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Science Marches On…In the Streets

My Sunday morning newspaper placed on the front page a picture of Saturday’s “march for science” in downtown Los Angeles. As I read the story I said to myself, “There is something strange about people protesting in the name of science.” Science presents itself as a disinterested search for truth. But protest is a political act for the sake of justice; this is a march for science. What does that mean? While I am a great lover of modern natural science I am somewhat suspicious of taking its cause to the streets. It raises the question of the nature and limits of science and its enmeshment within culture and politics. Since I wrote about this in The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (pp. 166-168), allow me to respond to the march for science by quoting myself:

“Modern natural science is greatly valued in our culture and scientists are held in high esteem. Why? Clearly, the main reason for science’s social prestige is that science has produced technology that people desire. Human beings want to enjoy health and long life, wealth, exciting entertainment, comfort and leisure, and, of course, military power. Some people are curious about the world and for that reason are interested in what science discovers. Others mistakenly think science will confirm their metaphysical or religious beliefs. But overwhelmingly science is valued for its material benefits. In their most idealistic moments, scientists may attempt to convince themselves that they pursue science for knowledge alone. Whatever the scientist thinks, however, the culture has another end in mind. There is no other way to account for the vast sums of money governments and businesses spend on research and development and individuals spend on technology. People today do not crave salvation or concern themselves with their God-relation. For many people science has replaced God as the source of well-being and the scientist has replaced the priest as the means of access to the source of good. A kind of mindless worldliness and thoughtless sensuality pervades the consumer culture the scientist serves.

“Natural science possesses no natural birthright to the cultural power it holds today. As I indicated, science is held in esteem because people want the things science provides. But science cannot provide everything people need. Science cannot tell you what is right or wrong or make you wise or good. Science cannot endow your life with meaning or make you happy. It cannot give you love or show you how to love. Science cannot forgive your sins or give you hope for eternal life. It cannot give you contentment in life. It cannot give you a genuine identity. It can’t tell you whether there is a God or what God thinks of you or what God wants of you. It has no comforting words to prepare you for death. It cannot change the laws of nature or control the future. Science must remain silent or speak foolishly in relation to the existential dimension of humanity. Science is not God. Science is human through and through; it derives from the power of our reason to figure out the laws of nature and use them for our ends. It gives the impression of being superhuman for the same reason that governments give that impression: it is a communal undertaking transcending the individual in power and longevity, but it does not transcend humanity as such. Science possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of humanity in an exaggerated form. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of science, it must be said that natural science cannot answer a single one of the top five or ten most important questions we ask or achieve anything of lasting significance. At the end of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant gave his list of three most important questions pressing on human existence: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” One could extend that list a long way before one gets to “What is the atomic weight of Iron?” Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) concluded, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ).

“We must consider one more extra scientific factor when evaluating science. The scientist is an existing human being. The scientist is not a machine completely absorbed in the objective world of nature. She/he is a subject, a body, an individual, fallible, mortal and needy, anxious, jealous, hopeful or despairing, optimistic or pessimistic. Science exists only in the minds of scientists. Science can’t do scientific research. In addition to being founded on metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions and directed toward social and political ends, science is conditioned by the subjectivity scientists bring to their task. A person can be driven to engage in science by curiosity, love of discovery, love of beauty, desire to serve God, desire to benefit humanity, adherence to a philosophy of nature, desire for wealth or fame, hatred and envy, pride or shame, and many other human motivations. Scientists can be virtuous or vicious, honest or dishonest, caring or cruel. This is true not only because scientists sometimes falsify data or take short cuts or plagiarize but because these subjective factors affect what presuppositions they favor and to what ends they direct their research. Even at the levels of observation and interpretation subjective factors play a part, for good or ill.

“As these observations make clear, even if the inner workings and the material findings of modern natural science are strictly limited to the empirical, these empirical findings do not stand alone or interpret themselves or put themselves to use. Because science is nestled between epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions and cultural ends and is conducted by subjects, there is plenty of room for conflict and dialogue between what scientists claim as the significance of their empirical findings and other interpretations of reality.”