Saturday, May 2, 2009

Science Is Dead

There’s been a spate of books lately that argue that the relationship between religion and science is not as dichotomized as we in the 21st century are prone to make it. (I’m thinking specifically of Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air, which I have read, and Ronald L. Numbers’ Galileo Went to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, which I have not but want to.) The public discourse, of course, goes in the exact opposite direction; you have on the one hand scientists like Richard Dawkins writing books like The God Delusion, and on the other, you have proponents of Intelligent Design throwing out the traditional rules of science to make Creationism palatable to laymen.

I don’t see how the thinking Christian—and there really should be no other kind—could buy into this dichotomy. Francis Bacon famously states in The Advancement of Learning that “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.” That sounds about right to me. Throw out the latter, and you become a kind of Gnostic (I’ve actually heard young-earth Creationists claim that God planted dinosaur bones in the earth in order to fool humanity); throw out the former, and you’re not an orthodox Christian.

Which brings us back to Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I still find aggravating but at least logically consistent. Everyone is familiar with his famous statement that “God is dead” (The Gay Science III.108), and most people are familiar with his follow-up that “We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers” (III.125). When I was in high school, I had a conversation with a fellow parishioner who must have been in the middle of a college philosophy course and who told me that that statement didn’t mean what I assumed it did. But it does. Nietzsche’s claiming that the Western world has largely evolved beyond the need for a deity, that people are now largely self-sufficient—and he’s glorying in that fact.

But then the interesting part begins. In an age where Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris control the public discourse around science and religion, we’d probably expect him to make a turn away from God and toward science (or scientism, as some religious folks are inclined to call the belief that the scientific method is the only route to truth).

Long story short: he doesn’t. When Nietzsche writes God’s obituary, he proceeds to put a bullet in science’s head, too. At least since the Enlightenment, science has had the ideal of the third-party observer, the cold doctor in the lab coat who may look through a microscope but tries not to arrange the slide. It’s taken as a matter of course that this method is far superior to the theologian or the philosophy, who operate subjectively rather than objectively.

Nein,” says Nietzsche: “We see that science also rests on a faith; there simply is no science ‘without presuppositions’ ” (V.344). Postmodern Christians are fond of saying this, and I’m sure that their lineage goes back to Nietzsche at some point or another. Science’s faith, they claim, is that God doesn’t exist or that miracles are impossible or that the scientific method is the surest route to truth. That’s not what Nietzsche says. The presupposition of science is “that truth is more important than any other thing” (V.344). The presupposition of the scientist, in other words, is the same as the presupposition of the theologian. Nietzsche’s takedown of science is wrapped up in his takedown of religion, and so no religious type person can truly accurately quote him in a defense of religion against scientism.

That being said, his work can be an important component to the Christian opposition to scientism because he is willing to deal with the full implications of what a post-God world would look like for science:
It is still a metaphysical faith which our faith in science rests—that even we seeking after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.
So science assumes absolutism, and absolutism is at its root always already religious—thus, if you kill of God, you’re going to have to kill off the very concept of truth. Atheist scientists therefore sow the seeds of their own destruction when they take shots at religious claims to absolute truth.

In fact, it may be that science requires religion for its operation:
Metaphysics is still needed by some; but so is that impetuous demand for certainty that today discharges itself among large numbers of people in a scientific-positivistic form. The demand that one wants by all means that something should be firm . . . this, too, is still the demand for a support, a prop, in short, that instinct of weakness which, to be sure, does not create religious, metaphysical systems, and convictions of all kinds but—conserves them.
Nietzsche’s language is ambiguous here. Certainly the scientific worldview perpetuates the religious worldview—but does it depend upon it for its operation? And vice-versa? I suspect so; I suspect Nietzsche has created a simple inversion of Francis Bacon. We need to stop looking at the book of revelation and the book of creation. That absolute truth just isn’t out there.

But that inversion actually supports Bacon if one doesn’t accept Nietzsche’s own presuppositions, which are that (a) God is dead; and (b) That’s a good thing. His value is that he shows us what those two presuppositions, shared by the atheist apologists of our day, really mean: There’s no such thing as value, no such thing as morality, no such thing as truth. Science loses its raison d’être at the same time that religion does, suggesting that the two are nonsensical apart from each other.

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