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Science et religion dans la philosophie contemporaine

1903 to 1905
University of Glasgow

Science and Religion in Contemporary Philosophy represents a rare opportunity for English readers to encounter Emile Boutroux and the French spiritualist school of philosophy. In this volume, Boutroux explores the science-religion relationship by taking up both the naturalistic tendency which reduces the viable impact of religion upon the natural sciences and the spiritualist tendency which elevates the power of religion at the expense of the material world. He concludes his argument by asserting that science and religion both provide necessary insights into differing domains of life.

In addition to an introduction and a conclusion, the volume is divided into two main parts. The introduction discusses the relationship between science and religion from antiquity to the dawn of the twentieth century, leaving most of the contemporary dialogue to the chapters covered in the two principal parts. Part I, as stated above, discusses naturalism by way of a critique of Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel, and also provides an analysis of the perception of religion in psychology and sociology. Part II discusses the spiritualistic tendency by dialoguing with the works of Albrecht Ritschl, William James, and the philosophies of action.

The spirit of this work is neatly summarised by Boutroux in his French preface to the English edition, where he characterises the relationship between science and religion as one that is of utmost importance to contemporary thought. The spirit of humanity (l’esprit humain) cannot afford to maintain the uneasy tension between science and religion without first identifying how both science and religion operate in the world and without arriving at an awareness of what kinds of answers both science and religion attempt to purvey. He writes: “Science has to do with the things without which man cannot live; religion with those things without which he does not want to live.”(vi)

In what would have been Boutroux's first lecture, the volume's introduction contains a fast paced survey of the historical relationship between science, philosophy and religion from Classical Antiquity to the present. As the science-religion dialogue is a relatively new academic concern, Boutroux expresses the historical antecedents to this through an analysis of naturalism and spiritualism. Within his description of Classical thought, he reflects on the relationship between philosophy and religion, whereas in his description of the Middle Ages he centres on the tension between scholasticism and mysticism. In his survey of the Renaissance this dichotomy is described as being between romanticism and rationalism.

As noted above, the first part of Science and Religion explores the tendency to interpret the science-religion dialogue through a purely naturalistic lens. In the first chapter of Part I (lecture two) Boutroux engages with the work of Auguste Comte, whose positivism is read by Boutroux as having produced a fruitless synthesis of science and religion which eliminates the viability of the transcendent by impeding any direct or indirect appeal to the unknowable.

To overcome the problem of Comte's positivism, Boutroux introduces the reader to the philosophy of Herbert Spencer in Part I, Chapter II (lecture three). In Spencer, the unknowable is that which is at the centre and origin of all things, and therefore, that which binds together science and religion. Yet Boutroux questions the practical benefit of a truly transcendent unknown which is unable to be appealed to in the context of the religious life.

In Part I, Chapter Three (lecture four), Boutroux examines the work of philosopher and ardent Darwinian Ernst Haeckel, whose interpretation of religion is situated squarely within an appeal to evolutionary fitness and a belief in materialist monism. Although Haeckel's monism does ostensibly resolve the science and religion relationship by making functional equivalences of the two, Boutroux finds an insurmountable fault in Haeckel's monism, whereby in Haeckel's universe, humanity can only find certainty in science. As a result, the more humanity “reflects on the nature of this certainty, the more it becomes clear” that science and science alone can be the ultimate basis of knowledge. (158)

In the final chapter of Part I (lecture five), Boutroux seeks to uncover the naturalist understanding of science and religion as advanced by psychology and sociology. According to the analyses of these social sciences, the science and religion relationship can be resolved by reducing religion to what amounts to religious phenomena. Religion, according to psychology and sociology, becomes an object of study, that is, an object of science. Yet Boutroux asserts that it is mistaken to subsume the religious under the category of the sciences because although “human consciousness and human society furnish science with the deepest principles that can be found for explaining religion,” it is only within consciousness and society that the “religious principle” is most clearly made known (213).

Moving from Part I to Part II, Boutroux shifts his focus from the science-religion dialogue in naturalism, to an examination of the same within spiritualism. In the first chapter of Part II (lecture six), Boutroux engages with Albrecht Ritschl, whose anti-rationalist theology was founded on the belief that God could only be known through His own self revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. In effect, Ritschl's theological system protected the human soul and the religious life from the attack of the sciences, by making religion completely dependent upon Christian revelation. Yet, according to Boutroux, Ritschl fails to sufficiently describe the role which is played by the sciences, and only delimits what it is that the sciences are not. For Boutroux, “it is impossible to discover a retreat where we can feel sure of not being rejoined by science, unless, first of all, we ask ourselves what constitutes science…” (235)

In Part II, Chapter Two (lecture seven) Boutroux discusses what he regards as the chief problem of Ritschl's spiritualist response to the science-religion conflict, by examining the explicit limits of science in respect to religion. Through a fourfold argument that critically examines the limitations of both religious and scientific knowledge, Boutroux comes to the conclusion that the spiritualist separation of scientific from religious knowledge runs the risk of reducing the creditability of religion in the eyes of the sciences. The alternative which Boutroux suggests is one which allows religion to be conceived of in freedom from the sciences, yet within a network of intelligible relations with the sciences.

To examine the nature of these relations, in Part III Chapter Three (lecture eight), Boutroux turns to the philosophy of action, pragmatism. Though pragmatism offers beneficial descriptions of the sciences, it falls short of Boutroux's purposes by describing religion as a pure practice which is independent of either concept or idea. As such, religion is emptied of any appeal to the symbolic. To explore this problem more fully, in the final chapter of Part III (what would have been lecture nine), Boutroux addresses the pinnacle of American Pragmatism, William James, with the intent to analyse James' reading of religious experience viz. radical empiricism and the sciences. According to James, religious experience is as “real” as scientific experience because both are grounded in a shared foundation within basic human behaviour and thought. Indeed, Boutroux points out that religion, thanks to the psychological theory of the subconscious, can rely upon the sciences for support and self-interpretation. Yet, in his critique of James, Boutroux argues that James' emphasis upon the felt experience of religion neglects the structures and organisations of religion that exist alongside experience. As regards the sciences, no conflict is allowed for by James, as religion is only a matter of feeling and science is only a matter of “represented phenomena.” (335)

Having disputed the definitions of religion and science (and the various permutations of their interactions) argued for by representative materialists and spiritualists, in his Conclusion (lecture ten) Boutroux advances his own definition of science and religion and expressly delineates the extent of their relation. In sum, Boutroux asserts that the nature of existence warrants an inevitable encounter between the scientific and the religious spirit. Both have a common origin in the human desire to transcend the self and to know the world. Yet, whereas the scientific spirit seeks out facts, laws, and theories, the religious spirit seeks out morality and value, and explores these vagaries of existence through dogmas and rites. Simply put, religion is about transformation, science is about discovery. It is the challenge of the human condition to maintain the independence of these two “autonomous powers” and to encourage each to develop through their conflict with the other. It is through conflict that both science and religion can experience true “vitality” and “fertility.” (400)


La Nature et l'esprit


Science and Religion in Contemporary Philosophy

Duckworth and Co.
  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow