A Step Toward a “Unity” of Science and Religion

Dawkins Book

by Keisuke Noda, Professor of Philosophy, Barrytown College of UTS

Keisuke_NodaThe “unity” of science and religion is one of the central theses of Unificationism. In the Divine Principle, the “unity” of science and religion is discussed as one of the characteristics of “new truth” disclosed by the Principle. In practice, beginning in 1972, Rev. Moon held a series of International Conferences on the Unity of the Sciences (ICUS) in order to bridge science and religion. The sciences include natural, social, and human sciences, and religion includes Judeo-Christian and Islamic monotheism, non-Western religions, and various spiritual paths. Both in theory and practice, Unificationism seeks the integration of all knowledge within a theistic framework and the idea of a “unity” of science and religion  is part of this endeavor.

Recent atheist movements led by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been undermining religion on the basis of “science.” Religious apologetics similarly attempt to justify their beliefs based upon “science.” Before we approach the question of the “unity” of science and religion, we need to clarify the nature of scientific knowledge as well as that of religious knowledge.

I challenge the popular belief that science is interpretation-free, a-historical, non-social knowledge, and argue that both science and religion have interpretive dimensions (whether there is any knowledge free from interpretation is a separate and open question). If science and religion are two types of interpretive theories, their frameworks of interpretation, including presuppositions and assumptions, require rigorous scrutiny. The hermeneutic structure of human understanding, the dynamic part-and-whole relationship between each element and the framework of interpretation, may be the most fundamental element in any human understanding.

What Does the “Unity’” of Science and Religion Mean?

There are two contrasting attitudes towards religion: one apologetic and another anti-religious. Others are somewhere in-between. Religious people often take an apologetic stance and try to find supportive evidence in the sciences. For them, “unity” means compatibility between or a justification of faith by science.

The anti-religious position, in its extreme form, denies the value and validity of faith on the basis of scientific “evidence.” From this position, the issue of “unity” does not exist because it takes science as solely valid. Authors such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Michael Shermer (The Believing Brain), and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) hold this anti-religious naturalist position. Dawkins’  depiction of faith as “one of the world’s great evils” well expresses their hostile stance toward religion.

It is popularly believed that science, natural science in particular, is an interpretation-free, objective, value neutral form of knowledge. Contrary to this popular belief, philosophers of science have noted the interpretive dimensions of science.

Is Science Interpretation-free?

In the early 20th century, a group of intellectuals created a group called the Vienna Circle. They argued that a statement/claim is meaningful if and only if it is verifiable by empirical sciences. Based upon this criterion, they divided knowledge (statements) into three groups: 1) knowledge verifiable by empirical sciences; 2) logic and mathematics; 3) anything else. (This tripartite division originated from David Hume; the Vienna Circle recapitulated Hume’s ideas.) Religious/ethical knowledge and their statements/claims, they argued, belong to the third group together with literature and art.

From this perspective, claims/statements in religion/ethics have poetic or literary values but they are (cognitively) meaningless. For knowledge to be valid, its truth or falsity has to be determined by empirical science. Claims/statements of religion/ethics are apparently neither proven nor disproven; such claims are not tested by empirical science. Hence, they argued that propositions of religion/ethics are cognitively meaningless. Their position was known as “logical positivism.”

A number of philosophers criticized this position, including Karl Popper (1902-94), Norwood Russell Hanson (1924–67), and Thomas Kuhn (1922-96).

Popper argued that what makes a theory scientific is not “verifiability” (a possibility of verification) but “falsifiability,” a possibility to be proven false. He argued that any theory can easily find some “evidence” to support the theory.  Even astrology can find some “evidence.” What characterizes and distinguishes a scientific theory from non-scientific theory, he argued, is its openness for falsification. Scientific theory is tentative and open to disproof and change. (The issue of distinction between science and non-science is known as the “problem of demarcation.”)

When Popper applied this criterion to “scientific” theories, he found that some were outside of science. Popper listed Marxism and psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud and others) as non-scientific theories because their hypotheses are not refutable in principle. There is always a way to explain any counter-evidence without changing its hypotheses.

The problem, however, was much deeper. Falsification of genuine scientific theory is also not as easy as Popper argued. Every scientific theory is built upon a number of hypotheses. As one of Popper’s critics pointed out, counter-evidence cannot easily identify which hypothesis is wrong. A scientific theory was, in reality, far “fuzzier” than many believed.

