Modern science and technology are among humanity’s most astonishing achievements. We understand far more about the intricate inner workings of creation than in any earlier age, and we have vastly more control over it. I flip a switch and night turns to day. I run my finger over a glass screen and I can talk face-to-face with my son in Albania. I climb into a long, winged tube and climb out hours later on a different continent. Anyone who thinks modern technology disenchants must be jaded; we live in a world of magic, the fruition of a project that started with the Creator’s “Be fruitful, multiply, rule” and Adam’s naming of the animals.
Yet science’s reputation is inflated, since it has become, in Paul Tyson’s words, the “first truth discourse” of modern civilization, the worldview that determines, judges, and corrects all others. Only scientific fact counts as True truth, and other forms of inquiry approximate True truth by remaking themselves in the image of science. This inflated view of science feeds off the popular myth that science is a straightforwardly empirical, purely objective enterprise that yields fixed, comprehensive, and undisputed results. None of this is true. To deflate science, we need to be realistic about what science is and isn’t.
First: Science is not merely an accumulation of observed facts. Scientific observation is enhanced by instruments. Our knowledge of microorganisms and deep space is entirely mediated by technical artifacts. Scientists have to be trained to use instruments, and the instruments themselves are always subject to interrogation: What does the instrument capture, and what does it leave out? Does the apparatus itself affect what we’re observing? Is it properly calibrated?
Besides, scientists aren’t content to gather and arrange facts. That’s for amateurs, and even amateurs have to interpret what they learn: Which butterfly should be pinned where? Real scientists theorize, and, as Wilfrid Sellars points out, theories often explain perceptible phenomena by reference to imperceptible entities and forces: Apples fall (perceptible) because of gravity (imperceptible). Theories aim to provide simple, elegant explanations that “save the appearances.” Theorizing is always a speculative reach beyond the data. And then theories rebound and affect what we see and how we interpret it. None of this is a problem; it’s the way modern science works. But it means there’s always space for interpretation and guesswork. Even at its most empirical, science isn’t “just the facts.”
Second: Science is, in Steven Shapin’s words, “never pure.” Scientists are human, driven by all the normal human drives—ambition, rivalry, love, hatred, desire to know. Like everyone else, scientists have basic beliefs about how the world works. A materialist scientist may proffer a materialist theory because it fits his assumptions, not because it makes best sense of the data. Scientists come to their work with an implicit world picture—nature “red in tooth and claw,” or nature as a divinely ordered hierarchy that mirrors the hierarchy of the virtuous soul, or nature as a nurturing if sometimes tempestuous mother, or nature as a machine. The scientist assumes some implicit relation to the object of study: Does nature yield her secrets generously, or does she need to be interrogated, even tortured, to remove her veil? Is the scientist Orpheus, enchanting nature, or Prometheus, dominating it, or Oedipus, tricking it?
Even scientific methods rest on substantive commitments. As Alvin Plantinga and others have argued, “methodological naturalism” excludes certain categories of truth from the realm of “science.” Plantinga asks the obvious question: In trying to understand reality, shouldn’t scientists make use of everything they know, including truths like “The Word became flesh”? Scientific methods make theological assumptions. Insofar as it depends on the concept of “natural law,” science implicitly accepts the existence of a law-giver. Sometimes a method is theological in being anti-theological. “God is irrelevant to this phenomenon” and “all things do not cohere in the Son” are theological statements.
Third: Science is contested. There’s rarely any such thing as The Science. Even when there’s a consensus, it’s not permanent. Thomas Kuhn has been criticized, but his description of scientific change still rings true: “Normal science” is conducted under a reigning “paradigm,” and is often highly productive. Yet no paradigm encompasses all the data, and over time normal science generates anomalies that cannot be explained by current theory. Along comes a genius who proposes a new paradigm that comprehends the old paradigm, makes sense of the anomalies, and produces a new normal. Science is mutable by design.
Fourth: Science is political. Matthew B. Crawford has pointed to the disconnect between the source of science’s public authority and its actual practice. Scientific opinion is trusted because scientists are regarded as disinterested, apolitical, heroic seekers of truth. In fact, Big Science is big business, often reliant on large government grants. You can’t build a supercollider in the back shed. Grant writers know who holds the purse strings.
Fifth: Science is limited. It hasn’t—and in its current materialist, anti-theological form, cannot—answer basic questions about reality. How did life begin? Where does consciousness come from? Materialist science is ultimately incoherent. It cannot explain how a mechanistic world of matter + motion, without purpose or intention, produces a being like the scientist, a material being with intention and purpose. Why is there something rather than nothing? Evolutionary cosmologists say the world emerges from “nothing.” On closer inspection, “nothing” turns out to be something after all, a combination of empty space and natural laws. That just pushes the question back a notch: Where did the empty space and laws come from?
Finally: Science isn’t the opposite of religion. There’s no perennial, titanic conflict of Science v. Religion because the very distinction between science and religion is of fairly recent origin. As Peter Harrison has pointed out in several studies, science and religion were thoroughly entwined in the Western Middle Ages; the order of meaningful signs and the order of physical causes overlapped entirely. During the scientific revolution, scientists, to protect themselves from church scrutiny, formed boundaries to divide medieval religion-science into distinct territories. The embarrassing secret is, the notion that natural science should be freed from religious oversight was a product of late medieval shifts in the theology of nature. If scientists now claim their own territory, it’s because Christian theology bequeathed it.
Science doesn’t provide a comprehensive, indisputable account of reality. That doesn’t make it useless, but it does mean we’ll misuse science so long as we misconstrue what it is and isn’t.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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