Contribution to Encyclopedia of Religion and Science, Volume 1, Edited by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Macmillan References, 2003
Hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy that deals with theory of interpretation. It can be argued that any discussion of the relationship between science and religion is implicitly or explicitly a matter of interpretation. This can be seen, for instance, in Ian Barbour’s (1923 – ) advocacy of “critical realism” in matters both religious and scientific. Interpretation theory necessarily stands at the intersection of the dialogue between science and religion, though few authors in the field have articulated formal theories of interpretation as part of this exploration.
The etymology of the word hermeneutics begins with the ancient Greek god, Hermes, who was a messenger between the gods of Olympus, the gods of the underworld, and the mortal humans. Hermeneutics could literally be translated as the “science of Hermes.” Called Mercury in the Roman tradition, Hermes was unique in the ancient pantheon as the singular interpreter between worlds, but one should not forget that he was also something of a trickster. The apparently simple task of interpretation turns out to be remarkably complicated and can make fools of everyone.
Hermeneutics first arises in the disciplines of interpreting sacred texts, historical events, and legal codes, but philosophers increasingly see its application to theories of understanding in the broadest sense. The book, poem, event, or law to be interpreted is referred to generically as the “text.” The interpretation of texts is seen as a metaphor for all kinds of non-textual interpretative problems, for instance in social and psychological theories and increasingly also in the biophysical sciences.
Hermeneutics in science
Scientists tend to have a formalist approach to their disciplines, believing that science is a singular methodology leading to objective, realist accounts of phenomena. While this is often pragmatically justified in the narrow domains of particular sciences, philosophical reflection on the practice of science in the last century points to a much more nuanced and complicated view. The positivist view of science advocated by Moritz Schlick (1882 – 1936), Karl Popper (1902 – 1994), and others has largely fallen to a more contextual and constructivist understanding of science. Willard V. O. Quine (1908 – 2000), Arthur Fine (1937 – ), Hillary Putnam (1926 – ), and Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) have argued persuasively that science is not a singular methodology, but a complex of diverse disciplines situated within particular historical and social contexts. The philosophical task now becomes explaining the progressive and efficacious results of scientific investigations and insights in spite of this situatedness.
A few examples will suffice to show how science engages in interpretation. In contemporary cosmology, the problems of quantum entanglement and the apparent “fine-tuning” of perhaps a dozen cosmological parameters leads to the extravagant and often non-empirical speculations of string-theory, multiverse theory, and numerous accounts of the significance of quantum weirdness. In the case of multiverse theory, it remains to be seen whether these speculations will ever be more enlightening than debates about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
In molecular biology, the genome is increasingly referred to as a text or code, which is then interpreted in particular organisms to varying degrees, sometimes with a great deal of stochastic latitude, for instance as seen in the probabilistic occurrences of many genetically-based diseases. Biology turns out to be all nature and all nurture and the two cannot easily be separated in spite of reductionistic predilections.
Because of the historical nature of evolutionary biology, scholars continue to debate whether evolution has teleological biases or structures. Because researchers can only simulate evolution and cannot subject theories of evolution to laboratory-like replication and verification, they are not likely to ever resolve these questions. These arguments will always take on the status of interpretations in which empirical facts and logical arguments are mustered to support competing views to varying degrees of satisfaction.
Primatologists regularly draw analogies between humans and their primate relatives in order to decode the biological nature of human sexuality, sociability, and aggression. When primatologists compare baboons, gorillas, chimpanzees, or bonobos, let alone apparent cultural differences between groups within one of these species, it would be hard to know what is biologically normative for humans. These primate analogies to humans could be seen as an example of what philosophers denounce as the naturalistic fallacy, in which humans explain an “ought” of culture with an “is” from nature. The human species, however, exhibits a ubiquitous and perennial tendency, if not necessity, to extrapolate and analogize between the “is” and the “ought” as we develop our sense of individual selves and culture identity. The question is not whether to commit the naturalistic fallacy, but how. Again this is a matter of interpretation.
