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Leon Fouché on philosophy, science and religion  @psychohistorian.org

Leon Fouché on philosophy, science and religion

posted: 3710 days ago, on Wednesday, 2008 Sep 17 at 14:23
tags: philosophy, science and religion.

Dr Leon Fouché gave a talk this afternoon (Tuesday, 2008 September 16) about philosophy, religion and science. Some 30 people attended the one-hour presentation, which was held in the hall of the DRC Stellenbosch Central.

Everyone received lecture notes (great idea!) and what follows is my rough-and-ready translation of these notes.

Fouché is a DRC (NGK; Dutch Reformed Church) minister in Stellenbosch and has a Ph.D. in philosophy. He comes across as soft-spoken, friendly, and highly intelligent.

Fouché started off by pointing out that the question of the relationship between science and religion has as its roots the question of 'what is man'. Listening to any discussion, one can always learn about the speaker's opinion about the nature of being human, he noted.

He followed with an historical overview, summarizing what St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Occam said, regarding the nature of science and religion. All three thinkers assume both the natural and the supernatural exist, and therefore distinguished between two kinds of knowledge.

Fouché pointed out that Occam argued that one does not need to consider god when contemplating nature, and that this severed the bond between religion and reason, heralding the start of modernity.

Two modern reactions were then summarised: positivism, and phenomenology.

The former is characterized as viewing the world as a collection of states, while the latter sees the world as a process. In his notes, Fouché writes:

"This conceptualization of knowledge sees scientific knowledge as focused on a small part of total reality, and it is definitely not the only kind of knowledge. On the contrary, the daily familiarity with which we engage the world through people is the primary knowledge; scientific knowledge follows on from this and can be of service to this primary knowledge. The point of view that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind, is called scientism – an obsession with a specific type of knowledge. For example, the tree is primarily a tree under which I sit in the garden, and not a collection of molecules. Water can be seen in different perspectives: as a quencher for a thirsty person in the desert, as a threat to someone caught in a tsunami, as a symbol during baptism, and as H2O during methodical investigations."

Discussing phenomenology, he writes that Husserl wants to put scientific-obsessed thoughts in its place by calling attention to the 'forgotten dimension' of life-as-lived.

Within phenomenological thinking, he writes, there is acknowledgement of:

  1. practical knowledge – the familiar interaction with everyday reality;
  2. scientific knowledge – the methodical study of a well-delineated part of reality, "slice of life" as Husserl put it;
  3. relational (of relationships) knowledge – the familiarity with one's fellow human being, which is the most fundamental relationship and from which all other relationships develop. All interactions with the world one gets from the other. Here, he mentioned as example, that we are taught language by others – although Pinker and colleagues would disagree – language is deduced from the ground-up by each new brain;
  4. religious knowledge – aimed at knowing the totality and the absolute (as opposed to the mundane); religious knowledge is different from scientific knowledge which is just a 'slice of life'; religion finds comfort and orientation within the totality and the absolute in order to live a certain lifestyle.

Fouché then discussed the work of two philosophers: Karl Popper and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

He pointed out that Popper was a critic of the positivist school, and that he was interested in distinguishing science from non-science. Knowledge that didn't follow from a theory or a falsifiable hypotheses was not scientific knowledge. Fouché writes: "For Popper, science isn't the only kind of knowledge. Non-scientific knowledge – metaphysics, fiction, imagination, faith, religion, etc. – all play a role in designing hypotheses and theories. . Popper's critical rationalism thus leaves open the possibility of religious knowledge to play a role in one's learning process in the search for knowledge."

I struggled most to follow the discussion of Gadamer. This thinker was concerned with the question, "What happens when we understand something?". This relates to Aristotle's concept of phronesis, Fouché writes, and that Gadamer pointed out that understanding reality leads to a re-orientation of the individual.

Because Gadamer saw the world as a continuous stream, Fouché writes, understanding cannot resonate with absolute knowledge or a final answer; it is more at home with provisional knowledge, an openness to further discussion.

