps to bring clarity to the debate.
What should we do when our experience contradicts our beliefs? For John Wesley it was attentiveness to his experience that led him to change beliefs he had inherited about cherished Christian practices – for example, beliefs about instantaneous justification, field preaching and lay preachers. For discussions of Wesley's empiricism, see Heizenrater, p. 81; Tomkins, p. 61; Wellings, p.58. For a discussion of the role of experience in Methodism, see Marsh. See Marquardt. See English.
For discussions of Wesley's empiricism, see Heizenrater, p. 81; Tomkins, p. 61; Wellings, p.58.
For a discussion of the role of experience in Methodism, see Marsh.
Like Wesley we are constantly faced with questions about when we should adapt our beliefs to our experiences, when we are justified in ignoring experiences that contradict our beliefs, and when we feel called to change the world as we experience it in order to shape it to our beliefs. These issues are central to human existence, and central to an understanding of faith. Yet they have become obscured by acrimonious debate between Christians and secular Humanists, which often focuses on the role played by the discipline of science. In this article I will look behind the debate about science and religion, and focus on the relationship between our understanding of the world as we experience it, the world as we interpret it to be and the world as we dream that it could be.
In the ongoing debate between Christianity and secular Humanism, the role played by science remains central. See, for example, Williams and Tallis. Law 2011a, Chapter 2. Law 2011b, p. 1. Watson, J., p. 315.
See, for example, Williams and Tallis.
Law 2011a, Chapter 2.
Law 2011b, p. 1.
Watson, J., p. 315.
Elaine Ecklund and Elizabeth Long interviewed 275 American natural and social scientists, and found that many distinguished between religion and science as ways of knowing on the basis of how evidence related to belief. They also found a distinction between attitudes towards religion and towards spirituality. Among the 26% of the scientists who professed some form of spirituality, there was a congruence between their understanding of spirituality and that of science. Like science, spirituality was regarded as a search for truth ‘that can never be final’, suggesting that spiritual beliefs are subject to change in the light of experience in the same way that scientific beliefs are. Ecklund and Long. Watson, M., p. 8. For example, see Thompson and Williams, Chapter 1.
Ecklund and Long.
Watson, M., p. 8.
For example, see Thompson and Williams, Chapter 1.
It is apparent that both science and religion encounter situations where belief is contradicted by experience. That both science and religion are capable of responding, at least in some circumstances, by changing the belief suggests that a willingness to accommodate belief to experience is not the criterion that distinguishes these two disciplines.
Three possible objections to this enterprise are worth considering at the outset. First, some would argue that religion and science should not be compared as forms of knowledge, For example, Armstrong, p. xv. For example, Smith. See for example, Asad, p. 47.
For example, Armstrong, p. xv.
For example, Smith.
See for example, Asad, p. 47.
A third initial objection might be that to talk of science in terms of belief is unduly pejorative, and skews the argument in favour of religion from the outset. Science is about knowledge, the argument might go; religion is about belief. However, the question at hand is precisely what it is about science that underwrites its ability to produce knowledge. If a belief is regarded simply as a mental attitude which ‘takes a stance’ that a proposition correctly represents ‘how things stand in the world’, Sayre, p. 35.
Sayre, p. 35.
Karl Popper argued that if a belief was to be considered to be a statement about empirical reality, it must be capable of being shown to be false by experiential evidence. Popper 2005, p. 21. Popper 2005, p. 17. Popper 1989, p. 38, fn. 3. Popper 1986, p. 143.
Popper 2005, p. 21.
Popper 2005, p. 17.
Popper 1989, p. 38, fn. 3.
Popper 1986, p. 143.
Hans Georg Gadamer recognised that the human sciences lie outside the methodology of natural science and that their task is one of interpretation. Nevertheless, his approach to interpretation Gadamer, p. xx. Piaget, p. 6. Porter and Robinson, pp. 78–79. Thus a person who wants to understand must question what lies behind what is said. He must understand it as an answer to a question. If we go back behind what is said, then we inevitably ask questions beyond what is said. We understand the sense of the text only by acquiring the horizon of the question—a horizon that, as such, necessarily includes other possible answers. Gadamer, p. 363.
