, , , , , , ,

I’ve been wanting to follow up on an earlier post and ask just what science, natural science, really is. I realize that the concept “science” has two separate and distinguishable, though related, meanings. On one hand, “science” has a normative meaning – it names an ideal, of how our investigations into the empirical world should be conducted. On the other, it has a descriptive meaning – it names a set of institutions with a history, inhabited by fallible human beings who, often as not, fail to live up to that ideal even though they are supposed to live up to it.

The first, normative meaning is the one with the most philosophical significance. This is the one with normative weight; it is in this sense that, if we call something unscientific, we are saying something bad about it. I haven’t pinned down the details of this normative sense as much as I’d like yet, but I think it involves testing falsifiable hypotheses, making controlled experiments, controlling for variables, and above all rejecting hypotheses that turn out to be falsified. I expect to say more about this normative sense of science in the near future.

Overall I think it is that first (normative) sense of science that’s most relevant to philosophical inquiry, inquiry about the nature of reality and how we should live in it. But the second sense also matters, if only because we need to isolate it as a way of understanding the first. In this descriptive sense, science is what scientists do, and scientists are people who have been trained in academic science departments. This is the realm where scientists fudge data to fit their own political agenda or that of their corporate funders. It is also what Thomas Kuhn famously catalogued in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where the consensus among scientists moves much more randomly and haphazardly than the normative ideal should indicate. There is something about science in the first sense that is (I would argue) inherently good; this is not the case about science in the second sense. A man who has a PhD in biology but regularly falsifies data to fit his preconceptions is a scientist in only the second (descriptive) sense, not the first (normative) sense.

What strikes me about this distinction, though, is that much the same distinction could be made about any given “religion.” Not about “religion” as such, for this pernicious category is almost never itself taken as an ideal, but about the various traditions it is taken to encompass: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism. When one Christian tells another “that’s not the Christian thing to do,” she is speaking in the normative sense. She is not saying “you are not acting in the manner of historical Christians, such as the Borgia popes and the Inquisition.” She is saying “you are not living up to Christian ideals”: ideals of charity, hope, forgiveness.

And so likewise in Buddhism. I have a longstanding beef with scholars of Buddhism like Gregory Schopen, who wishes that Buddhist “texts would have been judged significant only if they could be shown to be related to what religious people actually did.” For Schopen, scholars of Buddhism should study Buddhism in the descriptive sense, and the descriptive sense alone. And Schopen’s view predominates in the field; this is why Glenn Wallis could write his Buddhist Manifesto only after he had left the mainstream academy. (Thus the highly problematic, but still predominant, view that anyone who calls herself a Buddhist is a Buddhist.)

The same applies to the study of most other traditions, as when scholars of “Hindu” traditions follow Vasudha Narayanan’s populist injunction to study “lentils” rather than “liberation.” It is sad that such a view prevails in religious studies, though fortunately it does not prevail in the study of science. As I noted before, if the study of science were to take its methodological cue from Schopen and Narayanan, the sociology of creationism would be held more valuable than evolutionary biology. (On this prevailing approach, even ethics starts to get used to mean the study of what other people do, irrespective of what actually is good or bad.)

The one tradition that gets an exemption from all this is Christianity. Since its early days as the National Association of Biblical Instructors, the American Academy of Religion – the main North American academic institution for the study of “religious” traditions, the organization which one must join if one wishes a scholarly job in the field – has embraced a large number of Christian theologians. They get to talk about Christianity in the normative sense, about what it is to be a good Christian. There are plenty of anti-theological scholars who would like to see the Christian theologians expunged from the AAR, but the theologians are much too powerful and entrenched; the anti-theologians mainly exert their weight in the studies of other traditions. The result is a division of labour that is Orientalist in Said’s pejorative sense: Christianity, and no other tradition, can be examined as a normative ideal, a way that people should be and not merely a way that they are. In that respect, in the North American academy, it is Christianity and Christianity alone that can be studied as science is, with a normative eye to its values and truth claims as well as a descriptive eye to its history and sociology.

I once battled to gain this kind of respect for non-Christian traditions; no longer striving to be a professor, I no longer care so much about the dysfunction of the profession. I go over the point because I think it’s instructive in thinking both about what science is and what “religious” traditions are: the grubby history of scientists as a profession does not in itself tarnish the ideal of science for which most of them have strived, just as Schopen’s research showing Buddhist monks owned property does not in itself tarnish the ideal of the propertyless monk free from worldly attachments. Human beings are flawed, and regularly fail to live up to their ideals. That fact does not make the ideals unworthy.