Framing science and religion
You cannot separate what you say from how you say it.
Re-Assembling Reality #28d, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer
Religion seems like it might reasonably be poetic: we cannot find base words to express something that transcends the mere literal meaning, so we wax lyrical. By contrast, science — surely — should say what it means and mean what it says. Or so we imagine.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) that is not how language works. It is certainly not how the human brain works.
We understand things in terms of connections with other things. If someone says “religion,” our brain immediately has a host of ideas that it expects we may want to call on next: God, deities, miracles, incense, churches, prayer, candles, temples, death, ritual, boredom, Sunday afternoons, Christmas, Ramadan, charity, grandma… we can’t help it.
The connections we draw are extensive and yet, compared to the near-infinite number of connections we could draw, they are incredibly limited. In the grand scheme of things, our attention is exceptionally limited. So we use frames. Frames are a tremendously useful heuristic for taking the infinite number of connections we could make, and helping us to focus on a few, while helping us to ignore the rest.
Think of it like being in an art gallery. The painting’s frame says “look here”: it tells you what you are supposed to be looking at, and what you can ignore. Sure, the explanatory plaque next to the painting, the wall paper, the fire extinguisher, the rope cordon, the signs to the toilets and the exit, the marble flooring, the bench… they are all there. But the frame tells you that all of that can be ignored. “Look here,” it says, like some silent Jedi mind trick. And you do.
Intellectual frames similarly tell us what to look at and what can be ignored. The choice of a particular frame influences what questions are permissible, what answers are permissible, what issues are (or are not) considered problematic, and what action is to be taken.
At first glance, this might seem strangely at odds with the ideal of transparent objectivity for science. Scientists are free to ask whatever questions they want, and arrive at whatever answers reason and observation lead them to. Surely there is no place in science for some Jedi mind trick to distract us with the wave of a hand, “This is not the question you are looking for.”
One can readily believe that such skills would be embraced in the manipulative aspects of political rhetoric or advertising. But surely not in something as noble as religion, much less in something as objective as science. However, while it is possible in an art gallery to remove the picture frames, in our intellectual life we cannot have unframed ideas. Thus, if science or religion are going to engage our thoughts and actions at all, frames cannot be escaped.
Frames in religion
When a person asks a question, they always have a frame. It cannot be otherwise. Their frame may be helpful, drawing attention to important issues in a fruitful way. Or it may be unhelpful, masking the real issues that must be addressed. If the question imposes an unhelpful frame, answering the question — even if the answer is correct — can do more harm than good, because it reinforces the unhelpful frame.
One option, then, is to explain why the frame used by the question is problematic. This is ponderous. It can also be self-defeating, as it draws even more attention (even if it is negative attention) to the very things that are not relevant.
Another option is to answer the question with another question. The second question can use a better frame and, in so doing, picks up the entire conversation and sets it on a better path. This is a rhetorical device often used by Jesus, and we can illustrate the point by seeing it in action.
On one occasion, Jesus prophesies to a disciple called Peter that he — Peter — would be martyred. Peter scanned around and asked a question about a disciple named John who was standing nearby:
Peter… said to Jesus, “Lord, what about [John]?”
Peter’s question sets up a frame. Here is what the frame does:
It sets what answers are permissible:
If Jesus were to accept Peter’s frame, there are various answers he could give: “Yes, John will be martyred too,” or “No John won’t be martyred,” or “Well, he won’t be martyred, but he will suffer a lot, so don’t feel like you have been too hard done by.” Given the question, and without worrying about which answer happens to be true, all of these answers are sensible answers. (Unlike, “I’m going to climb a mountain,” which, regardless of whether it is true, is not a sensible answer to the question.)
It sets what other questions are permissible:
There are any number of points on which Peter could then pick up: “Will we die in the same way?” or “Why does one of us get martyred and the other not?” or “What does it mean, that living and suffering is comparable to dying?” or “Is there anything I can do to get out of this?” None of these are unreasonable questions. And theologians and philosophers could get untold numbers of publications from engaging with them.
