Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Philosophy, Science, and Religion

I'm reading some Bertrand Russell--his History of Western Philosophy. In his introduction he places Philosophy, interestingly, somewhere between theology and science:

The conceptions of life and the world which we call "philosophical" are a product of two factors: one, inherited religious and ethical conceptions; the other, the sort of investigation which may be called "scientific," using this word in its broadest sense. Individual philosophers have differed widely in regard to the proportions in which these two factors entered into their systems, but it is the presence of both, in some degree, that characterizes philosophy.


Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge--so I should contend--belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy.


Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.... To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.


While Russell dismisses the fairy-tale tellers a bit too quickly (who doesn't like a good story here and there and many stories have important lessons to impart) just as Plato dismisses the poets too rashly from his totalitarian Republic, I am interested in two aspects of his statements: that (1) philosophy is something of a space between--it asks questions about unknowable things, but proceeds "rationally"--and, as such, (2) teaches to live with uncertainty--that, in fact, the most important questions about life have no sure answers. It is a life without knowledge, but also without ignorance. The space between is a nebulous mass of ambiguity. To be a lover of wisdom is to face this unknowable but all-important ambiguity with courage, hope, and awe.

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