Hermeneutics in religion
Religions have long dealt with the problem of interpretation. When confronted with an archaic or foreign language in a sacred text, simple translation itself becomes an interpretative task. Sacred texts and traditions are full of other interpretative problems. Even if readers begin with the presupposition that the text is divinely revealed and in some sense perfect, as for instance with the status of the Koran for most Muslims, they must still confront their own finitude as the readers of such revealed texts. Ambiguity and conflict within the Koran necessarily give rise to a body of interpretation and case law that places this foundational religious text within a tradition of jurisprudence. Talmudic interpretation of Torah in Judaism is another explicit example of a hermeneutical process at work in religion.
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) and others in the early and medieval Christian movement argued that the Bible was often allegorical and not to be understood as literal. The parables of Jesus are explicitly metaphorical and thus also in need of interpretation. With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) , John Calvin (1509 – 1564), and others tended to reject allegorical interpretation as mere manipulation of the text for the political purposes of the Catholic hierarchy. A literal and univocal hermeneutics was advanced in which the Bible was open to the self-interpretation of every competent reader, even as it was widely translated in vernacular languages for the first time. Curiously, the Christian reform movement, which advanced this literal and univocal Biblical hermeneutics, quickly splintered into the competing Protestant denominations. Radical Protestants argued that Biblical interpretation must be guided by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit in which the text was written, or it could never be properly understood. As the New Testament itself warns us, even the devil quotes scripture.
Hermeneutics in philosophy
Hermeneutics rose as a formal philosophical discipline in the modern period. While one should be mindful of the rich histories and reflections on hermeneutics in other civilizations and traditions, the context in which modern European philosophers began to articulate formal theories of hermeneutics arises out of the life and death battles of the Reformation.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834) and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) are widely credited with the rise of modern hermeneutics. Schleiermacher, for instance, united problems in biblical interpretation with the interpretation of other genres of literature, history, law, and philosophy. Schleiermacher articulated the problem of a hermeneutical circle in which the reading of a particular passage could only be understood in the context of the whole text and the reading of the whole text could only be understood in light of the interpretation of particular passages. Thus the correct reading of a text also needed to draw on other sources, including an understanding of the author’s life and intentions. The goal was to “understand an author better than he understood himself.” This also required an understanding of the entire cultural context in which the author’s work emerged. At every level, the problem of a part and whole circularity arose for Schleiermacher, but he had a kind of sanguine optimism about the endeavor of achieving an objective reading of a text. One also sees in Schleiermacher’s approach an affinity with early psychology and the other human sciences.
Others argue that authors do not actually understand themselves and that it is the job of the interpreter to decode the hidden meanings of the author’s text. For instance, the self-understanding of the author or the surface reading of a text are covers for “false consciousness” of economic interests (Karl Marx) or the “unconscious projections” of psychological forces (Sigmund Freud). This critical turn towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, however, soon implicated the “objective” interpreter himself, since all interpreters and interpretations are ideologically biased. The reader is thus drawn into the hermeneutical circle as part of problem. A reader necessarily approaches the reading of a significant text with all kinds of assumptions; prejudices can simply predetermine the interpretation. The challenge of interpretation begins to look like a vicious circle in which readers project any and all prejudices onto the text.
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002) articulated a theory of interpretation that took the reader’s situatedness fully into account. Interpretation was an encounter between the two worlds of the author and the reader. The text became an independent entity with a life of its own. Good interpretation sought for a “fusion of horizons” between the reader, the author, and the life of the text. The task was to reflect critically about the pre-judgments brought to the table by the reader, seek a provisional critical distance from these prejudices, and be open to encountering some new understanding through a new reading which might then inform a new set of assumptions for future readings. The goal was to turn what was understood to be a solipsistic hermeneutical circle into an open-ended and progressive hermeneutical spiral.
