Science & Wisdom
A Sidebar in Edward Sisson’s “Darwin or Lose”
In a spring issue of The New York Review of Books, the physicist Freeman Dyson reviewed Debunked!, a book exposing paranormal quackery by the Nobel laureate George Charpak and Henri Broch. At the end of the review, he described the “two extreme points of view concerning the role of science in human understanding.”
The reductionist view holds “that all kinds of knowledge, from physics and chemistry to psychology and philosophy and sociology and history and ethics and religion, can be reduced to science. Whatever cannot be reduced to science is not knowledge.” The traditional view holds “that knowledge comes from many independent sources, and science is only one of them. Knowledge of good and evil, knowledge of grace and beauty, knowledge of ethical and artistic values, knowledge of human nature derived from meditation or from religion, all are sources of knowledge that stand side by side with science, parts of a human heritage that is older than science and perhaps more enduring.”
Most people, he continued “hold views intermediate between the two extremes. Charpak and Broch are close to the reductionist extreme, while I am close to the traditional extreme.”
One hates to argue with someone like Dyson, but I do not think I would use the language of extremes for the distinction he is drawing. This matter can be put as a simple question: “Is science the only source of knowledge?” to which question one can only answer yes or no. “No” is not an extreme answer if the only alternative is “yes.” There are no truly “intermediate views,” and if most people hold them, most people are not thinking clearly.
That said, we can say that “yes” is an extreme answer when “no” is not. To answer “no,” to say that we have other sources of knowledge beside science, is to answer as the great mass of humanity has always answered and answers even today. It is the natural position, the (to most people) self-evident position, the centrist position. The reductionist position, the position that strips away every other source of knowledge but science and denies what the great mass of humanity has always thought it knew, consciously rejects this center and is therefore eccentric and thus by definition extreme.
We can use Dyson’s idea of a spectrum or continuum if we add another popular alternative: the other extreme view, seriously propounded by some, that whatever anyone claims to be knowledge is knowledge, and knowledge of equal value with any other. So claim many postmodernists, who have, for example, insisted that Indian shamans have as much knowledge of medicine as doctors. This we may call the pluralist extreme.
Of the three views, the centrist position—which is the Christian’s position—is the subtlest and most difficult to take. It is intellectually the riskiest. While one extreme says that we have only one source of knowledge and the other extreme says that we have as many as we like, the centrist (what we might call the judicious pluralist) says that we have several, but that they need to be discerned and evaluated. The difficulty of doing this well is one reason the extremes appeal. They provide simple answers and do not carry the historical baggage (e.g., Galileo, sort of) that seems to discredit the traditional answer.
Actually, they do, but the baggage they carry is not the sort most people will ever notice: the reductionist professor who has destroyed his students’ faith in God, and with it their confidence in their moral code and their membership in the community that helped them live up to it, is never blamed for the spiritual and emotional damage that follows. No one sees the soul in Hell, encouraged in its journey there by an old prof’s reductionist attack on religion. And though people may see the divorce or depression, they will never trace it back to the old prof’s cheerful undermining of his student’s faith.
At any rate, even the reductionists themselves do not live by the philosophy they promote. Dyson quotes the authors of Debunked! as declaring: “Isn’t scientific thought the indispensable companion to wisdom, to clear thinking, and to the love of those virtues, which is expressed not only in vain incantations to the sky but also in logical actions?”
They seem to mean by science, as that “vain incantations” and the rest of the article suggest, a science defined by philosophical naturalism, and so one would immediately answer their question with “No.” Was not Socrates wise? Did Jeremiah not think clearly? Did St. Francis and St. Thomas and Dante not love wisdom and clear thinking?
Even more to the point: How does scientific thought as the authors define it justify their love for wisdom and clear thinking? How does it make the pursuit of wisdom and clear thinking virtuous? How does scientific thought give any moral value to scientific thought?
How, for that matter, can it justify the writers’ passion for exposing paranormal frauds? I can easily think of several psychological and sociological arguments for the value of such frauds, arguments that can claim as much scientific justification as the authors’ arguments for rejecting them. Charpak and Broch invoke scientific thought on the side of truth, but others can invoke it on the side of emotional health or social stability, and who is to judge between them, who has only “scientific thought” as his criterion?
This explains why the average man goes on serenely believing in religion as well as in science, though very intelligent people tell him he ought not to, and although the position seems vulnerable at many points (remember Galileo). He has an instinct for the philosophic center.
The reductionist may hold the Friedrich Übermensch Chair of Theoretical Physics at an elite university and write books understood by only seven other physicists in the world, while the traditionalist may play the lottery, read USA Today, and bet on professional wrestling, but in this matter the traditionalist is the far better philosopher.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Science & Wisdom” first appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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