Gadamer, p. xx.
Piaget, p. 6.
Porter and Robinson, pp. 78–79.
Thus a person who wants to understand must question what lies behind what is said. He must understand it as an answer to a question. If we go back behind what is said, then we inevitably ask questions beyond what is said. We understand the sense of the text only by acquiring the horizon of the question—a horizon that, as such, necessarily includes other possible answers. Gadamer, p. 363.
Gadamer, p. 363.
In empirical science, according to Popper, the possibility of accommodation (falsification) arises from the possibility that experience will reveal the world to be different from how it is believed to be. In the human sciences, according to Gadamer, the possibility of accommodation arises from understanding how a unique artefact might have been other than it is. Only by re-imagining other possible answers to a question – answers that the artefact excludes – does it become possible for the inquirer to see past the horizon of their own presuppositions. ‘To encounter another person's horizon through dialogue is to allow our own horizon to be potentially changed.’ Porter and Robinson, p. 94.
Porter and Robinson, p. 94.
Philosophers subsequent to Popper have come to the conclusion that for science, too, accommodation has more to do with the attitude of the scientist than the nature of the discipline. This is because even hypotheses that are expressed in such a way that they can be falsified still rely upon auxiliary hypotheses to test them. For example, the hypothesis ‘all swans are white’ is falsifiable, but relies upon the auxiliary hypothesis ‘this bird is a swan’ in order to test it. The apparent discovery of a black swan might signal an error in either of the two hypotheses, making it impossible to know whether it is the belief about swans or the belief about the particular bird that is wrong. This argument is drawn from Rosenberg, pp. 202–204. Popper's claim about falsifiability may be best treated as a description of the attitudes of scientists towards their hypotheses, and/or a prescriptive claim about what the attitudes of good scientists should be, instead of a claim about statements or propositions independent of attitudes towards testing. Rosenberg, p. 208.
This argument is drawn from Rosenberg, pp. 202–204.
Popper's claim about falsifiability may be best treated as a description of the attitudes of scientists towards their hypotheses, and/or a prescriptive claim about what the attitudes of good scientists should be, instead of a claim about statements or propositions independent of attitudes towards testing. Rosenberg, p. 208.
Rosenberg, p. 208.
It would seem that in both the natural and the human sciences, the possibility of showing a belief to be inconsistent with experience relies upon the attitude of the person holding the belief rather than any characteristic of the belief itself. A belief that is held with an attitude that is open to accommodation can be described as
What if an inquirer's attitude leads them to retain a belief despite apparently contradictory evidence and thus protect the belief from the possibility of change? Popper would describe this as an Piaget, p. 6. Law 2011a, p. 10.
Piaget, p. 6.
Law 2011a, p. 10.
That assimilation does have a role to play in the natural sciences is most simply illustrated by the way scientists use a ‘line of best fit’. Data plotted on a graph is construed to lie on a straight line or a curve with a standard mathematical formula, allowing the data to be described and manipulated even though they represent no more than an approximation to an assumed theoretical model. Thomas Kuhn argued that such approximations and anomalies are part of what he describes as ‘normal science’. Unlike Popper, he maintained that, historically, most scientific activity has not sought to falsify hypotheses, but rather to extend the range of facts that could be interpreted by means of a prevailing paradigm. Kuhn, p. 24. Kuhn, p. 81.
Kuhn, p. 24.
Kuhn, p. 81.
The benefit to scientists of assimilating unexpected data as anomalies within a stable body of belief, rather than as refutations of a belief is, precisely, stability. It means that scientists know what they are looking for and what equipment they need in order to find appropriate data. It enables them to distinguish relevant data from other readings due to observational error, equipment malfunction or imperfect experimental design. It provides continuity in a programme of work that supports investment in institutions and equipment. Kuhn, Chapter VI. Kuhn, p. 78.
