Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Magic vs Modernity (Butterflies & Wheels)

Here is an interesting, thought-provoking article on the relationship between science and reason and myth and magic. Thomas DeGregori bemoans the fact that, even though amazing progress has been made in understanding the universe through science, the realm of myth and magic has not decreased in practice. As far as he is concerned, 'the Enlightenment vision seems farther away than ever.' DeGregori believes the scientific method is one of the greatest achievements of the past 1000 years. And,

[i]f we work at it, one of the greatest achievements of this new millennium could be the continued refinement of the scientific method, its integration into the beliefs and practices of everyday life for the greater part of humankind, and the continuous improvement in the quality of life of earth's inhabitants that could be realized as a result.

DeGregori may overstate the case for the benefits of science. Undoubtedly, scientific inquiry contributes to an improved quality of life. But that doesn't mean that 'myth and magic', as he calls it, can't contribute as well. It is about making sure that we answer questions with the right method. Trying to answer scientific questions by religious methods will not work -- and vice versa. It is essential to avoid confusing categories when dealing with inquiry. Religious questions need to be answered by religious thinking and scientific questions by scientific thinking. Too often the categories are mixed up. Some Christians, for example, try to answer scientific questions about origins by appealing to the religious writing found in Genesis. And some scientists try to answer religious questions by scientific inquiry. Scientific thinking and religious thinking are designed to answer different sorts of questions. If we can keep this distinction in mind, a good deal of the antipathy between scienctists and religious advocates would be resolved and we could have a decent conversation about any question. It should be possible that science and religion, properly used, contribute to the improvement in our quality of lives.

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