Science Contra Hubris
by Edward R. Dougherty
Good scientific training is strenuous and humbling, because science is unforgiving. To spare society from the imposition of subjective pipe dreams, the prudence characteristic of valid scientific thinking needs to permeate the entire intellectual order.
In a recent essay, “The Recovery of Human Nature,” James Kalb discusses the contemporary effort to deny the existence of human nature and, beyond that, Nature herself. He observes that many people see Nature as a mindless, blind, and oppressive force that needs to be dominated by technology. He writes, “That line of thought leads to the insane view, which is now entirely mainstream, that we can advance the human good by destroying all substantive concepts of what people naturally are.” He criticizes a simplistic scientism that only recognizes physical knowledge as legitimate. “Human beings and societies are complex,” Kalb observes. “They involve meanings and other aspects of reality that transcend the purely physical.”
As far as it goes, Kalb’s critique is on the mark, but I believe that matters have degenerated beyond his analysis. We confront more than radical positivism. That would leave us with respect for a scientific view of Nature. Increasingly, however, science too is rejected, and with it, Nature in her entirety.
The Modern Rejection of Nature
Consider abortion. The argument that a baby inside his mother’s womb is less than a human being rejects a scientific perspective on Nature. From the moment of conception, the regulatory machinery of the cell is in place and programmed to develop fully, given a suitable environment. To reject the humanity of an unborn child is to reject science. This is not to say that science precludes one from arguing that certain humans should be put to death, but it does say that, in the case of abortion, science provides no ontological demarcation between those a society decides should live and those it decides should die.
To a certain extent, it is in man’s disposition to reject Nature. He does not accept his environment as given, but restructures it to suit his needs. As he matures through the centuries, he moves from forming a hut with readily available materials to protect him from the weather, to building an aqueduct to supply a city with water from many miles away, to harnessing nuclear fission to provide a virtually boundless supply of energy. With a never-ending expansion of technology seemingly lying before him, it is not surprising that a person can envision changing both his environment and himself to suit his every whim and find any limitation to be an unjust constraint of his freedom.
But this “freedom” is not the Augustinian freedom manifested in one’s liberation from the chains of his passions; rather, it is the freedom from constraint upon one’s submission to his passions. It is the freedom to express and manifest an unchecked will. Nicholas Berdyaev tells us where this freedom leads: “Freedom, insofar as it is self-will and self-affirmation must end in a negation of God, of man, and of the world, and of freedom itself.” We should not be surprised that the rejection of God and of Nature often go hand in hand.
Can this glorification of self-will be laid at the door of science? No doubt the extraordinary achievements of science and technology since the “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century have led some scientists—and many more ersatz scientists—to justify a prideful rejection of God and a disparaging arrogance toward Nature. But many of the greatest minds, including Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, have stood in awe before the magnificence of Nature.
When asked by a sixth grader, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein responded, “Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” (One must keep in mind when reading this that Einstein’s God is Spinoza’s God.)
The root of modernity’s rejection of Nature does not lie in science. In his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes posited a radical subjectivity. To Descartes, the world is one of his own imaginings. These constitute the “true and immutable nature” of his universe. A pervasive sense of unreality permeates the pages of his Meditations. Descartes sits alone, isolated with his own thoughts, circling deeper and deeper into nothingness until even he disappears into his own thoughts, leaving only a disembodied thinking thing.
The Humbling Intersubjectivity of Science
The Danger of Shallow Draughts
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Read more: www.thepublicdiscourse.com