I don’t doubt that religions often make factual claims, and nor do I doubt that this has always been part of religion’s social role. When religious teachers and organisations make such claims, they are not stepping beyond the role that religion has played, historically. In that sense, at least, they are not doing something illegitimate. They are not doing something that goes beyond what religion has always provided to its adherents: supposed knowledge about how the world actually works (where “the world” is to be understood as the totality of existence, including unseen realms such as Heaven, Hell, Valhalla, etc.). One of the things that religion does is answer factual questions.
For me, the more interesting issue is whether its answers are reliable. Where they conflict with those of well-established science, should we believe those offered by religion or those offered by science? Surely there’s no doubt about that – in relevant cases, we should favour the answers of well-established science.
Thus there is at least a potential for science and religion to come into conflict, and this potential is sometimes realised, sometimes very dramatically as seen in court cases over the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools.
Some religious apologists will agree with this much but deny that there is any more pervasive incompatibility between religion and science. That argument soon becomes very complex, and I don’t propose to trace all its intricacies here. However, one interesting aspect is the frequent claim that science is very limited in what it can find out about reality, which seems (so it’s claimed or insinuated) to suggest that we need “other ways of knowing”, including religious ones, to supplement science.
There is something right about this, but a lot more that’s wrong with it. What’s right about it is that we can find out many things in ways that are not distinctively scientific. What’s wrong with it is that it misunderstands the relationship between science, the humanities, and ordinary experience. In particular, it misunderstands that the rise of modern science added something to our means of rational inquiry into the world around us. It did not subtract something.
Consider the rise of science in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and beyond. This produced a new breed of empirical investigators – the breed who eventually came to be known as “scientists” – and they developed a range of techniques to high levels of precision and sophistication. These “scientists” used, for example, increasingly sophisticated mathematical models, rigorously controlled experimental design and apparatus, and new instruments that extended the human senses. They were able to engage in unprecedentedly precise and systematic study of various phenomena that had previously resisted human efforts, particularly very distant or vastly out-of-scale phenomena, very small phenomena, and phenomena from very deep in time – before human beings and written records. This enabled them to develop a radically new image of the cosmos and our place in it. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was starting to come together in a way that is still broadly recognisable, though far more has been discovered since, and it’s clear enough that far more remains to be discovered in the future.
What is often forgotten is that the distinctively scientific techniques that were refined and extended so much over the last four to five centuries were continuous with what had gone before and that, to the extent that they were new they added something. Nothing was subtracted from the tools of rational inquiry available to scholars (or to ordinary people).
Consider a question such as, “Is the translation of Tasso on my desk a literal one?” There are various ways of investigating that. One way is simply to ask an expert on the subject. Another is to learn sixteeth-century Italian, then compare the original text with the English translation. There is nothing distinctively scientific about either approach. Scholars were able to learn and use languages long before modern science (or, indeed, Tasso) was thought of. This is not the sort of thing that required a new word: “scientist”.
However, the availability of increasingly refined modelling, experimental techniques, hypothetico-deductive reasoning, consilience of more-or-less independent inductions, instruments to extend the senses, and so on, did not prevent scholars from, for example, continuing to learn languages, obtain testimony from others, or make ordinary observations of their own; or from developing the sort of expertise associated with, for example, law and literary criticism (such as expertise in how certain kinds of difficult texts are to be interpreted within a tradition of writing and understanding). All of this continued.
It still does, and there is no reason in principle why the same person can’t master all of it. The reasons are practical ones to do with such matters as the brevity of human life and the size of the human brain. Those practical reasons might prevent any one person from mastering, say, multiple languages as well as large areas of advanced mathematics (plus, say, the intricacies of contract law). However, if necessary to solve a particular problem, people can work in teams – drawing on all their intellectual resources.
Nothing about the rise of science limited the kinds of questions that could be answered through the various processes of rational inquiry. Rather, it extended the power of rational inquiry, allowing scholars to investigate issues that had long resisted their efforts, and equipping them with new understandings that might, in turn, be relevant to many pre-existing fields (to philosophy, for example, and even to theology).
It’s not a matter, then, of science being limited. Science enables some questions to be given reliable answers for the first time (the age of the Earth, for example, and composition of our solar system), but it in no way prevents answers to other questions, such as what is outside my window; how to translate Tasso into English; or what might be a “thick”, coherent, and convincing interpretation of Bleak House. Science did not render us helpless to answer these questions, though it certainly added to what we know about, say, very distant, small, or ancient phenomena.
The fact that we can still investigate some questions without doing anything distinctively scientific in no way supports the idea that there are spooky “other ways of knowing” that are radically discontinuous from science and from rational inquiry in general … and that can be relied upon.
E.g., an archeologist may use her knowledge of ancient Greek to translate an inscription, and so learn something new about what happened in ancient times, and this is not distinctively scientific; but that in no way supports the idea that there is some “way of knowing” that transcends the rational forms of inquiry carried out by scientist, humanistic scholars, and ordinary people. (Set to one side that distinctively scientific techniques may have been used to locate or map the archeological site in the first place, showing how humanistic inquiry and more distinctively scientific inquiry are now frequently entangled in practice.)
On a proper understanding, then, science is not “limited” in a sense that lends credence to supernatural “ways of knowing” such as divine revelation, mystical transport, and the like. If these are going to be justified as “ways of knowing”, it will need to be in some other manner than harping on the alleged limitations of science. E.g. it might be shown more or less directly that these spookier techniques have an impressive track record of producing genuine, checkable knowledge. I await that argument with interest.