Most people benefit from the fruits of science, and they have great respect for the knowledge that science has brought to humanity. Most people are also enriched by the religious experience: communal fellowship, joyous celebrations, meaningful sacraments and ceremonies, magnificent art and music, spiritual peace, and much, much more.
And yet, there have often been conflicts and confrontations between science and religion. One may ask what exactly brings this about. This is a paradox.
Various answers have been given to this question. Generally, anti-religious scientists point to the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and theologians point to the arrogance and totalizing claims of some scientists who are unwilling or unable to grant that there are mysteries that lie beyond human comprehension. Also, scientists tend to think that the religiously inclined are a little less intelligent than the irreligious, whereas in the estimation of the religious, the anti-religionists are evil.
But in most instances at the intellectual level – science-religion disagreements tend to arise from the claim of each party to have the truth on one’s own side.
Facts and Truths
At this point it is useful to distinguish between facts and truths. All our knowledge about the world around us arise from our sensory perceptions. Facts may be looked upon as elements in our cognition on which all people who enjoy normal sensory perception can agree. There are both direct and indirect facts: that is to say, facts that we directly perceive, and those that recognize through indirect reliable means. Thus we take it to be a fact that there are people in this room, as also that Paris is the capital of France whether or not we have ourselves been to that city.
Now, given a fact, different people may give it different interpretations. Thus from the fact that there is a table in this room, some may say that its is hard, big, brown, etc., and others may say it is beautiful, awkwardly placed, meant to serve, us, etc. All these interpretations of facts are what we call truths.
The essential difference between scientific and religious truths lies that they are of two fundamentally different kinds.
I will now mention two characteristics of scientific truths. First, a scientific truth can have consequences (impacts) on our understanding and manipulation of the world. So we will describe them as exopotent. Exopotent truths are fruitful, i.e. they lead to useful/practical applications. The word useful does not necessarily mean something of practical utility. It could also mean relevant in the context of understanding a natural phenomenon. It is important to realize that even mistaken interpretations of the physical world may constitute scientific truths. Thus, at one time, the phlogiston theory of heat and the corpuscular theory of light were scientific truths, because they were useful in different contexts.
The second important characteristic of exopotent truths is that they are locality-culture-invariant, i.e., their validity doesn’t depend on where one considers them or the cultural perspective. At any given tie, exopotent truths are universal.
A characteristic of religious truths is that they have significant consequences (impacts) on our internal experience of life as individuals. We say that religious truths as endopotent. Endopotent truths are fulfilling, i.e. they lead to psychologically/emotionally satisfying states. It must be realized that even atheism and other philosophical systems which do not belong to particular religious traditions (or which may be a synthesis of several) are endopotent truths.
Endopotent truths are truths in that they are also interpretations of facts. The geocentric model is an interpretation of observed facts. Replacing it by the heliocentric model leads to an exopotent truth. Clinging on to it in spite of evidence to the contrary would be an example of an endopotent truth. It must be noted that neither the statement that the sun is the center of the universe nor the statement that the earth is the center is a fact (or a truth as one is accustomed to say). However, post 16th century, one is clearly exopotent and the other is clearly endopotent.
Three things must be said about endopotent truths.
First, inner peace, psychological satisfactions, and emotional security (endopotent factors) are more important than practical additions to creature comforts (exopotent factors). It is therefore not surprising that religion has always been a major factor in human culture and civilization. This is why, contrary to the recommendation or desire of some rationalist or scientific thinkers, religions can never be completely eradicated from human culture. What one may try to accomplish and succeed in doing is two modify religious institutions and doctrines so as to become more satisfying and less harmful than they have been.
Secondly, unlike exopotent truths, endopotent truths are often locality-culture variant. Indeed, they might even be individual-variant.
Finally, the impression that because endopotent truths are subjective, they are less than exopotent truths, may be somewhat mistaken. For ultimately, every individual holds only that as truth which is meaningful, important, and for him/her. The idea that one is loved by one’s family or friends is a far greater truth to a person than the fact that the universe is more than ten billion years old.
Impact potential of truths
It has been said that what matters is not what we believe in, but what we do with our beliefs. This is an important observation in the context of science and religion, if only because arguments have been made for and against both with reference to their impacts. Both science and religion have had positive as well as negative impacts.
A positive impact is one that enhances the quality and experience of life, whereas a negative impact is hurtful or harmful, physically, emotionally, or psychologically. We may refer to these as beneficent and maleficent impacts.
All truths have impact potential, i.e. is capable of provoking actions of one kind or another. And in every case, the action itself could be exopotent or endopotent or both. Whereas religious truths by themselves are only endopotent, the actions stemming from them could be endopotent or exopotent. Thus, for example, engagement in prayer is an endopotent action, and an act of charity or kindness towards a fellow human being is an exopotent action. Both are beneficent in nature. On the other hand, a superstitious fear arising from a religious belief is maleficent and endopotent, while religious persecution of heretics is maleficent and exopotent.
Some actions may be beneficent in an endopotent way and maleficent in an exopotent way. The actions of religious bigots in holy wars are of this kind.
In science chemical weapons are instances of maleficent and exopotent actions, whereas the use of vaccines is beneficent exopotent. In some instances it is difficult to foresee whether scientific knowledge will lead to beneficent or maleficent actions. Our understanding of the human genome is one such.
Criteria for adopting truths
This analysis enables us to spell criteria for the retention or rejection of truths, both scientific and religious. Those who argue eloquently against religion stress the maleficent exopotent potentials of religion, and those who argue for science stress its beneficent exopotent potentials, and conversely.
From these considerations we may list the following set of principles for understanding the relevance and importance of science and religion:
(a) One must recognize that religion and science embody essentially different categories of truths: one is endopotent and the other is exopotent.
(b) To ignore either of these would diminish the human experience. However, endopotent truths (provided by religion of one kind or another) is a deeper human need than exopotent truths (provided by science).
(c) The validity of endopotent truths is a function of one’s cultural background (upbringing) and the consequent intellectual framework. But that of exopotent truths is not.
(d) The significance of truths is related to their impact-potentials.
(e) Individuals and societies may accept or reject truths on the basis of whether the impact potential are beneficent or maleficent.
(f) Science and religion, considered without reference to these factors would be sterile and even dangerous.