Category Mistakes

God the GeometerThree weeks ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave an interview in which he argued against the teaching of Creationism in schools. This statement, coming from a senior Christian figure, unsurprisingly got the front page of at least one newspaper (the Guardian) and appeared in most other UK papers (such as The Telegraph.) The Archbishop earned my respect for publicly articulating the real reason that Creationism has no place in science classrooms: it is a category mistake.

The term “category mistake” refers to the idea that things can be divided up into different categories depending on their way of being. For example, physical objects are one type of being. The sofa that I am sitting on as I type this can be said to be in the sense that it exists. I know that it exists because I’m sitting on it: I can see it, feel it, smell it and taste it. Properties are also a type of being. There is a property ‘red’ that is shared by all red things. A red apple, a red tomato and a red sunset all share the same property of redness. There is something in common between each of those three items and we call that thing ‘red’. So properties can also be said to be. There are also relations. My sofa is underneath me so there is a relation between the sofa and me: the relation of ‘underneathness’. So relations can also be said to be. However, even though physical objects, properties and relations are all beings, most people would make some distinction between their different ways of being. Is redness a real thing that exists in the same way that my sofa exists? If so, where does it exist? Does it make sense to ask where redness is? I expect most people would say it is perfectly sensible to ask where my sofa is but not where redness is or where underneathness is. If you accept that, then it is a category mistake to ask where redness is. A category mistake is when one talks about something using terms that cannot be meaningfully applied to that thing’s category. It is not meaningful to talk about redness in terms of ‘where’. ‘Where’ can only meaningfully be applied to things in the ‘physical object’ category of being. This is a particularly controversial topic in philosophy and there is no universally accepted system of categories but, regardless of your personal views on the reality of different categories, the term “category mistake” clearly describes a real mistake. If you disagree, then please tell me what “blue is taller than red” means.

I think it is worth emphasising that I am not making any great metaphysical claims here. I do not – in this blog entry anyway – intend to discuss any particular system of categories or to make any claims about the reality of a category. The only question that I am concerned with here is whether or not a statement is meaningful. We don’t have to get bogged down in complicated philosophical arguments to see that “blue is taller than red” is a meaningless statement. It doesn’t matter what sort of ontological status we ascribe to “blue” or “taller” – it still won’t make sense; however you look at it, that statement is a mistake.

So, what category do the physical sciences deal with? With what sorts of things are we concerned in a school’s science classroom? Fairly obviously, the physical sciences are concerned with physical things. Different people have interpreted this in different ways. Some people say that physics characterises physical entities in terms of their relations to one another and so makes no claims about the intrinsic nature of the entities themselves. Some people reject such a distinction. Whichever position you hold, it is clear that in some way or another the physical sciences deal with physical things.

What about religion? With what sort of things is religion concerned? This is a harder question to answer because there is no universally accepted definition of ‘religion’. The origins of the word are unknown and even its modern usage is inconsistent. However, we can ignore some senses of the word simply because they are not relevant to this discussion. First of all, we are not interested in religion in the sense of an organised church. The doctrine of Creationism does not depend on any particular human organisation. Similarly, we can forget about religion in the sense of a set of practises (going to church, prayer, taking Communion etc.) or a moral code. Creationists claim their declarations are true regardless of how any people happen to be behaving. So what’s left? All the meanings of religion that I have considered so far are contingent on the heart of religion. Without the core of Christianity, going to church would be a relatively insignificant activity akin to attending any social gathering. Without the core of a religion, its moral laws are nothing but a list of recommendations for good etiquette. What is this meaning-giving core? It is the relationship between a person and the sacred, whether that is conceived internally as something specific to each individual or externally as God. However you wish to classify this concept of the sacred, it is not a physical thing. Animists, pantheists and others may conceive of the sacred as being immanent in the physical world around them but it is not itself physical. No-one would try to analyse a holy object to find constituent particles of holiness.

Religion is concerned with the physical world only in as much as it acts as a forum for human activity. This is true even for those religions that do not accord any special status to humans, for the religion is still a human endeavour – if there were no humans there would be no religion. Thus religion and the physical sciences are concerned with different categories. The biblical account of creation is not a description of a physical process but a description of the unfolding of the relationship between man and God. To set up Genesis as a rival “theory” to compete with scientific hypotheses about the early history of life on Earth is as absurd as arguing that “blue is taller than red” – it is not just wrong, it is a meaningless category mistake. The Archbishop is quite right to worry that “creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it”.

I want to emphasise again that I have made no claims concerning the truth of any religious doctrine or scientific theory nor is my argument dependent on any particular ontology. It is simply the case that, as the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner wrote, “Theology and science can in principle not contradict each other, since from the outset they differ in their subject matter and in their method.” However, unfortunately, both scientists and theologians often make this mistake. Creationism is just one of many such category mistakes, although, thanks to the political influence of some of its proponents, it is possibly the most dangerous one around today. Others include all those ludicrous and superficial attempts to equate Eastern religions with recent physical theories. Scientific theories will always make helpful analogies and metaphors for religious ideas but they will always be limited to that metaphorical role.

I may disagree with Christianity in general, indeed I disapprove of anything based on faith, but in this case I am in complete agreement with the Archbishop.

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Published in: on April 10, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Excellent articulation, you pretty much cleared the table with this entry.Generally discussing about religion or “spiritual” things in general becomes impossible before it even begins because there are so few people who can handle this preposition you just presented. Trying to explain it often leads into a headache as the partner in “conversation” just replies: “Yes I understand… but still I think [insert _religion_ or _science_ here] is right”.


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