Philosophy, Science and Religion for Everyone

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Mark Harris, Duncan Pritchard
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , July
     2017.
     220 pages.
     $130.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138234154.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

When I first saw the hefty price tag—more than $100—of the hardcover edition of Philosophy, Science and Religion for Everyone (henceforth PSRE), I immediately started wondering how “everyone” could afford such an expensive 174-page book. Fortunately, in its wisdom Routledge simultaneously released paperback and electronic versions for a fraction of the cost, making it much more likely that it will actually be read by more than just those lucky reviewers who receive their hardcover copy gratis.

PSRE is the third in a series of philosophy-related “For Everyone” books published within the past few years, the other two being Philosophy for Everyone (2013; second edition 2016) and Philosophy and the Sciences for Everyone (2014). All three are designed to accompany similarly-named online courses developed at the University of Edinburgh, a fact that doubtless goes a long way toward explaining why twelve of the fifteen contributors to the present volume are associated with that institution. One can nevertheless read PSRE without completing the associated course, for the book is also intended to stand on its own as a “concise overview of this fascinating discipline” (unpaginated front matter).

Each of the fourteen chapters provides an extended answer to a single guiding question (for example, Is evolution compatible with design? Is God hidden, or does God simply not exist? Do logic and religion mix?). Most of the authors do a fine job of sticking to and answering their question. Some chapters discuss lots of relevant material but only contain the briefest of answers to their question, while others look at many aspects of their question without directly answering it. Despite this unevenness in execution, every chapter has something for both the expert and the newcomer, with the latter particularly well served by the pedagogical elements—chapter summary, study questions, short list of introductory and advanced readings, and internet readings—appended to each chapter.

As insightful as each individual contribution may be, it is less clear that the book successfully hangs together as a coherent whole. Making my way through PSRE from front to back, I struggled to discern not only why the chapters are arranged in the order they are, but also why each chapter’s subject matter was thought important to include. Perhaps linearly moving from beginning to end is not the best way to read an edited collection, yet one would expect a self-described overview to be readable in this way, and would anticipate that the architectural principle underlying the book’s arrangement would reveal itself along the way. Unfortunately that did not happen for me. The surprise I felt when starting each new chapter—why this topic? why here?—seemed a little more justified when, after finishing the book, I re-read the front matter and introduction. What I noticed the second time through these sections was the absence of a single clear argument for why the chosen set of guiding questions benefits from being treated within the covers of one book.

In place of such an argument one instead finds multiple seemingly incompatible attempts to explain how the chapters relate to each other. For example, at one point in their introduction the editors state that they want to bridge the gulf between science and religion (a gulf they see as a “nearly perfect example” [1] of C.P. Snow’s two cultures) through the medium of philosophy, because when philosophy takes the lead it allegedly can show “how the different sciences and religions can come together” (2). Whether science and religion need to be mediated by philosophy, and whether philosophy will bring science and religion together in mutually illuminating ways, are of course important questions to consider. In this particular instance, philosophy features prominently in some chapters but hardly at all in others. Whether this variation signifies limits to philosophy’s bridge-making abilities more generally remains to be seen.

Elsewhere in the introduction the editors describe a different arrangement of the book’s contents: chapters addressing the relations of the sciences and religions to concepts like truth, logic, free will, and reason take “centre-stage,” while others look at “issues arising from specific sciences” and yet others at the “formidable debates of our time” (2). The order in which the chapters actually appear does not, however, follow this tripartite structure. Neither does the chapter sequence reflect still another ordering scheme, described on the first page of the front matter, in which the guiding questions are said to correspond to yet another structure: foundational issues, faith and rationality, faith and science, and practical implications.

The book seems to align most closely with a description of the corresponding “Philosophy, Science and Religion” online course on the second page of the front matter. That lecture series, we are told, is split into three segments: science and philosophy, philosophy and religion, and religion and science. With perhaps only one or two exceptions, each chapter of PSRE addresses a topic whose purview lies within one of these disciplinary pairs. What seems to have motivated the selection of the guiding questions is a desire to combine material from the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of science, and science and religion in a meaningful way.

Admirable as this may be in theory, in practice it has resulted in a series of essays that sit uneasily with each other. There are discernible connections between those that would in other circumstances happily be gathered together under the heading of science and religion, just as those chapters about topics often taught within the philosophy of religion also make sense together. But from the perspective of either of these, the presence of the other is difficult to understand. Doubtless many topics within science and religion could benefit from closer engagement with relevant aspects of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion. Readers of PSRE would have benefitted from more explicit demonstration of that engagement.

Again, this is not to call into question the quality of the individual essays. Each one will find grateful readers who appreciate the insights contained therein. It is simply to say that if the collection as a whole is viewed from the vantage point of the aspirations of its editors, then more needs to be done to show why science and religion, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of religion should share space in a single book, or why science and religion genuinely needs to be mediated by, or led by, philosophy. Until future scholarship builds on PSRE and does one or both of these, science and religion will continue to benefit from engagement with many disciplines—history, theology, anthropology, sociology, and of course philosophy—without any one of these needing to crowd out the others.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Jordan is Research Coordinator at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
December 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Harris is Senior Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. Trained initially in earth sciences at Cambridge, his PhD work led him into condensed matter physics, working in Oxford, then at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (Oxfordshire, UK), where he established his interests in the physics of magnetic materials. He is known as the discoverer (with Steve Bramwell, UCL) of 'spin ice'.

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