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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.

With a few notable exceptions, the Faust story is a very Protestant tale. Its tellings begin roughly at the time of the Protestant Reformation, and they continue through the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. The Faust story brings to the fore an ambivalent attitude toward technological innovation and new knowledge. The medieval Catholic Church is often represented as suppressing science. It did, but only occasionally; in fact, the Church was and remains a congenial place for science. Thomas Aquinas, though not especially interested in natural philosophy, taught that faith and reason could not contradict one another. In a different style, essentially the same point was expressed by Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio (1998): “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

In contrast, the Faust tales reflect a conflicted view of knowledge. The term “Faustian” can refer to the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. But “knowledge” is a moving target, changing over time, and so is the “devil” Faust engages to capture it: a literal being in the chapbooks, but a trope by the time of Goethe, and certainly in Mann, standing in some way for evil itself. In each case, the pursuit of knowledge is coupled with a propensity or susceptibility to evil.

In the earliest extant version of the Faust legend (Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published by Johann Spies at Frankfurt in 1587), this susceptibility takes the straightforward form of sinful vice. Faust is a presumptuous man whose dissatisfaction with the God-given limits to human knowledge leads to his downfall. First, his intellectual restlessness prompts him to make a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for knowledge and magical powers. He wields his skill as an astrologer and caster of horoscopes as he journeys over the earth, appearing to achieve superhuman status. But in the end, his ill-gotten powers are put to trivial purposes, solely to satisfy his swinish whims. The closing chapters, representing his last weeks on earth, contain his lament over his sinfulness, followed by his gruesome death. But this is attritio, not contritio: he fears the pains of hell to which he is headed.

This Faust is a fool, a mountebank, and a charlatan. He is easily gulled and duped by the devil. Foolishly, he cheats, takes shortcuts to wealth and earthly pleasures. Libido dominandi drives him; he seeks improper dominion over Nature. In this way, he demonstrates what is damnable about being “clever.” A narrow-minded mistrust of knowledge motivates this tale, a sense that the pursuit of knowledge for any but pious or practical ends is suspect, and that reason can lead us astray.

But is this really knowledge that the chapbook Faust pursues? It is not science, because knowing in its larger sense is almost entirely beside the point in this version of the legend. Faust seeks knowledge of incantations and spells. He uses them to produce beautiful women on command, or make carpets fly. In short, we are dealing with magic, not science. In this respect, the Faustian pact is far removed from the quest for technological mastery based on genuine understanding of nature’s laws.

The chapbook Faust deals with forbidden, esoteric “knowledge” rather than science. Actual science may be complicated, but is never private and passed on in secrecy. Science is sometimes called “esoteric”—Richard Feynman once quipped, “I think it is safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”—but in reality, it is not. Although many people fail to understand it, no one, absolutely no one, is debarred from trying to do so. There are no secret handshakes. In contrast to the magical formulae the devil gives to Faust in exchange for his soul, science belongs to the world.

The fundamental problem with the knowledge bargained for by the chapbook Faust, still very much with us, is that it is too much focused on benefitting the knower, not on the virtues of the knowledge itself. Truth and goodness aren’t the point for the chapbook Faust, who pursues the power of knowledge solely for his own advantage. He is the con man scientist, claiming special knowledge, but inevitably failing to solve the problem at hand, and causing more problems than he solves. The legend itself recognizes this. The chapbook Faust often has to change his venue hurriedly, in the dead of night, to escape from the consequences of promises unfulfilled.

This type of “scientist” still exists. He is the voice of authority in infomercials, sometimes appearing in a white lab coat, which is far too clean to belong to any actual scientist. Hold on to your wallet.

In Goethe’s Faust (Part II), Faust strives for knowledge, not so much for the sake of knowing or trivial personal pleasures, but in order to become an effective force in the world—at least, that is his ostensible aim. As the play begins, he has pursued academic scholarship to its dreary end, and it has failed to bring him enlightenment. His attitude is not mere boredom, however; it is frustration, too. Faust meets the devil while in suicidal despair over the sterility of his scholarship; he now wants to do, to experience. He engages in a wager with the devil, not a pact, and does so for the sake of striving itself—striving that never comes to rest or com­pletion, and never attains or can attain satisfaction.

