Apparently, you can’t have too much class(ification)

Not so long ago, I published an essay saying something along the lines of “let’s stop trying to build typologies in the study of religion and science.” My basic argument is that religion, science, and technology are like three heads of a hydra. Take something in the world — say, artificial intelligence — and there are religious, scientific, and technological aspects of that thing. So each looks like one of the hydra’s heads. Sometimes the heads aim in one direction, sometimes in more than one. So there’s a lot of bumbling and stomping going on.

I wrote that because lots of people prefer to classify different modes of interaction between science and religion. They build typologies that include things like conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (to take the famous four-fold typology of Ian Barbour) and then try to stuff scientific theories and religious beliefs into one of these.

The reasons I prefer thinking about hydras to classifying religion-science interactions are manifold. First, to be honest, mythical monsters are cooler than charts. Second, historical realities simply resist all those classifications. Any given person might hold a conflict between religion and science in one aspect of their life but not in others. The conflict might exist for someone but not for someone else. Third, the typological approach to classifying religion and science is heavily indebted to a Christian emphasis on belief (not all religions are equally concerned with what people profess to believe!). Scientific theories and religious doctrines are thus amenable to conflict or dialogue or what have you. Classifying these things almost always comes down to “what does this person believe?” (in both science and religion) rather than “what does this person do?” I’m more interested in the latter than the former. Fourth, in ordinary life people don’t have these problems all that often. Those are enough complaints for now.

Despite my complaints against the classifying and building of typologies, recent papers just keep up the trend. Either everything was in the publication pipeline already, the authors never saw my essay, or they saw the essay and think I’m wrong (but not wrong enough to contradict me in their papers). Andrew Loke takes the Barbour typology and changes the names, focusing on the use of identical starting letters and argues that the problems of taxonomy end if you just state that the taxonomy describes perceived relations rather than actual ones. Or something. He even states that this taxonomy, with a step-by-step process through it will “exhaustively cover all the possible relationships.” But fails to see how actual people can hold different perspectives simultaneously. Or state belief in one thing and do another. Or find some mode of being outside of the four Cs. Or when something fits both categories depending on your point of view (e.g., if Intelligent Design is conflict according to a secular proponent of evolution but convergence from the perspective of the ID advocate, then how do we talk about it in simple terms?). At least he notes how you ought to be able to apply the taxonomy to each individual element under consideration (rather than just to a complete worldview). But, of course, by the time you do that for a real person you’ll probably have such a “blooming buzzing world of confusion,” as William James referred to our infant minds, that you probably can’t make much sense of the taxonomy at all.

Meanwhile, Adam Chin rightly proposes that we ought to know what we’re after when we put things in typology and then goes on to suggest a new typology. His is a typology of typologies, which allows him to explain what use a typology might have. That is, Chin describes how different contexts (e.g. an evangelical Christian interested in studying biology or a government official discussing stem cell technologies with religious opponents of them) can have different ways of engaging religion-science relationships.

Whether these are an improvement on older typologies I leave to others. Personally, I think the problem is our love of classification and our desire to put things in neat boxes. But, at best, classification requires a justification. That is, for every single attempt to fit something in a typological classification, the scholar ought to justify why that is a useful move (the only one I’m likely to see is pedagogical) and how the decision was arrived at. And in this regard, Chin makes a move forward. But his typology is still built out of other typologies, and thus the process of classification remains. I’m not sure the problems of those typologies are resolved by his analysis and classification of them, and that means putting them to use is a dubious enterprise.

Note: my awesome cave hydra art is the work of the inestimable JR Maloney @ Vanguard Tattoo. It was used in my Zygon paper about religion-science-technology hydras.

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