Kuhn, Chapter VI.
Kuhn, p. 78.
For Gadamer, too, an attitude of accommodation presupposes one of assimilation. The fusion of horizons with a text (artistic or historical) which might disclose alternative answers to a question is the result of a conversation with the text in which the interpreter remains open to revising their presuppositions. However, the starting point for such a conversation could only be the concepts and assumptions brought to the text by the interpreter from their particular situation in the world. For Gadamer, we are always participants, and not observers in the world. Porter and Robinson, p. 78. Gadamer, p. 389.
Porter and Robinson, p. 78.
Gadamer, p. 389.
Assimilation involves the recognition of the familiar, in which the evidence of experience is construed to signify something that is already believed to be true. Piaget, p. 187. Piaget, p. 187. Grey. Aaron, p. 1.
Piaget, p. 187.
Piaget, p. 187.
Aaron, p. 1.
In summary, like accommodation, assimilation plays a role in both the natural and human sciences that is not only legitimate, but essential. The process of assimilation makes our experience meaningful
That both the natural and human sciences rely on an attitude of assimilation as well as accommodation has led some theorists to regard natural science as ‘a wholly social product, a mere set of Gross and Levitt, p. 11. I see no way of escaping the rather fundamental observation that the Earth travels around the Sun. I am also convinced that if every sentient being on Earth believed that the Earth was stationary and at the center of the universe this would not make it so. Ashman, p. 114.
Gross and Levitt, p. 11.
I see no way of escaping the rather fundamental observation that the Earth travels around the Sun. I am also convinced that if every sentient being on Earth believed that the Earth was stationary and at the center of the universe this would not make it so. Ashman, p. 114.
Ashman, p. 114.
Ashman is arguing that the earth orbits the sun independently of our beliefs. No amount of believing will change the facts. However, the situation would be different in the case of an object that was made by humans – an artefact. Consider music, for example. If every sentient being believed that music was tonal, that is, based on the relationship between the first and fifth notes of a diatonic scale – as they did in Western Europe from approximately the eighteenth until the early twentieth century – then that is what music would be. However, had Arnold Schoenberg succeeded in persuading every sentient being that music was, instead, based on ‘twelve tones which are related only with one another’ Schoenberg 1975a, p. 218. Kostelanetz, p. 12. Schoenberg 1975b, p. 139. Gann, p. 11.
Schoenberg 1975a, p. 218.
Kostelanetz, p. 12.
Schoenberg 1975b, p. 139.
Gann, p. 11.
Isaac Levi describes appropriation as ‘choosing true’. Levi, p. 115. Levi, p. 115.
Levi, p. 115.
Levi, p. 115.
The same might be said in relation to an example Richard Norman uses to illustrate how failing to adapt a belief to contrary experience can result in self-deception. Norman contrasts two cases.
S acts as though p were true and thereby comes to believe p, where this is a case of self-deception or unthinking habit, inducing a belief which remains ungrounded. S acts as though p were true and thereby comes to see what it is that makes p true. Norman, p. 108.
S acts as though p were true and thereby comes to believe p, where this is a case of self-deception or unthinking habit, inducing a belief which remains ungrounded.
S acts as though p were true and thereby comes to see what it is that makes p true. Norman, p. 108.
Norman, p. 108.
Norman argues that if we are going to base our actions on a belief as if it were true, even though we cannot be sure at the outset that it S acts as though p were true, and thereby comes to make p true.
S acts as though p were true, and thereby comes to make p true.
This describes, for example, what happened when the slave trade was abolished in Britain in the nineteenth century. When William Wilberforce spoke, in 1789, of men who were ‘converted into goods’ and ‘subject to ravage just as goods are’, Wilberforce, ¶1. Wilberforce, ¶6.
