The Humility of Science, the Arrogance of Scientists

According to Aristotle, the nature of investigation and the proofs we assert depend upon the object.  That is, we do not look for mathematical demonstration when the object of our study is not a mathematical object.  It is even a reduction to dissolve a simple inanimate thing, like a quartz crystal, into a mathematical model, as useful as that reduction may be for certain practical purposes.  That is because of the irreducible particularity of created being – that a crystal is not any crystal, but this one, both like all others and unlike, a unique manifestation of the crystalline essence.  If the particularity or thisness of an inanimate object escapes us, then all the more must the particularity of personal being transcend any generalizing analysis.  We are, as Hans Urs von Balthasar points out in The Truth of the World, far more than objects about whom true statements may be made.  We are ourselves the receivers and the proclaimers of truth; and in no two persons is the same truth made manifest in the same way.  Just as a moment of truth-receiving or truth-telling is unique and unrepeatable, since never again will a truth be shown in the world in quite the same way, so too the persons, the truth-bearers, are unique and irreplaceable.  There is simply no way a general statement can capture the fullness of the moment when John, a student of mine, comes to the awareness that goodness is independent of opinion, even his own opinion; when he gathers into his own subjective being, in his intensely personal way, a truth whose roots extend deep into the mystery of being itself.

When I consider how my mind was spent, when I was young and full of foolish pride, on proving how all things were filled with numbers, the philosophical naivete of it all is now for me a most acute embarrassment.  Mathematics, and the sciences that employ mathematical tools, bring us to a fine field of truth, and we should be grateful for that truth.  Without it we could not live in the comfort that we have wrung from our domination of the natural world.  We would be bound in our travels to the legs of horses, or the winds at sea.  We could not fly.  And yet – to quote that young philosopher Francis Marion Tarwater in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Buzzards can fly.”  A physicist can tell me how a winged object can stay in the air.  But he cannot, insofar as he is a physicist alone or even a biologist alone and not also a man like all other men, tell me about the beauty or the nobility of the buzzard, much less about the beauty or nobility of Francis Marion Tarwater.

There are, in short, things that the natural sciences cannot do, all kinds of things indeed, and among them the most important things in life.  They can tell me how water flows through a pipe – more or less, for even that is subject to the mysterious indeterminacies of feedback loops and turbulence.  It is a fine thing to know how water flows through a pipe.  If I want to drain the sodden backyard, I would surely hire someone with knowledge of hydraulics.  It is a fine thing to know that the coal I hold in my hand, with the fern-fossil bravely imprinted upon it, is thousands of years old, and is of the same basic stuff as diamond.  And yet I cannot exhaust the coal by calculating the calories it will produce when it is burnt, nor can I tell, by consulting a geologist, whether I should buy that diamond and give it to my wife.

We often hear that it is ignorant people who are “opposed to science,” because they oppose this or that thing that scientists wish to do, or because they withhold their assent to this or that proposition that scientists claim to have proved.  As to the latter, it surely is not a mark of foolishness to be circumspect about all grand claims.  I recall, in my own lifetime, a nice variety of scientific claims, such as that the world was going to suffer a new ice-age because of the albedo effect, caused by particulate matter in the atmosphere; that we were going to suffer terrible famines due to overpopulation; that fully twenty percent of the male population were homosexually oriented; that butter was bad for your health; that vitamin C could cure the common cold; that “cold fusion” had been achieved; that DDT would destroy all aviary life on the planet; and so forth.  The history of science is not a story of slowly and neatly accruing truth, but of periods of modest progress punctuated by tumults and revolutions, when everything we thought we knew is turned inside out, subject to dismissal or to radical reinterpretation.

So, yes, scientists err.  But there’s more.  Scientists are human, just as we are.  They set up idols to worship.  They make unto themselves (or of themselves!) graven images.  They forget the Sabbath.  They dishonor their parents.  They kill and steal and fornicate.  They cheat, they slander, they detract, they deceive themselves.  They covet – indeed the whole scientific culture seems built upon a network of covetousness.  They fall victim to all of the deadly sins, especially pride, envy, and avarice.  Scientists gave us an innocent Einstein, a compromised Oppenheimer, and a monstrous Mengele.  Scientists have brought us great good, and, yes, some great evil.  Scientists, like every other group of people in the last misbegotten century, wore robes streaked with blood.  Scientists infected unsuspecting women in Central America with syphilis.  Scientists experimented upon black men at Tuskegee.  Scientists ignored the dangers of thalidomide.  Scientists falsified evidence in order to promote the legalization of abortion.  Scientists ignored the connections between artificial estrogen and cancer.  Scientists press on, now, for human cloning, not because it should be done, but because it can be done.  Scientists belittle forms of knowledge that do not fall within their purview; they are, as a group, no better read in the humanities, no more broadly educated in philosophy or theology, than, say, a comparable group of lawyers or politicians.

Why, then, should I trust scientists, simply?  What great moral wisdom do they possess – or what great moral wisdom should we expect them to possess, when they are made much of, when their competition is notoriously vicious, and when they are encouraged to assume that theirs is the only knowledge possible, or worth possessing?  Is that fine preparation for a wise man?  I can readily concede them the virtues of industry and native intelligence, but what of those more profound virtues that make for a truly good human life?  What of the cardinal pagan virtues, temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom?  What of humility, kindness, innocence?  Why on earth should I grant a moral or political carte blanche to a group of people who already possess great prestige and influence and wealth?  Even when scientists are arguing about the facts of a matter – anthropogenic global warming, for instance – they are just as prone to intransigence, to partisanship, to passion and pride, as are farmers arguing for cheap silver coinage or industrialists arguing for a protective tariff.  It was Galileo the deeply flawed man, and not some fictional Galileo the Pure Searcher for Truth, who attempted to prove the geocentric system by half-deliberately misinterpreting the motion of the tides.

For these reasons – the historical fact that scientists are no better or no worse as human beings than generals or judges or plantation owners, and that scientists themselves are often quite wrong – I believe it is absolutely necessary for civilians to oversee scientific research, not to intrude themselves into the small details of every experiment, but to set the broad parameters of what should be done and what should not be done, what does conduce to the common good and what does not.  I trust Patton to prosecute a war, but not to determine when a war ought to be fought.  I trust the judge to interpret the language of a law, not to write the law himself.  I agree with William F. Buckley, who famously quipped that he would prefer to be governed by the first hundred persons in the Cambridge telephone directory than by the faculty at Harvard.  I’ll adapt that preference thus: I would expect to find less moral wisdom among the harried and narrowly focused laboratory workers at any institute of science, than in the plumbers, carpenters, and janitors who construct and tend the room wherein the scientists work.

I have no intent to demean scientists.  I wish merely to see them for what they are, and to see their work for what it is, and to protect the polity from placing too much trust in their unacknowledged priesthood.

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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