Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why I Think Theology Has Sharper Words for Science

One of my first posts for CiC dealt with a NY Times article on the so-called 'humility' of scientific investigation. I challenged that humility then, and I challenge it now. For the NY Times has again offered us some reflections on this point, the focus this time on trying to justify the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva and its physics that are 'all about the search' and not about the results. What makes me so indignant toward this moral posturing? I'd like to say it's my fear that science might disprove God exists, but sadly that's not the case.

On the right is Martin Heidegger's breathtaking thesis on what he calls the 'essence' of modern technology. I am well aware Heidegger is not all the chatter when it comes to conservative theology (though phenomenology, the school of thought he did so much to advance, is still an up and coming enterprise within it, as many of my friends at New College endeavour to show us soon). But what he has to say about technology has fundamentally shaped the way I think about it. Indeed, it makes so much darn sense that I have grown increasingly impatient with scientists who style themselves to be 'all about the search' and blissfully unaware of what that search will produce - and produce is the right word, as I hope to show in a moment.

Let me sketch one point this book defends. Heidegger argued that modern technology in its very essence is radically differentiated from pre-modern technology. He calls pre-modern technology technique, and goes on to explore what this newly-arrived word 'technology' actually signifies. To risk oversimplification, here is what technology means: it is the interpenetrating of knowing and making, the co-penetration of science and art, which for the modern world means that our science is inescapably 'folded' not just toward increasing information (i.e. describing the world, its causalities, etc) but also increasing power over the world.

The form this power takes is the technology that modern science makes not just possible, but inevitable. In crude language, then, modern technological science is about the conquering of non-human and human nature. That this initially may not sound such a bad idea (nature is nary our friend, often our enemy, right?) is because, as Heidegger so perceptively shows, we moderns have embraced a modern metaphysics and self-understanding that places human self-realisation, our freedom from all that hinders, i.e. our autonomy, at a premium. This radical self-willed autonomy, in turn, is, when it boils down to it, the sole moral justification for further technological advancement. In a word, science and autonomy justify one another. They generate a reciprocity, a symbiosis, that philosophically speaking silences any alternative moral ontologies or frameworks from challenging their self-sustained enterprise.

There, I risked it. Oversimplifying that is. So, if you follow at all, and agree at all, then what does theology have to say to science? My initial thought is: a lot more than 'no, really, I think we are compatible!' and similar deferential nonsense.

What theology needs to realise instead is that science as it is currently organised and practised (no matter the well-meaning scientists, to whom we may as well ascribe the best of intentions) upholds the kind of self-possession and self-making that is anathema to Christian theology understood as a total horizon of understanding.

The second would be grasping what humility is. Humility is not wonder paired with ignorance. It is not a psychological disposition that blesses your every good intention proceeding to action. For Christians humility happens first in and through embrace of our creatureliness. Creatureliness in its essence is the acknowledgment of an existence dependent upon true essence. Scientists can be humble in this sense, I have no doubt. Science, however, cannot - cannot, that is, as it is currently practised and understood. For humility Christianly understood is a vantage point or form of living and participating in (and not above or over) the world God has created. It is not about self-possession. It is not about stripping the world, becoming its lord, and discovering our true destiny. Which is what science is folded toward - and why I think theology has sharper words for it, beyond compatibility theses, far away from 'non-overlapping magisteria' evasions.

Any thoughts?


Johnnie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnnie said...

I like this post a lot--my only thought, focusing on your "sharper words", is, so what?

That is, I think you probably mean "sharper words" in some kind of metaphoric content and not literal "words." But all I can think of is that science better watch out now, boy, because Christianity is going to really give it what for!

But seriously--what do you think happens next? Assuming you don't really mean that Christianity stands off in the next room criticizing with a sharp tongue....what DOES happen? What's the result? What does Christianity do with the knowledge that science "is anathema to Christian theology"?

Ian Clausen said...

Good question Johnnie. Yeah, I should have thought about my title a bit more. I suppose I was trying to draw attention to what theology should do at the very least or in the preliminary stages of discussion. Frankly I'm irked by this whole religion/science debate so popular today, and I'm further irked by Christians who think the debate is about mechanisms and God's activity in the world. There's a reason many scientists don't 'find room for God' in their science, and it isn't because of the 'evidence' that leads them. As George Grant once said, a lot of unnecessary ink has been spilled by Christian and non-Christian alike on the mistaken notion that God creates exactly the way an automaker creates/makes an automobile. That points us to the 'essence' of technological science, which more than anything is a way of knowing that obfuscates other equally (more?) legitimate ways of knowing - which I think Christians like myself should start to recover, and fast.

So your question is pushing me to say something about what we Christians should do about all this, beyond mere sharp words; and in this way I'm drawn into the real challenge of it all. All I can say right now is, in one sense, I'm still thinking about it! I'd be curious to here your suggestions. Let me go away and think some more. I think half the battle is, if you will, just 'seeing it' - if we get that, we start to cut into the superficiality of modern science. Christians, for example, believe that faith, hope, and love are kinds of knowing, 'epistemologies' if you will. What happens when we appropriate science through this lens is up for grabs, I suppose, but whatever the result, it is certainly not 'science' as presently understood. That's quite the resistance, if you ask me. Taking it the next step, as you say, is the real crucial one though.

