Monday, September 18, 2006

A Rational Pope

Following the shenanigans around the Pope's recent comments, I read the whole speech (linked to from this BBC article). The Pope was addressing the University of Regensburg, which lists a school of catholic theology amongst its departments, and I assume this was where the Pope's talk was aimed at, and where he attended in the past.

The talk is interesting, and not (just/necessarily) for its media-stirring passages. The whole notion of the integration of Rationality, Faith and Ethics is touched upon (lightly - it's only just over 6 pages long...), and in a sense, the overall message is encouraging to me - as a semi-rational, semi-spiritual entity.

Talks are naturally always directed at the immediate audience, and I'm sure many other talks (I can think of a few by Tony Blair...) take on disproportionate significance when interpreted outside of the original context. However the main message in this one is a call for greater "acceptance" of extra-scientific discourse within traditionally "purely" scientific environments of academia (as I read it...)

In other words, our oft-blind acceptance of science as a rational, neo-alternative to blind faith-based religion should be reconsidered - not only in terms of its links to the ethical and philosophical quandaries thrown up by this science, but also in terms of the nature of this science itself. In other words, there is a legitimate ground to question the idea that scientific methods themselves are any less of an investment in faith than religion.

No, that's wrong actually. Or, at least, ambiguous - misleading. To break it down:

On one hand, the Pope is attempting to declare a boundary of science, and a position of religion relative to this. That is, there are many things we do not know but that are of extreme importance (science != ethics, for example). Hence, a world built solely - or primarily - atop science (and, but not necessarily) technology will be a world devoid of answers to many of these things. Possibly my quote of the day, the Pope puts this as:
'A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.'
The definition of the term "religion" here is replaceable, perhaps advisably so given the apparent stigma surrounding it in this age. Perhaps notions of 'humanity', an existential theme of emotion and non-"rational", yet utterly pervasive, behaviour is how many might prefer to read this.

So a call for more philosophical science - surely a good thing although something that seems to be largely ignored by those (usually) with profit to gain from progress.

The second factor, on the other hand, is an idea that science itself shares some or much of the same values as religion - namely, a subordination of the individual to laws external to it:
'The scientific ethos, moreover, is ... the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.'
That is, I read, the faith in an unchanging constancy underlying the omniverse is the same as the faith in some higher order, whether human-shaped or not. That is, the scientific desire to know how things work is analagous to a personal desire to know something exists on a higher level than us. Thus, scientific faith sets limits for what we are able to do, while religious faith sets limits on what we should be able to do. While one is 'physical' and one is 'ethical', and a vast field could be concocted (and no doubt already has been) to both diverge and unite the two, the important point is that the attitude of the individual in the respective directions is extremely similar. Science is a therapy for our inability to shape the world as we would like, religion is a therapy for our inability to shape ourselves.

There are some further interesting lines in the talk on the various stages of Christianity, its hellenisation, dehellenisation and its dependence on science. (I'm reminded of Foucault's idea that "science" during the time of the plague was responsible for dislocating much of the "non-rational" religion of the time.)

Of note also is the idea of "community" in each realm too - does science provide an objective, shared understanding which is capable of bringing people together under the same banner, or does it establish an in-depth understanding of the world that not only is increasingly removed from the common ability to understand it, but that detracts from our need to come together to make decisions? Similarly, is religion a personal, subjective, and ultimately non-group activity, or does it provide room for (intepretive, yet potentially rational) discourse within which communities can thrive?

I'm not really sure whether a Pope driving for more rational "analysis" of faith is a good or bad thing. I suspect that it's neither and/or both, that all things will be revealed in time, and that you can't judge these things at all from a talk directed at a small university department.

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