The potential for human agency to change history has been manifest as a fault line in the human sciences. How can society be studied scientifically, as if it were nature, when belief cannot change the physical reality of the earth's orbit around the sun but has changed the social reality of slavery? According to Jürgen Habermas, this was the problem with Gadamer's hermeneutics: he ‘failed to provide a way to interject critical-rational change into our worldviews and traditions’. Porter and Robinson, p. 151. Habermas, p. 13. Habermas, p. 13. See Niemi.
Porter and Robinson, p. 151.
Habermas, p. 13.
Habermas, p. 13.
That the spheres of natural and cultural sciences might be demarcated, not by an attitude of accommodation (as Popper suggested) but by one of appropriation, is comparable with the argument by Stephen Gould that science and religion are two equal but non-overlapping Gould 1999, p. 4.
Gould 1999, p. 4.
The foregoing discussion of belief highlights two problems with NOMA. First, the two Gould 1999, p. 56. Gould 1999, p. 57.
Gould 1999, p. 56.
Gould 1999, p. 57.
The second problem is more fundamental, and raises the question of whether it is possible to distinguish neatly between objects that are shaped by human belief and action and those objects which are not. Richard Dawkins criticises NOMA on the basis that it doesn’t reflect the reality of religion. He suggests that religion (specifically Christianity) does not restrict itself to values, but also makes factual claims about the world – for example about miracles and about creation. Dawkins, p. 85.
Dawkins, p. 85.
Conversely, Howard Kaye observes that, although the neat separation of Kaye 2008, p. 153. Kaye 2017, p. 2.
Kaye 2008, p. 153.
Kaye 2017, p. 2.
Thus, whereas some religious believers seek to shrink the domain of nature that is independent of belief, some scientists seek to expand this domain. Gould acknowledges that the delineation of legitimate domains can be ‘complex and difficult’. See Gould 1997.
See Gould 1997.
If we are to accept the impact of the first problem, that science is differentiated from the humanities (not religion) by the role played by belief in the formation of their object, then the second problem identifies another significant feature of these two
There may be a high degree of consensus about metaphysical belief in relation to some objects. For example, it is likely that most people believe that they are unable to influence the orbit of the earth around the sun. It is equally likely that most people believe that music is formed through cultural choices rather than natural forces. However, for many other objects – perhaps even the majority of objects that concern most people for most of the time – the distinction between those things we can control and those we can’t is far less obvious. At the centre of the debate about climate change, for example, has been the question of whether observable changes in our environment are the result of human action or of long-term, natural climactic processes. See Berliner. See IPCC 2013.
See IPCC 2013.
To summarise (see Figure 1): when the beliefs we form about the world come into conflict with our experience of the world, we have three options. We can adopt an attitude of accommodation and change our beliefs. We can adopt an attitude of assimilation and interpret our experience, bringing meaning to it in the light of our beliefs. Or we can appropriate our experience to our beliefs, acting on the world in order to change our experience so that it is consistent with what we believe. This last attitude is possible only if we hold the metaphysical belief that the particular part of the world we are experiencing can be changed. If we do not believe that this aspect of our experience can be influenced by human action, then we only have two options: to accommodate our beliefs to experience, or to assimilate our experience to our beliefs.
The analysis presented here points to two types of belief. Systematic belief is based on a metaphysics that regards the object of belief to be natural; that is, to be unaffected by beliefs that are held about the object. Natural science fosters systematic belief, but not exclusively so. Positivist approaches to the social sciences and the arts also regard their objects in this way. By contrast, spiritual belief is based on a metaphysics that regards the object of belief to be cultural: susceptible to change because it is an artefact rather than a natural or quasi-natural object. Some religious beliefs are of this type, but so are non-religious beliefs, such as the view of critical theory that society is shaped by ideology.
Metaphysical beliefs about an object distinguish between systematic and spiritual beliefs, but they do not necessarily determine the circumstances in which attitudes of accommodation, assimilation or appropriation are adopted. Within systematic beliefs there is tension between the attitudes of accommodation and assimilation, that is, between the affirmation of belief or of experience. These tensions are mediated by the practices of a discipline and the structure of doxastic commitments to which a belief belongs. Levi, p. 8. Kuhn, p. 145.
