Religion and Scientific Objectivity

H Halvorson and Z Quanbeck

Summary: This course investigates the concept of objectivity, with special reference to science and religion – both from historical and conceptual points of view. While there will be plenty of analytic philosophy, we will also find it helpful to read some historical sources, most notably the great critic of objectivity: Søren Kierkegaard.

The desire to find a “recipe” for achieving objectivity has been strong among philosophers in the European and Anglo-American traditions. But it seems that, typically, the “cure” has been worse than the “disease”: the attempt to become perfectly objective has led to people being even less objective than they might have been. Take, for example, the dialectical method of G.W.F. Hegel, the bad outcomes of which were pointed out most colorfully by Kierkegaard. Or take the failed attempts of the logical positivists to define purely objective science.

Despite these repeated failures, we aren’t ready to resign ourselves to the idea that objectivity is an illusion, or that there is simply not point to trying to be objective. For example, shouldn’t a scientist try to be objective in reporting the results of her experiments? And shouldn’t journalists try to be objective in their reporting? For that matter, shouldn’t professors try to be objective in evaluating the work of their students?

More generally, what does it mean to be objective? What is the point in trying to be objective? And how can we achieve objectivity? Are there places and times when it’s not a virtue to be objective?

We will also consider the scope of objectivity in the social sciences, as well as the relationship between objectivity and values in accepting scientific theories, making religious commitments, and forming beliefs in other domains.

Format: This course meets twice a week for 80 minutes and is discussion-based.

The syllabus is under construction. The following is our scratchpad, which will be updated on an ongoing basis.

Key topics