Monday, February 23, 2015

Interdisciplinary Culture Clash, part 2: Is Science a Religion? Were the Dark Ages Dark?

A continuing conversation between Dr. John Robinson and Dr. Kai Chan

This is part 2, find part 1 here. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6 (conclusion).

KC: Last post, I introduced a provocative conversation between Dr. John Robinson and myself (Kai Chan) in which the surprisingly heated exchange retaught me lessons I thought I already knew about interdisciplinarity and CP Snow's two cultures (science and the humanities). I thought I was so 'over' that divide, until this first substantial response of John's about different interpretations of science, sustainability, and the Dark Ages....

From: <Robinson>, John 
Date: Friday, January 9, 2015 at 5:20 PM
To: Kai Chan 

Cc: "RobinsonJohn

Subject: RE: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary


I completely agree with you about the collective nature of the problem. We are in the middle of an intense discussion in the project on exactly this issue. That is why the choices made in the ‘world-making machine’ are by groups of four participants acting collectively.

I understand your view about science, and that is exactly what I would expect the character in the science category of our project to believe. But someone in the religious camp would have quite a different view, and so would someone in the literary camp. Note that this is not a matter only of world-view, but of the world itself. We call the Dark Ages dark, and that is a perfectly good judgement from within our own frame of reference. But any devout Christian from that time would be more likely to use that term to describe our world. From my point of view it is precisely the confident assertion in both the religious and scientific frames, that they are describing the real reality that underlies and informs all other frameworks of understanding (i.e. God or objective reality), that leads me to lump them together in terms of their epistemological stance. The literary stance differs fundamentally on that axis (though there are other axes of course).

Lots to discuss. I look forward to hearing any views you have on Rorty’s paper.

All the best,

John Robinson 
Associate Provost, Sustainability | UBC Sustainability Initiative
Professor | Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability
Professor | Department of Geography
The University of British Columbia
2260 West Mall Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z4 – UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI) – Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) – Centre for Interactive research on Sustainability (CIRS)

From: Chan, Kai
Sent: Friday, January 09, 2015 8:58 PM
To: RobinsonJohn
Subject: Re: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary

Hi John,

Thanks for this. Great re: the collective problem.

On the point below, I agree with you that different people might differ in their interpretation of what’s better, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. [Digression: I don’t think that it’s only scientists (or people who primarily use science to help guide their actions) who call the Dark Ages dark. Many people consider the Dark Ages dark not because of the lack of science but because of the prevalence of disease, starvation, war, etc.]

My point is that science is not only or even primarily a worldview. You were critiquing the regenerative design folks who you felt were using science as a worldview, including as a moral compass. But, as I argued in your office, that is decidedly a minority view within the scientific community (and one that philosophers have rejected through logical argument, which I support). The majority of scientists that I know and read use science to interpret process, not meaning. And they use it to design solutions to meet given objectives, not to decide on appropriate objectives.

In my mind, the meaning (in a spiritual sense) must come from outside science, as must our goals and objectives. Accordingly, there is no necessary choice between religion or literature and science. They are not mutually exclusive, because science is not primarily a worldview. Many embrace both religion and science, and use religion to guide their spirituality and science to guide their understanding of process and consequence.

Some people say that science is a religion (implying, among other things, that people use it to interpret meaning and decide on objectives), but I dispute that. Some folks might mistakenly use science that way, as I think you’re critiquing the regenerative design folks, but your exhibit risks suggesting that such meaning-making and objective-setting are the, or a main, purpose of science. In my view, such a suggestion would demonize and misrepresent science and scientists.

Have a great weekend,


  1. Dear Kai and John:

    I appreciate your courageous decision to publish these email exchanges, which I read with keen interest. I trust that there are more follow-up exchanges that will be published here soon in the spirit of service to your students and colleagues. Thank you for the inspiration (in advance)!

    Best wishes,
    Tashi Tsering
    former RMES student
    Postdoc fellow, York Centre for Asian Research, York University

    1. Hi Tashi, thanks for the note. There will be a total of 6 posts, which we will be posting every other day until early next week, so stay tuned!

      Cheers, Paige (blog editor)

  2. Thanks Paige. Looking forward to Part 5 and 6. Hopefully there will be more dialogue than our two esteemed prof's talking past or clarifying to each other. ALl the best!