The Linguistics of Science and Religion

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In his short 1976 treatise Metaphor and Myth in Science and Religion Earl R. MacCormac undertakes a study on how language is used in science and religion. The idea he was tackling is the claim that scientific language is purely descriptive and factual, while religious language is neither. Where science provides an objective expression of the material world, religion offers a subjective expression of the inner world. Hence, metaphor is extensively used in theological discourses, whereas in science its presence is transient, serving only as a tool to bridge concepts until an adequate factual description is formulated. MacCormac challenges all of this and puts forth an argument that the use of metaphor is just as prevalent in science as it is in religion, and even goes further to provoke the naysayers by affirming that given their extensive use of metaphors, scientists can also engage in the construction of mythologies that are not subject to verification or falsification. We can dare say that in this sense scientists are not all that different from the theologians they derogatively dismiss.

Despite the misgivings one may have with MacCormac’s thesis and arguments from either scientific or theological perspectives, the implications of this work overall are worthy of deep consideration, especially in a world where scientism is as prevalent as it has become today. As theologians have engaged in apologetics to defend scripture against the challenges of a scientific account of the world, science has mostly been assumed to provide an account of how the world really is. Scripture on the other hand is relegated to the arena of answering why it is so, and addressing ethics and morality. Later popularized by Stephen Jay Gould in his 1997 essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria, this distinction between the roles of science (facts) and religion (values) in human affairs places religion on par with philosophy, where it offers one way to live among many others, but certainly not privileged with any claims to Truth. Absolutist statements must be verified empirically before they can be accepted, which renders them solely within the purview of modern science where words like “prove” and “evidence” have serious consideration.

The impetus behind MacCormac’s work and others is to show that although science and religion may offer differing accounts of the world, they do not necessarily have to be in conflict with one another. Since science has taken the mantle of absolute authority, religion is preserved by creating a role for it in human life that does not interfere with science’s role. That this remains a contentious issue of debate indicates how controversial this artificial division of roles has been. What makes MacCormac’s work different is that rather than speaking about science and religion in the abstract, he examines how scientists and theologians use language to express their propositions. In doing so, he reframes the issue from “science vs. religion” to “scientists vs. theologians”. Indeed, this reframing is what one needs to see any prospect of resolution for this issue. After all, contrary to what popular headlines assert, “science” does not discover or say or prove anything. It is an enterprise involving people engaged in a method they use to learn about the world. But they are people nonetheless, with their own beliefs and biases.

As scientists have gained ascendancy, judgment criteria for what can be accepted as valid have implicitly assumed an empiricist as opposed to a rationalist viewpoint. MacCormac highlights this in the second chapter titled “The Nature of Religious Language”, where he notes that theologians who speak of their metaphysical assertions in scientific terms have failed to recognized the difference between the physical and the metaphysical:

Much of the difficulty that defenders of religious language have had with both verifiability and falsifiability has resulted from their failure to distinguish between theoretical terms and terms that are either observable or experiential. Theologians do not expect the term “God” to be observable, yet they have allowed themselves to be drawn into a debate about whether the statement “God exists” can be falsified where falsification is construed as the observation of objects.

To show how they compounded their problems further, MacCormac goes on to offer an account of how theologians made use of Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s treatment of language in his Philosophical Investigations in their apologetics to explain how narratives in scripture that conflict with science are not to be understood literally:

[Wittgenstein] viewed language as a collection of different usages. The context of each language use determined the rules by which meaning could be interpreted. He coined his famous phrase “language game” to describe the contextual aspect of linguistic usage. Men play various language games with the rules of each determined by the nature of the game itself. The many language games shared a family of resemblances so that communication among the variety of games was possible. This analysis of language offered philosophers of religion anxious to stress the differences between scientific and religious language a ready-made platform upon which to erect a defense of their interpretation. Under this view, science and religion could be interpreted as different language games with different rules determining meaning and truth within each. The application of the rules for scientific language to religious language mistakenly assumed that these two language games were one.

Though a “contextual aspect of language usage” appears to be a good defence, in their anxiety theologians eager to safeguard religion from scientific assault have instead shielded religion to such an extent it became inconsequential to real life and found themselves in a perplexing conundrum:

The Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion who justifies religious language as a proper language game invites the charge that his whole program of defense limits the influence that religion can have in the secular world by his insistence that the meaning of religious utterances must be judged solely by the context of religion itself. This limits religious meaning to its own context and, in realms outside, it will be quite meaningless…

To avoid this damaging thrust, some proponents of the Wittgensteinian apology denied that religious language was a separate language game and stressed instead its similarity to other games. [However], if there are such similarities between scientific and religious language uses then we are brought back to the question of why should we not, then, apply similar standards for linguistic meaning. In an effort to get away from the demands of testability made of scientific language, the Wittgensteinian apologist stressed the notion that meaning was determined by the context in which an expression occurred. This move insulated religious language from scientific language, but it also meant that theological pronouncements would be meaningless outside of religion. The latter predicament would prevent communication with nonbelievers.

The real problem behind all this is in the implicit acceptance of scientific language as wholly factual and descriptive. MacCormac notes that:

The assumption that scientific language is testable by observation is far too strong. Most scientific statements are not testable by direct observation and one cannot build a strong logical relationship between unobservable theoretical statements and observation statements… Nor are scientific statements completely free from subjective factors. Theories are accepted partly upon the basis of sociological and historical factors as well as upon the basis of what empirical data exists. The reigning paradigm in science often determines the kinds of answers that will be acceptable to scientific questions… These beliefs of what will be acceptable influence the acceptance or rejection of both experimental data and theoretical speculations. To claim that the degree of subjectivity involved in scientific language, however, is just as great as that in religious language would be just as gross an exaggeration as the assertion that science escapes subjectivity completely.[Emphasis added]

There is a difference between scientific proclamations and proclamations by scientists, just as there is also a difference between theological proclamations and proclamations by theologians. The conflict between science and religion, and by extension the various intraconflicts within science and religion are often byproducts of assertions rooted in subjective expressions rather than objective rational or empirical foundations. Identifying the point of departure from the objective to the subjective is a necessary step towards resolving a number of paradoxes that give perpetual life to the science vs. religion debate.


For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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