Faust’s frustration with “useless” knowledge and his desire to become an effective actor in the world unite him with Descartes and Bacon (different as they were). Descartes, for instance, urged us toward “practical knowledge” that would “render [us] the masters and possessors of nature.” But what Faust seeks as he dabbles in romance, politics, and economics before finally turning to technology probably should not be called knowledge at all. The principal feature of his striving is its endlessness, as he states in the immortal lines describing his wager with ­Mephistopheles:

If on a bed of sloth I ever lie contented,
may I be done for then and there! . . .
This is my wager!

Although knowledge is infinite and impossible for us to complete, individual questions can have answers that end a pursuit. In contrast, Faust seeks a continuing experiential process—a continuous striving in each moment such that time itself will be transcended.

When he does turn to technology, he becomes infatuated with the commonplace things that comprise actual technological endeavors—in contrast to the chapbook Faust and his magic. At the end of the play he oversees a grand undertaking. The seemingly aimless energy of the tides drives him to mad despair, and he devises a massive project to subdue the sea and reclaim land from it. Near the end of his life, he declares his love for the clink and clang of shovels wielded by hordes of workers, including slaves:

How good to hear the sound of shovels!
The mass of workers serve my pleasure,
uniting land again with land,
imposing borders on the ocean,
confining it in rigid bonds.

The primary question posed by this turn in the drama is how Faust develops through the endless process. Does he change? Some readers think Faust evolves from a selfish cad to a responsible, public-minded humanist who earns salvation in the end. Others argue that he never improves, and is as reprehensible at the end as at the beginning of the play. If this is so, his salvation, which Goethe introduces in a reversal of the traditional story, is to be taken ironically.

In my view, Goethe’s Faust is both improved by his striving and unchanged by it—and this “bothness” amounts to a critique of science. Although the vast project of reclaiming land from the sea might have been well-intended, and perhaps even have accomplished something, Goethe provides many reasons to doubt its ultimate value. For one thing, the project has a rapacious aspect, driven by Faust’s egotism. The project becomes autonomous: reclaiming land from the sea becomes an aim in itself, rather than serving any goal for mankind. Indeed, it leads to the death of an innocent and pious old couple and their guest, a “traveler” perhaps to be taken as a symbol for all of us traveling the road of life. These three victims of Faust’s ambitious project represent the old ways—innocents sacrificed at the altar of modernity. The futuristic plans are also remarkably short on details, as utopian dreams usually are. In fact, these plans come to naught. At the end of the drama, Faust dies as a blind man (another symbol), and his works are already crumbling as the sea reasserts itself.

Many works of dystopian fiction turn on the dangers of science run amok. Sometimes the plot is based on the fear that scientists overestimate their own competence (which they do) and thereby bring disaster on everyone’s head. In other instances, the fear is that science will actually succeed and reduce human beings to mechanisms that can be controlled (which it might). The ultimate dystopian fear, however, is the very idea of striving without end—endless not only in the temporal sense, but also in the sense of being without a goal. Such endless striving is described in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Marlow worries not only about Mr. Kurtz’s “unsound method,” but worse, that there might be “no method at all.” Insatiable desire—like Faust’s for striving for its own sake and Kurtz’s for ever more ivory—suggests a type of science that has no end, no goal, no clear sense of where it is going and for what purpose.

This type of scientist, too, persisted into the twentieth century—most notoriously, perhaps, in the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project, of course, had a clear military goal, but the scientists in it got caught up in the thrill of manipulating nuclear power, even (since the magnitude of the explosion was not really known ahead of time) losing sight of the possibility of annihilating the world. Some also lost sight of the ethical issues involved in making a weapon of unprecedented power. Perhaps in the twenty-first century we will face the nightmarish dreams of a few renegade scientists hoping to clone human beings.

Thomas Mann began working on his late masterpiece, Doctor Faustus, in 1943, but in 1904 he had already conceived of the basic thrust: an artist who made a pact with the devil in order to create new and great art. For Mann, Germany was the musical nation par excellence, not only in the historically straightforward sense, but also in music’s wordless disposition toward madness and the demonic, and so the novel focuses on innovations in twentieth-century music. Written during the final years of World War II, it is as much about Germany’s descent into madness as it is about modern music. Fittingly, the exact moment of the Faustian decision to sell his soul to the devil cannot be identified. Powerful moral, religious, and cultural forces are evoked, many of which seduced a number of German artists and intellec­tuals—including ­scientists and physicians—who in the early decades of the twentieth century thought European culture had reached an impasse and sought breakthroughs in art, morality, science, and politics.

