Science is a Cultural System

In Mirror, Mirror: Religion Gets Explained, But Science …, we hear a pretty typical account of religion from scientific quarters:

A number of authors … have suggested that the human proclivity for acquiring and transmitting supernatural agent concepts is an incidental byproduct of cognitive mechanisms genetically adapted for other purposes. … have argued that religions are cultural systems that exploit such byproducts to adaptive effect.

In other words, religion is like a leech or a parasite, growing on human capabilities that have evolved to give us advantage in the world. And, scientists would be quick to add, there is no longer any evolutionary advantage for believing such nonsense.

There are a variety of angles from which that idea can be critqued, but Larry Gilman, the author of the aforementioned article, points out naivete about science itself by its practitioners:

But science, too, is “an incidental byproduct of cognitive mechanisms genetically adapted for other purposes,” as well as a “cultural system that exploits such byproducts to adaptive effect.” We didn’t evolve to do calculus, chemistry, and cognitive psychology; our ancestors evolved brains with a huge amount of built-in flexibility, and we have since found some remarkable uses for them. Science is a “cultural system” not in the sense that its narratives are arbitrary, but as a thing that exists only because human beings have figured out together how to do it, and whose standards, terms, and practices we have knocked together in social settings such as laboratories, journals, and universities.

There’s some more good insights in the article, including what this does and doesn’t mean for the truth of both science and religion.

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