It sets what issues are (or are not) considered problematic:
Death, obviously, is a concern here. Fairness is a concern. As is (a lack of) knowledge of what will happen ahead of time. The imagined Q&A that might follow Peter’s initial question revolves around these issues. And, again, theologians and philosophers would be very happy to follow the thread where it leads.
It suggests what action is to be taken:
If John will outlive Peter, maybe they should get together so Peter can pass on all he knows while there is still time. If there is any way to change the future, maybe Peter should campaign against the injustice of religious persecution.
Jesus could have addressed each of these points in turn. Martyrdom is not as problematic as Peter believes it to be. (A point at which Peter will surely balk, and which will lead to an entire discussion on its own.) Fairness is not as important as Peter believes it to be. (Again, a point at which Peter will balk.) Knowing what is going to happen ahead of time is not as important as Peter believes it to be. (“That’s easy for you to say, Jesus! You’re God!”) Each of these points can be defended at length and, having come to a better understanding, Peter may realise the limitations of his original question. But that is not what Jesus does.
Instead, he asks a question:
Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remains until I come, what is that to you?”
In one question, Jesus pushes back against and undercuts all of Peter’s assumptions. What is it to you? Can you explain to me why a comparison is important? Maybe John will die before you, maybe he will never die at all; does it matter? Why is his death important to you? Why is knowledge of his death important to you?
Having rejected Peter’s frame, Jesus establishes his own:
“You, follow me!”
All of a sudden, the sensible questions change. “Where are you going?” “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” “How do I carry on following you when you have ascended into heaven, and I am in chains?”
These questions are not inherently bad questions. But they would probably never have been prompted by any discussion that followed on from Peter’s original question. And the issues with which Peter was so concerned now drop by the wayside. Not so much because he accepted Jesus’ answer, but because he accepted Jesus’ question, and with it, accepted Jesus’ frame.
Also, for those keeping track, if Jesus were continue the conversation by saying “I’m going to climb a mountain,” the change of frame has transformed such a statement from being an irrelevant head-scratcher to a really good thing to know.
Frames, frames everywhere
Given how subtle frames are, and yet how powerful they are, they may at first glance appear to be manipulative or deceitful. In truth, frames can be used in manipulative and deceitful ways. However, to judge frames as problematic on such grounds would be like judging matter to be problematic, simply because guns are made of matter.
No. We cannot escape frames. The best we can do is to be aware of them. To recognise how they shape our view of the world and our actions in it. And, where possible, to choose the frames that we use wisely.
Before pointing the finger at science, let us take a brief survey of other subjects just to see how all-pervasive frames are. In each case, consider:
What kinds of questions does this frame prompt?
What kinds of answers does this frame permit?
What issues does this frame make (un)problematic?
What actions does this frame suggest?
Medics: Are you treating a disease, or treating a person?
What is the impact of trying to “cure HIV”, or “cure people”?
Lawyers: Are you seeking justice, or seeking order?
What is the impact of saying “law and order”, or “law and justice”?
Is justice something to be sought or something to be upheld?
Is the law something to be upheld or something to be enforced?
Bankers: Do your institutions stabilise the system or grow it?
What is the impact of seeking to “manage risk”, or “create opportunities”?
Artists: Do you produce art or create art?
What difference does it make if we “consume art” or “collect art”?
In terms of pure facticity, none of these frames is “wrong,” or “incorrect” or “inaccurate”. We need to use words to talk about things, and the words we use call attention to certain things, and down-play connections with others. A person established in one frame may never understand the concerns of a person established in another. They may never see the relevance of a different set of questions, or accept the point of a different set of answers. And yet, despite the fact that a view which is reasonable in one frame can be rendered incomprehensible by another frame, we cannot claim that either frame is right or wrong. That is simply not the kind of category that applies here. At best, we can say that a given frame, in come particular context, for some particular purpose, is more or less helpful or unhelpful.
Frames in science
If you have followed the logic of this essay so far, you probably know what is coming.
