The Three Fausts

From the June/July 2015 Print Edition

We live in an age of science and technology. To say this means more than acknowledging the benefits we have derived from their accomplishments. Science and technology now claim authority in ethics, metaphysics, and theology. We give to science privilege in settling age-old questions of right and wrong, God and being, and human nature. Science is our oracle, scientists our priests and sages. Which raises the question: Just who are these scientists that they should constitute a court of final appeal, and on what basis do we grant them their authority?We can begin to answer these questions by considering one of the literary paragons of scientific inquiry, Faust, who sought knowledge by making a pact or wager with the devil. I will consider three versions: the chapbook Faust, a collection of ­anonymous stories first published in 1587; Goethe’s Faust of the eighteenth and nineteenth century; and Thomas Mann’s mid-twentieth-century masterpiece, Doctor Faustus. In the chapbook tellings of the Faust story we find the scientist as the con man. Goethe’s Faust is the endless striver, while Mann’s Faust is the seeker of breakthroughs. The modern scientist, especially the practitioner of “big science,” most resembles the third Faust, but retains remnants of the previous two.This will be a critical portrait, but in the spirit of disclosure I should mention that I am a scientist myself, a biophysicist. My criticisms of our elevation of science and scientist are born, in part, out of a love for science. Continue Reading »

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

From the February 2014 Print Edition

On one side are the “ultra-Darwinists,” a term used by Stephen Jay Gould to criticize the stridency and excessive reductionism among some evolutionary biologists. On the other side are “creationists,” who argue—against not only science but also those faiths that accept the compatibility of evolutionary biology and Sacred Writ—that the earth was created on or around Sunday, October 23, 4004 b.c., a conclusion based on a sincere but discredited calculation by James Ussher in the seventeenth century. At first glance, Intelligent Design seems to offer hope: While eschewing the Young Earth theory of creationism, it acknowledges the need, deeply embedded in scientists and theologians alike, to recognize final cause, or telos, in the created universe. At first glance, “ID” might sound reasonable, even the answer to our prayers. It is not.The first set of criticisms of Intelligent Design comes from the scientific perspective. These are well known and have been written about elsewhere, at length. Readers interested in these arguments are urged to visit websites such asThe Panda’s Thumb. In brief: Such websites point to logical and factual flaws in the writings of the Intelligent Design movement and take issue as well with their intellectual honesty—as when, ever eager to write the obituary for Darwinian theory, they fail to acknowledge progress in evolutionary biology.But my task is elsewhere: to take to task the philosophy and theology behind Intelligent Design.I turn, first, to philosophical criticisms of Intelligent Design. The movement attributes large changes in biological history to an “intelligence”—but what, exactly, they mean by this term is left largely in abeyance. Most, though not all, members of the movement are Christians and, more particularly, Evangelical Protestants. That’s as may be. Continue Reading »