Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Rightful Place of Science

I'm swamped with grading for the next week, as I have been for the past week or so, and Harold must be similarly occupied with honest work, so posts have been less frequent these days.

Let me follow up again on the question the President raised concerning the place of science in government. We view science as the sovereign way of thinking. If you are not thinking scientifically, you are not really thinking. You are feeling, or imagining. (I am not saying that this is Mr. Obama's view.) But nobody lives that way. Indeed, nobody can live that way.

The conquest of nature through natural science that is oriented exclusively toward useful inventions--Francis Bacon's project which is modernity itself--requires viewing nature (i.e, the world and all that is in it) in a restricted way. It requires nature's "demystification," abstracting from all notions of moral value and aesthetic quality. As Lewis critically observes in The Abolition of Man, this view denies that the waterfall is sublime; it can only accept that it is so many metric tonnes of water passing over a precipice with predictable frothing and mist on and around the rocks below.

While this view of the world is terribly stunted and inadequate from the standpoint of understanding it fully as it is and of living life in the fullness of its image-bearing humanity, it is necessary from the standpoint of drawing out of the world the practical benefits that the world's Creator intended us to discover and enjoy.

"The Poo Song" from Scrubs nicely illustrates these two views of the world and how we can hold them both with appropriate attention to their separate settings. The song treats "poo" with utilitarian indifference to questions of dignity and disgust. At the same time, the humor presupposes our just recognition of those qualities in pooer and poo, respectively.

This view is good. It helpful to know whether what we're suffering is hemorrhoids or rectal cancer, and God in his creation has generously provided the means to discover this. It is nonetheless true, however, that poo is vile and pooing is undignified. Both views have their place in life for different purposes of life. What we call the scientific view on its own is insufficient for living a fully human life and for understanding the world in general. In fact, to live a consistently "rational" life by the standard of scientific reasoning would entail radical dehumanization, not only of oneself but also of others. Indeed, dehumanization is a two way street on which what goes one way inevitably goes the other as well.

Scientific observation is a limited way of observing the world for a specific end. The means are well suited to the end, but there's more to life than the conquest of nature.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I have a great affinity for Scrubs, although not for that song. Some provocative ideas in this post.

It seems to me, though, that "modernity itself" cannot be explained simply by the Baconian project of conquering nature. More often than not I think that modernity is not a monolithic project. There is a good and moderate enlightenment, and a radical and bad one. Theorists like Montesquieu and, dare I say, Locke, seem much more moderate in their understanding of science.

At the very least, the American Founders were rooted in the moderate perspective, which understands that science is a very useful thing, but that it is technical, and concerned with means to ends which cannot be defined by science. They did not demystify nature -- they actually derived moral precepts from it! Most importantly, they knew that science does not define man's highest end, and therefore that it must be guided by that form of inquiry which is concerned with man's highest end.

David C. Innes said...

I appreciate your reflections, friend. Publius certainly saw the American political project as an application of Bacon's larger scientific project. "The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement" (Federalist Paper #9).

The virtue of the American Founding, as I see it, however, is that while it was predominantly and essentially an Enlightenment project, it was perfected by Christian and classical influences. As those influences have waned and even suffered increasing and visceral scorn among the ruling and educated classes, the project has become increasingly less able to sustain itself under the weight of the post-modern critique of the Enlightenment. That's my thesis in a nutshell.