Fouché then described what I'd call "authentic discourse", discussion that does not seek to convince the other. Rather, the essence is to find new truths. The aim is not to verify the one or the other point of view, but to generate something new. "It is a discussion through which we 'learn through suffering' – pathei mathos – because our expectations are thwarted and time-and-again we discover that the situation is other than what we thought."

In his closing comments, Fouché notes that "this differentiation between kinds of knowledge, and the recognition that each kind has its own truths, creates the space for a meaningful discussion of the relationship between faith and science. It also presents reasonable possibilities for understanding what it is to be human, and how one can live responsibly within a range of alternative life styles and orientations."

"An exclusive and one-dimensional interpretation of knowledge necessarily precludes [a fuller] reasoned understanding, leading more likely to the view of a one-dimensional and impoverished life, that ignores its multifaceted nature, and that can lead to thinking that life and the world can be controlled."

He made the important point that just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it?

"A multi-faceted concept of knowledge creates space for meaningful discussion between faith and science, so that science is not relegated to brutal facts and brutal humanity (towards each other and towards the Earth), and religion is not relegated to irrational naiveté where each thinks that their religious group knows everything."

The meeting ended at around 18:10.

I have a healthy respect for philosophy that borders on awe and aversion (not unlike my regard for politicians). In fact, I never quite know what to "do" with a philosopher and instinctively erect an SEP-field (for the non-Douglas Adams fans, that's a 'somebody else's problem' field).

What the previous paragraph means is that I know nothing about philosophy – am shockingly naïve and uneducated – but that I suspect philosophy is nevertheless both credible and useful. I'm just not sure what for. Put another way, all human behaviour can be learnt from but I don't know the curriculum.

So, what I got from the talk was basically:

the supernatural exists, hence,

[ various things follow ]

I also had the lingering suspicion that science was somehow treated as second-rate, possibly dangerous, but this could just be because of my over-sensitivity and/or unfamiliarity with the context within which the talk was presented.

I also get the strong impression that an outdated model of man is being addressed. For example, Husserl's exposition of phenomenology as reaction to the reductionist thinking of the positivists, is interesting if one is looking at the historical development of thought about the human condition. I find it hard to believe that Husserl's "forgotten dimension" of experience is relevant today. I suspect it's been attended to and that the revolution was successful. Long live the fruits of the revolution.

The relevance of the four different types of knowledge (practical, scientific, relational, and religious) is thus puzzling. Just why practical, scientific and relational knowledge are fundamentally distinct, is entirely unclear to me. They are all expressions of human functioning. In this typology, practical and relational knowledge are primary in the sense that they would evolve first. Scientific knowledge is less obvious, sometimes showing that truths acquired through the first two approaches are, in fact, false.

A complete scientific understanding of humans will necessarily be inclusive of these approaches. If you construct an accurate model of a human being, the simulation will demonstrate practical and relational knowledge if the model is to be valid. (The simulacrum will also acquire its own scientific knowledge, and be able to construct its own models, and so on.)

It may once have been a revelation that water is both a molecule and a magical elixir, but this is only a surprise if one's description of human beings is entirely reductionist. To a non-reductionist materialist, this is a quaint notion; the idea of "a human as a process" seems self-evident.

Nevertheless, there's probably something important I don't understand about the typology Fouché explained, because it is obvious to me that these are differences that emerge, but do not constitute, the human condition.

The fourth type, religious knowledge, is knowledge about God. Or rather, it is meta-knowledge; it reveals how humans structure their thinking, and respond to, the concept of the transcendent. As such, it is fully included in a proper understanding and description of the human machine, an understanding that develops from the science of psychology.

Religious behaviour is as much an outcome as the other types. So in a trivial sense, religion can indeed inform psychology, because being religious is one of the facets of being human.

What baffles me is the insistence that because the human mind can conceive of the transcendent, the transcendent also exists. The only evidence to support this is phenomenological in the sense "I have experienced X, Y and Z" which leads to a reification of X, Y and Z, or of an external agent responsible for X, Y and Z.

Fouché's conclusion, that there can be meaningful dialogue between science and religion, is only true if you start with the assumption that the supernatural is a reality. At the root, the discussion is not about one's view of human nature, but about one's view of nature.

nothing more to see. please move along.


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