A Philosopher's Blog

A Bit on Philosophy, Science and Religion

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on September 10, 2007

What is Philosophy?

The word “philosophy” literally means “love of wisdom.” While wisdom is a critical part of philosophy, the nature of wisdom has been extensively debated. In fact, there are some philosophers who have claimed that philosophy, in the current sense, has nothing to do with wisdom at all.

Philosophy and Science

From both a historical and a theoretical standpoint, the sciences arose from philosophy and so there is a special relationship between the two areas. Both address similar (and even identical) questions and employ similar (and even identical) methods. Both are concerned with the origin of the universe, the nature of the mind, the nature of space-time, the foundations of ethics, the basis of human behavior and so on. Both employ observations, symbolic logic, mathematics, hypothesis testing and so forth.

Because of these similarities, the boundaries between science and philosophy are somewhat vague. This often leads to controversy over what counts as scientific and what belongs in the realm of philosophy. It is a common mistake to assume that science is concrete and provides definite answers and that philosophy is merely theoretical and provides no definite answers. However, the facts of the matter are that both are highly theoretical and are swamped in unanswered questions and intellectual controversy.

Philosophy and Religion

Philosophy and religion are distinct areas and have experienced both conflict and cooperation through the centuries. Currently though, faith (religion) is often seen as being in conflict with reason (philosophy). This conflict dates back to the origin of philosophy-the discipline began by offering alternative explanations to those given by Greek religion. In many respects this tradition of competition has remained strong. Contemporary philosophers are often regarded as atheists and anti-religious and faith is often seen as irrational or beyond reason. In the past, early Christian thinkers blamed philosophy for many of the early heresies. Some religious thinkers claimed took reason as a threat to faith and something that misleads people.

Despite the existence of conflict between the two disciplines, there is also extensive overlap. Philosophers and religious thinkers address many of the same problems such as the existence of God, the nature of morality, the origin of the universe, and the purpose of existence.

Although many contemporary philosophers are atheists or at least agnostics, many philosophers have been religious thinkers and many religious thinkers have been philosophers. Among these thinkers are Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley. These thinkers and others made use of reason to defend and support religion.

One important debate in both philosophy and religion has been over defining the proper sphere of each. Some thinkers take the spheres to overlap in some degree so that philosophy can address some, but not all, matters in religion and vice versa. On this view, philosophers and religious thinkers have legitimate concerns within each others’ disciplines. Naturally, thinkers vary in their view about the extent of the overlap.

On one extreme, some thinkers take the spheres to overlap completely so that one can address all the matters of the other. One view is that religion should be used to address all allegedly philosophical problems. For example, questions about reality and morality are to be addressed by religion and not by a distinct discipline of philosophy. Another view is that philosophy/reason should be used to address all allegedly religious problems. A third view is that religion and philosophy can be used interchangeably-truth is truth, no matter how one reaches it.

On the other extreme, some thinkers take the spheres to have no intersection at all-each must stick to its own domain. On this view, religious methods are useless in dealing with philosophical matters and reason has no role in religious matters. Some scientific and philosophical thinkers, such as Freud, take the religious sphere to be ‘empty’ and hold that religion should be studied purely in scientific terms. One example of this is the view that religion should be looked at entirely as a psychological or sociological phenomenon. Freud, for example, took religious belief to be a psychological phenomenon and even wrote a work on religion entitled The Future of an Illusion. As another example, Marx considered religion to be “the opiate of the masses” and regarded it as a social phenomenon without a metaphysical foundation.

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  1. Ray said, on September 14, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Dr. Mike,

    Although it is accurate to say that the Greek philosophers were giving explanations outside of an appeal to Greek mythology, I do not necessarily think it’s accurate to say that early Greek philosophy was “secular” in any real way. Certainly it may have required interpretive reading strategies that were, until that time, possibly not commonplace, but most of the Greek writers saw their ideas as rooted in divinity/the divine realm. Even Socrates, who is often lauded as the first “real thinker” by many modern atheists, is nevertheless surprisingly theistic, in many of his arguments, seeking to reconcile his ideas with oracles and the demigods of the forms (such as Love).