Mann illustrates this social dynamic in the realm of music. The role of Faust is played by a fictional composer, Adrian Leverkühn. He is a prodigy who views music as caught in an impasse: Tonal music seems spent, done. To continue composing within the European tonal tradition is to risk the Scylla and Charybdis of twentieth-century art: parody and kitsch, both artistic suicide.

The young Leverkühn develops a mathematically precise form of atonal music. (Mann’s account borrows heavily from Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.) Though innovative and brilliant, the music is cold, even sterile. Invoking Nietzsche’s analysis from The Birth of Tragedy, Mann characterizes the young Leverkühn’s music as suffering from excessive Apollonian rationalism. To achieve the “breakthrough,” Leverkühn senses the need for something Dionysian, maybe barbaric. To gain access to the barbaric as a source of creativity, Leverkühn deliberately contracts syphilis from a prostitute—a scene modeled after purported events from Nietzsche’s life. Through syphilitic madness Leverkühn’s music achieves not merely a dose of the Dionysian, but a type of barbarism—the dithyramb fused to the Lutheran-demonic.

The devil appears only once in the novel, and only indirectly in a document supposedly in Leverkühn’s hand. In a droll touch, Mann portrays the devil as a pettifogging lawyer who demands that Leverkühn sign a contract in blood (syphilis is sometimes called “bad blood” in German, as in English). The devil does not specifically demand Leverkühn’s soul. What, exactly, would the devil do with such a thing, and who still fully believes in it, anyway? Instead, the devil adds a clause exacting a different price:

He: “It would say renounce. What else? Do you think jealousy is at home only in the heights and not in the deeps as well? You, fine creature well-created, are promised and betrothed to us. You may not love.”
I (must truly laugh): “Not love! Poor Devil!”

Leverkühn tries to argue that love is impossible to prohibit, since our universe was created and is sustained by God’s love. There is, besides, both human lust and human caritas to contend with. The devil, however, will not stand for such cavils. He retorts, “My proviso was clear and upright, ordained by hell’s legitimate zeal. Love is forbidden you insofar as it warms. Your life shall be cold—hence you may love no human.” To attain the transformative power of the barbaric, to escape from what feels like the dead end of European civilization, Leverkühn renounces its founding principle, which is love.

Leverkühn is a musician, not a scientist, but his madness stands for a societal disease extending far beyond music. Near the end of the novel, Serenus Zeitblom, Mann’s fictive narrator of Leverkühn’s biography, watches as the horror of the crematoria is revealed to the world. The shock he registers is somewhat mild and a bit incongruent: for it would not be possible to have been completely ignorant of what was going on. The tacit participation of ordinary German citizens included many intellectuals, including scientists and physicians, such as Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, doctors of jurisprudence and medicine, respectively, who published in 1920 Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (“Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life”). There, in defining which lives were worthy or unworthy of life, was the worst incarnation of biologism.

Leverkühn’s renunciation of love did not amount merely to a loss; it is, to borrow from biological terminology, a “toxic gain” of madness. Leverkühn is an isolated, lonely, and deprived individual, guilty of nothing more than a breakthrough in music. Yet Mann has his personal madness symbolize Germany’s. For there are mad societies as well as mad individuals.

I propose to define a mad society as one in which one group of people enslaves another group, and enslavement consists of treating human beings entirely instrumentally, lovelessly. Something similar is at work when science goes mad. It expands from an inquiry to an -ism. Biology is a science—one intellectual discipline among many. It can understand some aspects of being human with great accuracy. Biologism is the belief that human beings consist entirely of matter and mechanism alone. If matter and mechanism are all there is, what stands in the way of treating human beings as mere machines, to be used when needed, and discarded when “useless”?

This narrowing of the human down to materials with mechanisms—machines that can be used—is the madness of scientism. It has been the basis for many dystopian novels and films; the list is virtually endless. My favorite is Blade Runner, which takes place in a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019. The “replicants” (in essence, if not literally, human clones) are slaves used for menial, degrading, or dangerous work in “Off-World Colonies.” Quite close to human in appearance and action, their instrumental use is justified by the view that they consist of nothing more than matter and mechanism; they were made, not created. In the nightmare vision of Blade Runner replicants are “slaves” explicitly so named, because they are considered to be machines, mere manufactured “piles of cells.”