Hanson approached the issue from a different angle. He argued that “data” in science is not free from a theory but it is theory-loaded (“theory-laden”). For example, the term “120 volt” is meaningful only in reference to electro-magnetic theory. This data itself is driven by the theory. In other words, data in science is not a theory-neutral quantity but is meaningful only in reference to a relevant theory.

Kuhn, known for the introduction of the concept of “paradigm,” further developed the line of thought held by Hanson. Arguing against logical positivism, Kuhn observed the social, historical, and interpretive dimensions of science. He noted that new paradigms led to the revolutionary development of scientific theories, and that scientists came up with new paradigms from a variety of sources including intuition, inspiration, and others. Such paradigm shifts were comparable to a religious conversion.

One may still argue that scientific knowledge is neutral and objective based on its methodologies, testing procedures and norms. Although this argument is partially true, Kuhn argued, what is considered as “valid” as to the norms and procedures is determined by current practices in scientific communities, which evolve over time. In short, scientific knowledge is not knowledge that is interpretation-free, a-historical, and non-social. What counts as “scientific” is socially, historically conditioned and scientific theory has a structure of interpretation. Later in his career, Kuhn rephrased the term paradigm as a “hermeneutic core” in his efforts to discover the common characteristic amongst natural, social, and human sciences.

Interpretive Dimension of Religious Knowledge

What then is the nature of religious knowledge? Is it God-given, infallible, transcendent, interpretation-free knowledge? Or is religious knowledge laden with interpretive, social, and historical dimensions? Whether or not there is knowledge free from interpretation is an open question that requires a separate discussion.  Nevertheless, religious knowledge has an interpretive dimension. From antiquity, reading texts, signs, divinations, dreams, and revelations has been the task of high priests, shamans, and religious scholars. Hermeneutics, a theory of interpretation, has been a part of religious and legal knowledge (laws require interpretation).

Some may argue that revelation is direct, un-mediated knowledge from God. To take  a “message” as “revelation,” however, requires interpretation. For example, Genesis 22:5 and 22:8 describe Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac. Killing one’s own son is an awful and unethical command. If someone received this kind of “message,” how could he or she take it as God’s message? It is quite possible to set it aside as a bad dream or Devil’s whisper. To take the “message” as “revelation” is an act of interpretation. (In his Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, analyzed Abraham’s process of interpretation.)

Interpretation is essential to religion. From ritual to texts and religious symbolism, it is interpretation that makes religious acts/texts “meaningful.”

On Interpretation

An endeavor toward the integration of knowledge, expressed as the unity of science and religion in Unificationism, reveals the presence of the interpretive dimension in knowledge. Why and how is interpretation (hermeneutics) so fundamental to knowledge? How can the Divine Principle answer this question?

Interpretation is basically a dynamic interaction between the parts (items of interpretation) and the whole (horizon, framework, and context of interpretation). The part-and-whole is one of the most fundamental concepts in the Divine Principle. With this concept, Unificationism ontologically views the world as an organic whole consisting of numerous part-whole relationships. When this concept is applied to the purpose of human life, it appears as the “purpose for the whole” (i.e., “living for the sake of others”) and “the purpose for the individual.” When this concept is applied to human understanding, it appears as hermeneutics.

In other words, human understanding is carried out as a dynamic part-whole relationship between an item of interpretation and its context or horizon of interpretation. Furthermore, because this concept is working at a root level in human thought, it drives us to unify/integrate diverse knowledge (parts) into a coherent whole (whole).

Although there is no explicit explanation of interpretation (hermeneutics) anywhere in the Principle, this concept is embedded into the Principle. Developing a theory of interpretation is a worthy project as a step toward the “unity” of science and religion.♦

Dr. Keisuke Noda has been teaching courses in philosophy, ethics and Unification Thought at UTS since 1996. Previously he taught Unification Thought as a senior lecturer at the Unification Thought Institute both in the U.S. and Japan.

8 thoughts on “A Step Toward a “Unity” of Science and Religion

  1. Dr. Noda,

    This area of unity between science and religion interests me too – rather than issues of interpretation, though I think the underlying problem is one of ontology. Dawkins, et. al., do not use science incorrectly or out of context when they show that Christian doctrine is incorrect. We can’t just dismiss these writers out of hand because science does indeed show the ontology implicit in Christian doctrine is incorrect – so the doctrines themselves cannot be valid. Where these militant atheists go wrong is to suggest that this in turn proves religion (e.g., Christianity) is totally wrong and that God does not exist. They are wrong in this, it does not prove any such thing. It does, however, show that religious thought needs a new ontological foundation. The militant atheists could be seen as a wake up call from God!