Levi, p. 8.
Kuhn, p. 145.
There is greater tension within spiritual beliefs because, in addition to questions about whether to retain a belief or accommodate it to experience, it may not be at all apparent when an attitude of appropriation should prevail in order to change a given set of circumstances. Again, beliefs do not occur in isolation; and attitudes towards the affirmation or change of experience and belief will depend in part on the stability of a network of beliefs and experiences. Practices have also developed in order to mediate between attitudes. In politics, for example, democratic elections perform this function by allowing the majority to influence which beliefs will become normative for society. In religion, prayer can be understood as a practice that mediates between the appropriation of the future to what is longed-for, and the transformation of the self to accommodate the reality of the present. This practice of mediation is expressed most succinctly in the words, ‘thy will be done’. Phillips, p. 122.
Phillips, p. 122.
Distinguishing between systematic and spiritual beliefs rather than between science and religion has several important consequences. I shall conclude by drawing attention to these consequences in light of the debate between Stephen Law and the Young Earth Creationists with which I began.
First, focusing on the structures of belief rather than the respective disciplines and institutions of science and religion helps to clarify the issues by disentangling them from the politics of the debate. Ken Ham, in defending Young Earth Creationism, acknowledges that it is not scientific; indeed, it is anti-scientific. Ham rejects criticisms such as Law's – that his beliefs about creation are insulated from empirical falsification – because he rejects empirical grounds of belief in favour of biblical revelation. See Ham. So, ‘The main threat of the Calvinist view, as the Wesleyans saw it, was antinomianism,’ Heitzenrater, p. 247.
So, ‘The main threat of the Calvinist view, as the Wesleyans saw it, was antinomianism,’ Heitzenrater, p. 247.
Second, focusing on structures of belief helps to clarify the role that the discipline of science plays within both Humanist and Christian thinking. Responding to accusations of ‘scientism’ by religious writers attempting to limit the scope of science, Law cautiously acknowledges the logical gap identified by Hume between what empirically Law 2017, p. 123. See Pope Francis, ¶141.
Law 2017, p. 123.
See Pope Francis, ¶141.
Finally, by grounding the debate between science and religion in the structures of thought that they share and in the practices that inform the formation of attitudes towards belief, it becomes possible to focus more clearly on what is at stake in the contemporary debate between secular Humanism and Christianity. This is not primarily a debate about academic disciplines, but about how life is to be lived. Insofar as it is concerned with belief, this is a debate about the metaphysics of human agency; and it is a debate about when experience or belief should prevail over the other. However, it is also a debate about the practices involved in the formation of the attitudes which regulate belief; and it is a debate about the language in which these beliefs, attitudes and practices are expressed. Living involves (amongst other things) knowing when to interpret the world in the light of our existing beliefs and when to change those beliefs to reflect our experience. It involves knowing when to adapt our beliefs to a situation over which we have no control and when to take action to change the situation so that it conforms more closely to what we believe is true. We do not form this knowledge in isolation, but alongside others, aligning ourselves with groups of people and established forms of thinking – some of which we call ‘Christian’ or ‘Humanist’.
Yet this discussion has also made clear the extent to which it is inescapably ambiguous to speak of what ‘is’ a Humanist or a Christian. These creatures are human constructs – objects of spiritual belief – and, therefore, combine experiential, symbolic and normative truths. Any discussion of Humanism and Christianity will, therefore, be animated by negotiation about what these terms mean, about how they are in fact manifest as phenomena, and about what they should become. We can, however, bring some clarity to the debate by disentangling these approaches to living from the institutions of science and religion with which they have been historically enmeshed. And in bringing clarity, we can negotiate more adroitly the pathway from a shared understanding of the world as it is to a shared vision of the future.