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Don’t Follow the Science

Reflecting on the surreal experience of the pandemic from the vantage of a little temporal distance, as one does, what sticks in my craw most of all is perhaps the rhetoric about science. “Follow the science,” we were told by endless parades of TV experts, bumper stickers, yard signs, and social-media posts. The only problem is that we can’t get to where we need to be by following the science. Maps provided by “the science” are incomplete.

In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul takes up the vexing question of whether it’s licit for Christians to eat food sacrificed to idols. We may be assured, says Paul, that there is no reality behind an idol, and so eating food sacrificed to one is no more harmful than eating food that hasn’t been so sacrificed. As Christians, this should be clear to us. “We all have knowledge,” says Paul. The problem, though, is that “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.”

The trouble, in other words, is that our interests must extend beyond what empirical data can tell us. We must also concern ourselves with the trajectory of our lives, and the lives of our neighbors, and it is incumbent upon us to comport ourselves in such a way that we and others are “edified” — built up — by the decisions that we make and the way that we live. Christ calls us to live our lives with eternal glory always in mind, the eternal glory that is his by right, and that he gives to us in super-abundance on the cross. This is the essence of the highest kind of love, “charity” in the Authorized Version, “agape” in Greek. As Christians, we are our brothers’ keepers.

In the 18th century, the Scottish philosopher David Hume defined the problem, in his Treatise of Human Nature, in terms of our inability to derive an “ought” from an “is.” That is to say, our knowledge about facts of the matter in the world cannot, by itself, tell us how we ought to live, what we ought to do. The late pandemic was a case in point. Ought we to have stayed at home? Ought we to have worn masks? Ought we to have worshiped together in church or gathered together with friends?

These were pressing moral concerns at the time, questions about how to live, and they mattered very much. The point, however, is that we could not then, and we cannot now, look through microscopes to find answers, nor deduce them from algorithms. If the answers are only “science-based,” or come only from “medical experts,” then they will be inadequate, because they will not have taken into account the duties we owe to one another, and the duties we owe to God; and the truth concerning these duties does not come from medical expertise or empirical science. “[W]e all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” In the Latin version of the Bible, the word here translated “knowledge” is scientia, science. You might say: scientific knowledge, by itself, puffs up; but love builds up.

During the 2020 college football season, when I was watching television with some regularity, there was an advertisement from the Ad Council that came on frequently and asserted that viewers ought to “stay home” because “staying home saves lives.” Yet even if it’s true that “staying home saves lives” (and research since the pandemic has called that premise into question), there is nevertheless another premise missing from the syllogism, and that missing premise is that “We ought to save lives.” And that premise cannot be derived from empirical science.

If it is true that “We ought to save lives” (and under most circumstances it is), it is a moral claim that comes from metaphysics — or, more precisely, from theology. Because life is a gift from God, and because all of our lives ultimately belong to him, and perhaps because life is greater than freedom in the hierarchy of goods, life ought therefore to be saved when it is possible to do so, or when it is possible to do so by sacrificing a relatively small measure of one’s freedom.

The fact that life is sacred because it is given to us by God, the fact that life is a greater good than freedom in the hierarchy of values … none of these claims are “scientific,” and it is a matter of profound concern, from a Christian point of view, that they and others like them are increasingly left out of our public discourse. It means that knowledge is coming unmoored from charity in our world, and it is important for us, as Christians, to notice this and to call it out.

Of course it is perfectly appropriate for our leaders to consult scientists and other assorted experts, but to answer the question of what we ought to do in light of the facts that such experts present to us, our leaders must also consult expert metaphysicians, holy people, rabbis, and (dare I suggest) perhaps even priests. That it doesn’t occur to our leaders to do so, and the fact that, one suspects, a large fraction of our fellow citizens would strenuously object if they did, is an indication that something has gone wrong with our society. But I did not need to tell you that.

This is not the first time that this has happened. Empirical science unmoored from charity led to some of the most horrific phenomena of the last century: chemical warfare, eugenics, nuclear weapons, appalling cruelty to animals, the wanton exploitation of the natural world, institutionalized racial prejudice, and on and on.

In order to chart an alternative course as a society, Christians must bear witness to the truth. And in order to do that, we must reacquaint ourselves with the truth — with the highest and deepest truth, the Truth that is revealed by God in the person of his Son. And this truth is the truth of love, and specifically the loyal, covenanted, super-abundant, self-emptying love that Greek-speaking Christians called “agape,” divine charity. We live in a world of weak consciences, as St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 8. And consciences are weak because they are only inchoately formed. The consciences of most Americans, even of many Christians, have had only the barest of encounters with the gospel of Christ.

We are invited thus to live such that we bear witness to those premises that are missing from the public discourse, about God as the highest good and the source of all subordinate goods, about the inviolable sanctity of human life that obtains not because of some material property we possess as humans, something that can be seen through a microscope, but because we are created by God in his own image and likeness.

The action plan for Christians is greater assiduity in prayer, in meditating on Scripture, in the examination of conscience and the confession of sins, in a firmer resolve and renewed commitment to the sacramental economy of the Church. A lot hinges on our willingness to do such things — and not just for ourselves, but for those among whom we live, whose consciences are weak. A lot is at stake.

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