The hermeneutics of suspicion and the self-implication of the reader in the hermeneutical dynamic, however, also gave rise to the more extreme formulations of radical deconstruction and postmodern hermeneutics. Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), Jacques Derrida (1930 – ), Richard Rorty (1931 – ) and others have argued for the impossibility of interpretative truth claims. Because one cannot escape prejudice, delusion, and interested rationalization in every interpretative move, the best one can do is not delude oneself through an endless process of deconstruction (the double-meaning is intentional). The challenge of postmodernism is to live in the flux of change without the crutch of artificially willed certainty.
Scientism has come to be seen by many in the humanities as just such an oppressive metanarrative. There has been a major movement to apply social-critical theory to the understanding of scientific knowledge as socially constructed. Historians and social critics enter the scientific discourse like anthropologists in a foreign land. They read the ethnography of the laboratory, the economics of the pharmaceutical research, the history of physics, and the metaphoric symbolism of genetic engineering in order to uncover hidden meanings that are not self-apparent to members of the “tribe.” These studies often offer some enlightening insights into how the actual practice of science differs from the philosophy of science or the self-understanding of scientists, but the hermeneutical circle also puts into question the ethnography, economics, psychology, and symbolism of the new cultural critics of science.
Contemporary hermeneutic theory tends toward philosophical and ethical pragmatism. The truth of a theory or interpretation is understood not through some direct correspondence to reality but through the practical consequences of its applications. In this sense, postmodernism can be seen as having deep affinities with some religious and scientific philosophies. The reluctance of physicists to draw metaphysical implications from quantum mechanics can be seen as a kind of pragmatism. Plato (428 – 347 B.C.E.) offers the notion of a Noble Lie necessary for well-being of the Polis and the individual. Jesus’ warning to judge the false prophets on the consequences of their ministry, to be wary of rotten “fruit” in “sheep’s clothing,” can also be seen as a pragmatist apologetic. Buddhism includes the notion of Upaya, effective teachings that are not necessarily true but that work nonetheless. Even if foundational theories of knowledge are unattainable, one might still find in lived experience some practical guidance.
That science is a socially and historically constructed form of knowledge is in retrospect an obvious truism. That science is merely a socially constructed form of knowledge without reference to a “real” reality is a highly problematic assertion. The problem is compounded by the either/or, subjective/objective, rational/irrational dichotomies upon which the modernist worldview is founded. Here, too, an understanding of postmodernism is helpful to the science and religion interdisciplinary dialogue.
Religion, which has long been attacked and deconstructed as mythic delusion, can now claim some pragmatic parity with the scientific worldview that attacked it within this pragmatist hermeneutic. History, anthropology, psychology, sociology, gender studies, and literary theory have long been conversation partners in serious religious thought and inquiry, but they are now new dialogue partners for the biophysical sciences.
Once perceived as hostile to a committed life of faith, modernist critical theory has turned into a postmodernist helpmate for religion in nurturing deep and intellectually vibrant religious belief. The fact that there are invisible social and psychological processes that corrupt and distort one’s understanding of the divine (or nature) and that unconscious processes can be exposed and demystified through critical interpretative theory is an occasion to reaffirm human finitude and humbleness before the divine and the larger nature that contains human “be(ing)longingness.” After all, in most faith traditions such humility is prescribed. The Judaic prohibition against idolatry, the via negativa of medieval Christianity, the Neti Netiof Hinduism, the Sunyata of Buddhism, and the Islamic sense of divine transcendence are all rich affirmations of human epistemological finitude before the Ultimate.
Many in the biophysical sciences, however, tend to feel threatened by these social constructionist studies. Most scientists believe that their theories, models, and measurements are in some sense directly related to reality and not simply an elaborate projection of social prejudice and power. The strong social constructionist argument would render the predictive and explanatory power of science as nonsensically coincidental. Airplanes really fly; cell phones really work. Science produces untold efficacious results in daily life. And while belief in antibiotics or acupuncture will improve the effect of the remedy, they will also work independent of belief system. The truths of science, like the truths of religion, must surely lie somewhere between relativistic social constructionism and naive realism, though scholars are struggling to find a new philosophical language to account for this in-between knowing.