  2. Thank you, Dr. Noda, for your thoughtful presentation. I agree with David Burton in that “religious thought needs a new ontological foundation.” I would say that a new ontological foundation can be obtained when we find and understand the basic core theory of Logos, God’s original plan. Religion was not inherit in Logos, but came about because humankind fell away from following its system. Our goal should be knowing this original scientific system and making it and True Love the foundation for our lives. I believe that Rev. Moon has mentioned the system of Logos and has delved into its theory in his teaching materials.

  3. I think I don’t understand. Why does science “show the ontology implicit in Christian doctrine is incorrect – so the doctrines themselves cannot be valid”? I think a new ontology without a reflection on methodology and hermeneutics (as argued by Dr. Noda) won’t bring any benefit.

    In my eyes science cannot prove or provide an ontology. Science can also not prove that Christian doctrine is incorrect. This is the very point of the “theory-ladenness” of empirical sciences first pointed out by Duhem and referred to in this article. Most historians, philosophers and sociologists of science take this problem seriously (easily lapsing into relativism, but this is a different although related theme.)

    There is no scientific experiment for whether there is a “real world”, causality or God. I think Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and his later works in general could provide a fertile starting point for the considerations on “unity” science and religion. In his Lectures on Religious Belief he points at mainly at the disunity of science and religion (the difficulty of an atheist understanding a religious person, considering under what circumstances they can at all have a meaningful conversation), but his language games and certainties could also help to develop a framework to understand their relation and interaction better.

  4. Theodor,

    In this article Dr. Noda downplays the importance of experimental verification for science and consequently tends to turn science into philosophy. However science is not philosophy, and experimental verification is the key thing that distinguishes it from philosophy. While it is true that experiment cannot prove or disprove the fact of God’s existence, it can be used to discriminate between competing theories of existence in a way that philosophy cannot. Science then is not just empirical, or just “theory-laden.” It combines both as sungsang (theory) and hyungsang (experiment), where experiment, not theory, is the final arbiter. Philosophy in this sense is only sungsang.

    Christian doctrine on God/Spirit and Creation is dependent on the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle for its understanding of existence. This philosophy provides an explanation for physical existence (so falls under the provenance of science) that is deductively used to explain God, spirit, and matter in Christian doctrine. We particularly see this in the theories of Augustine (Platonic) and Aquinas (Aristotelian). There is no experimental verification for this Greek ontology. On the contrary, experimentally verified science can and does show that this theory does not provide a valid explanation for physical existence. So its deductive extension into explanation for God, spirit, and matter in Christian doctrine must also be incorrect. Christian doctrine lacks a valid hyungsang, and is incompatible with science.

    The “New Atheists” exploit this. They understand that they only need to uphold science in order to refute Christianity and Christianity has no response to this kind of attack. Personally, I think the relational ontology of Divine Principle can be the basis for a revised religious ontology that is compatible with science, but we first have to get rid of much of the traditional way of thinking about the existence of God and spirit.

  5. I agree that there is an interplay between ideas (SS) and experience (HS) feeding into our theories and understanding.

    You say, “[Science] can be used to discriminate between competing theories of existence in a way that philosophy cannot.” I can broadly agree with that. My understanding is that science is the process of evaluation, development and applications of scientific theories. But you seem to suggest that empirical science, e.g., experiments, can test metaphysical positions. I guess this would require other (non-obvious) assumptions.

    “On the contrary, experimentally verified science can and does show that this theory does not provide a valid explanation for physical existence.” Maybe you can elaborate how recent science is not-verifying or falsifying Greek ontology or Christian doctrine. I don’t see that point at all.

  6. Ah, you bring up a number of things – can’t address them all in a short reply, but to get to what I think is the fundamental point. Do you agree that Christian doctrine depends on the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle for its understanding of existence? Further that this philosophy provides an explanation for what we can observe to exist?

    Plato and Aristotle rejected the atomism of Democritus and Leucippus that said existing things were collections of uncuttable particles (atoms) moving in the void. Instead they said existing things were a continuous stuff, matter, that was shaped by an immaterial form. These two theories of existence are mutually exclusive. Plato and Aristotle won out. Their theory was the accepted theory of existence in the West until the 1800’s.

    In 1804, John Dalton proposed a modern version of atomic theory that still lies at the foundation of chemistry and our understanding of existence. It took 100 years to provide experimental proof of atoms, but that proof irreversibly shifts science from a form and matter explanation for observable things to a theory based on particles. That is, the experimental proof of atoms shifts science to a theory of existing things that is incompatible with the ontological basis of Christian thought.

