Bertrand Russell and the Castration of Knowledge
Rather than simply being in pace with trends, I have been discussing the relationship between religion and science in several recent posts because I feel that this discussion deals with some critical philosophical ideas that strongly influence our society. In this particular article, I would like to examine the argument of philosopher Bertrand Russell that science has allowed for the dominance of ‘technical’ truth over ‘absolute truth,’ which I believe is flawed on the basis of a particular misunderstanding of the role of religion in society and of an arbitrary limiting of science.
In his “Religion and Science,” published in 1935, Russell attempts to compare and contrast religion with science:
“Science is the attempt to discover, by means of observation, and reasoning based upon it, first, particular facts about the world, and then laws connecting facts with one another and (in fortunate cases) making it possible to predict future occurrences…Religion, considered socially, is a more complex phenomenon than science. Each of the great historical religions has three aspects: 1) a church, 2) a creed, and 3) a code of personal morals…Creeds are the intellectual source of the conflict between religion and science, but the bitterness of the opposition has been due to the connection of creeds with churches, and with moral codes. (All quotes in this post will be from ‘Religion and Science, by Bertrand Russell.’)”
Russell defines science as having relevance to the pursuit of knowledge dealing with the origins and destiny of the physical world, as well as the process by which it is sustained. This is, at face value, as it should be as far as scientific methods are concerned. However, as later quotes will show, this particular scheme of science is governed by the presupposition which excludes supernatural phenomena from explanations. To assume that all of reality can be explained outside of the realm of supernatural phenomena is quite unwarranted given the likelihood that we do not have full knowledge by which to justify it. Russell’s religious source, which he cites as the creed, is also unlikely. The creed is a statement of belief; for it to be both the source of the belief and the statement of the belief certainly begs the question. However, the assumption that the creed is the intellectual source of religious belief is also governed by an unwritten assumption excluding supernatural phenomena, for if religions are manmade, then the creed would certainly become the source of religion, but if God does exist and has spoken, than God is the source of religious belief and the creed is merely an affirmation of the belief.
“Sometimes there happens to be a text in the Bible making some assertion as to a matter of fact…Such assertions, when they are refuted by scientific observation, cause difficulties for those who believe, as most Christians did, until science forced them to think otherwise, that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired.”
It would be helpful to have particular passages which illustrate the point Russell is trying to make here, but unfortunately he leaves the idea undeveloped. To use my previous post as a valid example, science provided observational evidence that seemed to contradict with the current interpretation of certain Biblical texts dealing with the Earth’s relationship to the Sun. However, as Galileo rightly pointed out, and many theologians and scientists later concurred, the truth of the scriptures was never at risk, but the truth of the interpretation of men of its meaning. The authority of the scriptures, then, is not subservient to the findings of science. One cannot solve issues of seeming discrepancy by simply limiting scriptural authority to meaning and morality, either. It is out of a comprehensive scheme that conclusions in regard to meaning and morality are made, which depend on a specific expository process from beginning (the origin of creation) to end (its destiny).
Back to Russell:
“Men of science did not ask that propositions should be believed because of some important authority had said they were true; on the contrary, they appealed to the evidence of the senses, and maintained only such doctrines as they believed to be upon facts which were patent to all who chose to make the necessary observations. The new method achieved such immense successes, both theoretical and practical, that theology was gradually forced to accommodate itself to science.”
Many scientific conclusions have adhered to such a scheme and have made obvious improvements upon society. This is quite clear to all, I am sure. However, this statement is subversive if it is meant to assert that all theories and conclusions of science adhere to it strictly, especially those which pertain to origins and destiny, the understanding of which continues to be in flux as new interpretations of evidence come in and out of repute. In the cases of making inference in regards to such distant events (both future and past), it is necessary to view the observational data in light of an ideological framework. Again, in reference to the Galileo controversy, the proper interpretation of phenomenological language in scripture is by no means an accommodation to the higher authority of science. Rather, it is the uncovering of an already existing truth by the collaboration of piety and observation.
In anticipation of what many may dispute about the notion of science operating with presuppositions, I will first include what Russell himself had to say about it:
“Experience has shown that it is dangerous to start from general principles and proceed deductively, both because principles may be untrue and because the reasoning based upon them may be fallacious. Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.”
This is obviously false. Most scientists would agree that their methods begin with the assumption that supernatural phenomena do not exist. While I think this is a fair limitation of methods, I do not think that it is a fair limitation of conclusions given that we could not possibly affirm through observation or experiment the non-existence of supernatural phenomena. It is a brute assumption that cannot be validated by Russell’s method as stated above. In fact, presuppositions govern the crucial points of science; they provide an initial scheme from which to formulate questions and hypothesis, as well as provide a framework from which to interpret evidence and make conclusions.
“A religious creed differs from a scientific theory in claiming to embody eternal and absolutely certain truth, whereas science is always tentative, expecting that modifications in its present theories will sooner or later be found necessary, and aware that its method is one which is logically incapable of arriving at complete and final demonstration…Science thus encourages the abandonment of the search for absolute truth, and the substitution of what may be called ‘technical’ truth, which belongs to any theory that can be successfully employed in inventions or in predicting the future…’Knowledge’ ceases to be a mental mirror of the universe, and becomes merely a practical tool in the manipulation of matter.”
Russell admits the limitation of science to the pragmatic, yet his conclusion that therefore objective truth does not exist does not logically follow. If science is simply a means to knowledge, and is successful in providing a portion of that knowledge, it does not mean that the remaining knowledge that is not reachable through science simply is invalid or does not exist! The notion that truth is that which ‘works’ has been demonstrated time and again to be unnecessarily narrow and observably false. Russell’s own statement, that ‘science is always tentative,’ relies upon a larger ‘set’ of truth which cannot be empirically verified but the objectivity of which is invoked in order to make the claim. So, while the judicious scientist is aware of and accepts the tentativeness of his discoveries, and rightly so, it would be incoherent to claim that it is objectively true that ‘science is always tentative.’
What Russell really does, out of his assumptions about religious philosophy and his rejection of it as epistemologically valid, is make knowledge impotent in really providing any answers to the ‘big’ questions of man. By limiting the source of knowledge to “technical truth” derived by science alone, he has, in a sense, castrated knowledge! His “technical truth” will by nature be unable to answer questions of meaning or morality (questions most likely to be of higher priority to mankind), nor will it honestly lead to a comprehensive understanding of origins and destiny.