Kartik Tiwari

Meditation on the Nature of Philosophy and Religion

Where does one end? Where does the other begin?

Image: Krishna delivering Gita to Arjun, (Mahamuni, Wikimedia Commons)

While in America Scientology counts as a religion for tax purposes, in Germany it does not. What differentiates a set of philosophical ideas from religious doctrines? After all, in their relaxation of empirical falsification as a means of demarcation and in their investigations of how to live a ‘good’ life, features of religion can be seen to have corresponding elements in philosophy. With not much effort, it can be seen that the obvious candidates which might be used to distinguish religion from philosophy run into edge cases due to the ambiguity in our inquiry. I propose how the central question ought to be transformed into a less ambiguous investigation.

Questions about boundaries between philosophy and religion are inescapably ambiguous insofar as they attribute the burden of defining each of the two terms on the readers. Henceforth, I define philosophy as the practice of carving out the space of all propositions and studying the relations between the elements of these sub-sets. Thence, all investigations of any kinds of beliefs a priori becomes a mode of philosophy.

Let me consider some ways in which one might counter the aforementioned formulation of philosophy. There are two grounds to demarcate religion from philosophy – their contents if treated as bodies of knowledge and their methods if treated as means towards knowledge. On the basis of content, there might seem to be obvious candidates to identify a set of beliefs as a religion. These can include (but, admittedly, are not limited to) involvement of divine deities and soteriological undertones. In the case of divine deities, it is not difficult to find edge cases like forms of Buddhism that lack any figures to be worshipped. One can relax the criterion of what counts as deities to include all figures whose word is treated by the members of the religion with utmost gravity. This formulation has the disadvantage of inducing taxonomical uncertainty in domains of philosophy which clearly have nothing to do with religion. For example, there are scholars who invest considerable time and effort in understanding the words of Spinoza or Wittgenstein – do these then count as religion? The answer is not straightforward.

One might appeal to the necessary presence of soteriological undertones as a distinct feature of religious doctrines. Then, there is a case to be made that soteriological projects are normative prescriptions for how to live the best life. Living the ‘best’ life, however, is something which various domains of philosophy are also concerned with. The difference, even in the case of extreme salvation centric religions (like Christianity), boils down to the fact that soteriological projects prescribe guidelines to live the best life in hopes of optimizing something beyond death (which might be valued more than moments alive). Normative philosophical inquiries, however, often (though not always) involve optimizing the present life. If one dissolves the need for soteriological undertones for a set of beliefs to count as religion then we arrive at the practice of - what I think is best characterized by - a speculative, (possibly) methodless, endeavour to scope the nature of life, universe and reality. This is an instantiation of defining religion loosely enough for it to resemble philosophy by definition. Clearly, the presence or absence of normative prescriptions is neither a sufficient nor a necessary identifier of religious doctrines.

Distraught by the lack of clear content labels for religion and philosophy, one might wish to investigate whether methodological conventions can help clearly articulate the difference (if it exists at all). The obvious candidate in this case might seem to be the extreme disdain for dogma in philosophy contrasted with the comfort with which dogma is accommodated in religions. Unfortunately, under the aforementioned definition of philosophy as the act of carving the space of propositions to study relations between elements of its subsets, it is not a clear why dogma must necessarily be kept away from philosophy. Asserting and believing propositions dogmatically can be thought of as just one choice for an epistemic system – one way of investigating relations between propositions. In fact, it is neither a metaphysical nor a logical impossibility to posit that the we might inhabit a world where the only source of true knowledge is an oracle with no regards for reason. In such a possible world, we can probe nature on our own and disagree with each other all we want and yet only arrive at false descriptions of reality. Wouldn’t in such a world, philosophers that aspire to reach truth inevitably yield to the dogma of the oracle in the same way as religious fanatics yield to dogma of self-proclaimed prophets?

To dissolve the problem of edge cases and sharpen our central inquiry about whether one should create a cleavage between philosophy and religion, I propose we ask – ‘Is there space for dogma in philosophy’. This is a manifestly normative inquiry because it is a derivative of the question ‘What Philosophy ought to be’. To answer this, we must make a choice. Do we want philosophy to be an enterprise which aspires towards an ineffable truth? Then, eliminating the choice of dogma as a possible epistemic system dwindles the probability (perhaps infinitesimally) of us ever arriving at the truth. Or, do we want philosophy to optimize our collective human experience? Then, distancing ourselves from dogmatic systems might be a good idea because in clashes between incompatible dogmatic assertions, far too often humanity witnesses blood.

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About The Author

I'm a scholar of Physics and Philosophy at Ashoka University. I work on Astronomy, Science Policy and Education.