Science Is Not the Enemy (But with Friends Like These…)

The New Republic recently posted some pretty provocative thoughts on (capital-s) Science – you know, the discipline […]

Will McDavid / 8.12.13

The New Republic recently posted some pretty provocative thoughts on (capital-s) Science – you know, the discipline that’s been martyred and victimized in the contemporary era like none other (?). Not that adjudicating on the territory of different fields of study is particularly fun or interesting, but there are definitely some nuggets in this piece, and also some coals – brownies n’ frownies, as one of my Bible study leaders from college put it.

ku-xlarge (1)The author, Steven Pinker, thinks that science shouldn’t be maligned or dismissed by the political left (for environmental/human rights atrocities made possible by Science) or by the right (for Science’s propensity toward conflict with the most literal interpretations of religious texts). Before getting into the meat of it, it may be good to get a couple of quick objections out of the way – first,

In which ways, then, does science illuminate human affairs? Let me start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives… The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. 

Thud – awkward silence. Mmmmm… this one’s tough to defend – Christian theology is, after all, about something more than the Aristotelian cosmos.

But moving past that snag, it’s worth noting what science and religion have in common. Both have made tremendous contributions to human life, and both (because they’re such rich fields) have been subjected to a certain high-jacking. That is, both risk becoming totalizing worldviews, turned into instruments of certitude and control. Pinker, unfortunately, tips his hand and reveals himself to be a scientist (scientist-ist?) of the latter sort:

And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation. And if you want examples of true moral greatness, go to Wikipedia and look up the entries for “smallpox” and “rinderpest” (cattle plague). The definitions are in the past tense, indicating that human ingenuity has eradicated two of the cruelest causes of suffering in the history of our kind.

Spektrum der Wissenschaft_-1Christians and other religious types, of course, risk undervaluing physical flourishing, like the eradication of smallpox – undoubtedly one of the greatest victories of the modern… etc, etc. And that’s true. But it’s also true that anxiety and depression have reached unprecedented levels, suicide is fast becoming an epidemic, and these are rising most quickly in the most democratic, efficiently-governed, materially prosperous countries on the planet. Which isn’t to say that Science is to blame – it’s certainly had its contributions and its detractions in these areas – only that flourishing, scientifically-defined, doesn’t give nearly the full picture.

The good parts of science – its physical contributions to flourishing and satisfaction of intellectual curiosity about matter and laws and processes – are well-noted. And none of its knowledge is bad in itself, but the producers of this knowledge have often been afflicted by the most un-scientific illusion ever recorded: the idea that humanity is hard-wired toward progress and learning from its mistakes. Talk about empiricism! Are there any truths more readily observable in daily life than recidivism and self-sabotage? Science empowers us tremendously, but would you want to give superpowers to the average guy on the street? Me neither. And so it’s all a mixed bag, but the scale of mankind’s possibility for self-annihilation is fast approaching its asymptote. And religion isn’t any different: Catholic ecclesial authority in Europe was responsible both for the slaughter of the crusades and the relief of the poor; Evangelicalism’s potent psychological insight has shepherded countless people through otherwise impossible losses or divorces, and it’s also afflicted countless people with lifelong moral self-excoriation, manipulated thousands of elderly people into parting with their money on the promise of further fiscal blessing as a reward.

Have you ever had a friend recommend the same movie over and over as a must-see, overestimating its importance just because it’s one they happen to have seen? Scope-creep is the same in science or religion; I’ll always overestimate my field and underestimate others’. It’s when science oversteps its bounds that it becomes harmful – genetics assumes a misguided ethical dimension and becomes eugenics or, conversely, religion gives its spread a geopolitical dimension, becoming a suicide bombing or the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

But the urgent imperatives of science, religion, political theory, or any other field are impossible to dispense with: we’re hardwired to insert ethical vectors into any discipline in which we’re talented or which we hold dear. The ideals of both science and religion are modes of dwelling in uncertainty, recognizing one’s own unreliability and being open to correction at every stage. If this correction means the sun doesn’t orbit the earth as Joshua 10 implied, so be it – but if religion’s correction to science is recidivism, a robust sense of the HPtFtU (human propensity to, um, mess things up), and a consequent, deeply-ingrained sense of a need for forgiveness, and grace as the only possible way to live… well, that’s a contribution, too.