Science is a wonderful hobby, but a dangerous god. This year — the occasion of commemorative scientific events, hoped-for scientific breakthroughs, and major changes in political scientific policy — is a good year to remember this truth.
To label science a mere "hobby," though, may require some defense. There are those who find their vocation in science, and for them science is more than a mere hobby. It is, like any other vocation, the road they are called to walk toward heaven. From a societal perspective, however, science should be a "hobby" in the sense that it is good to pursue and is an integral part of our identity, but is also something over which we should rule, not something that should rule over us. Science’s helpful technological advancements should be welcomed, but the overall attitude toward it should be somewhat leisurely. The worst attitude is to turn science from a hobby into an overarching religious activity, when it becomes the worst kind of despotic demon.
In the first of this year’s scientific commemorations, UNESCO has named 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s first use of the telescope to conduct astronomical observations. (Galileo did not, as is often mistakenly thought, invent the telescope; he was the first to use it to seriously study celestial phenomena.) Welcoming the observance, Pope Benedict XVI stated in December that, "If the heavens, according to the beautiful words of the psalmist, ‘narrate the glory of God’, even the laws of nature, which in the course of centuries many men and women of science have helped us to understand better, are a great stimulus to contemplating the works of the Lord with gratitude."
Astronomy embodies the leisurely attitude toward science very well. It has something of a special purity to it, inasmuch as it has virtually no practical use other than its calendar aspects. Astronomy is also the one modern science where amateurs still often make meaningful scientific contributions, investing their own money and time in backyard observatories where they assist professionals in discovering new objects and making measurements. There is an unintended symbolism in the location of the Vatican Observatory near Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. (Sadly, the observatory domes at Castel Gandolfo no longer contain operating telescopes, as the light pollution from nearby Rome makes professional astronomy impossible. The Vatican Observatory’s headquarters are still at Castel Gandolfo, but its research telescopes are located under the pristine skies of Arizona.)
The Vatican Observatory and the pope’s statement welcoming the International Year of Astronomy are signs that the Church has managed, though not without some historical bumps, to settle into a good working relationship with science. Whatever may have been the issues to be resolved between science and revelation, the proper spheres of each have been for the most part clearly discerned from the Church’s perspective. That relationship is characterized by the Church taking up the leisurely attitude proper toward science. While welcoming technological advances that serve to better man’s lot, the Church remains stubbornly unmoved by the euphoria that accompanies scientific discoveries, to the consternation of those who either want ecclesiastical endorsement of their theory as "the Catholic view," or those who think they’ve finally scientifically disproved faith. The Vatican, like Tolkien’s Ents, is not hasty, and besides it has more pressing matters to worry about.
An imperious version of science, however, continues to try to upset that relationship. This September, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is expected to become fully operational. The world’s largest particle accelerator, the LHC first came online late last year amid fears that it might destroy the world by creating microscopic black holes — or, in the world of Dan Brown, be used to create antimatter with which to threaten the destruction of the Vatican.
Fortunately, neither of those fears is within the scope of reality. Scientists are hopeful, however, that the LHC will be able to discover the Higgs boson, a particle predicted by theory that could help to explain how fundamental particles come to have their particular properties. The importance of the Higgs boson to physics has led to its being nicknamed "the God particle" — an unfortunate misnomer, as the particle has nothing whatsoever to do with God. Such titles illustrate exactly the overbearing mysticism with which science is too often invested. Catholics are free, if they are so inclined, to anticipate and celebrate the discovery of the Higgs boson, and it would prove an historic occasion in the story of physics. What it won’t do is change the theological and philosophical view of God found in the Catholic Faith, which takes the Higgs boson along with things like dogs and trees and mountains — beautiful creatures, however He decided to make them.
An even more prominent example of this misuse of science to attack God is through Darwinian evolution. February 12, 2009, marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, his book that provided a natural mechanism for evolution: natural selection. The remembrance has brought out the champions of Darwin-inspired atheism in even greater force than usual, all because Darwin’s publication is seen as something of a blow against the superstition and oppression of religion.
While the scientific discoveries of evolutionary biology have certainly motivated deeper thinking about what the doctrine of creation means, evolution itself is not and cannot be either evidence for or against God, being as it is a scientific theory. It’s baffling to hear atheist champions like Richard Dawkins assert that Darwin made it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist," when Darwin’s theory has absolutely nothing to say for or against arguments for God like those provided by philosophers and theologians. Thomas Aquinas would look at Darwin’s theory and find nothing in it that amounted to even a whit of doubt about the existence of God. Aquinas’s Five Ways are demonstrations of God’s existence that work as well in a universe where biological evolution happens as they would in one where there was no evolution.
Dawkins’s assertion becomes even more laughable when you consider that biological evolution has been in effect for only about 4 billion of the universe’s 14 billion years of existence. Even from a purely scientific perspective, that leaves a lot of the universe still to be explained, and Darwin has nothing to do with it.
Turning God’s prerogatives over to science is more than an attack on religion; it’s also an abuse of science. Importing philosophical positions into science is the only way to draw atheism out of it, and as such represents a fundamental misconception of what science is. This year’s mystical talk of Darwin and God-particles lends credence to the imperial version of science that insists that it can eventually explain all things. Man’s fundamental need for knowledge can ultimately only be met by God; but science is proving itself a tempting replacement. And, as it is the usual function of a god to provide healing and salvation in addition to knowledge, science has set itself to provide that as well.
All of which brings us to the political events of these past few months. President Barack Obama’s unleashing of science from morality is exactly the sort of idolatry of science that Catholics should oppose. The president’s most recent action was to remove federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Despite his protestations of respect for those who disagree, his actions will force them to fund research they find morally objectionable. The strangest twist is that embryonic stem cell research has provided, to date, absolutely no promising medical treatments. Adult stem cells, however, have provided multiple real clinical benefits, and are entirely ethical in their use. One would suspect that adult stem cell research would therefore have the president’s support. Shockingly, however, at the same time he funded ESCR, the president removed funding for adult stem cell research, the only stem cell research that has shown any promise.
Science as a form of Gnosticism, an all-encompassing saving knowledge, is a bad enough idol. Worse yet is to make science a god that demands human sacrifice in order to provide material blessings in return. Ultimately, though, the outright rejection of adult stem cells in favor of embryonic stem cell research reveals a third, more unsettling possibility — that of a bloody science that demands sacrifice without the promise of return; a raw and meaningless exercise in power.
In this year of science we would do well to think about the sun setting over the Alban Hills, glinting off the Vatican’s observatory domes at Castel Gandolfo as they quietly look over the more important domestic activities of the plains below. Such an image is science as it should be — a noble enterprise in human leisure, not the nihilistic and bloodthirsty god that it has threatened to become.
Michael Baruzzini writes and teaches science in Colorado Springs.