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Explanation vs. Interpretation

September 8, 2010

Building off yesterday’s post on the differences between scientific and religious modes of thinking, here’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writing in the Times (of London) in response to physicist Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design (which argues that the universe was designed without a designer, that is to say “spontaneously” and without any need for  God the Creator):

There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. They are different intellectual enterprises. They even occupy different hemispheres of the brain. Science — linear, atomistic, analytical — is a typical left-brain activity. Religion — integrative, holistic, relational — is supremely a work of the right brain.

It is important for us to understand the misinterpretation Professor Hawking has made, because the mutual hostility between religion and science is one of the curses of our age, and is damaging to religion and science in equal measure.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. DrewM permalink
    September 8, 2010 12:44 pm

    I agree that both Krane and Sacks provide intuitively appealing explanations of the difference between science and religion, but I think that a scientific examination of the arguments and narratives used in each would show that their claims do not hold. Religions involve substantial examination of evidence and attempting to fit patterns to it with rigor. Science involves substantial interpretation. Both provide explanations.

    The difference, as both writers suggest, is that these two modes of explanation are addressing different fundamental needs. Both seek to answer the question “why?” But each prefers a different kind of “why.” In science, we seek the “why” that can provide us with the most accurate predictions. In religion, we seek the why that gives us the most enduring motivations. Science answers “should I expect to see X occur with Y again?” Religion answers “should I care about X and Y at all?”

    These are two fundamental questions for which we need satisfactory answers in order to get through life. In the reasoning of everyday life, such as in an office or family situation, these two kinds of questions are mixed together. Science and religion are specialized outgrowths of this messier, more mundane reasoning. As the Bible teaches, science and religion are late developments in the Genesis. It is the acquisition of knowledge that leads to the crisis of meaning from which religion is developed.

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