In “Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism” a number of philosophers of science explore the extent to which science might influence society. Overall their effort is rich while erring on the side of a strong scientism what would find a place in every-day life. Science, it is understood, goes beyond its original meaning “knowledge” and its current meaning “inquiry” to become a foundational metaphor. Like Reason for the Rationalists, science takes reason and couples it with the conclusions of inquiry in order to manage society. Of course that’s not stated directly but when science becomes a foundation for ethics and an extension of Reason, along with the informer of public policy (eg climate change questions and public ethical concerns) there is little left to conclude. Of course the authors do not write about some “1984” totalitarian regime that would monitor everybody’s most minute activity. This seems more about, at least one might reasonably conclude this as a probable outcome, herd management.
Should Science Inform Ethics?
Of course it should. Let me explain.
This is something evangelicals (and likewise other) do every day. One of the most notable is the pro-life movement’s use of photographs of children before birth. Until we came to the visible understanding of when life began (using genetics along with the photographs) the question was a tough one to answer. In the 19th century the language of a “quickening” was used, noting a time when the child would move or kick its mother. Today we’ve gone further — because of the science — so that the beginning of life is clearly understood.
We also see mathematics informing hermeneutics. What? There’s a passage (I Kings 7:23) that might lead one to say that pi would equal 3 rather than 3.14+. And that might be the case if the Bible were a math book. But it isn’t. It is (among other things) a history book that records common-language conversations. It is easy to make a general 3x ratio regarding circumference and diameter. But mathematics tells us that pi is just a bit more than three.
In this sense the conclusions of mathematical inquire did dictate something about our interpretive method. It added to normal literary interpretation some of the precision needed for a better and proper understanding of the text.
But is that all there is to it?
Scientism goes a step further. It does not simply clarify questions as math does with I Kings 7:23. Rather, scientism seeks to replace other methods. Sort of.
According to one of the essayists in the book scientism is really a branch of Rationalistic thought. It is conjectured that the mind is capable of assessing anything and everything, if not now the over time. Reason is the foundation for everything. But Reason, like science, now moves from being a method to being a self-existing entity. Science and Reason are now able to speak on their own accord. Sort of like the ideas of good and evil being self-existing abstract objects in “A Wrinkle In Time” they are free to insert themselves into a variety of affairs.
The are no longer either methods or the conclusions of methods. The move from being passive to being actors, or at least as active as their adherents. They move from being descriptive to prescriptive.
So What’s the Problem?
If Science is treated as a foundation then one might right assume a certain uniformity to both its content and its conclusions. It need not be wholly and mathematically precise but it at least should be consistent. This is clearly not the case. For if science is forever discovering then the conclusions will be in constant flux as understanding grows. We can look at medicine as a good example. At one time it was considered ethical to neuter humans because “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” What was, and is by some, called science is the idea that human evolution can be helped along by cleaning up the gene pool. We should stop the infirm from multiplying. We should disallow the birth of the unwanted, whether arbitrarily or because of defect such as Down Syndrome.
Not all scientists hold to the ugliness of the eugenics movement though it has been with us and remains with us for well over a century.
But is eugenics “science.” It is. Is it valuable? Well, we do use it for livestock and other hybridization processes. But because of it we have all but lost the original, unhybridized samples. When it comes to humans things have gotten pretty ugly. Sure, it’s science. But using it to inform either personal ethics or public policy opens some ugly doors.
Of course not all who propose scientism are so bold. In the work cited there was a tendency to abandon Science in ethics for Reason in ethics. While they (generally) promoted Science as the informer it seems that philosophical approaches to ethics worked better. Perhaps there was an implicit admission on the limits of scientism. In a way they came kicking and screaming.
We would do well to consider science a shifting platform. It is unstable as a foundation for ethics. Some of the findings may be helpful for informing ethics (such as in-utero images of unborn children) but not as a sole determiner of ethics.
And then, what?
That still leaves a good challenge for the Christian. Should we get our ethic from the Bible without paying attention to scientific inquiry? Not at all. This is a good time in history for the Christian to investigate and coordinate our understandings with what scientific inquiry provides. I mentioned the in-utero images. Genetic studies has also been valuable, especially with pro-life concerns.
Can we clarify our theology with scientific inquiry? One area is the discussion of the earth’s age. Now, I’m not going to get into creation v evolution here. Let’s go a different direction. Let’s take the idea of a global flood, for example. A strict naturalistic uniformitarian view often dismisses the ideal of recent global catastrophe. But records of such are in many ancient cultures and they seem to hearken back to something happening around the end of the last ice age.
Ok, this is a bit speculative, but please bear with me just for the sake of argument. Perhaps there was a global catastrophe which caused massive flooding and not something limited to the Mesopotamian region. Whatever it was, it was big enough for near-global recognition. We saw that with the 2015 tsunami. It’s not difficult to imagine or even model. Global things can and do happen. Even the secular mind can be persuaded to accept the potential of a global catastrophe on this basis. What would happen if a post-Ice Age ancient lake in the Colorado basin were to give way and create most of the Grand Canyon? First, such a flood might easily create such a canyon. Second, it would definitely have a global impact at a flood level. Here we have a formula for a global flood, a global cultural reference, and the potential for global geologic change all in a short period of time. Not millions of years ago but still ten thousand or so years ago, before our written records.
One need not accept the theology of Genesis 6 with the acknowledgement of such a global catastrophe. It’s more than 5,000 years ago. But it’s not 65Mya. Massive human and animal loss. An extended water level rise. So many things in sync with Genesis as an historical record yet very practical in terms of geologic change.
Again, I’m not saying that this is how things happened. What I am saying is that improved scientific models can improve our theological models. And vice-versa, good theology can help science with improved historical abductive models drawn from the record. No, we don’t tell scientists to read the Bible first. But we might tell them that history (in the Bible & elsewhere) might have some bearing on their conclusions and might help improve their work.
This is not a popular opinion.
And so …
The limits of science seem clear. Stephen J. Gould proposed non-overlapping magisteria, where religion answers question ‘x’ and science answers question ‘y’ so to avoid unnecessary conflict. But that’s a little to black-and-white. Proponents of scientism are working toward all answering to science. Some theologians propose science being subjected to theology. Both of these seem to me a bit provincial.
This is a relational principle, not a functional one. How and when the two interact, that’s a matter of situation. The principles of mathematics and catastrophe should be useful examples. And building an understanding like this should help keep scientismists (the proponents) on a leash. They are clearly going through a struggle in and see some limits the questions surround ethics. Since ethics is a big part of theology (and I wish it were a bigger part of apologetics) there is a strong cause for interaction between the two camps on this area of concern.