Turtles all the way down…

Usually I stay out of science versus religion debates on the grounds that both sides tend to be more interested in promoting their view than hearing and understanding the other side of the issue, whereas I tend to believe that the point of discussion is mostly to hear what the other guy has to say. For my taste, too much of this sort of debate ends up as preaching to the choir, if you’ll pardon the idiom.

That said, Geoff Arnold makes a great point when he says:

You know, people seem to think that as soon as something is described as “contingent”, all bets are off: that it could be not just different, but anything at all. But “contingent” means “dependent”, and things like language and culture – and science – are strongly constrained by the facts that they depend on.

Perhaps I’m naive, but for the first time I think that I really understand the terms of the religion versus science debate: the “religion” contingent is really looking for absolute ground. They’re looking upon a rock which everything else can rest. Their question starts with wanting to know what we know for certain.

The “science” contingent, by contrast, is concerned with the epistemological question: how do we know? Their answer, which is backed up by nearly 400 years of science history, suggests that all knowledge is provisional—an answer anathema to the religious contingent’s search for grounding. In short, the scientific perspective remains comfortable to a greater or lesser extent with the idea that maybe it is really turtles all the way down, whereas the religious contingent simply cannot accept that answer.

All of which means that perhaps I should pay more close attention to these debates, as I clearly have something left to learn here. I’m sure that the above is commonsense to anyone who follows the issue, but it wasn’t something I’d considered before.