    Of course “theist” is unfair here, I will admit. They were not Christians or Jews, and reading that back into them is just as unfair as reading the Russell’s and Dawkins of the world back into Plato and Pythagoras (who was an Orphic priest). Perhaps, to use an acceptable modern word, they were more like Deists. The Gods or The One was a clockmaker, and discovering the tick-tocking mechanisms was, by extension, a question by human reason, for the divine.

    Also, it isn’t really true that philosophy was blamed for the ancient Christian heresies per se, at least not so much by the ancient Christians. Spurrious writings and bad metaphysics were certainly at the root of orthodox Christian critique, but the lines were not so nicely divided. I think the problem stems from a mindset that, after the ancient Greeks died off, no longer thought of european civilization existing anywhere east of Prussia.

    In fact, Eastern Christian thought was predominant until at least the 12th century (and theologically was never inferior, despite its later lack of imperial presence across the globe). This is important, because Eastern Christian authors have always used neo-Platonic categories, and have insisted on defining things in their essence (ousia) and person (hypostasis or persona). Indeed, early on all Christians, and all Jews trained in the Greco-Roman diaspora (which was at least 2/3 of Judaism by the time Christians came on the scene), basically presumed a neo-Platonic structure to reality. They even read Hellenistic thought back into their biblical texts, as Philo exemplifies. Certainly they may have taken issues with the Platonists themselves, but simply put, all Christians phrased their religion in Greek philosophical terms, the “heretics” are simply those whos particular adaptations of Grecian philosophical constructs lost out.

    In any case, i think the modern competition between “philosophy and religion” is actually caused by the majority religion (Christianity) assuming a kind of metaphysical literalism that it never assumed in antiquity. It’s unfair in any case to even compare modern Christianity to that faith which came out of a middle eastern martyr cult so many centuries ago and captured the imagination of a broken world. Anyone who will sincerely read the martyr accounts of Ignatius of Antioch and Cyprian of Carthage, or the ascetic rigorism of Anthony the Great and Tertullian, and then reads Joel Osteen, cannot honestly entertain the delusion that we’re talking about the same religion that the predecessors of Christianity had in mind when they put pen to paper. I honestly believe that if Christians would begin to read their own foundational texts and appreciate the propositions they’re making, namely that faith is NOT necessarily the logical result of all the evidence, and that often faith is nothing more than seeing God where others can see only the pain and the mundane, then we would take drastic steps towards reconciling our sensibilities of intelligence and hopeful intuition.

  2. bwinwnbwi said, on June 5, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Hi Dr. Mike (I know your name now thanks to the above comment). Since you began this topic (a favorite of mine by the way) by tracing philosophy back to it’s origin, here is my take on the problem. Religion, science, and philosophy, for me, evolved from the same source. Philosophy, religion, and science, after originating from one source, evolved into their own separate spheres. By identifying that source, I believe, the answers to questions concerning reality, religion, philosophy, science, (and their overlap), take on an uncommon transparency. Now for the source:

    If a universal structure is co-contemporary with the world and its history then we should be able to find this structure waiting to be discovered. I believe this structure has always existed in the historical context of people and culture. Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, especially as it is described in The Savage Mind, is just one attempt at disclosing this structure. The holism/ elementarism debate,–the tension that exists between group demands and individual desires–is another attempt at disclosing this structure. This tension exists in all cultures, but varies in degree. For instance, Pre-modern man, in the early stages of his development, was able to maintain cultural stability while at the same time maintaining a holistic perception of his environment. This ability, in the words of the anthropologist Levy-Bruhl, “sets Pre-modern man apart from his modern predecessors.” The qualities that we take for granted, or our ability to differentiate the space that surrounds us ad infinitum, did not exist for Pre-moderns. Rather, his/her experience of the participation process was more restrictive and inclusive within what Levy-Bruhl called the “synthetic whole”. In other words, Pre-modern society was considerably different from modern society. Still, all societies must have some mechanism to preserve and perpetuate the social roles that are vital to the on going existence of the group. For Pre-moderns, as for the rest of us, this mechanism lies in our work. In this respect the investigations of Ernst Cassirer become extremely helpful (one could also look into the work of Piaget who also put the origin of structure and the symbolic content that it generates, in the organisms capacity for action).

