Sunday, May 27, 2012

Is Progress a Virtue?

Worship at Faith Bible Church, NYC

I met a few weeks ago with one of my MCCC philosophy students who told me that one reason he sees little use for religion and much use for science is that science progresses, while religion does not. I think it is true that religion, and philosophy does not progress. I think it is true that science does progress, but understanding the nature of progress in science is not that easy. For example, the history of science is the history of error. A scientific statement that today is A may well be Not-A tomorrow. I'm not certain that "progress" is the word to use regarding this.

Assuming science progresses (using "science" metonymically to mean something like "scientific knowledge, in terms of scientists who are the knowers), religion and philosophy do not progress in the same way. But to think this makes religion and philosophy inferior to science is like saying chess is inferior to football because in chess we don't kick field goals. This is to commit, in Gilbert Ryle's sense, a category mistake.

Consider this. One branch of philosophy is ethics. Religion is related to this in that religions prescribe moral values. Religion is prescriptive, science is descriptive (or intends to be; again, it's not quite that simple). Philosophical ethics and religious belief have prescribed that It is wrong to kill. We see this in Judaism from 3000 years ago. Has there been any moral progress on It is wrong to kill during the last 3000 years? No. One should not attempt to use "progress" as an epistemic framework through which to view ethics. The questions remains; viz., is the statement It is wrong to kill true or false? Philosophy deals with that. But humanity has not "advanced" beyond that, whatever that might even mean.

Progress, therefore, while it may be a virtue in science, is not a virtue in philosophy and religion. It is simply wrongheaded to reject religion for the reason that it has not progressed.