Science does and must objectify human beings, as it must objectify anything else under its view, and it therefore runs the risk of treating human beings solely as materials with mechanisms, a conjunction of material and efficient causes. These are the causes to which science generally limits itself—and with good reason, for its occasional attempts to go beyond material and efficient causes, to formal and final ones, can have either comic or tragic results. Science, as the old joke goes, looks for things where the light is, even if some things are to be found elsewhere. Descartes derided final causality and what he considered to be the useless speculation of the scholastics, though notably he could not do without telos(a final goal) when he argued, as a Christian, that God is our end. Bacon never argued against the existence or importance of telos, but only that to determine it is beyond the capacity of empirical science. By his way of thinking, our knowledge of telos necessarily comes from other sources, particularly religion.

What is missing from scientism is love, which makes of human beings not mere objects, but subjects as well. Where, in a world of matter and mechanism alone, does love come from? What is love that it should be considered as anything more than a method of biological adaptation?

Some scientists have gone beyond methodological exclusion of telos from the laboratory, to a view—not valid, in my opinion—that telos does not exist at all. But to make this assertion is to postulate. It has not, and cannot be proven from within science, for it is not a scientific statement at all; it is a metaphysical one, about causality. For if one declares causality to be limited to the material and efficient, one is left to wonder how one can account, in anything but utilitarian terms, for any moral or altruistic action, or for love.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that human beings were created in order to be happy—a startling claim that takes most modern people some time to get used to, because we often view happiness as something achieved (rarely) by struggles to maximize utility. He wrote, further, that human beings can attain happiness by perfecting their natures, which requires both a virtuous way of living and the sufficient grace of God. Morality, in other words, is a fulfillment of the nature of a human being. This idea clearly owes much to Aristotle. What may be less manifest, however, is that such a view of human telos entails a view of human knowledge, which is tantamount to love:

Since to love God is something greater than to know Him, especially in this state of life, it follows that love of God presupposes knowledge of God. And because this knowledge does not rest in creatures, but, through them, tends to something else, love begins there, and thence goes on to other things by a circular movement so to speak; for knowledge begins from creatures, tends to God, and love begins with God as the last end, and passes on to creatures.

“Love begins there”: Knowledge of the created natural world—including biology—can be where, from our vantage point, love begins. It is possible, indeed, necessary, that a scientist be a seeker of technical knowledge, and yet also a human being guided by love. Scientism and biologism, in contrast, reflect Leverkühn’s pact with the devil. They limit the purview of human nature to that which can be observed as matter and mechanism. With scientism and biologism, all branches of knowledge, including ethics, are subordinated to what can be measured and manipulated. But as Einstein once quipped, “Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.”

A large part of the madness of the Third Reich was that the madmen did not know they were mad. The fact that at least some of the architects and executioners of Nazi Germany did not know their own madness still retains the power to shock. But the perverse power of technology tempts us to think of human beings as precisely “piles of cells,” and this enables barbarism. Hence the great paradox inherent in ­science and technology.

Consider: Smallpox has been eliminated. Techno­logy is our best and only hope for eliminating hunger. Even more amazingly, science holds out the prospect of granting us knowledge of how nature works. The paradox, however, is that technological and scientific advances have not prevented us from relapsing at times into barbarism. Indeed, some advances seem to cause some of our problems. The miracle of technological agriculture does promise to end world hunger, yet it has brought in its train a pandemic of obesity and an epidemic of mad cow disease. Mad cow disease is a particularly apt problem to end with, for variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease arose as an epidemic in Great Britain and elsewhere through the practice in industrial agriculture of feeding cow offals to cows—as John Collinge put it, turning cows into cannibals.

A mad society does not know it is mad. The ultimate limitation of science is that it does not prevent the blindness of the madman. There is only one cure for this blindness, and it is not technological. It is love. Love needs to guide our scientific endeavors, as it must guide all others.

To say this is in no way a critique of science itself, properly understood. But defining what a human being is requires more than a completely dispassionate description of the human being in scientific terms, however informed by science we all must be. To quote Bernard of Clairvaux, “There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.”

The question we must ask ourselves, then, is ­exactly whom or what it is we serve.

Stephen C. Meredith is professor in the departments of pathology, neurology, and biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, where he also teaches courses on literature, philosophy, and theology.