    Myth, or the mythical-religious consciousness of man, for Cassirer, is understood to be the proto-reality out of which symbolic forms evolve, e.g. language, art, religion, science etc. These symbolic forms, in turn, are thought to result from the human spirit’s progressive movement towards more liberated forms of self-expression. From within the matrix of mythical thought, according to Cassirer, evolves the differentiation of the “I” of our personality and, over time, the more potent symbolic forms that define the present state of our modern knowledge and belief.

    The origin of the self-liberation process (and knowledge in general), is first discovered in mythical thought as the capacity to order and differentiate, and then the self liberation process, in its capacity to transcend its own reality, metamorphizes into higher levels of symbolic expression. These higher levels of symbolic expression move self-liberation in the direction toward more constancy, endurance and certainty. Cassirer informs us:

    “For a glance at the development of the various symbolic forms shows us that their essential achievement is not that they copy the outward world in the inward world or that they simply project a finished inner world outward, but rather that the two factors of “inside” and “outside,” of “I” and “reality” are determined and delimited from one another only in these symbolic forms and through their mediation. …The crucial achievement of every symbolic form lies precisely in the fact that it does not have the limit between I and reality as preexistent and established for all time but must itself create this limit–and that each fundamental form creates it in a different way.” (Ernst Cassirer, Mythical Thought, 1955, p. 155-156)

    Cassirer tells us that Pre-moderns, as they engaged their environment through emotions, desires and work, acquired the ability, via symbolic representation, to objectify nature–the nature of both “inner and outer reality.” There was (and is) a double movement that arises from one’s interaction with his/her environment; in one direction there develops an objectification of one’s self-nature and in the other direction there arises the objectification of the social and cultural contents of society. From Cassirer’s point of view, art, myth, magic and ritual are co-creative products arising from this objectifying movement, which in turn, arises from the work that people do in society. “For the form of society,” Cassirer states, “is not absolutely and immediately given any more than is the objective form of nature, the regularity of our own world of perception. Just as nature comes into being through a theoretical interpretation and elaboration of sensory contents, so to the structure of society is mediated and ideally conditioned reality.” (Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Smbolic Form, 3 vol., vol. 2, Mythical Thought, 1955, pl 193) In his three volume work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer concentrates his focus on the nature and origins of symbolic form as it first arises in language and myth and then, over time, develops into the theoretical orientations of scientific thought. The utility of symbolic forms, if that is the right word, is not just about a “thing” to be apprehended, it is about a movement towards constancy, endurance and certainty, and that objective applies to both culture and mind.

    Pre-moderns then, as participating agents in an environment conceived holistically, objectify mind and culture in and through creative acts of differentiation. This process evolves out of the acquisition of life’s necessities to the creation of more complex societal structures, e.g., kinship systems, sacred and profane boundaries, talismans, origin myths, etc. Thus, myth, or the mythical-religious consciousness of man, for Cassirer, is understood to be the precursor to the technological culture that, from the standpoint of utility, increases our ability to do work, as is makes life easier for all. However, this is not the end of the story. Self-liberation or the movement towards constancy, endurance and certainty continues to direct the human spirit’s progressive movement towards new forms of self-expression.

    Identifying Sartre’s philosophy as structuralism is, I am aware, pushing the envelope. However, an authority on structuralism has proposed this option (without, I might add, elaborating on it.) “One might go as far as to say…that structuralism is analogous to Sartre’s view of consciousness — it is what it is not, and it is not what it is.” [Jean-Marie Benoist, A Structural Revolution, 1975, p. 1] In Sartre’s book Being And Nothingness, his chapter on Being-For-Itself is subtitled “Immediate Structures of the For-Itself.” [Jean-Paul Sartre, Being And Nothingness, 1966, p. 119] Structure is not hidden in Sartre; it’s just that on the whole Sartre’s book is a polemic against reading structure as anything more than appearance.

    In the representation of Sartre’s thought as
    “consciousness is what it is not, and it is not what it is,” we find reciprocal movement, the same reciprocal movement encountered, in one form or another, in all the structuralists I have discussed hitherto in this paper. Specifically, Sartre defines the consciousness of the transcending For-itself (our self-space) as: “Consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.” [Ibid. p. 801] In an extrapolation from Sartre’s definition of the consciousness, Benoist describes that relationship as: “it is what it is not, and it is not what it is,” while I describe it as: being-what-is-not-while-not-being-what-is. In both cases, however, we end up with a definition for reciprocal movement.