Science is suffused with frames. It cannot be otherwise. These frames shape the questions we ask, the connections we make, and the answers we accept; they determine which problems we struggle with, and which problems we don’t even think about; they even predispose us to take certain actions and not others.
We cannot make, or say, or do, or think anything in science without it being framed in some way. The frames we use, consciously or unconsciously, are not “true” or “false”; not “right” or “wrong”. They are certainly not empirical, or testable, or falsifiable.
Somehow, we desperately want to say that the claims of science are true, or false, or at least capable of being true or false. We want to believe that a statement as blunt as “an electron has a mass” really means something. And yet we must also admit that we cannot ultimately empirically justify a possessive frame (“has”). And we must accept that other frames may also work.
When someone tells you that the subject you are studying comes under “natural sciences”, does that raise an expectation that there are certain questions that are appropriate, and certain types of answers to which they will lead? How about when you are told that you work in “life sciences,” as opposed to “physical sciences”? Or that “life sciences” are natural, but “social sciences” are not?
Indeed, what is a university saying (for example about the unity or disunity of disciplines) when it has, on the one hand, a Faculty of Science (singular) and, on the other, a Faculty of Social Sciences (plural)? Is there a unity across physics and chemistry? Is there a unity across sociology and politics? The English language does not permit us to leave our options open with a “maybe-singular-maybe-plural, not-ruling-anything-out” form. And, by opting, as we must, for one or the other, we prejudice the conversation from the outset .
Whether we like it or not, these frames shape our science. We cannot escape into some neutral, objective, frame-free language, which says all and only what we want to say. Maybe we should not be too hard on those religious types who understood that their words are poetry. The difference in this regard, it seems, between religion and science is not that religious words always necessarily transcend the literal meaning. Both religious language and scientific language necessarily transcend the explicit literal meaning. No, the difference is that religion tends to recognise the fact, while science would prefer to shut its eyes and pretend it wasn’t so.
An apology and an encouragement
When you ride a bicycle you do so without thinking. You want to go straight, you do so. You want to turn gently to the left, you do so. At every moment, your body is making unconscious adjustments. Aware (at a subconscious level) of the pebble in your path, the slight side wind, the road’s camber.
If you actively think about how you steer, if you consciously look at your hands and will them to perform a particular action, you will crash in a heap, utterly unable to cycle.
I used to run a lab course on the physics of cycling. And I would have to apologise to my students. Avid cyclists all, after the first lecture they would get on their bike to go home but then stare at their handlebars as though they had never seen them before. They would gingerly adjust the position of their hands, carefully lift one foot on to the pedal; their brow would furrow, with them unsure what to do next.
Having your attention drawn to frames is a little like having your attention drawn to how you ride a bike. You walk around with your mouth half open, unable to say anything; aware that every word you utter is a choice to say more than you mean, and it shackles your thinking to a course you can barely control.
“I… We… It has… When…” you begin, before trailing off into silence.
I am sorry. It is hard to speak while thinking about frames, just as it is hard to cycle while thinking about riding a bike. You will quickly stop thinking about frames, and you will be able to speak quite normally; just as my students stopped thinking about how to cycle, and could cycle again.
The change that came about in them, of course, was that previously they had thought that there was nothing complex going on, simply because they were not consciously aware of anything complex going on. And now they know that there is something deeply profound happening, even though they rarely call it to mind.
So it is with you now. You will rarely think of frames. But, once in a while, when a friend insists that, “science is simple, because it just tells the facts like they are,” you will give them a skeptical sideways glance and tell them, “I… We… When…”
This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
 Note, also, how the social sciences are required to specify that they are a social kind of science, but natural sciences can just call themselves “science”. This sets up a frame that tells everyone which faculty is doing real science. But, again, there is no neutral option. If we react against the hierarchical framing and insist that the natural sciences cannot drop the modifier “natural”, we have an egalitarian frame, but not a neutral one. We still make an implicit claim. But now it is that natural science and social science are two different species of the same genus: science.