Johnnie said...


Hmm. No, at the moment, I have no suggestions, but I like your point that Christians need a new battle plan, if battle there must be.

I do think that:

1) it's difficult to essentialize "science" and it's difficult to come up with a way of thinking about this question without essentializing it. (It's also difficult to essentialize "Christianity" but at least in the context of those Christians who battle with science, it's easier.)

2) At bottom lies the question of what happens to the findings of science, the results of science. Can Christians reject those findings because we don't like "science's" attitude, or because we think modern science is "superficial?" Because modern science could be superficial in the way you suggest here, and it could "obfuscate" other "ways of knowing"--but I'm not sure that is a convincing argument if you are trying to convince someone to reject the the findings, or claims, of science.

Not that that is, necessarily, what you are working towards--the religion/science debate that irks you may be, in fact, the attempts of (some) religions/religious folk to deny those things that science claims to be fact. Those attempts run the gamut from the embarrassingly idiotic, to the embarrassingly outdated (we prefer not to dwell on religion's arguments with science of the past concerning, say, whether the earth revolves around the sun), to the more nuanced and convincing...

Still, giving us a new way to frame this "debate" is important work... if science is truly "anathema to Christian theology", what do we do...not just with evolution and global warming and homosexual genetic codes, but with all the rest of it? Because surely I can't just cherrypick the science to call "bad"...What do I do with this computer I'm typing on, and the internet that will allow me to post this? With just about every single thing in my life?

Ian Clausen said...

I'm going to respond to your (2) for now, and perhaps go on to elaborate more in a later post.

You speak of the 'results' of science and whether we Christians should accept them. Without knowing any specifics about what you think those results are, I would argue that on account of the fact that science is communicated through language, and language necessarily implies some valuative framework(s), then there is just no way to get to the 'value-free' or 'neutral' facts that some philosophies of science suppose.

To take a most contentious example, that of evolution by natural selection. It should tell us something about science that in order to communicate the 'natural processes' by which life evolved, it must reach for strictly speaking a metaphor, namely here 'natural selection'. The same with the idea of a 'selfish gene', which presumably at some most fundamental level 'governs' our behaviour. Both reach for language, 'selection' or 'selfish', which cannot be rendered intelligible without recourse to an implied moral framework. That should tell us, at the very least, that the moral ontology science supposes is quite disingenuous at best. Indeed, we could it seems to me equally contend that evolution is driven by a 'cooperative gene' which drives us to collaboration and sympathy, and from there form our opinions about all the death and carnage and meaninglessness we observe in the world. There is no good reason, in other words, to buy the assumptions of the narrative that much of contemporary science supposes. And it is truly speaking a narrative, which many thinkers have taken pains to show (without much success, I'm afraid, among scientists of less philosophical persuasion.)

So there is, inevitably, certain scientific descriptions of 'the way things are' which ought to be opposed. That does not mean science in the whole is to be condemned (though wait on that verdict from me), but certainly those aspects where it uncritically totalises its knowledge, and precludes other 'types of knowledge' from entering and contributing in discussion.

As for convincing dogmatists of modern science that they should recognise other types of knowledge, that may very well be impossible! Perhaps the best thing to do is to show them the history of science: how and why it developed, and what philosophical antinomies it reincarnates but then fails to recognise or take into account. A recent and interesting article by Marilynne Robinson (a great writer I should add!) on this topic is worth linking up to here:

What she says I think is mostly on target. Particularly when she talks about how impoverished our modern notion of how God creates has become: my quote from Grant in the previous comments section tried to say thus much. How much we've cowered beneath this awe-inspiring, impressive, devastating power of human technological ingenuity ought to disturb us. I'm trying to find my way out of it, frankly. I can't read the ancients, Augustine, Aquinas, not to mention Paul, Jesus, without subjecting this implicitly modern way of thinking, imbibed from my youth, ingrained in my learning, to some kind of critical scrutiny.

That's what I'm trying to do!

Johnnie said...

I especially agree that Marilynne Robinson is magnificent!

And I agree, really, with everything you say. I do find it difficult...maybe more difficult than you distinguish between all of those times that I must say "oh yes, science knows exactly what it is talking about" sitting here at my computer, turning on my light switch, taking my medicine, driving my car, etc etc etc etc...those times I don't even think about it...and then those times when what science has to say bothers me because it challenges some firmly held belief I grew up with, and then picking THOSE times to say, "well, see, science doesn't really know what it is talking about at all, because, see, it's making these "precludes other 'types of knowledge' from entering and contributing in discussion" and whatnot. Which seems mighty convenient for me, that it does those things when it's challenging my religious beliefs and not, say, when it is conducting electricity through my house or giving me wireless internet or helping my pancreas produce insulin.

So it remains a tough one.