10 Feb

How science became the omnipotent arbiter of genuine knowledge

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

Peter Harrison on the creation of an allegedly neutral public sphere

“Charles Taylor has spoken in A Secular Age about ‘new conditions for belief’ in the modern age. Specifically, he speaks of ‘a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and the spiritual must proceed.’ This is the ‘social imaginary’ that underlies our conception of the role of belief. Part of that context is the appearance of a new and distinctive understanding of belief, and the appearance of a neutral epistemic space, identified with a universal reason. This is further related to the emergence of modern liberalism, which posits existence of a neutral public sphere. Both Taylor and [Alasdair] MacIntyre have questioned the putative neutrality of this public space where no single religious tradition is favored, suggesting that modern liberalism might be thought of more along the lines of a competing ideology or religion, asserting its own supremacy at the cost of other traditions.

“My account suggests a parallel development in the idea of an Archimedean epistemic space, in which supposedly neutral rational considerations trump all others. The creation of such a space was partly motivated by the need to adjudicate between competing truth claims of the ‘religions,’ themselves the product of the new conception of religion. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the chief epistemic concern of the immediate post-Reformation period. Advocates of a religion of reason, insofar as they supported the alliance of natural theology and natural philosophy (and thus a natural theology that was constructed upon ‘neutral’ rational grounds) were complicit in this development. The possibility of offering this kind of rational support for religion, where the latter is understood propositionally, necessitates the creation of a supposedly neutral space. Initially, that neutral space was occupied by natural theology and natural philosophy with their shared physico-theological mission. Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, that territory was gradually seated to a coalescing ‘science.’ This ultimately resulted in the assimilation of all cognitive claims to scientific ones. The high-water mark of this development was the twentieth-century positivist critique of religious, moral, and aesthetic language. This positivist ethos still lingers, and the insistence that science sets the standards for what counts as genuine knowledge remains a characteristic feature of the modern Western epistemological discourse. Arguably, the epistemic imperialism of science was inherited from the supposedly neutral grounds of eighteenth-century natural theology from which it emerged.”

—from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015)

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