Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The 'Silence' of Modern Science, & Miley Cyrus

Angels & Demons did not quite stir the religiously fervent to battle like The Da Vinci Code. I saw neither movie, and read neither book, so commentary on either is not my purpose here. Rather I wish to draw attention to a NYTimes essay in the science section which comments on the way A&D disposes of the ol' religion vs. science debate. If someone has watched the film or read the novel, perhaps they might find it and what follows of interest.

The article is short, but says just enough to irritate me. My irritation is not so much with the author's intent but by how that intent is determined. To recap, the essay is about how the author (Mr. Overbye) felt queasy after A&D concluded favourably disposed toward religious 'wisdom' over against scientific 'rationality.' He doesn't like that scientists don't get the last say in the movie, and thinks it demeaning to the discipline that the clerics end up 'patting us [scientists] on the head' as though true wisdom were the exclusive province of faith. Moreover, the wider caricature (apparently present in the movie as well) that science 'has drained the world of wonder and meaning' Mr. Overbye contrasts with what he considers is the superior feature of modern scientific enquiry, namely that:
In science the ends are justified by the means — what questions we ask and how we ask them — and the meaning of the quest is derived not from answers but from the process by which they are found: curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance.
This seems to resonate with some popular wisdom; indeed, it's right at the centre of the new and destined-to-be-a-classic tune by Miley Cyrus, called Climb, where she indefatigably asserts that it
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb.
Breathtaking, isn't it?

It's so breathtaking, in fact, that I think that scientists persuaded by this rousing defence of their discipline ought to take themselves seriously enough and remain silent.

In truth, I have no patience for this sort of nonsense. Mr. Overbye is surely right to suggest that the virtues intrinsic to good science ought to be 'curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance.' What so irritates me is how he confuses these virtues as ends, which is philosophically weird but also morally repugnant. What kind of meaning lies in the perpetual exercise of doubt? Is the world really this thin for us? He thinks these virtues as means, yes; but they are means ordered to no end in particular, hence they remain unintelligible as means. But surely science is not so daft as to neglect the supposition of a coherent universe - that the ends it pursues will obtain as ends, and not as so much mangled data that corresponds to nothing, tells us nothing, functions as nothing. Is Mr. Overbye so sure he is not certain of some things? Like, the very possibility of the science he celebrates?

Moreover, Mr. Overbye thinks that the religious certainty that he believes to be implicit to religious doctrine lacks something significant to the human experience. We may wonder how he arrives at a definition of what the genuine human experience entails, and whether it is his beloved modern science that is responsible for such enlightenment. But let us imagine that life is all about the uncertain journey to nowhere in particular. Ms. Cyrus seems to think it matters little what awaits her on the other side of whatever mountain she's traversing, so too Mr. Overbye believes that modern science is distinguished by its refusal to think about what it's trying to accomplish or learn. This fits, of course, with the general wisdom that all technology is good technology as long as we can keep it under control. But 'control' is always a slippery slope in modern science, particularly when the only content you can put to it is curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance. Thus Mr. Overbye's dismissive attitude toward the evils of nuclear weaponry seems to rest on the assumption that modern science is innocent when it produces things that 'turn out' to destroy creatures (and by 'destroy' I don't mean just take life). In such a world as this, it is no surprise he finds religious certainties to be so iffy. At their best they are a nuisance; at their worst they are impediments to scientific progress. Their greatest vice is that they think their decisions and actions through, based on ends they believe to be given in the world, not willed onto it.

So I'm not very much moved by Mr. Overbye's overtures to the modern scientific paradigm. Just when we start believing that all we need to do is stop thinking about what is and rather act humble toward the nothingness that awaits our discovery, we ought to stop using words like 'meaning' and 'wisdom' to describe our human experience. That will have us truly silent, indeed, with nothing but the journey to amuse us along the way.


Andrew Faris said...

Really great post, Ian.

Johnnie said...

I certainly think the issue of science--and the "science vs religion" debate (far more important and complex than Overbye's NY Times piece on the movie A&D would have it, but equally more important and complex than a Miley Cyrus analogy can illuminate) is worthy of the time and attention and thoughts of many on this blog.