Hermeneutics in linguistics
These hermeneutical conundrums are also characterized by a linguistic movement in philosophy of science and philosophy in general. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951), for instance, came to reject his own earlier positivist theory of language and science. Wittgenstein recognized that all languages are internally self-referential. Kurt Gödel (1906 – 1978) proved that even mathematical languages are self-referential. Language is understood as a kind of game playing, in which the rules are arbitrary to each particular user-group. One can talk about language games within the boundaries of rational, irrational, and other rational. Within the rules of their respective language games, an Orthodox Jew can be every bit as rational as a particle physicist; indeed, they can be one and the same person. There is, however, no master language or logic of truth, contrary to the hopes of the scientific positivists and religious fundamentalists.
Paul Ricoeur (1913 – ) carefully considers this new linguistic analysis and argues that far from being merely arbitrary, human language builds upon a deep symbolic structure of the universe itself. It is not just that human language reflects a semiotic/semantic structure internally; the universe itself is constituted through semiotic/semantic processes. Ricoeur advocates metaphoric realism. Words achieve their denotative function only through connotative associations in established usage. Because the function of language is first established in connotation, the result is a theory of metaphors as linguistically primordial. Ricoeur avoids descending into relativistic nonsense by grounding human language in a semiotic and semantically rich universe.
Many religions consider language to be somehow primordial to the material constitution of the universe. In Hinduism, the Upanishads talk of a primal word, Om, which functions as the creative source of all nature. The Greeks, including Plato, drew upon Heraclitus’ notion of logos, viewing the embodied word as that fire that animated and ruled the world. In Jewish Midrash, the grammatical ambiguity of the first line of Genesis, leads to philosophical speculation about a pre-existent Torah, which God uses to speak reality into being. In Medieval Judaism, this rabbinic tradition gave rise to the wild speculations and philosophical subtleties of the Kabbalists. In the Gospel of John, Christians celebrate this Word or Logos in a radical incarnationalist vision of a cosmic Christ by whom and through whom all things are made and from whom everything that was created received life.
So, too, throughout the sciences theoretical and research projects point beyond mere materialism and reductionism to a new kind of ontological entity called “information.” Contemporary scientists take matter-energy and space-time as metaphysical foundations, but increasingly need to include some concept of “information” in their metaphysics, even though information is somehow immaterial, ephemeral, and context dependent.
The relativistic tendencies of postmodern hermeneutics and culture at large now present a great challenge at a time in human history that also requires intellectual rigor and committed moral action in the face of theoretical and existential uncertainty. The hermeneutical dynamic may be unavoidable, but it need not be a self-confirming or paralyzing circle of prejudice. While unavoidable, the cultural biases of the interpreter are not necessarily bad, for a tradition is paradoxically the sustaining foundation upon which deconstructive hermeneutics builds new meanings. All deconstructions are parasitic on some functional metanarrative. Nor does interpretation always necessarily confirm the prejudgments of interpretation. The text presents a limited matrix of possible and plausible interpretations. The trick will be, not to deny one’s hermeneutical finitude through some fundamentalist dogmatism or callous rhetorical will-to-power, but to honor the hermeneutical process and open the solipsistic circle into an evolving spiral. New and different voices in one’s social and biophysical ponderings can help provide powerful insights, even as the text or phenomenon have the capacity sometimes to direct one to new insights in spite of oneself.
Human reason, like the universe, is polyglot. But interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and intra-phenomenological translation projects are possible and necessary. With a combination of interpretative insights of science and religion, like the blind men describing the elephant in the Jainist-Buddhist myth, a “fusion of horizons” and a fuller understanding of science, society, self, and the sacred might be gained. A rigorous and open-ended conversation of tolerance and humility is an ethical and epistemological prescription for both science and religion as we confront the extraordinary challenges of our time and the stunning complexities of the universe and ourselves.
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