    This double movement is represented on many levels. This double movement becomes very specific in Sartre’s description of his pre-reflective Cogito. In so far as we find ”nothingness” at the center of Cogito, consciousness per se must be understood to be set apart from itself, therefore, Sartre’s pre-reflective Cogito will always form one pole of our conscious experience while the “objects” of consciousness will take their place at the other pole of conscious experience. In this way, Sartre is able to dispense with Descartes’ Cogito on the grounds that consciousness cannot be separated from its object. This condition, where the pre-reflective Cogito becomes a preexistent condition for the conscious awareness of objects, establishes the double movement of conscious reflection — the object of consciousness less the pre-reflective Cogito, and the pre-reflective Cogito less the object of consciousness. Depending on where “you” focus your concern, the content of consciousness is either pushed to the front of consciousness (the unreflective consciousness), or, the object of consciousness is pushed into the background, as the “negation of consciousness” is brought into the foreground (the reflected upon object of consciousness).

    Together, our pre-reflective Cogito and the object of consciousness, form our conscious experience of the knower-known dyad. In so far as this double movement turns on the pivot point of pure negation, the known exists for the knower, but the knower can never be fully known. As self-consciousness rises in consciousness, it is denied the possibility of becoming fully self-aware. This result, the incompleteness of self, brings us back to Sartre’s original definition of consciousness, or, “consciousness is such that in its being its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.” This movement, the symbol-generating movement of free thought, the movement that makes thinking possible, emancipates language, myth, science, and morality. In the absence of this movement, “thinking” is restricted to the manipulation of signs—mere sensual indicators, minus the symbols that carry the significance of those same indicators.

    To sum up, by identifying the source of questions concerning reality, religion, philosophy, science, and their overlap, in the structure of being and nothingness, i.e.,b~b~bb, we have also identified the source of logical implication, the same logical implication that the logician, Alburey Castell, identified when he said:

    “In every science and every discipline two questions are always being asked and their answers sought: If these facts are granted, what follows? From what prior facts do these follow? That is If P, then what? And, Upon what does P rest?”

    The answer to the question, “Upon what does P rest?” is found in the structure of b~b~bb. However, that structure is itself a product of another structure, but an explanation for that other structure would take another post. Thanks again for the opportunity to comment.

  3. idpnsd said, on January 9, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    The article says – “truth is truth, no matter how one reaches it..” and is very correct. We should define truth only as the laws of nature. Thus truth is unique and universal. What is true in USA is also true in China. Similarly what is true on Earth must also be true on Mars. What was true million years back must be true now and will remain true million years from now. Thus philosophy has no role for the determination of truth, since truth is always unique.

    The article also says – “Both employ observations, symbolic logic, mathematics, hypothesis testing and so forth.” Have you ever seen physics people are observing nature? Did Newton, Heisenberg, Einstein observe nature? No, never. They just used some math and declared their theories as laws of nature. Only Galileo observed nature. Consider Newton’s first law – an object will continue in motion in a straight line with a constant velocity. Have you observed any such object on earth or in space? No, never. Thus math and physics are all wrong. A robot cannot learn about humans by doing some experiments. Similarly humans cannot learn about the laws of nature by doing some math and experiments.

    On the other hand all religions are same and describe the laws of nature – theory of souls, yogic power, reincarnation, destiny, eternal recurrence, birth-maturity-death process etc. Destiny is clearly stated in Bible. Reincarnation was there in Bible but removed later. High level yogic powers are described in Judaism. There are many yogis all over the world, even now. There was a time when Vedas were known all over the world. You can see its influences in all religions of the world.

    There are two things which are false in our world – real numbers and money. Of course money is a real number too. These are false because they are not objects of nature, they neither grow on trees nor can be mined. How can you create truth using something false like money? You cannot. Thus math, physics, economics, philosophy are all false. Only engineering is correct.

    For more on falsity of science and truth of religions take a look at https://theoryofsouls.wordpress.com/

  4. emebet asnake said, on January 11, 2016 at 1:48 pm


  5. […] Article; A Bit on Philosophy, Science and Religion […]

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