    This says nothing about whether God and spirit, or even matter, exist or not … but it does have bearing on the validity of Christian thought. Christian doctrine implicitly depends on — actually is logically derived from — the view of existing beings as form and matter. Since science shows this is not how observable things exist, we can conclude that the logical extension of the theory in Christian thought is also incorrect. It does not, however, prove what the militant atheists would have you believe — namely, that science shows God does not exist. It does show religious thought desperately needs a new ontology.

  7. Thank you for your reply! I find this conversation very stimulating. Sorry that this reply turns out to be a bit long.

    1) I don’t think that there is something like “Christian doctrine.” There are many Christians, who know what they believe, who have answers to all questions they regard as relevant and have never read Plato or Aristotle. In the process of adaptation in a Hellenic world or in confrontation with Hellenic thought, Christianity had to deal with a variety of ideas (different Judaisms, Greek philosophies, Gnosticism, Celtic and Germanic myths, etc.) and needed to find its stands. I think there are a variety of responses to these confrontations with different ideas found in the history of Christianity (although I am not at all an expert on that). Christianity did quite well with a variety of ontological ideas and managed to convert people in all kinds of cultures with all kinds of backgrounds.

    2) Philosophy is part of our understanding of the world, including our experiences. A lot of philosophy rests on/consists of metaphysical ideas, which cannot be tested as such. In my understanding, “atomos” and “panta rhei” are two metaphysical ideas that have re-occurred and been transformed over and over in the history of philosophy (like causality, mind and matter, reality, etc.). One cannot empirically prove either the former or the latter.

    You wrote, “In 1804, John Dalton proposed a modern version of atomic theory that still lies at the foundation of chemistry and our understanding of existence.“ If someone would say (I know you don’t), that Dalton had proved Atomism, she is wrong. Dalton rather found a scientific theory, relying on (the) idea(s) of atoms, which can take account of his observations.

    The history of physics shows that what Dalton regarded as “atoms” are not indivisible after all. Field theories, whether classical or quantum, can be again read as a move towards “panta rei” or as scientific theories ambiguous towards these two mammoth metaphysical ideas (reality thought as consisting of distinct indivisible atoms or as a flux of things). These recent developments in physics are not the central part of the argument (but rather an ornament). The main point (in my view) is the understanding of the relationship of metaphysical ideas (SS) and experience (HS) to our scientific theories.

    True Father can maybe be understood as recognising the ambiguity of experience towards metaphysical ideas — see quote below. I haven’t come to any conclusions on this yet, but I do think in the Messiah’s words lie the keys to the solutions of fundamental philosophical problems, but maybe not in the way we have always thought.

    “Have you seen life, lineage or conscience? Although you know they exist, you can neither touch nor see them. You can know about them only by feeling them through your mind and heart. Likewise, when you are asked whether God exists, or whether you have seen Him, you cannot say that you have not seen Him.” (275-13, 1995.10.30) Cheong Seong Gyeong

  8. Nice to be having this exchange with you. I too am finding this very interesting/challenging.

    “The main point (in my view) is the understanding of the relationship of metaphysical ideas (SS) and experience (HS) to our scientific theories.” Ahh, tricky. I agree with you that many ideas important for our life cannot be tested or proven in a scientific sense. But other than through some initial unprovable assumptions about existence and in the motivation of practicing scientists it is difficult for me to see how they could impinge on scientific theories themselves. Have you had any thoughts about that? I am not sure that they should. The great strength of the scientific approach that has resulted in the rapid modernization of the last 200 years arises precisely because limitations imposed by the scientific method exclude such untestable metaphysical speculation. Without those limitations there would be no [scientific] progress. I don’t believe we can bring unity between science and religion by breaking what makes science work, but should incorporate it as is in a larger framework – this for me is the promise of the Principle of Creation in DP.

    Some other notes:
    -I do agree with you on the importance of experience
    -I don’t quite follow your inclusion of flux/change – it does not quite seem the context of form and matter vs. particles that I was thinking about.
    -Yes, Christians (and many Unificationists) may not have studied Plato or Aristotle, but their belief system, even our very language, implicitly assumes their philosophy.
    -Also, though you are correct that there is perhaps not one Christian Doctrine, I believe that pretty much all Christian thought/philosophy before Atomic theory becoming widely accepted (say before about the time Darwin published his theory of evolution) assumes the Greek ontology of form/matter/substance as the state of the art explanation for existence.
    -This also causes us problems as in this philosophy there is no place for a spirit body or a spirit world as such.
    -Every quantum field is quantized into, carried by, particles. They are not continuous.

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