This: "Just when we start believing that all we need to do is stop thinking about what is and rather act humble toward the nothingness that awaits our discovery" however get it entirely wrong. While that attitude--we need to "act humble toward the nothingness that awaits our discovery"--may indeed be one that some in the scientific community would espouse, it goes totally against the quotes/definitions of science that are quoted earlier in Ian's post. That is, a scientist should not begin his work by presuming the end--whether that be an intelligent designer or that the earth is "young" OR that the end will be nothingness. Scientists who presume to know the end would be, it seems to me, just as much of a target for criticism by Overbye and critics like him, as anyone else.

Clearly, science and religion can and do equally coexist in the minds of many. It's when they don't, and why they don't, that causes many of us who consider ourselves Christian believers to look deeper inward. I'm not a "young earth "creationist but there are some at my church, and I appreciate the issues they wrestle with and I learn from them. It's fascinating and I feel like I've grown as a Christian in my discussions with them. But when those discussions just turn into kneejerk criticisms of "science" I lose all interest. Let's appreciate that scientists, to do their job, need to have completely open minds on ALL questions (the vast majority of which have very little to do with religion after all), and let's agree that when they find something that challenges us, we aren't harmed by considering their findings and figuring out a way to incorporate those findings into our previously held beliefs. And if we cannot do that, then let's be more articulate about why we cannot than just to say "oh, scientists don't know what they are doing" or "they do it wrong."

Religion--and Christianity in particular--has and will continue to survive a multitude of scientific discoveries. We should not feel threatened. But if we hope to reach new converts we need to sound less like it is education and the scientific method in particular that we want no part of.

Ian Clausen said...


Thanks for your response. I'll agree with you that Ms. Cyrus is not the philosopher par excellence, but that seems to pick the wrong battle in this post. I'm not sure, as well, what YEC has to do with what I'm saying here. Let me try to explain.

You seem to agree with Overbye that the great virtue of modern science is that it's always open to new discoveries, i.e. it is free from presumptions about the world. OK. I disagree. First, I'd like to ask you how scientists achieve this neutrality. Through the scientific method? That's a dangerous belief, indeed. It's particularly so when you consider that science is not just a descriptive discipline but also a creative one, e.g. it makes things. New technologies bear on the moral indisputably, and it troubles me that our current science so often excuses itself from blame in the name of a blind 'objectivity' of interests. That's just plain false. Science exists and participates in a moral universe. What it makes and what it does must relate responsibly to what is, which is what I'm suggesting in this post.

Also, I'd suggest that modern science cannot coexist with religion; not, because I believe science raises questions that challenge my religious beliefs, but because I don't believe in a something called 'religion' and 'modern science' as they are presently conceived in our modern discourse. In that regard the YEC crowd is just an extension of the modern scientific paradigm. It believes it can come to conclusions about the world by interpreting its faith scientifically. Something like a 'creation apologetic' illustrates this nicely: it's whole program rests on the presumption that revelation isn't enough, that it must comport with objective scientific evidence. But how do you objectively step outside of the creation you're placed in, in order to judge whether it is so? That seems to me to be the task of the scientist, YEC or otherwise. And I think it betrays a fundamental insight of the Christian faith, namely that we are not gods, but creatures; and therefore our philosophical task is not speculative but practical, our knowledge not chosen but given.

This is not to espouse a postmodern epistemology, by the way. It's actually to draw much closer to the classical philosophers and particularly to Augustine, and it relies greatly on revelation as a primary means by which we know what is. Our ability to understand the world is so only after we assent to what is given within it; as I think this is what Romans 1 is pointing us toward.

I wonder, then, Johnnie: do you not buy my suggestion that science must presume some things (i.e. that the world is intelligible) in order to work? If it presumes anything then it fails to be the kind of science you imagine, which posits nothing and discovers everything.

But to be fair, I should allow you to voice your your criticism of me as a naysayer of the scientific method. My defence is this: I don't believe scientists can or should exist in abstraction, yet this is the common parlance of much modern society. There's some rather amusing examples of how this plays out, mixed with some rather chilling ones. My point is that I don't see why I should accept that when scientists put on lab coats they disappear from the practical and moral and metaphysical obligations that bear on our everyday lives. That seems to me to present science as something Christianity cannot accept. And historically it's not the way 'science' has been conceived. Maybe we should recover some of that former definition?